In 1964 art critique Arthur Danto made a grave announcement: art was dead. Time of death was documented after witnessing Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Boxes” at New York City’s Stable Gallery in 1964. But Danto wasn’t just documenting a death; he was announcing a rebirth. What art could be, had expanded beyond the canvas, the frame, and the relief that art relied on in the past. Today, motions and trends replace movements. The emphasis on genre is reduced and aesthetics take the back seat. Contemporary art exhibitions like Living as Form, now showing at The Galleries at Moore, are proof that art is alive and well.
Living as Form, an exhibition that documents socially engaged art, was introduced to the public in New York City’s Essex Street Market building in fall 2011. Since then it has become a traveling exhibition and book Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011. According to Living as Form’s curator, Nato Thomson, on Creative Times’ website, “socially engaged art is not an art movement. Instead, these cultural practices indicate new ways of life that emphasize participation, challenge power, and span disciplines ranging from urban planning and community work to theater and the visual arts.”
In collaboration with 25 international curators, Living as Form (The Nomadic Version), takes 48 projects, selected by curator Nato Thomas, from its original NYC show and tours them across the globe. The Galleries at Moore are also hosting over 15 programs and events from January 25 until March 16, 2013, dedicated to social engagement.
In the exhibition there are no paintings hung on walls, or objects incased in glass. Instead the exhibition displays documentation consisting of video footage and photographs of projects like TIZA, by the American-Cuban artistic duo Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, which present an alternative art practice. TIZA, much like some of the other projects on display in Living as Form was a public art piece that called for members of selected cities to participate. Allora and Calzadilla placed 12 large pieces of chalk in city squares, encouraging those who passed by to leave a mark on their city.
Socially engaged works exemplify art that has evolved beyond aesthetics, and has fully departed from the hierarchy of skill, style, and genre that once deemed art, “art.” But not everyone appreciates this new direction. Some disagree with Danto and feel that art simply ended with modernism and was never reborn.
“20th century art seems to have less and less to do with society,” says art historian Charles Morscheck, an Art History professor at Drexel University, “there emerges this idea that everything is new and therefore the artist tries to do something that is unlike what art has been done.” It’s easy for the public to sympathize with historians like Morscheck when the current contemporary art scene produces works like “The Golden Calf” by Damien Hirst. Even kitschy work encourages dialog about what art is.
Art historians and critiques of contemporary art often overlook the opportunity “reborn” art offers. Art is no longer limited to aesthetics. Now, art has the ability to not only give a commentary on the human experience, but also the ability to shape and influence that experience. “Aesthetics are not the driving force in socially engaged art practice… socially engaged projects are informed by much more than the history of art,” says Kaytie Johnson the director and curator at The Galleries at Moore, who believes the exhibition is, “all about communication and dialogue.” And through communication and dialogue we can improve social conditions.
Despite projects like Living as Form, contemporary art is still slated, even by the generation who is creating it. Last year, the article “I’m Sick of Pretending: I Don’t get Art,” by Glen Coco and published on VICE magazine’s website, generated a lot of controversy. The piece was Coco’s commentary on Tracey Emin’s retrospective at Hayward Gallery. Though Coco’s authority on the subject stems from his art school degree, his criticisms reflect the opinions of the masses. It wasn’t long before the article went viral and readers’ responses confirmed this.
People commenting on the article were young, educated, and active members in their art communities, yet many of them identified with Coco’s callow denunciation. James O’Leyden, a graduate student at Penn, agreed with some of Coco’s points saying, “I feel that with contemporary art it is more about representing itself and replicating certain troupes of theme.” O’Leyden doesn’t claim to be an art expert, however he, like many 20 and 30-somethings, is suspicious about the intentions of today’s art. Coco seemed to think the intention is profit and superiority; deeming the gallery scene an “exclusive club for rich people to indulge each others’ sense of ‘whimsy.’”
It’s not about a sense of whimsy but about inspiring discourse on what defines art and how to create social change through art. Join the conversation and community by looking at The Galleries at Moore’s schedule for Living as Form’s events. The events include numerous communal education programs, skill-share lessons, tours, and film screenings, held in a participatory space dedicated to the exhibition, led by Philadelphia based artists, curators, writers, filmmakers and other cultural producers.
Amanda V. Wagner is a junior English Major at Drexel University and the student editor of the Cultural Passport. Follow Amanda on twitter at @amandavwagner
Images courtesy of Living as Form