Claims to be an Artist

What does it mean within the context of contemporary socially engaged art practice to claim that I am an artist? Particularly when I have no intention of producing anything like conventional artistic work? I may be working with teachers, engineers, social workers, landscape designers and all kinds of other professionals. I may be joining in their activities and doing nothing that particularly differentiates me, but still, when introduced, I will describe myself as an artist. Arguably just a matter of declaring some level of particular professional identity before joining with everybody else to pursue common activities and goals. Possibly, but this seems ingenuous. All the other participants still retain their areas of particular professional experience, and offer contributions on that basis. The engineer steps forward to speak about the dam wall, the social worker about the mountain-biking kids, the landscape designer about issues of erosion and slope regeneration. But what specific expertise can I offer? My role seems to be as professional innocent or fool – an ‘Everyman’ who signals the limitations of all particular knowledge frameworks. In this sense my empty professionalism stands as an emblem of transdisciplinarity. Yet, pausing, I realise I am not altogether transdisciplinary, because I also preserve an aspect of vital difference. I am an artist. My identity and difference is established most authoritatively because there is nothing that can be done to establish it practically. It is simply declared. I indicate that I am an artist – and by implication that the rest of you are not. So an artist appears as one profession among others, but the issues is confused and mystified because I lack any apparent field of expertise. However, despite all my gestures of innocence and humble joining in, I must acknowledge that I do retain a sense of distinct expertise. I maintain a metal-level expertise. I am the one who can see the whole, who can reflect upon it in terms of its overall features as, for instance, a choreography of professional intersections and staged liminal events. My overall aim is a ‘making strange’ of social space in order to reactivate its political-poetic potential. To keep my focus on this meta-level concern, I absolutely cannot allow myself to act simply as an artist, to engage in predictably artistic activities. Instead, in order to claim an aspect of the whole for art, while avoiding any sense of specialised artistic identity or autonomy, I must avoid any hint of art altogether. This involves preserving a neat balance in the midst of multiple dimensions of contradiction. How long can such a balance be maintained before it collapses? Are there other options? I can imagine leaving the notion of art behind altogether (this is already happening in all manner of forms of ‘social practice), or else of radically rethinking the nature, context and profession of art. For me the latter involves giving up the self-identity, cultural frames and professional basis of art, and looking for something broader and more inclusive. I suggest the notion of aesthetic practice, but not as a field that any particular cultural sphere can claim, nor as something that can be rattled off as though it were a regular job. This is not because it is alien or superior to other spheres of activity, but rather because it takes all spheres of activity seriously, while not permitting any sense of their discrete operation. If the aesthetic is alien it is because it interrogates every determinable cultural form, including its own.

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