The Social Turn - Claire Bishop - Response to LeisureArts

Related LeisureArts posts:
Grant Kester - Artforum - Claire Bishop
Claire Bishop - Aesthetic/Ethical - Critical Modalities
Maria Lind - Tactical/Agnostic - Ted Purves
ARTFORUM - New Art Practices - Cross Pollination

In a recent interview (Socially Engaged Art, Critics and Discontents: An Interview with Claire Bishop), Claire Bishop is asked about the initial LeisureArts response to her much discussed article "The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents." In her answer she displays a fundamental misunderstanding of our position and continues to display a rather conservative notion of what forms of cultural production are valid or "consequential." The full text of the exchange:

Your article stimulated a lot of conversation. One discussion on the Web, in LeisureArts blog, raised a compelling point. The writer said:

I think (Bishop) misses something very important … namely that many of these practices might be better served by not considering them via art critical methodologies at all. There are a number of forms of cultural production that might call for new theoretical tools to interpret properly … I suspect there are many people operating in the domain of art discourse because they have nowhere else to go, even though their interest in connections to an art historical lineage is ancillary at best.

What do you think of this?

CB: I completely agree that turning to other disciplines can help to sharpen our mode of discussion about works of art, particularly those that step into the social arena. Political philosophy and psychoanalysis have helped me to articulate my reservations about the political claims made for relational aesthetics. I am currently looking at sociology as a way to be more precise about the idea of "inclusion" and "participation" in socially engaged art. The task is to bind these ideas together in a discussion of the work’s overall meaning as art.

But what this quote implies – and which I resist very strongly – is the idea that art is the "last place" to go for engagement, that it is the only remaining "free space." This idea is dangerous and lazy. It signals a retreat from the political, rather than the invention and assertion of new territories. It is fine for socially engaged and activist work to operate within the domain of art discourse, providing it also contributes something to that discourse (which actually does have an art historical lineage – think of Situationism, Joseph Beuys, Group Material…). It is comparable to a practice-led PhD: the practical work and the theoretical text both have to be PhD standard, equally important contributions to the field. But if the claims for transdisciplinarity are to be taken seriously, then these projects should also function within other discourses too. The situation I would want to avoid is of inconsequential practices that make no impact on either field.

Notice how she agrees with us before qualifying her answer by declaring our idea "dangerous and lazy." Now obviously being called lazy is hardly something that bothers the LeisureArts team, but dangerous?

To clarify, LeisureArts is not at all interested in "turning to other disciplines to sharpen" discussions of art. As should be clear to regular readers of this blog, art is only interesting to us in that it allows people to escape the rigidity of academic disciplinarity. It offers, rather imperfectly, the "invention and assertion of new territories" that Bishop complains we are retreating from. Her interpretation couldn't be more wrongheaded. We say "imperfectly" precisely because of Bishop's (and many others) continued refusal, or inability to, allow "new territories" to be invented. She argues quite forcefully against it by subsuming hybrid/relational/social/littoral art practices to the dictates of a "PhD standard" and insisting that they contribute to art discourse rather than allowing true "transdisiplinarity" to occur.

Bishop seems to be thinking about either "inter" or "multi" disciplinarity rather than transdisciplinarity. In both of the former iterations, practices and knowledge are exchanged, but disciplinary authority ultimately remains untouched. In transdisciplinary practices, cultural production is not confined to proscribed professional standards, but allowed to be in dynamic flux with regard to form and content of research and activity (these distinctions are informed by Florian Waldvogel's essay "Each One Teach One").

Although we admire Bishop's attempt in "The Social Turn" to challenge the critical orthodoxy around relational art, she really wants to assert and even greater restriction on how to negotiate the complexities of new forms of cultural production. She wants the nature of these activities to be neatly inscribed within existing critical and academic frameworks rather than allowing them to form new networks of meaning, or new forms of thoughtful engagement. Nothing could be clearer than her continual assertions of the importance of rehabilitating these wayward activities "as art." She seeks to contain them, or as she puts it, "The task is to bind these ideas together in a discussion of the work’s overall meaning as art." The use of the word "bind" here is instructive - it means, among other things, to restrict, to oblige, and to constipate. LeisureArts believes quite strongly that continuing to "bind" new avenues of cultural engagement to the safe and often stale strictures of art historical/critical discourse is truly "lazy."