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Can Artistic Practices Negotiate the Demands of Cultural Institutions, Public Space, and Civil Society?

Brian Kuan Wood, Editor, e-flux Journal
2 May 2012

Artistic practices can offer many insights, but it is important to remember that when art’s role is reduced to a tool for social development or economic prospects, it ceases to be art. Rather than provide a broad qualification of the use value of art in the world, it can be more interesting to consider how artistic practices must necessarily exceed and fall short of providing any direct contribution to civil society, whether political, democratic, economic, or whatever. To be quick about it, we can optimistically say that art must be allowed to provide an opening that goes beyond the law of the most brutal or perfected civil society, it must be allowed to be an exception. This is a very simple thing to assert, because it reflects how artists think and work, and it is a basic given in the discourse of art. At the same time, this exceptional status of art, whether privileged or subjected to brutality, rarely provides models for civic life and should not be expected to. The art world is full of perversities, and even its most pleasurable forms would be a disaster if transposed onto actual civic life. (As Boris Groys put it eloquently, if everyone were an artist, as Beuys professed, it would be a complete nightmare, because the world would become the art world.) This is how a certain expectation for art to provide a direct political role would actually lead to not only dystopian politics (see Hitler), but also very bad art (Hitler again, but also official, state art). What can be preserved is perhaps an understanding of artistic subjectivity as a contract between artist and audience that produces a mode of thinking and creates a space in which structural and cultural codes can be inverted. Art cannot be expected to resolve the problems of the world, because it will always produce endlessly more problems. This cannot, in itself, improve civic space, though it may produce the ferociously perceptive subjects who can.

Brian Kuan Wood

is a writer based in New York. He is an editor of e-flux journal.

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