Artistic Freedom in an institutional context, and freedom swaddling.
The Herbie Hancock Quartet kicked off the Chicago Jazz Festival on September 1, 2007. Listening to their complex rhythms, careful use of discord, and almost bureaucratic musical exchanges led me to consider the immense difficulty of balancing creative freedom with the structure, order (and idiosyncratic quirks) of artistic institutions. These musicians worked within the rules of music, but were not confined by its parameters—they consigned the order and structure of the music to serve them, rather than being bound by it.
To compare music to art is a problematic analogy, but nonetheless can provide fruitful scope for a floundering artist. Like these jazz musicians, negotiating the art world involves a tightrope balancing act with which all art students must contend. Indeed, the dilemma produced when creative practices meet institutional frameworks is a predicament all artists are thrown into.
This tension between order and (latent or potential) chaos is particularly apparent at a place like SAIC: students are repeatedly encouraged to make use of their artistic freedom: “Go for it! Whatever creative endeavor you choose, just go for it! Cross your disciplines, challenge your spaces! Fuck up!”
Yet in this potentially chaotic spirit of artistic openness, there is another element at play. The implicit and explicit rules, regulations and mores of the art institution—be it a school or a gallery—are always present. Some of these trappings and rules are breakable, flexible boundaries, while others are scarcely noticeable … and others may result in arrest if you attempt to overcome them. The challenge in negotiating this tension is to put this creative dissonance into play.
The Department of Flux has looked to this disjunction by bringing to the forefront the crucial, but often ignored, question of what exactly it means to be an artist exhibiting in a gallery. They are examining how artists and students can become involved with the gallery in variable, differing ways, often bypassing “normal” institutional procedures and literally bringing down the walls.
On first glance, the art world appears abundant with opportunity, a place where anything is possible. On second glance, once one has begun to enact their desires in this institutional context, the art world seems a myriad of forms and regulatory signs:
“WE ONLY SHOW VIDEO ON SUNDAYS”
“NO INSTALLATIONS INVOLVING ANIMAL MEAT”
“YOU JUST CAN’T SIT HERE.”
And only on third glance does this challenging field of order and chaos begin to come into focus. What is one to do, stuck in this dualism? This is the classic problem of freedom, and, of course, the classic question of early modernism: once you remove the restraints, you can supposedly do anything, and this vast field of possibility can, at times, be paralyzing. Which is why the boundaries provided by institutions can be used to our advantage—as a springboard, a launching pad … or even a punching bag.
Odd as it may sound, it is possible to be swaddled by all this freedom, comfortably smothered in the knowledge that anything we do will be OK, sort of. This situation is actually potentially dangerous, and can lead to the laziest forms of apathy and individualism, particularly in an art school context. The trick will be to choose wisely in this wide-open field.