IN THE EARLY 1960s, when Pop was ascendant, philosopher Arthur Danto described the art world as a philosophical game of discovery. Comparing artistic breakthroughs to scientific progress, he argued that leading artists expand the very range of possibilities for what could be regarded as art. Since Danto made his observation, there have been many discoveries and breakthroughs. The frontiers of the art world have grown to include performance, conceptual interventions of all sorts, and ever newer media. The cultural references made by artists have become more complex as well. If Pop artists borrowed commonplace imagery, their successors have become adept at filling high-end galleries with materials mined from niche subcultures.
In this drive to spread outward, aesthetic discovery can resemble a campaign of conquest. Adrian Piper has argued that certain artists like herself often serve as “tour guides” who are expected to “draw cultural significance from outside the boundaries of the art world into it.” These guides “may be briefly noticed . . . before our findings are appropriated . . . and we are then pushed outside it again, to forage for new infusions of cultural reference, derived from our personal experiences on the edge.” Cultures on the borders of the art world that thus help to sustain its center, Piper notes, often originate with the experiences of people marginalized by race and class.
Artists serving as tour guides can find themselves in a state of economic and cultural limbo. For this issue, Sean J. Patrick Carney discusses artists who use this condition of precarity to their advantage. For them, the art world has become a home for practices that might not have a place within the established worlds of publishing, theater, or comedy. Rather than appropriating from marginal cultures to satisfy mainstream art world needs, the artists, writers, and performers Carney considers aim to leverage art world resources to maintain the vitality of their own networks and communities.
Members of this precariat may do well to study the example of Renée Green, whom I interviewed on the occasion of her residency at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University. Her films, writings, sound pieces, installations, and web-based projects are defined by her restless view beyond the horizons of the art world. Our discussion covered architecture, philosophy, literature, and electronic music, in addition to her formative art influences, like Piper, Joan Jonas, Harun Farocki, and Robert Smithson. Free Agent Media is the apt name under which she produces films, including a new cinematic meditation on Le Corbusier in the Americas.
It would seem that no object could be more at home in the center of the art world, more secure in its identity as art, than a painting. Yet stories in this issue by Kirsty Bell and Stephen Westfall highlight painters whose work remains productively out of step. Writing on Amelie von Wulffen, Bell describes how the German artist places a seemingly familiar image within a dreamlike setting, working to “retain its strangeness without falling into the realm of kitsch.” Westfall discusses what he calls Slow Painting, arguing that iconography is not the only (or strongest) way for a painting to establish its cultural relevance. Instead, an invitation to look carefully and deliberately at a painted surface, he posits, can prompt a small act of resistance in an accelerated culture.