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STRIKE ART, Question 3: Let's talk about Yates McKee's 2016 book on art, activism & Occupy


#1

(See also Question 1: “Occupy and the return of avant-garde art?” and Question 2: “Occupy and 21st Century Left politics?”)

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)

Question 3: On the ethos of radical scholarship

Yates McKee writes that the most rigorous approach to the study of contemporary art is one that “takes it [critical contemporary art] as an object of critical analysis concerning the meaning of contemporaneity and art alike,” adding that “the discourse of the contemporary, as it might be called, pertains to a highly specialized sector of the contemporary art system that exists in close proximity to academia and identifies itself as a self-consciously left-wing endeavor” (10–11). And yet, writing as a cultural critic and artist who is informed by Marxism as much as by contemporary art, I have to ask if we “radical artists and scholars” are not first obliged to cast a critical eye on the specialized cultural and academic categories bourgeois society has developed, including even “Leftist” art shibboleths such as institutional critique and social practice art? In other words, what sort of accountability exists, as Strike Art proposes, from us towards the specialized discipline of contemporary art given that it is a field that both constructs us and that we in turn reproduce? What equal or perhaps greater obligation do we have towards the liberation of a general creativity, something along the lines Marx proposed in 1845 in which we fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, (and make paintings all night long?) Or, in the short term at least, should we not be seeking out a potentially different radical hermeneutic, one that critically address the antimonies of culture under neoliberal capitalism, no matter where that excursion might take us?

BACKGROUND TO QUESTION:

Too often we find not only traditional art historians, but also those claiming to embrace a radical or Marxist political outlook blindly reproducing the status-quo by uncritically focusing on the familiar canon and methodologies of the mainstream art world system. How easy it is to dismiss, for example, the cultural activities of an urban squatter space for instance, or the kitschy craft of an eccentric amateur artist. And yet if Thomas Hirshhorn generates a makeshift squatter-like community or Jeff Koons produces sculpture that looks like an enlarged flea-market tchotchke, these are often celebrated as subversive cultural practices. Where has the spirit gone in which all of bourgeois culture, from top to bottom, including its forms and institutions, is dragged out onto the dissecting table of ideological critique?

Despite their many differences in method and outlook, books such as Strike Art (and yes Adeola, sadly mostly written by men who are “white”), as well as Seeing Power (Thompson), The Composition of Movements to Come (Shukaitis), Revolutionary Time (Roberts), Artificial Hells (Bishop), What We Made (Finkelpearl), Social Works (Jackson), Toward a Lexicon of Usership (Wright), Occupation Culture and Art Gangs (A. Moore), Art and Revolution (Raunig), Streetopia (Solnit, Kraus, Schulman, Lyle), In The Flow (Groys), Disobedient Objects (Flood & Grindon, ed.), Global Activism (Weibel, ed.), Art and Social Change: A Critical Reader (Esche and Bradley ed.), Art & Activism in the Age of Globalization (De Cautier, De Roo, Vanhaesebrouck ed.), and my own book Dark Matter collectively converge around the certainty that the object of artistic interest and study has fundamentally changed in recent years. Add to this the fact that so many major specialized cultural institutions are also undergoing an extraordinary transformation in which global capital, precarious labor, and high culture unite. It’s as if contemporary art itself has entered into, or stumbled upon, an unarticulated détente with neoliberal capitalism.

Certainly, institutional survival in these difficult times is a real, pragmatic issue. However, this phenomenon of complicity between art and capital has come to resemble outright opportunism. It is a situation we sadly see at work with the Louvre, British Museum, and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island in the UAE. In fact, just a few days ago, on the morning of April 13th, the administration of the Guggenheim Museum informed Gulf Labor Coalition that after six years of negotiations and protest over labor conditions in the UAE they, the Museum, would no longer have anything to do with the artists’ group. The upshot leaves one powerful impression: that the mainstream art world’s overture towards progressive politics and social justice is, at the end of the day, merely a question of expediency. Under such circumstances should we not ask what is this thing called contemporary art? And also, what if any debt do we owe it?

Which leaves us where exactly?

I would propose that before proceeding with any analysis of contemporary art we first need to challenge not only the institutions of high culture, but also the inherited categories of cultural scholarship that inevitably support art world attitudes including conventional modes of criticism, canonization, judgement, as well as all the tacit determinants that regulate the proper object of artistic study (which might alternatively be described as the implicit property rights wielded by those with the greatest accumulation of cultural capital such as the Guggenheim Museum).

In other words, do we not need to explore a different set of laws and criteria and perhaps even hermeneutics appropriate to a different species of 21st Century artistic object/action/thing/practice? And doesn’t doing otherwise risk reinforcing the very species of entrenched “expert culture” that Occupy was determined to reject, if not completely supersede? (Strike Art 71, 105)


STRIKE ART, Question 1: Let's talk about Yates McKee's 2016 book on art, activism & Occupy
STRIKE ART, Question 2: Let's talk about Yates McKee's 2016 book on art, activism & Occupy
#2

#3

Thanks to Greg Sholette for organizing this discussion of Strike Art and for also inviting people to reflect on Yates McKee’s presentation of Occupy in terms of the Peter Bürger thesis on the avant-garde sublation of art and life, which, as a Marxist theory, directly addresses questions of labour and class society. Of course Bürger deemed that the sublation of art into life had been achieved in “negative dialectical” terms by the culture industry, and so, within that range of ideas, McKee’s Strike Art returns in some respects to the thematics of the “historical” avant gardes. Whatever its limitations, this is a more radical approach than the global creative industries’ rehabilitation of bohemian “anti-capitalism.” John Roberts talks about the actuality of this avant-garde project as the suspension of autonomy in the core programme of partisan practices (suspensive programme) as well as the supersession of autonomy in end of art or post-art conceptualization (Hegelian end of art ontology of conceptualization). These expressions of fidelity to the avant-garde hypothesis in contemporary engaged culture represent a significant marker of the importance of macro-systemic analysis and a rejoinder to the prohibition on the subject of the avant-garde today. As Alain Badiou once put it, “More or less the whole of twentieth-century art has laid claim to an avant-garde function. Yet today the term is viewed as obsolete, even derogatory. This suggests we are in the presence of a major symptom.” But symptoms are often not always as straightforward as one might assume based on a surface-level hermeneutics. This eflux conversation could be construed (by me anyway) as indirect research into the etiology of such a symptom.

Greg’s third and last question concerning the “collective convergence around the certainty that the object of artistic interest and study has fundamentally changed in recent years” is an apt question. We prefer that our efforts contribute to movements for progressive social change than become part of institutional discourse. We prefer engaged practices to neo-avant-garde careerism. Yet on the other hand, beyond innocence and purity, we also want to make capitalism history. That means affecting discourse, if only by unleashing the collective phantoms, as Brian Holmes has it. But all of this also brings to mind the fact that the exodus thematics of schizo-anarchism (Raunig), the tactical detours of dark matter (Sholette) and the second economy of the global political economy of art (Roberts) are fast becoming the primary economy under neoliberalism.

According to Lane Reyla, and notwithstanding the practices of monster institutions like the Guggenheim, it might make more sense today to talk about networks than a vertically integrated art system, given that most contemporary art activity exists as what Gene Ray calls “Art Under Capitalism.” The October questionnaire on contemporary art acknowledged the institutional visibility of the global, which aside from questions of diversity and postcoloniality brings with it questions having to do with new global markets for art – as Okwui Enwezor referred to it: “the bloated economy of contemporary art as a symptom of corporatization.” The questionnaire also signaled an ambivalence concerning the crisis of a certain kind of postmodern theorizing and its shibboleths: universality, alienation, totality, revolution, dialectics, political economy, aesthetics, ethics and humanism. For some of the participants, the resurgence of interest in leftist macro-systemic analysis (multitudes, social turn, enclave theory, autonomia, neo-anarchism, neo-communism, communization, etc) is just so much nostalgia for the twentieth century.

With regard to Greg’s question concerning the different “species” of art practices that dissidents specialize in and what these might say about possible futures, one could ask whether there is a genus that mediates the different species? Is there a supernumerary category that the post-Occupy condition refers to? If so, can we refer to Occupy and its offshoots as a vanguard? Who decides, as one of the participants in this conversation has asked? A world in which no one can speak to such questions, out of deference to collectivism or radicalism, is what Alain Badiou refers to as an “atonal” world that lacks, according to Slavoj Zizek, a quilting point. A quilting point is, according to Zizek, “the intervention of a Master-Signifier that imposes a principle of ‘ordering’ onto the world, the point of a simple decision (‘yes or no’) in which the confused multiplicity is violently reduced to a ‘minimal difference’.”

The postmodern world, Zizek argues, tries to dispense with the agency of the Master-Signifier, which must be deconstructed, dispersed and disseminated – a desire for atony, with its politically correct end-of-ideology post-politics that avoid the destabilizing features of jouissance: caffeine-free politics. Zizek gives as examples the acts of people like Julian Assange or Chelsea Manning, or of organized parties like Syriza (whatever its eventual failings) as an alternative to the biocapitalist regulation of post-political jouissance. Occupy, to my mind, is just such a Master-Signifier.

How does this atonality operate in the era of post-avant-garde art? Reyla makes the argument that there has been a shift in the art world from big ideological struggles towards micropolitics and the post-Fordist paradigm. The shift towards more horizontal and networked models of political organizing and sociality has since at least the 1960 and 70s replaced hierarchical, routine, institutional, official, continuous, restrictive, spectacular, canonical, and art critical structures with that of do it yourself, collective, short-term, temporary, underpaid, creative, action-oriented, externalized, freelance, flexible, recombinant, immersive, context-dependent, minor, embedded, open, deterritorialized, nomadic, mobile, loose, affective, impromptu, relational, connective, infra, informal, intimate, interchangeable, collaborative and participatory structures that are consonant with the flow of information and economic circulation. These are more than simply a set of neat oppositions that have been deconstructed. On the contrary, as deconstruction teaches, these oppositions are fully hierarchized, even if the traditional hierarchy has been reversed: horizontality over verticality. Isn’t this also the dream of the counter-culture, with its critique of the Protestant work ethic and bourgeois mores? One thinks here of Thomas Frank’s “conquest of cool” thesis about how counter-culture is part of the broader corporate culture and internal to the contradictions of capitalism, or about Foucault’s theory that power normalizes and produces the forms of transgression. The anthropology maxim is that transgression is Law.

Beyond wishful thinking, is there anything we can say or do that challenges the fashionable view that there is no outside to capitalist social relations? Reyla suggests that today’s immanentism implies that we cannot simply celebrate the end of mass culture and its ideology, bureaucracy, white cube standardization, authority and institutions, since this also reflects the managerial ethics of neoliberalism, described by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello as the “new spirit of capitalism.” In Bill Readings’ words, today’s socialized connectivity is also “the moment of technology’s self-reflection.” Reyla therefore puts forward a paradox: “the move beyond the autonomous art object made in the name of critique and politicization would now grant cover for a depoliticization.” This assertion needs more nuance since obviously, not all networks or infrastructures are the same - but that’s not really my point.

According to network theorists, effectiveness in a network society implies not having too much autonomy and not assuming too much solidarity, maintaining informal contacts without the stress of familiarity. In the art world, the shift from an art system – with its routinized set of artists, studios, galleries, museums, journals and magazines – to that of capillary networks nevertheless creates new forms of hierarchy and new demands. Of course all of these injunctions are presented by today’s neoliberal institutions and by those who know how to play by the current rules of the art game as inherently more sociable, more radical and more subversive than anything that came before. The romantic artist is not only consigned to auction but appears to us like the Cavendish banana: earmarked for disappearance. No wonder the system reacts with quantitatively greater expressions of callousness: Jeff Koons puppies, Paul McCarthy inflatable butt plugs, diamond-encrusted Damien Hirst skulls. Thomas Hirschhorn’s packing tape and cardboard monuments have a similar turbo-capitalism reflexivity, but also a criticality that these other artists avoid.

In any case, in relation to the shift towards networks, it’s sometimes assumed that society exists in advance and beyond institutions as a spontaneous and organic assemblage of singularities devoid of ideology. However, in the haste to dismantle institutions, and after decades of neoconservative attacks on public infrastsructures, and on industrial and social policy, precarious “no collar” post-Fordist subjects are submitted to more free market chaos than their Fordist predecessors. Yet many who are informed by micropolitics assume that the new spirit of capitalism serves them better than socialism. Marxist autonomist Antonio Negri says “goodbye” to Mr. Socialism and John Holloway calls on us to change the world without taking power. Deleuzian infinity and becoming, or Agamben and Nancy’s inoperative community to come rule the day in critical theory departments. The idea that art should be liberated might owe more to these strands of thought than to the Frankfurt School. As Brian Massumi argues, neoliberal capitalism overcomes the logic of totalizing normality and promotes a logic of erratic excess:

“The more varied, and even erratic, the better. Normalcy starts to lose its hold. The regularities start to loosen. This loosening of normalcy is part of capitalism’s dynamic. It’s not a simple liberation. It’s capitalism’s own form of power. It’s no longer disciplinary institutional power that defines everything, it’s capitalism’s power to produce variety – because markets get saturated. Produce variety and you produce a niche market. The oddest of affective tendencies are okay – as long as they pay. Capitalism starts intensifying or diversifying affect, but only to extract surplus-value. It hijacks in order to intensify profit potential. It literally valorizes affect. The capitalist logic of surplus-value production starts to take over the relational field that is also the domain of political ecology, the ethical field of resistance to identity and predictable paths. It’s very troubling and confusing, because it seems to me that there’s been a certain kind of convergence between the dynamic of capitalist power and the dynamic of resistance.”

So capitalism has appropriated the Cultural Revolution but what, Zizek asks, was this Revolution? I would like in this regard to mention Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt’s recent book, The Defend the Revolution Is to Defend Culture: The Cultural Policy of the Cuban Revolution. The book presents the case of Cuba as “an antidote to neoliberalism” and the latter’s withdrawal of state funding in favour of market forces. Her book does not answer all of the questions regarding non-representative non-state-based forms of constituent power, or even new questions having to do with globalization, financialization, and new communications technologies, etc, but it does present a model of what’s possible when culture and society, as well as the state, are approached in a way that is different from Art Under Capitalism. It’s interesting to mention, with regard to “species,” not only the prominence in the Cuban case of writers and filmmakers, but also the development of courses for amateur “aficionado” artists, bringing art education and literacy to communities hitherto excluded from the urban middle-class culture of Havana but also valorizing indigenous cultural forms of expression. In the years following the Revolution, the support of the Soviet Union was both necessary and a hindrance to the development of Cuban cultural policy. While the revolutionary government affirmed the centrality of culture to the Revolution, the leadership of the National Council of Culture sought to give to politics the last word on culture and autonomy by emphasizing a paradoxical Marxist orthodoxy whereby art is entirely determined by the economic context, dismissing all art that is produced under capitalism and creating specific expectations for the art produced under socialism. As Gordon-Nesbitt mentions, the CNC soon came into tension with the country’s intellectuals, having conceded, as Raymond Williams would have it, to bourgeois utilitarianism. Consequently, the orthodox interpretations of the CNC were replaced by the humanist Marxist orientation of the Ministry of Culture, established in 1976. MINCULT had a far more successful policy orientation, working in tandem with the union of writers and artists, and creating greater tolerance and engendering a less dogmatic outlook. MINCULT was mindful of how totalitarian regimes of both the Nazi Right and the Stalinist Left (not to mention the capitalist HUAAC) had treated avant-garde artists like Bertolt Brecht as decadent modernists. MINCULT reflected some of the ideals of Fidel Castro’s 1961 “Words to the Intellectuals,” which argued that the revolution defends freedom, that the revolutionary artist has a paramount concern for the people and puts the goals of socialist society above his or her own creative spirit, ready to sacrifice their artistic calling if need be (organs without bodies). For Castro, artists should be allowed freedom in art, even those non-partisan artists who were shaken by the Revolution, ending his speech with the caveat: “Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing.” This, Gordon-Nesbitt tells us, was a similar policy to that of Lenin’s Bolsheviks: full freedom of expression, except when in conflict with the party. Among artists and intellectuals, it was agreed in Cuba that art is a social phenomenon and that the formal categories of art do not have an inherent class character – that art must serve the Revolution but that it cannot be limited to educative and propaganda purposes. Similar policies were explored in ex-Yugoslavia in the 1960s and 70s.

My point here, and the point of Gordon-Nesbitt’s book, is that the conditions pertaining to the art system in a socialist society in the 60s and 70s are very different from those that artists in neoliberal societies live with today. The contradiction at the heart of the Cuban experiment was that the freedom of artistic experimentation was conditioned by the need to struggle against class enemies and imperialism, in particular the less than benign power of the United States. Although one might argue that the prefigurative politics of the New Anarchism have nothing in common with communist dictatorship, McKee’s Strike Art seems to me to be in keeping with the ideals of the Cuban Revolution and the ideas of someone like Roberto Fernandez Retamar, who held that the diversity between the different kinds of practices is underwritten by a “spiritual” unity that is realized at the frontiers of paper and ink (and today in the digital clouds) and that what can be considered a vanguard are “those rebellious works capable of heralding the future.” What the two have in common is the view that many of today’s vanguard artists are also at the political vanguard and reject “the crimes, conventions, codes and hypocrisy of the corrupt capitalist world” (Gordon-Nesbitt).

Lastly, on the question of labour in the dialectic of art into life, autonomist Marxists have developed the theory of “labourism” to criticize the idea that labour as such creates the conditions of freedom. Of course we are familiar with Walter Benjamin’s dictum that every document of civilization is a document of barbarism, but the question is: does labour know it? The Bernie Sanders campaign lost the New York primary last Tuesday to Hillary Clinton, with Clinton winning among the bulk of the trade unions and also among minority voters under age 45, with huge margins among African-American and Hispanic voters, and 77 percent of minority voters aged 45 and over. And yet half of New York City residents live in poverty, and 3 million New York State residents live in poverty (and 25% of Blacks, Asians and Latinos live in poverty). Although Sanders won many minority votes, no doubt, the majority voted against the person who could be considered the Occupy candidate, the one who wants to reintroduce free tuition to public colleges, take big money out of politics by reversing Citizens United, ban fracking, end U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, tax Wall Street speculation and wealthy individuals, transform energy away from fossil fuels, thwart the concentration of media ownership, bring an end to the Israel-Palestine conflict, introduce a universal health care system, as well as parental leave, sick leave and vacation time, ban assault weapons and a demilitarize police, etc. We cannot simply idealize the labour of workers, but must organize it in the direction of radical change. Such organization may very well repeat the twentieth century in the sense that the Haitian Revolution repeated the French Revolution – not necessarily waiting for the perfect prefigurative conditions to be in place. As Deleuze explains, every repetition is the form of the emergence of the new – as in for instance the Québec Maple Spring students’ use of the symbol of the red square. Revolutionary aspirations continue despite past failures and defeats.


#4

Decolonize. Decolonize everything, decolonize the art world. As a ‘world,’ the art world has its colonial regimes and colonial politics. It occupies lands, it confiscates and retains artifacts, it moves into new spaces. In an era of invisible, electronic capital, moved only by the touch of a computer key, cultural capital is now capital made visible. The very materials used in artworks and the buildings constructed to house them are monuments to colonial domination, forced labor, and biosphere destruction.

Occupy was aware of all these realities and its very name was an attempt to reverse and appropriate these uses of space, culture and capital. It failed in considerable part because its effort to be decolonial was not grounded in anti-racism, as did Strike Debt in more spectacular and reprehensible fashion. Many of the key moments in Yates Mckee’s book from after Occupy—like the Black Out Tour of the American Museum of Natural History; the occupation of the Guggenheim by Global Ultra Luxury Faction; and the counter-museum practice of the Natural History Museum—are efforts to decolonize the art world that have taken that lesson to heart. And still there is so much more to do.

A museum can be seen as a machine for converting the capital acquired by primitive accumulation into the sleek, invisible corporate capital of financialization. The Guggenheim family became rich through silver mining and quickly shifted their assets into cultural capital. The Guggenheim Partnership today has over $240 billion of investments in ‘clean’ assets ranging from financial services to insurance, the LA Dodgers and Dick Clark Productions (who do the Golden Globes and New Year’s Eve in Times Square). Dirty to clean gets faster all the time. Alan D. Schwartz, the former chair of Bear Stearns, one of the companies that destroyed the global economy in 2008, is now the Executive Chairman of Guggenheim Partners.

Over at the Guggenheim Foundation, which runs the global chain of museums, the Trustees bear out that pattern. Board members include people like its Treasurer, Robert C. Baker of National Realty, who advise investors that the company ‘is uniquely positioned to help corporate and institutional clients maximize value in their real estate assets.’ A former deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, trustee Vladimir O. Potanin’s estimated $14.3 billion fortune ranks him among the world’s richest people. Potanin’s Interros runs Polyus Gold, the largest gold mining company in Russia. It also owns 30% of the Russian nickel giant Norilsk Nickel, a company co-owned with Oleg Deripaska’s RUSAL, the second largest aluminum company in the world. Norilsk used to be a gulag under Stalin and today is charged with a series of environmental problems that cause death and disease locally and are a major contributor to global acid rain. Our museums are monuments to the devastation of the biosphere.

Perhaps this sounds like a Hans Haacke project, not that this
would be in any way a bad thing. I think it’s more a question of how to shape a decolonial relation to the art world. @natot argues that ‘it would be a massive mistake to leave the art world behind.’ I’m not sure that’s even possible. What is at stake is how we decolonize it. Decolonizing is yet to come. It’s science-fiction, Afro-futurism, abolition.

Decolonizing the art world is certainly an impossible demand. But like all such demands, it opens a different way of seeing. The National Museum of the American Indian alone holds over 800,000 Native objects. Under its repatriation policy, less than 3 percent of these may be claimed by the people’s concerned. Since 1989, some 2000 items of human remains have been repatriated by NMAI, leaving ‘only’ 300 ‘mostly in Latin America.’ Imagine for a moment three hundred pieces of Christian bodies in a museum in an Islamic country.

Above and beyond individual objects and actual bodies are the materials and components of art forged by enslaved and forced labor. By the early 1800s, a total of 100m kg of silver had been extracted from South America by compelled labor, which is now worth over $100 trillion. Museums hold a good deal of this silver, often rendered into boxes to hold other colonial products, like coffee, sugar and tea.

During the period of Atlantic slavery, over 200 million hours of coerced labor were extracted in the Americas. How many are now incarnated in museums? Think of all that mahogany in the furniture rooms. All those cotton canvases, made from cotton grown by enslaved or indentured human beings, now covered with beautiful paint. What reparations can the art world make to those who produced its materials?

This sugar box (c. 1745) is on display at the Metropolitan Museum. Made by British smith Paul de Lamerie, it shows an enslaved woman harvesting sugar cane in the Caribbean. The catalog describes the scene as ‘whimsical’ and her clothing as ‘exotic.’ This is the ‘clean’ version of what Kara Walker shows us at installations like A Subtlety is all too dirty. There’s a world in this box, made up of slavery and colonialism.

A long way from Occupy? I’d say not so far, when measured in the timespan of the Anthropocene, as McKee’s book prompts us to do. Geologists are currently debating when the Anthropocene began. They need a marker in the geological record that will be visible thousands of years in the future. One candidate is the marked drop in atmospheric CO2 in 1610. It was the result of the reforestation of the Americas that followed from the deaths of some 60 million Native people across the hemisphere. Think about that the next time you look at a densely wooded American landscape in some quiet gallery. That’s not ‘virgin’ forest but regrowth, a memorial to genocide.

When we adjust the frame, we can see something else. There’s a certain convenience to the art world in containing the decolonial discussion to Israel-Palestine because it forecloses this wider discussion about material capital. Make no mistake: Israel is an egregious colonizer of the old school. It even calls its illegal developments in the occupied territories ‘settlements.’

Edward Said used to say that the Palestinian struggle was ‘the desire to be visible.’ That demand is not impossible and it is not negotiable. The decolonizing of the visual cannot stop there, as vital as this struggle has become. Boycott is just the beginning. Decolonizing is a creative practice because it does not yet exist. It is a verb, not a noun. Its temporality is uneven—there have been and are decolonial moments, especially in spaces like Tahrir. It isn’t post-anything, Occupy or otherwise.


#5

Question 3 are many different questions! Remarks in response to two of them:

What equal or perhaps greater obligation do we have towards the liberation of a general creativity, something along the lines Marx proposed in 1845 in which we fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, (and make paintings all night long?

It seems that many of us who identify as artists are already living the modern equivalent of Marx’s interchangeability of labor—commuting in the morning, lecturing in the afternoon, rearing children before dinner, and writing proposals for projects under deadline all night long. Compared to the indebted student, the undocumented laborer, and the incarcerated petty offender, a precarious art worker may live a privileged existence. But it is a far cry from a reality of ‘liberated general creativity,’ not least because, as so many have noted, such flexibility, multi-tasking, and sleep deprivation is exactly what capital demands of its better compensated workforce—a wage that earns its status only in relative terms. I mostly get to do the work I like and get paid for it, usually something even if not much—and I am not in prison. By the standards of shoot-on-sight policing, a society of mass incarceration, a security state of black sites, and summary execution by drone, I enjoy a meaningful liberty. So I see an obligation in this sense. Even an understanding of what liberation can mean remains hopelessly constrained as long as thought and experience are conditioned under a state of exception, in which not being horribly suppressed, criminalized, or killed seem to count as freedoms. A project of liberation obliges us to impose a binding accountability on police, the state, or private wealth. When this happens at any level and any scale, we begin to liberate the notion of liberation itself.

And yet…I have to ask if we “radical artists and scholars” are not first obliged to cast a critical eye on the specialized cultural and academic categories bourgeois society has developed, including even “Leftist” art shibboleths such as institutional critique and social practice art?

If the quotation marks encasing the political descriptors in the passage above are ever to be removed, ie for the politics to be more than simple talk (‘mouth,’ as @rezorach quotes Cade Bambara), then yes, those “shibboleths” stand in need of not only critical evaluation but desertion. I gave Greg’s choice of word the quotation marks because social practice, to take one so-called shibboleth, is no longer empty of meaning, no longer a mere shibboleth. As soon as the term social practice attracted capital in the form of investments in degree and certificate programs, departments and faculty positions, journals, awards, and conferences—in other words, when social practice became not just a vehicle for ideas translated into livelihoods and work, but into careers—the term takes on substance thanks to its capitalization. But a deeply conservative streak necessarily sets in, as well. It is the result of extending known structures to encompass (enclose?) types of work that are sincerely driven by insurgent desires. (What about the career of the term ‘career,’ my friend @rezorach? That is the one that has been bothering me).

So when people organize and attend conferences on or about social practice (me, guilty) only to use the occasion to fixatedly discuss what social practice is, the wheels of self-validation are set in motion. This is the moment of danger because self-validation, ie gathering the power and sheer authority to define oneself professionally, is in many respects the height of achievement in the age of enterprise. By professional demand, there is nothing left to do…except debate the state of the field, write more articles, organize more conferences, and put on the payroll a miniscule number of workers compared to the MFAs being pumped out. Careers demand and are satisfied by ‘mouth.’ And yet mouths need to be fed and so I find myself floating in this sea of professionalism, navigating vines that like the weeds of Lake Mendota steps from where I type this, grab swimmers and drown those who fight against them the hardest.

Last note: Unlike @mialh, I haven’t read the book at all but for the excerpt. This is not a confession having to do with a lack of time and competing priorities but rather a little morality tale. I have not yet bought the book because in choosing to support my town’s radical bookstore, which has been on life-support for ten years, I must wait until they have the means to submit another order, which depends on them returning some other inventory first, which depends on the volunteer labor showing up. I was told by the volunteer staffer that I could simply order directly from Verso and get the book faster and at a discounted price. I declined. I like having more than a couple bookstores in town. This one is a gathering spot and a place to learn something new and exchange ideas in person, a 16 Beaver without the careers (laughable, maybe?). When movements go into hibernation, radical bookstores become one of their caves; I am not so sure about the conferences about socially-engaged art. I can wait to read the book and even pay the full price of $26 if it helps keep this cave in business for another month. Every desertion is at the same time the expression of an alternate loyalty, yes?


#6

I have a quote from Antonio Gramsci hanging on my office door. It reads:

Creating a new culture does not only mean one’s own individual “original” discoveries. It also, and most particularly, means the diffusion in a critical form of truths already discovered, their “socialization” as it were, and even making them the basis of vital action…

I have it on my door because it reminds me what being a radical intellectual is about: getting ideas out there and making them the basis for action. I like what you have been doing here Greg – unlocking Yates’s "original discoveries” and making them the basis for a collective conversation. Lately, I have been trying to figure out ways to socialize ideas, be it through trainings, podcasts, a card game and my latest project: a “self-help” style manual for artistic activism (figuring this is the genre most folks are comfortable with in working to transform their lives.) And…neither the art or academic worlds recognizes this socialization and mobilization as somehow worthy. In fact, quite the opposite: it’s base, pandering , and the ultimate insult: unoriginal. That’s OK for me, I have dutifully done the monographs that allow me the leisure to “play around.” But I wonder what sort of structures we can build that will recognize, valorize and support Gramsci’s ideal for ideas, and enable us to socialize and mobilize this growing body of knowledge on arts and activism.


#7

As an artist, I feel that we must build and support institutions that are as radical as the artworks we create. This means recognizing the clear connection between the spaces that show, narrate, distribute, and fund our work, and the work itself. In the United States, Beuys’ statement that “everyone is an artist,” will not be true until “everyone” has access to affordable, consistent, and reliable art education.

What if, for example, eflux decided to take the roughy $3M generated by email advertisements ($800 or more per ad X 10 ads a day X 365 days plus online ads) and created a free art school with unionized, tenured faculty? We are currently participating in value creation by artists – perhaps this value could be owned by us. Rather than exclusively focusing on short term representations of could-be reliable institutions (unitednationsplaza , time/bank , coop shop), I feel that groups like eflux could pave the way in creating models that are both long term institutions for cultural equity (eflux becomes a coop) and short term representations of a prefigurarive politics.


#8

Dear Greg, Yates, all,

To be honest, I worry a lot about “seeking out a potentially different radical hermeneutic” or “a different set of laws and criteria” or “a different species of artistic object/action/thing/practice.” That is, I worry about our foundational impulse to exit from the institution of art as we’ve inherited it, even more about exiting from “the specialized cultural and academic categories bourgeois society has developed” more generally. As I tried to suggest in my response to Question 2, our undying emphasis on difference, on the new, on freedom from existing categories, threatens to further entrench the most ideological aspects of the modernist tradition—those that were only ever barely oppositional as forms of romantic anticapitalism, sometimes under the heading of “the shock of the new” and its variants—that have now already long ago become the governing means of our exploitation under heading of “creative destruction” and worse.

From its Kantian get-go, the old bourgeois category of the aesthetic was always about institutional critique, social practice, and occupation. Kant’s name for this distinctive way of being in the world was sensus communis, Hegel’s was Geist, and Marx’s was “species being.” Romanticism intervened between the moments of Hegel and Marx by turning our attention from the aesthetic to the new as an antiaesthetic and we have been doing battle with it ever since. Marx responded to Romanticism’s turn by insisting that the wellspring of revolution is not the new but instead need. He insisted that new/need distinction separated petty-bourgeois entrepreneurial false consciousness (however well intentioned) from proletarian class consciousness that arises with the cry “I am nothing but I must be everything.”

By definition, there was nothing new or different about this understanding—it was simply material thinking, thinking through one’s senses, thinking with (as Elise Archias puts it) “the concrete body,” thinking with the body as a politically and economically generative social abstraction. Marx’s response, in other words, was fundamentally anti-antiaesthetic: bodies need things (food and love primarily) and politics and economics can and should be concrete systems that address those needs, that draw their sustenance from the foundational human beauty of those needs. The problem, of course, was and continues to be ideology and the biggest ideologeme of them all is the new. “All that is solid melts into air” was not only a description of the process of creative destruction but also an account of the retraining—really, the alienating—of our senses so that we turn our political desire from common material need to the abstract, immaterial and alien new, from the aesthetic to the antiaesthetic.

What used to be called “bourgeois contradiction” afflicts us all, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, and often this cuts to the heart of our best intentions. Romantic anticapitalism has always played a vanguard role advancing this perversion of our desire. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello demonstrated this for art of the 1960s, Lane Relyea has clarified for the likes of social practice art, and Andrea Fraser has attributed it more generally to “secessionist ‘alternatives’ that exist only in the grandiose enactments and magical thinking of artists and theorists,” owning up to the contradiction with the fully social recognition that “L’1%, c’est moi.”

So it is that Occupy Wall Street, even as it has invaluably renewed the project of class consciousness, has worked hand-in-hand with its Wall Street nemesis to redistribute wealth, health, power and opportunity from the likes of us and worse to the 1%. In other words, while OWS was never not about need, at the moment that tent cities and ad-hoc libraries and health clinics seemed like harbingers of a new and better world rather than merely a sign of abject desperation we had already lost the fight.

With such pessimism in mind it is worth remembering that this alien romance deep in the heart of art is only half of modernism’s legacy. The other half that focused on the concrete realm of immediate sensory experience—the realm that concerned Kant, Hegel, and particularly Marx and that by definition and desire alike opened out from individual bodies to bodies politic and economic, to sensus communis, Geist, species being and class consciousness—is also still at play even if it has been on the run and largely obscured by the new since the neoliberal turn.

Such appeals to need will never have the exotic, fantasmatic, spectacular appeal of “prefigurative politics” or the endless rhizomatic returns of “the new cultural commons,” of course, but it should not be forgotten that they were always first and foremost about food and love and thus the social realization of bodily pleasure. For this reason reaching for need still bear real promise for change rather than the false promise given to us by the new. Better, it bears the promise of material self-recognition and thus freedom from capitalism’s bellum omnium contra omnes, a war that left to its devices by our thanatic truck with the new can only end with the efflorescence of the richest of the rich and our correspondent sinking into the fetid feudal dark matter of the art world and below.

Blake


#9

Just a footnote the discussion and perhaps to the point 1-On art feeling unnecessary in the moments of rupture:

McKee writes “the activity of artists created a moment of breakage between the institutional art system and the new space opened by Occupy”.
It is clear that in those moments of the beauty of creation of a social gathering, art makes itself feel unnecessary. It just doesn’t feel right not only to be making art but also to be looking at art or going to the museums in the midst of social movement growing in front of your eyes, therefore so many artists asked whether it is art or not what they do on the spot– do not have an answer. I recall being in New York in November 2011 for Performa. Listening to the OWS committees - meetings in a private-public lobby of Deutsche Bank at the Wall Street 60 - seemed so much urgent and captivating then any exhibition or performance at that time. In those moments of rupture, in “crossing of the threshold from Creative Time to Zuccotti Park” – just everything, art including - is made vulnerable and prompt to change. And those political carnivals, or instances of performative democracy as Elzbieta Matynia from the New School calls them - do release robust civic creativity and if they create art or are informed by art, it is art that doesn’t need curators, portfolios, and floor plans, its not the business as usual, it is art of Pussy Riot or Voina. But it is also normal that those moments of breakage do not last forever and their energy wears off. They need then to be culturally, artistically and symbolically recuperated also within the art institutions, and this is where Strike Art of McKee comes in, as a meticulous work of aftermath of Occupy!


#10

I am writing my response to the final question of Greg while sitting in on open office on the first floor of the Emilia Pavilion, an elegant modernist building from 1970s, formerly a furniture shop, now serving as temporary premises for the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. We cherish a great view on the Palace of Culture, a monument from the communist past, which towers over the center of Warsaw. On the same floor, we arranged also an exhibition space, a winter garden, an auditorium, a kitchen compound, a workshop. I do not mention this all just to let you know about our whereabouts. My point is to respond to Greg’s question by providing a practical insight into an example of curatorial practice, which facilitates art-beyond-art, a plethora of activities unfolding beyond the gallery-exhibition nexus. The exhibition Making Use. Life in Postartistic Times (http://makinguse.artmuseum.pl/en/), initiated and curated together with Sebastian Cichocki, is an experiment with apparatuses of public museum, an exercise in their re-functioning, an attempt to tune them otherwise.

The ground zero of our exercise is that museums do not need to show artistic objects. Instead, they can report on practices with an ambivalent status of an-art, post-art, neither art or not art, not not art, etc. These kind of practices do not need to be watched. They can be talked about. Discussed. Chatted about. They can be rehearsed. Made up. Constructed. Appropriated. Carried on demonstrations. Even consumed. They fire up imagination. Sometimes, they call to action. In fact, these kind of an-artistic practices are much better at triggering all those activities than a vast majority of contemporary art.

The very existence of such vast array of not-so-easily-defined an-artistic practices undermines the basic premise of traditional curating, which implicitly assesses that it is possible to distinguish between a group of objects denominated as art versus all objects which are not art.

Another important aspect of Making Use is admitting that the museum is not a place where an-art or art-beyond-art unfolds. In other words, museum is not a center of artistic universe. Museum is merely an information point, where people share stories (we call them reports) about all those, more or less remote, habitats, or art worlds, where an-artistic practices thrive. For example, one of art worlds featured is post-Occupy Wall Street art scenes (Making Use proudly presents reports on such post OWS ventures as Aaron Burr Society, GULF Labor Coalition, Rolling Jubilee Fund, Debt Fair, and many others).

Reporting on an-artistic practices does not imply their musealisation. Nobody is going to seriously consider turning digital prints, video files downloaded from internet and other ephemera (that is how we report here in Warsaw on an-artistic practices) into collectible art objects. The value of the latter is usually inscribed in such notions as originality, authorship, artificial scarcity. In the context of gallery-exhibition nexus, museums serve as apparatuses rubberstamping with public authority assessments of value undertaken by leading taste-makers (collectors, gallery owners, speculators). In this apparatus, selection (to collection, exhibition, biennale) is considered as an act of evaluation. The minority of art pieces and artists selected are deemed as more worthy than the vast majority who are not.

However, this mode of operation is not the only one possible. Obviously, also such an exhibition as Making Use does not show everything. But in our case selection is not a way of producing value. Featuring an an-artistic practice is obviously an act of recognition and a nod of respect. Finding art beyond art brings a joy of revelation. However, the final selection is never an enclosed assessment of what counts and what does not. It is rather an open form, to refer to Oskar Hansen’s concept of architecture and pedagogy. Such exhibition is an assemblage, which becomes richer with every added practice. One might add one piece after another, and one more, and yet something else. The only constraint are resources, time, and attention, which an audience might want to spend with them. One might compare it to a survey of mock institutions, which Greg Sholette conducted in his book on dark matter, or to an open archive of PAD/D. The more information one gathers, the stronger his/her thesis becomes, and more interesting connections between mediated or archived practices emerge. This kind of open forms are based on affinities rather than on clear selection criteria (which are always, anyway arbitrary and opaque), like it is in case of Red Conceptualismos del Sur (Southern Conceptualisms Network, https://redcsur.net/), who map southern conceptualisms by following links of affinity and solidarity.

One might also discuss selection criteria and apparatuses of evaluation (linguistic, institutional, social, economic), in which they are embedded. Obviously, an-art needs re-functioning of a glossary, in which they can be reported. Such detoured and rerouted vocabularies do exist. One of the examples being Greg’s dark matter theory, another Lexicon of Usership by Stephen Wright (a shadow curator of Making Use), or lectures by Jerzy Ludwiński (a spectral presence of whom hovers over our project), just to name a few.


#11

I’m going to continue on process. Previously it was collaboration, now its public art and site-specificity. OWS was totally site-specific and at the same time universal. And I would argue a great public artwork. If not an improvised performance, the general assemble and occupiers understood that they were a Situationist spectacle. Most couldn’t identify Guy Debord but they got it. And of course there was the signage, streaming, and other social media. It was one of the few times in memory that we controlled the narrative. These moments are never long. Seattle was about a week, OWS about a month, the People’s Climate March only a day. But they keep coming back in various forms and with interlocking communication networks.

The question now seems to be if #FeelTheBern will become a movement? But Sander’s socialism isn’t anti-capitalist anymore the Roosevelt’s New Deal. What I particularly liked about the People’s Climate March was it’s direct opposition to capitalism and combining climate justice as part of a larger movement to social, political and economic justice. Before OWS even mentioning capitalism would make most people roll their eyes and turn off. Now the pope calls capitalism the devil dung. While we constantly think of new strategies and tactics, the death of Prince reminded me of Emma Goldman, “if I cant dance, I don’t want to be part of the revolution.”


#12

Dear Greg,

With all due respect, I read your questions as leading ones. Of course, we radical artists and scholars – and I’ll include curators here – ought to “cast a critical eye on the specialized cultural and academic categories bourgeois society has developed.”

Do we need to explore “a different set of laws and criteria… for a different species of 21st Century artistic object/action/thing/practice?” I appreciate Blake Stimson’s cautious response to the question, and by way of response, I bring in Holland Cotter’s article published in the New York Times from October 2015, “Toward a Museum of the 21st Century.” Critical of the imperialist reach and franchising of museums [the Guggenheim and the Louvre] as well as the private art collection of the wealthy turned pseudo-public art museum [the Broad], Cotter provides examples of artist-led projects that institutions have hosted to illustrate some of the ways a museum can advance itself in the new millennium to serve a greater diversity, and not just more of the same cosmopolitan leisure class.

Cotter is not asking for the new museum for newness sake – this was the worry that Stimson noted in his response. I think Cotter is asking for radical scholarship from not only individuals but from museums too. We need infrastructural changes that are robust enough to host, for example, C-MAP research at MoMA where synchronicity of multiple modernities in the world can be explored.

You use the words “accountability” and “obligation,” and even ask about the “debt we owe,” if any. I see accountability occupying a central position in the ethos of the radical scholarship as framed by your questions. By the same token, we should acknowledge the museum workers—security guards, curatorial assistants, paid and unpaid interns, administrators of high and low positions at the Guggenheim, MoMA, etc.—all the while we cast a critical eye upon the mechanics of these institutions. Additionally, accountability means we should place under scrutiny platforms such as E-flux, Verso Books, and 16Beaver and be suspicious of left militantism.

I would like to advance radical scholarship from the place of radical sincerity. As someone working within a museum, I do believe making of this place is not only possible, but it should be the collective and personal task of the committed and the truly radical.


#13

I would agree with a sentiment that I feel is hinted at above in several responses (Liz Park’s most recently): I think it is in fact the very act of criticality that keeps us stuck in the loop we’re in. The critical lens is part of the problem, not the solution. The endless feedback session, the post mortem, the “processing” – these forms of relation are in fact well within the bounds of neoliberalism, not at all outside. These are ways of using language in a way that feels like work, but serves against action. That’s the trap! The endless working-towards where nothing can be touched!

I suggest something perhaps more radical: a step towards modes of being, rather than relating. Or: what is the effect of saying I am* rather than I wish, or I see or I suspect?* What new space emerges? Who then occupies it? Who operates it? The contemporary then becomes chains of action, rather than discourse – or maybe, rather, the discourse of doing rather than speaking. The design world speaks of affordances (and this comes up also in @derszer’s post about Making Use): the cues an object gives us about how to operate it. I think we could do better by producing a criticality that allows us to develop affordances for the change we want to see.

Where and how do we do this? Not on the screen, surely. While I love content-generating as much as the next person (she says, as she types into the screen), I find it much harder to categorize when I’m sharing tasks with people. I find it harder to worry in general. And what is criticality if not a highly specialized form of anxiety that we hope can be productive?

In terms of where the excursion takes us, I suggest walks. Just for starters. Let’s go.


#14

#15

I think what you are saying in everyday language is that critical thinking is not helpful. One ends up spending too much time in self criticsm rather than getting things done. And I certainly understand your point. You are calling for action not reflection. I get the impression you see the role of left art as a particular kind of tool or tool set to make the world better. But perhaps I am mis reading or over simplifying.

Today everything is supposed to be useful in order to justify its existence. Traditional gallery based art is useful because it generates wealth at least for some people. Teaching is useful because it provides students with skill sets of various kinds. Does art fit into that category?

I think the question of the “useful” is not a simple one when discussing art.


#16

@zoe, I think critical thinking can be helpful, but yes, as you understood, I think more doing and less self-criticism would be great. However, where you get me slightly wrong is the question of the role of left art. I don’t think it’s a tool kit at all. I think certain projects are, or can be, but would not ascribe that kind of utility to the field overall, for very much the same reasons you state. There are so many other options: beauty, indication, revelation, the list goes on . . .

Here’s another question, though: why are we so hooked on utility, and what does that mean for us? When I call for less critical reflection, it’s because I want us to get out of an emotionally exhausting, often unproductive hole. It’s not because of a lack of work/function. And when I think about action, it’s not because action is useful per se, but rather that it helps us to learn things in new ways, to meet others, and to engage with them directly, through a series of shared tasks. It’s not so much the outcomes of those tasks as the dynamics produced and contained within conducting them that strikes me as tremendously moving. And those dynamics come back to the art discussion: beautiful, indicative, revelatory, the list goes on . . .


#17

What you are saying @chloebass makes much sense. I bring up utility because it is everywhere today. We live in a Protestant country in Neoliberal times when everything we do must be productive and also quantifiable. As you know every time one writes a grant proposal one must quantify the so called benefits. What sections of the community and how many people will the project ‘benefit’ As I’m sure many will agree this is disturbing. I am always search for a third term beyond the useless/useful paradigm… something else entirely.


#18

In relation to what Chloe and Zoe are talking about here, and hopefully as a contribution to the search for third terms, I would once again refer to John Roberts’ excellent book, Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde. Of course when it comes to the critique of instrumentality, from Utopian Socialism to the Bologna Process, one could do worse than refer to Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Englightenment. Although Roberts considers Adorno’s approach to autonomy to be somewhat shopworn, he salvages from him the notion of art’s adisciplinarity, which is useful precisely for rethinking the impulse to romantically redeem the everyday. Beyond the surrealist quest for the marvellous, beyond mourning a lost (post-)modernsim, beyond allodoxia and post-enlightenment enjoyment, and beyond the complete de-historicization of art, can we talk about new lines of engagement, can we talk about the construction of partisan research programmes ( as proposed by this forum ), can we show commitment to theoretical creativity, of which Yates McKee’s book and many of the responses so far are certainly specious ( in a good way, to use Greg’s term )? I would make the claim that self-ethnographies by activists embedded within social movements, like David Graeber’s Direct Action, are not the only way to move forward. Many leftists in the 19th century considered Marx and Engels to be useless theorists.

I would in this regard mention here only a few ideas that can be gleaned from the introduction to Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde. Roberts’ theory, which in no way contradicts the main tenets of Strike Art, considers the situatedness of contemporary art as art after art in the expanded field, and, as realized reflexivity within the secondary economy and internationalization of the commons. He defines art as “general social technique”: art as a process determined by social and political conditions of possibility; art as driven by theory and thereby making sense of its conditions of possibility, with theory and practice being co-extensive ( praxiological ); as embedded in the struggles and divisions of the social world; as always a collective process and (in)directly a reflection of the division of labour; as interdisciplinary and processual; as incorporating and participating in the most advanced relations of production and technological forms of society.

There was a review of Roberts’ book on the web site Red Wedge in which the reviewer, a young activist, found the theory parts of the book to be “disempowering,” while she found the discussion of the determinations of the secondary economy of precarity to have the opposite effect. Of course it’s always good to have a sense of cognitive mapping, but this is also like saying that ideology critique is disempowering because complicated and unresolved and capitalist dispossession is empowering, because it’s more easily understood as part of one’s everyday reality. Both assertions need further mediation.

I doubt that Holland Cotter’s 21st Century Museum is really all that much more than what Allan Wallach and Carol Duncan once referred to as a ritual of late capitalism, if now a ritual that is designated less as bourgeois nationalist than global petty-bourgeois. This isn’t just conjecture. As demonstrated by research, the cultural habitus of the upper middle-class elite is mostly today middle-brow and the habitus of the educated “no collar” precariat is more or less the same, with also remarkable proclivities towards hitherto elite art fields ( opera, theatre, ballet, litterature, etc ). This makes the continuous oratorio reading of Das Kapital at the last Venice Biennale all the more confusing ( I have my theory ). I agree with Brian Holmes and with the Invisible Committee that there is among the polarized “middle” class a struggle between a negative transference with vanguards and a positive transference with the conditions of dispossession - i.e. the status quo. One can think about this transference by “subjects in ideology” in the different kinds of support given to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Artistic leftism is concerned with revolutionary consciousness as the basis of any possible democratization.


#19

Art has been trying to “exit” art for a long time, at least for as long as I remember, I mean at least since the days we organized Political Art Documentation/Distribution in the 1980s and REPOhistry in the 1990s. That said, it seems this desire to escape by generating what Stephen Wright labels an escapology, has reached a new intensity today. Which is to also admit this urge towards exodus is neither really “new,” nor is it actually an exit. It does however seem to be the sign of a desire fitting our moment. We might define this cultural similitude by pointing to the incoherent resentment and frustration of Trump’s acolytes (European examples also come to mind), or by citing the optimistic vitality of Sanders’ supporters (as well as Corbett, Ada Colau and so forth). That is not to equate these positions ideologically of course, nor to confuse the urge to move away from all governmentally (Trump etc,) with those seeking national reforms (Sanders, et al), but it seems to me they spring paradoxically from similar roots of mass alienation. And it is this state of contradiction that characterizes crisis capital.

In the cultural sector we appear to be confronting a condition of “Bare Art” (sorry Agamben). It has emerged gradually at first, over the past few decades, and then moved with astonishing force. Virtually everything about “art” as it once imagined itself has been peeled away leaving a raw, exposed vulnerable thing behind. It’s no wonder some call for its defense. Perhaps it was Haacke’s real estate mappings, real-time projects and critical provenance tracings of Monet and Seurat paintings in the early 1970s that first singled what once seemed so solid was melting into thin air including the privileged notion of artistic autonomy. Add to this the interventions of Art Workers’ Coalition, Buren, M. Ukeles, Lippard’s first-person author as producer texts (not unlike Strike Art in certain respects) and then a bit later on Rosler, Karl Beverage and Carol Conde, Red Herring, Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, The Fox, and still further on PAD/D GM followed by Guerrilla Girls, Gran Fury, so that by the end of the Cold War a process was unfolding whereby the previously unseen (I do not mean unseen as in un-seeable but intentionally unseen) conditions of cultural labor began to be foregrounded. No, this was nothing “new,” though yes, it was new to the eye. From Dark Matter to Bare Art, the situation is mundane and profoundly commonplace.

The social nature of art is made unavoidably visible as capitalism actually subsumes artistic making to its own forces of production. And as the political economy of art materializes so does its inherent status as collective-social productivity in its own right. For instance, the rise of a social history of art in US and Uk in the 1970s is only one outcome of this process of un-concealment. But more recently this painful laying bare has accelerated as systematically shredded governmental restraints against capitalist hegemony expose all of us to a novel version of 19th Century precariousness. Meanwhile, enterprising artists incorporate the broken shards and left-overs, collaging them into “mock-institutions” that ironically often work as well or better than those they sought to mimic. But the process of exposure painfully follows capital’s quickening swerve from crisis to crisis: the S&L meltdown, dot.com bust, Argentinian default, the “great recession.” Social production increasingly made visible means some social producers see themselves now as a category potentially in and for themselves. The capitalist networks of the Internet help thicken this awareness as did Occupy. Groups like W.A.G.E. and bfa.mfa.phd recognize they are an art labor force whose work should not simply benefit the art world (and it is a world) of global superstars and megagalleries. They emerge as a redundant dark matter agency unleashing a weird kind of vibrant inertia. And above all, they are certainly no longer dark. But they are indeed struggling well behind the front lines.

To be working for the enemy always cuts both ways. Even the best double agent must produce value for those she despises and seeks to undermine. While Andrea Fraser quips L’1%, c’est moi surely I suspect it is not a declaration of identity that she makes out of choice (though of course if this was Richard Armstrong’s bon mot it would be neither funny nor the least bit ironic). Because unless you believe that somehow the specialized discourse of contemporary art is sacrosanct and holds a privileged, monopolistic, and perhaps even mystical relationship to the demand for autonomy, for taking back one’s time, in favor of social progress, as well as for expressing the production of fantasy that Alexander Kluge and Oscar Negt ascribed to the working classes as “a specific means of production engaged in a process that is not visible to capital’s interest in exploitation” (p 80) then we should look upon the “romanticism” of certain anti-capitalist theorists and artists -including non-artists and even yes anarchists- always dialectically, as both complicit in neoliberalization, and simultaneously seeking a different (but not necessarily “new”) iteration of possibilities. This sentiment gives voice to Strike Art’s use of Occupy as a pivotal event as well as ideas such as Moten and Harney’s concept of the undercommons of enlightenment “where the work gets done, where the work gets subverted, where the revolution is still black, still strong.” Or as Lefebvre lovingly wrote:

“From an intellectual point of view the word ‘creation’ will no longer be restricted to works of art but will signify a self-conscious activity, self-conceiving, reproducing its own terms, adapting these terms and its own reality (body, desire, time, space), being its own creation; socially the term will stand for the activity of a collectivity assuming the responsibility of its own social function and destiny – in other words for self-administration.” (Lefebvre cited in Roberts’ Revolutionary Time cited by Marc, Kim and others p.109.)

As much danger as there is in over-idealizing Occupy, or in perceiving it as an event of singular historical rupture, to reduce the longings conveyed by that action as “barely oppositional romantic anti-capitalism” is even less productive. Dismissing momentary acts of defiance including even minor infractions on the job, or against police or on the battlefield, let alone such massive occupations in streets, squares, state houses and shopping malls as expressing a naïve desire to return to a pre-capitalist, Arcadian past is to miss the dialectic at work in which a deeply alienated subject pushes-back to produce what Guattari and Negri once described as a “singular expression of the combined productivity of individuals and groups (collectivities) emphatically not reducible to each other.” After all, what force is it exactly that capital continues to find necessary to discipline, capture, and attempt to transcend through mechanisms such as technology, globalization and financialization, as much as it does through racism, xenophobia, colonialism? Is this not fear of a certain demand by us “producers” that we have the freedom to “spend” our time precisely the way we choose? (Which might also mean simply NOT producing anything or making art!)

Nor is paradox exclusive to capitalism. It shows up in all of its oppositions, including activist art and social practice art, and in Strike Art. Thinking paradoxically is essential. So is the question of what kind of political direction this new, and also not at all new, iteration of the past will take. Some of it looks rather frightening and Blake is right to be cautious. Still, the verdict is uneven and remains open to debate. Mckee’s book is one fine example of how to take the temperature of our condition. Sure, mini-rebellions and radical sentiments are not revolutionary per se, but neither are they only proto-entrepreneurial fodder for neoliberalism. After all, it was through capitalist “creative destruction,” as Schumpeter called it, that Marx envisioned the arrival of capital’s own antithesis. The moment of revolution as Benjamin insisted is still just a pull on the emergency brake away.


#20

Just a quick reply to Greg’s last post. Yes, art has been trying to exit art for a long time, perhaps since at least Kant’s definition of art as “purposiveness without purpose” and non-determination by concepts and sense perception! Foucault tried to resolve this problem by making the humanist subject disappear into the rules of art discourse. Is there no escape? If one was to take a Lacanian-Zizekian approach, the art “thing” ( as objet petit a ) appears as a transcendental gap ( rupture ) and cipher of ontological failure, which leads to epistemological-ontological mediation. I suggested in this regard John Robert’s historicization of the ontology of art as one way to supplement Yates McKee’s post-contemporary art and Occupy programme. This approach would also have some interesting things to say about art’s relation to pleasure as well as to the avant-garde hypothesis as the Real of class struggle. If one was to follow through on Yates’ suggestion of Occupy as a vanguard then I would also modestly recommend my use of the Lacan-Zizek formula of “1+1+a” ( the conflict between capital and labour mediated by a vanguard ), which I discuss in Drive in Cinema. This allows us to approach the notion of vanguard differently from Bourdieu’s “dual action device” concept. The objet petit a also designates a key element in the Lacanian formula for fantasy, which mediates subjectivity through demand ( desire, heteronomy ) and resistance ( drive, autonomy ). I haven’t however resolved for myself the difference between art as Discourse of the Master and anti-anti-art as Discourse of the Analyst. It’s possible that both of them belong to an earlier “bourgeois” epoch, or at least have receded in importance in contrast to today’s Discourse of the University ( anti-art art, institutional critique, new institutionalism, neoliberalism ) and Discourse of the Hysteric ( anti-art, activism, social movements ). I’m still working on this issue as the question of autonomy/ontology is not easily dismissed and as the cultural studies approach to representation is clearly inadequate. On this latter issue Badiou complements Zizek. The Lacanian approach can also speak to the ways in which the conditions of biocapitalism, semio-inflation and networked communication lead to a weakening of symbolic mandates and therefore in our belief in the authority and social function of art institutions - i.e. there is more at stake here than matters of public funding and grants for artists. Art institutions compensate for this condition in various ways. In terms of what is to be done, I also take a page from Lefebvre’s revolutionary romanticism and critique of everyday life.