Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition
By Yates McKee, London & NYC: Verso Books, 2016
(Read a snapshot of the book here: STRIKE ART EXCERPT)
Gregory Sholette, April 2016
Welcome to our conversation about Yates McKee’s Strike Art, a book that transforms the event known as Occupy Wall Street (OWS) into both an analytical lens and an first-person narrative, while bringing into focus several urgent issues related to the intersection of Left politics and contemporary art within the US context roughly between the mid-1980s and today (see McKee pp. 13 & 37). Strike Art joins a number of other recent scholarly works that address questions raised by what seems to be a new wave of arts activism, though they do not always do so from an American perspective. In at least one aspect McKee’s project is especially unique. Strike Art is written by someone who was directly involved in the day-to-day organizing work of OWS, and who continues to participate in the movement’s afterlife. McKee’s book is therefore replete with granular information about the ambitious, and sometimes ambiguous, revolt of the 99%, details that other commentators can only address in a second-hand manner. In this sense he aligns his writing with Walter Benjamin’s well-known directive that authors become producers with a “tendentious” tilt towards working class struggles.
Partisanship so blatant rubs against the grain of traditional academic scholarship, generating a decidedly undetached approach to research and its object of study. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ledger if you like, another set of issues arises. “Who has the right to speak on behalf of the collective?” becomes a hypothetical question from comrades and collaborators (one can almost hear the mike check chorus starting up!). McKee is well aware of these tensions. And while I am in no position to judge the outcome of his efforts, Strike Art takes exceptional care citing the contributions of numerous groups and individuals. At the same time McKee is careful to hew as close as possible to his own academic discipline of contemporary art research, a tactic that positions his book in a complicated, even aporetic zone where large, abstract ideas uneasily wrestle with empirical, day-to-day observations about the Occupy Movement and beyond. In this case the “beyond” involves post-Occupy Movement’s relationship to issues of racial justice, student debt, and environmental activism.
Somewhat gingerly for my taste, Strike Art also attempts something much more ambitious by proposing a common thread linking together the fragmented, extra-parliamentary politics of the contemporary Left. That commonality involves the sensuous imaginary of art (242) understood as a process in which radicalized artists redirect “their creativity into an expanded field of organizing in order to construct a new—if internally fraught—political imaginary set off against the common enemy of the 1%” (from the Preamble to the book). The aim of this online e-flux conversation therefore is to develop a conversation about the ideas, assertions, and observations and to that end I am putting forward three questions over the next couple of weeks that focus on the following topics:
1) Occupy and the return of avant-garde art?
2) Occupy and 21st Century Left politics?
3) Is there an ethos of radical Left scholarship?
[Note: At the start of the Zuccotti Park occupation, curator Nato Thompson also participated in the direct action of OWS, an experience he discusses in his recent book Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Twenty-first Century. Other notable post-Occupy volumes about art and politics include: John Roberts, Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde; Stevphen Shukaitis, The Composition of Movements to Come: Aesthetics and Cultural Labour After the Avant-Garde; Marc James Léger, The Neoliberal Undead: Essays on Contemporary Art and Politics; T.J. Demos The Migrant Image, The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis; Malcolm Miles, Limits to Culture: Urban Regeneration vs. Dissident Art; and W. J. T. Mitchell, Bernard E. Harcourt & Michael Taussig: Occupy: Three Inquiries in Disobedience.]
_________________________________ STRIKE ART! The First of Three Questions:
1. Occupy and the return of avant-garde art?
“Occupy took the avant-garde dialectic of “art and life” to a new level of intensity,” Yates McKee asserts in Strike Art. (32) And certainly in so many ways the occupation did dissolve cultural practices directly into an encounter with political activism and its requisite modes of organizational labor. Yet is this truly an intensification of avant-garde forces latent within the “art system” (McKee’s preferred term for the art world p. 11)? And what are the stakes in such a return to, and repetition of, a legacy of protests and interventions in culture that oftentimes did not conceive of their activism as art? Or are we experiencing perhaps something new altogether, as Boris Groys has suggested in a 2014 e-flux journal essay “On Art Activism” http://www.e-flux.com/journal/on-art-activism/ ) ? Let’s say we did agree that OWS and its afterlife represents a significant shift within contemporary art and politics, what then is at stake describing this phenomenon as avant-garde, especially bearing in mind all of the historical, political, ontological, and aesthetic weight that this term inevitably carries with it? For if at a moment when enterprising business leaders describe not only their products and brands but also their very managerial style as avant-garde, what stakes then are involved with applying this particular locution of “avant-garde” to the various cultural practices described in Strike Art?
- Background to the question:
There is one issue that consistently draws the ire of the artistic Left, and that is the apparent cooptation of the radical, even revolutionary ambitions of the early 20th Century Avant-Garde by what Julian Stallabrass labels “Art Incorporated”: a multi-billion dollar culture industry seemingly tethered to the interests of global capitalism. The “art Left” (if I can provisionally use this phrase) has typically imagined itself to be either completely outside of the machinations of Art Inc., or it thinks of itself as a kind of “Trojan Horse” operating transgressively from deep within the established art world order. As Group Material charged in their inaugural manifesto of 1980: “we invite everyone to question the entire culture we have taken for granted,” refusing to become part of some tired “pseudo avant-gardism.” Or as Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PAD/D) proclaimed a year later, “PAD [/D] cannot serve as a means of advancement within the art world structure of museums and galleries. Rather, we have to develop new forms of distribution economy as well as art.” McKee’s Strike Art pivots on one particular event when the “art Left” was forced to confront its own political and artistic aporias. That moment came in the middle of the exhibition Living As Form: Socially Engaged Art, 1991–2011.
Organized in the Fall of 2011 by Creative Time’s Chief Curator Nato Thompson, Living As Form plays a key role in McKee’s Strike Art for two reasons. First, Thompson’s project sought to establish a common identity for a number of socially engaged artistic practices that had unfolded over the previous two decades. In this sense the exhibition serves McKee as the figure of a certain self-representation within the art Left itself. And second, Living As Form is significant to Strike Art not only because it took place precisely as the occupation of Zuccotti Park was initiated, but because of something quite singular that happened during its run. One afternoon in October of 2011 a group of people who had gathered for a program at Living As Form abruptly abandoned the exhibition to join the OWS protest encampment several blocks away. Seizing upon this moment as a demonstration of his larger thesis Mckee writes on pages 80 and 81:
“In a kind of historical displacement, contemporary art was suddenly thrown into relief as a distant prefiguration or prophecy of what was now happening in real time…as an historiographical provocation, one that admittedly borders on the eschatological, it might be said that this moment of passage represents the end of socially engaged art. I use ‘end’ here in two senses, neither of which are reducible to simple chronology. First, ‘end’ can mean purpose, goal, or destination, and from this angle, the crossing of the threshold from Creative Time to Zuccotti Park was arguably the realization or consummation of the deepest dreams and desires of the exhibition itself. Yet ‘end’ can also mean completion, termination, or even death, and in this sense the trip to Zuccotti Park might be considered a kind of self-immolation on the part of Living as Form, which had arguably represented the vanguard of contemporary art in the institutional art world—a vanguard defined by its very flirtation with dissolving the category of art altogether into an expanded field of social engagement. It would be a mistake however to see the move from Creative Time to Zuccotti Park as a move from the realm of ‘mere’ art to the immediacy of ‘real’ life. As we shall see, the OWS encampment itself would be widely described as a surreal environment, and many artists would be counted among its initiators—including some working directly in the orbit of Creative Time projects like Democracy in America and Living as Form itself.”