Tag Archives: Pablo Helguera

Knowledge – Tech – Identity

“The cleanest expression is that which finds no sphere worthy of itself and makes one”

-Walt Whitman, “Preface” the 1855 Edition of Leaves of Grass

“Instead of critiquing the current system, you have to make a new system that will render the previous system superfluous or irrelevant. So as artists we need to build institutions, we need to be institutional.”

-Pablo Helguera

Allow me to circle back to Nick’s question about Sommer’s reference to the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, who used the terms ‘War of Position’ and “War of Manoeuvre” to describe two different phases in the class struggle. The “War of Manoeuvre” is a phase of open conflict between classes with the outcome determined by direct clashes between revolutionaries and the State. The “War of Position” is an incremental hidden conflict where forces seek to gain influence and power.

It is interesting to think with the war of position metaphor when considering the question of cultural agency and identity in digital networks. Interested? Well, consider this: on Thursday, April 6, at 4:00pm, in Rhodes S203, Dr. Bonnie Stewart, from the University of Prince Edward Island, will present “Digital Identities and Citizenship: Leading in the Open.” Here is a description of the talk, which I hope you will consider attending:

Today, the issue of digital citizenship is paramount to how we think about citizenship generally. How can we teach our students to utilize the web in addressing social and political problems and in creating healthy, responsible communities? How do we get our students to think about who they are when they are online? Who is responsible for teaching our students about web literacy and fact checking?

Stewart’s work investigates the intersections of knowledge, technology, and identity, and what networks mean for institutions. She examines networked scholarship, digital literacies, the tensions between open and closed learning practices, and the changing realities of contemporary higher education. Her research also explores community and issues of equity and influence in digital networks and digital publics, and examines the implications of social media models for learning.

Stewart is a founder and leader of the Antigonish 2.0 movement– a global, networked project on community capacity-building through a lens of citizenship and media literacies to address the current information ecosystem. It’s a global, networked project, working to build an open resource hub and a model for community adaptation…anywhere, anytime. Antigonish2 is based in the adult education tradition of the Antigonish Movement in Maritime Canada. Also see Ragged University and the Babel Working Group for comparable models.

If you are second-guessing your project, there is definitely one lurking here!

Method Imagination Inquiry

Over the next few weeks our work will be defining and pursuing a project that will represent and discuss the impact of creative social practices in the open space of democracy. We will also be reading and discussing your work with theorists and practitioners who have thought about these questions, including Doris Sommer and Pablo Helguera, to refine the method we are using to conduct our intellectual work.

On Tuesday of this week we need to get to work on outlining our work and setting up the relationship between individual and collective responsibilities. And by Thursday (or Friday) we want to have in place a concept and an outline for completing our work.

Our reading in Sommer and Helguera provides a stimulating context for what you decide you are going to do. Your efforts, as I have  explained on a number of occasions, is to bring to light the practice of democratic culture. A focus on the “work of art” in the world should not trip you up, as we are moving to find examples of what Sommer calls Schiller’s  “daring proposition” that “creativity and aesthetic judgment are foundations for democracy” (9). Over the next few weeks we will be apprentices to this idea that Sommers connects to Fredrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794).

Among the reasons we are reading Sommer is that she is really clear about the contribution of the kind of critical work we are practicing as students of culture. She quotes Dewey, in fact, the memorable last words from a book we sampled, Art as Experience,

We lay hold of the full import of art only as we go through in our own vital processes the processes the artist went through in producing the work. It is the critic’s privilege to share in the promotion of this active process. His condemnation is that he so often arrests it

The other thing we are doing, of course, is American Studies. This work is examining subjects and problems that normally belong to other disciplines.  Helguera elegantly, and for me convincingly, explains how art as social practice involves community engagement, dialogue, and conversation. Examples of this kind of practice involve pedagogy (Paulo Friere, in this case), performance and performance studies, sociology, ethnography, literary studies, cultural studies, women’s studies, linguistics, art and art history, political science, and the public humanities.

The work of criticism depends on thinking–creative, critical, however you want to describe it. For Sommer, critical thinking “is both a condition of and a complement to art making-world making in Dewey’s pragmatic and democratizing sense of art as experience-that sparks more exploration and more experience” (10). This is helpful information. It is one way around the debilitating arrest of thought that leaves us where we are. It is a reminder that all of us are creative artists and citizens, if we choose to be, in that creative democracy Dewey imagined, and that we continue to struggle to enact every day.

Helguera: Process & Product

In the Introduction to Art and Citizenship, a special issue of artpractical, the editor Kara Q. Smith writes that the seven contributors “consider how citizenship relates to cultural and political systems as they intersect with artistic practices, institutions, and diverse publics.” This statement is useful as we move into the second half of the semester: it brings into focus the relation between social institutions (such as politics), institutions (such as art), practice (making), and audiences (the public).

Before class on Tuesday you will have read two brief pieces, the Blog Entry “Education for Socially Engaged Art” by Pablo Helguera and Interview with Pablo Helguera. In the excerpt from Education for Socially Engaged Art, he gives examples of art that is politically or socially motivated but that acts through the representation of ideas or issues. A useful distinction for us is between actual vs. symbolic practice. His interest is in works that are not about social change but rather embody social change. He is creating space to describe cultural activity that, in his words, “exists somewhere between art and non-art.”

Another way to describe this distinction is between process (the actual practice) and product (symbolic practice). He goes on to say,

These are works that are designed to address social or political issues only in an allegorical, metaphorical, or symbolic level (for example, a painting about social issues is not very different than a public art project that claims to offer a social experience but only does so in a symbolic way such as the ones just described above). The work does not control a social situation in an instrumental and strategic way in order to achieve a specific end.

Helguera then elaborates an intellectual genealogy for this distinction:

This distinction is partially based on Jurgen Habermas’s work The Theory of Communicative Action (1981). In it Habermas argues that social action (an act constructed by the relations between individuals) is more than a mere manipulation of circumstances by an individual to obtain a desired goal (that is, more than just the use of strategic and instrumental reason. He instead favors what he describes as communicative action, a type of social action geared to communication and understanding between individuals that can have a lasting effect on the spheres of politics and culture as a true emancipatory force. (6-7)

It may also be  useful to reference an interview with Helen Reed, A Bad Education, in which Helguera explains further the problem with creating a restrictive definition of art:

Art, for better or for worse, continues to be this playing field that is defined by its capacity to redefine itself. You cannot say, “This is not art!” because tomorrow it could be, or “It can be art,” because I say it is. Art is a space, which we have created, where we can cease to subscribe to the demands and the rules of society; it is a space where we can pretend. We can play, we can rethink things, we can think about them backwards.

Instead of critiquing the current system, you have to make a new system that will render the previous system superfluous or irrelevant. So as artists we need to build institutions, we need to be institutional.

One of the most useful ways to think with Helguera is to discover his productive relationship to institutions and systems. So much of our language and discourse about art and social practice assumes an oppositional stance. You will hear people talking about critiquing and “blowing up” institutions or whatever. (By the way, as readers of what Emerson says about institutions you have an intellectual context for these thoughts.) In an Interview with curator Yulia Tikhonova published in Idiom, Helguera is asked whether it is possible to work in an institution such as a museum and at the same time be engaged in institutional critique. Here is his response:

I believe that institutions are nothing but collections of individuals. If you would agree with that, then you would need to agree that because one can be critical with oneself, of course there could be criticality within institutions too. It’s true that one lacks perspective, but at the same time internal debate is key to informing our decisions–which also applies to individuals and institutions. Otherwise we would just behave erratically being told what to do by a wide random group of opinions.

Furthermore, I would argue that inasmuch as we are implicated in a system–in this case the art system–we all belong to the larger institution of art. To behave like an absolute outsider is an illusion. Just think about what we say to people who hate contemporary art who have absolute no background or knowledge: we simply dismiss them as ignorant. I believe that complete outsider-ness in the field of art is an illusion. Finally, the notion of institution is relative: some major artists are institutions, and in fact their staff in their studios is larger than the staff of a small museum. Yet we maintain the myth that artists are lone rangers and museums are monolithic, faceless and powerful forces.

Before we gather on Tuesday please do the reading, give these ideas some thought, and fold these ideas into your thinking about a final project.

Fascinated by this conversation, and want to read more? Have a look at the Blog Posts by Helguera on the Inside/Out Blog at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) that he wrote as Director of Adult and Academic Programs.