BY Sam Thorne in Opinion | 20 MAR 14
Featured in
Issue 162

What’s the Use?

Museums take on social practice

BY Sam Thorne in Opinion | 20 MAR 14

‘It’s time to put Duchamp’s urinal back in the restroom!’ This catchy call to arms belongs to Tania Bruguera. A few years ago, the Queens Museum of Art took the Cuban artist at her word, inviting her to install a replica of Fountain (1917) in the New York institution’s toilets. This was a neat idea: a symbolic representation of the feeling, familiar right now, that sym­bolic representations might no longer be enough. A day later, though, Duchamp’s ‘R. Mutt’ signature had vanished, cleaned away by maintenance staff. Perhaps this accidental erasure was only appropriate. Even in a museum, art becomes harder to discern once it’s been put to work.

The recently expanded Queens Museum has been an important ally in Bruguera’s quest for arte útil. This Spanish phrase means ‘useful art’ – which, depending on your mood, sounds either tautologous or oxymoronic – though also has the difficult-to-translate sense of a tool or device. For the last dozen years, Bruguera has been refining and complicating this idea via several major projects: an art academy in her Havana home (2002–09), Immigrant Movement International in Queens (2011–ongoing) and, most recently, the exhibition ‘Museum of Arte Útil’ at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven (2013–14). Despite having close ties with conventional organizations, all of these initiatives function like spiky counter-institutions or alternative propositions. To paraphrase another of Bruguera’s maxims, she doesn’t want an art that points at the thing, she wants an art that is the thing.

In this, she’s not alone. It’s been a high-profile year for useful art, even if there’s little agreement on what to call it (current front-runners are social practice or socially engaged art). Last year, Laurie Jo Reynolds’s remarkable ‘legislative art’ initiative, Tamms Year Ten (2008–13), succeeded in closing the notorious Tamms supermax prison in Illinois. As she noted, ‘Out of solitary confinement came solidarity.’ In recognition, Reynolds – a participant in ‘Museum of Arte Útil’ – was awarded the Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change at the 2013 Creative Time Summit: the wildly popular, slickly evangelical annual event that celebrates the confluence between art and social justice. Useful art has also received a level of mainstream exposure: last year, The New York Times published an article titled ‘Outside the Citadel, Social Practice Art Is Intended to Nurture’, which name-checked Bruguera, while, in January, The New Yorker ran a lengthy profile of Theaster Gates. The latter piece was titled ‘The Real-Estate Artist’ – symptomatic of the more breathless accounts of useful art, framing social practice as little more than en­trepreneurial activism. Where governments fail, artists lead the way!

Plaudits have been punctuated by quiet, insistent criticisms. In a penetrating essay titled ‘A Critique of Social Practice Art’, published in the International Socialist Review last July, the New York-based critic Ben Davis questioned what happens when such projects actu­ally divert attention from the true extent of broader social malaise. His case study was Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses (1993–ongoing) in Houston’s Third Ward district. Comprising the renovation of some six blocks of shotgun housing, this is, quite rightly, one of the most lauded examples of social practice. But the city’s housing crisis has not improved in the past two dec­ades. Instead, it has got drastically worse: the number of people living in low-income neighbourhoods has doubled in the last decade alone. And what happens when art is useful for the ‘wrong people’, a front for property developers or ambitious councils? Persistent allegations of abetting gentrification are never far away. Lowe himself is aware of this. At last year’s Creative Time Summit, he even wondered whether community art isn’t itself being gentrified by upwardly mobile social practitioners.

As Bruguera knows, the term ‘useful art’ isn’t a new one. Back in 1969, the Argentinian artist Eduardo Costa wrote a ‘Manifiesto de Arte Útil’, describing the first of what he called his ‘Useful Art Works’. These included buying replacements for missing street signs in midtown Manhattan and painting a subway station on Fifth Avenue. You could trace the impulse even further back: in the US, to John Dewey’s argument, in his book Art as Experience (1934), that nothing is more useful than art; or, in the uk, to John Ruskin, who famously cautioned in The Stones of Venice (1853) that ‘the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless’. Today, Ruskin is something of a guiding spirit for Grizedale Arts in the Lake District. His reformist approach infuses their energetic activities, such as the honesty shop and the Liam Gillick-designed library they set up in their local Coniston Institute, which Ruskin himself helped rebuild in 1878. Grizedale was one of several partners of ‘Museum of Arte Útil’, which temporarily transfigured the Van Abbe’s old building into what was described as a ‘social power plant’.

Developed in conversation with Bruguera, this project prompted a number of pressing questions, including how do we ‘use’ a museum? And, if the public museum remains an essentially late 18th century institution, how do we make it relevant for today? In an interview screened in one of the galleries, the Van Abbe’s director, Charles Esche, called for nothing less than the ‘abolition of the museum as it currently exists’. In an essay commissioned for ‘Museum of Arte Útil’, the theorist Stephen Wright claimed that recent decades have seen a ‘usological turn’. Whether or not this unattractive phrase will catch on (I vote no), a major component of this provocative project is a switching of terms. ‘Viewers’ become ‘users’; works are ‘initiated’ rather than ‘authored’, and were ordered according to updated – though, it has to be said, slightly 1990s-sounding – categories: ‘A-Legal’, ‘Space Hack’, ‘Open Access’. This wasn’t so much a new museum as a parody of the authoritative classi­fications of yore. With Bruguera’s own gallery in ‘Museum of Arte Útil’ titled the ‘Room of Propaganda, Legitimation and Belief’, it was for the most part tongue-in-cheek – the zeal only winkingly messianic. It was the sound, not always pleasant, of the museum thinking about itself, and about what usefulness might mean.

Sam Thorne is the director general and CEO of Japan House London.