The definition of an artist has gone through huge paradigmatic shifts in response to social and technological change. Perhaps it is most fitting to say that there is no one definition that covers everything artists do. But far from being unsatisfactory, this vagueness is maybe the most important part of the job description, because it leaves open that space of self-determination that makes it so vital as an agent of change. The artist can be seen as a fulcrum between idea and form, an agent of meaning -making, -breaking and/or -preservation, a juggler of significations.
In a humanistic tradition, the freedom to self-define is key, because that is the wellspring of hope. But self-expression must be balanced against social need, if it is to pass into common use or effect change, and social responsibility requires commonly intelligible signs, research, collaboration, and follow-up. In Bourriaud’s “relational aesthetics” the audience and the artist meld, creating together something that is far more fitting in its locale and meaningful to the community than what one person could come up with alone.
Community-based art practices are more common now than ever before. Artists are becoming social workers, with residencies being established in hospitals, schools, and community centres. In some places, they are awarded residencies or commissions on the condition that they collaborate with the community they are placed in, by consultation, collaboration, or teaching. While the integration of artist and public can connect the creative process in affirmative and rewarding ways, it does raise questions about the autonomy of the artist. At what point does the artist become just another civil servant? Is public and community art going to become contingent upon social agendas? Do artists interacting with the public actually have sufficient ethical and methodological training for it? Will the wish to do good backfire by leaving artists vulnerable to reductive, mechanistic evaluations that determine the success of the art and the artist by measuring its tangible social results? As the concept of the artist changes and—in the eyes of governments wanting to lever creative capital in the city—settles into a sharper definition as a facilitator, the artist’s ability to self-define and play with significations may be compromised. This is possibly the core issue facing artists in their relationship to cities.
Visible City is interested in artist-directed activities that resist total assimilation while not abandoning social agency. Rather than seeking permission through established and controlled channels, some artists find the grey areas of legality, and build alternative hives and webs in the interstices of city space and city rules. Other artists don’t wait for direction or censorship but bring proposals and ideas straight to the municipality and convince them to sponsor it. Together, the diversity of approaches and philosophies among artists preserve a balanced space of possibility where art can be anything, as needed.
- Jaleen Grove