Kristyn Bat Lopez
Anti-Capitalist Guide to Art as Social Practice: Part 1
Last year I took Research Methods with my supervisor, Dr. TIllander. It was me and a group of MFA students, and one of the best tools she gave us was the permission - or, assignment, actually - to write sort of abstractly and creatively about research questions and processes. I was so resistant at times to let these practices blend - I felt like it made me less scientific, less serious, to "journal." I'm glad I did and I am committing to this now as an important aspect of my phd studies. The title "Anti-Capitalist Guide to Art as Social Practice" feels like the secret working title of my dissertation, and I'm sure that will change over time. Right now it's important to me that I am grounded in what it is that I'm trying to DO, if not say, so I don't drown in theory and the kind of institutional bullshit I am trying to prove, scientifically, can be worked around through a network of secret tunnels.
Artists are not taught community.
Communities are not taught to be artists.
Through the institutional and industrial “art world,” artists are positioned within the elite class, regardless of their economic or work status.
This creates an imagined divide between “creative” and “skilled” workers which is deeply relevant to the cultural basis of class struggle.
At the same time, artists are increasingly being asked to interact with communities via “social practice” and “art for social change” initiatives.
But listen, lots of them really resent and detest it, because we’ve been sold the image and taught the practice of solitary work, the value of an “individual voice,” that community just means competition, sometimes sharing coffee and cigarettes and performing a common identity. Nothing is secure but the promise of free wine and canapes at someone’s opening.
Communication about how artists can or should serve their communities, and how communities can or should support the arts has been devolved into “arts and cultural programming,” which often fails to adequately assess the needs and capabilities of all participants.
Attending events in the community sometimes feels like going to a high school dance – commodified gatherings planned by adults/representatives acting within the constraints of various institutional frameworks, with the goal of bribing kids/citizens into good behavior and creating a controlled environment where we can all check the boxes of “memories,” “fun,” “culture.” NO ONE really likes the food, NO ONE really likes the décor, NO ONE loves all these posed photos or faux leather photo albums emblazoned with the school logo or prom theme. (My prom theme was something vaguely related to ‘Arabian Nights.’ It was 2003. Many of our classmates were already enlisted in the military, ready to ship off in just a few weeks. “Cringe” is an understatement.) But the stuff we remember is dancing with our friends, who got drunk, who went with (or slept with) who, our disposable camera pics, the after parties.
Whether it’s all the event-themed coloring book-and-crayon kits that end up crushed into the carpeting of the nation’s minivans, the cheap wine guzzled by impoverished grad students who would otherwise never set foot in a museum, the number of struggling local businesses holding terrible open mic nights every year, or armies of trained artists being asked to volunteer for face painting duty, it’s clear that the commodification of culture has left us all feeling hollowed out and hungry. We know it’s supposed to be good for us, “enriching,” right? Better than sitting at home watching Netflix and complaining about your neighbors on Nextdoor, at least? But civic and cultural participation shouldn’t make us feel like we’re still just high schoolers in formal wear, served some shitty chicken parmigiana and being told to say “CHEESE!”
I did go to my high school prom, and then even to my friends’ prom the following year – I think I just like dressing up and making scenes at well-organized parties. They were, like these events tend to be, predictably memorable, like the assembly line of weddings, bridal and baby showers that would follow in our twenties and thirties. I can’t so much remember what happened as know that things did happen because I have a ‘American Event Cultural Norms’ checklist to compare to. Photos, check. Corsage, check. Weird drama when new and old friend groups collide, check. Drunk dancing, probably check. There’s a checklist with a lot of overlap for attending gallery shows and art fairs. Bald guy with an expensive suit laughing way too loud in front of the one painting/person you wanted to look at? Expensive or nonexistent parking? At least three uses of the words ‘postmodern,’ ‘juxtaposition’ or 'upcycle'? Check, check, check. But as any event planner will tell you, there’s a TON of hidden, unpaid, underpaid work - and even love - that goes into even the most mediocre corporate cocktail reception or opening of someone’s new series of watercolor landscapes, so who’s at fault here?
These events aren’t NOT fun, but they aren’t always that special. Not like the time my family opened our home to the entire cast of my senior year theatre production. Here I remember details like they happened just last week. We ate Chinese food from a fancy buffet place because someone worked there and had arranged a discount for us, the same someone who later that night jumped into my shower and shaved his ass before getting naked in the pool with a few other guys. I could tell Drama Club stories all day, because here’s the thing – as a group, we worked together for months and years at a time, in close(very close)proximity on a variety of projects and relationships that were to a certain extent independently chosen and managed. I know that my peers in band, chorus, and athletics had a lot of parallel experiences. Because we were making something with our hands, our bodies, our voices, with the guidance of adults who knew us, were invested, and shared our interests, and we were free to braid our extended communities into the projects as well – our families, our workplaces, local businesses – in an informal, organic way. This is the opposite of commodification – drama club was as much about the hilarity and intimacy of my friend shaving his ass in the shower as whatever job skills I learned as an amateur stage manager. In the best case and the STUPIDEST metaphor, the arts ARE the canvas, or the clay, or the ass, upon which we bond, create, shave, whatever - it’s a place where we make community, and that's what
lets us go forward with confidence to make beautiful, important and hilarious work.
So which comes first - the party, the art, the canvas, the institution, the pool? How do we - as educators, policy makers, social practitioners, artists, community members, and those interested in intervening in those systems - create the right environmental conditions for creative, collaborative work instead of inspiring a bunch of coloring pages?