Participatory Art: The Aesthetic of Social Engagement

Toward the late 1960s, following the so-called “Social Turn”, artists started exploring new art forms which placed unprecedented importance on the role of the spectator. Participatory art stems from the blurring dichotomy between the work art and the viewer and has its precedents in the style of some of the avant-gardes, in particular Dada, whose practices invited the audience to take part directly in the creative process. These forms of artistic heteronomy opposed the ideals of artistic autonomy imposed by Abstract Expressionism and attempted to define new criteria to judge and value art. Not only aesthetics but also ethics and politics become factors which the artist balances in order to obtain the final product. In this post, I will explore some of the instances of this new artistic sensibility.

Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features - Adrian Piper - 1981

Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features – Adrian Piper – 1981

In a passage of “Flying”, the Conceptual artist Adrian Piper states that the 1970s represented a turning point in her production. While her works up to the early ’70s do not show a clear concern with social issues such as race and gender, her later pieces display a deeper engagement with the matter of identity. For example, Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features (1981) questions labels and the need to objectify identity through them. Piper explains her turn toward engaged themes by mentioning a variety of notable events, such as the intensification of the Vietnam war under the Nixon administration and the Kent State University shooting of 1970, when the Ohio National Guard attacked a group of unarmed students protesting against the bombing of Cambodia, killing four and injuring nine. In Piper’s words, the need to face directly engaged issues in her art stems from a response to the escalation of social tensions in the United States.

Anatomic Explosion on Wall Street - Yayoi Kusama - 1968

Anatomic Explosion on Wall Street – Yayoi Kusama – 1968

Participatory art developed in many forms. Yayoi Kusama’s happenings are a valid example. The long history of happenings as an experimental performative format show that the use of participants was not entirely new to the art practices. In Anatomic Explosion on Wall Street (1968), Kusama invited a group of aides to undress and dance naked in front of the New York stock exchange. The work of art has a clear political connotation, the title referencing the Cold-War atomic threat. Moreover, the location reveals Kusama’s criticism of the structures of Capitalism and their implicit exploitation of the conflict in Vietnam. Kusama’s happenings, which borrow elements from the hippie culture, oppose the free energy and erotic connotations of the naked bodies against the rigid and sex-negative forms of the US conservative and pro-Capitalist establishment.

This Roof Is on Fire - Suzanne Lacy - 1973-1974

This Roof Is on Fire – Suzanne Lacy – 1973-1974

Kusama’s happenings were necessarily short-lived and limited to a specific occasion. It usually took less than an hour for the police to intervene and scatter the participants. Other artists, such as Suzanne Lacy, a former student of the outspoken Feminist artist Judy Chicago, favoured durational pieces where the artistic performance aimed at creating a lasting human experience, bringing together distant communities. An example is the Oakland Project which Lacy curated between 1991 and 2001. The action, taking place in Oakland, California, targeted local students with a variety of events and workshops aimed at promoting youth leadership and artistic education. One of the sub-events, This Roof is On Fire (1993-1994), gathered a group of over 200 high school students on the rooftop of a car park, where they talked freely about sensitive issues such as sexuality, drugs, family, and education. The performance was later broadcast in the form of a documentary.

The Battle of the Orgreave - Jeremy Deller - 2001

The Battle of the Orgreave – Jeremy Deller – 2001

Participatory art allowed artists to create new relations between their works and the broader public. As the critical Nicolas Bourriaud argues, “art is a state of encounter” and through participatory art the viewer becomes part of a broader experience which aims at empowering a numbed society. Whether the works of art tackle specific political issues or not, the social purpose of such creations is clear and goes beyond the solipsistic definition of the artist-genius, which had been revitalised by the supporters of Abstract Expressionism (Clement Greenberg above all) at the beginning of the twentieth century. Participatory art questions the role of the artist, as well as the uncontested supremacy of aesthetics in the definition of artistic value.

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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