A Critical Framework For Littoral Art
Socially Engaged Practice Forum
There is pressure through the public funding system for the arts in the
UK to create at least the allusion of engaging a broader demographic of
the population. The reasoning for this is explained away as public funding
shifts to an indirect yet local and media promoted form of taxation through
the Lottery, so Government wishes to see - as much for its own PR as
continuing Lottery sales - a publicly visible correlation between where
the income is generated and on what it is being spent - 'good
causes'. This can be seen to be having not dissimilar conservative
repercussions on what receives public funding as happened with the National
Endowment for the Arts in the U.S.
One outcome has been the supporting of art that adheres to promoting and
cultivating 'Social Inclusion'. This has placed the emphasis
on artistic engagement as educational, or pedagogic, in a way that attests
to inclusion within society as an integrated whole. At least superficially,
this is espousing a shift in the terms of engagement between artists and
what were traditionally regarded as audiences, to a more therapeutic or
correctional interaction with an underscored group of people.
However, expectations and shifts in artistic practice are not a 'given'
with legislative changes to government funding priorities, but performative.
If a shift is to occur at the point of social engagement then it does
not 'happen' coercively or in isolation but as a direct effect
of an informed choice shift in formations of artistic practice in partnership
with the people with which they work.
Within socially engaged approaches to arts practices there are widely
differing dispositions, from what can be seen to be broadly in line with
the Government's agenda - uni-directional activity of cultivating
what are effectively better 'citizens'/ consumers where 'collaboration'
is largely symbolic - to attempts at anaquality of engagement, where
art is seen as "a medium for discussion with social reality",
as artist Jay Koh puts it.
One description of the latter has been 'Littoral' practice.
"Littoral - adj. of or on the shore. - n. a region lying along
the shore." From its description it can be taken to express a point
of complimentary meeting, an inbetween space.
The UK Government's take and emphasis on 'self-help' programmes
has generated much scepticism with regard to socially engaged art practices.
While there may have been many managerial conferences, effectively bolstering
the position the Government is adopting, there has been little to no indepth
and critical discussion.
One conference that was established to address issues of socially engaged
practice was Critical Sites: Issues in Critical Art Practice and Pedagogy
held in the Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Dun Laoghaire, Co.
Dublin, September '98, organised by Critical Access and Littoral
in Ireland. At the conference Grant Kester, assistant professor of contemporary
art history and theory at Arizona State University, delivered a paper:
Socially Engaged Practice - Dialogical Aesthetics: A Critical Framework
For Littoral Art.
To raise and debate some of the related issues Variant is hosting an on-line
forum on Socially Engaged Practice, commencing with the launch of this
issue. Given his commitment and work done to date in these areas, to initiate
this dialogue we asked Grant Kester to re-present his paper from the conference.
The Socially Engaged Art Practice on-line forum - held in collaboration
with the Environmental Art Department of Glasgow School of Art - is
This includes an archive of all messages, available to all list members,
you can subscribe (at no cost) to the list also from the above site.
Grant Kester's paper Socially Engaged Practice - Dialogical Aesthetics:
A Critical Framework For Littoral Art is also available as a downloadable
PDF file at the Variant site:
If you do not have access to e-mail but wish to respond to Grant Kester's
paper, or any issues related to socially engaged practice, please post
Variant, 1a Shamrock Street, Glasgow, G4 9JZ
The resulting exchanges will be subsequently documented at the Variant
site and are intended to appear as a dedicated supplement within the ensuing
issue, Variant #10 (Spring/Summer 2000).
Dialogical Aesthetics: A Critical Framework For Littoral Art
I. Defining Littoral Art
In this paper I'm going to outline a framework for the critical analysis
of "Littoral" or engaged art practices. I start with two related
caveats. First, my analysis is based primarily on work that I am familiar
with in the US and the UK. Thus, it is very much a selective framework.
And second, even within this geographically limited context it is focused
on a single aspect of these works which I feel is of particular importance.
Given the time and space limitations there will be a number of complex
questions which I will be unable to elaborate sufficiently and others
which I will be forced to bypass altogether. I begin with the assumption
that Littoral projects make very different demands on the practitioner
than do typical gallery or museum-based art works and that they challenge
on many levels the normative assumptions of conventional art works. By
the same token I would contend that Littoralist art requires the development
of a new critical framework and a new aesthetic paradigm. There are aspects
of Littoralist practice that simply can't be grasped as relevant
(or in some cases identified at all) by conventional art critical methodologies.
Mainstream art criticism is organized around two key elements. First,
it is primarily concerned with the formal appearance of physical objects,
which are understood to possess an immanent meaning. These meanings are
then actualized as the object comes into contact with a viewer. The object
here remains the primary carrier of aesthetic significance, whether in
terms of a formal analysis or in terms of a speculative phenomenology
that attempts to re-construct a postulated viewer's interactions
with it. Second, the judgments produced through the critic's interaction
with the physical object are authorized by the writer's individual,
pleasure-based response. In The Scandal of Pleasure the American critic
Wendy Steiner argues that the primary organizing principle of criticism
should be "subjective preference" or what she terms the "I
When contemporary critics confront Littoral projects they often lack the
analytic tools necessary to understand the work on its own terms and instead
simply project onto it a formal, pleasure-based methodology that is entirely
inappropriate.2 The results are not surprising:
Littoral works are criticized for being "unaesthetic" or are
attacked for needlessly suppressing "visual gratification".
Because the critic is unable to gain any sensory stimulation or fails
to find the material in the work personally engaging it is dismissed as
"failed" art. This was the reaction of a number of U.S. critics
to the most recent Dokumenta exhibition. Ken Johnson of Art in America
coined the term "post-retinal" to describe much of the work
in the show.3 Although Johnson intended this
term as a mild pejorative, I feel it is quite useful in capturing the
ways in which many Littoral projects challenge the tendency of contemporary
visual art to function primarily on the level of sensation. The reliance
of contemporary criticism on the writer's personal response also
has the effect of treating subjectivity as an unquestioned, a priori principle,
rather than recognizing the extent to which the critic's "personal"
taste is structured by forms of identification and power based on class,
race, gender and sexuality. I would argue that the critic has a responsibility
to interrogate their own individuality; to ask how their identity functions
in relationship to other subjects and other social formations.
1. The Problem of Definition and Indeterminance
The concept of a Littoral criticism is important because it forces upon
us the question of what Littoral "art" might be, which in turn
requires that we differentiate Littoral art from other kinds of art (or
other forms of cultural politics or activism for that matter). I know
that for myself most of these differences have remained relatively intuitive
or unconscious. The act of criticism requires that we make these intuitive
judgments more concrete and subject them to some conceptual elaboration.
The positive dimension of this activity is that it can deepen our understanding
of what makes Littoralist art effective. The negative dimension is that
it can lead to a hardening of categorical definitions and distinctions.
This brings us to a central question. There is a long tradition of defining
modernist art through its difference from dominant cultural forms. Thus,
Clive Bell and Roger Fry defined avant-garde painting (and in particular,
Postimpressionism) through its active suppression of representation, which
they associated with the populist realism of Victorian genre painting;
Greenberg, of course, contrasted authentic art with vulgar "kitsch".
In the 1970s critic Michael Fried differentiated the truly avant-garde
art of Anthony Caro and Frank Stella from the inauthentic "Literalist"
art of Donald Judd or Robert Smithson, based on its resistance to "theater".
That is, Caro's work was judged to be superior because it refused
to incorporate formal cues that would acknowledge the presence of a viewer.
This resistance to fixity can be traced to the function of the aesthetic
in early modern philosophy as a force that is intended to absorb antagonisms
created elsewhere in society. Typically, as in the writings of Schiller,
the aesthetic is conceived of as therapeutic; its job is to ameliorate
the fragmenting effects of a market-driven society. This compensatory
function needs to be understood within the context of liberalism. The
aesthetic provides us with a unique power to comprehend and represent
the totality of forces operating within society, and to envision more
progressive or humane alternatives, but this epistemological insight is
always joined with the requirement that the artist must never attempt
to realize these alternatives through direct action. The "poet",
according to Schiller, possesses a sovereign right only in the limitless
domain of the imagination. In a parallel manner, for Hegel, in The Philosophy
of Right, the "aesthetic state" can comprehend the deleterious
social effects of private property but it is prevented from intervening
in the ostensibly "natural" operations of the market. The resulting
social tensions (poverty, a growing gap between rich and poor, environmental
destruction) will be relieved, rather, by the expansion of the market
and by the colonization of what he terms "backwards" lands.
These as yet unclaimed colonies are defined, like the aesthetic imagination
itself, as potentially boundless and conceptually indeterminate. For Kant
the destructive impact of social stratification will be healed by the
unfettered circulation of commerce and knowledge (or "books and money"),
leading to the gradual diffusion of a spirit of harmonious Enlightenment.
The aesthetic can thus be understood as one of several related mechanisms
that were developed within liberalism to simultaneously regulate the threat
posed by systematic forms of critique and to compensate for the dysfunctional
effects of the emergent capitalist system. It must remain highly elastic
and un-regulated, precisely because it is being called upon to absorb
a potentially infinite range of divisive social effects.
Under the influence of late nineteenth-century critics such as Robert
Vischer and Heinrich Wölfflin, this principle of indeterminateness
was transferred from a general condition of aesthetic knowledge to a trait
primarily associated with the experience of artworks. Specifically, the
capacity of the modernist work to continually complicate or modify its
own formal condition became an expression of its refusal of determinant
boundaries. Critics like Bell, Fry, and Greenberg then endowed this idea
of formal innovation with the specific motivation that modernist art must
constantly transform itself to avoid co-optation by popular culture. This
principle of indeterminateness remains with us today in the concept of
the art work that refuses the economic exchange of the market or that
resists translation into other forms of discourse or meaning (Adorno)
or, for that matter, in the belief that art schools should be experimental
and open-ended institutions.
In my remarks here I am, thus, working somewhat against the grain of a
long tradition that says we must not attempt to limit or define art's
potential meaning. In fact, I would argue that one of the strengths of
Littoral practice lies in its capacity to transgress existing categories
of knowledge. At the same time I want to stress the importance of understanding
indeterminateness in specific social and historical contexts. Clearly
we aren't talking about a generalized refusal of all ontological
boundaries. The question is, how has indeterminacy functioned strategically
over time? I would contend that, within the modernist tradition, it has
been constructed through a dialogue that oscillates between the form of
the work of art and its communicative function. And it is in this question
of discursivity that I will locate the basis for my definition of Littoral
art. It is necessary to consider the Littoralist work as a process as
well as a physical product, and specifically as a process rooted in a
discursively-mediated encounter in which the subject positions of artist
and viewer or artist and subject are openly thematized and can potentially
be challenged and transformed. I am particularly interested in a discursive
aesthetic based on the possibility of a dialogical relationship that breaks
down the conventional distinction between artist, art work and audience - a
relationship that allows the viewer to "speak back" to the artist
in certain ways, and in which this reply becomes in effect a part of the
2. Modern and Postmodern Anti-Discursivity
This approach is significant, I think, because it stands in opposition
to a long tradition of anti-discursivity in modern art that associates
communicability or discourse with fixity - the generalized belief that
art must define itself as different from other forms of culture (popular
culture, kitsch, Fried's theater) precisely by being difficult to
understand, shocking or disruptive (except now, contra Schiller's
return to "wholeness", a Lyotard-ian "ontological dislocation"
becomes the therapeutic antidote to a centered Cartesian subjectivity).
I would contend that the anti-discursive tendency in modern art hypostatizes
discourse and communication as inherently oppressive. It can't conceive
of a discursive form that is not contaminated by the problematic model
of "communication" embodied in advertising and mass-media.4
Notably, this attitude runs across the historical and theoretical divide
of modernism and postmodernism. Thus Lyotard writes with real disdain
of art which is based on the assumption that the public "will recognize.
. . will understand, what is signified."5
And both Greenberg and Lyotard postulate avant-garde art practice as the
antidote to kitsch. If kitsch traffics in reductive or simple concepts
and sensations then avant-garde art will be difficult and complex; if
kitsch's preferred mode is a viewer-friendly "realism"
then avant-garde art will be abstract, "opaque" and "unpresentable".
In each case the anti-discursive orientation of the avant-garde artwork,
its inscrutability and resistance to interpretation, is juxtaposed to
a cultural form that is perceived as easy or facile (advertising, kitsch,
"theatrical" art, etc.). The condition of this degraded cultural
form is then seen as entirely exhausting the possibilities of a populist
art, thus forcing the artist to withdraw completely from the field of
What I am calling an "anti-discursive" tradition in the modern
avant-garde is defined by two seemingly opposed moments. The first, which
I have described elsewhere as an "orthopedic" aesthetic, seeks
to aggressively transform the viewer's consciousness (implicitly
defined as flawed or dulled) through an overwhelming encounter with the
work of art.6 This perspective is more accurately
thought of as counter-discursive in that it argues that the work of art
has the ability to operate on the viewer through a unique, non-discursive,
somatic power. Examples would include the "alienation" effect
of the 1930's Russian and German avant-garde and Walter Benjamin's
concept of a "shock" of critical awareness produced through
the "dialectical" juxtaposition of images. Although ambivalently
positioned relative to discursive forms of knowledge, these approaches
provide an important framework for thinking through a communicative aesthetic
model. The positive recognition that everyday language is always/ already
ideologically prepared to interrupt the formation of a critical consciousness,
is combined with what I view as a negative dimension: the positioning
of the viewer as a passive subject whose epistemological orientation to
the world will be adjusted by the work of art. The extent to which the
commitment to shock (what we might call the "naughty artist"
paradigm) remains an almost unconscious reflex can be seen in the recent
controversy over the English art students who claimed to use a grant to
vacation at Costa del Sol while actually staying in Leeds. Like some kind
of dated Baudrillardian scenario the various characters (the outraged
press, the spluttering conservatives, and the clever art students) played
their roles almost as though they were working from a script, and in a
way they were.
The second view contends that the artist, and the work of art, must remain
entirely unconcerned with the viewer. This is the basis of Michael Fried's
distinction between authentic and "theatrical" art. Fried insists
that the artwork is under no obligation whatsoever to acknowledge the
viewer's presence - that is, to anticipate or play off of the
viewer's physical response, movement, or expectations relative to
a given piece.7 In its extreme state this
can take the form of the position that art is not a mode of communication
at all. In a classic expression of this view, we find the painter Barnett
Newman projecting an anti-discursive tendency into the very mists of time:
"Man's first expression, like his first dream," Newman
writes in 1947, "was an aesthetic one. Speech was a poetic outcry
rather than a demand for communication. . . an address to the unknowable."8
(Or to an ideal but currently unrealizable Sensus Communis.)
3. Modern Aesthetics and the Problem of Universality
Greenberg's citation of Kant in his "Modernist Painting"
essay is widely taken as proof of the neo-Kantian lineage of formalist
art criticism. I would argue that we can draw very different lessons about
the meaning of art from early modern aesthetics. The concept of the aesthetic
that emerged in the work of philosophers such as Kant, Schiller, Shaftesbury,
and Hutcheson was centered on the relationship between the individual
(defined by sense-based or somatic knowledge) and the social. This relationship
was constructed through concepts such as "taste" (which marks
the fortuitous harmony between the autonomous individual and a more objective
standard of judgment). This work was only nominally concerned with the
form of the art object per se. A primary term of reference was the concept
of a sensus communis or Gemeinsinn, a common sense or knowledge that marked
a horizon of shared communicability. This opens out into a whole area
of debate in contemporary theory between Habermas, Foucault and Lyotard,
among others. Lyotard goes so far as to link the concept of discourse
and communicability in art with what he ominously terms a "call to
order" and the cultures of fascism and Stalinism. Habermas'
claim that art might expand from "questions of taste" to the
exploration of "living historical situations" is linked for
Lyotard with a naive, nostalgic and politically reactionary yearning after
"unity" and the misguided attempt to reconcile art and society
into a mythic "organic whole".
Of course Lyotard's fears of a universalizing discourse are well-founded.
One does not have to look very far in the current cultural landscape to
find concrete examples, such as recent attacks on the teaching of Spanish
in California public schools (Proposition 227) under the guise of a resurgent
one-language Americanism that attempts to define American identity through
the negation of the complex cultures that actually constitute that country
today. Clearly, any model of discourse or cultural identity that is founded
on the violent suppression of difference is oppressive. At the same time
the vehemently anti-discursive tradition within the modernist avant-garde
has led to another kind of negation - an indifference and in some cases
an outright contempt towards the viewer. "The artist," as sculptor
David Smith insisted in 1952, "deserves to be belligerent to the
majority".9 I would argue, however,
that we don't have to choose between fascism and withdrawal into
a mute, monadic isolation. Littoralist art is concerned precisely with
exploring and negotiating the complexities of discursive inter-relationships,
with trying to create a discourse which minimizes negation.
4. Implications for the Analysis of Art
I now want to outline three related components of a discursive or dialogical
First, Littoral art is interdisciplinary. It operates "between"
discourses (art and activism, for example) and between institutions (the
gallery and the community center or the housing block). This is opposed
to traditional art that operates within both the discursive presuppositions
and the institutional sites of the "art world" and art audiences
and that is, moreover, often even further defined by its identification
with a specific art medium. Ian Hunter of Projects Environment uses the
term "interface" practices which I understand in two ways - first,
the interface between practitioners and other individuals or groups and
second, the interface that is created in Littoral works across disciplinary
routines or bodies of knowledge. (This relates to the argument that the
formation of disciplinary knowledge is both an empowering and a limiting
activity, and that breakthroughs occur in the disciplinary interstices,
while consolidation occurs within the disciplines themselves.)
Along with this interdisciplinarity comes the need to learn as much as
possible about the ways in which meaning is produced in and through these
other contexts. This interdisciplinarity, the ability to draw on analytic
resources from other areas such as critical theory, social history or
environmental science, and the ability to work through alternative institutional
sites, allows Littoral art to develop a systematic critique that can be
actualized through specific political or social struggles. The Littoral
artist, by "interfacing" with existing sites of political and
cultural resistance can challenge the disabling political quietism of
2. Multiple registers of meaning vs. formal immanence
In Littoral art the "meaning" of a given work is not centered
in the physical locus of the object, or in the imaginative capacity of
the single viewer. Rather, it is dispersed through multiple registers.
These include a spatial-temporal register, in which the work "means"
differently in different locations and times, as opposed to the immanence
that is characteristic of modernist formalism. The work also produces
multiple levels of information at a given time and space as it interacts
with a myriad of other discursive systems (existing belief systems, ideologies,
the psychological make up of particular viewers or participants, etc.).
There is thus no single "work" to be judged in a Littoralist
criticism. This is what differentiates Littoral criticism from conventional
art criticism. The "work" is constituted as an ensemble of effects
and forces, which operate in numerous registers of signification and discursive
3. Dialogical indeterminance vs. formal indeterminance
The recognition that Littoral works operate on multiple levels of meaning
doesn't imply that meaning is entirely indeterminate, however. It
can be clearly analyzed at specific points, and this capacity to ascertain
meaning effects among particular viewers or co-participants is an important
part of the process of dialogical "feedback" (e.g., Stephen
Willats projects with housing estate residents). At the same time, this
doesn't make the work entirely fixed. Rather, the principle of indeterminance
that is registered in conventional art through formal innovation is expressed
in Littoral art through the open-ended process of dialogical engagement,
which produces new and unanticipated forms of collaborative knowledge.
I'm not saying that Littoral art works can't be formally innovative,
but that they don't depend on the principle of immanent formal differentiation
as the primary engine for their development.
II. Current Political and Cultural Context
In the second half of this talk I want to use the concept of a dialogical
aesthetic to outline some specific conditions for the analysis and criticism
of Littoral art. As I've argued, one of the defining characteristics
of Littoral art is its capacity for interaction with other areas of social
practice. The "interface" includes more than just the "conversation"
that takes place between practitioners and their co-participants. It also
encompasses the broader discursive context within which a given Littoral
project operates - for example, relevant public policies and debates,
corporate ideologies, images and narratives promulgated by the mass media
and numerous other sites which structure the political and cultural meaning
that a specific work is capable of producing, and which are susceptible
to being transformed by the work in turn. Two related tendencies in contemporary
cultural politics are particularly salient. The first is the growing privatization
of social life, linked with a corollary embrace of the individual as the
primary locus of political and cultural authority. The second is the resistance
to both theoretical and systematic forms of analysis. These tendencies,
although differentially articulated, operate across a broad spectrum of
cultural and political positions.
1. Individualism/ Privatization
In the U.S. we are witnessing the widespread privatization of those domains
of social life which were based on the ideals (if not always the reality)
of a shared commitment to a general public good and a willingness to sacrifice
some portion of one's self-interest for the benefit of others. What
might be termed the re-segregation of American life is occurring at numerous
points: public education is being replaced by a system of selective "voucher"
schools which often violate the separation of church and state; fortified
"gated communities" are proliferating among the wealthy as a
way to simultaneously express class privilege (and paranoia) and to opt
out of shared municipal services;10 with
declining state and federal moneys "public" universities are
becoming research fiefdoms for major corporations; under the Republican
congress industry lobbyists are being invited to re-draft federal regulatory
legislation intended to protect the public from their own companies; and
forms of collectively-financed health care and social services are under
attack by proposals to restrict benefits to those least likely to need
Everywhere we see a retreat into privatized enclaves along with a refusal
to acknowledge the relationship between economic privilege and consumption
patterns here and lack of resources and opportunity elsewhere. The withdrawal
from a public commitment to these programs is justified by the claim that
they are inherently flawed. But rather than recognizing the problems experienced
by, for example, urban high schools, as a result of an interconnected
set of social and economic forces (declining tax bases due to white flight,
lack of job opportunities as a result of a deliberate program of industrial
disinvestment leading to the proliferation of a drug-based economy, etc.)
their problems are attributed entirely to the failure of the poor as individuals;
their lack of moral fiber and personal initiative. The implication is
clear: the only effective public policies are those that function to transform
the (failed) individual; to provide them with a work ethic and a capacity
The second, and related, tendency I noted was an opposition to systematic
forms of analysis. Conservatives in the U.S. have undertaken a concerted
effort to discredit any form of political analysis that seek to explain
poverty or criminality as the result of economic and social inequality.
This has involved in turn the adoption of a triumphalist view of recent
American history.11 In this view the last
few decades have seen the elimination of all forms of organized racism,
classism or sexism in America such that women, the poor and working class,
and people of color have no impediments whatsoever to competing in a fair
and open way with economically privileged white men in what Dinesh D'Souza
calls the "foot race" of modern life.12
Having realized this liberal ideal through past political struggles over
civil rights, society is now understood to be composed of free individuals
whose success or failure is due solely to their personal efforts.13
If, in this meritocractic utopia, white upper-class men still seem to
dominate the most powerful positions in corporate and political life this
certainly can't be attributed to the fact that society continues
to systematically impede or limit the opportunities of women, the poor,
or people of color. Rather, we must seek some internal cause, located
in the individual rather than the social. Thus we have the pseudo-science
of the Bell Curve, attributing a genetic inferiority to blacks, and conservative
attacks on the immorality of the poor.14
I suspect that there are rough corollaries for these views in the UK today
In place of flawed public institutions we find conservatives championing
private philanthropy in which members of the upper class choose to dispense
some portion of their accumulated wealth as a reflection of their own
humanity and moral excellence. Social programs are to be viewed as a form
of noblesse oblige, rather than as a collective recognition of inequalities
that operate elsewhere in the social order. The result is a neo-Victorian
discourse that locates the causes of poverty in personal failure. In line
with the roots of early reform in Evangelical Christianity, the act of
dispensing charity is itself intended to facilitate the moral transcendence
of the giver, to demonstrate their own capacity to reach across the boundaries
of class and race privilege on the basis of some putatively universal
spiritual essence which they are able to recognize and activate through
their elevated capacity for empathetic identification.15
There have been numerous books published during the last several years
(e.g., Marvin Olasky's The Tragedy of American Compassion) in which
conservatives argue that the real problem in the U.S. today is a lack
of moral character among individuals, and that existing social problems
can best be solved not by the state, but by the efforts of private individuals
and organizations that develop programs focused on building the character
of the poor.
3. Relationship to Art
In this brief outline I've discussed the conservative world view
in terms of a resistance to systematic or holistic forms of analysis and
a (fictive) construction of the subject as a radically autonomous individual
whose desires must be either unimpeded (as a middle-class consumer) or
rigorously policed (as a working-class producer). In general terms both
the anti-systematic orientation and the rampant individualism of conservative
thinking seek to detach a given subject, event or condition from its imbededness
within a network of causal factors; to abstract the individual, as a product
of social forces and discursive interrelationships into an entirely self-contained
and generative entity.
Two interconnected tendencies in contemporary art critical discourse are
of particular relevance here - the widespread interest in the role
of visual pleasure in aesthetic experience and the consequent attack on
theoretical or systematic analyses of art. These tendencies first emerged
as a reaction to the perceived didacticism and theoretical excess of 1980's
postmodernism. For critics in the U.S. such as Mark van Proyen and David
Hickey "theory" marks a retreat from the unique somatic knowledge
that is the special province of the artist.16
Theory is abstract and distanced; art is immediate and experiential. The
iron heel of mind-driven theory has attempted to quash the subtle but
necessary truths of the body over which the artist has a proprietary authority.
Here mind and body, dominative reason and a spiritually cultivated intuition
are juxtaposed in classic binary fashion. The assertion of "beauty"
and personal pleasure as the only legitimate basis of an art experience
and the reaction against "theory" (which is seen as contaminating
the purity of that experience) coalesce around the troubled figure of
the "individual". The artist (as an exemplary individual) becomes
the final bunkered outpost of resistant subjectivity against a whole array
of "objective" and abstract cognitive forces. The somatic or
sensual experience that they register through their works is understood
as having an inherently progressive political power, constituting a pre-social
domain of personal autonomy and self-expression.
The "individual" marks an important point of congruence with
the conservative views I've already outlined. The concept of the
(bourgeois) individual constructed in conservative discourse bears a striking
resemblance to conventional notions of the artist, virulently resisting
any threat to the autonomy of personal expression or desire. This is not
to say that any artistic position on individual autonomy is necessarily
conservative. Further, it is clearly the case that the individual body
and the right of expression mark an important domain of political struggle
today. But the politics of the individual are not necessarily a given;
they have to be established in and through specific contexts - a process
that requires some form of analytic thinking.
The attack on theory in the arts is part of a more general reaction against
analytic systems of thought that has been taken up across a range of cultural
sites. The political implications of the anti-theory stance are particularly
evident in recent debates in left journals such as The Nation. In a opinion
column in May of 1998 Nation editor Eric Alterman castigated what he called
the "radical/ academic" left (a.k.a. the "Foucaultian"
left) for its focus on theory ("theory and identity are everything")
at the expense of "real" politics.17
Wallowing in its own elitism and irrelevance the "cultural left"
blithely assumes that "the higher the level of its abstraction the
more subversive it is." Where many contemporary critics bemoan the
irrelevance of theory to the actuality of art-making, Alterman contends
that contemporary left academics are out of touch with the average worker
and incapable of "translating theory into praxis in the real world
of U.S. politics." In each case the attack on "theory"
is generated out of the claimed authenticity of "experience".
Although these debates, in art and in contemporary political discourse,
are being staged on very different terrains they share some tendencies.
First, they express a common desire to bypass what is seen as the extraneous,
abstract, or irrelevant discourse of theory in order to regain contact
with the "empirical" basis of a given discipline or activity.
They urge us to move closer to the object of study or engagement, to collapse
the distance (critical, physical, emotional) between object and interlocutor,
at the same time that they express a demand to recover the "essence"
of politics or art in response to the dangerous forces of conservative
attack and anarchic inter-disciplinary transgression. This is a perspective
that makes it increasingly difficult to recognize the inter-connections
among and between these various cultural and political fields. It marks
a retreat from the possibilities of a cultural politics and from the possibility
of a shared discourse among activists, artists, critics, and others, and
specifically, from the kinds of processes that lie at the heart of Littoral
III. Littoral Practice - Dialogical Aesthetics
If, as I am suggesting, the evaluative framework for Littoral art is no
longer centered on the physical object then what is the new locus of judgment?
I would contend that it can be found in the condition and character of
dialogical exchange itself. I would define this as a pragmatic form of
criticism to the extent that it is concerned with the specific effects
produced by these exchanges in a given context. At the same time, it retains
a nominal teleological orientation in that it preserves some concept of
an ideal discursive process that can act as a benchmark against which
to evaluate actual projects. It is necessary to consider two conditions
that are specific to the subject position of the contemporary "artist",
and which bear directly on the artist's capacity for discursive engagement.
The first condition is ideological - the tendency of artists to identify
themselves with a highly individualized concept of personal autonomy on
the one hand, and with the capacity to transcend self through their mastery
of a universal aesthetic knowledge on the other. The result is an often
problematic mixture of traits: a failure to engage in critical self-reflection
(due to the belief that one's individuality constitutes a redemptive,
pre-ideological enclave) combined with the perceived authority to heedlessly
transgress boundaries of class, race, and privilege, and to engage in
discursive acts "on behalf of" any number of disenfranchised
"others". The potential correspondence between this view and
the concepts of privatized philanthropy that I outlined earlier is clear.
The corollary to the philanthropic middle-class subject who is able to
make contact with, and spiritually "improve", the racial or
class Other is found in the long tradition of regarding the artist or
intellectual as a trans-cultural agent. Thus we have St. Simon's
"avant-garde", Coleridge's "Clerisy", and more
recently, descriptions of the artist as a Shamanistic healer which engage
in a problematic projection of archaic notions of "tribal" spirituality
onto a society that is highly stratified, even if not especially within
the arts. To the extent that Littoral projects involve this kind of cross-cultural
or cross-class negotiation (and when they do it is almost always the case
that the transgression is moving from a position of greater to lesser
privilege), this will remain a persistent area of tension.
The second condition that poses a challenge to discursivity is institutional
and logistical. It is what we might call the problem of itinerancy. Discourse,
and the trust necessary for discursive interaction and identification,
grow out of a sustained relationship in time and space, the co-participation
in specific material conditions of existence. But the nature of contemporary
art patronage and production mitigates against this kind of sustained
commitment. Artists have to earn a living which may require regular re-location
due to teaching or other jobs, foundation grants are often oriented around
singular projects over a fixed time frame, and the art institutions that
provide support for Littoral work are accustomed to inviting a practitioner
in from "the outside" for a limited period of time. Many of
the mechanisms of engaged arts patronage function to reinforce the view
of a given "community" or constituency as an instrumentalized
and fictively monolithic entity to be "serviced" by the visiting
artist. The British artist Stephen Willats has negotiated the problem
of itinerancy by returning to the same sites, often tower blocks, over
a period of several years. Another solution is found in arts organizations
that are located in, and build ongoing relationships with, specific neighborhoods,
as in the East Bay Institute for Urban Arts in Oakland, California.
1. Discursive Determinism
Turning from the condition of the artist to the concept of discourse itself
I would identity two areas of critical analysis. The first relates to
the problem of discursive determinism - that is, the replacement of
a vulgar Marxist concept of economic determinism by the equally reductive
belief that "discourse" or dialogue in and of itself has the
power to radically transform social relations. This is problematic for
two reasons. First, because it overlooks the manifest differential in
power relations that pre-conditions participation in discourse long before
we get to the gallery, community center or meeting room. We can attempt
to minimize the effect of power on discourse, to point to its effects,
but we can't expect to eliminate it. Discursive determinism also
overlooks the extent to which political change takes place through forms
of "discourse" (such as violence or economic manipulation of
the electoral system) that are far from open and ideal. This tendency
treats discourse as an abstract and autonomous entity, but the essential
mediating relationship between discourse and mechanisms of political or
social change is left undeveloped. We might call this the "argue
but obey" criticism of discourse, taken from Kant's famous citation
of Frederick the Great, who had no problem with Prussia's intellectual
class expressing any number of radical ideals in written form so long
as they did nothing to directly challenge his political authority - "argue
as much as you want, and about whatever you want, but obey" (in "What
is Enlightenment?"). "Discourse" becomes aesthetic, in
the sense that I have used the term previously, to the extent that it
becomes detached from mechanisms of political change and instead takes
on a compensatory or primarily symbolic role.
2. Empathy and Negation
The second axis of a discursive aesthetic revolves around the related
concepts of "empathy" and "negation". The specific
function of conventional aesthetic perception is to treat the perceived
object as an ensemble of stimuli to be registered on the conscious mind
of the artist. Everything that is outside of the perceiving subject thus
becomes a kind of raw material to be processed by the senses and the mind
in order to produce what we might call a "transcendence effect".
This process allows the subject to reflectively perceive the operations
of their own consciousness, and by extension to glimpse the potential
cognitive ground of a universal basis of communication. The transcendence
effect is most pronounced when the material being experienced is treated
as a mere representation, thus insulating the meditative perceiver from
any direct contact with the viewed object which might distract them from
the process of self-reflection. This is typically expressed in the early
to mid-twentieth century concept of a formalist, self-referential art
The effect, then, is to negate the specific identity of those objects
around you (and people can easily function as objects), and instead to
treat them as instrumentalized material. In contrast, a dialogical aesthetic
would locate meaning "outside" the self; in the exchange that
takes place, via discourse, between two subjects. Moreover, the identities
of these subjects are not entirely set, but rather, are formed and transformed
through the process of dialogical exchange. In the traditional view I've
just outlined aesthetic experience prepares the subject to participate
in intersubjective exchange by giving them mastery over a universal discursive
form. They function as an already fixed enunciative agent who merely makes
use of discourse to express the a priori "content" of their
internal being. In the model that I'm outlining the subject is literally
produced in and through dialogical exchange.
One way in which the instrumentalizing tendency of traditional aesthetic
experience has been negotiated is through the concept of empathy (e.g.,
Burke and Lessing). Empathy is a relationship to others that at least
potentially allows us to experience the world not as a transcendent eyeball
searching out aesthetic stimulation, but as a discursively integrated
subject willing to sacrifice some sense of autonomy in order to imaginatively
inhabit, learn from (and be transformed by) another subject's material
condition and world view. Politically resistant communities are typically
formed by people who share lived experience and interests in ways that
a Littoral practitioner may not. Yet, the problems of universality notwithstanding,
we must retain some concept of an intersubjective common ground that would
allow for the possibility of shared discourse, and that would allow the
practitioner to bridge the gap of difference between themselves and their
At the same time, empathy is susceptible to a kind of ethical/ epistemological
abuse in which the very act of empathetic identification is used to negate
the specific identity of the other subject. It is simply not the case
that "we" are all "the same" - we are differentially
positioned relative to material, cultural, and economic interests. And,
historically, it is precisely in crossing these kind of objective divisions
that "empathy" is most often evoked. Empathy can become an excuse
to deny our own privilege and the real differences between ourselves and
others, and to subject them instead to an instrumentalizing aestheticization.
It is notable that in philosophical terms empathy has been constructed
as non-discursive relationship. In Lessing's Laocoön essay he
defines empathy in part through the restrained silence of Laocoön
himself, even as he is attacked by poisonous snakes. The empathized subject
is not expected to answer back, only to bear the marks of their suffering
and to thereby elicit our emotive identification. Moreover, empathy is
the product of distance, which guarantees that we cannot be "existentially
implicated in the tragic event".18 Thus
both Lessing and Burke associate empathy with pity and with a quasi-pleasurable
aesthetic response. I'm reminded here of a friend who worked developing
art-based therapy in an Alzheimer's care facility. After some time
she grew to be rather unpopular with the regular care-givers who resented
what they saw as her tendency to romanticize dementia as liberating the
creative child within. There is of course a long history of artists tortured
by the desire to "do good" or be useful. Van Gogh's transition
from Evangelical minister to the miners of Belgium, where he even began
to physically mimic their impoverished lifestyle, to painting solemn scenes
of peasant culture is exemplary of the tendency to treat the other as
a material to be converted by the well-intentioned artist, or as a "representational"
To make this point somewhat clearer relative to Littoral practice I want
to briefly re-visit a project that I discussed in some detail at the Salford
Littoral conference in 1994. The project is called Soul Shadows: Urban
Warrior Myths and was produced by an artist from New Orleans named Dawn
Dedeaux in 1993. It began as part of an "art in the prisons"
program in Louisiana and eventually mushroomed into a travelling multi-media
installation with sculptural elements, multiple video monitors, fabricated
rooms, large photo-based images, a sound track and so on. In this form
it toured from New Orleans to a number of major cities including Baltimore
and Los Angeles. The project was subject to some criticism, especially
by African American writers, because it presented provocative images of
one of Dedeaux's chief subjects, a convicted crack dealer and gang
leader named Wayne Hardy, half dressed, holding a spear, a shield and
in one case a target. Although there are many "voices" in the
installation, in fact a cacophony of audio and video tapes ran constantly,
the dominant narrative "voice" of the piece was that of Dedeaux
herself, who planned and orchestrated the project with some minimal "collaboration"
from Wayne Hardy regarding the staging of his life size portraits. Dedeaux
sought to help white viewers "empathize" with the conditions
faced by young black men, at the same time that she hoped the piece would
act as a kind of moral prophylactic for young black men who came to see
it, who would presumably mend their ways after witnessing the contrition
expressed by a number of imprisoned figures.
Dedeaux, who is from a white, upper-class New Orleans family, spoke of
the project as a way to overcome her fear of young black men after being
mugged in the French quarter. The young black men she worked with thus
served as the vehicle for a kind of immersion therapy that allowed her
to transcend her own painfully self-conscious whiteness. At the same time,
Dedeaux's project positioned her subjects as ciphers of black criminality
(they are always viewed in the context of prison and of discussions about
their crimes) by failing to locate their relentlessly foregrounded "criminality"
in the broader context of the current urban political economy. Images
of young black men in prison circulate widely in U.S. culture and their
interpretation is heavily influenced by a broad network of presuppositions
largely dominated by conservative policy statements, books, op-ed pieces
and so on. These images cannot simply be re-circulated in an art context
without taking that a priori discursive network into consideration, and
without taking the artist's own position vis-a-vis these images into
account. I certainly don't hold Dedeaux accountable for conservative
policies on race and crime, but they constituted one of the most significant
discursive interfaces for this project and, assuming that she didn't
find herself in agreement with them, she should have devised some representational
strategy to resist the assimilation of her project to these views.
Since this project was widely covered several years ago there have been
two interesting addenda. First, in 1996 one of Dedeaux's subjects,
Paul Hardy, was arrested for the murder of a police witness and, in order
to build its case against him the FBI raided Dedeaux's studio, seizing
interviews and videotapes. These images, which Dedeaux had collected and
catalogued in her studio, are not simply a representational resource,
they are in a very real way linked to the lives of her subjects, with
immediate and profound consequences. The second addendum is provided by
Dedeaux herself, who presented a mocking "self-portrait" (Self-Portrait,
Rome) in a 1997 issue of the journal Art Papers which featured her in
smiling black-face make-up with the phrase "Do You Like Me Better
Now?" written on the palm of her hand. It is probably safe to assume
that this image was intended as a response to those critics (possibly
including myself) who raised questions about the position she took up
in the Soul Shadows project. She seems to be suggesting here that the
only reason she was criticized was because she was white.
Of course Dedeaux's easy accommodation to conservative views about
black crime and poverty is not simply a matter of her race. At the same
time, if she was black herself it is unlikely that the experience of being
mugged would have made her fearful of all black men, and led her to produce
a piece that is so problematically related to questions of difference,
access, and mastery. Dedeaux's whiteness is not simply a question
of skin color but of her imaginative orientation to racial identity and
Otherness itself. While her class and racial background and her resulting
isolation relative to poor and working class black communities might predispose
her to reinforce these views, it doesn't predetermine it. This image
is made more problematic by the fact that it is, presumably, meant as
an indirect citation of David Hammons' billboard "How You like
me Now?" which was installed on the streets of Washington, D.C. as
part of the Blues Aesthetic exhibition in 1989. The billboard featured
Jackson in whiteface and was meant as a critique of those Democrats who
feared that Jackson's "Rainbow Coalition" would split the
black vote. As the billboard was being installed several black passersby
found the image of a white-faced Jackson, being erected by an all-white
crew, insulting. They returned with sledge-hammers and destroyed the piece.
This project provides an instructive example of the ways in which a discursively-based
Littoral practice differs from gallery-based strategies, which assume
that the physical object "in and of itself" carries sufficient
meaning. There was no attempt by the sponsoring institution at discursive
interaction with the "public" on whom this billboard would be
imposed. Part of the difficulty lies in the ambiguity of Hammons'
piece. "How you like me now?" could be a way of saying that
Jackson was an "Uncle Tom" who was willing to play white to
gain Democratic support just as easily as it could be taken as a criticism
of Democrats who feared Jackson's blackness. On the streets of a
formerly black DC neighborhood which was undergoing gentrification (in
part encouraged by the activities of white artists and arts institutions),
the fact that it was perceived as a provocation is hardly surprising.
This makes Dedeaux's citation of the work in her image all the more
questionable. Dedeaux displays an almost instinctive affinity for conservative
views on race. Here she transforms Hammons' image, which was intended
as an indictment of the suppressed racism of the Democratic party, into
a caustic lamentation on the effects of reverse racism, in which she portrays
herself as the oppressed victim of mean-spirited critics who attacked
her solely on the basis of her skin color.
3. Critical Pedagogy and the Politically Coherent Community
As I've suggested, the antinomy between empathy and negation can
be at least partially resolved by recourse to a discursive aesthetic which
conceives of the artist primarily as a collaborator in dialogue rather
than an expressive agent. Here the artist's identity is tested and
transformed by intersubjective experience, rather than being fortified
against it. The "artist" occupies a socially constructed position
of privileged subjectivity, reinforced by both institutional sponsorship
and deeply imbedded cultural connotations. It is the achievement of Littoral
practitioners to work to mitigate the effects of these associations as
much as possible, and to open up and equalize the process of dialogical
exchange. This process is most easily facilitated in those cases in which
the artist collaborates with a politically coherent community, that is,
with a community or collectivity that has, through its own internal processes,
achieved some degree of coherence, and a sense of its own political interests,
and is able to enter into a discursive collaboration on more equal footing.
This is perhaps the most effective way in which to avoid the problems
posed by the "salvage" paradigm in which the artist takes on
the task of "improving" the implicitly flawed subject. My intention
here is not to idealize "community" per se. As I have written
elsewhere, any process of community formation is based on some degree
of violence and negation (of those individual characteristics that are
seen as extraneous to a given community's common values or ideals).19
Further, it is by now something of a commonplace to define "community"
as an ongoing process, rather than a fixed and closed entity. But my question
here is less theoretical than strategic; what role does the artist, as
a singularly privileged cultural figure, play relative to this process?
It is precisely the belief that the artist can somehow "create"
community through a superior aesthetic power or relate to a given social
or cultural collective from a transcendent or aesthetically autonomous
position, which I would want to question.
Although artists can clearly function as co-participants in the formation
of specific communities, they are also limited by the historical moment
in which they live, and the extent to which existing social and political
circumstances favor or preclude this formation. An exemplary case in this
regard would be Peter Dunn and Loraine Leeson's work during the 1980s
with the Docklands Community Poster Project, which they developed in direct
consultation and collaboration with tenants action groups, local councils
and so on. This work was produced during a period of widespread political
mobilization in response to Thatcherite programs for economic "redevelopment"
that posed a serious threat to poor and working class neighborhoods in
East London. This period also coincided, fortuitously, with the development
of extremely innovative forms of arts patronage through the Greater London
Council. The fact that the larger battle against Docklands development
failed is less relevant here than the fact that the structural conditions
for an activist cultural practice existed at the time that made it possible
for Dunn and Leeson to produce works through a process of ongoing collaborative
dialogue with a wide range of community groups.
Unfortunately the last fifteen years have seen a drastic change in activist
politics in the U.S. and England. We live in a period of diminishing expectations,
in which left organizations have in many cases taken up an accomodationist
relationship to conservative policies, and in which the imaginative reach
of activist politics has been severely restricted. The system of public
support for activist work has been seriously eroded in the U.S., and a
growing number of artists interested in Littoralist practices have to
rely on private foundation support, or alliances with private sector institutions.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to survive as an artist working primarily
through grass-roots political organizations. Increasingly artists are
forced to develop strategic relationships with ancillary institutions
such as public schools, prisons, and economic redevelopment agencies.
Obviously these institutions are far more ambivalently positioned relative
to the collective interests of poor or working class communities. Specifically,
they function by defining community members through regulatory categories
such as "at risk youth", "drug addicts", or "the
homeless" which implicate the artist in a highly problematic chain
of associations about their culpability as political and cultural agents.
A typical example of this tendency is seen in Jim Hubbard's peripatetic
Shooting Back project, which began in 1988 with ex-UPI photographer Hubbard
working with homeless children in the Washington, D.C. area to "document
their lived experience as a means of personal empowerment." The project
has been transported into a variety of other sites, including, in 1994,
the Shooting Back From the Reservation series produced with Native American
children in the west and southwest. Hubbard's press release for this
project begins with a series of shocking statistics regarding unemployment
rates among Native Americans and ends with a reference to the high incidence
of alcoholism and suicide among reservations populations. Lurking just
beneath the surface of Hubbard's description is the assumption that
Native Americans exist in a classic "culture of poverty" in
which the most significant barrier to their advancement isn't the
absence of jobs, substandard schools or poor housing, but their lack of
self-esteem, evidenced by their recourse to suicide and alcoholism. Hubbard
himself substantiates this view. When he asked why he teaches children
how to use cameras when what they really need is shelter his response
was: "Housing won't be enough. Self-esteem is a big issue, particularly
with children. Mastering the camera and seeing their own images in print
have boosted their confidence." The project's effects are consistently
described in terms of its remedial effect on truant youth. Thus, according
to a press release: "children who experienced problems in regular
school classrooms. . . are showing improvement in school work habits"
due to the Shooting Back program. Or alternately, "children have
been motivated to be productive in other school activities" because
the Shooting Back program "contributes to their sense of self-confidence
and accomplishment." Instead of addressing the structural conditions
of Native American poverty Hubbard will "empower" them with
the "self-esteem" necessary to succeed in the work-place by
allowing them to temporarily inhabit the privileged subjectivity of the
artist documenting the world around them.
It is necessary to bear in mind here the increasingly conflictive role
played by the public school system in the U.S. as a training ground for
service sector and low-level technology employers. In northern Idaho,
where I lived for the last two years, plans are under way to eliminate
world history, geography, reading and even computer class requirements
from the high school curriculum so that students can have more "flexibility
for career-oriented electives." According to curriculum director
Hazel Bauman, "What we are hearing from business and industry is
that the large majority of kids who do not get baccalaureate degrees need
to come out of high school with a good basis in technical skills."
A plan currently being developed by the Coeur d'Alene Chamber of
Commerce involves having local public school teachers spend their summer
vacations working as "interns" at local businesses, like fast
food restaurants or mines, in order to help them understand what these
businesses need in students. According to band teacher Kevin Cope, "We're
getting our students ready to go out and work for these corporations.
We need to know what to teach them."
The Shooting Back project takes for granted the fatalistic political horizons
of current conservative rhetoric; the best that can be hoped is to give
Native American children the "self esteem" needed to stay sober
and get to MacDonalds on time in the morning. Clearly there is nothing
wrong with teaching kids how to use a camera. But why can't these
technical skills be joined with some form of pedagogy which would help
to encourage the formation of a critical consciousness of their situation
within the current political economy? One of the most important characteristics
of the aesthetic lies in its power to critically comprehend a cultural
or social totality, and to think beyond its limitations. There is no sense
of this kind of vision in Hubbard's project - no sense that he
is conscious of working in and through an ideological apparatus that is
precisely intended to circumvent the formation of a collective political
identity among young Native Americans. Hubbard's decision to work
with children is justified on the basis that they represent the "future"
of Native American culture, but children are also far less likely to challenge
Hubbard's own presuppositions regarding their own poverty. Children
are typically selected by artists such as Dedeaux and Hubbard because
they present themselves as more malleable subjects, less resistant to
the impress of the artists' transformative power. But this is hardly
a relationship that is likely to encourage any significant discursive
equity or exchange.
We see this same failure of self-reflection in the recent National Endowment
for the Arts' "American Canvas" report which attempts to
insulate the NEA from future conservative attack by aligning it with programs
designed to improve the poor and working class. In some of the more unintentionally
amusing passages in the report Richard Deasy, director of the "Goals
2000 Arts Education Partnership", evokes the image of a rigorous,
hard-headed art that isn't afraid to roll up its shirt sleeves and
get things done. Deasy calls for an art based on "mastery" and
"substantive, disciplined study." This "muscular"
art can provide America's disadvantaged with the "self-esteem"
that they are so obviously lacking, and can help them build the "workplace
skills needed to ensure their own employability and their ability to make
solid economic contributions to their communities." Having jettisoned
its sissified ways on the cultural Nordic Track this manly art will "suffuse"
itself "throughout the civic structure," according to Olson,
"finding a home in a variety of community service and economic development
These calls for a socially-engaged art are combined with a palpable fear
among many of the contributors of calling too much attention to the political
implications of this stance. In this context, the un-self-consciousness
with which a number of participants in the public "American Canvas
Forums" spoke of establishing friendly "partnerships" with
the criminal justice system, urban renewal and economic redevelopment
agencies, Enterprise Zones, and proponents of "cultural tourism"
was truly astounding. The compromised function of these various institutions,
relative to the interests of the poor, the working class, and people of
color has, one would think, been well established, yet they are here viewed
as nothing more than politically neutral vehicles for a pragmatic and
non-ideological form of cultural activism.
In addition to their widely advertised positive effects, projects such
as Hubbard's have the effect of encouraging children to believe that
self-motivation and determination are the necessary conditions for progress;
that it is "up to them" to succeed through the personal spark
of creativity that will be unleashed by the art-making experience. When
Hubbard's students are unable to start careers as UPI photographers
who will be at fault? The project doesn't give them a way to understand
the contradictory nature of their own status as "underprivileged"
subjects in the first place - the very status that the artist depends
on, and takes for granted, in choosing to work with them. It does little
to help them develop a political critique of their own condition as "at
risk youth" which might lead them to ask why the reservation has
to fight for the crumbs of philanthropy and depend on well-intentioned
artists to favor them with their projects in the first place. There is,
in short, little space left open in these projects for the kind of emancipatory
political vision that is a central feature of Littoral practice.
This criticism brings us back to the questions of individualism and anti-systematic
thought that I outlined earlier as part of the current political and cultural
context. For me the "indeterminateness" of a discursive aesthetic
is not simply the condition of open-ended dialog, it also refers to the
ability to think beyond or outside of the existing, constrained horizons
of neo-liberal discourse which takes global capitalism, economic inequality,
an individualized moral economy, "sustainable" levels of environmental
destruction and so on as given conditions. When compared to the political
climate of the 1920's, or even the 1960's this represents a
deplorably impoverished range of options - the "end of ideology"
real politik of NAFTA and the IMF. The demise of the USSR and the Berlin
Wall is widely taken as a justification to dismiss any form of systematic
critique as inherently "Stalinist". Yet I would contend that
this is precisely where the transgressive powers of Littoral practice,
and of a dialogical aesthetic, are most needed today.
1 Wendy Steiner, The Scandal of Pleasure: Art in an Age of Fundamentalism
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), p.7.
2 There are a few exceptions here, including writings by Carol Becker,
Hal Foster, Suzi Gablik, Suzanne Lacy and Lucy Lippard, among others.
3 Ken Johnson, "A post-retinal documenta," Art in America, vol.85,
no.10 (October 1997), pp.80-88.
4 Some of the ideas presented here are taken from a forthcoming book project,
Words that Hear: Discourse and Counter-Discourse in Modern Art.
5 Jean-François Lyotard, "What is Postmodernism?," The
Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1984), p.76.
6 Grant Kester, "Rhetorical Questions: The Alternative Arts Sector
and the Imaginary Public" in Art, Activism and Oppositionality: Essays
from Afterimage, edited by Grant Kester (Durham, North Carolina: Duke
University Press, 1998).
7 See "Art and Objecthood" in Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood:
Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp.148-172.
8 Barnett Newman, "The First Man was an Artist" (1947) reprinted
in Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Charles Harrison
and Paul Wood, editors (Blackwell: London, 1992), p.568.
9 David Smith, "Aesthetics, the Artist and the Audience" (1952),
reprinted in Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas,
10 According to David Dillon, in the June 1994 issue of Planning, one-third
of all new communities being built in Southern California, Phoenix, Florida
and the suburbs of Washington, D.C. are "gated." Along with
the gates come surveillance cameras, infrared sensors, guard dogs, private
police patrols and even barbed wire. These communities frequently privatize
many of the functions previously performed by a local or municipal governments,
such as trash collection, the provision of utilities, and even education.
11 For a particularly egregious example of this see a recent op-ed. piece
by James K. Glassman a "fellow" at the Conservative American
Enterprise Institute. In "From War to Art" (Washington Post,
January 6, 1998), Glassman makes a virtue out of low voter turn-outs and
the media's failure to report on domestic policy (in favor of stories
such as Princess Diana's death and the "little girl in Texas"
who fell into a well), which he attributes to the fact that "lots
of people are happy" and thus don't really care about government
anymore. Although "poverty, ignorance and pathology" still exist
(the latter perhaps being a reference to arguments about the depraved
or criminalized poor), the majority of Americans are using their new-found
happiness to "read, listen to music and look at pictures". He
cites as evidence the presence of "enthusiastic crowds" at a
recent Richard Diebenkorn exhibition at the Whitney, praising Diebenkorn's
"beautiful, sane and rhythmic" paintings.
12 Dinesh D'Souza, The End of Racism: Principles for a Multiracial
Society, (New York: Free Press, 1995).
13 The institutional expression of this ethos is found in the privileged
legal status granted to private corporations in the U.S. as fictive "individuals",
which was first established by railroad monopolies in an 1886 Supreme
Court decision (Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad).
14 Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence
and Class Structure in American Life, (New York: Free Press, 1994).
15 On the relationship between this view and contemporary community-based
art practices see Grant Kester, "Aesthetic Evangelists: Conversion
and Empowerment in Contemporary Art," Afterimage 22:6 (January 1995),
16 See Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty (Los Angeles:
Art Issues Press, 1993).
17 Eric Alterman, "Making One and One Equal Two," The Nation,
May 25, 1998, p.10.
18 David Wellbery, Lessing's Laocoön: Semiotics and Aesthetics
in the Age of Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p.165.
19 See the "Rhetorical Questions" essay cited above (note 5).