Deeply impressed, I watch a considerable crowd spend its hard-earned London weekend standing in a queue. Not for Madame Tussaud’s, but for a work at the exhibition ‘Psycho Buildings’, where the art collective Gelitin has turned the Hayward Gallery’s rooftop into a puddle filled with paddling contraptions. To me the appeal of the work – normally, proceeding and unrestricted with without title (2008) – lies not in the structural aquatics, but in the participatory promise, in people lining up for eons to sit in a tub in the afternoon drizzle. They say love makes you swallow your pride and do harebrained things. But it’s no match for art.
How does art do it? What’s the USP (unique selling point) that lets art get away with so many impractical ideas with dubious entertainment value? From paddleboats to freewheeling ‘theory’ exercises, whether you’re writing, curating or helping yourself to context as an artist, the art reference will open doors to an unquestioned ambivalence that is specifically art-world, and that remains out of bounds for other professions.
You may think the art-specificity question – the very habit of bolstering, deconstructing or dramatizing working definitions – is tedious to begin with. In the April issue of this magazine, Mark Nash insisted that boundaries between fact and fiction are totally blurred. But the Big Question – the ‘what’s-this-art-thing’ thing – is largely avoided. Some say it’s outsourced to the tabloid press. Others say it’s still with us, camouflaged, lurking deep within more acceptable polarities such as fact versus fiction, etc. Might Gelitin exemplify a sleight of hand, a neck verse, an impunity that art professionals have in common? Over the last few months, I’ve been asked to elaborate on London architects, Arab migrants, Leninism, the eastward expansion of Europe and the early history of Western philosophy. The term ‘unqualified’ is not an issue. No questions asked: just do the arty mystery thing. Now you may argue that paddleboats are not the same as the fashionable display of semi-knowledge. But I insist. I can tell there’s common ground here, some carte blanche we share, some faux-waterfall of the post-medium, post-disciplinary condition – a desperately muddled sense of proxemics.
The art world is, after all, where disparity is a value in itself, where organizers put different professions, nationalities and heartrending topics in one room, and scratch their heads in disappointment when the result is stumbling boredom. In the best of cases, we spawn creative misunderstandings like those faux amis – words that sound the same in different languages, but mean something very different (eventually and éventuellement, actual and actuel). Consider ‘art as academia’, or as ‘research’, ‘activism’, even ‘smuggling’. It’s tempting to highlight the more decisive overlaps with critical karaoke and adventure tourism. But the muddled criteria are precisely the point, and part of the fun.
Other USPs that Gelitin and their art world colleagues, including myself, are resorting to: the zeitgeistian thrust of art, the perfect post-Fordist rationalization for a lifestyle where uncertainty, apprehension and interruption is welcomed as good clean crazy fun. But also: a canonical, auratic genealogy of conflicts, successes and failures, strategic snobbery and dashing populism.
The discussion I’m trying to broach is, admittedly, somewhat dicey. I myself come from the field of literature, which lacks the interdisciplinarity of the arts. I do appreciate the unpredictable combinations that exist here, the possibilities of colonizing architectural or entertainment traditions with impunity. However, if the specifics of professional approach are left to unexamined reflex, then the ‘incommensurable’ can mask what is routine indifference. Moreover, people will imitate pre-existing traditions, unwittingly aping ‘architects’, ‘academics’, ‘activists’, etc. What’s worse, if there are no limits to our expertise, then there’s no situation where members of the art world will sit down and shut up and acknowledge it has little to say.
So even if attempts to delineate have amounted to ignoble acts of intellectual malice, committed by pompous old cretins in corduroy – critics consolidating their definition of quality through a general definition of art – even then, it’s worth the risk. Recent attempts at cautious delineation have ranged from Charles Esche’s ‘engaged autonomy’, to Claire Bishop’s post-participatory doxa, to the humdrum formula of ‘formalism + humanism’, courtesy of ‘documenta 12’. What these very different approaches have in common is an ambitious grappling with the embarrassment of that thing called art. Whenever I teach I clumsily try to locate the specific histories, myths and terminologies. The dilemma being that specificity conjures the pitfalls of canon, method and vocational training, and I can feel my jeans turn to corduroy as I plod through the Powerpoint. But if I do share a thing or two with Gelitin, I prefer to know what, exactly, it is.