Practitioners of Impotence
My critique of my own field is ultimately very simple and can be summarized in one sentence: art doesn’t act, and doesn’t work. Despite the fact that it has enormous potential for conceiving and creating a reality or practicing politics, it usually goes no further than presenting ideas that no one has any intention of putting into practice. Is there any way out of this vicious »circle of creative impotence«? How can art help in performatively creating reality? One of the dominant beliefs in the world of culture is that art operates under the logic of the miracle. There, everything is possible. One biennale may be boring and bad, but the next might be wonderful and »sexy.« It’s as if the possibility of doing a boring or captivating biennale were not a result of the existing art system as a whole, but of some exceptional ability or capacity on the part of the curator or artists. Art, in the minds of its practitioners, can in a moment transcend any limitation. But in fact, its possibilities are no more than those we have created in common. A miracle, that is, the possibility of abolishing all limitations, is an illusion, because one has to operate within a system of limitations ubiquitously dominated by the same Newspeak: freedom, autonomy, participation. It is a system where the know-how is provided by traveling philosophers, ready to offer their intellectual services to any artistic excess. If, in the art world and beyond, we continue to hear the view that art has become a décor for a neo-liberal system, then this décor includes not only art objects, but the intellectual discourse that frames them. It is a discourse which revolves around them and, like a black hole, sucks into its center each and every radical proposition, transforming it into speculation and theoretical reflection—but not into action. Artists, as well as the theorists and philosophers gravitating in their world, have become »practitioners of impotence.« The limited imagination of today’s artists and curators is unable to cross the threshold into genuine action. »Empty« and ineffective artworks and exhibitions are the paradoxical reaction to this situation. All that art has now is spectacle, where social and political problems are played out with no substantial impact on reality. And no substantial impact even on the players in the field of art: other artists and curators.
The Stakes for Curators, the Stakes for Artists
Speaking of miracles,abolishing the system of regulation and liberating art from the ideology of impotence would indeed be a miracle. One conceivable solution would be to limit the influence of institutions on artists. Art, in its radical and potentially transformative version, is a social and political enfant terrible, the curse of almost every institution, in particular the major publicly funded galleries, professionalized white cubes. The latter must above all play for their material survival, not on the side of artists. They hold on to their bureaucratic procedures and rules of production, not to the pursuit of ideas—not for them a democracy to be attained with means such as those used by artists. Some artists offer a short cut: at times brutal, at others shocking, often perverse, one in principle irreconcilable with the goals of the institutions and their practice of eliminating any potential dangers. For years now, we have been witnessing a process of incapacitation whereby artistic radicalism is transformed into velvet critique. This process can be linked to the emergence and growing influence of the profession of a curator and the overwhelming institutionalization of art. What is at stake for the artist is different from what is at stake for the curator. The curator has become a traveling producer of exhibitions, one who speaks of social issues in the soft language of pretended engagement. What is at stake for the curator is the next project, not any radical social or political goal. In this way, filtered through interests, institutional fears, and soothingly formulated goals, art is drained of its own power. The status quo in art has settled on a level of aestheticized politicality, or even its negation, as well as on artistic impotence. A handful of artistic desperados like the Voina group from Saint Petersburg is not enough. They fall more into a logic of exception—offering a perfect alibi for any opportunists wishing to claim they operate in a field as radical as art. Besides, art addresses its criticism to people who have no intention of taking up the critical challenge or bringing its critical ideas to everyday life. Even when the appeal and demands of the art are to the point and well thought out (which is often the case), there is no one to follow them. The curator does not usually talk with the artist, let alone discuss things. A discussion assumes debate, and can lead to dissent or even a breakdown of relations. The curator cannot afford to break with artists, which means he or she can’t afford an actual discussion. The artist has become an untouchable fetish—no longer a neighbor occupying the same spot on the earth with whom one can talk about common problems. The effects of this situation are usually accidental, and are not judged according to criteria of efficacy, but rather by rules governing »good art« and intellectual spectacle. The lack of discussion is explained as »granting artists complete freedom,« as if engaging in discussion were a form of captivity. The aversion to politics has turned art into a kind of »panic room,« a refuge from politics and ideas. Here artists can feel safe from danger, as no truth of life, no activity of any real consequence, will intrude. The predominant form of consensus is agreement that the main goal of art institutions, and the artists aligned with them, is bringing culture to people. The underlying ideas are secondary; what is at stake is »culture,« further undefined, an empty word which can accommodate any content. If the task is formulated in this way, it essentially means the self-reproduction of the system. At the same time, the world plays for stakes of its own—democracy or its elimination, freedom and its limits within the capitalist status quo. There is no art directly participating in this contest. There are a few exceptions, however: artists ready not only for artistic risk, but also for a radical break with the system which raised them.
An Individualist Politics of Survival
What artists do today, standing before us in the attire of art, can be termed an individualistic politics of survival. The artist’s freedom is essentially the need to constantly adapt to the demands of the art system, its fleeting fashions and short-term interests. The effect of this mimicry is to transform artistic efforts into a selfish politics of survival. Something that looks like art is actually a mode of existing in the market. How much hesitation, how much angst there is among artists, that they might make a mistake and fail to meet the standards of the institution or the expectations of the market. We have all brought about this situation together. The institutionalized art world, which above all represents its own interests (fundraising, surviving among the institutional competition), strips the artists of their radical and formative political potential. Contributing to this is the need to flatter the artistic ego. Artists have been trained to brook practically no discussion. They are capable of pursuing only their fancy or ego. The ultimate goal of even the most noble artistic action is not the social organism in whose cause one works, but the work of art produced in the process. When art is depoliticized, this means it does not represent the interests of people, but serves the individual careers of the artists. To make art political would mean determining what is at stake together with others and openly representing it in the public sphere. I want this field to be strong, and conscious of the power it possesses. I want it to be willing and able tonpolitically deploy this power, not to create spectacle, but to substantively direct reality.
The most important thing at stake, something we want to play for today, is art that brings change, art that is not critical in an empty fashion; art that does not produce pseudo-critique, but is genuinely transformative and formative. For this reason, we are looking for people who have »stumbled« into art when they were supposed to be working in other fields—in pure politics, perhaps, in parliaments and government, or in the media, or possibly as tribunes of the people, researchers in the social sciences, or even therapists or doctors. One thing is certain—they should be out there, wherever social and political transformation is at stake.
I want to make one thing clear: I am not calling for all art to be like this. May it be even more pluralist. But let us remember that the schism in art is already present, and that the political turn is underway. »What was the essence of the ›political turn‹ in culture? An opposition to the necessity of reproducing known ›differences‹; a refusal to ride the postmodernist merry-go-round of cultural pluralism, slow reform, and gradual development of new languages that satisfy everyone; a declaration of disobedience to a falsity of aesthetics, existence, and humanity of art; the moment when artists abandoned the ship named ›the free market of ideas‹ or ›the post-political feast of differences,‹ and began forming a movement on their own.«