Not Just Garbage: What do I know about art and service?

5 Oct

Musings by Kim Ye

As some of you may know, I’ve recently started the MFA program at UCLA. The following short article is basically me public processing issues touched on in my discussion group last night…

In 1969, Mierle Laderman Ukeles wrote the Manifesto for Maintenance Art in which she framed everyday chores as performance art pieces. This document drew attention to the fact that certain actions are given cultural and economic value, while others are not. Artists Richard Serra (steel worker) and Donald Judd (carpenter) represent the laborer removed from his cultural context. Their actions recontextualized in the art world appreciated in value in comparison to their blue-collared counterparts who actually refined the processes the artists employed.

What this implies is that those involved/invested in this sector of high culture find value in the development and progress of work that falls under their umbrella. Changing what art means, what art does, what art looks like is valuable. However, the impact of these changes on the culture at large—how it affects the layman—remains largely unexamined or unaddressed. Perhaps lacking is an appreciation for the basic structures that support and make possible the existence of art institutions. Garbage collectors, construction workers, road workers, postmasters, and security guards all play a role in facilitating the day-to-day functioning of museums, galleries, and other art spaces.

So, if the non-traditional actions that artists are employing to create their work—doing chores, providing shelter, giving away food—already exist in contexts that are outside of art, what is the value in bringing these activities into an art context?

Some possible answers:

1.     Artists are attempting to widen the role and responsibility of art so that they can leverage the (often substantial) money and resources within the art world in order to bring tangible benefits to society at large.

2.     In changing the definition of art, artists are hoping to create a trickle-down effect.  Art becomes experience, the dynamics of relationships (relational aesthetics) instead of an item to be purchased or owned. If art is perceived as an experience, then perhaps it is implied that each person is the architect of the experiences of those around her. This may lead people to act in ways that are more conscientious, creative, or progressive.

3.     Art is able to bypass the bureaucratic and legal limitations put on social service groups.  In this way, the artist can have an immediate effect on her environment and create a testing ground for possible solutions to social problems. If the role of the artist is to show what is possible, then this model for art-making fills the gap between theory and programming.

Finally, one last series of questions:

How do we evaluate the success of these service/art pieces? Do we evaluate them by their social effectiveness, or in an art context? Should both be considered, or should some new measure of success be created?

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