Fried or Sunny Side Up?

By Andras Szanto
In the spirit of getting more specific, back to those fried eggs for a second. 

The artist Rirkrit Tiravanija makes art that consists of cooking food and offering it to people. I well remember an exhibition of his involving cooked eggs, as it happens (people could eat them or throw them against a wall, as I recall). The "work" was cooking eggs. As such, based solely on the tangible attributes, it might well fall beyond an enumerative listing of activities that comprise the sphere of the "expressive life." Herein lies a problem. Art theory has long ago moved beyond such intrinsic definitions. We recognize that it is not the nature of an activity that might qualify it as art, but, at least in part, an institutional definition. This is relevant to the undertaking here, since many posts thus far have been about drawing up lists of what's in and what's out. In fact, we need to get up to speed with the evolution of art itself and recognize that anything can be art (not to mention culture) and that we will lose any game that's about setting boundaries. That reduces policy to politics: a power struggle about whose definition wins. 

It so happens, in addition, that Tiravanija's important artistic actions, now widely recognized as milestones in contemporary art, happened in a venue that falls almost completely outside the purview of traditional American cultural policymaking (such as it is)--a commercial art gallery. That underscores the need to set our sights wider, much wider, than the narrow confines of the nonprofit sphere, which, as Adrian and others suggest, is only too happy to reduce the conversation to how funders can keep high-art 501c3 institutions lubricated with grant dollars. 

What I take away from the conversation so far is that cultural policy must engage a wider set of issues and infrastructural sites than until now. Intellectually, that's unassailable. I have two specific concerns based on reading the posts up till now. One is that a widening of perspective--a "reframing"--can happen with a new term, perhaps, but there is no reason why it couldn't happen under the old terms. The problem is not the language, but the mindset. We may be placing too much faith in linguistics if we believe that by invoking a new name we can blast away decades of narrow-minded thinking habits. If getting people to say "expressive life" is a quicker path to making them realize that IT and IP are part of arts policy, Amen. I have my doubts. 

Ultimately, the most important and very specific issue is this: Who are the people who hold the keys to the resources and what's in their heads? In my personal experience, even trying to advocate the very basic idea that the news media and arts journalism are vital to the health of arts and culture (sorry, the expressive life) tends to draw blank stares accompanied by heavy nodding, but little else. In short, broadening the frame may have less to do with the words we use than with who is doing the speaking.   


January 27, 2010 6:30 AM | |


This Conversation Are the terms "Art" and "Culture" tough enough to frame a public policy carve-out for the 21st century? Are the old familiar words, weighted with multiple meanings and unhelpful preconceptions, simply no longer useful in analysis or advocacy? In his book, Arts, Inc., Bill Ivey advances "Expressive Life" as a new, expanded policy arena - a frame sufficiently robust to stand proudly beside "Work Life," "Family Life," "Education," and "The Environment." Is Ivey on the right track, or more

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