What’s in a vote?
Musings of a Political Scientist at ArtPrize
by Kevin R. den Dulk,
Professor of Political Science at Calvin College
Artistic expression confronts me like a foreign tongue. I generally realize when I’m experiencing art, but only in the way that I generally realize when I’m experiencing Mandarin Chinese. I know just enough to appreciate that I have little idea what’s going on. And my insight is even worse at ArtPrize, where sometimes the most elemental artistic boundaries elude me. A few days ago, for example, I mistook an unaccompanied cleaning cart for a metamodernist commentary – until someone from Amway housekeeping showed up. (For the record: I don’t actually know what “metamodernism” is. But you already knew that.)
So when I walk Grand Rapids during ArtPrize, I must admit that I don’t pay much attention to the art. I blow by individual pieces, because I wish to avoid befuddlement. Besides, my day job is to think and teach about what it takes to make collective decisions, particularly in politics. So I’m simply distracted by all the people and their decisions. It’s striking how much fodder ArtPrize presents for a political scientist who is evading the focus of the entire show.
Consider voting, which gives life to ArtPrize’s self-description as “radically open” and “democratic.” How does voting work as ArtPrize’s stock-in-trade? When political scientists theorize about voting in democracies, they often talk about citizens authorizing others to speak on their behalf. Notice the goal: The vote is a mechanism to confer authority. So I find myself asking questions such as: What does it mean that voting in ArtPrize is authoritative? Let’s say the vote confers authority primarily on artists (and not corporate sponsors, the City of Grand Rapids, Rick DeVos, etc.). Does that mean voters have authorized them to speak for us? And do artists even want the job?
I suppose that depends on what the purposes of an artist’s authority happen to be. In democratic terms, we usually say that vote-winners use their authority to represent their voters. The trick is how to do the representing. Old-school political scientists point to two models of representation: the “trustee” and the “delegate.” Trustees act on their own best judgment, even to the point of flouting public opinion; delegates, in contrast, observe and reflect the norms and values of the community. So which is better: Artists-as-trustees, who give the people what artists think they need, sometimes in visceral ways, and even if the people don’t seem to want it? Or artists-as-delegates, who observe, reflect, and reinforce what the people can already recognize in themselves?
Perhaps these models present a false choice. We could benefit from both or neither. For my part, I have found both models illuminating – and even a little therapeutic – as I try to sort through my own reactions to the tallied ArtPrize votes – the vaunted “top” lists. Here I must drop the social scientific detachment and offer both (1) an accounting of personal emotion, and (2) my untutored and primitive efforts at art criticism. I have often fretted that voters seem to have selected an artist-as-delegate for the top-ten whose crowd-pleasing sensationalism also happens to be totally cringe-worthy. I have also bemoaned those artists-as-trustees whose pretensions to profundity and critical distance turn out to be totally alienating.
But why do I fret and bemoan? I’ve come to recognize that my reactions to ArtPrize fire precisely the same synapses as my reactions to, say, congressional elections. It has little to do with the vote-winner, whether an artist or a member of Congress. It has much more to do with what the tally says about voters themselves – or, more precisely, the community voters inhabit. Let’s face it: ArtPrize has become embedded in the civic identity of the region, and its results give us a window into the nature of that identity. As someone who loves this place, who can blame me for worrying a little about how things look out the window? Again, I’m a political scientist. I spend my days marveling at how human beings are quite capable of conferring authority on both heroic leaders and embarrassing nincompoops – sometimes in the same election.
Speaking of which, back to my day job. Anyone want to talk about how we ended up shutting down the federal government?