The Open Source Millennium
and the Artist in Public / Olu Oguibe
The difficult and contentious relationship between the American artist and the public is now a celebrated part of the history of contemporary art. As I have pointed out elsewhere, this often poisoned relationship has almost always been cast in a singular, uncomplicated light, depending on which side is telling the story. For the art community, the story is always one in which philistine and opportunistic politicians and administrators sacrifice art and the artist’s vision and integrity on the altar of populist endearment. At best, it is one in which the uncouth and uninformed public rejects the visionary ingenuity of the artist in favor of banal conventions and propensities. In his essay, “After Tilted Arc: Site Specificity in an Age of Enterprise Culture”, art historian Gregory Sholette calls to mind one of the earliest instances of this exchange, namely the public rejection of sculptor Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc in 1989. Prior to Serra’s now iconic humiliation, there was, of course, also the case of Carl André’s Equivalent VIII, the so-called “pile of bricks” at the Tate Gallery in London, which the British public loudly denounced and rejected in 1976 albeit at the incitement of critics at the Sunday Times. In both instances, as in several others that have occurred since, the dominant narrative within the art community was that culture itself was under attack, threatened by a rising and supposedly unstemmable tide of consumerist philistinism in what was then gloriously christened “the culture wars”. According to that narrative there were only two sides in that duel: on one side stood the great warrior artist and shining knight of culture, civilization, and the inalienable right to freedom of speech and expression; on the other side and banded together in mindless conspiracy, were opportunistic politicians and a public increasingly devoid of civility or soul. The artist was never wrong. In the long wake of those debates and debacles, some of us have argued, albeit from a minority position, that one unacknowledged problem at the root of the so-called culture wars, was a failure on the part of the artist to take responsibility, and to recognize that there is a reason why the public space is so designated. When the artist steps out of the privacy of the studio and the mind into the public space, he or she must be ready to engage with the public, not dictate to it. Within the confines of the studio the artist may exercise the inalienable right to creative expression and vision without challenge, just as any individual may indulge in the wildest acts within the privacy of the home as long as no one comes to harm. But just as the individual’s right to self-indulgence must ready for check and challenge in the public space, so does the artist’s inalienable right to boundless vision. In the public space, no act or vision is irrevocably immune or infallible. In public, there is no license beyond challenge.
Creative interventions in the public space, or so-called public art such as Mr. Serra’s Tilted Arc, or artistic bids for public patronage such as André’s Equivalent VIII and whatever else artists bring before the public, ultimately raise an issue that was seldom confronted in the rhetoric of the culture wars, namely accountability. Was it appropriate to assume, and indeed insist, that the artist was always right, no matter what? Was it valid for artists to plead creative license every time their work met unfavorable reception by the public? Was it sensible for the artistic community to raise the condescending charge of philistinism whenever the artist’s vision was challenged or rejected by the public? Does the public not reserve the right to respond unfavorably to whatever the artist presents before it? Is it the case that the public’s rights begin and end with positive appreciation and applause for artists and their creative interventions?
Obviously, answers to the foregoing will vary, yet it is proper to argue that while artists must answer to no one for their visions, patronage—being an act of exchange— inevitably places a condition on that license. Patronage requires that the artist be accountable to someone other than just the self or the muse of creativity; it requires that the artist account to his or her benefactor or patron, be they the church, the state, the nobility, the municipality or that most discounted and oft derided constituency, namely the public. And when artists place the results of their creative vision in public, they do not merely claim their rightful space, they also impinge and trespass upon the rightful space of others, and must therefore prepare to take responsibility and be held accountable for what they have brought into the shared arena. That artists often fail to factor this truth into their process, only to plead righteous and indignant license when the public rejects their effort, is not only naïve but troubling, also. It is insensitive, incompetent, and not at all civil. In the public space the individual can only navigate and negotiate; in the public space the individual cannot dictate.
Serra’s curtain steel wall failed—and failure is an appropriate qualifier for it under the circumstances—not because the public was lacking in intellectual or critical sophistication, or because it was created in the wake of the emergence of “the philistine society” as the grandstanding narratives of the period suggest. It failed because it was an arrogant gesture on the part of a few to impose upon the visual and geographic rights and space of the public. Serra placed the rights of his object above the rights of the community that used and lived and carried out its daily business in and around the location where his sculpture was placed, and that community duly asserted its rights to have a say in determining the nature of that space. Because, you see, the artist deposits his or her masterpiece and then retires to the studio, but it is the public that has to live with it and deal with it day after day.
The epic battles of the culture wars era may seem remote today, but the challenges that face the artist in public remain. It can be argued that the epic nature of those battles and standoffs reflected a particular mentality specific to the modernist era that upheld the Enlightenment myth of the artist as genius and thus pitched the artist against the supposedly less endowed and less enlightened public. The demand of the era was that the public recognize the singular uniqueness of the artist’s creative vision and invariably receive and accommodate it with gratitude and without question. In the years following modernism, however, artists have gradually begun to move away from the myth of the artist’s unquestionable gift and uniqueness, and have increasingly come to reason and accepted that the artist is only a part of society, not apart from or above it. There has been a growing understanding, therefore, that the right mode of engagement between artist and public should be one of conversation rather than confrontation. Rather than insist always on the infallibility of the artist’s creative vision, more and more artists have come to accept that the artist can also help channel a collective vision with the public, and that though the public may not possess the skills or calling to realize an accomplished work of art, it nevertheless does possess creative impulses that can be tapped into and brought to the fore by the artist; and more importantly, that this can be done in a collaborative mode.
This growing inclination toward conversation and collaboration is in many ways emblematic of our moment in history, a moment in which the ascendant mode of interaction, communication, and production is essentially communal. Today, the network society has redefined creativity and shifted the focus of creative activity from solitary preoccupation to group participation. In the Open Source millennium, the individual as solitary genius has receded, creative collaboration is resurgent, and the artist in the public is challenged to adapt to a new condition: to engage or produce for the public, the artist must embrace and work with the public.
This is the underlying premise of projects like Jamaica Flux in Queens, New York, initiated by curator Heng-Gil Han, as well as others now active in different parts of the world, that encourage contemporary artists to step outside the cocoon of the studio and step back into the community, and to do so not merely to find inspiration for their normal solitary labor, or simply to deposit the results of a presumed superior vision, but to do so in order to find readily available platforms for creative conversation, collaboration, and exchange with the public. Meeting this challenge, no doubt, is not easy, as many artists still cling to the old, modernist inclination to come to the public with fully formed ideas. What these projects demonstrate, however, is a willingness on the part of contemporary artists to investigate and invest in new strategies of engagement with the public.
Co-curator, Jamaica Flux 2007