On Claims of Radicality in Contemporary Art

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Yael Bartana, Zamach (Assassination), 2011. Production photo by Marcin Kalinski

by Nina Power for e-flux
This is the first of three conversations that we (David Hodge and Hamed Yousefi) will be convening over the following two months. For each conversation we have assembled a group of fantastic artists and writers to think through some key issues for contemporary theory and art practice today. Each discussion will last three weeks and one of the participants will contribute a post every weekday, beginning with us as convenors each Monday.

This first conversation is on the relationship between art and radical politics today. Despite the artworld’s ever-increasing integration into the realms of high capital and the culture industry, much of its discourse currently centres on vehement claims regarding the revolutionary nature of contemporary practice. Especially in the context of large-scale exhibition projects, curators regularly claim that contemporary art has the capacity to open up a space for social transformation, often implicitly or explicitly using the language of the radical left. This conversation seeks to probe these claims – to consider what historical circumstances might have led to their prominence in recent times.


We must quickly introduce our contributors to this conversation, all of whom we are extremely lucky to be working with. Briefly, the participants are Pil and Galia Kollectiv (Tuesdays), Nina Power (Wednesdays), John Roberts (Thursdays) and Gregory Sholette (Fridays).

Pil and Galia Kollectiv are London-based artists, writers and curators, who work in collaboration. Their activities are highly varied – as well as showing work together in many venues (including a performance at the Stedilijk Museum in Amsterdam last year), they also run Xero, Kline and Coma, a project space in ast London. Nina Power is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Roehampton. She has written widely on philosophy and politics, including numerous articles on the work of Alain Badiou and the 2009 book One Dimensional Woman, on the issue of feminism in the early twenty-first century. John Roberts is Professor of Art and Aesthetics at the University of Wolverhampton. John has published on many topics relating to the crossover of art and Marxist theory and he is currently working on a book titled Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde, to be published by Verso in 2015. Finally, Gregory Sholette is an artist and writer who has written frequently on the political economy of art practice, including the book Dark Matter: Art and Politics in an Age of Enterprise Culture (2010). His ongoing work Imaginary Archive will be on display at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania from Feb 4 – March 22 this year.

To begin the conversation, we thought it best to begin with some very simple, general questions, which we will pose to all of the contributors. We would like everybody to answer these questions in relation to their different backgrounds and interests, and we can see how the conversation unfolds from there. So, firstly, how seriously do you think we should take the common claims that contemporary art offers a space or platform for radical political reflection and action? If you do believe that there is some basis to this idea, then please explain what that might be. If not, could you suggest why this claim is so commonly made – might it be symptomatic of the current political climate in general, or the present organisation of the art scene in particular?
In response to your questions, which we think are extremely important for anyone involved or interested in contemporary art, we’d like to start with a qualification. This contemporary art of which we speak is not a single platform, but rather an interconnected web of art worlds with different agendas. All art might be political, but not all contemporary art makes claims to radical politics. It is enough to browse through Saatchi’s online artists’ platform, let alone wander through artfairs and commercial galleries, to see that much current production is content with a fairly innocuous decorative function sprinkled with only the slightest of rationalizations, what Boris Groys terms art’s conceptual bikini. And just as it is not true that not all art aligns itself to a politics that contests the current organization of power, so it is the case that not all such claims that are made can be taken equally seriously. It is certainly correct, in our opinion, that to an extent artists, curators, gallerists and collectors variously use political claims as a justification for practices and ideas that we would object to, but we think that to accuse them of hypocrisy would be an oversimplification.

Firstly, some of the political claims that are made by the agents of the art world tacitly concur with the explicit ideology of neo-liberalism, despite having the feel or look of radical political gestures. A good example would be the championing in the West of pussy riot – being outraged in the name of the very liberal idea of ‘freedom of speech’ without questioning the conditions under which this freedom is given and to whom. So this might appear radical, but when people in the West change their Facebook profile pictures to colourful balaclavas or claims to identifying with Charlie Hebdo, this idea is being celebrated out of context where it doesn’t function to destabilize power whatsoever. Simliarly, when artists make work decrying poverty in Africa, they are not at odds with many of the super-rich who are causing this poverty and supporting this art, because they are operating under a misunderstanding of the structural nature of this poverty.

Secondly, where actual radical claims are made from within the system, they are often denounced for being complicit because of the way they are enmeshed with the institutions they would hope to dismantle. But when you are dealing with a system as total as capitalism, we don’t see how such claims could be made outside of its institutions. This is the point Andrea Fraser rightly makes in answering criticisms about the complicity of institutional critique: this critique necessarily takes place within institutions, because there is no other place it could happen. To a degree, artists who choose to withdraw from the institutions of art can only really slow down, but never completely halt, the absorption of their work and position into the market and the canon. This might happen posthumously, but it will happen. In recent years with the saturation of the contemporary art market, a new market niche for dead political artists with unspoiled authenticity has been born. Commercial galleries and big institutions in London are frantically searching for (dead) credible artists, like a colonial arms race to find the last remaining unexploited continent. The KP Brehmer exhibitions at Alex Sainsbury’s Raven Row and at Vilma Gold gallery are a good example of that, but the fact that the work is seen in this context only enhances its brilliant fusion of a critique of abstract labour and of abstraction in art. The work is not neutered by its context but directly addresses it, and in so doing helps forge the path for as yet unrealized conditions for making and viewing art.
(Installation photograph of ‘KP Brehmer, Real Capital-Production’, Raven Row, London, 2014)
Artists are frequently expected to prefigure the political ideals they would like to see implemented, but this expectation is flawed for the same reason that critique can only occur within the institutions it addresses. One cannot privately enact something like communism. Nevertheless, there is scope within art practice to interrogate the way the world is organized both thematically and materially, and in this sense Walter Benjamin’s injunction to make art politically remains valid, not only as projected onto other sites, but also in terms of the material conditions of artistic labour. The demand for adequate wages, for instance, is impossible, because it is impossible to quantify labour in these terms, but it is still better to pay people than to rely on unpaid interns. In this sense, it is important to remember that falling short of perfection does not mean abandoning improvement. While it can sometimes be useful to highlight inconsistencies, we also need to ask whether, at least in the short term, we can afford to be consistent.

Finally, there has been much writing in recent years suggesting that with the cooptation of creativity into post-fordist labour, art loses its autonomous critical position. We would argue against this position because it is precisely the collapse of such boundaries that allows artists to operate in solidarity with workers in other fields, opening up new prospects for political engagement. It is because it is not autonomous that art can be critical in a Benjaminian sense. The problem with the majority of actually existing politically engaged art practices is therefore not that they are easily coopted, hypocritical or too removed from ‘real life’ to have any effect, but that the political ideas they articulate tend to be rather reactionary and unuseful. The term radical itself is also more complex than its superficial connotations. The neo-liberal project that has shaped the West over the last forty years is part of a radical programme which goes far beyond the vicious attack on welfare institutions and into a redefinition of the fundamental mechanisms of value, labour and control, sitting somewhere between biopower and semiocapital. But these radical ideas which are a reality today were yesterday’s fringe utopianism, fermenting slowly at the University of Chicago from the circles that grew around Leo Strauss and Friedrich Hayek’s importation of academic avant-garde from Europe. What art needs to supply to the left today, and what it is singularly well-positioned to provide, is precisely the kind of ideological imaginary that could rival this extreme vision.

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(Arts Against Cuts protesting at Sotheby’s, 2011)
I think that contemporary art, or at least its institutions, does offer a space for radical political reflection and action, not least because its sites, perhaps paradoxically given the art world’s fascination with immateriality and displacement, are often fixed spaces. They are also mostly nominally public, despite the multiple invisible barriers that prevent people visiting them. In many ways, though, contemporary art has become this arena by default because all of the other places where radical political thought and action could happen have almost disappeared: outside the factory gates, in public squares, on the streets (impossible without state harassment). The future for protest, artistic or otherwise, has to happen within the privatised world (or the ambiguously owned world) – shopping malls, airports and transport hubs like the recent #blacklivesmatter actions, for instance.

This leaves contemporary art in a strange situation, both responsible and strangely weightless. There is often a sense in which anything can be discussed/presented and in any form because ‘art’ provides a kind of cover-story: politics at one remove. There is a certain freedom in that, certainly, but also a certain discomfort: what does any of it matter? Often at art talks, there is a feeling that something should follow and a certain frustration that “all” we are doing is talking. Often conversations end up beached on the same ideas: ok, so we’re all fucked, what next? What can art or artists do about it?

However, I am perversely optimistic in some ways: I think the blurring of the boundary between art and action has well and truly been breached, and that artists are often happy to personify this blurriness in their work and in their activity. There are those groups, such as Arts Against Cuts and Precarious Workers’ Brigade who make their politics their work and vice versa, and there is a kind of militant rigour to their principled relationship to the art world, whether it be in their discussions about money or the boycotting of institutions that have ties to the arms trade. They make it clear that complicity is not the natural default for artists, despite the overwhelming cynicism and hopelessness that pervades the scene.

I would like to see art galleries and institutions as sites that could be occupied once more, of their general inclusion in a protest economy that would revivify these places. I dream of the turbine hall filled with stolen police horses. It would be incredible to understand and materially map the way in which art galleries could serve as sites of revolutionary organising – there are surely enough of them at this point.
The following has been sent to us by John Roberts as his contribution for this week:

The expansion of the terrain and horizons of art and politics over the last 20 years has been remarkable. Not even during the 1960s has there been such a concentrated focus on the form of art’s political engagement and its possibilities, with the rise of relational (post-relational) practices, participatory work, new forms of community practice, and the general re-temporalization of art into project-based and environmentally directed activities. This has been accompanied and shaped by, in turn, of course, a vast outpouring of theoretically ambitious writing on the ‘social turn’; indeed, the writing and the live-work occupy a shared, transformative place, drawing its mutual energies from extra-parliamentary political forces, counter-cultural allegiances, and a range of extra-artistic, interdisciplinary knowledge. Indeed the radical terms of this repositioning are now almost commonplace: the ‘social turn’ is not simply a revival and elaboration of art ‘outside the gallery’ (that postmodernism somehow ‘forgot’ about) nor does it represent the last gap of the artist as ethnographer blind to the consequences of his or her field research into the ‘other’); everyone is incredibly sensitive (in the keeping with the character of Peter Winch’s ideal ethnographer) to the dialogic conditions under which the recovery of ‘knowledge’ and ‘experience’ of others is produced and performed; everyone is in mutually transformative dialogue. In this sense, this body of work neither ignores nor solves the ‘transmission’ problem inherited from the anti-imperialist critique of the ethnographer. Rather, it recognizes it as a constitutive constraint of the art-political and representation, and therefore, as something that the participatory or dialogic ideal seeks to work through. It is possible to see aspects of this Freirian-type solution across all manner of recent work, whether community-based or not. Which is not say that this work sees the transmission problem as a false problem. For much of these conversational, participatory practices, in the spirit, of the anti-representationalism of Deleuze and Foucault’s infamous exchange in 1972, still have a residual orientalist attachment to the notion that the collaborator-interlocutor of the artist-activist (unbounded by the received words of the “representative”) miraculously speaks the truth. In other words, this work formally accepts the premise of shared dialogue, but insists that truth under conditions of oppression, exclusion and coercion speaks only one way: from represented to “representative”; the truth of the “representative” is always a limited, or degraded speech. Speech is indeed asymmetrical in these terms, but its asymmetries are themselves asymmetrical; if the speech of the represented is asymmetrical with the “representative” it is not symmetrical with itself; at some point this symmetry will have to have be broken by the externalities of the asymmetrical as such. So, even if we can detect the signs of the original sin of orientalism in the art of the new participatory ‘social turn’, it is politically delimiting to dismiss all this work on the grounds that it extends the importune life of the ethnographer; for the art-political relation is precisely this contested terrain – that is, until workers and the dominated freely exit the class-relation as an asymmetrical representational relation. This means that we need to set up a quite different understanding of the contemporary relationship between art and politics, in order to expose some of the problems of this work and art’s ‘social turn’ generally; the radical ethnographic critique of the (hidden) ethnographer in all of us is not enough.

The scene at the Artist as Debtor conference. Image courtesy Hyperallergic

The following is excerpted from Gregory Sholette’s response, which you can download as a PDF and read in full at the end of this post.

Major art institutions cannot simply withdraw from an engagement with politics. They are dependent upon cultural producers who understand that being responsive to changing social conditions is ethically, historically, or personally necessary (and if these rational are insufficient then the politicization of art also prevents it from sinking into irrelevance). From this perspective we should acknowledge that the art world is weak willed when it comes to defending itself from the demands of artists. Ideological skirmishes, compromises and contradictions are, in other words, just the cost of doing business with a dynamic social phenomenon (art, education, political policy included). Therefore the question posed by Eflux might be reconfigured this way: is the 2015 version of this cyclical movement by the art world towards politics substantially different than previous “political turns,” and if so in what ways?

First is the monetization of everything today including art and with this the intensified proletarianization of artists and art students especially following the 2008 economic meltdown. This reality has reached such a degree of intense, in your face visibility that few artists today can pretend their practice takes place at a safe distance from capitalist markets, or for that matter from the kind of socialized production capital enforces everywhere. The “real” subsumption of artistic techniques by capital and the precarious conditions of artists is growing both resentments as well as an appreciation of collective action.

Second is the ability of artists and other so-called “creatives” to take advantage of networking technologies crucial to post-Fordist capitalism’s own infrastructure and use these tools to organize, educate and extend among other things an emergent politicized agency. There has been a spate of conferences, online platforms, blogs, journals, publications recently, which have focused specifically on this collective demand for greater economic justice within the art world. One engaging example is Debt Fair, several young artists who use both humor and theoretical learning to challenge the pyramidal hierarchies of the global culture industry. Just the other day they sponsored a one-day teach-in that drew attention to the art world’s political economy while simultaneously offering several models of critical response including adopting alternative economic systems and also directing mass occupations of museums much along the lines of AWC some forty-five years earlier. [see: Artist as Debtor: http://artanddebt.org/?p=15 ].

Finally, we should not ignore the very thing that prompted this series of conversations, the successful transformation of art world discourse into a state of hyper-political self-consciousness. Whatever the shortcomings of this newfound politics, whatever depth it lacks, and however fantastic some of its claims appear to be, we now face the possibility that the pump is already primed. The next step is to take things even further, to push hard on this admittedly vague level of political awareness in order to ramp it up into a major, critical event.

Read Sholette’s full text in PDF form here: GregorySholette_FullResponse.pdf (120.4 KB)

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