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After OWS: Social Practice Art, Abstraction, and the Limits of the Social

In the third chapter of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the novel’s protagonist, Ishmael, enters the Spouter Inn in search of passage onto a whaling ship. He soon encounters an age-darkened oil painting in the entranceway and becomes perplexed. The canvas is so covered in scratches and smoky residue that it’s all but impossible to make sense of. Throwing open a window to gain more light, Ishmael attempts to describe what he sees:

what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the center of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted.1

Ishmael renders the painting virtually abstract, or non-objective, as his act of interpretation comes to an impasse. But his comprehension of the image is not merely blocked by the marred, smoky surface. The materiality, or “thingness” of the work simultaneously frustrates, and fascinates him by denying him access to its meaning. I think of this truculent, besmoked painting often, especially when contemplating the growing allure of socially engaged art among younger artists, including those students who, by dint of previous training, lean toward craft-based object making.

Anyone who teaches visual art is familiar with the following problem. Two seemingly opposite pedagogical poles appear to be collapsing. On one side is the singularity of artistic vision expressed as a commitment to a particular material or medium. On the other is an ever-increasing pressure on students to work collaboratively through social and participatory formats, often in a public context outside the white cube. One of the most common catchall terms for the latter tendency is social practice art. Currently, there are about half a dozen college-level programs promoting its study. However, if you include the many instructors who regularly engage their students in political, interventionist, or participatory art projects, the tilt toward socially engaged art begins to look more like a full-blown pedagogical shift, at least in the United States.

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