Academic Review

“Art had practically developed an allergy to any strain of usefulness”

“Art had practically developed an allergy to any strain of usefulness”

-Doris Sommer, The Work of Art in the World, 2014, p.32

Doris Sommer presents in her first chapter how cultural policy and top-down artistic projects can have an impact on social reality. Largely based on the analyze of Antanas Mockus’s carrier – the mayor of Bogota from 1994 – Sommer proves how his cultural policy has considerably reduced the rate of violence, social incivility and poverty in the city.

Sommer analyzes the cultural policy in democracies, especially in the USA after the WWII. The traumatism of the war lead the exclusion of social or political engagement in art. The governments stopped founding art, because the risk of propaganda through the culture was at that time the first worry. “To an important degree, the hands-off policy responded to a developing retreat of art and interpretation into private subjectivity” (Sommer, 32). Art is isolated, almost sacred and thus artists are pushed out of the social realm. Sommer states that progressively art has been detached from any sense of usefulness – meaning useful for society and connected with the social and political situation.

I look at this phenomenon as the consolidation of a cultural elite and the increasing gap between the so called high and low art. Because of a lack of founding, the art world divorced with the politic and segregated itself into a silver tour. It seems that art and life have lost their connection. Thus, the value of an art piece is reduced to a pure aesthetic or conceptual criteria and the socially engaged artist is considered with disdain.



The Office of Useful Art manifesto, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, 20 May-1 June 2014


From my perspective, this argument echoes to the “Artificial Hells, Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship” of Claire Bishop (2011), who consider the rise of participatory projects and the ‘critical art’. When Sommer underlines how art rejected any connection with social engagement and usefulness for society, at the contrary Bishop proves how community art tends to ban every kind of aesthetic consideration. So, the debate takes place between the supporters of social utility and the proponents of aesthetic. And both texts show that apparently, it is difficult to consider a legitimate art which would have both an aesthetic value and an useful significance for society.

In a certain way, I myself experimented that questionings: coming from the academic field of art history, I used to feel confined into a closed world separated to the society I was living in. My student life was reduced to the spaces of museums and galleries, and I used to hang out with a socially privileged group of people. At that time, I could not see the point of an useful, engaged, critical or political art. These considerations did have any room in my bubble. If today I turned more myself to participatory art, with a high interest for political and social meanings, I have also been confronted to the deception of a community art project which does not have any thing to do with an art form anymore. Until when a participatory project can be considered as art?

Bishop argues for an ambiguous position that I am still looking for: “Instead of extracting art from the ‘useless’ domain of the aesthetic to relocate it in praxis, the better examples of participatory art occupy an ambiguous territory between ‘art becoming mere life or art becoming mere art’ (Bishop, 40).”

By Morgane

Doris Sommer, The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014, Chapter 1

Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, London and New York: Verso, 2011, Chapter 1 “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents”


Related articles
The Goethe Institut: Useful Art. What Role Can Art Play in Politics?


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