Three (failed) Escape Attempts / One (successful) Drift Away – from the Artworld…

A few scribbled notes…

Last night we went to a lecture by Lucy Lippard at Sydney Uni. It was a rare treat to see this legend, who beautifully chronicled “dematerialization” practices in the late 1960s and 70s, and who has done some terrific work more recently on art and place and the local.

Her lecture had a really interesting title – “Three Escape Attempts” – see lecture publicity below:

In her illustrated lecture, Three Escape Attempts, Lucy Lippard will discuss her curatorial practice with a focus on Three Escape Attempts – three moments in which artists tried to escape or at least bypass the art world: Conceptualism, Feminism, and what she calls the “collaborative” moment in the early 1980s.

Lucy Lippard is an internationally reknowned feminist art critic, author, and theorist. She has curated more than fifty exhibitions and is author of twenty books on contemporary art and cultural criticism including:

Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object (1973); From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art (1976); Get the Message: A Decade of Art for Social Change (1984); A Different War: Vietnam in Art (1990), The Pink Glass Swan: Selected Essays on Feminist Art (1995); and On the Beaten Track: Tourism, Art and Place (1999).

She lives in Galisteo, New Mexico, and in 2010 will publish a book on the history of the area she lives in from 1290-1790. In the 1970s she gave the Power Lecture and in the 1980s she taught at the University of Queensland.

This is a free event, no booking required. All welcome.

I’m very interested in the idea in the title of this lecture – escape attempts. Art trying to work outside the artworld, escape from its boundaries.

In the lecture Lippard went through three periods. The first was conceptualism (late 1960s, early 1970s) – a period she describes as a kind of “adolescence” – when a series of “tools” was developed for institutional critique (the beginnings of the process of trying to escape the artworld?)…

She made no mention of Allan Kaprow (from memory, he is hardly mentioned in her book Six Years either) although he had a long engagement with a very similar project of trying to escape art’s framing, and find a way to avoid the sapping of life’s essence by art.

Her second period was feminism (early-mid 1970s). She emphasised feminist art’s use of tools borrowed from conceptualism and their application to urgent real world situations: “finding uses for conceptual art strategies”…

Her third period (the third “escape attempt”) was a collaborative period of socially engaged art / art as activism / art as community work by collectives in public spaces (early 1980s). Collaborative art as an antidote to social alienation.

Most examples in the lecture came from things she had been involved in herself – she has always been a very engaged art writer… not “disinterested” at all.

Her general prescription (it seems to me) is that art should be a kind of activism for social change. Art should not be quarantined within the “artworld”. The artworld is a zone set apart and kept safe from the actual engagements of real politics.

Her talk was like an illustrated artist’s lecture – big on anecdotes and examples, not much analysis of the idea of escape attempts as a concept in itself.

It occurs to me that the “three escape attempts” she outlined always failed because they were trying, precisely, to escape something which could always incorporate these very attempts to escape…

The paradox is that the artworld can gobble up anything, and so any escape attempt ends up being recuperated within the artworld’s scope. Thus it is impossible to escape, if one is attempting to do so as an artist. Escape attempts only secure the knot more tightly to the artworld (Lippard herself used the analogy of a bungee cord).

In question time, Lippard inadvertantly mentioned her own gradual “loss of interest in the mainstream artworld” several times.

Now this was something! Lippard’s own “drift away” from the artworld has perhaps achieved what could never be achieved through the “escape attempts” described in the lecture. A “loss of interest”. She simply stopped paying attention to what was going on, and did other things instead.

It occurs to me that losing interest in something is a good way of depriving it of value (and thus power). “Losing interest” and “paying attention” are both terms related to value and capital. (Although, the art world never lost interest in Lippard. Through her published writings, she still exerts a strong influence on generations of artists and theorists).

But the deeper question is – why “escape” the artworld?

Escaping? Escaping what? (Is this a Freudian thing?) Could this be connected to her notion of conceptual art as a kind of “adolescence” – a necessary rebellion in order to forge one’s own identity before reintegrating into society? I don’t know. Resistance is futile – the artworld is an entity whose value always increases as a result of subaltern practices carried out in opposition to it.

What about ideas of tradition and community? Like it or not, the artworld is our community (at least, one amongst the many different overlapping communities we belong to, and create, and constitute).

We are our communities – we are the artworld. How could we (and why would we want to) escape from ourselves?

Is there not some value in art, that it could contribute to the improvement of life? Lippard herself, although she says she has drifted away from the artworld, still seems to think so. At the end of her lecture, she quoted Fluxist Robert Filliou’s wonderful paradoxical statement: “Art is what makes life more interesting than Art”…

– –

[PS 1: My studio buddy Lisa just pointed out that “Escape Attempts” is the title to the preface of the second edition of Lippard’s Six Years. – She gleaned this from here…]

[PS 2: A related blog entry from Randall Szott at Leisure Arts which goes some way towards answering the question of “why” we might want to escape/avoid enframing our activities as “art”…]

[PS 3: an older related post is here: Giving Up.]

9 thoughts on “Three (failed) Escape Attempts / One (successful) Drift Away – from the Artworld…

  1. Barbara

    Hey L
    What makes a good blog? This kind of post on something recently seen and then slept on.

    LL started off describing an art world in terms of commodification. And it was this narrowly defined world that needed the escape attempts. Perhaps the attempts have actually been successful, not in terms of getting to the green pastures on the other side but that in each instance she spoke about: conceptualism, feminism and collaborative practices, the boundaries of art expanded beyond commodification. So the escape wasn’t necessary. The world (of art) became a more tolerable place to live. (seeing glass half full tonight)

  2. Lucas Post author

    Thanks Barbara

    yes, I think you’ve got it. Something I didn’t mention in the blog post above is the transformation of the artworld itself that comes about via these escape attempts.

    If the artworld gobbles up these escape attempts, it “expands” as you say, until its own boundaries necessarily overlap with life, activism, social processes…

    If this is true, the paradoxical result of escape attempts is reintegration.

    I too am glass half full tonight!

  3. Randall

    Wow – “Resistance is futile – the artworld is an entity whose value
    always increases as a result of subaltern practices carried out in
    opposition to it.”

    Do you really believe this? It is so totalizing and has a certain
    religious quality to it…It seems like you’re using art as some kind
    of ultimate referent, God, if you will. It is only the faithful who
    see one’s lack of belief as “opposition.” The sort of escape I’m
    interested in is not (to extend this metaphor) atheism, which already
    concedes the idea of God as worth rejecting in the first place.
    Instead, something like apatheism is needed which says “I don’t care
    whether God exists or not. The entire discussion is irrelevant to me.”
    So, it is not escape from art, but escape from the very question of
    art in the first place.

    Does that make me a glass half empty person?

  4. lauren

    “…losing interest in something is a good way of depriving it of value (and thus power). “Losing interest” and “paying attention” are both terms related to value and capital..”

    brilliant. really brilliant.

  5. Lucas Post author

    Randall, your (and Barbara’s) comments cracked me up!

    “Something like apatheism is needed”… (needed by who, one wonders?)

    I guess the thing is that historically, artists (being artists) have trumpeted their lack of belief in the artworld. This trumpeting is heard by the artworld and brought back in as a new and groovy kind of art. This of course isn’t the “apatheism” you describe. Even Kaprow, bless his escapist cotton socks, never really stopped referring back to the artworld.

    Sam Hsieh, who did not participate in the artworld for 13 years, has now had that very gesture of non-participation re-incorporated in a grand way. (See Barbara’s article about that here.

    To disappear would be to really disappear. But what would that look like? Presumably, we wouldn’t be able to recognise it at all.

    Isn’t the artworld a special kind of boundary-crossing phenomenon? Even your talks and blog entries on apatheism and leisure-art/slacker stuff are presented within the art world, right?

  6. George Khut

    Hey Lucas

    Wow, thanks for this great summary – I didn’t make it to the talk – but its a subject thats been on my mind for a while.

    Regarding the ‘art world’ that is being left behind here – I really wonder how coherent it is in the first place – there are a lot of marginalized art ‘worlds’ that have very little to do with what goes on in hip arts journals, biennials, ARI’s and contemporary art galleries, that focus on art more as a therapeutic, sense-making process.

    I’m thinking here not just about ‘amateur’ art events in community halls i.e. within the context of small community ethnic groups /communities-of-interest, but also other art-forms and traditions of creative practice (choral singing, line-dancing, yoga groups, calligraphy and seal-carving groups etc. I imagine that for many of the people engaged in these alternate art worlds – the art world as we know it simply irrelevant.

    Personally – I’m going through a dark period re ‘THE (visual)art world’ – I’m telling my self to be more conciliatory – maybe I just need to look for some different art worlds: sound/noise is one option for the work I do, as is arts-health, art therapy. New Age Self-Help is another one (thinking of somaesthetics here)… but maybe I’m missing the point here?

    Thanks again to all the contributors to this thread – its been very nourishing.
    x George

  7. Lucas Post author

    Hi George, your reminder is a good one – that the ‘art world’ Lucy Lippard speaks of escaping is only one of many (perhaps, just the most visible?) existing art-worlds.

    It’s good to be reminded of the important role these other art-worlds and creative practices play in the maintenance and improvement of our own lives. Which is the ultimate test of their value, isn’t it?

  8. haresbreath

    the sixties!
    but since there is no “thing” outside the text, there is no “where” to escape to. art is only ever about relating this to that; its energy comes from the juxtaposition of texts; runDMC reaching back to pull aerosmith out of the swamp just before their fossilisation is complete. totality, without closure. this is the way of the natural world, of which culture is merely a network of relational databases expanding from the centre of every individual consciousness, and in which even the simplest gesture is one of contextual elaboration which may or may not serve as an irritant prompting further action. art and life are up one another, fully. wooden shoe sashay?


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