Week 4: Lindsey Newkirk, Avant-garde for the masses?

In my continued curiosity in activism art and art for social change is its effectiveness to create social change.  What I thought powerful about the digital storytelling organizations such as Scribe, Mapping Memories and Center for Digital Storytelling is that they all maintained a commonality in providing a framework that the art present an issue in a direct way that their intended audience could understand, sometimes with and sometimes without a specific call to action or simply as historical record.  Furthermore, regardless of the project outcomes in regards to their goals, a unique outcome of these projects were in that makers of the film were participants in the process, in effect bringing change to those involved.

Rothenberg and Singers work in the professional art realm is quite different in both of those aspects.  First, their message or issues are presented as inquiry and in an often-abstract presentation aim to spark new thinking rather than state the obvious.  Second, in many of these works, the audience not only becomes the participants but also is sometimes even required to participate in order to complete the works of art.

I think that two strategies in activism art that have a potentially effectiveness for social change is the participation factor and taking art out of the gallery space.  By taking art out of institutions and exclusive gallery spaces, artists have the biggest opportunities to engage with the general public in an artistic and thought provoking examination of our societies cultural practices.  Participatory art has the opportunity to provide experiences due to its requirements of human interaction to complete the pieces and prompts individuals to contemplate their own relationship to these happenings.

My critique of Rothenberg’s work, albeit completely innovative, beautiful, engaging and thought provoking, is that from what I could tell, most of her work is shown in museums and art based events.  I think art within the confines of those spaces can be effective in initiating dialogue amongst art-goers, patrons, intellectuals and thought leaders that know how to navigate the avant-garde interactions and inquiries presented in all types of art but it doesn’t engage the masses.

Singer on the other hand, while I couldn’t infer from all of her work, much of it took place well beyond the walls of traditional art environments and really brought her art to the streets.

Though perhaps it doesn’t matter.  Avant-garde art can often be too abstract and esoteric for the masses; the rest of us, who don’t eat, breathe, dine and schmooze in the world of creative contemplation.  Social construct and art movements have influenced each other throughout modern history so even if works of art do not activate mainstream civilians directly, the large power in forward thinking art is that it incites movements that indirectly end up shaping cultural realities.  I think this is illustrated clearly in our recent readings of Digital Culture, as Gere leads us through the trajectory of the post war digital Avant-garde movement.  Not only did these explorations influence the future of art as we know it but you can draw a line through the influence of counter cultures and the ripple effect that it’s had in bringing digital art into mainstream communications and pop culture.  We don’t often have a choice of how we ‘wake up’ to the issues going on around us, but I believe that art is one of the more powerful ways to do provide that opportunity whether directly or through it’s ability to trickle through and infiltrate larger cultures.

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2 comments to Week 4: Lindsey Newkirk, Avant-garde for the masses?

  • amandae@uoregon.edu

    Hey Lindsey- I think your distinction about the two basic “camps” of activist art is quite apt: they serve to involve the audience in a participatory way to experience an alternative (potentially mind-changing) reality, or they actively work against the societal structures that commodify art, to bring it “to the masses.” In short, activist art is actively doing something to either people or society in a way that challenges the economic or social structures of our times.

    I was curious, however, about your statement that “avant-garde art can often be too abstract.” I would argue that if it is, then something is wrong.

    The very fact that performance art is a “thing,” means we need to move beyond it. Essentially, performance art is a tactic of activist art -not a thing–and the moment it becomes something that can be defined and put in a (white) box, then it has served to be tactical. The real question is how to maintain an avante garde nature to art that activates people in a way that can not be easily dismissed, ignored, misunderstood, or commodified. I think Allyson’s public post about the presentation of political art is a start towards thinking about the nuance of this.

  • banders3@uoregon.edu

    Yes, I also thought that getting the information to the people or exposing them to it is possibly the biggest hurdle these artists face. As you mentioned, Rothenberg’s work was really interesting and captivating, but if it’s only being shown in museums, only a small percentage of people are actually seeing it and it may come off as a bit too highfalutin to the average person because they might think the social change aspect of the work might be too overwhelming. Conversely, since Singer’s work has more of an urban vibe or everyday feel, does that mean it’s not as important or worthy as anything else? Also, how does the regular museum-goer see these types of projects? These are really tough questions.

    Reading your post also made me think of our recent visit to our J621 class from JS May of the Portland Art Museum. He recounted the story of the museum’s bicycle show and instead of having just a stuff, old show in the museum, they partnered up with others and were included on the Naked Bike Ride, which I’m sure introduced a bunch of new people to not only the trajectory and surrounding information regarding bikes, but to the museum itself. Did the participation make more people ride their bikes or at least think more about riding their bikes? I’d like to think it did. I’d also like to think the media coverage that this received was more than just a surface level thought of, ‘Oh, these people in Portland are crazy with their naked bike ride!’ but I hope that they read the stories which included all of the ancillary aspects of it which led to the greater social change of limiting car emissions (and other benefits) by riding bikes.

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