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.