- Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art
Grant Kester's intention in this book is not just to define and conceptualize community or socially engaged art but to trace its antecedents in art history, locate it in relation to critical theory, and provide a framework for responding to it and evaluating it. He succeeds on all counts.
In the search for the roots of this art form, Kester undertakes a brilliant critical re-evaluation of art critical methodologies. He tackles the important question head on: All the works he examines were presented as works of art as opposed to social or political activism, so what does it mean to take this claim seriously? How can a critical response be formulated? Kester's attempt to answer this question leads him to question the tradition of art criticism and, in doing so, he challenges and expands the whole subject of art theory. Anyone interested in art theory and criticism today [End Page 168] will find the first two chapters of the book interesting.
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Kester's definition of a socially engaged art practice is one in which the aesthetic experience is constructed so as to challenge conventional social perceptions. This is a non-object-based artistic practice that is more concerned with communication and praxis. Kester takes as his first example an orchestrated series of conversations on a boat involving politicians, sex workers, journalists and activists in Zurich. Their task was to discuss the issues and problems faced by drug addicts in Zurich who had turned to prostitution to support their habits. The eventual outcome of these ritualized conversations between parties with conflicting views was a safe haven for sex workers. Kester considers and develops his theory in relation to numerous other socially engaged art practices that are described throughout the book. His direct engagement with this work is valuable not only to test his ideas, but also because it has the additional benefit of reclaiming and preserving some of this work, which so easily disappears from the historian's and critic's gaze precisely because it does not produce objects that can be preserved and displayed in collections.
Kester shows how these collaborative, socially engaged artworks are structured through processes of exchange and dialogue that unfold over time. In all these ways they challenge conventional notions of art—even the art of the avant-garde—that are founded on a concept of aesthetic experience that is instantaneous and provides the viewer with a shock of insight.
But Kester's engagement with these works also shows that while the concept of the aesthetic is central to his definition of this work, it does not feature (or features little) in his descriptions and analyses of the actual works themselves. This is probably the major weakness in the book, as without a more prominent role for the aesthetic at this level it is easy for the reader to begin to understand these works as drama or sociology. Yet the concept of the aesthetic is central to Kester's theory, and he is insistent that this is not a hybrid art form that cuts across boundaries. His argument that dialogue is central to these artworks and that they "unfold through a process of performative interaction" (p. 227) only serves to reinforce the view that this work is as much (or even more so) a dramatic or sociological product as an artistic one. Kester is aware that his analysis focuses more on the communicative practices of this work as opposed to its visual impact, and one is left believing that the application of his theory could be developed further to more fully embrace the aesthetic and thus claim this work entirely for the visual arts.
Kester has provided an impressive critical and historical foundation for this often-ignored artistic practice. The debate on the nature and value of this art form has been enriched immeasurably. I look forward to...