Art as Infrastructure

University essay from Stockholms universitet/Socialantropologiska institutionen

Abstract: This paper seeks to describe and explain the social efficacy of art by addressing it as contemporary western infrastructure for social cohesion. Social cohesion refers here not to teleological status quo, but to pluralistic, yet fairly peaceful co-habitation, allowing for gradual change while preserving continuity of the group identity. Employing Actor-Network Theory, this paper views artistic practice as actor-network assemblage process making connections and vehicles that enable movement of ideas, values, visions and dissents throughout the community. Parallel memberships of the same actors in artistic and non-artistic actor-networks create conditions for artistic meanings to “bleed over” also into other spheres of the social life where they can gain efficacy far beyond the “art world”. Art infrastructure operates under particular “regime of art” that suspends some of the “real world” rules and sanctions ambiguity, facilitating less confrontational reconciliation of diverse and contradictory meanings than is customary in e.g. science, religion, politics, economy, railways, sewage or other infrastructures that also have impact on social cohesion. Debates about the definitions of “art” or particular objects’ belonging to “art” emerge in this perspective as debates on the scope of applicability of the “regime of art”, as it may have significant social consequences. By outlining an infrastructural theory of art this paper seeks to fill a theoretical gap in a rather fragmented field of anthropology of art and to propose novel ways to deploy insights from anthropological engagements with infrastructure. Empirical data of this paper come from a five weeks fieldwork in Alaska.

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