Inspired or Civic: The Value of Art in Various Settings

by Michael De Anda Muñiz

This past week I was able to attend a 96 Acres event (96 Acres is an art project on the Cook County Jail) at the Museum of Contemporary Art, a Latina artist’s job talk for a university position, and a steering committee meeting for 96 Acres. It was a week that exemplified my main interest in Latina social justice artists. In one week, Latina artists interacted with a major art institution, an academic institution, and community members in separate settings. Each brought them into contact with very different audiences, and in each setting 96 Acres was one of, if not the, main focus.

The event at the museum was “an intervention”. This means that the museum had all its galleries open, and individuals involved in 96 Acres did performance art throughout the museum. Therefore, visitors were able to see the museum’s collections but were also confronted by performance pieces throughout the night. For example, as visitors looked at paintings, performers would engage with them in various ways, such as spoken word poetry or by repeating phrases and words. Additionally, as visitors moved throughout the space, they had to contend with the bodies of performers. Some laid on the stairs repeating words and phrases. Others stood in the middle of a gallery. The university job talk involved a Latina artist presenting her artwork and her pedagogical philosophy to an art department. She shared information about her personal background, her artistic approaches and themes, her pedagogical approaches, and her current work. Then, she took questions from current faculty. Lastly, I attended the steering committee meeting for 96 Acres. The lead artist, a graduate student, a high school art teacher, and two high school students attended this meeting. The central topic of the meeting was discussing possible summer projects and installations.

Value and worth are among the major concepts that came up during my observations. In the various settings, individuals had different understandings of the value and worth of artwork. At the museum, visitors had several reactions to the performances. Some visitors were uncomfortable and confused about what 96 Acres was about. Others saw the performances as nothing beyond the performance but did not seem to connect it to critiques of the criminal legal system and incarceration. The audience at the job talk seemed more interested in the social critiques behind the art. They asked a lot of questions about how the art connects to social issues, the philosophy that motivates the art, and art as a educational tool. The steering committee focused on the process behind the projects. They asked who should be involved in the planning of projects, what form they should take, what topics they should cover, and where they should be located.

In all of these cases, actors judged art and 96 Acres using different “orders of worth” (Boltanski and Thévenot 1999). Some museum visitors judged the project on an inspired order of worth. 96 Acres was only worth their time and money if they felt it was creative and incited some emotional response. Steering committee members and job talk audience members used a civic order of worth. They judged 96 Acres based on its commitment to equality and justice. 96 Acres is only worth their time if it results in projects that are aimed at bringing about positive changes for those affected by the jail and criminal legal system. Interestingly, even those using the same order of worth – civic – had some disagreement about what “justice” and “equality” looked like and how to get there. Latina artists must deal with all these competing orders of worth. They must maintain the cooperation and support of actors with conflicting orders of worth. This is one of the more interesting parts of Latina social justice artists’ work.

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