Aug 13, 2008

Are there any big debates left in art?

Yesterday I had a conversation with a friend about "big debates" in art. It started from the observation that, when you read statements by curators, you often see references to the "multiplicity" of art practices today. e.g. here's one from the Whitney Biennial 2008 catalog:
Today there are more artists working in more genres, using more varieties of material and moving among more geographic locations, than ever before. ... this is a moment - a rather extended one at that - in which art has come to be characterized by heterogeneity, dispersal, and contradiction, rather than unity or orthodoxy. -- Adam Weinberg,

Weinberg is claiming that art today is pluralistic. It is a big muddy pool with no common denominators or clear divisions. Naturally, this is a good thing as far as curators are concerned, since it gives them more work to do to interpret and assign meanings to art.

But is this true? It strikes me that big rifts remain in the art. I want to discuss two in particular.

One large divide is between relational and non-relational art. What is "relational art"? This question has been most famously addressed by Nicolas Bourriaud in his book Relational Aesthetics. Bourriaud says relational art comprises "a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space." In other words, relational art is art that focuses not on the art object but on the kinds of social engagements that occur around art.

Anyone who doubts whether there is such a thing as relational art, or wonders whether there is a divide between relational and non-relational art, need look no further than the Whitney Biennial 2008 itself. The vast majority of works presented by the Whitney in the Armory portion of the show are best characterized as relational art. Audience participation, interaction, and social happenings are high on the agenda. By contrast, the works shown in the main Whitney building are of the strictly "look, don't touch, don't talk" variety. The Whitney curators demonstrate that these two categories of art exist, and that they require different conditions, even separate buildings.

A second large rift is between "political art" and "non-political art". Some artists believe art should align itself with clear social or political agendas. Art, in this scenario, is seen as a progressive political tool, one that can help achieve political ends. On the other end of the scale, some artists reject any straightforward political agenda for their art, claiming that art and politics are separate. At stake are the definitions of both art and politics. These two antagonistic positions are in a delicate dance with each other (see here for more).

Of course, conceptions of relational art and political art overlap. Relational art, with its social investment, is often transparently "political art". However, in human terms, binary oppositions rarely ever operate as such. It is here that Adam Weinberg is correct: There are large zones of confusion.

I'd be happy to hear opinions about other large rifts in the art world.

1 comment:

Denis Taylor said...

An interesting rift in art is the relationship the institutions with art that is religious. In particular the Contemporary Christian Art- It seems the rift that opens when 'contemporary art institutions and Christian Art' are confronted by each other the institutions always turn their back. However, critcal contemporary anti-christian art is accepted- as is, Islamic, Muslim, Buddism or cult art.