AN ATTENTIVE READER SENT ALONG notice of a new grad course offering at Portland State University in Oregon. The PSU link came with a wry: “Figured you’d like this.”
Well, yes, I guess you could say I like it. But only because it confirms my contention that art is increasingly not about art at all. It is fast becoming a variant of community organizing by soi-disant promoters of their own notions of the common good. Thanks to the reader, here is more to testify that distaste for that word practice, spreading like a cancer through curriculum lists, is fitting.
To keep the ever-swelling ranks of MFA grads employed, art departments have to be inventive. Hats off to PSU for coming up with the latest disciplinary wrinkle: Social Practice. Forget all that passé stuff about painting, drawing, sculpture and, you know, making things. That was so yesterday! Besides, it was hard. Posing is infinitely more congenial than risking one’s trembling ego over, well, a work of art. Anyway, who wants to spend years in learning and perfecting studio practice.
PSU’s MFA in Contemporary Art Practice encourages students to “utilize their artistic skills to engage society.” This cheerily assumes the students already have artistic skills. But, if that is so, why are they still in school? It is hard not to feel a bit sorry for young adults who need to pay yet more tuition in order to engage the world they live in. Where have they been? What have they been doing these last 20 or so years?
The good people at PSU explain their wares this way:
Social practice might appear to be more like sociology, anthropology, social work, journalism, or environmentalism than art, yet it retains the intention of creating significance and appreciation for audiences in a similar way to more conventional art. Students learn about a variety of working artists and non-artists who have engaged in civic activity, and apply their knowledge and abilities to initiate, develop, and complete projects with the public—individuals, groups, and institutions.
Nice. And soothingly vague. Significance that signifies . . . what? Appreciation of . . . what? No matter. That phrase civic activity has a fine ring, even if our republic has gotten this far without citizens needing an MFA to run for Scout leader, church warden, the school board, the state assembly, The Nation’s Missing Children Organization, or the Cayuga County Chamber of Commerce, to name just the tippy-tip of the civic iceberg.
It gets better:
The Social Practice program is largely student led and directed. This structure allows the program the flexibility needed to be built to suit the needs of the current students as individuals and as a group.
That is a lovely way of saying that this program is largely a low-overhead operation. It brings in tuition revenue while it leaves faculty free to do not much of anything. Try to imagine the kind of mind that imagined and implemented something called “the Social Practice faculty.”
What does student work in the program consist of? The satirical mavens at PSU highlight the accomplishment of its entollees. First, there is Amy Steel, artist and educator, who teaches at PSU. Ms. Steel earns her keep with such things as SnackBar, a project in which participants make drawings in exchange for snacks.
Then there is Ariana Jabob who “uses conversation as medium and as subjective research method.” Her project sits us all down to shoot the breeze:
Conversation Station is an informal conversational research project where Ariana invites people in public places to sit down and discuss what they think about unsettling but ordinary subjects, including American relationships to history, why liberals and conservatives disagree with each other, and death.
Outside academia, this would be laughed off stage as horseradish. Irish Bull. Hogwash. Bold-faced bunkum. But in the Department of Art, PSU, it is worth a graduate degree. And then there is Eric Steen, another civic consciousness native to Portland.
His work explores leisure, pedagogy, and microtopias through socially engaged projects.
That is perfectly clear to you, isn’t it? I hope so, because I have no idea what it means myself. Something to do with brewing beer on the inspiration of an artwork. [Shouldn’t that go the other way around?] The practice of Helen Reed, though, is a little clearer:
Over the past 5 years Helen’s art practice has involved working with specific invested communities. During this time she has landed the first senior citizen on the moon, contacted Marshall McLuhan by Ouija Board, and coordinated a lesbian-separatist rave in the farmlands of Ontario.
This post began by referencing community organizing. Here we have it at its silliest. There is a poignance to something so worthy of throwaway snark as PSU’s Social Practice program. But that does not make it benign. It seduces would-be artists away from the critical, most demanding reality: that their first loyalty, as artists, is to the work of their hands—to the thing made. It encourages students to consider themselves artists on no more solid basis than their own social conscience, however drearily formed it might be.
In the end, it leaves them unemployable.
Update: Eric Steen defends his social practice. See Comments.
© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey