Bishop, C. (2006) Participation. (s.l.): Whitechapel.

I found this to be essential (and revolutionary) reading like visiting a new country with a different language, culture, social structure, history and political system. Reading the book every day for several weeks was like living with a local. Much was incomprehensible but by some strange function of intellectual osmosis lots seems to have crept into my consciousness.

It has changed how I view art and the world, like having a new filter fixed on a camera changes everything you see. It has helped me re-assess all my knowledge and will definitely affect how I put paint onto a canvas, where I take my practice, and with what level of confidence.

All that said the specifics are very difficult to unpick and some of the language almost unreadable unless you are a specialist. To help me I made a flow chart and was able to come to some broad conclusions.

Flowchart of thoughts from ‘Participation’

Broad conclusions:

Before the conclusions a very brief note on structure. The book is divided up into three sections with essays written by A) Critics, B) Artists, C) Curators. This in itself is interesting, like being shown three species of closely related dogs… but which are all quite distinct. This gives me a better lens to assess my reading as up to this time critical essays have been presented as undifferentiated walls of wisdom (when in fact the training and occupation of the writer gives them a definite slant).

In this book the critics are opaque and highly intellectual… the writers are pseudo intellectual and at times confusing… and the critics generally intellectual but easier to understand as their frame is practical rather than idealistic.

The book seems to stem from the theories/political activism of the late 1960’s and how it is realised in the 90’s and early 2000’s.

What strikes me is that there is a huge battle over the ownership of the word and classification, ‘Art’. And that whoever and whatever wins the prize all three competitors (1. Maker, 2. Intellectual, 3. Praxis) still maintain the role/function of creator. What is at dispute is the ‘product’ and whether the creator can identify as ‘Artist’.

  1. Maker

Creator (with skill/craft) makes or causes to be made an object which can be commodified (bought and sold in the capitalist marketplace). This object affects the senses and causes us to think anew and usually has an element of traditional aesthetic beauty.

This new thinking can be subjective (an artist holding up his subjectivity to the world) such as Van Gogh, Matisse or Hockney, to do with art such as Picasso exploring Cubism, or political/activist/cultural art such as trying to effect behaviour by exposing pollution or gender bias for example.

The created object cannot be produced purely for financial speculation or entertainment.

2. Intellectual

Creator (no craft/making skills necessary) as intellectual who makes or causes to be made an object that is conceptually based and seeks to promulgate an idea.

This is also known as conceptual art and stems from Duchamp’s urinal and the anti-art movement that followed from that. Inherent within this is the downgrading of the object, which is purged of aesthetic beauty, and the promotion of meaning.

3. Praxis

Creator (privileged intellectual) who creates social practices involving the proletariat/worker whereby ‘ordinary’ people make art as part of their everyday lives and the role of artist as privileged maker is defunct.

This seems to be the area covered by ‘Participation’ with most of the ideological underpinning stemming from Marxist theories, though these have been evolved, and therefore changed, over time.

Having identified these ‘competitors’ for the title of ‘Artist’ I think it is important to say that there are many hybrids between the different categories, and as in deciding where red starts and orange ends it is almost impossible to define any precise boundaries between the categories as all involve shades of meaning and borrow elements of each other.

My position

Knowledge is a wonderful thing and shifts perception and understanding, but there are no absolute truths in culture (as a man-made construct) only transient positions. This is my position at the moment before I read my next book, experience my next painting or am challenged into a rethink by a tutor or fellow student.

I identify as a maker using traditional hand-techniques such as oil painting.

What follows from this for my practice is that I see myself as making meaningful aesthetic objects (that hold up my subjectivity) that people will buy to put in their homes. As an addendum, I am ideologically committed to art being available for as many people as possible so as well as selling original artworks, which only one person can own, I am happy to sell my designs on merchandise so that people can share my work. And one day would like to make prints as then 50 to 100 people can own an original artwork.

Concept art serves a valuable social/cultural function and is something I enjoy ‘consuming’ but I feel no urge, and do not feel intellectually skilled enough, to make.

Art as praxis I don’t see to be art. In the book an example is given of a woman who classifies her community dance lessons in Funk as art, because they introduce people to new ways of thinking. I see this as community education, or self improvement… but not as art.

For me participating in an activity with no skill is like having a taster session in a new hobby… it’s fun/challenging and entertaining but not art. Plus as a participant you are only aware of your own part of the ‘happening’ and consumed in the subjectivity of the moment.

And praxis does not lose the role of creator but transfers it from maker to intellectual, as the person who designs and organises the activity. The product being activism or worker education.

Finally, we return to payment. The maker is paid by individuals and organisations who buy his object. The intellectual concept artist is selling ideas reified as an object… so I’m not sure how most would earn a living? Though I can see that if they become internationally famous for their concept, collectors and museums would buy their work, some may slip into entertainment art such as artistic firework displays and be able to sell tickets, and as intellectuals others might work in academia . And for praxis, as a social activity, I think you would have to fund your work through government/private grants or by raising money from followers.

Praxis I see as a hugely valuable social and cultural activity, but I don’t see it as art.

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