LORRAINE O’GRADY, Art Is…,1983/2009
by Jordan Troeller, 2012
In September 1983, Harlem’s annual African American Day Parade, the self-proclaimed “largest black parade in America,” offered spectators its yearly carnivalesque celebration of African American music, customs, and history. It also contained a work of performance art. The proposition was simple: a float making its way along the route lacked the usual festive paraphernalia in comparison with the others. Atop its unadorned stage and simple gold-skirts base stood a single nine-by-fifteen-foot ornately carved frame, placed upright, so that, as the platform slowly moved by, the frame momentarily captured the activity around it: the passing building facades; the smiling upturned faces of the flanking spectators; and the bright-colored balloons, confetti, and costumes of the festival. A cadre of fifteen men and women bounced alongside it, each carrying their own, much smaller gold frame with which they approached children, adults, and police officers standing nearby, holding it up so that it too produced a multitude of living portraits. In bold lettering on the base of the platform, the words “ART IS” suggested that a more democratized version of art might be found, if only briefly, in the practices of ritualized daily life and in particular within the contingent and public character of the urban street.
Whether Lorraine O’Grady’s (American, born 1934) piece smuggled so-called high art into the realm of the popular, and whether the necessarily popular conditions of Art Is… (1983/2009) excluded it from the category of Art altogether is exactly the two provocations the work offers for consideration. In 1988, Lucy Lippard called Art Is “one of the most effectively Janus-faced works of the last few years.”1 By displacing art onto the street, the work flirts with its own potential illegibility within a museum context. Engaging questions long held dear by the avant-gardes of the early twentieth-century, Art Is inverts the terms of the Duchampian ready-made. Instead of questioning the extent to which the institutional conditions of exhibition determine the designation of an object (as Art or non-Art), O’Grady turns Duchamp’s challenge on its head and asks: To what degree can the public sphere—whose viability in the 1980s in New York was increasingly under pressure—sustain artistic production? ( . . . )