BUT IS IT ART? by Nina Felshin


The Spirit of Art as Activism
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 The lively subject of activist art gets deadening treatment in 12 long, tedious, and repetitive academic essays. Independent curator Felshin characterizes activist art as a ``hybrid'' cultural practice. Beginning in the late 1960s and early '70s, it drew on happenings, conceptual art, and performance art, which it synthesized with the political activism of counterculture groups. Later, in the 1980s and early '90s, it was informed by feminist art and postmodernism. The postmodernist breakdown of traditional art categories and fascination with the media have supplied a particularly relevant strategy for activist artists, whose ambition literally has been to merge art and life in works with a political message. Much (though not all) activist art is collaborative and de-emphasizes the role of the individual artist. Each essay in this volume profiles, in endless detail, a particular artist or collaborative group. While individual articles have merit, as a whole they are problematic. Aside from being either celebratory or polemical, they often overlap, documenting what soon becomes repetitive information on artistic agendas, social context, and historical sources. Jan Avgikos, writing on Group Material, and Eleanor Heartney on Helen and Newton Harrison's ecology-oriented art are among the few who actually tackle head on the question ``But is it art?'' Other noteworthy essays include Elizabeth Hess on the Guerrilla Girls, Tracy Ann Essoglou with an insider's view of WAC (Women's Action Coalition), and Jeff Kelley on Suzanne Lacy. It gradually becomes evident that collaborative groups (including the Guerrilla Girls, WAC, Gran Fury, Group Material) tend to fizzle out, while individual artists (Lacy, Peggy Diggs, Mierle Laderman Ukeles) and team players (the Harrisons, Carole CondÇ and Karl Beveridge) seem to endure. Although it contains valuable historical material on a significant art practice, this book will probably only be read by the small, insular art audience that many of the activist artists have tried to move beyond.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-941920-29-1
Page count: 417pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 1994


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