Art Is Not an R&D Lab

I spend a lot of time reading calls for submissions and residency descriptions. (I harbor some big aesthetic dreams, you see, and I think they are probably going to need institutional support to come true, but these institutions don’t know about me yet.) These are often for media and tech art projects, because I make my art with computers and that’s my milieu. And I can tell you without doubt they want one of three things: a lightly critical tech demo; a heavily engaging tech demo; or a proposal that is going to change how viewers understand a vital social issue, probably either ecological collapse or racism.

This last cannot be approached obliquely. It can be approached ironically, if necessary — you can use an Amazon-destroying amount of energy to make an AI piece about climate-based destruction — but it must clearly contain a proposal about how the artist thinks we may save ourselves. If it is about racism, it must either foreground the ongoing suffering of black people or the wisdom of “non-Western” cultures. If it includes or even primarily comprises a panel, all the better. If it does include visuals, these should be designed to convince an audience. No matter what, it should absolutely be designed.

Is this so bad? Art can change the world and our world needs so much changing. We are on a precipice and maybe it is too late. Technology — not just the items, but the mindset — is ascendant and so its institutional structure appears ideal. This is the form in which change is made — hypothesis, experiment, effect. A group of people diligently researching and developing nudges to send out into the world, to get the masses to move better.

Arts institutions need money and money comes with ideology. Money wants to know it is improving the world and engaging its audience. Money wants goals and numbers. This is the technological ideology.

And this ideology has no space for a painting, a drawing, a video or a hole in the ceiling that you visit day after day, puzzling it out in different moods and lights. No. Look at something new. Look at something good for you. Contemplation is only acceptable in the form meditation, which has been proven to lower stress and make you more productive, with fewer expensive doctor visits.

The ultimate expression of these beliefs then are didactic pieces that instead of convincing by opening spaces in our souls, hector and instruct. There is no respite here from a world that is frantically performing and convincing you. Much like AI art is the capture of art for propaganda purposes, social goal art is the capture of social improvement processes by institutions that guarantee they won’t be ultimately successful.

One could argue here that this is the nature of the institution — to capture and defang that which has not already been defanged by time. Artists ought not worry about institutions but instead put on their own shows. However, unlike the 20th century, when emptied out and half-destroyed cities had space and people could actually afford to have a go at being an artist and still inhabit them — finding community without needing to drive 25 minutes — gentrification and growing income inequality have sent artists to the periphery or into the academy.

These same processes have undermined the more logical venues for social change work — journalism, policy foundations, other hollowed out organs of civil society. Art has survived so far, because it's cool and an excellent forum for money laundering. It is still open people who care about changing the world for the better, so why not use the vehicle you have to have to hand?

This is an understandable development.

But if we rush in and use art institutions to fill these empty civil spaces, what becomes of the space art began staking out for itself and the white men who practiced it in the 19th and 20th centuries? What becomes of extended personal investigation into the sublime? What becomes of peripatetic and non-focused adventures? What happens to undirected imagination? To the formal expressions of a specific interior space?

I’m moderately familiar with the story of how expression became a macho pipedream and social, politically engaged art became ascendant (pace some Zombie Formalism that we already knew was bankrupt, I mean, just look at that name). I can’t help but notice, though, that the interest in the individual conveniently fell away as people with more varied perspectives gained access to the claim of a legitimate perspective. Instead of souls we become social groups and then data. A community with no space for the individual is not a community; it is a bureaucracy. Even if it comes with cute designs.

Everything right now is pretty bad. It’s not just the pandemic but the way it has revealed the cruelty and stupidity and utter inability to reverse course that lurks in our societies. Expecting arts institutions and artists within them to be the engines of direct civil change is absurd. Actions there are captured.

What art can offer, if it takes up its purpose again, is imagination and indirect investigation. The sublime and its transformations still lurk and it’s through these that we may uncover the dream that animates a correction our world dearly needs. But it cannot be approached head-on; it cannot be pinned onto the R&D board and argued out rationally. It cannot promise you impact first and then back out into what it should show you, like the UX for your new app. These are not its metaphors or processes.

Can art change the world? I don’t think any artist would say no; I would not. But we’re not going to do it by charging straight into the goal like it’s one of our Q3 OKRs.