I really like Hybrid Cultures’ description of humanities and social sciences as metafields that can “redesign the floor plans” of our conceptions of modernity. This assertion justifies the continued existence of the humanities but also tacitly refers to the necessity of the human in the humanities. That is to say that if the function of the humanities is to “connect the levels,” we must be socially engaged on an individual level in order to do our work.
This sounds kind of obvious, but I don’t think it always is. Too often, the humanities assume an intrinsic, timeless, and mass value of art, literature, history, etc. and forgets to adequately connect these artifacts to contemporary existence. Similarly, I think we talk a lot about “engaging communities” without thinking of a community as a group of individual people. I’m also noticing a lot of reductive use of the word “culture” where it seems assumed that members of said culture all respond the same to given stimuli. A community or “culture” cannot engage unless the individuals who compose it are motivated to engage. And isn’t everyone more motivated by a personal connection?
My frustration with the opacity and overuse of these terms tends to stoke my anarchist tendencies, which were supported by the discussion of Latin American and specifically Mexican art history in the text. I happen to be researching the same topic for a show I’m curating and I think there is some topically relevant content to glean from revisiting Mexican art history – specifically in regard to the success of ahierarchical models in opposing authoritarian government. While Hybrid Cultures dismissed the Zapatista movement as substituting one hierarchical model for another, it did inspire a legacy of ahierarchical organization that has proved adept at resisting oppression. For instance, El Taller de Gráfica Popular managed to not only produce and circulate thousands of subversive prints. hold the Mexican government publically accountable for atrocities committed, and train hundreds of artists, but it also had enough social sway internationally to earn one of the founders, Leopoldo Mendez, an International Peace Prize. Even contemporary organizations like Self-Help Graphics in Los Angeles have had sustained success for decades organizing themselves in this way.
I think moving forward these examples can provide a basic framework for connecting the humanities to individuals on a mass scale (aka the “public”) in a way that feels more intimate than modernist-style museums. While hierarchy and mental distance from the subject matter may sometimes inspire awe and wonder (which is important), it is imperative that we push beyond that if we want to continue to be socially relevant (aka to have jobs when the government no longer values us). Given examples of alternative methods of achieving social success through the arts, I hope we can think outside the rigid administrative ladder we’ve all been trained by. As the co-director of Self-Help Graphics told me on the phone the other night, “Don’t believe the hype!” – it can be done.