It’s great to visit art museums. To say hello and friendly with the ticket person who can from time to time be a bit grumpy. I can still be friendly. The coffee place has fourteen kinds of coffee and that doesn’t need to make me roll my eyes. It’s just a museum who tries a bit too hard.
The other day I spent the afternoon in one of those museums together with my new born daughter and had a handful of really lovely conversations with staff, guards, other visitors and the woman in the cloak room told me about her children and their children. It was nice to talk to a grand mother for a moment.
It was also brilliant to change on the baby in the ladiesroom being treated with a certain scepticism and then oh how cute and some other niceties. Involving all senses, so to say. Social is top dollar.
But nothing of this was art. It was social situations, encounters that will stay with me as much as the art that happened to be spending time in the exhibition spaces made an impression. Yet these social encounters were not art or generated aesthetic experiences, nor where those paintings, drawings, sculptures, video pieces or even installations social situations although they participated in those social such and such to take place.
It’s a significant mistake to confuse art with social situations and the other way around. But it is tempting. If art equals something social having encounters with art can be justified through bringing people together, especially different peoples and we can together create a loving and open minded society where borders (at least some) are made porous and nice. But isn’t it so that when art is confused with social the door is also opened to confuse art with culture which to some might be great but perhaps not to art.
Somewhere Jean Luc Godard proposed that culture is the stuff we eat. Culture is measurable and hence something that can be analysed and changed in order to make the best out of some or other situation. Concerning Godard, if I eat a lot of beetroots I will pee red. Deduction rules. If I drink too much wine, tomorrow will be disaster. The payback of consuming Brussels sprouts will be smelly. More causality. In other words culture is something that can be determined and installed in order to produce efficiency. If I look at too many Picasso’s I might become a bit (even) more macho but there’s certainly no causality. If I stare at a Robert Morris sculpture for a few hours nothing will happen, especially nothing that can be “found” in those geometrical arrangements or piles of felt.
If art was to be equated with culture art works would not be appreciated for what they were but for what they produced and what measurable “betterment” they would install, i.e. to say a drift away from aesthetics towards ethics. Never minds whose betterment? Arts gift to humanity is exactly that it’s not good or bad for anything. That’s up to you.
Although arts instumentality is a direction socially engaged engaged art is interested in, it’s also precisely the direction that neoliberal politics wish to emphasize. Art being equal to culture – that is social environments or situation – degrades art to be an instrument in the hands of policy makers.
When sociologists and art critics with a sociological agenda approach art and their institutions it can give important insight but it is important to negotiate that they also tend to reduced art to be tokens in networks generating social situations. The painting on the wall is equal in symbolic value to the bench in the middle of the room. Nothing bad per se but doesn’t it imply that the painting on the wall’s job is something else than to be a painting? Moreover, the sociologist obviously pulls the plug out of the possibility that an encounter with art in anyway is different in kind to any other experience. The sociologist analyses the global condition and the impact different entities produce and is so to say completely uninterested in art. In the eyes of sociology art is nothing more than a token that generates forms of behaviour.
It is especially important in our times to insist on forms of autonomy implicit in art. Is it perhaps crucial to claim the specificity of the aesthetic experience and stress the possibility that art withdraws from the social and that that is important?
If art is not just here to confirm society, social behaviour and identity. If arts responsibility is something else than to support or be helpful, propose an alternative way of living or relating but instead that it’s job is to generate the possibility for a different kind of change, a change towards something that is not yet thinkable, to something that is generated through the uncertainty of the experience and not by the experience’s decisiveness. Said otherwise, if art has anything to do with truth it can only take place as long as the experience is indeterminable or at least is carried by indetermination, i.e. that it is singular which means withdraw from the social, that is is non-relational. When art becomes social it can simply have nothing to do with truth or truth claims any more. Only and art that claims truth is daring or urgent, the rest is simply negotiation and policy documents. Remember only as long as art remains in relation to truth can it be admired and posses us. An art that isn’t granted, that doesn’t insist on the possibility to blow us away, to overwhelm us or make us change our lives is like a love relation kept a live because it’s convenient.