“Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”
As a Teaching Artist, I recently became aware that Los Angeles-based Art Education organization, P.S. Arts, founded in part by prolific arts patron Herb Alpert, is using this Brecht quote as their educational theme of 2017-2018.
It goes hand in hand with a rise in presence of an art category known as Social Practice. An evolution of social, political and performance art that could be said to have begun in Alan Kaprow’s and Judy Chicago’s work of the 60’s-70’s, this label has been somewhat solidified through burgeoning Social Practice Art programs like the one founded by Suzanne Lacy at Otis College of Art & Design (and now USC), as well as one at Portland State University. While they’re still few and far between, they seem to be on the rise. It makes sense that work seeking to respond to and affect social/political, educational, environmental, etc. issues would be enjoying a new wave, in a reality that sometimes seems an echo of upheavals experienced in the 1960’s.
So, in the world of Miami Art Fairs, the largest international art showcase- expected to display the most diverse and leading edge work to be found, can social practice art be spotted?
I traveled to Miami again this year with artist and Social Practice (Otis College of Art) MFA student, Mark X. Farina, who has done a Miami-specific installation project. One of the top pieces on our list to see was “Climate Change Is Real,” created by artist/activist and one of Farina’s professors, Andrea Bowers. Depending on your definition, it may be one of only a handful of examples of social practice art officially part of Art Basel.
In Bowers’ words:
“‘Climate Change Is Real’ is a piece that was commissioned by the Perez Museum and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation for Art Basel Miami Beach. The piece, which consists of a neon sign with the words ‘Climate Change Is Real,’ will be hung on the wall of the outside of the Perez Museum, which faces the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum, which is right next door. This is important to note as this sign was made in part as a response to the founder’s (Phillip Frost) comments where he states his skepticism towards manmade climate change. Here is an article by the Miami Herald about the comments made by Phillip Frost and comments made by the museum afterwards:
The sign is 67 1/4 inches H x 196 inches W. It’s made of neon in Blue, Green, Red, and Pink, enclosed in powder coated metal of the same colors. The sign was made in Miami by local company Moser & Co. and graphic designer Giancarlos Campos.
So how is social practice art defined? Like good art does, this inquiry gives rise to more questions than answers: Is public art automatically social practice art by way of being in the public? Does this include street/mural art? Can art be social practice if it’s indoors, not readily visible and accessible to the general population? What if it’s a public institution? Does it have to be intended to be social practice art in order to be social practice? Does it need to be responding to current issues? Should it clearly communicate and educate? Is it required to be interactive, and engage the people local to the work?
One possible answer does relate to place. Farina contends that what sets work apart as social practice is location, location, location. In his view, social practice is art responding to an issue relevant to the precise geography and population thereof. It’s strategically situated to dialogue with the people and events of an exact point in space and time. The art being physically interactive and eliciting the public’s participation in some active manner is key, too.
For example, Andrea Bowers’ same sign may not be considered effectively social practice if it were installed in downtown Los Angeles.
That being said, there are many works in the Art Fairs, some of which are depicted below, which seem to fall within the band of gray area around the periphery of social practice. If there were only a sampling of works that technically count as the hammer of social practice, there were many more which seemed to want to influence society by mirroring it. From louder, more verbal pieces like those of Barbara Kreuger’s advertisement-like work to softer, more poetic commentary like William Doherty’s photographs of urban landscapes, there’s a whole spectrum in between.
There seems to be some debate within the social practice realm, amongst people who have such strong desire to make measurable, concrete changes in their worlds: is art- social practice or otherwise- the best tool to use? Why not go volunteer at your local food bank, lobby your congressperson, switch to an electric vehicle, raise money for the cause you believe in- basically, walk your talk instead of talking it?
This is a valid concern I’m sure many artists have ruminated over. A response that comes to mind are the wise words of Angeleno Linda Gabriel, a woman living as both an artist and a counselor/therapist, “Don’t think in terms of either/or; think both/and!”
Each course of action or mode of expression has an equally important place, and the line that separates the two may not be so clear as it seems at first glance. Either alone would be less effective. Think of a march without protest signs or political efforts without posters, bumper stickers, shirts, TV ads, etc. There may be some people more moved by a face-to-face interaction and others more effected by a distant radio interview or an image in their peripheral vision, stenciled on a wall. Shifts occur via messages in all manner of vehicles and on all levels- from dreams to subliminal whispers to audible shouts.
I appreciate the more abstract forms inside the galleries, but I do have enormous respect for those artists imagining ways to more directly exchange with and provide additional perspectives for the public sphere. No matter how we respond to issues, I think we can all benefit from more thought on how looking within shapes the world outside.
Maybe sometimes the mirror is the hammer.
Andrea Bowers, Climate Change is Real installation for Perez Museum
#positivedisruption installation outside of Art Basel
Mark X. Farina, Miami Circle project component on site
Barbara Krueger, Untitled (Free love), 1988 at Art Basel
William Doherty, Dreams of Renewal, Dreams of Annihilation, 2017 at Art Basel
Jenny Holtzer, Selections From Truisms: Abuse of Power, 1977-79, 2015 at Art Basel
Adam McEwen, Phantom Limb, 2017 at Art Basel
Jenny Holzer, The Survival Series: Remember to React, 1984 at Art Basel
Máiréad Delaney performance at Art Basel
Tobias Rehberger. Tous pour les femmes, 2016 at Art Basel
Lawrence Weiner, MOTION ENOUGH TO BRING ABOUT A RESPONSIVE REACTION AT THE LEVEL OF THE SEA, 2008 at Art Basel
Koichi Enomoto, Where Our Brain Belongs To, 2017 at Art Basel
Rodrigo Bueno installation at Art Basel
Rodrigo Bueno installation, detail
Rodrigo Bueno installation, detail
RETNA at SCOPE Art Show
Eric Nado, Disassembly/assembly of a typewriter at SCOPE Art Show
Eric Nado, Disassembly/assembly of a typewriter, Olympia Blue
Various Artist Residents at Art Center South Florida Open Studios
Artists As Survivalists at Satellite Art Show
Homocats at Satellite Art Show
FAMOUSONMARS X SUSIE MAG at Satellite Art Show