ESR 8 Blog September 2021: Marteinn Sindri Jónsson

I’ve been enjoying a lot the opportunity to read a book without the compulsive or obsessive need to simultaneously track my reading or make notes, instead simply reading, as if reading a novel. And I guess that might be partly the reason why I now feel the need to reflect a little bit on what I’ve been reading, sharing it as a blog, in full knowledge of possible shortcomings of my understanding, that I might have misunderstood the whole thing and that it might ultimately make for a tedious reading experience (I still hope not).

According to the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, the distinctions and indications that we make — that is the terms or language we use to order our perceptions or observations of reality — work on a principle of inclusion and exclusion. While reading his Art as a Social System I began reflecting on the term socially engaged art and what socially unengaged or non-socially engaged art might be, that is what kind of practice is necessarily excluded by the term socially engaged art. I have had several conversations with friends and colleagues, where my correspondents have in one way or another remarked “is not all art socially engaged?”, arguing for the inevitable social function of all art.

Interestingly enough, the paradigm with which Luhmann defines the art system, is the notion of art’s autonomy – a self-regulative or autopoietic function of the system of art comprised of those that observe artworks and those observing those that observe artworks (second-order observations is the term he uses); observation denoting both what the artist does when producing any work of art, as well as what anyone less involved in the direct production of an artwork (in a more or less material sense) does when engaging with the work, or with other’s observations of the work (participant, collaborator, critic, audience, antagonist, adversary, ally, you name it…). This function, according to my understanding of Luhmann’s argument, precludes in a succinctly modern manner any direct political or social action of the artwork. (I would be interested to know what Luhmann would have made of the term socially engaged art).

Instead, the artwork aims to establish itself as an extremely unlikely object amongst all other objects in the world — an activity that becomes exponentially more complex with the systematic memory functions of libraries and museums (in the broadest possible sense [the internet being the ultimate horizon perhaps]), which host the memories of past objects and artworks that have managed to assert themselves as novel and unexpected in a certain time and a certain place, by way of the observations of the artist(s) and everyone else observing the artwork and others’ observations of the artwork. According to Luhmann, the ultimate function of the art system is above all else to establish what is art and what is non-art, just as the ultimate function of the legal system is to arbitrate what is legal and what is illegal.

I guess the category of socially engaged art introduces yet another level of abstraction to the observation of art, demanding a two-fold justification, not only of why a given practice or a given artwork is art, but furthermore why a given practice or a given artwork is socially engaged. It thus presupposes the distinction between socially engaged non-art and non-socially engaged art, two sinkholes which socially engaged art would probably seek to steer clear of, regardless of how anyone observing socially engaged art (or the observations of those observing socially engaged art) would choose to define either social, engagement… or art (I told you it might become a little tedious).

One thing is certain, there is no ambivalence in the title of Niklas Luhmann’s work, Art as a Social System. Art is for all intents and purposes inherently social. In fact, the art system is one of the important subsystems of society (society as an ideal type I guess), along with the legal system and the economic system, the political system and the educational system to name a few. All these systems have, according to Luhmann, basic functions that are indispensable for a modern society — as soon as their functions become dispensable, so do the subsystems.  If we afford credibility to this thesis, the function of the art system of distinguishing between art and non-art is still of service to society, although Luhmann chooses to frame the value of art in slightly less cynical or simplistic terms. In fact, in virtue of the art system’s capacity to accommodate dissensus and a multitude of divergent observations, it remains a venerable resource for democratic societies, where a multitude of voices, or should we say a multitude of observations, and observations of observations, demand to be …  observed.[1]

[1] Let’s not forget how comprehensive Luhmann’s notion of observation is. Given the fact that the making of an artwork is an observation, we may surmise that anything from the movements of a dancer to whatever you’d like as the other extreme (of making art or engaging with it in any other way) counts as observation. This firmly expands the slightly optical overtones …

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