Date of Degree

9-2017

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Sociology

Advisor

Patricia Ticineto Clough

Committee Members

William Kornblum

Cindi Katz

Setha Low

Subject Categories

American Studies | Geography | Sociology of Culture | Visual Studies

Keywords

Aesthetic capitalism, performance art, installation art, urban studies, socially-engaged art

Abstract

Performance art, with its origins in Dada, Futurism, and Surrealism, has long been a political, politicized, and transgressive form of art, posing challenges to art world institutions, political and social norms, and the nature of art itself through practitioners’ unconventional uses of the body, space, and audience/viewer participation. Much of the power of performed art comes from its performative and transitory nature: it does not simply express, represent, or communicate information. Rather, performative art forms such as installation or performance are productive of political aesthetics. Art may not necessarily intervene directly with political, legal, and legislative decisions or acts, but art is political: images are aesthetic, sensory input and experience that offer visions of worlds—our own, others’, or worlds that do not exist (yet).

Thus this dissertation takes seriously the sociological and spatial relationships between artistic practices, aesthetic regimes, method, and urban change. The Heidelberg Project, a site-specific installation in Detroit by artist Tyree Guyton, and Paul Chan’s 2007 piece, Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, ground my analysis of the dynamic ways in which aesthetic capitalism and racial atmospheres operate through, against, and around artists, artistic objects, locations, and media discourses and imaginaries. Artists are subject to the socio-political atmospheres in which they exist, and therefore embody or reflect aspects of their milieu even as they might be critical of its organization, laws, culture, and economy. Complicity with the dynamics of capital, colonialism or appropriation through, for example, processes of gentrification, exclusion, or history-making, even when resistance is the intent, may often be unavoidable. Thus the form that art takes matters in relation to the forms of value and wealth production in that moment: art is at once of a context and at the same time an agent of creation. Indeed, herein lies one of art’s greatest potentials: to envision and materialize a range of possible futures/worlds—for better or for worse—that may become directly emergent in our present.

This conflict between art’s radical potential and ability to critique, on the one hand, and its embeddedness in social processes that may at once fully absorb it, on the other, requires the insight of aesthetic, art historical and sociological analysis to tease apart. I would like to suggest that it is in part through examinations of collective productions of place, memory, and narrative it is possible to gain insight into what might be an aesthetic politics of social change, on the one hand, and its correlative resonances with capital, on the other. What then constitutes a radical aesthetic for socially-engaged or participatory art? How does one reconcile and imagine such a political position for works of art in a world of globalized racial and aesthetic capitalism? Using visual and discursive data, largely from the news media but also official city and tourism websites, and historical context, interviews, and theoretical and aesthetic analysis, I describe the aesthetic phenomena that surround art and that art contributes to, and what impact these resonances might have in processes of “redevelopment” or “renewal”—or their interruption—in Detroit and New Orleans.

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