IN THE CONTEXT OF ART HISTORY AND THEORY, Ted Purves will likely be best remembered for the anthology of texts he edited on relational art practices: What We Want Is Free: Generosity and Exchange in Recent Art. It is an important tome (first published in 2005 and recently revised and expanded), which grew out of a conference the artist, scholar, and professor organized at California College of the Arts, where he founded the first graduate program in social practice in North America and later served as chair of the MFA program in fine arts. For those who were lucky enough to work with or study under Ted, however, it may be less his academic work on the topic of generosity that endures than our memory of his daily practice of it. Indeed, the theoretical topics he worked on—for example, the ethos of the gift economy and the possibilities inherent in reimagining communities—also animated almost every one of Ted’s encounters with everyone from the students who learned from him in the classroom and studio to the faculty whom he led in meetings to bandmates in various musical outfits, as well as the diverse staff of medical personnel caring for him at the end of his life. In knowing Ted, we all witnessed a radical integration of scholarly interest, artistic practice, pedagogy, and everyday politics centered around meaningful interpersonal exchange and a presentness of experience. Ted’s death this summer at age fifty-three leaves a gaping hole in many far-flung communities.
Ted was a leader, who believed that any community circle would benefit from greater inclusion. He knew that to foster diversity was generous, radical, and critical all at once. This ethos was connected to a fundamental and deep-seated belief in equality, and his varied practices blurred the boundaries between the forms and theories of exchange. Importantly, Ted worked to implement this ethos in ways that were accessible to all. His ideas, while informed by highly complex academic philosophy and theory, also held within them the fundamental DNA of punk music and the commune.
In an art world in which value is increasingly determined by market forces, and auctions of contemporary art repeatedly reach evermore inaccessible and exclusive prices, Ted’s passing provides a fitting occasion to reflect together again, per his book: What do we want? And might it (still) be free? For many of us, what we want is to be part of a conversation we respect, in which we can participate collectively in pursuit of the common goal of something better, and maybe even transcendent. While it is hard to know exactly what form this “something better” can take, Ted believed the category of “art” was a place to start. He dedicated so much of his professional and personal energy to the pragmatics of this fundamentally utopian, and elusive, endeavor. I know Ted succeeded in large measure, for he made many of us feel that we are indeed in it together, and that art may be one way to affirm and communicate. This in itself is a generous gift. And it is one Ted freely gave.
Jordan Kantor is a San Francisco–based artist and professor at California College of the Arts.