By Lisa Larson-Walker
Doug Ashford is an artist and teacher at the Cooper Union School of Art, in New York. He also is a member of Group Material, an artists’ collective that for thirty years has created work questioning a variety of social themes and activist causes. On Saturday, October 25, Ashford will discuss Group Material’s “Democracy” (1988), a yearlong art project exploring the conflicts and failures within American democracy, as part of the symposium “Disruptions: The political art in now” at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The following is an excerpt from a conversation held in New York.
What changes do you notice within the strategies of activist art, what new methods are used, or what new spaces are being confronted?
I’m interested in the notion of artists’ turn to politics as a way to describe our investment in practices close to the experiences of beauty as an investment in the dialogical, the socially collaborative, the community based, a whole list of the past, probably twenty years. Those practices that are supposedly blending the relationship of art to activism have become seriously formulistic. Art has the potential to speak to aspects of humanity that are hidden and overwhelming. This potential could be overshadowed by the pragmatic needs of the social activist. So in that sense, when her social capital is taken by the status quo, the social activist may have an art form that has become decorative.
Can you think of anything that doesn’t function politically?
No, not if made by humans. Because, all culture happens for a reason, and all the ways that art moves us privately and socially is arranged, not dictated, but arranged through discourse.
Is that the inherent politics of discourse then?
Yeah, discourse is always in struggle. In that sense, I’m sort of a classic seventies cultural studies person, in that I see that the way we are able to describe ourselves as being formed in culture is dictated through power, from power. Not directly, because culture is controlled in so many different ways—by definition it is a political terrain. It doesn’t necessarily mean that political interventions will always change culture, that’s the beauty of it. And that’s why I would always insist to talk about this social turn, from the point of view of an artist’s use of politics to make epiphanies.
It seems like there’s been a big change in the availability of financial support for artists and art collectives since 1988. It’s positive for there to be more capital for these groups to have, but there is a definite way to get good at getting this money, and then maybe that’s why things get so formulaic, which seems to me to be negative. Can you comment on that?
It depends, because we know nothing is free. That’s the great American colloquialism. We know there’s no free lunch. How funding is then directing the thesis or the critique or the feelings or the affect is, from my perspective, is something that has its own culture. The relationship between art institutions and philanthropy, the actual resources they’re able to use, and how that the idea that the philanthropist is then also a cultural figure, is changing through time.
Within this, what do you think about the notion of a cultural capital that progressive political art can bring to a philanthropist? I don’t want to be overly sensational and say that they’re trying to ‘wash away the sins of capitalism’ by making this gesture but…
The idea of the redeemer, or the idea of redemption, often seems to be big in some of the rhetoric that validates the critical rhetoric around collaborative practices. Group Material was always extremely suspicious of this, because we always thought of ourselves as part of the audience. If you think of yourself as part of the audience, the idea of the artist as ethicist saving someone else is structurally a problem if it’s not self-critical.
So then what problems are considered in this reconsideration of Group Material’s “Democracy”?
The problem is that if we import that reorganization of the aesthetic to the political without changing and thinking about its effect, its aesthetic effect, what are the real forms we have as artists? We can’t repeat the formalisms of the past and expect great meanings to emerge. It doesn’t do me any good to have another experience socially in which someone tells me how to be political. Similarly, it’s not going to help for you to say there’s this sublime moment in which we are going to become enveloped by the awe of nature, that’s not going to work anymore. Art is different, and the social context for art is different, so the repetitions are frightening in this sense that they become the backdrop for business as usual, for art as exchange and not revelation.
Doug Ashford will participate in the symposium “Disruptions: The political in art now,” October 25, 11am, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago.