a hopeful art practice : useful art

In 2013, Tanya Bruguera initiated and curated a project called the Museum of Arte Útil, in which examples and templates of “useful art” were made freely available, and the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven was opened up for use by community organisations.

In her opening speech, Tanya Bruguera said:

“art as ‘as-ethics’, this is a term we use […] Because Arte Útil is not something to look at, but is something to do something with.”

Here, Bruguera was pointing out tendencies in philosophy and the history of ideas which she finds problematic, and which have separated out ethics from aesthetics. Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy dealing with the discussion of art. Ethics is moral philosophy. It is about values: what is good, what is right and wrong, how we should live.

The book “Toward a lexicon of usership”, published as part of the “Museum of Arte Útil“, criticises the widespread idea of “spectatorship” in aesthetics, and in conventions of display of contemporary art. This is a reference to the concept of “disinterested spectatorship”, introduced by Immanuel Kant in a discussion of beauty in his eighteenth century work “Critique of Aesthetic Judgement“. And this reference is because it was Kant’s work, above all, which set us on a path of ideas that separates out art from ethics and politics, giving us our familiar image of a passive viewer of art who contemplates the formal properties of a beautiful object, independent of moral values, ideas or emotion, and somehow standing outside of history. The lexicon claims that although disinterested spectatorship has been, and remains, extraordinarily influential and long-lasting, a paradigm shift is “well underway” in which “spectatorship” is being replaced by “usership”.

It seems that Kant’s overall project was less interested in art and beauty, and more concerned with using the ideas in creating his work of elevating ‘reason’ into our highest capacity. Speaking in an essay about Kant’s ethics and his aesthetics, writer and philosopher Iris Murdoch summarises by saying that his aim was to show that “In so far as we are rational and moral we are all the same, and in some mysterious sense transcendent to history.” She offers the insight that “Kant is afraid of the particular. He is afraid of history.” I hope to return at a later point to Murdoch, and her suggestions as to a truer relationship between morals and art. For now though, in looking at the Arte Útil example, we can perhaps see that although Kant arguably wanted to show us an image of ourselves, through reason, stepping out of history and its tangles, and wanted to locate what is moral outside of the messiness of the particular; Tanya Bruguera actively rejects this view, and takes an alternative approach. Her attitude seems more courageous, and more promising from the point of view of a hopeful orientation and practice, which if we return to Rebecca Solnit’s definition must deal with things as they are in reality, and so must engage with politics and history.

If there is a paradigm shift towards rejecting the idea of a passive viewer of art who does not seek to use what she encounters in either a practical, emotional, or moral sense, and we are turning towards art with a “usership” and “use value”, then it seems fair to ask what we think the use of art is, and what it should be doing. Bruguera says that the term Arte Útil can be translated both as “useful art”, and “art as a tool”, and that in her view artists have a responsibility to make positive contributions in society, a responsibility towards thinking in terms of solutions:

“Useful art is a way of working with aesthetic experiences that focus on the implementation of art in society, where art’s function is no longer to be a space for signalling problems, but a place from which to create proposals and implementation of possible solutions […] If it is political art, it deals with consequences. If it deals with consequences, I personally think it has to be useful art.”

Tanya Bruguera, Useful Art Event

Sources & resources for further research and reading:

Associacion de Arte Útil : About Arte Útil and Museum of Arte Útil. and

Van Abbemuseum, Museum of Arte Útil :

Van Abbemuseum (2014) Director Charles Esche talking about Museum of Arte Útil :

Wright, S. (2013) Toward a Lexicon of Usership :

Iris Murdoch Existentialists and Mystics : Writings on Philosophy and Literature. London : Penguin, 1997.

Rebecca Solnit: Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Edinburgh: Cannongate Books, 2016.

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