The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities

The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities

by Doris Sommer


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Celebrating art and interpretation that take on social challenges, Doris Sommer steers the humanities back to engagement with the world. The reformist projects that focus her attention develop momentum and meaning as they circulate through society to inspire faith in the possible. Among the cases that she covers are top-down initiatives of political leaders, such as those launched by Antanas Mockus, former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, and also bottom-up movements like the Theatre of the Oppressed created by the Brazilian director, writer, and educator Augusto Boal. Alleging that we are all cultural agents, Sommer also takes herself to task and creates Pre-Texts, an international arts-literacy project that translates high literary theory through popular creative practices. The Work of Art in the World is informed by many writers and theorists. Foremost among them is the eighteenth-century German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller, who remains an eloquent defender of art-making and humanistic interpretation in the construction of political freedom. Schiller's thinking runs throughout Sommer's modern-day call for citizens to collaborate in the endless co-creation of a more just and more beautiful world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822355724
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 01/08/2014
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Doris Sommer is the Ira and Jewell Williams Jr. Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, where she is Founder and Director of Cultural Agents: Arts and Humanities in Civic Engagement. She is the author of Bilingual Aesthetics: A New Sentimental Education and editor of Cultural Agency in the Americas, both also published by Duke University Press.

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The Work of Art in the World

Civic Agency and Public Humanities


Duke University Press

Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5572-4


From the Top

Government-Sponsored Creativity

When I feel trapped, I ask myself, what would an artist do?


Mime over Matter

"Professor Mockus, what gave you the idea to replace the traffic police with pantomime artists?" It was an obvious question for the recent mayor of Bogotá, but if the student hadn't asked, I might not have learned that one principle of the mayor's astounding success is his disarming sense of humor. He knows when to take a joke seriously and set off ripples of shared fun. Antanas Mockus and I were co-teaching a graduate course at Harvard University during the fall semester of 2004. Foundational Fictions, a course on the backdrop of nineteenth-century national novels, and the work of other Cultural Agents framed his reflections on creativity during two terms in office (1995–1997 and 2001–2003). Those novels, written by political leaders to fan desire for national consolidation, were background cases for considering art's recent work in public life.

Before Bogotá elected Mockus in 1994 it was the most dangerous city in Latin America, according to the U.S. State Department advisory not to go there. At international airports, official warnings singled out Lagos and Bogotá as places too troubled to traffic in tourism. On this count, Bogotanos themselves didn't doubt the North American advice to keep a safe distance from the city. Many had lost confidence altogether and emigrated if they could afford to, so that—for example—their children could attend school without personal bodyguards. The city seemed hopelessly mired in a level of corruption that turns almost any investment against itself because conventional cures of money or more armed enforcement would have aggravated, not mitigated, the greed and the violence. Stumped for a while, like the political scientists and economists, including Larry Summers, who admit defeat when I ask what they would have done, the new mayor took an unconventional turn toward art. Mockus had been reluctant to call his creativity by its common name. But by 2006 "Por amor al arte" (For the Love of Art) was the name of his political platform for the presidential elections in Colombia. The next and nearly successful 2010 campaign for the presidency was more cautious, but buoyed by citizens already primed to cocreate projects with Mockus. Then an invitation from the curators of Berlin's 2012 Biennale confirmed his international reputation as a creative artist.

The mimes were only one of the mayor's many arts-inspired interventions or "cultural acupunctures" during his first administration. The therapeutic term customizes "urban acupuncture," coined by Mayor Jaime Lerner of Curitiba, Brazil, to highlight social practices that can be pressed into service for collective healing. If the acupuncture shows even modest relief, it signals the efficacy of collective action and encourages skeptics to join the first movers. These treatments included painting city streets with fifteen hundred fleeting stars/crosses 1.2 meters long to mark the points where people died in car accidents. It was a caution to pedestrians who were used to taking "shortcuts" (shorthand for all sorts of corruption in Colombia).

Citywide contests for the best poster promoting condoms went along with distributing them in the hundreds of thousands. Gun shafts were sawn into rings commemorating the violence that was thereby ritually relegated to the past. "Rock the Parks" concerts every week gave youth a regular public stage to reclaim their space after dark. "Vaccine against Violence" was a citywide performance-therapy against domestic aggression that had reached "epidemic" levels. To follow the medical metaphor, epidemics call for vaccines, those tiny doses of aggression that inoculate vulnerable victims against far greater violence. Over several weekends, nearly forty-five thousand citizens lined up holding balloons on which they painted the haunting image of the person who had most abused them. And then—on reaching real and "acting" doctors—they expressed rage, burst the balloon, and either felt relief (catharsis) or were signed up for therapy programs. The mayor's team also printed 350,000 laminated cards with a "thumbs-up" on one side and red "thumbs-down" on the other, for citizens to flash approval or disapproval of traffic behavior and mutually regulate a shared public sphere. They discontinued the game after a season, however, when Mockus conceded to critics that disapproval might interfere with the development of self-esteem and self-efficacy.

Another interruption of murderous routine was "Women's Night Out." Unlike the direct demands for women's rights in Anglo-American "Take Back the Night," Bogotá's feminist project was indirect and playful. It encouraged sociability among women, who took to the streets, the bars, and dance clubs while men stayed home. Seven hundred thousand women went out on the first "Night Out." The men balked but mostly obeyed the order to stay indoors, probably reluctant to be taken for women. Those who insisted on coming out clipped self-authorizing "Safe-Conduct Passes" printed in newspapers. The morning after, headlines reported in bold caps that, astonishingly for Bogotá, there was only one homicide and no traffic deaths. Another initially unpopular measure among men was the time limit on selling alcohol. Bars closed by 1:00 a.m., just when things would have gotten lively, and violent. But once the media regularly reported fewer homicides, resentments abated. For women, their night out showed that respect for life and for the law did not sacrifice fun but instead made it possible. And the men too began to enjoy the liberating effects of renewed civility and improved domestic life.

One important lesson that we learn from Mockus is that without pleasure, social reform and political pragmatism shrivel into short-lived, self-defeating pretensions. Friedrich Schiller knew that by 1793, even before his Letters, written in 1794, took single-minded reason to task: "In order that obedience to reason may become an object of inclination, it must represent for us the principle of pleasure, for pleasure and pain are the only springs which set the instincts in motion." Pain and fear of punishment are of course among the incentives for obedience, Mockus also admits; but they generate resentment, along with a destabilizing resistance to law. Unwilling compliance sours subjectivity with opposition to the world, while pleasurable observance sweetens social integration. Mockus doesn't entirely trust pleasure and neither did Schiller, who called it "a very suspicious companion" for morality. But the uneasy partnership can hardly be avoided, Mockus taught in his seminar Hedonism and Pragmatism: Unhindered hedonism leads from precarious pleasure to lasting pain, as lawlessness provokes scarcity and violence. And pragmatism without pleasure breeds an equally self-defeating distaste for obligations.

Philosopher Mockus may once have overlooked this productive tension between reason and passion so familiar to artists, because the field of philosophy typically discounts Schiller and even abbreviates Kant, leaving out his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment. Nevertheless, several essays by Professor Mockus evoke something of Schiller's paean to creative play and to the counterfactual exercise of imagination. Mayor Mockus, however, never doubted the efficacy of art. And on reading Viktor Shklovsky's "Art as Technique" (1913), the formalist manifesto that identifies art as interruption of habit, Mockus conceded that yes, he is an artist too. The mayor's knack for interrupting quotidian corruption and cynicism animated his general platform of cultura ciudadana. "Civic culture" combines pedagogy and persuasion to "harmonize" the competing norms of moral, legal, and cultural practices, first by demonstrating the costs of "divorce" among them, and then by cajoling citizens to reconcile formal with informal codes of behavior.

"Antanas sees the city as a huge classroom," his deputy mayor, Alicia Eugenia Silva, used to say. That classroom looked like a vaudeville theater when Mockus dressed up as "Super Citizen" in tights and cape to talk on TV, or when he'd perform civic messages in rap, or proudly wear a toy frog (equivalent to a stool pigeon) to celebrate informants for their courage to condemn a crime. This "croactivity" brought culture close to morality and in line with the law. Think of traffic in this framework of harmonizing formal with informal rules: It had long been legally wrong, sometimes morally indifferent, but culturally cool to cross the street in the middle of a block or at a red light. (Drug-traffic and related violence showed similar asymmetries of legal intolerance, moral ambivalence, and cultural acceptance.) But the mimes who mocked infringements, and the fleeting commemorative stars that intercepted incautious pedestrians, raised moral support for traffic law and cheapened the cultural caché of ignoring the law, bringing all three codes into closer agreement.

Governments will inevitably attempt to direct creativity toward "harmonization," and official preferences can come close to censorship, so artists typically resent the priorities and defend their freedom to dissent or to simply ignore official interest. Among these artists, Víctor Laignelet had kept his distance from government until Antanas Mockus made him think again: "I asked myself what would be gained and what lost by working with the new mayor in a desperate city. My conclusion was that Antanas was worth the gamble. He does not instrumentalize art for pre-defined ends, as standard politicians do, but rather engages debate and polysemic interpretation through art. In any case, full artistic freedom made little sense in a violent society that lacked freedom of movement and exploration."

Mockus himself would joke about the illusion of uncluttered freedom in a country as chaotic as Colombia. "In the United States or Canada I'd probably be an anarchist. My ambition for Colombia is for my grandchildren to have the anarchist option, because right now and for the immediate future no one here would notice." From this lawless limit condition, Mockus engaged Jean-François Lyotard during his visit to Bogotá in 1995. The local philosopher asked the French guest for his opinion about which disposition best suited contemporary Colombia: one that favored obedience to the law or one that reserved judgment in order to preserve political flexibility. The pointed question raised from city hall represented a risk to Mockus's campaign against "shortcuts" in everything from jaywalking to buying votes. Lyotard's book, The Postmodern Condition, was a fashionable defense of contemporary skepticism: the book recommends the flexible and pragmatic scientific method to test hypotheses that last only as long as they are useful. Lyotard showed that scientists don't presume to establish fixed laws, and neither should anyone else. But, in the there and then of Colombia's borderline situation as Mockus confronted it, Lyotard conceded that Law was in order.

Risks and Results

If you ask Antanas Mockus how he came to art for civic education he may modestly fail to mention the dissertation he wrote in philosophy, about the power of (art-ifical) representation to mediate between personal perception and interpersonal communication. Published in 1988, the thesis describes an arc from Descartes's achievement of conceptual clarity by using linguistic artifice/representation to Habermas's invitation to communicative action: through representation, conflicting positions can play and construct universally acceptable principles. (Augusto Boal treated all representation as theater, that is, to act and to know that one is acting.)

Whether or not Mockus mentions his significant contribution to philosophy, he will not fail to attribute his initiation in art to his adored mother, a ceramic artist who raised two children on her own strength and talent after her husband's early death. Mrs. Nijole Šivickas Mockus is a Lithuanian immigrant of delicate proportions and solid determination who still produces massive and dynamic ceramic sculptures every day though she is into her eighties. Serving as her assistant from childhood through his young adult years, Antanas would be instructed, for example, to increase the dimensions of a work in progress by 10 percent. Years later, he launched a municipal tax-paying campaign called "110% for Bogotá," which encouraged citizens to pay a tithe in excess of the taxes they owed. The city needed the extra money to unclog and to rebuild itself, Mockus told voters in his first mayoral campaign. He actually promised—not threatened—to raise taxes in order to finance urgent public works, but an intransigent city council refused to approve the increase. Mockus responded with a cleverly contradictory program: "Impuestos Voluntarios" (Voluntary Impositions/ Taxes). Almost unbelievably, in a city where corruption had for years dissuaded citizens from paying up, over sixty-three thousand families paid in excess of their obligation. They added 10 percent to fund particular projects: schools, parks, hospitals, transportation, and so forth, confident that this mayor would not steal the money.

From the time he took office to the time he left his second term, Bogotá's tax revenues had increased astronomically, almost 300 percent. The same period marked a sharp decline in homicides (67 percent) and in traffic deaths (51 percent). Independent studies corroborated the results of the mayor's Observatory of Civic Culture, established in 1995 to collect and analyze surveys of citizens' attitudes and behavior. Programs were designed to address specific survey results, and new surveys provided feedback to determine if the programs should continue, change, or discontinue. Regular reporting of even small incremental results had its own feedback effect, as citizens began to acknowledge a measurable trend which disposed them to participate more fully. Along with the qualitative analyses prepared by sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists, the Observatory's statisticians and economists produced quantitative reports that have cured me of a humanist's allergy to statistics. Numbers may be the mayor's most eloquent evidence of the aesthetic effects he provoked.

The documented results of cultura ciudadana prove that positive change is possible even in apparently intractable conditions. During a memorable moment of our co-taught course on cultural agents, Mockus made this point with aplomb and understatement. We had invited Homi Bhabha to speak on Frantz Fanon, about whom Bhabha has written brilliantly. The talk made references to Antonio Gramsci, who located opportunities for change at the margins of government, under its radar, in the cracks and contradictions that exist between government and oppositional forces. This was an apt figure for Gramsci's "war of position," waged in historical conditions always "rich with contradictions" in culture. Mockus listened attentively, as he always does, and then made a single comment: "There are cracks and contradictions inside government too where wars of position can gain ground through cultural persuasion and alternative practices." Here was a participant observer who had enough experience and imagination to ground Gramsci's hunches in reformist, rather than revolutionary, politics. Governments need not be eliminated, either by armed force or by cumulative cultural revolution; they can be reformed through the intrinsic dynamism of programs that coordinate active citizens with creative and transparent leadership.

After the icebreakers of artistic acupuncture, Bogotá's mood changed. Citizens voluntarily collaborated with government and expected good results. The success surprised everyone, including the mayor. There were fiscal reforms (transparency and voluntary tithes), educational improvements (with arts and evaluation), better law enforcement (Mockus and his staff taught at the police academy), new public transportation (the Transmilenio), and water conservation (40 percent reductions that continue today). Despair turns out to be unrealistic or lazy, a failure of determination and creativity.

When admirers from other cities eagerly solicit his advice but stay shy of playing games, Mockus recommends more creativity. And when they simply copy an intervention, as the mimes were copied in more than one hundred Colombian cities without any measurable effect, he urges more serious analysis. Cultura ciudadana is not a recipe but an approach, Mockus consistently tells them. It combines the ludic with the legal and counts on analyses of local conditions. In other cities, programs should be customized or replaced by new games. The Transmilenio, for example, is adapted from "Curitiba's rapid transit bus system, with its trademark clear tubes for same level pre-boarding.... Bogotá and Seoul have borrowed from the concept. Los Angeles and Detroit envy it." The point is to think adaptively and creatively. When critics object that Mockus cannot be right because he thinks counterfactually, he agrees with them, but adds that without imagining the counterfactual, change remains unthinkable.

Excerpted from The Work of Art in the World by DORIS SOMMER. Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments....................     xv     

PROLOGUE. Welcome Back....................     1     

ONE. From the Top Government-Sponsored Creativity....................     15     

TWO. Press Here Cultural Acupuncture and Civic Stimulation................     49     

THREE. Art and Accountability....................     81     

FOUR. Pre-Texts The Arts Interpret....................     107     

FIVE. Play Drive in the Hard Drive Schiller's Poetics of Politics.........     135     

Notes....................     157     

Bibliography....................     193     

Index....................     215     

What People are Saying About This

Krzysztof Wodiczko

"This remarkable book is both a unique introduction to, and an informed and passionate argument for, socially engaged art. Doris Sommer not only illuminates the objectives, methods, forms, effects, and context of civic art but also radically expands the ways we see and think about art in general."

Statistical Panic: Cultural Politics and Poetics of the Emotions - Kathleen Woodward

"The Work of Art in the World is a ringing manifesto for public art as an agent of democratic change. Doris Sommer traces the connections between art, activism, and social transformation in communities from Buenos Aires to the South Bronx, framing the surprising and stirring art practices that she describes in relation to the vital traditions of aesthetics and democratic political theory. Her aim is to stimulate civic discussion and communicative action; her book is revelatory, alive, and inspiring."

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