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Title: A case for art as a socially engaged, politicising force, utilising the work of Alfredo Jaar
Author: Kilcoyne, Janet
ISNI:       0000 0004 7659 4212
Awarding Body: Royal College of Art
Current Institution: Royal College of Art
Date of Award: 2018
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My original contribution to knowledge is a framework constructed via the writings of Antonio Gramsci and Walter Benjamin for understanding what distinguishes art as a political object from art as a socially engaged, politicising force. The dominant understanding of art's reformative social agency raises two ethical problems that the thesis addresses. The first involves the artist's right to assume the authority to represent people and social conditions. The second involves an ethical aesthetic of tastefulness that engages with viewing as opposed to action. The framework I develop argues that art's functionalisms, for good or for ill, do not work with categories of art but are embedded in the politics of all cultural production. By disentangling art from the elitist paradigms enmeshed in concepts of artistic skill and art's own internal history of development, the thesis clarifies what separates art as political object from art as a socially engaged, politicising force. In the thesis, I argue for the advantages of the framework I develop via critical engagements with influential approaches such as those advocated by Clement Greenberg and Roland Barthes, artworks such as those produced by Judy Chicago and Art & Language, and theorists of art's social and political role such as those offered by Chantal Mouffe and Jacques Rancière. A key point made across the thesis is that political art is not necessarily politicising art, with the former being more interested in modifying the forms taken by art - what art is - and the latter asking how art can contribute to social and political change - what art does. Subsequently, the thesis outlines in detail the aforementioned framework inspired by Gramsci and Benjamin. This sets the scene for the second half of the thesis, which discusses the installations and interventions of Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar, whose practices are an exemplary case for illustrating the potential of the framework outlined above. As a self-professed Gramscian, Jaar works to actively participate in practical life as a constructor, organiser and 'permanent persuader' (Gramsci, 1971, p.10), through creating models for 'learning to think, for solving a problem' (Jaar, 2006, p.76). Moreover, as someone who is explicitly political in his practices, and who has been lauded worldwide for his works since the late 1970s, Jaar is a highly appropriate artist through which to highlight the challenges inherent to attempts to make the most of art's social and political potential. The chapters on Jaar consider, in turn, his Chilean works in the late 1970s and early 1980s, his photographic installations, and his explicitly political interventions. I argue that, while at times the work has embodied a politicising dynamic, more often than not the work has remained political and thus within more traditional understandings of art and of the artist. As such, the thesis offers a richer, more holistic approach to theorising art and discussing artistic practices compared to existing scholarship and criticism, and it also enables us to develop more nuanced analyses of artworks which are presented as political and potentially transformative than has hitherto been the case.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: W190 Fine Art not elsewhere classified