Ethnography, Art and a Societal Road to Nowhere. The Tear Dealer Project

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Tomasz Rakowski


In this article, I present an ethnographic description of the Tear Dealer socially engaged art project[1] conducted by Alicja Rogalska and Łukasz Surowiec, in the town of Lublin, Southeast Poland, in an urban area with high unemployment, full of pawnshops, and loan sharks. The main purpose of this paper is to interpret the project using an ethnographic approach and the experimental technique of “thick description” as related to quite artificial, and intentionally manufactured social reality. The important context is that socially-engaged art, even at present, first of all functions through conforming to the effects of the reality of action in order to generate palpable social change, even though in recent years a widespread critique of its practices, ideas, and also ideals has appeared (see Bishop 2012). This was the case in the work of Polish artist Artur Żmijewski, the controversial curator of the Berlin Biennale in 2012. In his manifesto, Żmijewski (2012, see also Żmijewski 2007) clearly says that art can demand for itself, much like the social sciences and journalism, the role of refurbishing minds, creating new conditions of social life, reaching toward what is efficient. In this way, art can be transposed into wholly new terrains, into places that offer very little safety for it, places not protected by the prestige of an art gallery or official artist institutions, and then art will be also harnessed so as to act directly on people—with all the risks such gestures entail.


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