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‘Human Energy Alone Is a Work of Art’: Nancy Spector on the Role of Artists in Society

Nancy Spector. COURTESY ONASSIS CULTURAL CENTER

Nancy Spector.

COURTESY ONASSIS CULTURAL CENTER

On Tuesday night, in Manhattan, the Onassis Cultural Center hosted its second annual symposium, titled “The Role of the Artist in Society,” and given recent political events, it was no surprise that the talk quickly turned to how artists can create change.

New Yorker staff writer Philip Gourevitch, who was moderating the panel, asked the Brooklyn Museum’s chief curator, Nancy Spector, how contemporary art can serve society “in a more direct way,” beyond the “rather small elite who are attuned to it in the first place.”

Spector noted that artists have confronted this challenge for decades, “trying to understand how to operate in the real world and not exist within the rarefied confines of the museum.” She brought up Tino Sehgal’s 2009 exhibition at the Guggenheim, which she curated. The work, recently reprised in Paris, took up the entire museum and consisted entirely of human conversation. As some may recall, upon entry, visitors were greeted by children who would ask them about their idea of progress. From there, each visitor to the museum would be passed along to an increasingly older individual—”interpreters” as they were referred to—who would continue the conversation, lending the experience, as Spector recalled, “a certain uncanny quality.” She went on to describe why she thought this piece by Sehgal was so effective:

The key, the connection you talked about, and something I think is very important for us to think about in the art world, is that this came from a deep conviction about sustainability. That the world, perhaps, does not need any more objects. Now, we can contest that and I don’t want to throw out every wonderful artwork that hasn’t been made, but at that time it felt really important. It was a very moving artwork that relied on oral tradition and the museum actually bought that artwork and it now exists as an idea that can be restaged. It’s the notion of not using the world’s resources—human energy alone is a work of art.

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