I work in an Art School. I run an MA course in contemporary art. A key question I ask my students is: in an age of image saturation what’s the point of art focused on images? The art world makes a fetish of their potential value and art has been corralled into administrative and architectural structures, institutions like Tate, that present artists with a terminal set of conditions within which to develop and present their work untouched by the realities of life on the streets beyond. Fine for pictures and objects whose sole purpose is to be looked at but hardly a meaningful context for the realisation of artists’ ambitions to revolutionise the everyday life of society at large.
Back in the twentieth century the avant-garde wanted to bridge the art-life gap. But that post war project, to challenge the categorization and mystification of art separate from everyday life, largely failed. Instead we got post-modernism with its hyper-fragmentation: the creation of a world of unrelated bits and pieces as fodder for the capitalist boom (bubble) of the past thirty or so years. Now the challenge is to remake something from these pieces: to create a new narrative for art in a broader cultural context.
Instruction in the arts of life is something other than conveying information about them. It is a matter of communication and participation in values of life by means of the imagination, and works of art are the most intimate and energetic means of aiding individuals to share in the arts of living. John Dewey, Art as Experience, 1932.
Essentially, art is structured in consciousness. Objects and images are but evidence, a trace, left after the activity of art has ended. We substitute this evidence, objects and images, for a living process and so remove the potentiality of art from everyday life. Art as a quality of life would mean the end of art as a pure ‘thing’, something separate from the rest of life.
Jackson Pollock, as I see him, left us at the point where we must become preoccupied with and even dazzled by the space and objects of our everyday life, either our bodies, clothes, rooms, or, if need be, the vastness of Forty-second Street. Allan Kaprow, The Legacy of Jackson Pollock, 1958.
For the more than fifty years since Kaprow wrote this essay art has continued to broaden its range of experience and idea. Though much that is extraordinary has been created most of it has already been filed and stored across the network of ‘terminal institutions’ that now constitute the international art-world. But the “vastness of Forty–second Street” still beckons and challenges the professional alienation that now characterizes art production for most artists.
Art has been the means of keeping alive the sense of purposes that outrun evidence and of meanings that transcend indurated habit, wrote John Dewey back in 1932. But if the concept of art is to have any purchase on the future it must abandon the closed loop of institutional control. Everyday life as a site of personal and social transformation must become the new locus of art.