Begin with the idea that creativity and aesthetic experience constitute what we have been calling democratic culture—an idea that emerges in the United States during the nineteenth century and that remains a vital element in our cultural life today.
As you work on your project statements and work plans for the next seven weeks it is important that you think with the awesome archive of reading you have completed this semester. Our class yesterday helped surface a range of project ideas that have potential. But it is imperative that you begin and then proceed with the idea of democratic culture that we have been defining and elaborating together for seven weeks.
Two weeks ago I posted For splendor, for extent, that begins with two epigraphs. The first, from which I take the title of the post, Emerson’s “The American Scholar.” The second is from Michel Foucault’s “On the Genealogy of Ethics: Report on a Work in Progress.” Both Emerson and Foucault are questioning cultural institutions and the horizons those institutions set for human life. Here is Foucault:
What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life. That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?
One of the challenges you are having is precisely this: wriggling out from under the domain of art as an exclusive place, of artists and experts. You will remember Whitman’s enacting precisely the answer to Foucault’s questions. Not that this is easy! Recall how Whitman framed the challenge of defining democratic culture. “We find ourselves abruptly in close quarters with the enemy,” he writes in “Democratic Vistas.” “This word Culture, or what it has come to represent, involves, by contrast, our whole theme, and has been, indeed, the spur, urging us to engagement.”
The word engagement has surfaced again and again in our reading—in the words of the philosopher John Dewey, in the essay and poems of Adrienne Rich, and in the commencement address Terry Tempest Williams delivered to the graduating class at the University of Utah in May of 2003.
In the “Prologue” to the book you are now reading, The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities, Doris Sommer refers to what she calls “a long tradition of democracy that develops side by side with aesthetics” (1). In a footnote to refers to the philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010). One of the arguments in that book is that democracy becomes tenuous when education is designed merely to produce economically productive workers. What is lost is the cultivation of those critical and creative capacities that make possible a democratic culture—the capacity to be active and thoughtful, or engaged.
Sommer’s thinking (alongside Pablo Helguera’s thinking) will help you think as you write your project statement. Consider these statements from the “Prologue”:
Through art we reframe experience, offset prejudice and refresh our perception of what exists so that it seems new and worthy of attention
Critical thinking is both a condition of and a compliment to art-making—world making in Dewey’s pragmatic and democratizing sense of art as experience—that sparks more exploration and more experience
Every project in this class will describe how something (object, practice, project, performance) does something, “reframe,” “offset,” “refresh,” to use a few of the many words we will use to describe the impact of creative social practice. Public art, food, music, wall murals, social movements, body art, artist collectives, art or cultural projects, built environments, natural landscapes, performances—in every case the question is the same: what it is the creative practice? What is the impact of the creative social practice?
Sommer is helpful for you in another way as well. In the context of Fredrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794) and Viktor Shklovsky’s Shklovsky Art as Technique (1913) her case study of Antanas Mockus and his “por amor al arte” (For the Love of Art) platform in Colombia offers a way of thinking about creative social practice. The idea here is that art is a way of intervening in normative practices or habits (perhaps think of the pantsuit flash mob) and so that people are thinking adaptively and creatively. In the chapter on Mockus and relational art Sommer elaborates on the idea of “defamiliarization”:
This is why bilingual and bicultural games are a source of endless fun and wisdom as they track the artful failures of language. Misunderstanding, intentional or not, is also why foreigners help keep democracy dynamic, by asking unlikely questions that stimulate justification or reform (27)
Are you tracking? Can you explain this insight? Social and cultural change is not here defined as a cause and effect, an instrumental solution to a discrete and definable problem. Rather the fun, in this case, or the stimulation, is precisely the point. Another way of talking about this is to hear the echo here of Dewey and his more capacious definition of art as a critical and creative activity. “Art thrives on nonconformity, exploration, expression, and the development of individuality” (48), with the qualification here (back to Foucault, Baldwin, Dewey, Whitman, Emerson, etc) that “art” is an experience available to all.
What you proposed to do in class is in no way binding. Your project proposal for next Tuesday, however, is going to set your course.
Your project is as easy (and as difficult) as one two three.
One: the idea of democratic culture. We have been circulating in this line of thinking since January.
Two: creative social practice. You have been wrestling with this idea for weeks and we now have dozens of examples that can help us to explain the places of art of interpretation in the public sphere.
Three: you are in the position of feeling the excitement of defining the social practice—whatever it is, a group of texts, the enactment of an idea, an urban space, a human practice such as eating together—and discovering the creative elements that promote the democratic arts of exchange, communication, and understanding.
For Tuesday, March 28, read Richard Rorty, Education as Socialization and as Individuation, from Philosophy and Social Hope (1999) and Sommer, Chapter Two: “Press Here: Cultural Acupuncture and Civic Stimulation,” 49-79, and Chapter Three: “Art and Accountability,” 81-105. These readings suggest the pedagogical element of creative social practice. Also remember your assignment: you will hand in a one-paragraph project description and a work plan for each of the weeks 11-16.
Do send ideas and thoughts my way. I’m here to help you move from where you are to where you are trying to be. I can also meet with anyone who would like to talk more about your project ideas.