Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between the individual and the collective, the ways agency is built and distributed, and how to articulate the generative tension between these two ends. As I was reading for my third chapter, I found a text by the American artist Adrian Piper, reproduced in the catalogue of the Lucy Lippard’s exhibition Issue: Social Strategies by Women Artists (1980), that stayed with me for a while. Titled ‘Some Political Self-Reflection’, Piper’s text manages to effectively capture the process of negotiation that takes place within the individual as they enter a group and community:
A common thread, the initial desire to win acceptance and recognition from those seen has important, and whom one respects and admires, followed by rejection, hostility, and ostracism by them. One began by wanting their qualities, and to be like them. But one is forced to recognize that one is not like them. After that, a period of longing, self-hatred, and misery. Then feelings of anger, disgust, and finally contempt for them, followed by awareness of one’s own qualities. Gradual acceptance of those qualities, which evolves into pride and self-respect for one’s individuality, and the insistance that others come to respect those qualities too. All this accompanied by feelings of loneliness, sorrow and alienation. Then the dawning awareness that each of one’s qualities is shared by some different social groups: one is not alone, after all. The growing sense of community with all those people who have also tried to assimilate, and failed (pity for those who have tried to assimilate and succeeded); with people at different stages in the process, the stage of desire, of respect and admiration, of longing and self-hatred, of anger and and contempt, of personal pride of loneliness, of the awareness of political community. The mutual recognition within and among these groups; the exchange of admiration and respect, of psychological support and political strengths. At the end, the achievement of political identity and the public assertion of that identity. The demand for complete recognition and respect for each of one’s own valued qualities, with the deepened understanding: that quality is shared by a social group one is a part of. The realization that one’s personal pride and self-respect draws strength not from one’s isolated uniqueness but from the community with whom one shares qualities in common. The desire to command respect and admiration for oneself and therefore for the groups to which one belongs. The incitement to political action. The complete emergence of individuality and personal self-awareness is at the same time the emergence of political community and political commitment.
This excerpt struck me a lot, especially the conclusion, for it conveys the impossibility of separating the politicisation of the individual from that of the group, and the non-harmonious way in which these processes take place, the phases that the individual goes through, and how the group has to be porous and flexible enough so as to encompass these different times and positions. The tensions inherent in communal work are often overlooked or minimised (less and less so) when dealing with socially engaged art projects. Even when the artist engages with an already formed group, the inclusion of a new member cannot fail to bring a degree of conflict, even if minimal, as the individual has to understand how to integrate themselves and how to rethink themselves within the collective dimension. The commonality of goals or values does not make this process less present or less necessary.
Furthermore, this excerpt offers a nice insight into how a person may take ownership throughout a collaborative process, especially if the group is not pre-established but in progress. Socially engaged art contexts may provide a space for people to come together, to break out of isolation and self-hatred, and find and reconnect with a community; to return to being a part of something in our fractured society.
Resisting the neoliberal rhetoric of freedom, emancipation does not derive from individuality and separation, but can emerge through the recognition of oneself as part of a community, in a relation of mutual accountability and interdependency.
Without wishing to draw definitive conclusions or project my views on this brief excerpt, I want to conclude by positing that acknowledging this negotiation, the various factors that contribute to its unfolding, and the affective labour it requires, might broaden our understanding of the politicisation and conflict processes that socially engaged art projects initiate in society as well as the individual.