19th century, education has been categorized and taught as if there were no connecting threads leading from one subject to another. The knowledge of how to weave information together has been relegated to the storage unit. Unfortunately, society continues to function in isolation by separating knowledge. Since the 1960’s artists have been attempting to bridge this gap artistically. In the book Participation Claire bishop investigates the missing dimension of social participation and the value of socially collaborative art. The participation of community members contributing their broad spectrum of knowledge to community art projects for the benefit of their place demonstrates the power of the arts as a tool for dialogue.
To work as a socially responsible community artist, one must try to be open, and trust being open. Trust that the work will be received from multiple points of view and understand that the diverse reception of art is uncontrollable and is an opportunity for conversation. This concept of openness began in earnest at the turn of the 20th century. Being open leaves one exposed, even vulnerable, to the unlimited perspectives that an audience receive when experiencing art. Who were the early innovators that worked in this manner?
One has to look or rather listen no further than to Igor Stravinsky’s composition Rite of Spring first performed in 1910. The audience’s reception of this work was passionately violent in a period were passion was frowned upon. From this point of view alone, the musical composition was successful. The theorist Umberto Eco wrote, “this form of art gains its aesthetic validity precisely in proportion to the number of different perspectives from which it can be viewed and understood.”(Bishop, 28) The literary work of James Joyce also falls into this category of openness. His book Finnegans Wake is based on the Surrealist concept of stream of consciousness. “Like Einstein’s world, Joyce’s world is always changing as it is perceived by different observers and by them at different times.” (Bishop, 28) This book is circular with no beginning and no end. Both Stravinsky and Joyce opened the way for perception to change each time the works were received by society. The contemporary artist Maya Lin uses the same thought process in the sculpture, Map of the World. The focal point of world maps changes in relation to the county that is using the map. If one lives in India then the center of the map is India. The artwork is a horizontally stacked puzzle where the pieces can be moved from one end of the stack to the other to change the viewers perspective. This art is still relegated to cultural institutions for those privileged to have access to them.
We move a step closer to today’s challenge in the art world of using the arts as a tool for social responsibility when we read Roland Barthes’ essay The Death of the Author. Barthes believed that “a work’s meaning is not dependent on authorial intention but on the individual point of active reception.”(Bishop, 40) Barthes understood that once art left the hands of the creator it would take on a life of its own. The reception of the audience could not be controlled nor could their reaction be controlled. In fact, it is THE reception that is important, not the intention.
Jean-Luc Nancy’s thoughts on community hinged on diversity of thought not on pre-planned
definitions of communal thought. Pre-planned communal thought is based on purity of thought, which is based on being in or out. Being in or out can lead to violence, and the destruction of community. Socially responsible artists are interested in being “with” the community. When you are with a community there is an effort to bridge the gap. The gap represents communication and communication represents touch. Jean-Luc Nancy would not be surprised at the conditions of inner-city communities in the 21st century because overall purity of thought is being use to make group decisions for the betterment of all. The voice of the individual and the voice of diversity are not being seriously considered.
Jean-Luc Nancy proposed that artists were to create with communities and that artists were to encourage the diverse voices to actively participant in the creation process in community art projects. The fear for the politicians is that these projects are based on community issues and once a community works with each other their voice is empowered and amplifies the messages. Amplified messages can instill fear into the hearts of government officials, businesses, and property owners. Today’s artists need to be savvy on how to work within the system to change the system and know how to employ the press to speed up the system.
It is safe to say that Joseph Beuys would not have agreed with the conservative tone of working within the system. In his 1973 essay I Am Searching for Field Character he begins by stating, “Only on condition of a radical widening of definition will it be possible for art and activities related to art to provide evidence that art is now the only evolutionary-revolutionary power. Only art is Capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline: to dismantle in order to build A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART.”(Bishop, 125) The passion of Joseph Beuys’ words pulsate off the page and reverberate in the soul of committed 21st century socially motivated and socially responsible community artists. The clarity of his statement of problem and of his vision is put forth with openness and trust.
From a spiritual point of view the Creator who created this planet and the universe was the first artist. All life lives on and in the greatest work of art, Planet Earth and the Universe. Is it a stretch to consider that within all humans DNA are the seeds of creativity? And if all humans have this creativity DNA than, as Joseph Beuys has said, “EVERY HUMAN BEING IS AN ARTIST.” Another way to consider Joseph Beuys statement is that all thought is creative thought. Living itself is creative. Definition four in The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines artist as “one who follows any pursuit or employment in which skill or proficiency is attainable by study or practice; hence a skilled performer, a proficient, a connoisseur, a practical man.” If we follow Beuys’ trend of thought, then anyone who is proficient in something is an artist and if all artist become active Social Sculptures for just a day then transformation is possible. With the verbalization of thought there is the potential for change.
In 1972 Joseph Beuys and Dirk Shwaize’s produced the Happening Report on a Day’s Proceedings at the Bureau for Direct Democracy. For one hundred days Beuys lived the life of a Social Sculpture. Each day he reported to work at his street level office and debated with visitors. The topic was direct democracy. His props were a desk, a chair, a crystal vase with a fresh long stem rose replaced daily. His costume was a fishing vest and a felt hat. Felt, a material that is composed of animal fat, plant fiber and animal hair. Felt, the material that retains memory. Felt, the material with a Nazi history that runs deep and is horrifying. Felt, human fat, hair, and plant fiber. Joseph Beuys sat at his desk with his symbolic felt hat on his head and debated with the participants the possibilities of realization, the possibilities of a civilization deeply invested in its people.
In 2009 world societies are struggling to continue functioning in isolation. Artists have been in the forefront preparing for this time of change. Who better to carry the mantle of possibilities than socially responsible artists working with participating community members.