Claire Bishop’s short paper begins with a curious quote from Dan Graham: “All artists are alike. They dream of doing something that’s more social, more critical, and more real than art” (60). A brazen comment, this generalization gives Bishop’s discussion a provocative start. It also anticipates her assumption that all “real” art is necessarily concerned with aesthetics. This helps to explain her interest in discussing “the social turn” as Art—or, more accurately, a lack thereof.
After briefly describing both the recent proliferation of publicly engaged art practices and their value as therapy for repairing the social bond, Bishop maps prevailing perceptions of this art as polarized. There are the “non-believers,” the aesthetes who dismiss the art as uninteresting, and there are “the believers” the zealots, the activists who, according to Bishop, “…reject aesthetic questions a s synonymous with the market and cultural hierarchy” (61). Curiously, Bishop fails to identify a third group: that is, the ambivalent believers, who, like Bishop and myself, sit between these two positions. Our group is comprised of art lovers and makers alike who wonder why we ask so little of art? Why can it not be both politically charged and aesthetically interesting at the same time?
Unfortunately, this is not a question being asked enough by critics, in part because critics aren’t asking many (if any) questions of socially engaged practices these days (Though it could well be argued this symptomatic of the death of criticism more generally). Bishop offers two complimentary explanations for this. On the one hand, there is the problem of authorial renunciation. Still rooted in a romantic notion of art, contemporary criticism is easily disorientated by the absence of a single and clearly defined author. Without this figure on which to peg their discourse, critics have instead turned to the intention of the work, specifically its so-called ethical intentions. Forgoing discussion about aesthetic quality, they instead explore the work’s therapeutic value evinced through its working processes.