On the Problematics of Social Sculpture

On the Problematics of Social Sculpture
By Daniel Gerwin (MFA '08)

Joseph Beuys put forward the notion of “Social Sculpture/Social Architecture,” asserting that everybody should be a creator, a sculptor of the social organism. Beuys felt that “Even the act of peeling a potato can be a work of art, if it is a conscious act.” Indeed, as part of his artistic practice, Beuys ran for elected office, orchestrated the planting of 7,000 oaks, and founded the Free International University. These examples are but a few among many of Beuys’ activist projects. In today’s postmodern context, it is beside the point to ask the question, “what is art,” as it is by now clear that anything presented as art becomes art simply through this performative act. Yet it still seems relevant to ask “why is it,” or a corollary to that question, “is it successful?” I would like to ask these questions of specific works of art by Beuys and later artists as an attempt at critical inquiry of social sculpture and related artistic enterprise.

Consider Beuys’ planting of 7,000 oaks. Dr. Wangari Mathaii, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, has thus far orchestrated the planting of over 30 million trees in Africa. Beuys would probably consider Mathaii a wonderful artist, but I am quite sure she does not view herself in this manner nor have I heard anyone else frame her achievement as art. Moreover, I will hazard the guess that Mathaii (despite her PhD and considerable erudition) was not inspired by Beuys’ precedent when she began her endeavor. Matthew Barney, in talking about the impact of Beuys, holds to the faith “that art provides useful tools for understanding the world that can proliferate into the broader culture.” In this sense, art is not distinct from any other action, just as Beuys taught. If we locate the impact of art in the general symbolic realm, we must then recognize that all actions have cultural significance. 30 million trees make for one hell of a symbolic impact, as the Nobel committee recognized. For better or worse, so do twenty thousand Starbucks cafes. Everything has symbolic, cultural impact.

Pursuing the theme of social sculpture, we can consider the work of a local Philadelphia collective, Baskamp. In one project, “making room for redundancy” (2005 and ongoing), Basekamp set up discussion panels, not unlike Beuys’ “100 Days” (1972) when he engaged in discussion with the public for 100 days at Documenta, the German art fair. Ultimately, Basekamp intends to produce a document resulting from this project. Artwork of this kind appears directed exclusively at fostering the consideration of ideas, something that books, articles, and writing in general does exceedingly well. From this point of view, Noam Chomsky’s bestseller, “Hegemony or Surivival” seems to be a much more powerful and thus more successful work of art. To name just a few examples, Francisco de Goya, Honore Daumier, and Jacob Lawrence all succeeded at including social criticism within their art, but in these cases this criticism was only one aspect of the form and content. By contrast, when art purports to exist only as spoken or written words, it must contend with spoken and written language in general. As Terry Atkinson asked in the first issue of Art-Language: The Journal of Conceptual Art: “Can this editorial, in itself an attempt to evince some outlines as to what ‘conceptual art’ is, come up for the count as a work of conceptual art?” If the answer is yes, why hasn’t Chomsky been featured by ArtForum, Modern Painters, or some hipster artzine?

In a different Basekamp project, “hegemonic bar” (1999), the collaborative created a three-tiered bar corresponding to working class, middle class, and upper class economic strata and their stereotypical drinking environments, and placed participants into one of these three categories. I understand this work to be aimed at raising people’s consciousness of class structure and the impact of these divisions. Similarly, Hans Haacke produced a piece “Gallery-Visitor’s Profile" (1969-73) in which he collected and presented simple descriptive statistics on the population of gallery-goers. Haacke’s work highlighted the privileged class of people who dominate the audience for art. Compare the aforementioned works to a collaborative performance by a large number of organizations but led in large part by one of America’s greatest performance artists, Dr. Martin Luther King. This work was known as the Civil Rights Movement, and included such memorable pieces as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington. Which of these works has been more successful as social architecture? Which work acts most powerfully in the symbolic realm? The efforts of Beuys, Basekamp, and Haacke are anemic compared to those of Mathaii, Chomsky, and King. To give the devil his due, one must acknowledge perhaps the ultimate master of social architecture and its aesthetics, Adolf Hitler.

I would like to offer a few final, indirectly related, examples. Carston Holler has made works he calls “Valerios,” which are slides designed to offer us a sensation of freedom and loss of control as we go sliding. How does a Valerio compare to a giant water slide in any amusement park? In a related case, I was surprised by comments made in a presentation at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) by Nancy Spector, curator of America’s pavilion in the 2007 Venice Biennale, which will be showing the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Gonzalez-Torres’ work was described as “generous” because we can take parts of it with us out of the gallery, such as a piece of candy, or a sheet of paper. Can generosity be found in a painting by Van Gogh although we have to leave it in the museum where we view it? I am not criticizing the work of Gonzales-Torres, but rather the shockingly concrete explication of it that was offered that evening at the ICA.

It seems to me that one of art’s greatest qualities is its ability to operate in the realm of the irrational and mysterious, regions that cannot be accessed or exhausted by rational exegesis. As conceptual art has taken up Beuys’ maxim about peeling a potato, content and its formal expression have become more concrete and less compelling. I am not calling for a return to the Modernist notion of art that only investigates its own particular material and formal character. Rather, I am suggesting that in a world where everything and anything can be viewed as art, artists run the risk of becoming dilettantes, or of simply being tedious.

I recognize the poetry of Beuys’ 7,000 trees, and of his many socially directed gestures. Perhaps they were futile and utopian, but that is party of their poignancy. Perhaps it is unfair to compare artwork to political action, but the works I have considered all beg the comparison by the very nature of their intent. I am troubled by the suggestion that art such as Beuys’ trees or Basekamp’s class-based bars is political or eloquent when there are individuals and organizations acting in the political realm with far greater eloquence and impact, both symbolically, and in material terms that directly affect people’s lives. If we value art in terms of its moral urgency, the work of Beuys and Basekamp is pretty weak stuff. Furthermore, if we are using this yardstick, where does that leave Matisse?

I will close with a final example and an artwork of my own. The example is that of conceptual artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. Among the many performances for which he is known is one in which he cooks and serves noodles to visitors in the gallery, engaging them in conversation while providing a meal. In the spirit of Atkinson, the artwork I now offer you is nothing other than this article you are reading; it is my own attempt to engage you in an exchange of ideas. I am not, however, going to leave you without a meal. In the spirit of the old adage, “give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he will eat all his life,” I give you my mother’s excellent recipe for Butternut Squash Soup. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the artistic lineage here: Lawrence Weiner’s conceptual art, in which he simply provided the instructions for making an artwork, supposedly subverting the idea of the artist as author. With this recipe, I give you the opportunity to destabilize the myth of authorship by making the soup yourself. Enjoy.


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