A Brief Genealogy of Social Sculpture

By Alan W. Moore (author's note)

Eight years of neocolonial war and neoliberalism on steroids did wonders for the always uneasy relationship between art and politics in the U.S.. The rampant drive to privatize all that once was public left the realms of culture, especially the spaces of art, as some of the few remaining areas in which an open public discussion is still possible, at least among the bourgeoisie and intelligentsia. Many in the cultural sphere realized that they may have been custodians of some of the precious shreds of our remaining democracy.

At the same time, long-term reactionary governance has empowered authoritarian and regressive tendencies in bureaucracies across the land. Among thinking people there has arisen a great pent-up demand for world-changing creative initiatives to address the crises of global warming and persistent poverty.

Artists today, inspired by the example of the global justice movement, are working in ways maybe difficult to comprehend as art. Many of these methods and the actual works of artists suggest ways in which a berserk and broken hyper-capitalist global society might be reorganized. This article is intended to sketch some art historical background on the practice of what has long been called social sculpture – variously named more recently as relational, dialogical, and most broadly participatory art – and to posit its utility to today’s social movements.

“Social sculpture” is a term promoted by the German artist Joseph Beuys through a series of very public lecture tours beginning in the early 1970s. It named a kind of artwork that takes place in the social realm, an art that requires social engagement, the participation of its audience, for its completion. For Beuys, the concept was infused with both political intention and spiritual values. As spectators became participants he believed, the catalysis of social sculpture would lead to a transformation of society through the release of popular creativity.

Social sculpture, as a politically motivated usage of ways of artmaking developed by post-war avant garde movements, is a form best positioned to answer the question of utility: that is, What good is art?

This is the classic question asked of visual art practice by activists in social movements. The answer which prevailed during the modernist period (mid-19th century to 1945), when art and social movements were closely allied, was that art served the purpose of propaganda – to agitate opinion, and mobilize the masses in support of revolutionary action.

How this was done, the forms used to achieve it, were realistic imagery, photographic collage and posters, and narrative film and theater. These were the forms employed most influentially by the artists of the Soviet Union and the socialist states. They were also the forms used by capitalist democracies and fascist states. They are the forms of advertising and popular art.

But artists continually develop new forms of art. The most experimental new forms developed during the modernist period – the late 19th and early 20th century – were not approved by political parties. Abstract art, non-narrative performance, “noise” music, and sound poetry from “trans-rational” language – none of these forms of artistic practice, pioneered by Futurists, Cubists, Dadas, Surrealists and others, were condoned by the modernist political movements. In fact, many artists who practiced in these modes were persecuted by the Nazis and Communists alike.

So what changed? How was political art reinvented?

Artists did not forget the radical new forms of expression invented by the classic avant garde, nor the exhilaration of bold experimentation. After World War II, the avant-garde of experimental artists slowly began to reconstitute itself. The artists of the day who looked beyond object-making developed their theories in full consciousness of the perceived failures of earlier movements. They laid the groundwork for the form (or method) Joseph Beuys was to label “social sculpture.”

The postwar avant-garde movements of the 1950s and ‘60s which have the most direct relevance for artists working in modes of social sculpture today are those that sprang out of the CoBrA, Situationist and Fluxus movements – all self-conscious descendants of Dada, the original modernist virus of anti-art.

From Action Painting to Acting Strange

Strangely enough, the story of contemporary social sculpture begins with avant-garde post-Cubist painting, more specifically, an interpretation of the work of Jackson Pollock.

Critics saw many things in Pollock’s revolutionary drip pantings: chaos, post-nuclear landscape, an allover formal breakthrough for modernist art, pure action as an image. Clement Greenberg’s idea that Pollock marked a degree zero of painting, a new starting point for post-Cubist medium specific abstract art was the most influential. Allan Kaprow’s interpretation of this work was different from most. Kaprow looked past the painting itself, past the object of art, at what Harold Rosenberg called the action in this action painting.

In a 1958 article on Pollock in Art News, Kaprow observed that Pollock painted his canvases on the floor, and that his marks extended past the boundaries of the canvas. Kaprow illustrated the article with one of Hans Namuth’s pictures of Pollock painting in 1950, taken from above. In another of Namuth’s photographs, the painter can be seen stepping into the canvas. In this action Kaprow, a painter himself, discerned an artistic impulse that was ready to break into the world beyond the canvas – out of the realm of illusion and abstract idealism into the world of the everyday.

Kaprow worked on this idea as he worked his art away from painting. By 1957 he was making “arrangements” of unusual materials, then “environments” for the viewer to experience, not just look at. In 1957 and ’58 he began to develop a series of actions he called Happenings. The big one was “18 Happenings in 6 Parts” (1959). It was a kind of theater piece, but it wasn’t. There was no script, and the “actors,” everyday artist folks Kaprow knew, did not act, really, they only performed everyday kinds of actions according to a carefully worked out score. It was more like a dance piece than a stage play. The set for “18 Happenings” included clear plastic sheeting with painting on it – paintings you could see through. The performers lined up very formally, like statues, like dancers – and carried out their actions simply and matter-of-factly.

In other works, Kaprow gathered together huge piles of old tires (for Yard, 1961, in the small open air courtyard of Martha Jackson’s art gallery). He made a labyrinth of hand-painted paper signs, through which people could wander (Words, 1961). In another, audience members were invited to make jelly sandwiches with automobiles as bread. In another, participants built a roofless bunker out of blocks of ice.

Kaprow was soon joined in this curious way of working by other New York artists, among them Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, Robert Whitman, and Al Hansen. Some called these events “painters’ theater.” These artists used various different means to create strange and unusual public events featuring their friends. All of these “happenings” shared a common difference from the conventions of theater, with a script, plot, and characters. They were more likely to be drawn from the events of daily life, on the street, in the house, around the artists’ studio.

The Happenings were tremendously successful in that they inspired artists around the world. The new art form unleashed a flood of performative public works by artists with myriad concerns.

One Method, Many Authors

This Kaprow-centric picture is a little simple, and certainly patriarchal. Kaprow was a fluent and often published writer who became a virtual technician of the art form he named. Yet the Happening was developed by many artists who knew each other working simultaneously. Richard Kostelanetz lists 15 well-known artists who made Happenings in New York between 1952 and 1966. Yes, 1952. That was the year composer John Cage and art student Robert Rauschenberg produced a now-famous event at the secluded Black Mountain College, a free school in the mountains of North Carolina where students and professors lived communally in the 1950s.

Back in New York City, Kaprow, along with other artists who would later join the art movement called Fluxus, studied “musical composition” with John Cage at the New School for Social Research between 1956 and ’58.

Cage is often claimed for the anarchist movement. In the McCarthyite climate of 1950s USA, though, he was not very open about either his politics or his closeted gay identity. The 1952 “happening” he told Kostelanetz in ’67 was “a testing of art against life” (Kostelanetz, p. 52). The question, “What kind of intention were you dealing with at that time?” received the response, “Non-intention.”

Cage was not being evasive. In his art, what happens happens. The artistic event, the Happening, is an open system of rules, a situation designed and set loose in the world. This non-intentionality follows from Cage’s close engagement with Zen and Buddhist thought, and the heresiarch Franco-American artist Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp was addicted to puns, language games, rule-based artistic composition (following the French novelist Raymond Roussel), and the operations of chance. Cage’s ideas, engagements and attitudes also set the aesthetic baseline for subsequent critical and curatorial considerations of “participatory art.”

A Riot in Amsterdam is a “Hap-Hap-Happening!”

Whether Cage’s or Kaprow’s, the mode of art-making which centered around the designed event and the active spectator quickly escaped the precincts of the avant garde artworld. The Happening came to Amsterdam in 1962, with a performance produced with American artists and likely based on one of Kaprow’s. After just a few of those art events, the form took off, evolving into an open-ended type of anti-authoritarian public event. These gatherings, peopled by provocative youth who were given to chanting “Hap- Hap- Happening!” at police, gave rise to the Dutch Provo movement, and with it an inventive anarchist vision for the city.

These street Happenings were animated by curious Amsterdam characters. Chief among these was Robert Jasper Grootveld, a chanting poet-magician and jokester. Grootveld campaigned against tobacco addiction and rampant consumerism. His public projects were bizarre and complex, including the “marihu” campaign, centered around a complex game of inserting packaged substances like marijuana and soliciting police attention and arrests. Grootveld convened street meetings at the statue of a little boy – paid for by a tobacco company – which at one point was set on fire. At his Happenings, Grootveld prophesied that Amsterdam would become a magic center, the home of prophets and hordes of international young people. This transfiguration, Grootveld said and graffitied around town, would be led by a “Klaas,” a mysterious figurehead. In 1965, the “Klaas” Grootveld had prophesied arrived – the Dutch Princess Beatrix married former Nazi soldier Claus Von Amsberg of Germany. The demonstrations against this unpopular alliance in a formerly occupied country launched the Provos as a political movement in Holland.

Magic played a central role in Grootveld’s and other proto-Provo’s adaptation of the Happening form. Perhaps it was a legacy of the Surrealist movement, whose aged chieftain André Breton had delved into the arcana of the Tarot. This decadence of Surrealism (in the view of many younger politicized artists) was probably less significant as an influence than were traditional modes of street performance. Similarly, Peter Schumann claimed a source of inspiration for his Bread and Puppet Theater was the itinerant street puppeteers he watched as a child in Germany.

The Provo movement was supported by Constant (Constant Nieuwenheuys), an artist of the post-war avant-garde CoBrA group. His influential conception of a city of play called New Babylon, was elaborated in drawings and collages of an infinitely adaptable fantasy architecture he had evolved in collaboration with the Situationists of Paris. “Formulary for a New Urbanism,” written in 1953 by the mad Ivan Chtcheglov, with its manically dreamy Rimbaud-like prose describing a drift through the city in search of the “hacienda,” is a key early text in this chain of visions. The Provo vision for the city of Amsterdam was carried out through a kind of public gift economy, featuring the famous white bicycles and “white door” vacant houses. A city of desire was envisioned, where human beings could be “players,” in the words of Johan Huizinga, the Dutch historian who wrote a history of play (Homo Ludens, 1938, before dying in a Nazi prison). “New Babylon” became a Provo cry in the streets.

Stories of these movements spread through the underground press of the 1960s, and Provo’s anarchist political strategies and actions inspired U.S. groups like the Diggers in San Francisco and the Yippies in New York. Key to all these groups’ actions was the implicitly anti-consumerist concept of the gift – giving it away, whatever “it” may be. Abbie Hoffman, the Yippies’ leader, wrote a book under the pen-name Free. The ethic of free continues to influence much of today’s viral activism (e.g., Food Not Bombs, Really Free Markets, “freegan” dumpster divers), and many post-urban communes.

In the early 1960s, the Happening itself spread throughout Europe as a new way of making art. In Paris, Jean-Jacques Lebel took it up, producing pointedly political art events. In one, Lebel hired nude models to bathe together. The young women in the bathtub wore masks of Khrushchev and Kennedy. In Berlin, Wolf Vostell became an important advocate of the form, producing an event in an auto junkyard at the end of an airport’s runway. The jets screaming over the tangled metal debris clearly referenced the U.S. bombing campaign in Vietnam.

The Happening as a new art form directly inspired a deeply intertwined cultural and political movement in Holland. Yet throughout the radical political movements in both Europe, the U.S. and Latin America, the culture and usages of artists played an important role. The traditional practices of the artworld often turned, or were turned political. At an opening of an exhibition of photographs of Provo actions, so the story is told, the always aggravated police began to beat the crowds of spectators waiting to get in. The exhibiting photographers themselves, waiting for their public inside the gallery, began to take pictures of the police action through the windows.

In 1971 the famous Christiania squatted city in the center of Copenhagen was initially occupied by a crowd coming from an art exhibition where the plans for just such an action had been exhibited.

With political interpretations of the conceptual art movement, gallery culture was increasingly used in a deliberately political way. One of the most explicit was the sensational “lock-in” of gallery goers in Argentina at an opening of an exhibition by in Rosario, Argentina in a glass-walled storefront in 1968. This action was a powerful social sculpture which, like the circumstantial Provo event before it, suddenly displayed a vitrine-like collection of elegantly clad angry art fanciers to the street.

Situationists Always Say “No!”

This turning, or détournement, of conventional cultural usages is precisely what the Situationists had in mind as a revolutionary tactic which they did not deign to call “social sculpture.” Nevertheless, sculpting the social world was the group’s intent. Their analysis of the Happening movement was contemptuous.

Jon Erickson succinctly summarizes the critique of Situationist leader Guy Debord, in terms so prescient I shall quote him at length. Debord “saw happenings in the light of the ‘team projects’ of capitalism, the creation of ‘spectacular pseudo-culture’ that reflected capitalism’s ‘recapture of the worker as the “personality well-integrated in the group.”… It is the same project everywhere: a restructuring without community” (SOS 192). He criticized the exclusionary ‘anti-spectacular spectacle’ as ‘restricted to actors alone,’ comparing them to the professional revolutionaries of Leninism (Knabb 131). Situationist Raoul Vaneigem, in examining its participatory ethos, saw that ‘the ultimate logic of the happening and its derivatives is to supply the society of masterless slaves, which the cyberneticians have planned for us, with the spectatorless spectacle it will require’ (85).”

This critique is prescient because it speaks together two terms, art and labor, which are usually kept separate. It is a springboard for comment today on the contemporary institutional and academic versions of “participatory art.” These elite forms of artmaking need to be questioned for the ways in which they glamorize new regimes of capitalist labor and consumption in a post-industrial age.

Fluxus: Art is Motion

Kaprow himself was uninterested in politics. He cared about systems, rules – the formal structure of the event-as-art itself. Some of the artists of the Fluxus movement, however, had no such compunctions.

Lithuanian artist George Maciunas organized the international Fluxus movement, a loose-knit network of artists who often worked together. In 1962, while working at a U.S. Air Force base in Wiesbaden, Germany, Maciunas produced the first Fluxus Festival. The event was structured like a musical concert with scripted actions performed by artists, among them Wolf Vostell, Nam June Paik, Alison Knowles and Dick Higgins, artists who would go on to comprise the core of the Fluxus movement.

Maciunas idealized the Russian Constructivist artists' group LEF, and he published numerous Fluxus manifestoes spiced with revolutionary political intentions. While Maciunas believed art should merge with popular amusement, Fluxus events tended to be abstract. The actions were at once humdrum -- with segments drawn from everyday life -- and bizarre. Like musical compositions, these events were infinitely repeatable as "scores." A pure instance of this kind of work is by George Brecht, who wrote simple sets of instructions for art events on cards which any reader could enact. Yoko Ono’s art instruction texts are contained in a book called Grapefruit (1963). The tradition continues in an interactive dynamic website of art action texts growing out of an exhibition called “Do It” (1999; ongoing on the web).

Despite Maciunas' manifestos, most Fluxus artists remained apolitical. The nature of most of their work was wry and obscurely humorous. This disengagement actually helped the spread of the movement. The authorities didn’t catch on what the artists were up to. In fascist Spain, the artists and poets of Grupo Zaj dared regular evenings of performance, once even touring El Pardo, the town where the dictator Franco had his palace, performing in taverns and courtyards. Impeccably dressed as itinerant musicians – albeit with ridiculous instruments – the artists of Zaj were not molested by police.

The apolitical forms of this new mode of event art, then, were well adapted to thrive as underground culture in authoritarian regimes. And so they did, particularly in eastern Europe under state socialism, as a poetical kind of conceptual art throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. Fluxus built naturally on the ground prepared by international Surrealism and Dada during the modernist period. Both movements were long-lived in eastern Europe. Joseph Beuys aligned himself with the Fluxus movement. He pitched some of his early performances to the east, especially Eurasienstab (Eurasian Staff), in which he symbolically united East and West through the "iron curtain" with his messianic presence and mysterious actions.

Japan: Action Art and Anti-Art

Numerous Asian artists participated in the Fluxus movement, most notably the Korean-born Nam June Paik who went on to become a master of video art. Paik was living in Germany for the first Fluxus event, then moved to New York. Yoko Ono was already there.

In Japan, the 1950s action art of Jackson Pollock had inspired a radical group of performance artists in Gutai who staged a series of dramatic and unusual festivals. At an outdoor exhibit in 1955, the artists of the group (“Gu” is tool or means, and “tai” is substance, or body), hung themselves in trees, threw themselves around in mud, ran through paper screens, and knocked logs down on top of themselves. This was resolutely materialist work, unlike the optical participatory experiments of the European technology artists. Interaction with the spectator was a part of the project.

Allan Kaprow included the Gutai Group along with the Europeans Vostell and Lebel, in his landmark 1966 coffee table book Assemblage, Environments and Happenings. Artists in Japan soon took the new event- and installation-based modes of artmaking in a strongly political direction under the banner of “anti-art.” This aesthetic philosophy evolved as street demonstrations raged against the U.S.-Japan military agreements, vestiges of the postwar occupation. The Neo-Dada Organizers broke furniture in a gallery as jazz music blared, and the artists of Hi-Red Center dressed in lab coats and meticulously cleaned busy public streets in Tokyo and New York (1966).

The Japanese modes of radicalized street work, exhibitions and installations were largely carried out by groups. Collectivity indeed became the predominant way to organize the cultural work that can comfortably be called social sculpture, and it remains a favored mode of organizing this kind of cultural work.

Crazy Dot Lady

That said, the influence of one charismatic clinical obsessive cannot be denied. Yayoi Kusama was a manic presence in New York City during the 1960s. (She also worked in Holland and Rome.) She produced numerous events called Happenings where nude men and women – in the parlance of the tabloid press – “cavorted,” their bodies painted all over with polka dots by the artist. These events included at least one gay wedding. Kusama sited her events in very public and provocative locations – the Museum of Modern Art sculpture garden, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Wall Street in front of the stock exchange.

In the press, which she courted, Kusama was identified with free love and the psychedelic hippie culture. She understood herself as the “High Priestess of Polka Dots” in her own Church of Self-Obliteration. Kusama was also involved with pioneer queer activist Louis Abolafia. Abolafia ran as a nudist (“Love Party”) candidate for president in 1968, then moved to San Francisco where he produced the annual “Erotic Exotic Ball.”

Kusama’s performance actions flaunted sexuality and celebrated hallucination. Her work was in the forefront of the U.S. sexual revolution – sexual experimentation, the emergence of gay identities. Kusama engaged politics in her selection of locations (sites) for actions, but she was far from a feminist artist. She was, in fact, fabulously mad, and in 1968 she returned to Japan where she lives today – happily and productively – in a mental hospital.

Psychedelic Tropical Shantytown

The psychedelic experience was widely understood as revolutionary, albeit centered on individual consciousness. The drugs which induced it and the culture that sprang from them became a worldwide cultural vogue. It made the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica famous. His 1967 installation Tropicália, a walk-in installation abstractly based on a Rio de Janeiro favella, or shantytown of squatters, gave its name to a cultural movement including musicians and filmmakers. In devising his participatory forms of art, Oiticica, like his compatriot the sculptor Lygia Clark, was strongly influenced by purist abstract art of the kind taught by European exiles who fled Nazi Europe to South America.

Both Oiticica and Clark’s work was made to be interactive. Oiticica began making complex manipulable boxes which the viewer was invited to play with. Clark made masks and body suits which were intended to be worn and stimulate a variety of sensuous experiences. Oiticica’s parangolés are mobile sculptures, layered mantles of fabrics and plastic, designed to be worn through the carnival streets like flags.

Oiticica and Clark’s aesthetic philosophies are dense and complex, and they have both been the subject of extensive recent exhibitions and publications. Both artists were trained in abstract Bauhaus-style methods of working, and had a rigorous sense of pictorial form and color. Still, by the mid-1960s, both had taken the participatory gamble. For Clark, people become the work, while Oiticica was committed to exploring a collective state of invention in his work with the poor residents of Brazil’s shantytowns. For Oiticica, a gay man, art was to become a total experience of life and transgression of all social norms.

The right-wing military junta in Brazil exiled some and jailed other artists involved with the Tropicalismo movement, still their extraordinary artistic innovations suggested lines of resistance to many South American artists during the age of the dictators.

The rising tide of reactionary military dictatorships swept over Latin America with close support from the U.S. government. Artists involved in avant garde activity, and many working in more traditional ways with political themes found themselves enemies of these states. To avoid imprisonment, many turned to subtle ways of questioning the state and its institutions, using the methods of conceptual art and social sculpture. Much the same ferment was brewing in the Eastern European states under authoritarian communist rule.

Stickin’ to the Union

The Argentinians were perhaps the most daring. Bizarrely 1966, the year of the military coup, was already officially declared the “year of the avant-garde.” Artists took full advantage of the ironical opportunity. A group called Arte de los Medios (Art of the Media) made an “anti-happening” – an event that never took place (media makes the event was their point).

At an “Antibienal” held in Córdoba to contest the 1966 3rd Bienal Americana de Arte sponsored by an American corporation, artists produced street interventions, ambient pieces, happenings, conceptual art and contemporary dance works. The most radical action was saved for the end. An audience gathered to see a new Happening, “There’s Room in the World for Everyone/ En el mundo hay sitio para todos.” The door of the theater was blocked up, so that no one could leave or enter. After about an hour, the restless angry audience was treated to the entrance of a large group of students, on strike after one of their leaders had been killed, who burst into the place singing slogans and delivered a fiery speech. This work demonstrates that for many Argentinian artists there was already no more wall between art and politics.

In Argentina, before the dictatorship took hold, artists of the Rosario group used their privileged position as social signifiers of modernity to turn the art system towards representations of the social reality of inequality. In the Tucumán Arde (“Tucumán burns”) project of 1968, the group used a mysterious billboard campaign to build interest in their exhibition. This turned out to be an indictment of the government’s exploitative development of the Tucumán province based on the findings of a joint team of artists and sociologists exhibited in a union hall. Quickly shut down, the show nevertheless raised an important issue critically.

The Rosario artists used the art system to dramatize social realities, as in the gallery exhibition opening lock-in mentioned above. Another artist, Oscar Bony, exhibited a working class family on a pedestal – mother, father, neatly dressed little boy – at an art fair (Familia Obrera, 1968).

Sadly, as in the days of Stalin a world away and an age before, some artists and many political activists paid for their critique with jail terms, torture and disappearance. In Brazil Artur Barrio dramatized the presence of state terror with his “Bloody Bundles: Situation” project, tied-up bundles of rags and animal blood and bones deposited in public places around the city of Rio de Janeiro. (The spectacle of anonymous murdered bodies turning up was not unusual at the time.) Each of these “bloody bundles” was investigated, and Barrio photographed and documented each investigation of his planted provocations.

A number of South American artists were ‘68ers, that is, participants in the global uprising that had as a kind of historical focal point the Events of May in Paris. Several were in fact expelled from France for their political activity. Julio Le Parc of GRAV was one of them. Although the artists of GRAV were abstractionists, exclusively concerned with optical and somatic effects achieved by technological means, they were also deeply interested in participation. Another artist France booted out in ‘68 was the Costa Rican artist Juan Luis Rodriguez, who made environments in Paris under the name Rodriguez Sibaja. Sibaja fled to Brussels, where he was still illegal. There the renowned conceptual artist Marcel Broodthaers, who had never met him, put Sibaja up for six months. During a meeting in Antwerp, Sibaja and a group of artists also illegally staying in Belgium worked with Joseph Beuys to build ice barricades in the street to stop police from entering the café where they were gathered.

Upon Sibaja’s return to Paris, he produced an installation resembling an expressionist boxing ring which featured melting chairs of blood-infused ice and the sound of boxing match crowds and old boxers talking. He returned to Costa Rica in ’72 to teach and influence the artists of the ‘80s.

There is a regular commutation between South America and Paris. The avant garde scenes are profoundly connected between these two Romance language-speaking countries, just as today Italian and Spanish activists in the social center movement are closely linked. It is likely that the Anglophone models of Happenings were less influential in this circuit of aesthetic understanding than other theoretical formulations that have yet to be well known to English speaking students of art history.

Looking at these artists who’ve been neglected by Anglophone historians for decades, one begins to sense that the Beuys model of social sculpture, forged in the hot steel political environment of postwar Germany, is somewhat creaky. His is fundamentally a political argument, setting the stage but in fact not enacting social sculpture. It is part of Beuys’ pedagogical period, a very heady, idealist, line of argument. Somehow the Beuysian model, for all its force, does not really expand and deepen introspectively and subjectively, especially in the terms of the body like the formulas of Clark and Oiticica.

Beuys’ notion of a social sculpture was rooted in polemic, founded in his experiences teaching (in themselves remarkable), and reinscribed through constant touring and lecturing, making chalk talks around the world. His very public lecture tours of the mid-1970s put the idea of an aggressive social sculpture out at a time when revanchist dictatorships were in full stride. His was a positive vision, preaching a hopeful role for art in a time when hope for many was closing down.

Despite the political violence that wracked their countries, many Latin American nations continued to hold important international art exhibitions. These offered artists the opportunity to – well, if not to make political statements, at least to make powerful art based on the kind of life they were forced to lead, or simply to offer artistic opportunities to experience a kind of freedom.

Women artists often took the lead in this work. Margarita Azurdia aka Margot Fanjul followed Lygia Clark in exploring the sensual in a prominent 1970 work, “Please Take Off Your Shoes/Favor quitarse los zapatos” – required to enter a cavernous wooden structure with a floor covered in sand. Fanjul worked for many years with other women in undocumented performances during the height of the counterinsurgent war in Guatemala. Throughout the ‘80s she was a busy poet, painter, sculptor, choreographer and producer of Happenings. Other artists were not so well received. The Panamanian Manuel Montilla, inspired by Joseph Beuys’ 1974 “I Like America” performance, locked himself up with a dog in a small space cluttered with artworks in the small town of David near the Costa Rican border. The townspeople dismissed his work as an act of madness.

In 1997 peace treaties were signed in Guatemala, and performance art on political themes could emerge into the open. In 2003 Regina José Galindo walked with basin of blood from the constitutional court to the national palace in Guatemala City, periodically dipping her feet to leave footprints in the work “Who Can Erase the Footprints?/ Quién puede borrar las huellas?”

Women from Hell

In the United States, artists who aligned themselves with the feminist movement in the 1960s and ‘70s worked naturally within collectives. Early radical feminism was driven by direct action political formations, using inventive attention-grabbing strategies. WITCH (Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) hexed Wall Street and the Chicago federal building, and agitated against the Miss America beauty pageant in 1968, crowning a live sheep. (In this they clearly followed the Yippie strategy of animal candidacy; Abbie and his group nominated a pig for president in 1968.) The women who joined the loosely cohering radical Art Workers’ Coalition in 1969 after a protest for artists rights at the Museum of Modern Art, soon found themselves dissatisfied by the men’ refusal to address their issues. Ad Hoc Women Artists and WAR (Women Artists in Revolution) formed to launch a sustained campaign of demonstrations at the Whitney Museum of American Art, decrying their bias against women artists. This campaign is continued today by the Guerrilla Girls, a group of masked anonymous women artists.

At the same time, GAAG (Guerrilla Art Action Group), a subcommittee of the Art Workers Coalition, organized numerous street theater actions. Painter turned conceptual artist Lee Lozano announced her work of “total withdrawal” from the artworld, a slow systematic self-alienation from all social and institutional engagements. Like Gaag, Lozano’s was an internal art action, not really public. The work of all these activists functioned for the most part as internal representations, intended to affect attitudes of their peers within the cultural sphere.

Lozano declared her withdrawal to be a work of conceptual art. Even more than the poetics of Fluxus, the conceptual art movements of the 1960s provided artists with opportunities to stake out positions in regard to social reality. Art became a form of investigation, and the exhibition became a report of findings. This is a soft spot in this essay, since the way in which conceptual art laid the baseline for social sculpture is a subject that requires more explication. Working within the style of conceptual art, artists worldwide acted almost like an impromptu research institute, marking out and developing vast territories of social experience for aesthetic investigation.

Bob Says, “The Art Ain’t Here”

One concept basic to the development of conceptual art was the sculptor and earthworks artist Robert Smithson’s notion of the “non-site.” That is the place where the object is but the art is not; that is, the non-site is the gallery. The site is the place where the art action has taken place; the gallery installation is secondary to the “real” art. This strong concept grew out of Smithson’s research into quarries, dumps, and the “monuments” of contemporary urban civilization. As artists began to play with Smithson’s theories, all these sites opened up as fields for artistic activity. For example, the place where the raw materials of art came from, the stone for the sculpture, became the place where art could be done.

Certainly it was among artists committed to the feminist movement that the impulse to work with the social remained strongest. On the west coast, Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro jointly began the sex-segregated feminist art program at the California Institute of the Arts in 1971. With their students, the artists produced the collective house-scale installation Womanhouse. This collaborative environmental work was concerned with the domestic situation of American women, with a nude model penetrated by a clothes closet and egg/breast wallpaper in the kitchen. Together with the accompanying dramatic performances and discussions, Womanhouse had a galvanizing effect on women artists. Chicago and others forged a collective working method in feminist art, which informed art and educational programs first at Cal Arts, then at the long-running Los Angeles Women's Building.

By 1971, Joseph Beuys told critic Achlle Bonito Oliva he was losing interest in art.

“Q. It seems to me that your work is the extending of a kind of 'Socratic space' in which the works are no more than a pretext for dialogue with the individual.

“A. This is the most important side of my work. The rest – objects, drawings, actions – all take second place. Basically I'm not that much connected to art. Art interests me only in so far as it gives me the possibility of dialogue with individuals.”

In 1972 Joseph Beuys appeared in the prestigious international German art exhibition Documenta, setting up what he called an Office for Direct Democracy. Inside the exhibition, Beuys and his compatriots met with people for intensive discussions of political processes, and handed out plastic shopping bags which diagrammed a new political scheme. Beuys had moved past performance into a pedagogical phase of lecturing and talking. By the mid-1970s Beuys was touring the United States promoting universal creativity – “everyone is an artist” – and social sculpture.

Joining the Band

In New York, the demonstrations and guerrilla theater of the AWC and related groups was succeeded later in the 1970s by intense reflection and analysis among artists on the left. The Artists Meeting for Cultural Change (1975) was decisively influenced by the cadres of Art & Language, a British conceptual art group operating in New York. The AMCC produced An Anti-Catalog criticizing a bicentennial exhibition of historical U.S. art for its exclusions, and A&L put out The Fox, a mordant journal criticizing nearly every facet of the New York artworld.

This activism and analysis seeded more groups in New York during the 1970s and ‘80s which sought to develop exhibitions that expressed the critiques of the earlier generation. The group Colab produced the Real Estate Show, a building occupation that led to a socially concerned gallery called ABC No Rio in 1980, then in that summer the Times Square Show, a large show in midtown built around social issues which drew large crowds.

Artists from Fashion Moda, an art space in the devastated slum of the South Bronx, exhibited their work in Times Square. The event marked an important moment in the mainstreaming of graffiti art and hip hop culture. The terms of a new urban muralismo – (the word names the revolutionary Mexican mural art of the 1920s) – began to be written into thinking around public art.

At the same time, PADD (Political Art Documentation and Distribution) set up shop as a nationwide networking group for artists of all kinds opposed to Reagan’s conservative government. PADD produced many innovative designs for political demonstrations and new kinds of actions to dramatize issues. They regularly workshopped radical art in NYC. The collective Group Material formed in 1980, producing tightly curated shows on political themes. While PADD tried to build a national radical art network working with labor unions, Group Material’s work was angled more toward art institutions.

Politicized performance and participation in political demonstrations marked all these groups, still their members in general had little to do with forms of social sculpture. But the New York City-based activist art groups in the 1970s and ‘80s, and indeed activist art groups around the world, formed the necessary collective conditions for the emergence of forms of social sculpture dedicated to social utility. In other words, activist art purified the forms of social sculpture.

Women Cleaning and Talking

Mierle Ukeles took feminist ideas around the injustice of unpaid housework into the realm of art performance. In 1969, she washed the corridors of the Boston Museum, and issued her “Manifesto for Maintenance Art.” Ukeles subsequently performed her actions in museums, office buildings and streets. She extended the performances to an exemplary work of social sculpture in the two-year project Touch Sanitation (1978-80), in which she shook hands with each of the hundreds of sanitation workers of New York City. Ukeles later became an artist in residence with the Department of Sanitation, and has been closely involved in the remediation of the giant Fresh Kills landfill.

Leslie Labowitz and Suzanne Lacy also made dramatic cultural activist work with In Mourning and In Rage (1977). This demonstration project culminated in a lineup of women in mourning on the steps of Los Angeles city hall in protest at official mishandling of the Hillside Strangler case, a serial killer who targeted women. Lacy subsequently developed numerous complex projects of socially engaged cultural work, giving specificity to the idea of the citizen artist, or one who works in pursuit of direct social benefit. The Roof is on Fire (1993) was a year-long project in which Lacy put together youngsters and police officers in a series of dialogue events designed to increase understanding and ease tensions on the streets of Oakland. Lacy called her works of creative social utility and the social sculpture of others “new genre public art,” a formulation which would catch on with curators.

That was in the 1990s. By then, the theoretical discussions that arose around U.S. social sculpture were based on the already thick discourse over activist art and the uses of performance from the 1970s and ‘80s. This discourse was largely confined to magazines of art and politics little known outside their communities, like PADD’s Upfront, Cultural Correspondence, Cultural Democracy, Left Curve and Heresies, and the somewhat better known journals High Performance and Afterimage.

Heavy Reading List

As many of the artists active during those years moved into academia and art schools, theory became increasingly important. As densely written analyses of the subjective states of authoritarian and institutional societies by historian Michel Foucault, of patriarchal sexuality derived from psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and the erosion of the public sphere by political philosopher Jürgen Habermas ascended in academia, their ideas came to inform the work of many artists concerned with social conditions.

The generation of postmodern artists and educators who went into academia did not, like the Bauhaus teachers with their Ruskinian values, attempt to reform public taste, and smooth the way to rationalist, scientific modernist design. Instead they strove to preserve the ethical imperatives that had driven their work, and the theoretical backgrounds that had inspired them. These philosophies, and the critical methods called postmodernist, became predominant throughout the humanist academy during the 1980s and ‘90s.

By the 1990s a neoconceptual way of working had taken hold among a group of nomadic professionalized artists, working mainly in Europe, which came to be called institutional critique. Art institutions, faced with mounting demands to reflect diverse constituencies in a globalizing world, often turned to artists to perform modernizing analyses and exhibitionary exercises on their institutions. This phenomenon led Andrea Fraser, together with a number of artists working in this way, to specify the conditions of their new role. Fraser wrote of this in a text she called “How to Provide an Artistic Service.”

The often brilliant work of artists involved in institutional critique has been and continues to be an important impetus for change in attitudes of the public and the personnel of art and cultural institutions. Fred Wilson’s work is a clear example. However the inventive work these artists did with the particular social worlds of art institutions was fully accepting of what Robert Smithson called “cultural confinement.” This problem is a hangover for the more recent formulation by French curator Nicolas Bourriaud of relational art.

Artists who critique institutions are seen more than artists who work outside them. The Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, who cooks meals in carefully constructed situations in galleries and museums, appears on everyone’s list of social sculptors. In her succinct online essay “Notes on Social Architectures as Art Forms” (2003), Sal Randolph also fingers Ben Kinmont, Rainer Ganahl, and Christine Hill. Oakland-based artist Ted Purves has located the key to this kind of work in the gift economy.

Bourriaud’s clearly written and engaging aesthetics has been widely influential since the turn of the century. Happily, according to one critique, he emphasizes “process, performativity, openness, social contexts, transitivity and the production of dialogue over the closure of traditional modernist objecthood, visuality and hyper-individualism.” Yet Bourriaud’s conception is only vaguely political. Grant Kester’s formulation of a dialogical aesthetics, on the other hand, privileges political work. For Kester, evaluation of dialogical art is ethical, based in the social relationships it produces. His roster of artists who use dialogical practices includes the collectives Wochenklauser and Park Fiction, and the artist Adrian Piper.

Kester is at University of California, San Diego, an academic center of socially directed cultural work. Herbert Marcuse put a strong early stamp on the school. The émigré Frankfurt School philosopher, who conceived the idea of “repressive tolerance” and wrote An Essay on Liberation (1969), was so beloved of 1960s student radicals that the governor of California, Ronald Reagan, tried to fire him from his tenured position. Among Marcuse’s students were the artist and theorist Martha Rosler and the transgressive writer Kathy Acker.

Lately UCSD faculty have tackled issues around the U.S.-Mexican border, starting with Fred Lonidier, an artist closely identified with the union movement. Lonidier tackled the issue of the exploitative polluting maquiladora factories through collages, billboards, and recently a circulating info-center truck. Lonidier is an artist who has moved between generations, between different conceptions of political art, from the modernist to the postmodernist, from agitation propaganda to social sculpture. Also on the faculty at UCSD are the media artist Ricardo Dominguez, who has done work around the Zapatista movement as well as locative media for border-crossing immigrants, and the innovative architectural activist and artist Teddy Cruz.

Going Public

But we are getting ahead of the story. Lacy’s notion of a new genre public art had an important curatorial representative in Mary Jane Jacobs. Her landmark show in Chicago “Culture in Action” (1993) brought together mainstream public art with the subducted left-inspired currents of community art at the beginning of the Clinton presidency.

In Europe in 1991, the artistic team of Clegg and Guttman began their Open Library project, placing unprotected bookcases in grassy lots around Graz, Austria. This participatory work of social sculpture continues as they have refined and developed aspects of the project for gallery spaces.

The path towards institutional acceptance of social sculpture in the U.S., of course, had been smoothed by social activism, and by a reevaluation of the role of public art in society. Throughout a long and bitter struggle over the high modernist sculptor Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc (1981-89), a federally commissioned public artwork protested as alienating and finally removed, Serra had argued steadfastly for his avant garde prerogatives. While Serra was generally supported, many U.S. public art advocates were cast into a reflective mood by the controversy. At the same time, culturally-based activism underwent an extraordinary amplification with the agitations around the AIDS crisis.

“We Are Living in Wartime”

As the death toll from the disease mounted during the Reagan years, the epidemic turned a civil rights crisis for gay people into a struggle for survival. Resistance by the broad ACT-UP coalition and its numerous action cells of media and graphic artists – like Gran Fury and DIVA-TV – used sophisticated means and dramatic interventions to reach a broad public. These artists gave examples of collective cultural production in social service which Ben Shepard credits with crucially influencing the cultural activism of the 21st century.

Groups worked like advertising agencies for their cause, striving always to reach a broad audience. During this pre-internet era, media activists worked regularly on public access cable television. This opportunity, secured by an earlier generation of activists in film and video – like Third World Newsreel (1960s), Videofreex (1970s), and Paper Tiger (1980s), had been sustained and developed by successor groups of video artists committed to documenting social movements. (AIDS activists also made important interventions in national broadcast television.)

During the high tide of the AIDS campaigns, radical forms of creative activism directly served the aims of a dynamic social movement. A new strong bond was forged between social movements and practitioners of new genres of public aesthetic and cultural practice.

In addition to impassioned activism from the community of professional artists, the epidemic called up an extraordinary work of collective mourning rooted in popular creativity – the AIDS quilt project. Inspired by the sight of a sea of placards carried by memorial marchers in San Francisco in 1985, the Quilt is simply a collation of commemorative fabric pieces made to remember those who died. The Quilt was spread out in public places around the country, starting with the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 1987. Tens of thousands of individual remembrances have become part of the largest community art project in the world.

The category of social sculpture broadens considerably when vernacular art is included. One well-recognized example is the Heidelberg project in Detroit begun in 1986. Working with his grandfather, Tyree Guyton started painting polka dots on the sidewalks of this distressed African-American community. They went on to put toys and household goods onto signposts and the facades of many abandoned houses. Guyton was joined by others, and his enterprise of decoration became a collective creation.

Talking in the Gallery

Between 1987 and 1990 Group Material produced a project called “Democracy” in New York, seeking to represent a kind of ideal public sphere. This complex event included frequent roundtables within a multimedia exhibition, climaxing in town meetings. The gallery space of the Dia Art Foundation became a center for meeting and discourse around matters of political and social concern.

Years later Doug Ashford of the group said he thought this exhibition format was Group Material’s principal achievement. The format of an active continuously utilized exhibition space was adapted by Martha Rosler for her 1989 exhibition around the issue of homelessness, “If You Lived Here.” The crowded installation was like a little village, including setups and booths by artists, media producers, photographers, architects and planners, homeless people, squatters, activist groups, and schoolchildren. This exhibition format was emulated by engaged curator Nato Thompson in the 2008 “Democracy Convergence” produced by Creative Time in the cavernous Armory on 68th Street in New York.

When Mary Jane Jacobs put together her “Culture in Action” show in 1993, she could draw on a prominent body of artists working in the genre of social sculpture. Among these, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle produced a video workshop and street exhibition block party with Chicago gang members. The collective HaHa built a hydroponic garden in a storefront to grow organic vegetables for AIDS patients. Both these art projects, intimately involved with community groups, rolled forward after the exhibition was over.

During the 1990s, ideas and initiatives that had become almost commonplace in the world of community art became the concern of mainstream curators of public art, both in the United States and abroad. Curators and cultural administrators in the United Kingdom dedicated substantial resources to community art, recruiting many new artists into this way of working. Still community art, unconnected to the marketplace and museum galleries, is a largely unhistoricized byway of art. This disjunction is a lasting problem for any analysis of social sculpture as a continuous way of working in art.

The sudden visibility of the global justice movement with the resistance to the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, 1999 brought fresh energy into the left, both political and cultural. While the imposition of war conditions on the U.S. suppressed it within institutions, international interest in forms of social sculpture and the work of collectives directly engaging political issues has continued high.

The reinvention of the exhibition as a place for discussions and encounters exemplified in Group Material’s work of the late 1980s received a world-scale reiteration in 2001. The curator Okwui Enwezor organized Documenta 11 as a series of five “platforms,” discursive events and exhibitions on five different continents. The yearlong series of events sought to cross theory with practice, culminating in the final exhibition in 2002. This show included such social sculpture projects as Thomas Hirschhorn’s Bataille Monument, a kind of library and activity center built amidst an immigrant housing project. In 2003, Martha Rosler and others produced the Utopia Station, another kind of platform focusing on utopian schemes and communities, at the Venice Biennale.

These large international institutionally supported exhibitions contest the global art fairs rather like NGOs (nongovernmental organizations, like Greenpeace) contest capitalist corporations. The regular big exhibitions do the job of giving content, shape and form to contemporary art initiatives today, especially those with social content, as compared to the sheer roar of the market as in the art fairs.

The problem of cultural confinement has begun to be addressed by the waves of creative collectives, viral activist cultural work, and new forms of sheer resistant and transgressive fun devised by artists close to or influenced by the global justice movement. What Nato Thompson and Gregory Sholette called “interventionist” art in an important exhibition of 2004 represents a rather pure form of social sculpture – issue-oriented creative work with the potential to reshape society.

The flood of work in modes of social sculpture in the last 10 years would require an article at least as long again to detail. I have also ignored work on the internet, which in a mere ten years has spawned its “2.0” version in the many platforms for social media. This new technology has reframed the previously neglected work of media artists and activists using video tools.

Joseph Beuys would be pleased that directly engaged social art practice is again at the top of the contemporary agenda. Art work that seeks to discharge a mission, to undertake work in the world like education, consciousness raising and political tasks, is finding space in art institutions. As we move forward into an uncertain future, social sculpture is working to regenerate the social capital depleted by the long extractive regime of neoliberalism.

References, Further Reading:

Classic early books; most are now rare, but are in many libraries:

  • Allan Kaprow, Assemblage, Environments &Happenings (New York, H.N. Abrams, 1966) – coffee table book, beautiful illustrations, many surprising details.
  • Adrian Henry, Total Art: Environments and Happenings (1974) – popular book includes many forgotten artists.
  • Frank Popper, Art (1975) – propaganda for technology art, but premised on the principle of spectator participation.
  • Suzanne Lacy, editor, Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art (Seattle, Wash. : Bay Press, 1995) – A book of essays surveying the engaged public art of the 1980s and ‘90s.
  • Mary Jane Jacob, curator, Culture in Action: A Public Art Program of Sculpture Chicago (Seattle : Bay Press, 1995) – This important exhibition defined a genre.
  • Paul Schimmel, ed., Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979 (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Thames and Hudson, 1998) – Major exhibition redefined performance art in relation to visual art. Full of fascinating stories.
  • Marie Carmen Ramirez, ed., Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s (Queens Museum of Art, NY; D.A.P., 1999) – This large exhibition broke the spell of U.S. conceptual art, opening up a global terrain of exciting historical actions.
  • Marc Dessauce, ed., The Inflatable Moment: Pneumatics and Protest in '68 (New York : Princeton Architectural Press: Architectural League of New York, 1999) – A surprising exhibition catalogue of an important movement.
  • • IRWIN group, East Art Map: Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe (London : Afterall, 2006) – A survey casebook of mostly conceptual art and performance under authoritarian socialism.
    • Eva Meyer-Hermann, et al., eds., Allan Kaprow: Art as Life (Los Angeles : Getty Research Institute, 2008) – Major new survey exhibition catalogue of his work. Not only the classic early works but the later more analytical ones as well.
    • Deborah Cullen, ed., Arte [no es] Vida : Actions by Artists of the Americas 1960-2000 (New York : El Museo Del Barrio, 2008) – A survey exhibition of politicized performance work in Latin America during the period of the dictatorships and after. Many country-specific essays.

    Notes to the text (all online citations as of 12-08)

    “Richard Kostelanetz lists 15…” in R. K., The Theatre of Mixed Means: An Introduction to Happenings, Kinetic Environments, and other Mixed-Means Performances (1968).

    “participatory art…” This is a contemporary name for this kind of work which was being celebrated as this text was written in a major exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. See Rudolf Frieling, The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now (NY: Thames & Hudson, 2008).

    “Happening came to Amsterdam…” Richard Kempton, Provo: Amsterdam’s Anarchist Revolt (Autonomedia, 2008). See also Delta magazine, Autumn 1967, for a collection of key Provo texts in English.

    “take pictures of the police action…” This story was told at the “Signs of Change” exhibition at Exit Art, NYC in fall of 2008, during a screening of Provo films by Jordan Zinovich, who worked on the Kempton book.

    “where the plans for just such an action had been exhibited…” Brett Bloom, “A Magical Land of Roving Santa Claus Armies, Pirated Energy Drinks and a Giant Squatted Urban Village,” in Josh McPhee and Erik Reuland, eds., Realizing the Impossible: Art Against Authority (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2007)

    “sensational ‘lock-in’ of gallery goers…” Brian Holmes discusses this work by Graciela Carnevale in his text “Transparency To Exodus” (2005), online.

    “Jon Erickson succinctly summarizes…” J.E., “The Spectacle of the Anti-Spectacle: Happenings and the Situationist International,” in Discourse 14.2 (performance issue), Spring 1992; references within the quotation: “SOS” is Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Black and Red, 1983), and “Knabb” is Ken Knabb, Situationist International Anthology (1981). Most of these texts are online.

    “springboard for comment…participatory art…” In addition to the catalogue Rudolf Frieling, ed., The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now (2008), Claire Bishop has edited a collection of documents, Participation (2006). Heretofore a major source was Frank Popper’s Art – Action and Participation (1975). Popper is a historian of kinetic and electronic art. Popper’s pioneers of viewer participation were the Bauhaus master László Moholy-Nagy, Israeli kinetic artist Yaacov Agam, Roy Ascott and Lygia Clark.

    “exhibition called `Do It’…” Search “Do It at e-flux” on the internet. The site contains an instructive essay by Bruce Altshuler, “Art by Instruction and the Pre-History of ‘Do It.’” (There is also a published book on the project.)

    “Kusama’s Church of Self-Obliteration…” Grady Turner, interview with Yayoi Kusama in Bomb magazine, no. 66, Winter 1999, online.
    “burst into the place singing slogans…” Ana Longoni, “Action Art in Argentina from 1960: The Body (Ex)posed,” in Deborah Cullen, ed., Arte No Es Vida (El Museo del Barrio, 2008).

    “joint team of artists and sociologists…” This mode of working was inspired by conceptual art. The Rosario Group’s example of the radical research collective including academic specialists and artists who represent the work has proved an important model for artists and radicals alike. See Erika Biddle, Stevphen Shukaitis and David Graeber, eds., Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations, Collective Theorization (2007).

    “build ice barricades in the street to stop police…” Virginia Pérez-Ratton, “Performance and Action Work in Central America 1960-2000: A Political and Aesthetic Choice,” in Cullen, ed., op. cit.

    “artists aligned themselves with the feminist movement…” A recent wave of historicization for feminist art has thrown up a major show. See Cornelia H. Butler and Lisa Gabrielle Mark, eds., WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution (2007). There is much online about this exhibition.

    “nominated a pig for president…” The pig, a personable animal named Pigasus, was from the California Hog Farm Commune.

    “radical Art Workers’ Coalition…” Two 1970 publications of the Art Workers' Coalition – Open Hearing and Documents 1 – can be downloaded at PrimaryInformation.org.

    “conceptual art laid the baseline…” The classic (chronological) account of conceptual art is Lucy Lippard, ed., Six Years: The Dematerialization of Art (1973; republished 1997); Tony Godfrey’s survey text Conceptual Art (1998) is a good introduction. Marie Carmen Ramirez, ed., Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin 1950s to 1980s (1999) takes a look at the important ways, very often political, in which conceptual art was used around the world.

    “This is the most important side of my work…” Achille Bonito Oliva, from an interview titled “A Score by Joseph Beuys: We Are the Revolution,” 1971; it is cited by Irving Sandler to Ronald Feldman Gallery handout, 1971 (in Sandler’s Art of the Post-Modern Era, 1996). Quoted by Glen Hanson, in “Beuys' Energy Plan” (2001), online.

    An Anti-Catalog…” This is online at Gregory Sholette’s darkmatterarchives.net.

    “the injustice of unpaid housework…” This ideological connection is spelled out in Robert C. Morgan, “Touch Sanitation: Mierle Laderman Ukeles,” High Performance magazine, Fall 1982; online at

    “what Robert Smithson called ‘cultural confinement’…” Smithson’s statement was written for the catalogue of the same Documenta at which Beuys had produced his Office for Direct Democracy: Documenta 5 (1972), section 17, p. 74. It was published as “Cultural Confinement,” Artforum, v. 11, no. 2 (October 1972),

    “curator Nicolas Bourriaud’s idea of relational art...” Nicolas Bourriaud, Esthétique Relationnelle (1998), Relational Aesthetics (2002 in English). The French curator discussed a range of artists, including Liam Gillick, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Philippe Parreno, Carsten Höller and Christine Hill.

    “Ted Purves has located the key to this kind of work…” T.P., ed., What We Want is Free: Generosity and Exchange in Recent Art (2005). Half this book is given over to an illuminating series of project histories. See also the catalogue Gianfranco Maraniello, et al. eds., The Gift/ Il Dono: Generous Offerings (2002).

    “emphasizes dialogue over the closure of traditional modernist objecthood…” “A Very Short Critique of Relational Aesthetics,” by Radical Culture Research Collective (2007), online.

    “Ben Shepard credits with crucially influencing…” B.S. and Ronald Hayduk, eds., From ACT-UP to the WTO:Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization (2001).

    “Doug Ashford said of this exhibition format…” Alan W. Moore, “Artists’ Collectives” in Gregory Sholette and Blake Stimson, eds., Collectivism After Modernism (2007).

    “five platforms, five different continents…” See Okwui Enwezor, Carlos Basualdo, Ute Meta Bauer, Susanne Ghez, Sarat Maharaj, Mark Nash, and Octavio Zaya, eds., Documenta 11_Platform 5 (2002).

    “an important exhibition of 2004…” Thompson and Sholette, eds., The Interventionists: Users’ Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life (MASS MoCa, 2004)

    Author's Note:
    This piece grew out of an article for Fifth Estate which sought to explain avant garde art practice to an activist readership. I hope it still kind of does that… This is a sketch, really, and a very incomplete history. Much remains un- or little known, but even in terms of recent scholarship, in this article Latin America is still incoherent, Japan is slight. There is not any Africa, Eastern Europe or Balkans. No Middle East, nor any South or Southeast Asia or China. The question of social sculpture is a big one, and in restarting my very basic researches I realized that this article could easily be many times bigger. Art historical scholarship has changed for the better during the long dark night of Bush II’s regime. Many scholars seem to have lost their aversion to political art. We may thank the ex-emperor at least for making politics and art a cool thing to study.