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 it 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.