Sentiments & Strategies

Sean Joseph Patrick Carney

Originally appeared in OE Rogue on May 14th, 2011

OE Rogue was a daily publication edited by Brennan Broome and Chloe Womack as part of Portland State University’s Open Engagement Conference on Social Practice Art 2011. This essay appeared as an opinion piece on day two of the conference in response to one of the conference's core themes, "Sentiments and Strategies."

Sentiments and strategies… shit.  It’s not that I actively try to think like a dick.  On the contrary, I genuinely am interested a great deal in the idea of art practices that engage the social sphere and inherently act as contemporary challenges to capital-based art economies.  In theory, the notion of Social Practice sounds fucking legit.  But after perusing this year’s core themes for the Open Engagement Conference, I’m once again faced with my own hang-ups and remain somewhat unconvinced that the work in this arena is actually effective in practice.  Something of which I’m constantly reminding myself though is that this genre, a sub-genre of the larger umbrella of Relational Aesthetics, is still in a kind of adolescent phase.  Still, what’s difficult for me to comprehend right now is why it comes across less like a pimpled, snot-nosed bastard in a Vandals t-shirt throwing rocks through windows, and more like the kid who spends his weekend helping his mother pick out potting soil and patio bricks at the local Home Depot.

I remember the works of art that really got me hot and bothered about being an artist.  Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, Duchamp’s Fountain and Chris Burden getting shot paralleled nicely my own obsessions with the Sex Pistols, lighting paper bags of shit on fire on my neighbors’ porches in Northern Michigan and punching my best friends in the stomach while drunk for sport.  Despite the art historical canonization of the aforementioned works, considering the complete audacity of their geneses in the context of their respective times forced me to wonder what the fuck I was accomplishing spray painting on walls where I knew I’d never be caught.  This is not a prescriptive judgment suggesting that art should necessarily be dangerous or transgressive.  But I’m honestly at a loss for what lasting legacy can come from inviting individuals to forage dates and dandelions in their neighborhood when they have sufficient income to purchase groceries.  I don’t want to drink beer with you and create a social exchange, I want to drink beer and get drunk because I work all fucking week.

As a result of my apprehension towards socially engaged art practices, I’ve been called both jaded and pessimistic.  Neither of these labels bothers me if they are applied in terms of my perspective on global politics or the larger human condition, but they seem a bit unfair to me in regards to my relationship to art.  Instead, I’d like to think that I maintain a healthy distrust of projects that ask me to submit a daily cell phone pic to a blog, because I don’t want to make your fucking art for you.  As most artists know, it’s not exactly an easy task to maintain a legitimate studio practice while you tackle the numerous obligations of the real world.  So when an artist is staging a dinner event and asks that I contribute by bringing along a dish to pass, I feel a bit slighted.  I’m already participating by showing up, bro.  It would be generally considered tacky if I were to advertise a new exhibition of my paintings and then ask that you bring a couple by to pitch in for the home team. 

The issue that I take personally with the theme “Sentiments and Strategies” is that I liken an artist strategizing to elicit feel-good responses from me with a kind of soft date rape.  Naturally, I’m being somewhat hyperbolic.  But humor me for a moment.  When an effective work of conceptual art is intentionally volatile or offensive, the educated response is to objectively identify the inherent social or cultural reflection and have a chuckle at those who cannot.  Meaning, the joke is on those who are unable to transcend their own taste or ignorance to see the larger critique.  I’m not talking here about bullshit shock art, but rather about artists whose work might employ ostensibly deplorable cultural modes of production to critique them (i.e. Santiago Sierra hiring day laborers to execute demeaning tasks).  So when an artist utilizes a strategy that seems to be asking me to make friends or share a fun story, my natural inclination is to feel apprehensive and question their motives.  We’re taught to engage art with a critical eye that investigates the multiple layers beyond the surface aesthetics, so it’s no wonder that so many people respond to friendly artists with immediate hesitation.  It’s the same reason we don’t trust monochromatic painting anymore.  You might have drunk the Kool-Aid, but I haven’t.

What I’d like to propose to contemporary artists using Social Practice strategies is a challenge of sorts.  We’ve all heard so many times the desire by artists to elevate the mundane or the everyday through a studio practice.  That’s not to say that reexamining the seemingly arbitrary aspects of our lives isn’t a viable approach to art-making.  When the social fabric of our daily lives is concerned though, I need a significantly larger amount of convincing.  Dinner, drinking and sharing memories are not aspects of my daily life that I take for granted.  I honestly need no reminder that the privilege to have access to sufficient food, spirits and camaraderie is to be valued.  Few people do.  What I need is for you to effectively demonstrate to me that your employment of these daily rituals is not because you lack basic technical skills.  Prove to me that it is a manifestation of a sincere and critical attempt to engage these rituals as a comment on social constructs of class, race and access to education. 

If you can promise to do this, I’ll promise to stop being such a dick.