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On Claims of Radicality in Contemporary Art

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.

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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: Complete Livestream: The Artist as Debtor Conference at Cooper Union | THE ARTIST AS DEBTOR ].

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)


We’ve been delighted to see such a great breadth and depth of ideas in the first week of this conversation and are excited to hear more from our contributors over the coming days. We are particularly keen to allow the conversation to develop organically and to give the participants a chance to respond to each other and take up ideas from each others’ posts, so we don’t want to be too prescriptive in setting questions for everybody to answer this week.

That said, we would like to highlight some fascinating, but (we think) quite contradictory ideas that the last week’s posts have raised for us, especially around the idea of autonomy in contemporary art. Last Tuesday Pil and Galia Kollectiv criticised the commonplace idea that art might have ceded its political significance once it lost “its autonomous critical position”. They pointed out that this elimination of autonomy has actually made artists able to “operate in solidarity with workers in other fields, opening up new prospects for political engagement”, and so it is actually “because it is not autonomous that art can be critical”. We can certainly agree with this to the extent that, as John Roberts pointed out in his post, over the last 20 years there has been “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”. However, we think that John’s post, as well as Nina Power’s, have also opened questions about whether the dissolution of art’s aesthetic autonomy (i.e. the process by which art practices have come to look almost indistinguishable from other forms of social activity) has necessarily also involved the disappearance of its social autonomy. John highlights ongoing class imbalances in the relationship between artists and their interlocutors from outside the artworld, which may problematise art’s ‘social turn’. Similarly, while we were extremely excited to hear Nina’s ideas of galleries as sites for “revolutionary organising”, we also note her important observations about contemporary art being both “responsible and strangely weightless … politics at one remove.” The distance between this ‘politics at one remove’ and art’s “general inclusion in a protest economy” that Nina advocates seems to be a crucial issue for understanding and mobilising the political potential of contemporary practice.

(Elio Montanari - Jannis Kounellis, with a large team of men, attempting to lift and carry part of his work “Untitled” up the stairs of the Martin-Gropius-Bau, 1991)

Another key contradiction that we have been thinking about since reading Gregory Sholette’s post is that, while contemporary institutions seem to provide a space for political reflection and action, Gregory rightly points out that to a large extent this is simultaneously given its impetus by “the precarious conditions of artists” - i.e. by the fact that the current institutional setup does not adequately provide for most practitioners and contains significant hierarchies and unfair divisions of labour. It is important not to lose sight of this, since there are class divides within contemporary art, as well as in its relation to ‘the outside’. For all the present opportunities, there are also legitimate causes for anger.


Like David Hodge and Hamed Yousefi, we were heartened to read over the past week that our interlocutors in this conversation have responded to the questioning of art’s political agency with such optimism. We certainly agree with Nina Power that art institutions often offer vestiges of public space where other settings for discussion have been foreclosed, and we concur with Gregory Sholette that present political awareness has been built on the achievements of struggles past rather than merely on their failures. However, much of the discussion still appears to centre on specific projects such as the relational, participatory and community practice that John Roberts describes as being especially worthy of attention in this context. We certainly have respect for the important work of Arts Against Cuts, Debt Fair and Precarious Workers’ Brigade, but we think in distinguishing between art’s ‘aesthetic autonomy’ and its ‘social autonomy’, as Hodge and Yousefi suggest, we lose sight of the “real” subsumption of artistic techniques by capital that Sholette notes.

We have already mentioned in passing our view that all art is political – though not necessarily espousing the politics we would like it to. It is important to reassert in this context that we see no reason to prioritise ‘direct action’-style artwork over representational artwork: just as politics always has a symbolic dimension, so a painting might have political effects that are more far-reaching than a socially engaged intervention. Ultimately, it is through representations that we encounter such interventions anyway: as jpegs in our Facebook stream, images in art magazines, slides in talks and so on. The moment a socially engaged action is thus ‘captured’ by the market in the process of commodification also points to a weakness of some of these practices. Art cannot be critical without thinking through the conditions of production that prevail in a particular historical context. A production of live direct ‘situations’ or ‘interventions’ that doesn’t deal with the elaborate system of spectacular accumulation that circulates cultural capital – as images, comments or even stories – neuters their political potency. In this instance, the direct, live engagement in a social situation is no different from the function of the physical institution of art – i.e. the museum, the gallery or even the art fair and the auction. Both serve as weak auratic points from which representational circulation flows. An evil record company boss in South Park sums it up nicely: “we don’t make money from content now, we make money from comments”.

We hope we are not merely reiterating our previous post here, but rather than differentiating an art of immediate protest from the gallery display or discussion that happens at a remove, we would advocate an art that rethinks the parameters of its own politics and of contemporary politics in general. One question that we might put forward in this context, for example, would be how can we reframe the relationship between the production of artistic subjectivities and the demands of the biopolitical focus on human capital so that art does not merely conform to the new modes of value production imposed upon us by late capitalism? If, as Michel Feher writes, human capital is at once our given condition (our genes, the environment we were born into, etc.) and something we must invest in (via perpetual training and self-development), how can art avoid replicating this contradiction? Artists are at once supposed to have a unique authorial voice (and collaborative practices cannot escape this – they still need a brand USP) and at the same time they are meant to invest in their careers and evidence the kind of growth pattern that institutions, patrons and the media can invest in further. If we are to challenge the hierarchical structures that constrain artists both within their field and outside it, we need to start taking apart our most basic ideas of the essential qualities of the human and question the way we valuate the differences between people, biological and socially constructed alike. Whether we do this inside the gallery or not becomes a formal question under these conditions.


Can art be radical? A response to Greg Scholette my colleague and friend.
Let me rephrase that. Can art be radical in the “art world”, that is within the institution of art that is museums, galleries and exhibition spaces. I don’t think so for one simple reason. The institutional space of art is profoundly undemocratic and irrelevant for almost everyone in this country. To put it bluntly, it is a bastion of white privilege. Its flagship store, MoMA swarms with well-heeled tourists from the world over but what working person is going to fork over $25 for a ticket? Ask my African American artists friends about visiting Chelsea galleries and they will tell you that more than likely they will be stopped and frisked entering or exiting one of those white cubes.

But more than these practical barriers, fine art is simply irrelevant to people’s lives. Greg teaches in an art department so students pay attention to the world of fine art. But I teach across the campus in a media studies department where none of my students would ever set foot in an art space. It is a very sobering fact to know that the kind of work I do would appear silly and pointless to them and indeed to many professors as well. It is something I have thought about for years, teaching practical skills for young media makers.

Walk out of the e-flux offices and go into the CVS pharmacy directly across the street, ask the workers and the customers about fine art and its radical potential and you will see what I mean. Its not that art is not part of people’s lives but it is an different kind of creative expression that doesn’t belong in galleries but on Youtube and Vine videos and whatever the platform du jour is. In the 1930’s Walter Benjamin wrote that the art of Charlie Chaplin and Mickey Mouse cartoons were every bit as radical as the work of Picasso and everyone can understand it and have a laugh. To me that is the best starting point for radical art.

I think there can be spaces for art that are open for all. I have had the opportunity to show in a few in Europe. I particularly liked one non-profit space in Blackpool UK. The curator told me that recently the bus stop had been moved because of road-work to temporary position outside the gallery and that attendance shot up. So people discovered that art is a good way of passing the time while it is raining. It is this audience that we should be addressing with work that creates a democratic dialog with everyone. I speak in the spirit of self-critique - this is something I must work towards. Just as Brecht kept a little wooden donkey on his desk to remind him that he should write for everyone, so that even the donkey would understand.


I want in the first place to return to something Pil & Galia mentioned in their first comment before moving on to their more recent provocation regarding the ‘taking apart’ of ‘our most basic ideas of the essential qualities of the human’.

‘Western’ artistic solidarity with Pussy Riot over the question of free speech and protest was highly problematic for a multiplicity of reasons, but one thing that particularly irritated me, amidst all the pathos and genuine sympathy for the arrested performers, was the hypocrisy of those decrying Russia’s attack on protest, while failing entirely to notice that the same kinds of prosecutions were happening in the UK at exactly the same time.

While people wrung their poetic hands and wondered what they could do to support Pussy Riot, young people in the UK involved in the fees protest were going to prison for protesting on the most trumped-up, spurious charges. In a sense what the Western ‘solidarity’ with Pussy Riot revealed to me was people’s lack of desire to behave collectively in their immediate surroundings (by offering financial, court or personal support, for example): it is so much easier to be ‘outraged’ by perceived offences elsewhere when the possibility of you sitting in the public gallery or joining a protest outside court is so much more remote. The globalised image of art represented by ‘solidarity’ with Pussy Riot or Charlie Hebdo is not, then, an international model of practice or politics, where attacks on ‘freedom’, artistic or otherwise, ‘there’ are not translated into attacks on state tactics ‘here’. People dreamily imagined themselves to be heroes of artistic expression (Pussy Riot, why that could be me!) without wanting to understand that, to be politically consistent, they should equally care (if not care more) about attacks on the same expression in the countries they reside in.

El Lissitzky ‘Neuer’ [New man]

On the second point about interrogating ‘human capital’, both inside and outside art, I could not agree more with Pil & Galia. One searing, relentless pressure in particular seems to me to be the tension between the time of the ‘always-on’ electrical-economy and the limits of the body, both collective and individual. But who is it that is currently thinking about this scenario (not how to end it but how to make bodies work better within it)? Well, those with the money to do so, of course: Go to any design final year show and you’ll see dalliances into the post-human that cross the terrifying line that separates dystopic imagining from capital reality: plans for ‘new humans’ that pay homage to game theory and Mattel, designs for machines that will extract surplus-value from every blink of an eye. Are these parodic or serious proposals? Even our ability to determine the difference has been fractured by the bewildering swirl of political groundlessness that comprises contemporary art/work/life.

An art that critically retold the story of our material and ideological circumstances in an explosive way could be the wood-splitter that cracks the log, though not, of course, without a serious amount of additional force.


The following has been sent to us by John Roberts as his contribution for the week:

St. Petersburg collective Chto delat/What is to be done?, ‘Angry Sandwichpeople’ (2005)

In the light of my last post, I want to pick up on a point made by Pil and Galia Kollectiv, in relation to 'autonomy’. “It is because [art] is not autonomous that art can be critical in a Benjaminian sense”. This, I would contest, is the exact opposite of the truth of art under capitalism: it is precisely because art is autonomous that it can be critical, otherwise it cannot imagine/negotiate/instate a space different from or non-compliant with capital. This is why I began my discussion with the asymmetrical conditions of the representor/represented in contemporary practice, in order to clarify the ‘active constraints’ of the art-political relation. That is, representation is never a mere ‘speaking for’; rather it is always the site of a productive tension between the reasons and interests of the representor and the reasons and interests of the represented-as-representor. To talk therefore of ‘pseudo communal’ art or the inherent ‘objectification’ of the new participatory practices is the righteous and anti-political talk of left liberals and ultraleftists (currently the Tiqqun-style faction) with their phantasmatical collapse of art into the political process. Art-political praxis and political praxis are metastatic, that is, they are One but not-One, insofar as they operate within different temporalities, which at some points overlap or coalesce (in a given, or nascent revolutionary situation). In the normal day-to-day operations of capitalism, however, they don’t, or are unable to coalesce without reactionary consequences. This is because it is precisely the gap between the atemporal conditions of art production and the linear temporality of the political process, that allows art to develop its research programmes free from the instrumentalities of ‘immediacy’ and ‘effectivity’, aims which invariably fall in line with capitalist (and reformist) demands for relevance and accountability. This is not Rancièrism either, or its aestheticist cognates – it’s a version of Marx’s Darstellungsmethode. Representation is an active, staged relation to a non-identitary and self-divided real; art therefore is form of real abstraction that necessarily works on other abstractions, as condition of art going on as art, rather than going on as something else, political activism itself, anthropology, engineering, sociology, physics, etc. This means that art’s autonomy under the conditions of its daily heteronomy (commodity relations) lies precisely in the fact that artists are able to disinvest themselves from those extra-artistic practices/disciplines/knowledges that enable art to make its way in the world, and shape its research programmes, otherwise art becomes indistinguishable from those practices and disciplines, thereby subjecting art’s truths to the passage of knowledge into abstract labour (art-as-research, in the current neoliberal educational parlance). Thus talk of art intervening directly in the political process has to be an analogic and metaphoric claim; it cannot be a claim to be contributing to, or challenging, the ‘general will’. To assume so is to place art and the artist back at the centre of the world, and to domesticate the realities of class struggle. I detect this in the contribution from Zoe, with its populist and anti-intellectual intimations. Workers interests and preoccupations, as the outcome of the intellectual division of labour, are not just separated from the truths of art, but from philosophy, set-theory, modernist poetry, political theory, etc, etc. However, this does not mean that workers do not desire such truths and will seek them out, as a constitutive force of their transformative place in an emancipatory universalism (as Badiou has cogently defended). Thus art cannot be a “democratic dialog with everyone” given the realities of the intellectual division of labour. However, through its non-identitary and non-compliant capacities and modes of attention, it can tell us why capitalism is unable to secure such truths for all, and therefore, why these forms of refusal and negation are crucial to an emancipatory universalism.


The following has been sent to us by Gregory Sholette as his contribution for this week:

The question that must be answered creatively, politically, is how those who are apparently shut out of the marketplace of the art world are nevertheless essential to it? We know that the number of people who call themselves artists has grown remarkably in the past thirty years as have the number of art programs and therefore professionally trained “artists.” But where are they all? How is this utterly redundant surplus somehow essential to the reproduction of the art world and its political economy, as we know it today? What kind of mobilization might be possible from within this excess that is neither exclusively inside nor outside the art world?

One answer to this puzzle is to recognize that the majority of artists embody a kind of missing mass or dark matter, that is to say some non-reflective inert accumulation of overproduction that nonetheless stabilizes the day-to-day functions of Art (with a capital A). Think of the myriad of ways unremunerated and essentially invisible art labor forms a solid architectural base for the 34 Billion Euro art market, consider the MFA’s serving as fabricators, registrars, shippers, installers, magazine subscribers, adjuncts and also students (our students), or what about even the apparently innocent banter at some obscure pop-up show whose contempt for the established art world and lack of an alternative actually serves to reinforce its authority, and what about simply the symbolic role those minions play from the shadows including the way their non-presence is the green-screen backdrop essentially for generating the art world’s spectacular special effects – to borrow my metaphor from the type of specialized technical media that my friend Zoe teaches and which, as John points out, most people know nothing about (but if they did see things as they are, if special effects were interrupted in the midst of a battle scene, would movie goers engage in critical, even political dialogue instead of popping bits of popped corn glued to a 3D screen? Would Brecht be reborn if the apparatus was made opaque? Would Benjamin be as politically inspired by Dumb and Dumber as by Charlie Chaplin? Or do we need to re-imagine the little tramp for 2015, smells like an art project to me, and why not?)

To be repelled by the normative institutional art world whose very existence depends upon this unseen productivity is not surprising, but neither is it going to be enough, not anymore. Besides, we are already well integrated into its apparatus (the very fact this conversation is taking place within the highly privileged circuits of eFlux makes this evident). But to implement imaginative ways of intervening into the actually existing art world, while simultaneously challenging its pyramidal, asymmetrical dominance over the majority of artistic producers, and also by seeking opportunities for achieving solidarity within the dark matter of mainstream art, this is, to my mind, the only battlefield open if the question is how to radicalize art and artist practitioners (how as opposed to why or in what directions). So is this very question in itself symptomatic of our current political and economic moment as David and Hamed ask? Of course, when would it ever not be so? The fact that the upper echelon of high art shows interest in its growing political affect (however serious or deep) is also nothing new, as I tried to sketch-out in my first entry (please see the longer PDF version). A better art world is possible as theorist Gene Ray once proposed, spinning a slogan from the counter-globalization movement in 2004, and to that end we should not stop fantasizing about what it might be especially since imaginative production is central to our labors. Though looking coldly into art’s political economy, without sentiment or utter disgust, in order to locate the chinks in its armor, that exist at all levels within its citadel, this is equally necessary.

Which brings us to the question of Social Practice Art, which in the United States is fast becoming the new and appealing paradigm for cutting-across previously antagonistic levels of institutional high-culture, the world of foundations and state funding agencies, universities and art academies, corporate sponsors, and yes, even the customers in retail chain stores. But more about this next Friday…


Thanks again to our contributors for all of their fascinating ideas last week. We think some people are keen to pick up things they have already started discussing, so we’re happy for lines of thought to be continued this week. Regardless, here are some of our thoughts that have emerged from the discussion.

Last week there was some debate about art’s autonomy. The idea that a class divide separates contemporary art from most peoples’ lives has been raised several times. As John Roberts notes, art’s mode of production and its economic setup are fundamentally distinct from other kinds of labour. This means that even if artworks may sometimes resemble community gatherings or everyday activities, they remain ‘socially autonomous’; segregated into a narrow strip of society, within which certain forms of creativity are possible and are even encouraged by market forces. This creates potential for critical thought, and often attracts thinkers from other fields with less institutional backing (especially within a context of austerity and privatisation). However it raises a major question - if there is a disconnect between art and the rest of society, will art’s politics inevitably be one of either internal reform or self-critique? For example, we can imagine that the ‘dark matter’ of underpaid art workers discussed by Gregory Sholette could fight for a more equitable artworld. Or, as the Kollectivs discuss, artists can critically examine their own modes of production. In these cases, as with the work of the Art Workers’ Coalition in the 1960s, which Gregory mentioned in an earlier post, art’s politics would largely remain an internal affair, never meaningfully crossing the divide into politics proper. On this note it would be interesting to hear from Nina, since she is a philosopher and activist who (as we understand it) has come to art through external interests. Nina, we wonder whether you could elucidate more of what you see in contemporary art - is it just the existence of institutional spaces, which you previously mentioned, or is there really something interesting in contemporary art itself, which may reach beyond self-criticism or simply shouting into the void? If it is primarily the art spaces and communities themselves that you find interesting, perhaps you could also say something more about art spaces as rallying points for organisation?

(Seth Siegelaub and Bob Projansky - Draft for The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement - 1971)

We raise these questions as provocations and do not intend to be pessimistic. So, for our own part, we will make a speculative suggestion. Pil and Galia raised the question of bio-politics and its relation to art, which we find intriguing. Why is it that so many people are clamouring to join the ‘dark matter’ - the legions of art workers who are undervalued and underpaid (if they are paid at all)? Why so many budding artists in a time when cuts to arts funding and the privatisation of education militate against any significant prospect of making a living? Is it because, as Pil, Galia and Nina discuss, within neoliberal capitalism the perpetual creative remodelling of subjectivity is presented as the greatest ideal of human beings, who must ‘express themselves’ (or commodify their personality traits) to secure employment - the CV as the representative artwork of our time? In this sense, the situation of the ‘dark matter’ could then be seen as a significant site for the contradictions of contemporary capitalism - we are all supposed to be artists, but most of us can’t be, even if we are. If artists could present this contradiction, could they help to mobilise the wider pool of socialised desires, re-routing them and making them militant? If the culture of neoliberalism whets our appetite for fulfilment but simultaneously blocks us from achieving it, could there be new forms of aesthetic experience to concentrate these frustrations and make it clear what the real barriers are? One danger for art practice today is that it can become a mere production line for aspirational images, fuelling our projections of self-betterment within the capitalist system. How can artists avoid that fate and start tunnelling a way out?

(Ben Kinmont - Sometimes a nicer sculpture is being able to provide a living for your family, 1998–ongoing. In 1998 Kinmont started a new project - running his own book selling business. Kinmont claims that “The artwork is not the business itself, but the contribution to our cost of living”. See: Ben Kinmont)

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In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Walter Benjamin writes that the “reactionary attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into the progressive reaction toward a Chaplin movie”. This is not to suggest that Chaplin is inherently easier to understand and therefore a better means of conveying any radical content, as Zoe appears to suggest, nor does it lead us to conclude that Chaplin is any more or less inspirational than contemporary Hollywood comedy, as Gregory Sholette implies. Rather, Benjamin is interested in the way that the medium - the means of production, distribution and consumption specific to cinema - generates the effect that allows larger groups of people to accept jarring images, ones they might reject in painting.

Taking heed of Benjamin’s lesson, we would not suggest a dissolution of art as a field into populist entertainment: the different contexts and material conditions of fine art and the film industry, for example, have specific effects that must not be ignored. However, nor would we agree that artists can “disinvest themselves from the extra-artistic practices/disciplines/knowledges that enable art to make its way in the world”, as John Roberts writes. The risk here is not of becoming inward looking, as David Hodge and Hamed Yousefi worry, but of providing capitalism with its human face, the justification that it supports this kind of autonomous practice by doing the dirty work. When we advocate that artists should be reflexive in terms of addressing their own means of production, this is not to propose their autonomy, but precisely to indicate the way in which they are intertwined with extrinsic modes of production. From the production of art materials to the production of socio-cultural structures like art education and creative labour, art is never isolated from the economic and political conditions of society in general. It is on this basis that we can find the common ground from which we can contest the structures of labour that make the world, and not just the artworld, so inequitable. Artists would do well to stop thinking of themselves as so special (they are not exempt from the pressures that apply to other workers), and at the same time to stop worrying about being specialist (art doesn’t have to be meaningful to every individual on the planet to make it worthwhile).

The effects of art on the world are neither immediate nor always intentional. By now, Picasso is no more distressing than Chaplin to the kind of ‘general public’ or masses that Benjamin was describing. There are Picasso mugs and t-shirts and even a Citroën Xsara Picasso. That the artistic project of community living in Manhattan lofts by Fluxus artists directly fed the current condition of urban hyper gentrification is well known. But this is also where the horrible dialectic of radical art and capitalist hegemony is exemplary. In an age of cynical detachment from political ideals, art has an important role in the smooth functioning of late capitalism: art provides this system with an ideological horizon, an image of an other or a better life that is not fully contained within the material possibilities of the present. Politicians have stopped fulfilling this function a long time ago and settle now for the negative containment of a ‘situation’, a discourse of limits, caps and belt-tightening. But politics cannot survive without an ideal, a shared belief in a common good and so, by being removed from the cynical conditions of power and actually invested in a political project, art fulfills this important function ironically. This is why it is not so surprising to find that before becoming ‘Putin’s Rasputin’, Vladislav Surkov wrote lyrics for an indie band, worked with avant-garde theatres and wrote essays on conceptual art.

These kinds of recuperations mustn’t lead us to despair, but on the contrary, to recognize art’s real agency to have effects in the world. We may not directly have the ears of those in power, but if education is becoming increasingly aimed at the children of the elite, at least we can poison their offspring with radical thoughts. If Nina Power is right that the economic electric limits of the body are currently being designed by those with the money to do so, maybe these radical thoughts will permeate outwards and help shape the neuro-plastic standards and norms by which we will mould our people of the future. If we let go of the delusion that we are in full control of these effects or that our production takes place outside of the world, maybe we can make our interventions more useful. We continue to believe that a representational art practice which understands its place within this irony of history can achieve this as well if not better than a social practice art that expects immediate impact and is easily absorbed into an economy of images and experiences, but we look forward to hearing more from Gregory Sholette on this on Friday!

I do think there is something happening in contemporary art, yes. It is tied up with the claims for art’s locations I made earlier – i.e. I don’t want to separate out art’s “function” from its localities, though clearly contemporary art swirls around everywhere in some kind of miasmic way, from its boosterish role in Britain/London especially self-image as a ‘cultural capital’ to the aspirational label that entices young people to describe themselves as an ‘artist’. I am particularly interested in performances and gestures that attempt to extricate themselves from the logic of the artwork-as-commodity (though I am not naively suggesting that this one can simply slip out of this logic). Just as art by default has become the place to discuss ideas, it is also the place as Pil & Galia put it, where just as ‘politics cannot survive without an ideal, a shared belief in a common good and so, by being removed from the cynical conditions of power and actually invested in a political project, art fulfils this important function ironically.’ Art’s utopic/dystopic edge permits the rethinking of the horizons that are everywhere boarded up: if it must do this ‘ironically’ then so be it – an ironic thought is still a thought.

I like too Pil & Galia’s idea that we can poison the offspring of elites with radical thoughts – of course this requires, though, that we have enough energy to do so, and that our poisoning has the desired effect, rather than simply add frisson to lives already made pre-comfortable. Perhaps this means teaching a way of thinking critically and dangerously, of not seeing art as something simply ‘there’ to be consumed by ‘educated’ knowers/viewers. This would of course involved the identification of a critical art practice. It is not at all clear that merely ‘laying bare the devices’ would suffice to make contemporary art ‘critical’, something else must be going on too – the utopic/dystopic element I mentioned above. I want an art that causes violence on the inside, as well as resistance and passion on the outside. We are, in general, too timid in our relation to contemporary art, too passive, too unwilling to be genuinely moved or shaken.

And perhaps we are fucking tired, too. The bodily punishment of net-time, and the ubiquity of bitty waste time mitigates against sustained projects and our capacity to think anything through properly. Contemporary art could capture this distraction and turn it back into a critical project if it develops the right language and critical torsion – perhaps it is already doing so. I would like to see a contemporary art that fully understands its own time, its own horrible speeds and slownesses. I would like an art that breaks itself apart and by doing so, shatters the fabric of reality in such a way that new strategies could emerge, aesthetic, political, or perhaps the blurring of the two.


The following has been sent to us by John Roberts as his post for this week:

Nobody is clamouring to join the precariat; everyone wants a living wage. However, there are determinate material constraints on what artists might or might not do. The crucial point about art’s social function and value, therefore, is how the artist incorporates these material constraints into their relations of production, and as such, what kind of artist they chose to be. Today most serious artists do not produce their art for the dry goods market (the primary art market), they work, in what I’ve called, the ‘second economy’, that is a ‘mixed’ economy of free, undermonetized artistic labour and part time waged labour that supports various kinds of artistic practices that have little or no exchange value; much of the work
produced in this economy, is of necessity, impermanent, temporal, virtual, driven by the requirements of the ‘network’ and exigencies of social embeddedness. Now if this changes the ‘skill base’ of the artist, it also makes, as a consequence, the artist more amenable to contributing their skills to collaborative,
multidisciplinary, capital-intensive projects that have a direct or indirect relationship to the accumulation process (such as architectural/design initiatives, state or privately sponsored, landscaping and environmental work, and other regeneration programmes). The social-theoretic artist is faced therefore with a clear choice where he or she situates their labour, and what forces they are prepared to work under. Does the artist, in order to secure a certain use-value for her work, allows her conceptual skills to be captured by abstract labour, or does she resist this, by making work that tests, critiques, dissolves these circuits of valorization, through accepting the metastatic condition of art-political praxis, that I outlined before? To follow the abstract labour path means subjugating your activity to the technical and social division of labour, in the way a designer or architect might; your ‘artistic’ decisions are those dictated or shaped by the planners, commissioning agencies, and funding agencies that support the given project. To resist this path – the path of socialised autonomy – is to work with and against the technical and social division of labour, by recognizing that artistic practice, if it is to retain its autonomous character as art, has to disinvest itself from the instrumental outcomes prepared by art’s institutions for art’s ‘marginality’, ‘impotence’ or would-be ‘elitism’. In other words, if art’s autonomy and freedom lies in its social and disinvestment from the knowledges and extra-artistic disciplines, that art employs in order to make its way in the world, this is because this autonomy derives precisely from its adisciplinary relationship to research. Art’s autonomy is predicated upon the development of open-ended research programmes, which of necessity challenge the means-end rationale of art’s place both within the new knowledge industries and cultural industries. If this sounds a bit like Adorno, then so be it. There is a proper debate to be had, therefore, about what actually constitutes art’s “real” agency (Pil and Galia Kollectiv) under present conditions.

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The following, sent to us by Gregory Sholette as his contribution for this week, will be the final post of the conversation. Thanks again to our contributors for all of their fascinating ideas. On Monday, we will be back with a new conversation which sets out to critique any notion of the ‘immateriality’ or ‘dematerialisation’ of the contemporary world and replace it with a concept of rematerialisation which is simultaneously skeptical about recent ahistorical attempts to return to materiality.

Returning to the question we started with –how seriously should we take contemporary art’s claim of offering a space for radical political reflection and action– in order to fully answer this we must turn to the phenomenal rise of social practice (SP) within the academy, museums, and discourse of art today. The emerging field of social practice art has gained a considerable following thanks in part to the way it successfully links an ever-expanding definition of visual art to a broad array of disciplines, vocations and procedures ranging from performance, media and theatre studies to sustainable design, urban ethnography, environmental activism, even cooking. Most of the debate that surrounds SP focuses on the tension between its aesthetic claims (or some would argue its lack of aesthetics) and its pragmatic and/or practical dimensions. An excellent paper by Larne Abse Gogarty neatly unfolds these critical tensions whose topics have ranged from Bourriaud’s claims about the micro-utopian spaces generated by Relational Aesthetics to Bishop’s charges that too much of this work is really the art world equivalent of a hot-house orchid so that SP winds up more like a precious sociological patter than complex aesthetic substance, and Kester’s argument supporting in support of the discursive and generative value of art when it is durational, fully participatory and therefore immersed in the world, not set apart from it (see: Gogarty “Aesthetics and Social Practice”)

Regardless of these differences ­–that honestly too often appear like internecine battles– social practice is alive and well and now has a half dozen academic programs dedicated to turning out socially engaged artists with more training camps on the way (full disclosure I am part of this pedagogical trend involving SP at CUNY). Meanwhile, foundations and funding agencies are hurriedly adding community art related grants to their programming, and major museums are setting aside part of their budgets for ephemeral participatory projects that have the added benefit in a crash-strapped financial environment of being relatively low in cost, of not requiring storage or maintenance, and of generating large lively audience interest in ways that a static exhibition of paintings simply can not do anymore. But in light of the historical pattern that I sketched out in my first e-flux conversation entry, and also the growing surplus of artistic practitioners that I briefly touched on in my second entry, the art world’s incorporation of socially engaged art is already taking on a familiar pattern, one strikingly similar to past attempts by the cultural establishment to “capture” moments of rebellion stirred up from within the ranks of its constituents. For instance, in the late 1980s “political art” became hip for a short time. It was boldly featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Committed To Print in 1988, and at the Dia Art Foundation’s project space in SoHo by Martha Rosler and Group Material, and the 1993 Whitney Biennial was even described by some critics as a pleasureless return to cultural Stalinism, although to many of us who were engaged in more militant forms of art it seemed like an anemic attempt to symbolically and selectively display politics as aesthetics. Ultimately, what remained inside the museums in the decade ahead was a few works by a select number of artists who represented “political art,” while the many individuals and groups whose activities actually led to the visibility of this politicized culture simply returned to their normal state of invisible artistic dark matter. As historian Carol Duncan described the art world’s political economy way back in 1984:

We can measure the waste [of artistic talent] not only in the thousands of “failed” artists–artists whose market failure is necessary to the success of the few–but also in the millions whose creative potential is never touched… This glut of art and artists is the normal condition of the art market.
—Carol Duncan, “Who Rules the Art World?” from the book Aesthetics of Power: Essays in Critical Art History, Cambridge U. Press, 1983, 172.

Rather than ignoring, bemoaning, or repressing the invisible presence of this artistic glut, we could instead celebrate its redundancy and negativity. We could view it’s seeming weakness as a potentially vibrant agency by recognizing that much of what sustains the majority of these “market failed” artists is their own inventive survival skills. What skills? A short list would include proto-political processes of non-market gift giving, informal self-organizing, and in some cases, overt, militant resistance to their own precariousness, and that of others (though I must also admit the possibility that this missing creative mass could also emerge as a visibly, reactionary force). The point is that despite the fact that these overlooked artists typically end up relegated to the shadow archives of failed revolts and forgotten uprisings, their presence/absence and ongoing overproduction might also be interpreted as a ghostly negation inhabiting the very center of the established art world. This other social [non]productivity has the capacity to mobilize its own redundancy, to acknowledge its surplus of talent, labor, subjectivity, affect, and in so doing frees itself from even attempting to be usefully productive for capitalism, though all the while identifying itself with a far larger ocean of “dark matter,” that ungainly surfeit of seemingly useless actors and activity that the market views as waste, at least until it finds a way to extract value from it. Our task is to get there first. To end with a return, let me repeat Wodiczko’s emphatic reminder about the longue durée of critical, politically charged art practices, “nothing in the Avant-Garde tradition “works” in the ways one expects, including the expectations of some involved artists themselves.”

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And so a few days ago I learned from John Roberts that “art cannot be a democratic dialog with everyone given the realities of the intellectual division of labour.” What was I thinking? Indeed.

I am just a teacher and amateur artist/filmmaker. I champion intellectual rigor and popular culture not as adversaries but companions. I am fully aware that I suffer from what Adorno referred to as ‘Brechtian hooliganism’.

And yet, I do not dumb down ideas to fit my students who, given the current divisions of labor, are almost all working people who come from many different backgrounds and cultures. It is not easy to communicate difficult concepts in a simple clear way. It’s really hard to do this well. It also takes awareness of who it is one is speaking with.

Of course, art and teaching are different disciplines. Art sides with learning, with discovering and figuring out – we are all students. It involves having dialogs with artists and thinkers in the past and with artists and people in the present – and with creating proposals for the future.

I actually believe that amateurism is an important concept. It means speaking without the approval of ‘authorities’ but nonetheless it does not mean without rigor, only one doesn’t need a degree to do it. Let us celebrate autodidactism.

Radical artists, I believe, must desire to speak through their work with people different to themselves: in terms of class, race, bank balance or even age. A really good artist or thinker can speak in different registers with different people. I’ll use an example that I recently encountered, Walter Benjamin’s radio addresses for children. He broadcast in 1930, twenty minutes a week on the “ Berlin Youth Radio Hour” about all kind of topics from markets, to factories to ghost stories and witch trials with openness and warmth and humor. These broadcasts are just as intellectually rigorous and critical as his “Arcades Project”.

The Film Industry and the Art Industrial Complex though they have different roots are not as different as some writers here might suppose. In my last post, I mentioned Charlie Chaplin, to much disapproval and doubt, it seems. I believe Benjamin spoke of him not simply because commercial cinema is a more “accessible medium” and working people enjoyed his pratfalls but because he is a brilliant artist who attempted to show how the world can be different than it is. He himself counted left artists like Eisenstein and Hanns Eisler as his dear friends. They understood the radical potential of his work. There is no one like that today. Could there be?

Being a radical artist is a messy business. It should be an activity where things go wrong, people speak past each other, make crazy compromises with the powers that be, do what they can with what they’ve got, find themselves flung in and out of museums and across disciplines. Because only then do things start to happen – it’s called learning on the job. I remember a couple of years ago speaking to a curator at MoMA PS I about my project “The Days of the Commune” and she looked at me and said “Why would any artist want to do community theater?” as though I had be pitching the “Sound of Music” so I just picked myself up and went elsewhere. In so many ways, I agree with Gregory Sholette’s latest post. Amateurs like me aren’t really sure about “training camps”. How about calling the class “a place for encouragement and asking hard questions”?


Thanks so much for this mister Sholette, Greetings from the deep dark matter !! V

Although this conversation officially ended on Friday, everyone is welcome to contribute new posts. Here are some more thoughts by one of our regular participants, John Roberts.

Some thoughts on “real” agency: I agree with Greg, the vast proliferation of occasional, semi-professional, amateur, and ‘non-art art’ practices is incredibly important, and represents a qualitative shift in art’s relations of production, post-the current (post-Fordist) crisis of the capital-labour relation, network culture, and the exhaustion of the dry goods market as a place for thinking, learning and practice. This has undoubtedly destabilized what we know – or knew - as the artworld, even in its independent enclaves attached to the universities and not-for-profit public spaces. That is, it extends the possibility of art as a realm of socialized autonomy, and such the creation of values antithetical to productive and non-productive labour and the wage form. Yet the most cursory sociological account of this shift reveals, how much of this semi-proletarianization of artists, and the rise of the ‘post-market artist’ is indirectly supported by middle class remittances - that is the ‘bank of mum and dad’, in which large numbers of young unemployed and underemployed art and humanities graduates gravitate to the big cities (particularly, London, New York and Berlin) supported by their parents, in the hope of having ‘creative careers’, filling up all the available part-time and unpaid niches of distribution and administration . And of course the post-conceptual verities of contemporary art facilitates this, in as much, the networking of ideas is the common currency. This is having a detrimental effect on real and necessary processes of radical and social transformation in two ways. The disproportionate influx of middle class graduates into the major cities, in the mistaken belief, that big cities are the source of creativity, and therefore, as a result, draining the regions of energy and talent (a chronic problem in the UK and the USA); and as a consequence the rise, certainly in the artworld, of transformative ‘projects’, rather than practices and their long term perspectives. François Laruelle, has some significant things to say about this ‘culturalist problem’ under neoliberalism in his 2003 book, L’ultime honneur des intellectuals, recently translated as Intellectuals and Power (2015). Laruelle’s non-philosophical speculative exit from philosophy poses many problems, not least its ‘science fictive’ tenor, but in this book he makes a crucial distinction between ‘dominant’ intellectuals and ‘determinate’ intellectuals, that has a bearing on the problem of this metropolitan influx and remittance (bourgeois intern) culture, and artistic practice more generally. ‘Dominant’ intellectuals (across the right, left and liberal centre) tend to favour uplifting and affirmative projects that involve empowering Action and Humanitarian good will, unconcerned with or indifferent to, the realities of power and the ultimate subjection of such activity to the prevailing ideology of the victim and human limits (the finitude of our ‘failed’ hopes for anything more than ‘market realism’). (Badiou, of course, also has had powerful things to say about such limits). In contrast the ‘determinate’ intellectual (with its Hegelian, Marxist and quasi-Gramscian associations) pursues reflective practices, which neither “hold back” nor hasten into action. That is the “determined intellectual does not enter into struggle without being in a state that destabilizes a priori the humanitarian concern of the dominant intellectual.” Indeed, Laruelle, says: “He practices what I will call the radical future. He takes the only distance that does not move him away from struggle but also does not push him into struggle…His function consists in making a new sphere of existence.” In other words such a figure has to transform the possibilities and conditions of the future, by first practicing on the materials to hand, in order to create the new materials that might contribute to new practices and such a future (as opposed to going along with actionist homilies and righteous supposition). And perhaps one way of achieving something like this, in the realm of art, at least, is for artists to move into those areas/regions that will drain the metropolises of their spectacular self-regard, in order to facilitate new living spaces and spaces for reflective realization for artistic practice. There is evidence that is something like this is happening in Europe and the USA already. However, if we should support this, this is not to valourize the regions as new sources of entrepreneurial advantage - encouraging artists to move into non-metropolitan areas as the agents of new cultural capital – but, rather, to defend such a move, if it is to work, as the need for artists to disappear into practice and struggle, in order to recovery a working (and long term) sense of autonomy that will allow new spheres thinking and doing come into being. Then we can talk about “real agency” in art with a degree of confidence, irrespective of the continuing precarious conditions of the artistic life under capitalism. In short, under the chronic and abhorrent conditions of neo-liberalism, with its pathologies of hypervisibility and ‘effectivity’ (beautifully eviscerated by Jonathan Crary in 24/7), one of the requirements of so-called radicality is that the artist should find ways and means of disappearing into practice productively. Otherwise talk of art ‘transforming the world’ is – as ever – just idle gossip.

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Advocating for the use of ‘radness’ to distinguish the stylistic radicality within contemporary art from radicality operating outside the sphere of contemporary art.

Have a look at www.revolution10.uk for a glimpse at how art and politics can co-exist.

I am happy to see the conversation make its way here: “to defend such a move, if it is to work, as the need for artists to disappear into practice and struggle” - @HodgeYousefi

A few more:

Allan Kaprow:

“…the idea of art cannot easily be gotten rid of (even if one wisely never utter the word). But it is possible to slyly shift the whole un-artistic operation away from where the arts customarily congregate, to become, for instance, an account executive, an ecologist, a stunt rider, a politician, a beach bum. In these different capacities…[art] would operate indirectly as a stored code that, instead of programming a specific course of behavior, would facilitate an attitude of deliberate playfulness toward all professionalizing activities well beyond art.”

Alexander Koch:

“Why would an ex-artist potentially bring more creativity, more imagination or more self-responsibility to natural sciences and medicine than anybody else? I think Richard Rorty (whom we both admire) would actually support me here. If artists merely become social scientists or long-distance runners, or if they do become social scientists or long-distance runners “as artists”, would sound for him a) as really hard to distinguish, b) unclear what this distinction is good for, and c) sound like an attempt to find something essential about what artists are, exactly in the very moment of their disappearance, whereas my theoretic proposals of the artistic dropout try to contribute to an anti-essentialist perspective on that disappearance.

“For some time now, my work has been circling the question: What if, as an artist, you decide to give up your artistic practice, disappear from the art scene, and leave the field of art altogether? Does this simply mean you have given up, that you have failed? Or would you merely be switching to a new line of work, changing your job? Or could there be, potentially, more to it than this? Could leaving art be, perhaps, a gesture of critique and (artistic) sovereignty? It will, indeed, come as no surprise if we say that today there are far more former artists in the Western world, than there are practicing artists. Given the large number of artists who graduate from our academies and the very few who eventually succeed in a professional career, the »ex-artist« is a very common phenomenon in our social environment – mind you, without being a particularly seductive subject for art critics or art historians.”

Jerry Saltz:

“The best parts of Documenta 13 bring us into close contact with this illusive [might he have meant “elusive?”] entity of Post Art—things that aren’t artworks so much as they are about the drive to make things that, like art, embed imagination in material and grasp that creativity is a cosmic force. It’s an idea I love. (As I’ve written before, everything that’s made, if you look at it in certain ways, already is or can be art.) Things that couldn’t be fitted into old categories embody powerfully creative forms, capable of carrying meaning and making change. Post Art doesn’t see art as medicine, relief, or religion; Post Art doesn’t even see art as separate from living. A chemist or a general may be making Post Art every day at the office.”

Stephen Wright:

I am referring to an art without artwork, without authorship (not signed by an artist) and above all without a spectator or audience. It is visible, public, and indeed, it is seen–but not as art. In this way, it cannot be placed between invisible parentheses–to be written off as “just art,” that is, as a mere symbolic transgression, the likes of which we have seen so often, whose principal effect is to promote the artist’s position within the reputational economy.”

“There are more stealth practices going on than the artworld ever acknowledges, or even knows about. This is for the self-evident reason that they are, by definition and by design, hard to see let alone recognize, but also because they subvert mainstream artworld values, for there is nothing to exhibit and thus, nothing to sell. Stealth practices tend to be written off as non-art, if not quite nonexistent. The art-critical challenge is to draw attention to them in an appropriately elusive way, both for their intrinsic worth and because they obey a certain art-historical logic. Stealth and spy art practices have become a viable way of pursuing art at a historical moment when art has withdrawn from the world–though that may appear grossly counterintuitive to anyone whose only sources are the official organs of the artworld like Flash Art or Art Forum. In the face of the omnipresence of the cultural and consciousness industries, art has withdrawn from the world and has hidden before our very eyes–the only place it is safe from artworld recuperation, the only place left where the artworld is not looking for it.“


@Victoria @osrtapes @DADABASE