Hal Foster has complained that “contemporary exhibitions often feel like remedial work in socialization: come and play, talk, learn with me.”[3] Moreover, Foster claims, the collective endeavour involved in such artworks no longer has any political meaning: “today simply getting together sometimes seems to be enough.” The architect and writer Markus Miessen has also questioned the associations frequently drawn between participation and empathy, consensus and democracy. For Miessen, “Any form of participation is already a form of conflict.”[4] A similar desire for conflict – for art that provokes and disrupts, is abrasive and perverse rather than soothing and consensual – is the driving force behind Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (2012). Bishop’s book is exactly the kind of historically aware and politically sophisticated study that participatory art so badly requires. She assesses the current vogue for collaboration and participation in the context of the many attempts made during the twentieth century to rethink the role of the spectator, the artist and the artwork. Despite her initial caveats about the study’s scope, which is mainly limited to Europe, but which also includes work from Argentina, Cuba and North America, she includes a fascinating array of examples, each thoughtfully considered and skilfully summarised (no easy feat given that so many participatory projects involve a lengthy back-story). She is especially generous, but by no means uncritical, towards artistic intentions and the range of meanings provoked by individual works. This is part of a broader commitment to aesthetics. Bishop laments “the paucity of our ability to defend the intrinsic value of artistic experiences today,” which means that participatory art is often justified, rather lamely, for its apparent social benefits.

more from Richard Martin at Berlin Review of Books here.