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Looking for a New Paradigm - John Skillen

Looking for a New Paradigm for Art and the Artist in Contemporary Culture

John Skillen

Many thanks to Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin for her concise but thorough overview of the growing movement of “socially engaged art” (with plenty of tips for further reading).  Taking up her invitation to ArtWay readers to use her blog-post as a “discussion starter,” I would like to expand on her reminder “that the whole idea of ‘autonomous art’ only emerged in the eighteenth century and that prior to that most art served some kind of function or institution.”

My own recent book Putting Art (back) in its Place provides an account (for non-academic readers) of a long period of European civilization (with a focus on central Italy from about 1250 to 1520) when visual art framed the places in which people gathered, did their work, and experienced their own part in purposeful stories. Pretty much all art operated as part of both the social fabric and the encompassing architectural fabric of towns and cities. Art existed as a “socially engaged” enterprise. 

During this period, everyone wanted art! Monastic communities ate their suppers in front of the Last Supper, frescoed on the end-wall of the refectory by artists whose skill in perspective could dovetail actual with fictive space. Town councils, such as the committee of Nine in Siena, debated and decided policy under the frescoed gaze of images exploring the sources and effects of good and bad government, a constant reminder to the councilmen of their duty to the public welfare. People received the Eucharist before altarpieces that clarified precise aspects of the Real Presence of Christ to be embodied in the lives of the faithful as in his mother and in the saints of the past. 

Not only churches and the palazzi of the ruling classes, but hospitals, orphanages, confraternity clubhouses and guild halls, baptisteries and bell towers, sacristies where the clergy vested for the Mass, chapter houses and cloisters in monasteries, civic fountains and public squares, were all zones of serious decoration and design. No sphere of civic and religious life was alien from the desire for imagery able to instruct, to prompt memory, and to inspire the community to action. (These three terms were repeated over many centuries in defenses of art.) 

The briefer history belongs to the Romantic-modernist paradigm for art-making with its privileging of the Artist as free to make what he wants in the privacy of his own studio, pictured as a counter-cultural figure unconstrained by bourgeois conventions, answerable to no one (and yet with no assured means of making a living apart from the gallerists who might take on the work for a cut). As Chaplin comments, “Socially engaged art is in many ways a welcome response and refreshing counterpart to the rarified world of contemporary art and its market driven, celebrity hungry culture. It aims to connect art with ordinary people and addresses issues that are relevant for today.”

In an earlier epoch works of art were almost always commissioned and designed for the use of a particular community in a particular place, assisting that community in the performance of those actions that defined its work and identity. To ensure the relevance and adequacy of artworks to their purpose and setting, the production of art typically involved collaboration among what we might call the four parties of art: representation from the community for which the artwork was made, a commissioning patron responsible for funding, advisors who articulated the thematic matter to the artist hired and trusted to give astute visual embodiment to the assigned themes and narratives. The sophistication with which complex topics in ethics and politics, theology and philosophy were given visual elaboration (think of Raphael’s frescoes commissioned for Pope Julius’s library in the Vatican) is partly the product of expecting artists to work with scholarly advisors.

My hunch is that it will be less productive to try to define socially-engaged art as a new direction within a still-modernist paradigm, or even as a reaction against or “refreshing counterpart to” the aestheticized (non)engagement of modernist gallery gazing. Such approaches can keep in place the assumed autonomy and counter-conventional identity of the artist. (Chaplin’s account strings together a list of single artists—with the exception of the multi-member Assemble—keeping the focus on the artist as the initiator of socially-engaged collaborative artworks.)

More productive in laying a positive social framework for socially-engaged art is to couch it as a creative revisiting of a long tradition, when (a) the very means and process of production involved the community, and answerability among the four parties was baked into the scheme, when (b) the community itself and certainly the commissioning agents were concerned with the “artistic integrity” of the artwork (rather than such concern being borne only by the aesthetically-sensitive artist), and when (c) the limits to the artist’s total autonomy were more than offset by the respected role that artists held in society, along with means of making a living.

To Chaplin’s comment that “socially engaged art involves a high level of collaboration with members of a community in its process of production and an active engagement with its audience in its final presentation or performance,” I would add the hope that such collaboration can provide the grounds for high artistic integrity rather than necessarily jeopardizing aesthetic care. I like her example of Assemble, who won the 2015 Turner Prize, “for their work on the Grandy Four Streets project in Liverpool where they collaborated with residents of a rundown council housing estate to clean up the neighbourhood and rejuvenate it with handcraft design and products.”