But what does it mean, exactly, to describe a work of art as "activist"?
As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, art that aims to actively challenge the social order continues to spark controversy and encounter resistance. In one recent instance, the University of California at San Diego threatened to revoke the tenure of Ricardo Dominguez, a professor of visual art, who developed what he calls "transborder immigrant tools"--recycled cell phones loaded with GPS software that point border-crossers to caches of fresh water in the desert. Dominquez has called the phones, which feature an audio application that plays inspirational poetry to migrants, a "mobile Statue of Liberty." "I'm interested in how different forms of power respond to this," Dominguez explained to an LA Times reporter. "Our work has always been to bring to the foreground what artists can do using available low-end, new technologies that can have a wider encounter with society than just the limited landscape of the museum, the gallery and the scholarly paper." (1)
Dominguez's cell-phone project stirs up the age-old debate about what is "art." Can a mass-produced, quotidian object like a cell phone really be art? Who exactly is the artist--the cell phone designers and manufacturers, the poets whose words are recorded on these machines, the phone users who activate them, or Dominguez himself? As this example suggests, the idea makes the art, not the material object out of which the art was made. Marcel Duchamp's "readymades" made this point forcefully, as did other dada artists when they assembled the detritus of daily life into what they displayed as art (collages made of bus tickets, bits of string, and other odds and ends). Putting a signed urinal on view as an object of public aesthetic contemplation (Duchamp, Fountain 1917), pulverizing language in paroxysmal fury (Antonin Artaud's "Theater of Cruelty," anticipated by Alfred Jarry's inaugural use of "shit" on stage in Ubu Roi 1896), or inventing the empty label "dada" to describe their work, artists were responding to the Great War's gratuitous destruction of so many young lives but also, more broadly, dehumanization by industry and smug bourgeois proprieties. Here is cultural work that slams conventional notions of the unique beauty of the handcrafted object as "art"--work that is disruptive, irreverent, and transformative.
While the driving force behind this work was often anarchic rather than ideological, it proved to be the wellspring of a political art that is continuing to challenge the social order to this day. In this sense Dominguez's cell phones raise questions we already knew in other guises. Is Duchamp's cheap print of Mona Lisa plus mustache art defaced or art? Is a dadaist "exquisite corpse" poem, made of unconnected lines, actually a poem? Is Basquiat's use of graffiti in fact "art"? Does a Jackson Pollock canvas involve skill and expressive content or is it a haphazard mess? And what about Andy Warhol's soup cans or Jasper Johns' flags? What repeatedly emerges from such controversies is the fact that definitions of "art" are subjective, unstable, and often a function of commerce and muscle. While at issue are certainly questions of crafting and expression, at issue are also considerations of status, exhibition, and investment value as these interact with precedents--with preceding arguments and uses. Dominguez's cell phones cite earlier debates around "readymades." The Olivetti typewriter on display at New York's Museum of Modern Art may be participating in a later and different conversation regarding applied design as "art," but it also re-insinuates the ironies of Duchamp's dada apotheosis of a ratty typewriter cover as "art"; in a flea market it is just junk. When Jerome Robbins incorporated the drawing of graffiti into a ballet he choreographed, "dirt" became "art." Warhol's painting of tomato soup cans at once gestures toward art and dismantles it; the cans' lowly reference and mechanical reproduction confront bourgeois exclusivity with the banalities of lower-middle-and working-class life.
For us as radical teachers what is most important is less a work's entitlement to the hallowed label of "art" than its social uses. At issue is the making and use of...