“Notes Toward a Non-Anthropocentric Social Practice” insufficiently addresses problems it raises

By Anuradha Vikram March 21, 2012

The Op-Ed column is a space for readers and contributors to sound off about Art Practical's content and to contribute to the larger conversation about Bay Area art which Art Practical supports.

In response to "Notes Toward a Non-Anthropocentric Social Practice"

Dear Editor:

Anthony Marcellini and Matthew David Rana's essay "Notes Toward a Non-Anthropocentric Social Practice" in Art Practical 3.11, is an engaging thought-experiment, but one that does not sufficiently address the problems that it raises. Certainly, a critique of social practice as a form is warranted, but by positing that the direction tend toward the anti-humanist, whether thing-ontological or posthuman, the authors adopt a perspective rooted in unexamined social privilege. This tendency to overlook the very real social disparities that the best social practice art engages actively, in favor of the romantic suggestion that an object like a cell phone (absent its human makers and operators) could offer comparably tangible social value, reflects a troubling blind spot shared by neo-Marxist academics and the commodity fetishists of the 1% upon whose patronage the contemporary art system largely depends. I point this out as one who actively supports social practice artists and feels we can best address such inequalities by confronting them head-on.

The market has already figured out how to commoditize ideas

On his recent visit to UC Berkeley, Fredric Jameson spoke of the "singularity" of the social event as an unrepeatable instance of the "real," whether characterized as site- or temporally-specific art, or as political protest, à la the Occupy movement or Tahrir Square. His discussion of the aesthetics of singularity hinged on an understanding of late capitalism's abandonment of the commodity/object in favor of the derivative, a financial instrument that parallels conceptual art's prioritizing of the idea over the object, which becomes collateral or ephemera. Though art critics like Bourriaud cling to the notion that dissolving the art object frees art from its market function by creating a space of interpersonal connection, Jameson rightly points out that the market has already figured out how to commoditize ideas, and how to monetize the detritus of performance and protest alike.

Rirkrit Tirivanija's dirty dishes are today in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, gathering both dust and value but feeding no one. Artists such as Allison Smith or Theaster Gates—each of whose work engages underserved communities of real people in quite meaningful ways—can access institutional resources because they draw in populations in the short term that museums generally fail to serve. For the artists and participants, the use value of social practice art is often evident, but contrary to the claims of Bourriaud and others, exchange value in the form of grant monies for "underprivileged audiences" still accrues at those institutions who host such actions without any lasting shift in priorities.

Social inequities disappear when humanness is viewed in this reductive light.

It's no coincidence that the term "singularity" is also used to represent a posthuman Rapture for the techno-elite (such as Ray Kurtzweil or Peter Thiel). The logic of Marcellini and Rana's theory is the same logic that allowed the U.S. Supreme Court to deem corporations people, namely that humanness is a function of participation in social and economic systems rather than a realm of lived experience. Social inequities disappear when humanness is viewed in this reductive light. Such thinking is undeniably attractive, but it does little to counteract the growing disconnection between contemporary art professionals and institutions, and the actual and sometimes impoverished human communities in which they are situated. Given the relentless exporting of both capitalism and contemporary art to communities of color in the developing world, this is a chasm that our generation of artists and thinkers would do well to bridge.

Anuradha Vikram
Curator, Worth Ryder Art Gallery, UC Berkeley

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