On the occasion of Open Engagement, a conference hosted by the Social Practice Department of Portland State University, Christian Nagler and I presented our research under the title “The Aging of Social Practice, or How to Get to Know Your Parents through Political Economy.” As the final gesture of the presentation, we offered a direct address to the subject of our research, the Baby Boom Generation, those born between 1946 and 1964. This address was an attempt to translate some of the basic tenets of socially engaged art practice by rewriting a text by Charles Baudelaire entitled “To the Bourgeois,” the preface to his text about the Salon of 1846. It was written two years before the French revolution, and was a respectful challenge to the bourgeois majority to consider the new prerevolutionary currents of Parisian art practice. Thanks to the wonderful Brandon Brown for pointing us to this text.
As 40% of the adult population, you are a majority — in number and wisdom; therefore you are the force — which is justice. Some of you are aging activists, others are retiring shareholders; a glorious day will come when the activists shall be shareholders and the shareholders activists. Then your great potential will be revealed, and no person will protest against it. Until that supreme harmony is achieved, it is just that those who are but shareholders should aspire to become activists; for participation is no less of an enjoyment than the free time allowed by retirement.
The government of this country has been in your hands, and that is just, for you have been the force. But you must also be capable of recognizing new possibilities for social agency; for as not one of you could do without individual liberties, so not one of you has the right to do without community.
You can live three days without bread — without community, never; and those of you who can say the contrary are mistaken; they are out of their minds.
The aristocrats of spectacle, the arbiters of cultural value, the monopolists of the screen, have told you that you have no right to feel and to enjoy — this is deception.
For you have in your hands the government of an empire whose public is, for better or worse, the public of the globe, and it is necessary that you should be worthy of that task.
Mutual benefit is a science, and the exercise of the capacity for human contact calls for a willingness, which only comes about through the combination of tolerance and need. Very well, you need art.
You understand art’s function, you gentlemen and gentlewomen of the boomer generation — when the seventh or the eighth hour strikes and you bend your tired head towards the cushions of your recliner. That is the time when a keener desire for social participation would refresh you after your lifetime of laboring.
But the monopolists and corporate gatekeepers want to keep you from engaging, because a controlling share of knowledge and engagement is their counter and their shop, and they are infinitely jealous of it. If they had merely denied you access to their bookkeeping or the ability to question the market system, they would have asserted a fairness at which you could not take offense, because adjusting to changes in the market as a survival strategy has taken up two-thirds of your life. And as for your leisure years, they should be used for enjoyment and pleasure.
But the monopolists have forbidden you even to enjoy, because you do not understand the potential of participation through art, as you do those of work.
And yet it has been that two-thirds of your time were devoted to a career and the attitudes of individual freedom, then the remaining third should be occupied by activism — and it is through community alone that art is to be understood; and it is in this way that the equilibrium of your soul’s forces will be established.
Truth, for all its multiplicity, is not two-faced; and just as in your politics you have increased both rights and benefits, so through the arts you might set up a greater and more abundant communion. You have already been donors, members, and visitors to collections, museums, and galleries. You have already combined together in indirect ways; you have formed companies and raised loans in order to realize the idea of the future in all its varied forms — political, industrial, and artistic.
In no noble enterprise have you ever left the initiative to the suffering global majority, which anyway is the natural enemy of the market. What you have done for your own rights and position, you have attempted to do for those in other countries, too.
With an understanding of your value and concern for the generations to come, we ask you to reconcile your own heroic pursuit of individual rights with the disappearance of public resources, without which those individual rights are toothless.
In your fight for civil rights, with your industriousness, your labor, and your money, you must claim back your investments in enjoyments of agency, engagement, and community. It is through these enjoyments that you will be happy, satisfied, and well-disposed, as society will be satisfied, happy, and well-disposed along with you. You must leverage your investments as actual and social shareholders, that these are inseparable. That the enactment of shareholder activism might be the fulfillment of your generation’s desire for individual freedom inflected by our generation’s understanding of the value of community.
And so it is to you, the boomers, that our address is naturally dedicated; you are our parents and we care about your quality of life during these next 30 years, and we believe we’ve figured some things out about this.