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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 5/23/16

The Game of Ones

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Earlier this month, the Guggenheim Museum announced it had received a "a major grant from the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation to support Guggenheim Social Practice, a new initiative committed to exploring the ways in which artists can initiate projects that engage community participants, together with the museum, to foster new forms of public engagement. As part of the initiative, the museum will commission two separate artist projects, one by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and one by Jon Rubin and Lenka Clayton, which will be developed and presented in New York City in 2016 and 2017, respectively."

The museum curators who conceived and run this initiative join a growing cohort of gatekeepers at institutions and foundations creating programs shaped by the aesthetic and ethic I've started to call the Game of Ones. To play it, you create a competition (whether public and visible or private and quiet, the form remains a contest) which richly rewards--with funds and fanfare--a small number of winners from within a large field of practice.

The Guggenheim has chosen three artists who taken as a group deflect some of the criticisms of the category "social practice," which has accumulated resources in direct proportion to its trendiness. (For a little background, check out "Artification," a piece I wrote about it a few years ago; the title comes from Rick Lowe's quip that "social practice is the gentrification of community arts.")

To counter the accurate charge that most artists who identify with the label are white and disconnected from both ground-level social realities and the movements for social justice that drive community-based collaborative arts projects, the Guggenheim has chosen an African American artist deeply rooted in community-based work (Joseph) and two white artists from Rust Belt Pittsburgh whose work touches on issues such as international conflict (Rubin) and feminism (Clayton).

My concern is not with the artists chosen, nor with their willingness to undertake the selected projects. Congratulations to them! If I were anointed with a "major grant" from the Rothschild Foundation, I'd take the money--wouldn't you? I've got a few books queued up to write and a bank account that reflects a lifelong addiction to social and cultural activism, so if anyone is considering nominating me for the next fellowship or prize, feel free!

The bone I want to pick is with the institutional aims and values that have produced the Game of Ones, a framework that ratifies the social order we sum up nowadays with a phrase: "the one percent."

The core criticism of social practice as a branded artworld movement is that its adherents' work finds its authenticating audience in the big-money artworld, most often in the museum, through the approbation of curators, critics, and collectors. In contrast, community artists committed to social and environmental justice and cultural democracy are accountable to the communities that inspire, co-create, and make use of their work. Neither of these categories (nor others in use such as "art for social change") is so tightly bounded as to preclude exceptions. But try to refute the generalization that most social practice art borrows methods from community-based work (almost always without acknowledgement of that lineage) without engaging the social justice values that drive it.

In the Game of Ones world, social practice is shaped by the values and methods of capitalism, where competition and individual profit matter most, and the social price they exact is merely collateral damage:

  • The art is understood to express the genius of a named individual or group, and the path to art stardom opens, just as it has done with prior artworld trends;
  • The artwork is shaped by that artist or group, so that engagement almost always means interaction with the artist's choices, rather than co-creation and co-ownership;
  • The artwork is fulfilled when it is vetted by curators, documentation is exhibited (and most fully so when the venue is a museum or biennial), and reviewed by establishment critics, placing it the mainstream of art as commodity.

So tell me, when work that entails any type of social engagement is pulsed through this process of commodification, what is the outcome? Is it "shifting our ideas of the internal structure of a museum, and expanding our thinking about the traditional exchange between the institution and the public it serves" as the Guggenheim's Deputy Director said? Maybe so, since shifting ideas and expanding thinking can happen without actually changing an institution's financing, social status in the hierarchy of capitalism, and relationship to injustice. For example, it's been less than a month since activists staged a vibrant public protest of labor conditions at the Guggenheim's Abu Dhabi branch--neither the first nor surely the last of such protests of a one percent institution.

Personally, I like to visit museums. I like it much better where they are publicly funded, democratically governed, decline to glorify donors wanting to launder their ill-gotten gains, offer free admission to locals, and feature work reflecting the multiple cultures surrounding their walls, rather than aligning quite so perfectly with the exploitive power relations and self-regarding aesthetics of the one percent.

I wish the Games of Ones were merely a museum phenomenon. But there are now so many individual-focused prizes, fellowships, and competitive processes that even I get asked to nominate and recommend! Each time it annexes more space in the philanthropic landscape, the Game of Ones reinforces the belief that supporting the community infrastructure that nurtures art for social justice matters little compared with identifying and anointing individual winners.

Across the landscape, the net effect of the Game is to exalt individuals at the expense of communities, neglecting the long history of collective creation, cultural resistance and restoration, self-knowledge and communal knowledge to which so many community artists have dedicated their lives. I hear from dedicated, talented, ethical, and urgently needed practitioners across the U.S. that it is harder and harder to find support for this work. Many of the projects and organizations that have sustained local work over a long period of time are starving. What consolation will it be if even a hundred social practice winners are given the means to execute their own visions and the publicity to help them win again? Who will water the roots when more and more of the money is spent plucking a few prize fruits?

Santana and Batuka live in Chile, 1992: "No One to Depend On."

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Arlene Goldbard is a writer, speaker, social activist, and consultant who works for justice, compassion and honor in every sphere, from the interpersonal to the transnational. She is known for her provocative, independent voice and her ability to (more...)
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