PRINT September 2004

Out of the Vox: Art’s Activist Potential

ART WITH A POLITICAL FACE TYPICALLY gains visibility during periods of social upheaval. “Marxism and art” of the ’70s and “political art” of the ’80s are among only the most recent examples. A good proportion of artists typically aim their work into the thick of things, but institutional gatekeepers try to manage the political dimension of art, blunting artists’ partisanship into a universalized discourse of humanistic ideals and individualized expression. Virtually all avant-gardes and art-world insurgencies, from Constructivism to Dada to Abstract Expressionism and beyond, have suffered this reinterpretation.

But the game changed when curators with a bent toward geopolitics organized successive recent Documentas, confirming an international trend that legitimated some political expression in art, mostly work fitting the rubric of postcolonialism, but also collaborative and extra-institutional work, such as that of Park Fiction, Superflex, and Raqs Media Collective. (A commonly voiced witticism, however, was that to be a “postcolonial artist,” you had to move to Europe and become a market artist, and similar reframing problems attend most importations, whether from artists working long term in local communities or graffiti artists and skateboarders.)

Generally speaking, a lack of clear political alignments—“artistic autonomy”—works well for most Western artists and their institutions. Who are we, after all? What are our allegiances? “Embourgeoisement”—in home, health, family, and leisure—has for many supplanted bohemianism, making it harder to identify too strongly with the dispossessed, the dejected, and the disenfranchised, let alone with those whose labor is exploited. Fine! mutter those who observe how little use the organized Left has had for artists. But the total freedom of the artist in Western society also ineluctably signals total irrelevance, just as obsessive interiority speaks of social disconnection and narcissism, if not infantilism. The collapse of utopianism as a horizon has often deprived art of a philosophical or ethical backstory, allowing curators to treat whimsical activities (tartly termed “sponsored hobbies” by Russian curator Ekaterina Dyogot) as symbolic of autonomy, of artistic advance, or even of social transformation. Thin notions of communalism pass for social engagement, and weak interpretations of art as a gift freely given reduce the claims made for its socially transformative power to a therapeutic time-out for atomized individuals—the new postbourgeois subject performing self anew every day.

I am ambivalent about the return of “political art” as a flat field of action or analysis. Fashionability makes it susceptible to dismissal. Much worse, artists are hailed as merry pranksters, as some curators actively celebrate the frivolously empty riff (by what might be termed the Monkees of the art world) on ’60s collectivism. Conversely, there is a sad superficiality in reducing art’s political possibilities to agitprop, ignoring the debates about the instrumentalization of art between Adorno, Brecht, Benjamin, and others. This thought recently drove me—and, by odd chance, the young activist-artist reading group at 16 Beaver in New York—to revisit Adorno’s 1962 article “Commitment,” in which art is called upon to provide a silence and reproach to the deformations of modernity: “Today, every phenomenon of culture, even if a model of integrity, is liable to be suffocated in the cultivation of kitsch. Yet paradoxically in the same epoch it is to works of art that has fallen the burden of wordlessly asserting what is barred to politics.”

One stumbles over “wordlessly asserting,” over Adorno’s expressed scorn for “information theory” in art, since much today depends on direct information retailing. Especially since the Seattle protests of 1999, many activist artists find they can’t be bothered with the art world and what art historian Chin-tao Wu has called its “enterprise culture.” The end of socialism as a framework means that “interventionism” looks to various inflections of anarchism (some much better theorized than others, some virulent toward art-world institutions of every stripe) or flies theory-blind. Electronic art forms have offered a moment of activism—as in “tactical media”—and often provided sophisticated political analysis, available online, of course. (“The revolution will be webcast!” writes Geert Lovink.) Activists and hacktivists have stepped into the space vacated by video, whose expansively utopian and activist potential has been depoliticized, as “video art,” much like photography before it, was removed from wide public address by its incarceration in museum mausoleums and collectors’ cabinets.

In the present context, the political work of the late ’60s through ’70s—now purged of exigency and brought out of the closet by the market—may be evaluated differently. This work may be tinged with nostalgia to young artists likely to have encountered it in art-history classes, but it offers a starting point and a history to connect with, an ur-moment that all trends in art like to locate. What initially seemed attractive for its look becomes more compelling for its commitment.

At its best, Conceptual and other post-Pop forms of art led to a tremendously productive encounter between artists and the “life world,” providing a space for deduction, exposition, and insight, as well as self-revelation and play. Play, including (postmodern) irony and parody and a subversion of officialdom, becomes more evident the closer one gets to the present—though it started with yippie guerrilla performances, as well as with musical groups like the Mothers of Invention, the Fugs, and Country Joe & the Fish. Artists’ groups of the ’60s and ’70s were organized mostly around public actions, adopting the protest style of the day. West Coast women such as Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz or the Waitresses were more likely to engage in civic-square performances. Many of the ’80s collectives in New York set up ad hoc shadow commercial-gallery structures, while others like PAD/D, REPOhistory, and Group Material were operating here and there within established institutions and more public venues. Groups bridging different times and practices range from the Bread & Puppet Theater and the Zapatistas (not an art group, of course) to the Guerrilla Girls and Critical Art Ensemble (now caught in the Orwellian web of the Patriot Act). Among the more recent examples are attac, Ne Pas Plier, Las Agencias, subRosa, the Yes Men, ®™ark,, Disobbedienti/Tute Bianche, and others operating as the dark matter of the counterpublic sphere, in the words of artist Greg Sholette. Media collectives include the long-lived Paper Tiger and Deep Dish and newer ones such as Whispered Media and the post-’99 Indymedias around the world, as well as pirate radio. (I am leaving out the robust community and public art movements in the US that have little interest in joining the more mandarin art world that, say, follows Artforum and does not accommodate their public actions and spectacles.) The practices of many such collectives—most of which would refuse the artist label—range from left-wing pranks to strategically deployed vandalism and criminality (such as Yomango’s choreographed shoplifting). The globalization of the social-justice movement, the diffuse sites of social labor, and new communication technologies have helped create communities that exist primarily through Listservs but finally wind up with feet on streets.

The question, then, is not, Is it art? but Whose art is it? And art for whom? The question is, What is art? If one is to believe, as I do, that art provides a different frame for interpreting experience (although clobbered in its reach by corporate media) and offers the possibility of intelligible political engagement, then the flattening of political art by trendiness or vital but short-term political exigencies is a missed opportunity. The new turn to Kantian aesthetics emanates mostly from people seeking to renovate a decrepit aestheticism and quash unruly “politicized” practices, but some writers, such as Susan Buck-Morss, seem to be looking to Kant, as Adorno did, to support a conviction that it offers a different way of knowing. I am no Kantian, so far. Adorno’s brief for an art of imminent critique, of open-ended criticality, cannot fully define artists’ practice. In a moment of unmistakable crisis in all dimensions, cultural, political, and economic, in the US and the rest of the world, artists once again, in all self-aggrandizement, seek to reorient their audiences, forming them into public constituencies. Let us try to figure out what art is beyond what the art world’s present regression suggests.

Martha Rosler is an artist based in New York.