Art is dynamic, fluid, ever changing — perhaps more so now than ever before. It’s not just about painting, sculpture and architecture, and hasn’t been for a long time. There are the performing arts, of course, but also art happenings and similar events — which often raise the question, “What is art?”
It’s not a question with an easy answer, even for those well-versed in the art world. One of those people is Tom Finkelpearl, executive director of the Queens Museum of Art. Finkelpearl has worked at a number of art centers, has a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and a master’s in fine arts from Hunter College, and used to be a sculptor.
And his second book on public art projects, “What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation,” has just been published. He wrote it as a textbook for both undergraduate and graduate art classes, just like his first book, and in it he explores the growing and hard-to-define world of “cooperative art.”
Cooperative art can be anything from works by patients at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Eastern Queens to Immigrant Movement International, a Corona-based project by Tania Bruguera that combines services to new arrivals with the goal of changing how they are perceived by others.
It’s projects such as the one at Creedmoor and another, earlier work by Bruguera that Finkerpearl’s book discusses, mostly through interviews with the artists, some conducted by the author and some not. They’re book-ended by his introduction, in which he traces the roots of cooperative art back to the New Left social movements of the 1960s, and his conclusion, in which he argues that the term for the genre should be “social cooperation,” and discusses what should and should not be recognized as such.
“It’s hard to talk about this kind of art,” Finkelpearl said in an interview on Wednesday. “We’re still figuring out how to talk about it.
“Let’s say there’s a project with a homeless person finding housing. It might be a project that fails as an art project but succeeds as a social project. Something could be a great art project or lousy social project or vice versa. The sweet spot is when it has some kind of interesting, complex artistic aspect and at the same time has an interesting social dynamic or social result.”
Humans have an almost unique ability to work together, Finkelpearl says — exemplified by cities like New York — and, “That’s what these artists are experimenting with, this human characteristic of cooperation.”
The author is quick to say that he appreciates traditional art as much as the more avant garde kind explored in the book.
“What We Made,” published by Duke University Press, was not written in Finkelpearl’s capacity as head of the QMA, though of course his position there helped inform the book, which will be available at the museum soon. A book launch event and discussion with the author and some of the featured artists will be held at Parsons The New School for Design, at 66 W. 12 St. in Manhattan, at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 20. Another is set for Feb. 3 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.