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Art and Social Intervention: The Incidental Person

Also forthcoming at apexart: The Incidental Person, curated by Antony Hudek;

The “Incidental Person” was coined by the British artist John Latham (1921-2006) to qualify the status of an artist involved in non-art contexts such as government or large corporations. This exhibition expands on Latham’s original definition of the Incidental Person to include those persons for whom all aspects of life – political, social, esthetic, professional – are integrated into a unified whole. The new Incidental Person can be an artist, but does not need to be since for her or him meaningful production is not the exclusive property of any one member of society: the Incidental Person can be anyone as long as each of her or his actions partakes of a larger, unified life practice.

The exhibition argues that the Incidental Person stakes out a new position, outside of the 20th-century triad Joseph Beuys-Marcel Duchamp-John Cage. Unlike the latter, the Incidental Person does not seek to solve the “art-life” or “mind-body” problems. Instead, she or he fails to see them as problems at all, since for the Incidental Person art, life, mind, and body cannot be understood in opposition to one another. But this does not mean that the Incidental Person declares that anything can be art, as Duchamp suggested with the readymade. Rather art itself becomes subsumed under a larger, all-inclusive category of motions or things that bear the elusive imprint of Incidentality. And while the Incidental Person shares Beuys’ interest in pedagogy, she or he eschews the self-mythologizing of the avant-garde: if you do not recognize the Incidental Person walking past you in the street, this is probably because you have yet to learn what makes their life-practice Incidental – and vice-versa. This exhibition bring together persons formerly known as “artists”, “writers”, “technicians”, and “bureaucrats”, who imbue their everyday existence with Incidentality. In particular, the exhibition will underscore aspects of the Incidental Person’s life-work that do not appear obviously “artistic”, thus becoming a pedagogical forum to learn how to recognize and act out the potential behind seemingly disparate gestures, regardless of their professional or aesthetic tags.

Published here on Joanne Lee writes in praise of the amateur art critic.

'Raspberries', Joanne Lee, 2009.

'Raspberries', Joanne Lee, 2009.

 According to the art historian James Elkins, art criticism is in worldwide crisis. He says that there is more of it around than anyone can read, and that it is ‘massively produced’ but yet also ‘massively ignored’: its readership is ‘unknown, unmeasured and disturbingly ephemeral.’ In his pamphlet ‘Whatever Happened to Art Criticism?’ Elkins wishes instead there was more interaction between contemporary criticism and the ‘serious’ work (he means the kind done within universities and academies) of art history, art education and aesthetics. Criticism, he seems to believe, ought to be something best left to professionals of a certain stripe, people who can be trusted to do it properly. I’m not sure I agree: rather than pursuing Elkins argument about the relative quality of journalism or academia – both of which seem dogged by the repetitions of already familiar positions – I want to step sideways out of the fray in order to recognise the virtues of critical writing done by those who do not want to consider themselves professionals of either field. Here I find a more improper criticism, one that is unafraid of the partial and temporal, and one able to amplify the pleasures and possibilities of real-life critical conversation, as it takes place in studios or across dinner tables.

In The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan suggested that the professional tends to ‘accept uncritically the ground rules’, remaining ‘contentedly unaware’ of the all-pervasive environment in which these have been established. By contrast, the amateur is not constrained by the prevailing purview, and so is potentially able to operate beyond such norms. This can simply be because, as historian Daniel Boorstin once recognised, an amateur ‘need not be a genius to stay out of ruts he has never been trained in’, but this kind of benign ignorance need not be the only rationale for such a position: instead it could be that amateurs are able to risk doing things differently, to think in alternative ways to the acceptable mainstream, because they can afford to fail – after all, their professional ‘career’ isn’t on the line.

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August 2009