I would like to approach the fairly polemical position of Yates' title with a very basic, and obvious call for specificity. It has been my experience, and certainly something I detail in my book Seeing Power that broad sweeping statements about art vs. activism tend to add obfuscate what is already a difficult situation to address. I am a fan of Yates in general and always applaud his deep commitment not only to social justice, social movements and their entanglements with art (whatever that term art might mean), but also in leading a critical charge to interrogating the issues therein. So, it is in the spirit of solidarity that I do approach the questions with a bit of criticism and ideally, some productive thoughts.
Perhaps it is a desire for poetry, or perhaps it is that kind of legacy of Continental Philosophy, that forces a certain kind of use of words like “the end” or even, sweeping generations regarding ‘antagonisms” and “participation” when it come to something as loose-knit as socially engaged art. I have to say that it is not that I disagree or agree with Claire Bishop nor Yates when it comes to art, but instead, merely, that I would have to know the artwork in particular and the conditions that brought it to light. Rather than talking about genres of art (such as socially engaged art), I would ask that we narrow our sites to moments that occur in space and time undergirded by forces of political economy, history, race, gender, sexuality, etc. It is a statement so obvious, I wish I did not have to repeat it. But for a field that loves to make generalizations, I suspect, it will be an ongoing and necessary preliminary statement.
But lets move on from the title as Yates himself seems to sort of disavow it as well later in the essay. I would say that broad sweeping concerns about antagonisms do not necessarily interest me. Nor do questions of participation and democracy. No offense to Bishop, but these kind of concerns in a vacuum don’t seem to do all that much. Arguing against participation and promoting antagonisms without context strikes me as liking more salt on your food no matter what. Doesn’t it depend on what it tastes like? I only say this because, when it comes to practices in the world, the tactics and strategies deployed must be interpreted in conjunction with the social and political dimensions in the sites in which they transpire. For Yates to assert that Occupy included internal antagonisms should almost go without saying. Most effective social organizing must wrestle, and appreciate, internal antagonism as a basic working method. I suspect Bishop’s critiques were not meant as an actual concern with the methodologies of grassroots organizing, so much as an appeal to aesthetic concerns (which is an approach I simply don’t ascribe to).
Rather than talk about art as an abstraction, I prefer to ground the term as operating either as a set of infrastructures (thus the term artworld) and a set of practices on the other (art practice). In the exhibition Living as Form, I worked with several curators to aggregate a vast array of practices who used strategies of art in their interest in shaping everyday life. Many of these practices not only resisted the art world (more of them did so simply because they were not getting any art money anyways), but also had complex understandings of collectivity, pedagogy, and activism. And as is the oft-difficulty of presenting site-specific projects, the exhibition itself predominately featured documentation of works abroad. Some of the projects included the community-based theater workshops of Los Angeles Poverty Department, the internet based activism of Wikileaks, the pedagogically infused urbanism of Tijuana-based Torolab, the queer activism of Bolivian Mujeras Creando, the very artworld friendly and conceptually driven art of Francis Alys, the community-based social center in Cameroon, Doual’art, founded by Marilyn Douala-Bell and Didier Schaub. This is just a few of the 100 projects listed.
I am not trying to highlight the show, but as it is gone to in some depth in the article, it is instructive to note that the exhibition itself, highlighted numerous projects involved in social struggle and frankly, had already left the artworld behind (quite some time ago). That said, other projects did exist within the infrastructure of the arts. Some were really arty and poetic while others were very social justice oriented or simply straight up activism. Rather than a catch-all term of art (which frankly as a term has more problematics than uses), it is more useful to consider these practices’ common thread in rhizomatic fashion (or another way of putting it), one would have to appreciate that these projects share commonalities only when considered in light of a vast ecology of complex differentiation that fuses culture and activism in the pursuit of transforming the world. Certainly, OWS became an important milestone in the ongoing pursuit for social justice on our planet, but I would say, it is hard to consider it as a particular transitional period toward one where art leaves art behind (only because such a statement makes no sense). And certainly, if anything, Living as Form highlighted not only tendencies within the arts to bridge activism, but perhaps more importantly in this context, that art had already been absorbed and deployed by activist movements long before.
What I would say however is that when the question is asked in terms of infrastructures, we can get a better grasp not only a particular turning point, but also get closer to Gregory Sholette’s question regarding co-optation and the notion of the avant-garde. Shannon Jackson once quipped something to me that never left my thoughts, “What if,” she rhetorically opined, “the U.S. government co-opted healthcare?” It was the kind of statement she made off the cuff, but the implications of it seem quite germane to both Yates’ concerns and also the question posed by Sholette. For in this light, I think of the United States government as a complex infrastructure not all unlike the artworld itself. The arts have galleries, museums, universities, magazines, non-profits, alternative spaces, biennials, blogs, etc. And the government, well, you get the point. But in light of this, the questions are not about necessarily co-opting of art, so much as they are asking under what conditions do they operate, whom do they speak to, what do they do. What, how and for whom as Lenin would say.
Obviously, I bristle at the use of the term “end”, but I do appreciate that a certain break has become all the more evident. When Sholette indicates, rightfully, that corporate culture has borrowed from the toolshed of the arts, and so too have activists, I think it is evident that the use of the practice of art has become a valuable tool in a world increasingly used to, and adept at, manipulating culture. While art has certainly become part of the language of speech, it nevertheless, seems to me useful to understand that the battle to overcome the domination of the planet by way of capitalism (amongst other forms of power including white supremacy and patriarchy) must challenge and make use of its infrastructures.
Words like co-optation have historically been used by the likes of the Situationists to make a mess of actual progress in favor of a rhetorics of purity. Occupy certainly wrestles with those demons itself. While certainly advertisements using revolutionary imagery might strike one as a form of co-optation, I don’t necessarily see the use of politically engaged art by art instutitions as a form of co-optation. In fact, I would say, reading the world like that falls into some really dated, and faulty, tendencies. It really depends on the specifics. And I would also say that drawing such hard lines in the sand over art outside of museums vs. in it, seems to simply miss the point entirely. It seems to me a massive mistake to leave the artworld behind. The artworld, in its vast complexity, hosts within it major infrastructures that need to be held accountable from universities to museums, from magazines to non-profits. They also can amplify and produce civic spaces that go beyond the limited arena of the arts (frankly, when it comes to audience, many art institutions long ago moved way beyond the demographics of simply art enthusiasts). McKee goes into this later in the book highlighting the work of both Gulf Labor and Occupy Museums. It should also be noted that Liberate Tate successfully got the Tate Museum to remove British Petroleum as a corporate sponsor. So, I know that he is quite aware and sympathetic to this.
So to, at last, answer the question, I would say that what is at stake is the production of a new world which also, implies the production of new infrastructures. It is critical that not only do we produce infrastructures that reflect the ethics and working methods we believe in, but also that we challenge, and make us of, existing infrastructures. Yes, this also means a certain kind of lack of purity and that there are political trade-offs that are always necessitated by the wrestling with political economy and power. But such is the way of actual social change and simply navigating political economy and life. Any large-scale social system that comes into being that reflects a dynamic of social justice and a challenge to capitalism will inevitably inhabit certain contradictions that one must swallow for the greater good. Rather than seeing this as a historic break, I see it as a transition to a world that appreciates the power of wonder that art can produce, in an effort to both put it to use toward social justice ends, as well as to simply appreciate the peculiar strangeness of pleasure, that also comes from that which we do not understand.