An open letter to the organizers of the Art & Social Change panel at New College of Florida’s All Power to the Imagination! conference:
Our cast of characters:
Panelist #1 (Austin McCann): author of this letter, panel participant, SDaS participant
Panelist #2 (Susan Parenti): panel participant, SDaS organizer
Panelist #3: Acclaimed young writer & current undergraduate philosophy student, writing his thesis on 20th century Marxist theory
Panelist #4: Queer/feminist/Latina-(identified) artist of political art products (e.g. posters, zines)
Panelist #5: Contemporary artist & co-organizer of a non-political* art gallery in Miami
Panelist #6: Editor of a non-political art magazine (not mentioned in article)
To whom it may concern:
I’m writing to thank you for inviting me and Susan Parenti to speak on the Art & Social Change panel at New College. I hope you found our performances helpful towards fostering a context for challenging formulations (i.e. articulating formulations that are challenging as well as challenging other folks’ formulations). The School for Designing a Society posits that disagreement is desirable; Herbert Brun said that “agreement is a non-violent way to make another person superfluous.” He wrote some pretty wonderful stuff about communication, “anti-communication,” and other matters relevant to Susan’s and my performances on the panel. But yes, we value disagreement, we value challenging people to articulate new ideas and new(ly articulated) wounds to create climates of ‘intellectual vulnerability.’ In the workshop I said that we played with a dialectic of friction and care: while desiring friction (disagreement), we’re also not interested in that because we have chaos boners: we believe that caring for social wounds is a critical part of desirable social design.
So when Susan challenged Panelist #3 on his aesthetic theory, or when I said that I disagreed with Panelist #5 on the character of technology in capitalist society, or Panelist #4 didn’t like that I used the word “pedagogical” — in these moments, when everyone got all weird, you should understand that that response comes from an academic climate opposed to meaningful conversation (which includes disagreement). In my experience, most New College professors aren’t oriented towards challenging their students to really articulate why they think the things they think, say the things they say, and do the things they do, but challenging students/people in this way is actually a pretty great tool towards learning to take yourself and your impact on the world seriously. Susan’s dramatic appeal to the will to desire of the other panelists and audience members garnered the panel’s only applause, but her interruptions of the terribly long-winded others on the panel curried her no favors with the audience, who seemed neurotically terrified of disagreement.
Some of the questions implied by these first two paragraphs: What are the characteristics of a desirable panel? Do we want to cultivate disagreement between parties, or have everyone say their piece, then go home?
“Playing” close attention to the “art & social change question” is important, and if I can extrapolate a theory from attendance, it seems to be of popular interest (unless folks had nothing better to do on a Saturday night or Panelist #3 has a huge fan club)! It’s a question that brings with it a lot of boring clichés from activists, artists, and those who refuse to acknowledge the significance of either art or activism or the meaningful relation between the two, but that makes it your job, ye facilitators of the panel, to design against the possibility of clichés or ignorant comments.
Small idea: I think that next time (and there should be a next time, and I would love to participate as much as you want) you should invite people who actually care about social change. Poor Panelist #5! I think she felt a little hoodwinked during the panel. She seemed prepared to talk about the “politics of art” or some such thing, but she definitely has no interest or experience in making art that is interested in creating a social (i.e. political) conversation. (Although I would argue that all art does that, but she at least doesn’t seem intentional designing around political consequences). I’m being sincere here. She was out of her element. It would be like putting me on an art history panel: I might have some opinions merely as a guy who does something sort-of-connected to it, but I definitely don’t have a whole thing about it.
And Panelist #3 would have been, in my opinion, more useful talking as the exceptional artist he is than as some college philosophy student. Apparently he was articulating some sort of version of “Frankfurt School” philosophy: the irony there being that the School for Designing a Society comes directly out of the Frankfurt School – Herbert Brun worked closely with Adorno, and Frankfurt School philosophy has been an important orientation in our work (find Dr. Rob Scott’s recent doctoral dissertation for evidence).
And so radical philosophy isn’t just a thing to talk about in classrooms and panels — you can actually do meaningful work with it (but don’t tell universities that or they’ll lose their perpetual underclass of cynically-educated unemployed elites)! Panelist #3’s aesthetic orientation is probably not dissimilar from ours (though you couldn’t tell from his cool nihilist posturing), but we operate in radically different contexts, viz. Susan and I do stuff with our philosophy, Panelist #3 studies philosophy in college. And let’s be real about what kinds of logic those distinct contexts generate. When we are in a system, such as the university system, and we don’t have a cybernetic awareness, we forget that systems want to perpetuate themselves. To that end, they solve the problems that assail them, perpetuate the problems that they profit from, and generally love to promote non-threatening ideas. The university system solves the problem of theory radicalizing thought radicalizing action by creating a neat, safe context for that theory to exist w/o implying any necessary action.
And Susan was right when she asked Panelist #3 “who benefits from that idea [i.e. that art is ultimately a private/individual aesthetic relation],” because aesthetic theories are connected to the societies in which they are generated (Panelist #3 said that very thing at the start of his first comment) and when an “anti-political” aesthetic theory like the one that Panelist #3 casually tossed off (Harold Bloom’s conjecture that art shouldn’t concern itself with social consequences) is articulated by someone representing a dominating class in our society, as Harold Bloom is, we need to acknowledge and critique that!
My point is that social change is not a marketing tool, it’s not some cute little academic notion to deconstruct in the safe, politically protected halls of academia, and it’s not some annoyance for “pure” artists to deal with. Social change is the process by which we end preventable suffering. I don’t think it’s every artist’s responsibility to do anything – I don’t believe in universal mandates, not just on political grounds but because they’re unrealistic. Art does lots of stuff for lots of people. Fine. And there are some artists who are “apolitical” (meaning refusing to engage their art in social conversations) whose work is wonderful to me, such as Matisse or the American abstract expressionists. I think putting them on an “Art & Social Change” panel would be a mistake, but I value their work.
Anyway, I’m taking this opportunity to respond as an invitation to reflect personally on the question of “Art & Social Change,” and I hope you’ve found some value in it, too.
*NB: I use the terms “political art” and “non-political art” in reference to an artist’s intentions, not social consequences. I use “non-political art” to point to artists who aren’t interested in the social consequences of their work. “Political art” is a more complicated term: some “political artists,” I would argue, do not care about the social consequences of their work, either … but that’s a conversation for another time.