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!

What’s the Story?

“Constitutional democracies are themselves collective works of art accountable for their constructions. And constitutions remain open to performative interventions, obliging citizens to cultivate their creativity and criticism” (104).

-Doris Sommer

The idea that a constitutional democracy is a cultural artifact has a history that the cultural historian Eric Slauter shares in the Introduction to The State as a Work of Art: The Cultural Origins of the Constitution (2009). Sommer’s adds that a constitutional democracy remains open to performative intervention—a reminder of the essential lesson of Emerson’s comment on political institutions, that “they all are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good; we may make better.” For Sommer, though, the point is the inherent obligation for “citizens to cultivate their creativity and criticism” in the open space of a democratic culture.

This week we continue reading of The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and the Public Humanities, specifically chapter five, “Play Drive in the Hard Drive: Schiller’s Poetics of Politics.” In chapter four, you will recall, Sommer advocates an “integrated approach to literacy, art, and civics” to develop “personal faculties and collective disposition for democratic life” (112). A productive way to consider the cultural activity you have taken as the subject of your project is to think about it in these terms: That is, what might happen when you think about the cultural activity as pedagogical—as a method of engaging the creative and critical faculties, stimulating the imagination, promoting the freedom to speculate?

Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, Sommer argues, provides a way of seeing the labor of creative work as engaging individuals in making judgments, speculating, exploring, and testing possibilities, “disarming hierarchies through cultural interventions” (149). These interventions, by reformers, artists, educators, citizens, as we talked about last week, disconnect us from routine habits, preconceptions, and expectations.

Another way to think about the cultural activity you have chosen is to think about it as a story or narrative. What’s the story? As the psychologist Jerome Bruner points out in The The Narrative Construction of Reality (1991), narratives are a form of describing and a form of constructing and understanding reality. As Kerrin might remind us, Bruner is a “constructivist,” and indeed his thinking about education may be useful.

Brunner’s thinking is useful for the study of lived experience, as well as for examining ways of being in and ways of knowing the world. Here is Brunner explaining the importance of narrative:

Another domain that must be widely (though roughly) shared for a culture to operate with requisite effectiveness is the domain of social beliefs and procedures—what we think people are like and how they must get on with each other. . . . These are domains that are, in the main, organized narratively. What I have tried to do in this paper is to describe some of the properties of a world of “reality” constructed according to narrative principles. In doing so, I have gone back and forth between describing narrative mental “powers” and the symbolic systems of narrative discourse that make the expression of these powers possible.

To make experience and to describe the world we subjectively construct a story of that experience and the world—both in terms of what it is, and what we think it ought to be. As Paulo Freire explains in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “To deny the importance of subjectivity in the process of transforming the world and history is naïve and simplistic” (qtd. in Sommer 139). At the same time, cultural narratives determine through discourse stories that help us make sense of our experience. For Sommer, however, creative activities and interpretation must engage individual citizens. “No enlightened masterpiece of the legislation can move people to identify with the state, unless each participant is already educated in the spirit of freedom that the state presumably represents.” This statement echoes Emerson, in the 1844 essay “New England Reformers,”

The criticism and attack on institutions which we have witnessed, has made one thing plain, that society gains nothing whilst a man, not himself renovated, attempts to renovate things around him: he has become tediously good in some particular, but negligent or narrow in the rest; and hypocrisy and vanity are often the disgusting result.

The call to cultivate creativity, and criticism, is a call for “self-renovation.”

What is the story? What is the cultural practice or performance or engagement and how does it make possible creativity and criticism?

 

 

Creativity and Critique

Patrick and I were in the archive this morning looking at the papers of the Reverend John Crocker. Rodney printed out Bryan Marquand’s 2012 obituary of Reverend Crocker that was published in the January 6th edition of The Boston Globe. The obituary includes a comment Crocker made to a Globe reporter in 1976. “We are responsible for what happens in this world,” he says. “It is possible for people to change, and there is time to change.”

This investment in the possibility of change not only animates the idea of democratic culture but is implied in what I am calling democratic literacy. What is it? How do we cultivate it?

9780813343297-400x600Reading Doris Sommer we are reminded of a Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, who took these questions seriously. His wonderful little book Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare Teach makes a case that teachers, and the institutions in which they work, are responsible for cultivating democracy. One of the most inspiring dimensions of Freire’s pedagogy was his suspicion of “the pedagogical populism that prefers easier engagements, because full citizenship requires high-order literacy” (112).

But how do we cultivate creativity and criticism in the open space of democracy?

 

One working answer is to explore the relationship between art and democracy, between creativity and criticism. I’m going to read ahead to the chapter in Sommer we will consider on Thursday where she addresses the relationship:

. . . .democratic life depends upon the dynamic between art-making and humanistic interpretation. This is no exaggeration. A disposition toward creativity and critique resists authoritarian single-mindedness; it acknowledges different points of view and multiple ways to arrange available material. Constitutional democracies are themselves collective works of art accountable for their constructions. And constitutions remain open to performative interventions, obliging citizens to cultivate their creativity and criticism (104).

The idea that a constitutional democracy is itself is a collective work of art, accountable to its making, calls attention to participatory and performative cultural activities—the “venture into the multifarious practices that make up culture, the range of cultures.

Whether in archives or outside of them, or whether in museums or in the streets, our cultural activities are constitutive of our democratic life. These activities made possible by an open cultural space and a spirit of creative interventions, critical conversations, and communicative actions. A vibrant democratic culture requires a continual effort to cultivate democratic literacy—the civic arts of creativity and criticism.

However, any conversation about democratic literacy raises fundamental questions about what we mean by learning, by education. Richard Rorty’s essay Education as Socialization and as Individuation, from his book Philosophy and Social Hope (1999), talks about the institutions that do this work, secondary schools and colleges. He talks about the cultural debates over cultural literacy and the confusion about a word “education” that refers to “two entirely distinct, and equally necessary, processes— socialization and individualization. Rorty then puts his cards on the table:

I think that the conservatives are wrong in thinking that we have either a truth-tracking faculty called ‘reason’ or a true self that education brings to consciousness. I think that the radicals are right in saying that if you take care of political, economic, cultural and academic freedom, then truth will take care of itself. But I think the radicals are wrong in believing that there is a true self that will emerge once the repressive influence of society is removed. There is no such thing as human nature, in the deep sense in which Plato and Strauss used this term. Nor is there such a thing as alienation from one’s essential humanity due to societal repression, in the deep sense made familiar by Rousseau and the Marxists. There is only the shaping of an animal into a human being by a process of socialization, followed (with luck) by the self-individualization and self-creation of that human being through his or her own later revolt against that very process.

He then draws out an interpretation of John Dewey’s contribution to our understanding of what education is, what it is for:

Dewey’s great contribution to the theory of education was to help us get rid of the idea that education is a matter of either inducing or educing truth. Primary and secondary education will always be a matter of familiarizing the young with what their elders take to be true, whether it is true or not. It is not, and never will be, the function of lower-level education to challenge the prevailing consensus about what is true. Socialization has to come before individuation, and education for freedom cannot begin before some constraints have been imposed.

We Deweyans think that the social function of American colleges is to help the students see that the national narrative around which their socialization has centred is an open-ended one. It is to tempt the students to take themselves into people who can stand to their own pasts as Emerson and Anthony, Debs and Baldwin, stood to their pasts. This is done by helping the students realize that, despite the progress that the present has made over the past, the good has once again become the enemy of the better. With a bit of help, the students will start noticing everything that is paltry and mean and unfree in their surroundings.

The challenge for us is to describe how creative cultural practices—let’s say art on a wall of the American University in Cairo, music festivals, urban architecture and design, identity formation in sport, social justice movements, writers collectives, body art, and so on—enact, intervene, construct, reveal, reframe the experience and the possibilities of democratic life.

Campus Happenings

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Doppelgänger Dance Collective presents five original contemporary dances performed by dancers of similarly versatile techniques and powerful physicality on Thursday, March 30, at 7:30 at Redfern Arts Center. Doppelgänger Dance Collective (DDC), a duet project founded by dancers Shura Baryshnikov, daughter of the famed ballet dancer, and performing artist and choreographer Danielle Davidson, present world premieres of two new dances and perform three other works from their repertory of original contemporary dance performed with live music. Faculty and staff receive discounted tickets. Call the Redfern Box Office at 358-2168 or order onlineMore information at Redfern Events

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.