Art can be aesthetically pleasing and aesthetically disturbing. It can be bought, sold and even inked into your skin. But is it anything more than an intellectual or visual diversion – something to look at, think about and move on from? Who are the artists that create it? Who do they create it for? Does it matter?

Carol Becker does not create art; she talks about it. She has written and edited six books about art and artists in society. She used to work with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and now she is the Dean of Columbia University’s School of the Arts. She thinks that art has a role, and that artists have a responsibility.

In fact, Becker takes a much broader view of what constitutes art, and how it is changing. She calls it “micro-utopian practice.” Her definition of “utopia” is “to critique what is present,” making a micro-utopia a particular critique on a particular issue. Throughout her career she has emphasized the subversive and critical potential of art to further dialogue and unsettle the status quo.

She views art as uniquely able to reveal the complexities of daily life that are hidden from public view. In the introduction to her edited volume The Subversive Imagination: Artists, Society, and Social 

Responsibility she phrases it rather succinctly: “The more simplistic the representation of everyday life … the more art must reveal.”

Becker thinks that artists can, and should be social critics. They should be able to freely engage in “micro-utopian” practice in the public arena. She views this as an integral part of a pluralistic, democratic society. But, in our age of ever-increasing privatization, how do artists fully participate in the public sphere and effectively engage micro-utopian practice?

There are, of course, many ways to do this, but of particular note in recent years are public demonstrations. While these are a far cry from paintings in a gallery, public demonstrations temporarily offer a critique of our present society. They may not be indicative of long-lasting or concrete change, but these instances create public dialogue and participative communities. They do not change our society through legislation, but through culture.

In the recent past we’ve seen Occupy, the Quebec student strike, the Arab Spring – many lengthy public demonstrations focused on raising awareness about issues plaguing our society. Would income inequality be such a hot-button issue today if Occupy hadn’t received the exposure it did? These demonstrations affect both the way in which we perceive issues and which issues we perceive.

Art has no single definition. It can exist purely for aesthetic purposes, but should it? Artists can and should play an active role in defining their roles and responsibilities in the 21st century. In our tumultuous age of protest, revolution and change perhaps we ought not question what art can be, but what it should be.

Carol Becker will be giving a lecture entitled “Artists as Public Intellectuals: Engaging Micro-Utopian Practice” on Thursday, Nov. 29 at the Design Annex on James St. North from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Admission is free. This lecture is presented by the Public Intellectuals Project, along with Mac10 and the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s Design Annex as a part of the McMaster Seminar on Higher Education, sponsored by the Office of the President. 


Alex Epp


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