Art is the Social Condition: A Proposal for the Marriage of Art and Sociology
Somewhere at the beginning of the course on the Social Condition, Jeffrey Goldfarb asked us: what is politics? This question aligned with several key issues as our class attempted to explore the meaning of the social condition. Granted, months later, its definition continues to be a shape-shifter, but we’ve turned the question into a narrative, as we further find it not only in the politics of everyday life, but in the grand schemas that we perceive to dictate “everyday life.” The social condition as we have discussed it until now has been found in plurality, in the dilemmas that social actors continuously encounter in their social world due to previously constructed institutions that govern everyday practice. The more we’ve come to the core of this meaning, we discover that dilemmas are not always open to solution, but rather are navigated so that we can travel through the “fabric of life” with minimum conflict. Essentially, the social condition is incipient in all social institutions; it is in situations that certain tensions arise. It is how we manage them that becomes interesting to the sociologist. But it is also the sociologist’s role to illuminate the tensions and dilemmas that come about. In our course, we have discussed issues of gender, race, politics, the arts, religion, emotions; this list of topics is only a short segment of a larger list of areas where the social condition arises. Now, at the end of the course, my chosen topic continues to confuse me. Not because I don’t find the social condition embedded in its discourse. But because the very essence of it is characterized by the social condition.
In 1984, philosopher Arthur Danto published a classic article entitled “The End of Art.” By 1995, he found himself restating his thesis through a series of lectures called After the End of Art, as many misunderstood him: his premise didn’t call for the end of the practice of art, but the end of an art narrative that had historically dictated its course. The narrative he refers to is one which provided tight conventions that were adapted by leading artists, causing what we refer to as “art movements.” Each of these movements claimed to have developed true art. By way of covert or explicit manifestos that mandated rules and philosophies of what true art was, “the art world,” as reflected upon by Danto, was an atmosphere of artistic theory. As Abstract Expressionism began to develop, a marriage between art and philosophy occurred and found itself inseparable. In 1964, Danto attended Andy Warhol’s exhibition, which presented, for the first time, replicated Brillo Boxes. This event marked what Danto would further predict 20 years later: the end of a narrative. The conventions of art became so multiple that what an audience now conceived of as art was no longer dictated by whether or not an object was beautiful, but whether or not an object spoke to the complex narrative which is the historical trajectory of art.
Now, why is this important to us sociologists, and where is the social condition? As a person who has been educated on the discourse of art and has created art, I often struggle to understand what the point of art is. But I find myself unequivocally attached to it. It is not only what I consider to be my vocation, but also the reason I decided to immerse myself in sociology. Something about how we perceive and understand art in reference to us is a question that has continued to linger throughout my entire art education. Many have become curious as to how it was that Danto first wrote about the end of art and then after became an art critic. But we should not be surprised. The discourse on what is art? has, since the end of art, become more complex and convoluted since those Brillo Boxes appeared before an audience. Art as we perceive it now became a social construction thousands of years after the first images and objects appeared in human cultures. Now, after the end of art, almost anything can be art as long as it speaks of itself in the historical trajectory of art.
As part of my role in the course “The Social Condition,” I’m looking to vouch for what I consider to be a narrative in the art world that may be able to capture the essence of what art has become. While art has married philosophy in the past, I assert that art should now officially marry sociology. Not as a new tendency but as an embrace of something that has already occurred in the recent past.
We’ve already been referring to this as postmodernism or contemporary art. But what I find is that art has become a narrative for the social condition itself. The art world unanimously agrees that conventions have become complex and arguable, but terms like “contemporary art” do not refer to narrative, but simply to the point that it is of the recent past. To illustrate what I look to propose, I reference some of the world’s leading artists. Tino Sehgal uses what he refers to as “constructed situations.” Using volunteer actors, he sets up situations where the performer actively subjects the audience to the performance, causing the viewer not only to be aware of what is occurring, but also to his or her role in the situation. For example, in his piece This Progress at the Guggenheim in 2010, visitors were asked what “progress” was, first by a child, then a teenager, a young adult, an adult, and by the end, an elderly individual. Popular artist Marina Abramovic famously used confrontation between herself and individuals at the Museum of Modern Art to accentuate the body as an object and a social being. Spanish artist Santiago Sierra uses race, gender, and issues on immigration to subject viewers to the ongoing dilemmas of their discourse. Ai Wei Wei, considered by many to be the artist of our time, makes work that criticizes China’s government and its stance on democracy and civil rights. So much so, that he was arrested in 2011 for his political activism.
These world renowned artists, among thousands of others, express a similar narrative in their work, which I believe is not coincidental. This visible and recent pattern expresses that the artist’s role, at this time in history, is to explore the social condition. The artist takes the dilemmas and tensions of the social world, accentuating them in order to implicate the audience and create an awareness of them. Shape and form is irrelevant when choosing to speak of the social condition. Not to say that form is not important. A good — I use “good” cautiously — artist chooses the appropriate form in accordance to the task at hand. But, to speak of the social condition frees the artist to explore the possibilities between subject and material. The social world is constructed by situations that involve people and objects. Artists are now able to appropriate anything that involves the politics of everyday life and engage with the dilemmas that these revolve around. I vouch for the sociology in art (and vice versa) because the artist is an unaware sociologist. The artist uses the socially constructed conventions of their own social world and produces work that speaks to such conventions and the tensions and dilemmas they cause. Andy Warhol, again, not only managed to shift the art world by challenging what art is, but, as any art lover is aware, the work itself spoke about the social world he lived in: one dictated by consumerism, pop culture, and large scale institutionalism. He took what the social world gave the individual and threw it back in its face. Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp first gave the art world a glimpse of this future tendency when in 1917 he placed a urinal in a gallery and signed it — something that Warhol himself drew from.
I don’t mean to go against Arthur Danto and his thesis of no continuous narrative, but that we have embraced a lack of uniform practice of art does not mean that contemporary artists are not unified by something else. I think that regardless of shape, form, subject, place, race, gender, or age, artists are in fact unified by their perception of and aesthetic confrontation with the social condition.