Historically, art-making has been associated with individual expression and artists have been seen as creative geniuses isolated from mainstream society, attempting to communicate creatively through visual means. In the aftermath of World War II, after having experienced the dire consequences of staunch individualism (i.e., nationalism), keeping the peace through cooperation arose in all spheres of human experience, including the arts. Rather than Dadaist (or other) approaches to the horrors of war, postwar art brought about a more forward-looking optimism. Artists became drawn to collaboration, and the collective was born.
Grant H. Kester’s new book, The One and the Many, explores the development of contemporary collaborative art and its influence on the larger art and sociopolitical worlds. Kester argues that in the last 15 years especially, socially engaged and collective art has really taken off. He sites examples from the U.S., Germany, Myanmar, and Argentina, proving that this is not just a Western trend, but a truly global phenomenon. Art for art’s sake has taken on a negative connotation, paving the way for art with a higher social purpose. The focus has shifted from the finished art object to the process of creation. As Kester points out, social art is often created with the help of NGOs and lo
cal activists, furthering its collaborative, and frequently cross-disciplinary, nature. He contends that artist projects are much “purer” (for lack of a better word) than government and NGO aid, in that there are no strings attached or propagation on behalf of a specific political entity or organization.
Although Kester treats an incredibly interesting and timely subject, his book reads a bit like anti-capitalist propaganda. He delves deep into the implied cultural superiority and corruption of aid organizations, including USAID, and sings the praises of art collectives that are able to fix, for example, the problem of access to clean drinking water in rural India. While it is certainly true that smaller, locally-based, and cooperative projects are more successful than those funded by large organizations proselytizing globalization and “development,” Kester paints the picture of artists and artist collectives as the messianic masterminds of all of these small-scale, grassroots projects, creating an ironic new cultural superiority of artists over everyone else. Despite its shortcomings, The One and the Many brings to the forefront an important and influential trend in the development of contemporary art—collaboration for the common good.
The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context
by Grant H. Kester
Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2011
320 pages, 29 illustrations, $24.95