Thought Experiments in Agency

Artists, Self-Care, Psychology and Politics

In thinking about psychological resourcefulness, and how artists might view ourselves, this struck a chord:

“I think of self-care as a political position, which one must take when one is vulnerable to a system that doesn’t recognize and care for you.”

—Shannon Stratton, as quoted by Zachary Cahill, “Exquisite Self-Reliance: Zachary Cahill talks with Shannon Stratton,” The Exhibitionist, August 10, 2015

It was great timing to come across this quote, as I’ve been thinking about artists’ power this past week-and-a-half in LMCC’s Process Space studio program.

Julia Bryan-Wilson: Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era

Julia Bryan-Wilson: Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era // Source: UC Press

I read Julia Bryan-Wilson’s “Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era” (2011), a look at the ‘art worker’ identity vis á vis the Art Workers Coalition and four key figures: Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Lucy Lippard, and Hans Haacke. The book has deepened my understanding of AWC and each of these individuals’ practices, especially how their politics influenced their artistic development and vice versa (rhetoric and a soapbox for Andre, risk and a cynical turn for Morris, public evolution of perspectives for Lippard, and a lost Guggenheim solo show and reinforced beliefs for Haacke).

Hans Haacke, On Social Grease (quote David Rockefeller; one of six panels) 1975. Photograph: Walter Russell. © Hans Haacke/VG Bild-Kunst // Source: tate.org.uk

Hans Haacke, On Social Grease (quote David Rockefeller; one of six panels) 1975. Photograph: Walter Russell. © Hans Haacke/VG Bild-Kunst // Source: tate.org.uk

I especially appreciate the extensive historical context, from the Vietnam War (and burgeoning anti-corporate ethos), the strategy of non-participation in the context of mass strikes and slowdowns, the New Left and the writings of Marcuse, and the rise of second wave Feminism (which ultimately bore the alternative culture the museum-targeting AWC aspired to create). I enjoyed Bryan-Wilson’s embrace of practice-as-rehearsal; ‘success’ and ‘failure’ are criteria too blunt for these shifting developments. She’s a fastidious thinker, using clear language to nimbly explore contradictory aspirations and actions.

Tom Finkelpearl, What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation // Source: Duke University Press.

Tom Finkelpearl, What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation // Source: Duke University Press.

I’ve also recently re-read the introduction and conclusion of Tom Finklepearl’s What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation (2013). The introduction is a thorough history of social and relational art, the social history that influenced it, and the books and exhibitions that mark its evolution. It’s a fantastically researched chapter, and if it were up to me, I’d make it required reading.

Finklepearl, formerly of the Queens Museum, profiles a refreshingly diverse set of artists. The conclusion draws upon American philosophical pragmatism, and social relationships and actions as productive fields of practice. It’s an energizing read, which left me thinking about how individuals contribute to groups, and how, in turn, individuals achieve more agency, individuation, and autonomy. A lot of writing about cooperation is based on evolutionary theories, which strikes me as a bit too transactional and calculated. For Finklepearl, the benefits of mutualism extend beyond corporeal or material gain to intrinsic reward and personal growth among participants. The optimism is contagious.

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