THE BLOG

Is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Art?

08/19/2014 02:49 pm ET | Updated Oct 19, 2014

You've seen the videos sweeping social media. Whether it is close friends or national celebrities, the call to have a bucket of ice water dumped over one's head has nothing to do with conventional ways of raising money for a medical charity. There are Telethons, Walk-a-thons, Public Service Announcements, art auctions and the time-honored passing of the hat. But, perhaps without knowing it, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is drawing from two genres of contemporary art to advance their cause.

These two approaches to art practice fancy themselves to be the most radical fringes of all self expression: Performance Art and Social Practice. And in the past few weeks, Middle America has embraced their methods.

Performance art took art out of the realm of object-making and put the artist into the role of subject. While some performance art has dallied quite closely into the realm of entertainment, the classic archetype of the performance artist is someone undergoing a grueling experience in the context of art. In the early 1970s, Chris Burden had someone shoot his arm with a rifle in an art gallery as a performance. Josef Beuys lived with a coyote in an art gallery for a few days during that same era. Object making was dead. The best performance art invited the viewer to be shocked by a radical transformation in the presence of the artist.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge mimics the relationship between individual and radical act. Just as Burden had himself shot to see what it would be like, many participants in the Challenge seek to transform themselves as an act of public inquiry. The absurd nature of being doused in ice water mimics many performance art strategies of juxtaposing a transformative act on an ordinary human being.

But of course, art snobs everywhere are inherently offended by the notion that the general public might be encroaching on their territory. Nothing offends an art snob more than popularity and anything that is a hit with the middle class is the most offensive form of popularity. If an artist were to stand in a gallery with fifteen wine-drinking snobs and have his or her self doused in ice water, who knows how much acclaim could be accrued by this one act. But a soccer mom, wanting to do her part, making a Challenge video... well that is fundamentally offensive to the self-endowed elitism of the art "class." Absent the gallery context, you can bet the art world's MFA mafia will circle the wagons to deny every participant in the Challenge the right to call themselves performance artists.

Ah, but the second genre that the Challenge can be related to is the field of social practice. Social practice insists that art must get out of the galleries and interact with the world at large. If art is to be useful and valuable for humanity, social practice artists argue that it must be taken out of the hallowed halls of institutions and given to the people. A social practice artist is much more likely to organize a community soup kitchen and call it an art project than he or she is to make a series of paintings depicting impoverished people who sure could use a soup kitchen in their communities.

Social practice, also often called Interventionism, is new to the realm of contemporary art but since 2005 more and more elite art schools have been offering it as an option for a fine art degree, right up there with painting, sculpture, art history and, yes, performance art.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is certainly Social Practice Art. In using one performer to engage in a shocking ritual and to insist others do the same, the Challenge fulfills the basic tents of social practice art. That the Challenge adds in documentation of the act itself as a testament of the "artist" committed to spreading the word about raising money to cure a dreaded disease -- this all serves as a shield against the critics...

Of course, like all new art, the Challenge has many critics. Because there is no connection between ice water and A.L.S., many literal folks who can never see symbolism without being spoon-fed its meaning are speaking out against the Challenge. An artist underscoring the seriousness of a subject by going through a distressing ordeal (albeit a quick splash of ice water) is lost on the critics who don't comprehend any art that doesn't come with easily arrived-at connections. Absurdity, a hallmark of much post-object art, is lost on this critical crowd whether it is a Marina Abramovic staring contest hosted by the Museum of Modern Art or a viral video of a baseball player getting soaked by a bucket of ice during pregame warmups.

Other critics are getting downright picky. On my FaceBook feed, one clucker from Los Angeles took issue with the wasting of water during a drought. I quickly commented that I was impressed this critic was no longer using his flush toilet. Don't you just love arguing on FaceBook? The fact that the Challenge has dominated in the social media sphere puts it on par with many contemporary artists seeking to make recognized contemporary art in the digital realm. Art academia calls this amalgamation "New Genres" but you can bet nobody who performs an Ice Bucket Challenge will be considered a new genres artist if they don't fork over that hefty art school tuition.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is a milestone in social practice as it utilizes the deep-seated visual language of performance art to foment greater social change. The results of millions of dollars raised for a cause are right in line with the high aspirations of social practice art. The only thing that doesn't jibe here is that Middle America has caught up with the academy; and frankly surpassed them this time.

After a century of proclaiming painting to be dead, art snobs everywhere may have to soon embrace craft and draftsmanship in order to keep themselves excluded from the masses of Middle Class performance artists using social practice techniques in the realm of new genres to make sure art serves the wider community. The elite are under siege when their best attempts to embrace an absurdity that outsiders cannot understand is co-opted from underneath them and made into the feel good art story of the summer.