In 2011, in her ‘Introduction to Useful Art’ Tania Bruguera defines useful art as ‘a way of working with aesthetic experiences that focus on the implementation of art in society where art's function is no longer to be a space for ‘signalling’ problems, but the place from which to create the proposal and implementation of possible solutions.’ In collaboration with the Queens Museum of Art, New York, and the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Arte Útil comprises various formats from research and public projects to the transformation of the Van Abbemuseum into a Museum of Arte Útil. Structured along key areas such as ‘Politics’, ‘Social’, ‘Urban Development’, ‘Scientific’, ‘Economics’, ‘Pedagogical’ and ‘Environmental’ the on-line platform introduces to artists ́ or cultural activists ́ projects, which ‘propose new uses for art within society’, ‘be implemented and function in real situations’ and ‘have practical, beneficial outcomes for its users’.
The conception of Arte Útil hits the agenda of many artists today, namely the desire of having a position that has a real impact on societal issues. With the claim for a socially effective art, beyond the politics of representation and symbolism, a long contested domain is entered, raising the question of art’s and the artist ́s social role. What can artists do for society and what do they want to do for it? In return, what can society expect from artists and what does it want them to do? Where should artists open up towards social concerns and where do they need to defend themselves so as not to be appropriated by various groups and their interests? Looking back, the desire of being ‘useful’ started to grow when art was claiming autonomy and was gradually loosing its firm ties to society. Although inherently paradox, this means that the wish for an acknowledged position (function) in society is already the expression of an increasingly dysfunctional relationship between artist and society that hit its first peak in the mid of the 19th century.
‘Dysfunctional’ means here that the role (function) of art in society has become blurred, widely undefined, less or just vaguely defined by authorities. As a result of this release art basically followed two paths: towards autonomous art, raising the concern of being independent from social expectations, even if it was always more a pretension that it complied with reality, and socially committed art, which desired to interfere directly in social developments, even if the impact was sometimes not that immense or did not take effect exactly where it was hoped for.
Both approaches, although different and ideologically played off one another for a long time, were struggling to find acceptance for art and artists in a world that seemed to have only a little need for them. Since then the growing disintegration of society has even more complicated the attempts of re-establishing closer ties between art and an increasingly elusive ‘society’. Therefore it is not surprising that there is a strong interest in a period ‘when art, science and civic society were still fused together’ – as it can be read in the project description of 1848: The New Mechanics by Grizedale Arts in 2011, and now evolved into The Uses of Art: The Legacies of 1848 and 1989 as a large scale touring project developed by Grizedale Arts and the Internationale group of museums, that responds to the current situation, which is seen in the condition of stasis ‘that prevails at a moment of declining Western influence, economic crisis, ecological anxiety and an inability for the arts to make a case for their value in society.’
To detach from this, 1848, the year of social upheaval and ruptures, of revolution, hope and change, and of new attempts of reorganising society nurtured by a general atmosphere of departure and driven by a promising yet unclear future, is taken as conceptual point of view of the project. It is connected to an on-going body of research on the social role (function) of the Mechanics Institutes and the role of John Ruskin as a social reformer and aims to re-evaluate both approaches. Particularly interesting is that 1848 has served as a utopian moment, a driving force for alternative social models at that time and today. The New Mechanics is an experiment, which approximates to shifts in the conception of ‘useful art’ from two distant points – from the mid 19th century and from the present. In addition, it ventures a look ahead, speculating about future scenarios. There are several institutions and individuals involved to provide a reflection on the relationship of art and society – the author of this text is one of them.
With this in mind I would like to focus on the massive changes in the current social parameters, elaborating two major aspects that have a strong impact on the conception of ‘useful art’ today: the growing disintegration of society and the changes in the status of art. After the loss of ‘great narratives’ and the downfall of authoritative models directed to the entirety of society, the focus of attention has shifted to communities and community work, defined by the strengthening of common values, shared identities, emotional relatedness and very often a non-utilitarian approach. In contrast, society can be characterised through (fundamental) inherent differences and means-end relationships with an organisational form that is largely based on legal structures and agreements. Such agreements are instrumental and contractual in nature and they tend towards specific ends. Today society – comprising superior agendas transcending individual or group interests – seems to be a hollow shell and rotten mainly because it is associated with a capitalist society that has culminated in the crisis Europe currently faces, whilst the allusion to community feeds the desire of living in kinship. These developments are not least mirrored in the current artistic work with and for specific communities; it is the expression of an increasing fragmentation of society, too. Today, art and artists are widely welcome, probably more welcome than ever before. And this does not only comprise art’s material products but also characteristic traits associated with art, such as creativity, authenticity, non-conformity, subversion and criticism. Former antagonism to the economic domain and to capitalism, which inspired for a long time many artists to go into opposition, has given way to highly complex and not always visible integration processes from which neither artists nor the institutions they work with are exempt. And this applies both to the conception of (more or less) autonomous and of (more or less) socially committed art. In short, the conceptualisation of either the idealistic, polar opposite domain or the not less idealistically driven intervention into social domains deteriorated at an increasingly rapid rate in the course of the twentieth century. Nowadays the growing claim for benefits and efficacy of artistic practise is based on the same pressure to legitimise, which embraces all aspects of a socio-economic reality today. In Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson described this as a significant phenomenon of late capitalism: ‘[...] the cultural and the economic, thereby collapse back into one another and say the same thing [...] it seems to obligate you in advance to talk about cultural phenomena at least in business terms if not in those of political economy.’ Not only the forced branding of artists and art institutions, close collaborations between art and enterprise and powerful growth in the creative and art markets, raise urgent questions of complicity, dependencies and most importantly, the question of the possibilities of critical practice; so too the incorporation of socially engaged art projects to image policy and social work.
For some years now artists have been invited to actively engage with social transformations and with the places affected by change, to come up with proposals for new uses and changes of use and/or to stimulate participation and a sense of community. The expectations from art in these circumstances are immense. In these days artistic, socio-cultural and political aspects should come together providing it all: enhance public life, add value and pursue a particular image policy.
This friendly embrace and less friendly annexation runs the danger that artists wittingly and unwittingly support economic or social developments and participate in processes they actually do not want to back, e.g. gentrification, the transfer of previously stately tasks (and responsibilities) to communal and individual tasks, the exploitation of local skills, goods and human resources for an ever absorbing market, which is greedy for new impulses. In the light of this, a closer look into the use and usefulness of art might be helpful. Obviously artists are quite critical when a certain use or function is imposed on them or on their projects: Kristina Leko, for example, does not accept the idea that art can solve problems in other disciplines or compensate for societal deficiencies and relieve politics of its responsibilities; in her view ‘art cannot replace education systems, urban planning or other social disciplines.’ Far more she is interested in the social potential of art itself, which the artist believes has the capacity to ‘generate changes in relationships and perceptions.’ Leko vigorously distances herself from being incorporated by interests, which are not hers. Instead, she places her interest in working directly with marginalised groups14 and to develop together with them a platform that allows them to speak.
However, the artist ́s interest is not confined to her work at site, she connects local and communal agendas with global economic developments. In Cheese and Creams Leko focused on the gradual disappearance of a traditional Croatian profession, the milkmaids, whose existence was threatened as a side effect of globalization and European economic policy because their products do not match the legal requirements of selling foodstuffs. Besides researching the traditions, the conditions of labour and the impact the micro-scale economy of selling fresh cheese and cream has on the local economy, Leko set up a campaign, which comprised of actions in the public space, public debates, a petition, and an exhibition, evolving around the question of ‘Could Zagreb Milkmaids possibly join the European Union?’15 With this project the artist has managed to bring in successfully a different view on the role of milkmaids in society, connecting communal concerns with a wider economic debate. Two rivalling notions of ‘usefulness’ – that of the European economic policy and that of Leko, the milkmaids and their supporters – were played off one another asking what is useful for whom and what is not ripping into the heart of a levelling economic policy. Communal and societal, local and global agendas related to one another. In all of her participatory projects Leko engages in advocacy on behalf of groups that either occupy marginal social positions, or are being gradually pushed into them, whether this means Croatian milkmaids, Croatian and Hungarian peasant families, immigrants in Sarajevo, nursing home residents in Graz, Croatian immigrants in New York, or unemployed people in Halle. Biogas PH5 Lamp made use of the design of a lamp of which the Danish company Poulsen owns the rights. Superflex had the famous lamp by the Danish designer Poul Henningsen reproduced in Thailand and used it for their biogas project, which addresses local populations in Bangkok. Both projects were developed with communities on site and both are set in relation to a global market scrutinising unbalanced economic conditions and relations between producers and consumers. To enter and appropriate a terrain that was formerly looked at as being antagonistic – that of economy – responds to the argument forwarded by Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello that capitalism was able to modify and stabilise itself, above all through the criticism it received from art and from the social domain.
Capitalism thus assimilated certain aspects of that criticism, specifically so as to maintain precisely the necessary degree of criticism to justify and sustain itself. Beyond the assertion that artists – precisely by criticising the system, which they saw as questionable – contributed substantially to stabilising the latter, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate artistic and economic interests, especially since art’s economic potential has itself become a broader social concern as already mentioned earlier. However, these examples show that it seems overhasty to draw the conclusion that the perforation of the boundaries between art and the economy necessarily leads to art and communities being absorbed by the economy. Moreover, these projects do not accept that there is no alternative to the current economic modes whereby all areas of life are incorporated and utilised in terms of profit. Rather, they seek to intervene in economic processes, actively shaping these to emancipatory ends. This can lead to massive consequences as the examples of Guaraná Power and Biogas PH5 Lamp show: The violation of ownership and utilization rights has led to lawsuits with large companies, which have lasting many years.
Artistic appropriation does not only usurp economic modes or business strategies it also makes use of their terminology and rhetoric. In some cases one might even mistake artistic enterprises as being trapped by capitalist principles and completely infused with economic thinking – at least at first sight. When talking about their workshop at Ludlow Street in New York, Dexter Sinister refers to the model of a ‘just-in-time’ economy. They have adapted the Toyota principle, which stood for a model of flexible production as early as the 1950s and later became known as ‘just-in-time production’, proving extremely economically successful thanks to its ability to react to new demands and changes. In addition, Dexter Sinister make use of a language taken from economics, for example when they state that editing, design, production, and distribution are brought together in ‘one efficient activity.’ However, their aim is not to improve production and distribution to make more profit, but to provide a work structure, production facilities and channels of distribution beyond large publishing production and sales networks. Furthermore, the workshop ‘doubles as a bookstore, as well as a venue for intermittent film screenings, performance and other events.’ Both are intended to be merged into to The Serving Library, a project meant to reflect on the role of the library and its changes over the course of time – ‘from fixed archive, through circulating collection, to point of distribution.’
Being ‘as much about The Library as social furniture as it is a specific model, the project ultimately returns to its point of departure: as a place for learning.’21 Again, rivalling ideas and notions of the economic rub shoulders raising debates about economic models, potential alternatives, use value, efficiency and non-efficiency. The questions asked in the beginning of the text: what can artists do for society, and what do they want to do for it, what can society expect from artists, and what does it want them to do, where should artists open up towards social concerns and where do they need to defend themselves so as not to be appropriated, can be answered differently. What the various approaches presented here share however is that they insist on a difference to current economic modes, which incorporate all areas of life and utilise them in terms of profit. Kathrin Böhm, founding member of the collectives ‘Public Works’ and ‘My Villages’, places emphasis on this difference and opens up a notion of usefulness ‘that is not determined by functionality, efficiency or commercial viability.’ In her projects usefulness is placed at a disposal to be negotiated – as the products of the International Village Shop clearly show. Böhm does not look at the denial of a certain functionality, efficiency or commercial viability ‘as a privilege of art, but at art as a resort, which maintains this privilege for society. This privilege should be shared and extended rather than shrunken. Barbara Steiner