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Art & Philosophy

From Conceptual Art to Social Art

Peter Benson watches this ‘art movement’ with raised eyebrows.

Conceptual art is art where the artistic aspect is considered to reside in the concept alone, not in any of its sensory qualities (if it has any). For many years now conceptual art has formed the dominant strand of contemporary art – at least according to that network of galleries, critics and collectors who decide what should be considered important among the range of current artistic production. Now, however, it’s beginning to be displaced by a new contender for our attention, which I propose to call ‘social art’. I’ll explain what I mean by this soon. First, I want to consider the general question of how specific art-forms rise to prominence.

The Institutional Theory of Art

Philosophers have asked the question ‘What is Art?’ as far back as Plato in the fourth century BCE. But the question has seemed to acquire a new urgency in response to the bewildering diversity of objects and activities which in the twentieth century have been claimed to have the status of ‘art’.

Faced by this situation, the American philosopher Arthur Danto wrote a highly influential essay in 1964 entitled ‘The Artworld’. This was the first clear statement of the ‘Institutional Theory’ of art, later developed further by George Dickie and others. Danto was unusual among philosophers of art in that he was actually interested in contemporary art. He was a regular visitor to galleries, and wrote reviews for art magazines as well as philosophy. His essay was prompted in part by seeing Andy Warhol’s exhibition that year at the Stable Gallery in New York. This was the first public display of Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, now among the most iconic pieces of American pop art. Danto asked the obvious question: What’s the difference between these ‘art works’ by Andy Warhol and a similar pile of boxes in a supermarket’s storeroom – which would not, generally speaking, be considered works of art? He argued that it is the surrounding ‘artworld’, made up of critics, galleries, collectors, essays, debates, etc, which has the magical ability to transform objects into art.

I will return to some of the problems with this theory. But first, I’m interested in the effects this influential way of thinking might have had. It is not surprising that directors of art galleries, in particular, should have felt flattered by this attribution of such considerable power to their decisions. It is as if they, rather than the artists, were the real creators of art. Indeed, the Institutional Theory constituted a reversal of earlier accounts of what makes something art. Instead of the intrinsic characteristics of an object making it an art work, which would then be reverently placed within a gallery for our contemplation, it is the institutions, pre-eminently represented by the gallery, which confer on an object its artistic status. It is as if the mere act of placing an object on display in a gallery immediately elevates it into the realm of Art.

This idea of the grand transforming power of the gallery seems to have influenced the very design of many of the spectacular new art galleries which have opened in recent decades. Among these, the most spectacular of all – a veritable cathedral among art galleries, and something of a triumphant symbol of contemporary art’s place in the modern world – is London’s Tate Modern, which opened in May 2000 to greet the new millennium.

Entering this, the largest building in the world devoted to modern and contemporary art, is a disconcerting experience. Passing through the doors, one finds oneself in an immense space which was originally the turbine hall of this converted power station. The machinery has been removed, leaving nothing but space. It is clearly intended to strike awe into the heart of the visitor. However, there are no actual art works displayed in this space, except at certain times, when artists are specially commissioned to create a suitably large installation. To reach any actual art work, one has to walk half the length of this vast space, pass through another pair of doors, take an escalator up two flights, cross another foyer area, and enter through another set of doors. One might then find oneself looking at a sculpture, or a painting. It is as if the building’s sheer space takes precedence over anything placed within it.

This would be entirely in accordance with The Institutional Theory of Art: it is the gallery itself which has the radiant power to turn anything placed inside it into art. This situation grants a particular personal power of deciding what is to be counted as art to the Director of the Tate, who has overall responsibility for what they choose to display. This post was held from 1988 to 2017 by Nicholas Serota. His reign included supervising the reconstruction and opening of Tate Modern building.

This was also the period during which conceptual art held its dominant sway internationally. One sign of this was its prominence in the short-lists for the annual Turner Prize for British art – itself administered by the Tate, with the Tate’s director as the only permanent member of the judging committee. This prize has always drawn considerable attention, often derisory and frequently ill-informed, from the British press, considerably affecting the public’s perception of contemporary art. Despite this, the Turner Prize’s (previously) annual exhibition of its short-listed artists has always been popular, drawing some of the Tate’s largest crowds of visitors each year.

In retrospect, we can probably date the high tidal mark of conceptual art to 2001, when the Turner Prize was won by Martin Creed for his piece entitled The Lights Going On and Off. The work consists of an empty room in the gallery in which the lights do, indeed, go on and off, at five second intervals. That’s it. Nothing else. 2001 was also the year that the Turner Prize had become so fashionable that it was presented at the awards ceremony by Madonna. This must surely have prompted thoughts about whether Madonna’s own work might very readily be considered to have greater aesthetic value than Martin Creed’s piece. Which would be a more artistically stimulating way to spend three minutes of your time: watching Martin Creed’s lights going on and off, or listening to Madonna’s Like a Virgin? The disconnection between the so-called ‘fine’ arts and the ‘popular’ arts seemed to have reached a point where almost all aesthetic qualities were championed by the latter.

Actually, the word ‘aesthetic’, as used in philosophy, did not originally have any connection to art at all. It is derived from the ancient Greek word for ‘sensation’, and refers specifically to what is perceived through the senses. It is used in this pre-artistic sense, for example, by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781). By the time of his Critique of Judgement, however (1790), Kant had adapted it to mean a judgement of beauty – though still not restricted to art.

This history reveals how the specifically ‘aesthetic’ qualities of an art work (its purely ‘artistic’ qualities, as opposed to its moral, or instructive qualities) were traditionally thought to reside in its sensory qualities. With the ascendency of conceptual art, however, the fine arts seemed finally to have detached themselves completely from the sensory sphere, leaving that vast and attractive region open for the popular arts to occupy. While all the richness of sound and image were skilfully crafted into amazing music videos by Madonna – who would not have been considered eligible for Britain’s major art prize – Martin Creed could reduce his works to mere ideas, which are hardly necessary to put into practice. Indeed, it is in areas such as film and music that most of us look, today, for aesthetic delight. Going to contemporary art galleries, by contrast, has become a somewhat intellectual exercise.

What is Beauty
What is Beauty? by Cecilia Mou, 2021
Image © Cecilia Mou 2021. To see more art, please Instagram her at @mouceciliaart

The Transition to Social Art

By the time Nicholas Serota stepped down from the directorship of the Tate in 2017, the art promoted by Tate Modern had been all but cleansed of any distracting sensory qualities – as it had been by major modern art galleries all around the world. This resulted in what one might call ‘art without aesthetics’. But many have complained that there is an air of vacuousness about these works. The ‘concepts’ presented by conceptual art are not actually very interesting, usually. One could easily find more arresting and significant concepts elsewhere – in modern physics, for example; or even in philosophy. Art had become empty – symbolised well by the core feature of Tate Modern being the monumental empty space it offers to authorise its conferring the status of being art on almost anything. So it’s not surprising that there would be candidate qualities canvasing to fill up the vacated regions where once aesthetic elements might have been found. Serota’s successor in the top job at the Tate, Maria Balshaw, was soon setting out just such a project.

At the time of taking up her post, Balshaw was asked by London’s Evening Standard newspaper what she considered the Tate’s most important function to be. Her answer was: “To give permission to social learning and engagement with what kind of country we want to live in” (4th July 2017).

The most striking feature of this statement is that, in isolation, one would have no idea she was talking about an art gallery. It could be any official organization. Its tone of officialdom is given in the first phrase: the organization ‘gives permission’ to people – which implies it could refuse such permission if it chose. But perhaps even more significantly, art is regarded as having a specific function, ‘social learning’, which has nothing to do with aesthetics as traditionally understood. The implication was that Tate Modern, as a major institution deciding what is to be considered art, would now make its judgements of what to canonise as art on the basis of the anticipated effects of the art works on the viewers, not on any inherent qualities the works may possess. In this conception, art has – and only has – a social function.

In the Summer 2020 edition of the Tate’s own magazine, Tate Etc, an article about these developments referred to the resulting works as ‘social practice art’ or ‘socially engaged art’. I am going to use the simpler phrase ‘social art’. Most of the installations commissioned by the Tate during Balshaw’s directorship so far belong to this category.

I will take, as a representative example of social art, the exhibit entitled Year 3, devised by the Turner-winning artist Steve McQueen, and shown at Tate Britain (the older of the Tate’s two London buildings) from November 2019 to January 2021 (with an interruption due to Covid). Just as with many conceptual artists, Steve McQueen merely proposed the idea, which was then executed by a team of people employed by the Tate.

McQueen’s idea was to take a photograph, in identical format, of the Year 3 class (seven-year-olds) of every school in London. 70% of schools agreed to participate. The resulting hundreds of framed photographs – much the same as the formal class photos that many schools take each year – were installed from floor to ceiling on the walls of the huge Duveen gallery at the centre of Tate Britain. The order of the photographs seems to follow no specific schema, nor to have been supervised by McQueen himself. Any patterns we might see – such as different classes wearing similar-coloured uniforms – are purely accidental. As an important part of the project, every photographed class was invited to visit the gallery together with their teachers, at a time reserved for them, so that they could seek out their own photograph amid the hundreds on the walls. Maria Balshaw said of this installation, “This may well be the most ambitious artwork we have ever shown at Tate Britain” (Evening Standard, 18 Sept 2018). Explaining its intended purpose, the curator Carrie Wallis said her ambition was “for the gallery to install a mindset in schoolchildren that they can go on to achieve whatever they want” (Evening Standard, 15 Nov 2019).

But this is a very revealing declaration. This art installation has the aim of installing an idea in the minds of the child viewers, as if one were uploading software into their brains. This is pretty much an admission that the purpose of this modern kind of art is propaganda, albeit of a fashionable variety. And the idea they want to propagate here is: ‘You can achieve whatever you want’ – a statement most notable for being completely untrue. Numerous factors, notably those of social class and the accidents of the course of life, easily prevent most people from achieving what they want.

Louis Althusser
Louis Althusser, a genuine pipe-smoking French Marxist intellectual by Clinton van Inman
Portrait © Clinton Inman 2020 Facebook at clinton.inman

So why does this government-funded institution wish to embed in children a false idea? The simplest answer is: that’s what government institutions typically do. Government institutions are what the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser (1918-1990) called ‘Ideological State Apparatuses’ (see his essay with that title in the collection Lenin and Philosophy).

Usually, the word ‘ideology’ refers to any set of beliefs and theories held by a particular individual, without implying any judgement on the truth or otherwise of those beliefs. It is in this sense that one refers to ‘Christian ideology’ or ‘Marxist ideology’. But the use of the word by Althusser is different. In ‘Ideological State Apparatuses’ he defines ideology as “our imaginary relation to our real conditions of existence.” In this sense, ideology is never an accurate account of our circumstances, but, on the contrary, something that obscures any such account by misrepresenting the circumstances. To Althusser this misrepresentation is the function ideology plays in society. The intended-yet-false message of the Tate’s installation is an example of ideology in this sense. Installing in someone’s mind the idea that they can achieve anything they want obscures from their consciousness the numerous factors which prevent this from being true. This, claims Althusser, is the role of Ideological State Apparatuses – such as publicly-funded art galleries.

Socially-Involved Propaganda

Almost all examples of social art involve participatory activity by the viewer, which is regarded as part of the work, not exterior to it. In the case of Year 3, this role is taken by the childrens’ posing for the photo and subsequent visit to the gallery to find their picture on the wall. Each child has posed for the photograph, as if announcing “This is me!”, and later finds themselves on the gallery wall (“That’s me!”). The self-presentation is highly constrained (“Line up in that row! Face the camera!”), and the presentation is then confirmed by the photo (“That’s you! That’s where you belong – in that class there!”). This is an almost diagrammatic demonstration of what Althusser calls ‘interpellation’. Interpellation refers to the general processes whereby each individual is fitted into a specific place within society and is led to accept that placement. This, Althusser claims, is one of the principal functions of ideology. In Althusser’s view, the role of political analysis should be to reveal the structures of society which ideology covers over and misrepresents, thereby loosening the interpellations to which we have all been subjected.

These ideas were a major influence on radical political artists in the 1970s. As we can see, today’s social art has the exactly opposite intention, reinforcing the viewer’s interpellations into the social field. It is surprising, therefore, that many of the reviewers of Year 3 claimed that it was a politically progressive work! Many pointed to the considerable ethnic diversity of the children in the photographs – a fact which would surely come as no surprise to anyone who lives in London. It was therefore seen as a statement against racism. But ‘Racism is a bad thing’ is no longer a controversial statement, even if, unfortunately, it’s not yet fully socially realised. There are lots of racists still around. But generally speaking, they’re not the sort of people who would be likely to be visiting public art galleries such as the Tate. It is a significant feature of social art that its messages often seem to be expressible in uncontroversial assertions such as ‘Racism is a bad thing’, and yet an adjective often used about these works is ‘challenging’. But the people who would be challenged by them will not be there to be challenged, and the rest of us will simply have our current views reinforced. Far from criticising the racism in our society, then, this installation simply ignores it. Children of all ethnicities are shown in equal places in all their school groups, and obviously, that is how things should be – but it does mean that the realities of racial division are being obscured. This obscuring marks the installation as a work of ideology in Althusser’s sense, showing how social art can be a form of officially-approved propaganda.

Whenever we give an opinion that something ‘isn’t really art’, it’s reasonable that we should be challenged to say what, in that case, it actually is. With conceptual art it’s surprisingly difficult to think of an answer to this. But with social art the answer ‘propaganda’ would seem to be a reasonable response.

Artful Dodging

Were the Institutional Theory of Art correct, anything displayed as art by the Tate must be art, by definition. The very fact that we can question this demonstrates the inadequacy of the Institutional Theory.

When Arthur Danto decided it was the gallery itself which transformed Warhol’s Brillo Boxes into art, he neglected various other features that differentiated these objects from boxes in a supermarket. For one thing, Warhol’s Boxes were made of plywood, not cardboard, making them more solid and less ephemeral. For another, they have no actual openings. You can’t put anything inside them. They are, in fact, not boxes at all, any more than a painting of a bed is an actual bed (as Plato had pointed out long ago). They’re a representation of boxes, and have no utilitarian use. All anyone can do is look at them, adopting that contemplative attitude that’s traditionally been regarded as conducive to aesthetic appreciation. Social art, on the other hand, demands participation from us, not contemplation; engagement, not detachment. It has a utilitarian aim: to induce specific attitudes in the viewer’s mind.

Happily, no-one is prevented from producing other kinds of art, even though they will probably not receive the support of institutions such as the Tate. In fact we are living in an era of very rich artistic production, though most of it does not appear in art galleries. Although officially-sanctioned ‘fine art’ has had all its aesthetic aspects removed – first to leave only a concept, and now to leave only ideology – exhilarating aesthetic experiences are not difficult to find: they are only a YouTube click away.

That odd meeting of worlds between Martin Creed and Madonna in 2001 could be seen as an emblematic moment. Gallery art had already begun its plummet from aesthetic significance, while the music video was already on its rise to become one of the major forms of artistic expression today. When the history of twenty-first century art comes to be written, the important names will be people such as Billie Eilish, Lana Del Rey, and FKA twigs rather than the winners of the Turner Prize.

Art is all around us, but only rarely inside art galleries.

© Peter Benson 2021

Peter Benson lives and works in London. He used to be a regular visitor to the capital's art galleries, before the pandemic closed them all down.

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