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Art and the Cultural Turn: Farewell to Committed, Autonomous Art?

Nowadays, artists’ voices are thought to be important in giving shape to society, and art is considered to be useful. Moreover, the state, the private sector and society attribute to art a decisive political role as on the one hand, they invest in culture with the purpose generating political and economic surplus value. On the other hand, art and cultural practices are now part of the same network of strategies and questions as social movements are (this space is known as the “Infosphere”). In a context in which the creative, political, and mediatic fields are intrinsically linked, contemporary cultural practices point toward a new social order in which art has merged with life, privileging lived experience, collective communication and performative politics. In turn, the commodification of culture and its use as a resource—as well as the fusion of art, politics, and media—have had a significant impact in the way in which capitalist economies operate. A consequence has been the predominance of immaterial or cognitive labor over industrial production. Not to say that industrial production has ceased to exist, on the contrary, it has increased more than ever and for the most part it has been transferred to third-world countries. The prevalence of cognitive or immaterial work in contemporary capitalism implies that the main source of surplus value is the production and dissemination of signs. In other words,“creative’ work” has been injected to all areas of economic life. Immaterial labor also means the production of social life as lifestyles, and forms of life—a new form of the common at the center of which culture is located.

In this context, the production of contemporary art, as Brian Kuan Wood and Anton Vidokle pointed out, has been foreclosed by a network of protocols dictating the forms and means of production of art circulating in exhibitions, galleries, biennials, and fairs. And while artists may address exhibition politics as a theme in their work, they are limited in terms of producing something outside of the consensual barriers placed on exhibition politics. This is due to the existence of a systemic enclosure which extends well beyond the consensus of the art world: art is fused with political sensibilities that exploit art’s diplomatic potential, as these political sensibilities consider culture to be a form of social capital, a resource. Thus, a lot of money is put into play. Under these conditions, is there any room left for autonomous, committed art?

When considering the relationship between contemporary art and politics, it is simply assumed that art, in one way or another, can serve as a catalyst for political action or participation, as it can reveal capitalism’s “hidden” contradictions. And while the present is always dark and opaque, art is given the task of teaching us how to see or perceive things in a different way—it is considered to be training, an act of observation or exegesis. Recent exhibitions and biennials address questions that are perceived to be “political,” for example: labor, poverty, exploitation, violence, globalization, war, and exclusion.

Examples of recent exhibitions in Mexico whose titles underscore the politicization of their content include “For the Love of Dissent” and “Exercises of Resistance” (MUAC, 2012), “The Redeeming Institution” (SAPS, 2012), and “Resisting the Present” (Amparo Museum-Puebla, 2011). Last year, two exhibitions at the Modern Art and Digital Cultural Center Estela de Luz addressed the way power interferes with the flows of information and representational codes, as well as the blurring distinctions between art, action, social movements, media, and semiotic ownership. On an international level, we had Manifesta 9 in Genk, Belgium, the European biennial for young European art curated by Cuauhtémoc Medina entitled: “The Deep of the Modern.” The exhibition deals with the political and economical history of the city of Genk from the point of view of the heritage of its coal mines. The works in the show address the realities of the coal miners’ work, the production and business of coal mining—as well as, include an iconographic study of coal in modern art and a display of mining paraphernalia. The politicized nature of this exhibition was justified by Walter Benjamin’s dialectic materialism, insofar as the exhibition incorporated material traces of Genk’s industrial past in order to renegotiate them in the present day. In this case, the art shown illustrates a curatorial framework that signals the conditions and relations of the production of a specific historical moment—the age of industrial capitalism. Another example from last summer is the Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, which invited the Occupy movement to participate and camp out in the show’s most important site (Kunstwerke). A small group, also related to the Occupy movement, was welcomed by dOCUMENTA curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev after the group set up outside the Fridericianum. Occupy interventions borrowed techniques and tactics from contemporary art and offered a participatory, anti-elitistcultural practice, as indicated by one of the signs hung by Occupy members in one of the Kunstwerke showrooms: “This is not our museum, this is your action space.”

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