Skowhegan Burial Society

By Dan Levenson, A '09

We are a lonely society. Most of the time we’re working or struggling to stay afloat and in between we comfort ourselves with haphazard friendships, professional networks, family and possibly marriage. We call these things “communities” even though they are all disconnected, fragmented, and don’t really support us. Your co-workers might like you a lot and meet you for a drink every now and then and they’d be sad if you got sick but you can’t expect them to pay your medical bills or bring you chicken soup or mop your brow when you have a fever. In our society we are forced to support ourselves.

The idea of a Skowhegan Burial Society emerged during a conversation between Sarah Workneh and a group of recent Skowhegan alumni following Hurricane Sandy. Sarah’s idea was to brainstorm ways in which Skowhegan could possibly provide material support for artists affected by natural disasters. I suggested (only partially jokingly) that we might consider setting up a burial society, since these can be seen in some ways as ancient precursors to modern insurance companies. When Skowhegan alumni pass away the expenses and arrangements would be taken care of by the society.

Following this Sarah asked Park McArthur and me to begin a conversation about what possibilities we could imagine for Skowhegan’s new space in Manhattan. Via Skype we had several conversations covering a range of topics, beginning with our very different experiences at Skowhegan, to the question of the artist’s role in society, questions of the possibility of community, of organization, of mutual aid, of the individualism of artists, of the new trend of “social practice” in art, and of the very real social antagonisms that institutions like Skowhegan must work to paper over. I proposed an idea about which I am still uncertain. My idea was that the central function of art and the function of Skowhegan are similar. Both can ask questions about what is possible in society. At best they can help us to imagine possibilities that we had not previously seen. But when art, (in the form of social practice) or Skowhegan (if it ever did attempt to become a burial society, for example) attempt to immediately realize their idealisms beyond what our essentially non-cooperative society can support, good intentions can lead to bad results.

This is not to say that nothing real should be attempted, that we should satisfy ourselves with image-making and not attempt real social change, just that we should be aware of the enormity of the task. In creating a community, in creating a space of possibility, we should be aware of the context in which we are operating. We should remember that the real supportive lifelong community of friendship and material support that Skowhegan aspires to is never a fait accompli.