To begin with I will say that I agree with those above who find McKee’s Strike Art a scholarly and extremely informative study of the involvement of art with the Occupy protests, and the legacy of Occupy in art activism. As Gregory Sholette states in the introduction, it is a work that is full of ‘granular detail’, which I have enjoyed reading.
I also entirely agree with the sentiment expressed in McKee’s introduction, that critical work of this kind should ask ‘how a politics of solidarity can be articulated that works against ongoing dynamics of white supremacy, patriarchy, and class privilege in organising spaces while constructing a common horizon of the Left’ (7).
On the other hand, I think that McKee should be pressed on some of his claims, because ‘solidarity’ has to mean more than going along with a very broad Left consensus. With that it mind, I think there are some criticisms that might be made.
The ‘militant research’ of Strike Art avoids generally avoids antagonism of the avant-garde type, and in this respect it might be praised for avoiding stereotypes of militancy. The closest the book comes to an avant-gardist claim to supercession is where Occupy is tentatively posited as the ‘end’ of socially-engaged art (p.81), a ‘completion’ but also a kind of ‘self-immolation’ of Nato Thompson’s Living as Form. Thomas Gokey is cited as saying something similar (p.164), so it may be that this idea has wider currency among the artists that McKee discusses.
I think that the idea is very problematic in a way that points to an issue with the theoretical framing of the book. McKee demonstrates, in great detail, that Occupy New York involved artists in prominent roles. But this means that within Occupy as a ‘collective’ work, unavoidably given the art historical framing, some participants are more anonymous than others.At the same time, granted the status of an artwork, Occupy New York tends to stand in for the global Occupy movement. The relationship between the collective and the individual alters with the identification as ‘art’ in this context.
To pick up on Stevphen Shukaikis’s point, for me there is something ‘lost’ in the choice to discuss Occupy as an artwork. Another loss is that the book does not engage with any political critiques of Occupy. The decision to frame Occupy as an ‘event’, or as an artwork, tends to neutralize the difficult questions that are part of its legacy, and its enduring critical vitality.
Of course, one book cannot cover every perspective on such a complex phenomenon as Occupy was. But for this reason, it would have been better not to simultaneously abstract the movement and collapse it into contemporary art, as in this statement:
‘Far from two separate entities, Occupy and contemporary art were in fact immanent to one another, involving a dual dynamic in which artists who engaged with Occupy undertook an exodus or desertion from the art system, on the one hand, while taking that system itself as a target of action and leveraging on the other’ (p.25)
Both contemporary art and Occupy mediated the social relations of capitalism, that’s true. But that commonality raises difficulties that are not considered by the book. It is questionable whether there was a ‘desertion’, because art is a term that tends to keep pace with those that leave it behind, as avant-gardes have often discovered.
I am dwelling on tensions here, because they are important and revealing. The introduction to Strike Art dispenses with Andrea Fraser’s misgivings about art’s relationship to politics a little too summarily, perhaps. Whatever her failings, she does inherit an important form of avant-garde self-criticism from the 1970s. In ‘Strike Art’ the problems Fraser raises are avoided by the pragmatic assertion that art institutions can provide useful spaces of resistance, even though they are also expressions of a capitalist ruling order. This is true, but there is still something that ought to be retained from Fraser’s version of institutional critique: what problems does art have to overcome in order to put itself at the service of politics? What self-critical tasks need to be addressed in order for artists to achieve art’s negation, or even more difficult, its ‘simultaneous negation and affirmation’? In fact, this last feat is attributed to ‘insurgent multiplicities’ but, as we have seen, Strike Art cannot help but have art practices stand in for them.
These critical problems derive from the contradictions which multiply at the meeting of art and politics. I would have liked to have seen more consideration of such contradictions in Strike Art.
In John Roberts’s recent book Revolutionary Time and the Avant-garde he emphasizes the discontinuity between what he terms the suspensive avant-garde, and political activism. The adisciplinary, and theoretical research project of the avant-garde, while it is embedded in politics ‘cannot submit itself completely…to the tactical exigencies of political praxis’. For Roberts:
‘In its heteronomous encounter with capital, art must offer a place, a memory, a set of relations, modes of cognition and learning and mapping, that provides a different space of encounter between art, praxis and truth – a place that sustains an open and reflective encounter between art and the totalizing critique of capitalism.’ (35).
Now, there is no reason why Mckee should agree with this, or any of the artists that he discusses for that matter. However, Roberts’ reading of the avant-garde at least raises some of the intractable problems that continue to exist in the difficult terrain that the artists considered in Strike Art inhabit. Their work is important, often inspiring – and it is worth reiterating that the detailed consideration of this work in Strike Art is its strength. But the theoretical framing, and the consideration of the problem of the art institution in particular, are less satisfying for me.