hope and art : what is useful art?

Last time, thinking about a hopeful art practice, I wrote about Tanya Bruguera, and her comments about “useful art”.

“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

Tanya Bruguera is saying that when we understand the function of art to be “signalling problems”, we have made a mistake, that this is not broad enough.

I take this to mean that if we think making and sharing art is a moral act, then we have to say that the artist has a moral responsibility. This must include a responsibility to tell the truth as we find it (which is our integrity and humility), but it must also include a responsibility to try not to leave things as bad or worse than we find them (which is where hopefulness comes in).

We tend to judge ourselves and others very harshly. I feel like this is an approach which is socially very pervasive, and which is linked to tending also towards feeling personally not good enough, feeling ashamed, insufficient to meet the challenges. Cynicism feels self-protective, because it turns the attention outwards onto “how things / other people are”, rather than towards our own feelings, such as sadness or shame. The problem is that encountering cynical, angry or despairing art can brutalise people; cause cultural damage, soul damage. Cynicism leads to us avoiding taking responsibility in the midst of the messiness of communal life; we are drawn to it because it is easier and cooler than engagement and struggle (or joy, attention, wonder, sorrow, imagination and lots of other possible responses).

Perhaps there is a risk that we will take Tanya Bruguera’s comments too narrowly, as if insufficiently subtle or flexible “usefulness” is being imposed on art and artists. Speaking personally, in my own art practice I would need to apply Tanya Bruguera’s definition with generosity and forgiveness. I would need to make room around the work for my proposals or solutions to start out softly, tentatively. And I would also need to leave room for them to be partial, unresolved, muddled, or even ultimately wrong (that is, for the possibility that the art will turn out not useful at all, but useless). Room for myself too, to be able to recover, learn and move on.

A range of questions begins to come into view: about how we co-operate and find consensus (or common ground) on our values, in order to figure out how we want our art to be useful, and if we want to try to evaluate its effectiveness. I want to try to open up these questions a little more in my next post on hope and art.

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