The social worth of art without value

3 minute read


Today’s topic is participation in art. The texts behind this article make a particularly convincing case that we’re in dire need of dismantling of surface-level tropes around artistic participation, if we’re to save art as a socialised and social action.

Claire Bishop’s “Artificial Hells” is a particularly on-point critique of the neoliberal appropriation of the social inclusion rhetoric. The Orwellian doublespeak in advocating for social inclusion to promote individualism is as appalling as it is hind-sight obvious, as this quote sums up:

The social inclusion agenda is therefore less about repairing the social bond than a mission to enable all members of society to be self-administering, fully functioning consumers who do not rely on the welfare state and who can cope with a deregulated, privatised world. (Bishop)

Alan Kaprow’s “How to make a happening” advocates for a complete removal of art and performance from participatory events, in order to dismantle the preconceived notions of what “art” should be, of who is meant to evaluate it and by which metrics. “No Ghost Just A Shell” by Huyghe and Parreno create a participatory frustration of the commercialisation of creativity, by purchasing an off-the-shelf manga character and infusing it with community-created life.

These three readings of participation in art all share a fil rouge of creating socially shared art by subverting what art means, both as academic concept, and as economic product, in order to redefine how artistic endeavours can connect people. However, why should that be a bad thing? Doesn’t the recognition of value in art simply state that there is worth in what we’re creating, since someone else would be willing to part with something of their own in order to partake in it?

The risk lies in misguided incentives: if we acknowledge that art holds value, we then recognise that such value runs the risk of becoming more important than art itself, and the drive for (academic, economic) profit tends to replace the drive for creation and participation. In other words, we run the risk of mistaking the pickle salad for the main dish. Another problem is the false codependence of value and worth: if we consider that only those artistic endeavours that hold recognised value are worth pursuing or funding, since they can be measured and quantified as having value, we risk losing focus of all the potential explosions of innovation that might come from pursuing valueless endeavours.

I am personally a huge fan of valueless endeavours. In order to have value, a thing needs to be recognised as valuable by some entity. That entity needs to have had previous experience with such a valuable thing, in order to be able to assign value to it. Therefore, objects with value are by definition already-seen solutions and repetitions of previous valuable things. Something truly new will have no value assigned to it when it’s born, because no one can know how to parse it for value — it will become value-ready only once it gains enough momentum and visibility to initiate the feedback loop of positive judgement by the audience. But in its birth and initial stages, it will necessarily be a valueless endeavour.

What is the dimension of pursuing valueless collaboration within computational arts? The medium itself provides massive potential for collaboration with reduced barriers of entry. An example of collaborative happening is Twitch Plays Pokemon — a 300-hour tour de force game of Pokemon Red where commands were issued exclusively via real-time chat by whoever was logged in at the moment. With peaks of tens of millions of viewers, the community incredibly managed to finish the game, and provided an example of a generative, emergent, online happening that subverted the commercial logic of a consumer product.

When discussing the potential for collaboration within computational arts, we need to take into account the non-human actors in this collaborative space. Algorithmic decision making and filtering means that communication and collaboration flows will be influenced by non-human actors. This, depending on the platform or medium, can be both a positive and a negative addition to the artistic space. For example, if the algorithmic mediation is driven by consumerist ideals, it will tend to manipulate the information stream towards a ROI logic; but we can easily imagine an algorithmic mediation mechanism designed specifically to produce unexpected artistic worth within a larger collaboration of human and non-human actors, for the emergence of art that truly hasn’t been seen before.

Photo by unsplash-logoMarija Zaric on Unsplash