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An Artist and a Citizen

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Theaster Gates is an artist living and working in Chicago. Labeling him an artist certainly does not capture who he is and what he does, though. He is often referred to as an activist, community organizer, and performer, among other things. When asked about his art practice and all the labels attached to him, he responds by saying he is a problem solver. His interests are broad, and his solutions lead him into a variety of genres and material. Lately, he has been giving public lectures and presentations. Many times, his work is presented in exhibitions.

Gates’s work often takes place in the public arena with public gatherings or lectures. When asked what draws him to this method of engagement, Gates’s response is that, “there is a type of power in the public”—either in the ability to voice one’s opinion and know that it is being heard, or through the social aspect. As he explains, “I accept that the byproduct of me getting people together is that people might call it art or call it an activist moment, and that’s just fine. The part I’m trying to concentrate on is this: if I have a set of relationships that are broad and wide, how can I bring those relationships into conversation with each other when necessary or when I’m curious?”

To that end, Gates’s latest project confronts a variety of issues through gathering people around a meal. Gates and I spoke on October 28, 2009 by phone to discuss this developing project. His upcoming projects include Theaster Gates: Resurrecting Dave the Potter at the Milwaukee Art Museum (April 15-August 1, 2010) and an exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

Kelly Huang: Food has been a reoccurring subject in your work. Back in the spring, we spoke about a soul food project that you will be hosting on the South Side of Chicago in the near future. You describe how food is an important part of every culture—how it shapes people’s memories of place, speaks to history, and has the power to bring people together. Could you tell me more about the project you are working on and how you first conceptualized it?

Theaster Gates: I was approached by Stephanie Smith (Curator of Contemporary Art, Smart Museum), who was thinking about a project called Feast: Radical Hospitality and Contemporary Art. Feast was to be an attempt at surveying the history of food practices in contemporary art. She asked me pretty simply, “What would you want to do?” And I said, I am feeling pretty good about doing things outside of museums and I would like to try and relocate a food space outside of your museum, and concentrate on soul food, because it has such a rich history on the South Side. I decided to acquire a building on my block and over the next one and a half years, slowly build out that space into a sort of soul food temple, where—in the spirit of critical discourse on art practices and social practices—one could eat really good food.

But, it’s not just about food to the extent that food is a signifier of certain cultural behaviors, rituals. Food acts as a material I can play with to tease out certain rituals inherent in black people, Koreans, Chinese, white people, middle Americans. I think that the project has always been my labor and I will benefit from the fact that there are museums and other types of museums that are interested in what you call the “gastro-arts.”

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Citizen Conversation With…Archon Fung

Archon Fung is Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship. His research examines the impacts of civic participation, public deliberation, and transparency upon public and private governance. Fung received two SBs and a PhD from MIT. [Biography courtesy of HKS]

Please tell me about the work you’ve done in the area of deliberative democracy.

I do work in public deliberation and deliberative democracy and citizen participation. [O]ne premise of that work…is that an appealing idea of democratic government is a government in which the laws and policies flow from deliberation and argument and reason among citizens.

People think of deliberative democracy as quite different from aggregative democracy, in which the laws and policies are products of just…“counting up heads”….The problem with aggregative conceptions of democracy is that they can oftentimes result in unjust policies or even unwise policies when [people’s] preferences…are either not well-informed, or maybe they’re unjust…

Recent experiments have actually put some of these notions of deliberate democracy into practice. Can you talk about some of those experiments?

[W]hen I began this work…I think it’s fair to say that in the academic world…a lot of people are already working on deliberation, but they were thinking about it as kind of an ideal of how societies ought to be. And one criticism is that these ideals and theories never quite touch the ground. And so what does deliberative practice look like, what does it look like when people actually deliberate, or policy-making is actually connected to deliberation…?

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What Have We Done to Democracy?

Arundhati Roy in The Nation:

[I]s there life after democracy?

Attempts to answer this question often turn into a comparison of different systems of governance, and end with a somewhat prickly, combative defense of democracy. It’s flawed, we say. It isn’t perfect, but it’s better than everything else that’s on offer. Inevitably, someone in the room will say: “Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia… is that what you would prefer?”

Whether democracy should be the utopia that all “developing” societies aspire to is a separate question altogether. (I think it should. The early, idealistic phase can be quite heady.) The question about life after democracy is addressed to those of us who already live in democracies, or in countries that pretend to be democracies. It isn’t meant to suggest that we lapse into older, discredited models of totalitarian or authoritarian governance. It’s meant to suggest that the system of representative democracy–too much representation, too little democracy–needs some structural adjustment.

The question here, really, is what have we done to democracy? What have we turned it into? What happens once democracy has been used up? When it has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning? What happens when each of its institutions has metastasized into something dangerous? What happens now that democracy and the free market have fused into a single predatory organism with a thin, constricted imagination that revolves almost entirely around the idea of maximizing profit?

Is it possible to reverse this process? Can something that has mutated go back to being what it used to be? What we need today, for the sake of the survival of this planet, is long-term vision. Can governments whose very survival depends on immediate, extractive, short-term gain provide this? Could it be that democracy, the sacred answer to our short-term hopes and prayers, the protector of our individual freedoms and nurturer of our avaricious dreams, will turn out to be the endgame for the human race? Could it be that democracy is such a hit with modern humans precisely because it mirrors our greatest folly–our nearsightedness?

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Why Cooking Matters

We need radical thinking, but we don’t need a revolution. We don’t need an overthrow of capitalism. Nor do we need to become vegetarians. We need not become spartans. We’re just going to have to learn how to cook.

It’s impossible to overemphasize the importance of good farming for safe and nutritious food. But the campaign for food democracy needs to start with boning knives and cast-iron skillets. A lack of technique behind the stove is, in the end, as complicit in harming human health and the environment as the confinement pig or the corn-fed steer.

Yes, that sixteen-ounce rib-eye takes precious resources like water (approximately 2,500 gallons) and grain (about twelve pounds) away from feeding the poor, and the environmental havoc associated with raising beef most often affects the disenfranchised. By 2050, if we continue this gorging, livestock will be consuming as much as 4 billion people do.

These horrors of conventional animal husbandry are tied to the amount of meat we eat, which is intimately linked to the parts of the animal we choose to eat. That is, choosing the rib-eye–as opposed to choosing, say, the brisket–determines how many animals are produced.

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Whatever Happened to the Work Ethic?
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In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville worried that free, capitalist societies might develop so great a “taste for physical gratification” that citizens would be “carried away, and lose all self-restraint.” Avidly seeking personal gain, they could “lose sight of the close connection which exists between the private fortune of each of them and the prosperity of all” and ultimately undermine both democracy and prosperity.

The genius of America in the early nineteenth century, Tocqueville thought, was that it pursued “productive industry” without a descent into lethal materialism. Behind America’s balancing act, the pioneering French social thinker noted, lay a common set of civic virtues that celebrated not merely hard work but also thrift, integrity, self-reliance, and modesty—virtues that grew out of the pervasiveness of religion, which Tocqueville called “the first of [America’s] political institutions, . . . imparting morality” to American democracy and free markets. Some 75 years later, sociologist Max Weber dubbed the qualities that Tocqueville observed the “Protestant ethic” and considered them the cornerstone of successful capitalism. Like Tocqueville, Weber saw that ethic most fully realized in America, where it pervaded the society. Preached by luminaries like Benjamin Franklin, taught in public schools, embodied in popular novels, repeated in self-improvement books, and transmitted to immigrants, that ethic undergirded and promoted America’s economic success.

What would Tocqueville or Weber think of America today? ()

99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall

E.J. Dionne, Jr. on the problem with “teachable moments”:

Since everybody seems to turn autobiographical during these “teachable moments,” I will exercise my right to do so, too. From the time I was in college in the late 1960s and early ’70s, I have been incensed at the elitism so often shown by privileged liberals toward the white working class. And I felt this as someone on the left.

I wrote a doctoral dissertation inspired by that concern, and the current controversy led me down memory lane, through college newspaper archives, to see if my recollection of my earlier views matched reality. For what it’s worth, here’s what I wrote in 1973, the year I graduated from college:

“What is most disturbing about conservative attacks on the student left is that many of the charges were right on the mark. The student left often did come to be characterized by its own forms of elitism and intellectual arrogance. …

“Even more pernicious and divisive were race issues. It is clear, of course, that black demands for political and economic equality are justified … (but) the way these issues developed … served to estrange the working class white from the movement for equality. White workers rebelled because they felt they were being forced to pay an inequitable share of the costs of equality. … Sadly, whites who protested against being singled out were too often attacked as racists. … In the end, the losers were those who had the greatest stake in social reform — white workers, blacks and the student left.”

I risk the indulgence of quoting my younger self to suggest that we have been watching this same game for too long. It’s a game that always turns out badly for those seeking equality and social reform. At the time he was asked to comment on Gates, Obama was trying to make the case for universal health coverage — for the largest step toward greater social justice since civil rights and Medicare — and it took only the single word “stupidly” to send everyone scurrying back to that “infinite regress of score-settling.”

Sgt. Crowley should not have arrested Gates, as the police implicitly acknowledged by dropping the charges. But Gates knows that this police officer with a good record is not the enemy. Let’s end the score-settling right now.

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