Earlier this month, the Guggenheim Museum announced it had received a “a major grant from the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation to support Guggenheim Social Practice, a new initiative committed to exploring the ways in which artists can initiate projects that engage community participants, together with the museum, to foster new forms of public engagement. As part of the initiative, the museum will commission two separate artist projects, one by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and one by Jon Rubin and Lenka Clayton, which will be developed and presented in New York City in 2016 and 2017, respectively.”
The museum curators who conceived and run this initiative join a growing cohort of gatekeepers at institutions and foundations creating programs shaped by the aesthetic and ethic I’ve started to call the Game of Ones. To play it, you create a competition (whether public and visible or private and quiet, the form remains a contest) which richly rewards – with funds and fanfare – a small number of winners from within a large field of practice.
The Guggenheim has chosen three artists who taken as a group deflect some of the criticisms of the category “social practice,” which has accumulated resources in direct proportion to its trendiness. (For a little background, check out “Artification,” a piece I wrote about it a few years ago; the title comes from Rick Lowe’s quip that “social practice is the gentrification of community arts.”)
To counter the accurate charge that most artists who identify with the label are white and disconnected from both ground-level social realities and the movements for social justice that drive community-based collaborative arts projects, the Guggenheim has chosen an African American artist deeply rooted in community-based work (Joseph) and two white artists from Rust Belt Pittsburgh whose work touches on issues such as international conflict (Rubin) and feminism (Clayton).
My concern is not with the artists chosen, nor with their willingness to undertake the selected projects. Congratulations to them! If I were anointed with a “major grant” from the Rothschild Foundation, I’d take the money – wouldn’t you? I’ve got a few books queued up to write and a bank account that reflects a lifelong addiction to social and cultural activism, so if anyone is considering nominating me for the next fellowship or prize, feel free!
The bone I want to pick is with the institutional aims and values that have produced the Game of Ones, a framework that ratifies the social order we sum up nowadays with a phrase: “the one percent.”