PRINT January 2005


German art historian Wolfgang Kemp has observed that the crowd appears in art when it erupts in political life. Jacques-Louis David’s Tennis Court Oath, 1791, depicting the start of the French Revolution, began what would be a line of images of politicized crowds by artists including Daumier and Delacroix.1 The nineteenth century also saw the leisure crowd, at the opera or swarming the streets of Paris on a holiday. After modernism’s long (but not, of course, complete) vacation from such subjects, analogues of this classic imagery have been appearing during the past decade in the work of artists as diverse as Andreas Gursky, Glenn Ligon, Vanessa Beecroft, Matthew Barney, Andrea Bowers, and Paul Pfeiffer. 2

The theme of the crowd came into sharper focus after September 11, 2001. For people in New York, the event was a powerful reminder that we live in a densely packed metropolis. It precipitated the neo-Orientalist cliché of “the Arab street,” while America’s military response led to mass antiwar protests all over the world, images of which appeared on the front pages of newspapers as well as on television and computer screens. Artists and curators couldn’t help but notice: Global politics, suddenly a hot topic in catalogue essays, implied the theme of the crowd; Associated Press photographs of mass demonstrations in Jakarta and Gaza made appearances in art magazines. The specter of the many (and the “ordinary”) hovered over blockbuster exhibitions like Documenta 11, the Venice Biennale (“Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Viewer”), the International Center of Photography Triennial (“Strangers”), and the 2004 Whitney Biennial. (Most recently, “Faces in the Crowd: Picturing Modern Life from Monet to Today” opened last month at London’s Whitechapel Gallery.) The theme of the crowd has also provided an underlying subject for numerous popular intellectual tracts: Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs (2002), about networking, connectivity, and socializing via the Internet; James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds (2004), on decision making and economics; and Multitude (2004), Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s sequel to their globalization tract, Empire (2000), which currently bears the mantle of serious thought “after theory.”

Even apart from moments of political upheaval, the masses of people flooding into the nineteenth-century city had pulsed with activity and potential. For poet and critic Charles Baudelaire it was “an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude” into which “the love of universal life enters . . . as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy.”3 In the next century, crowds showed a passive side, organized into armies and manipulated by Fascist politicians. As Mussolini wrote: “When I feel the masses in my hands, since they believe in me, or when I mingle with them, and they almost crush me, then I feel like one with the masses. However there is at the same time a little aversion. . . . Doesn’t the sculptor sometimes break the marble out of rage, because it does not precisely mold in his hands according to his vision? . . . Everything depends on that, to dominate the masses as an artist.”4 This overorganized crowd of Fascism, a reservoir of energy subordinated to the will of charismatic leaders, transformed after the war into another dark vision: the conformist crowd mesmerized by consumerism, mass media, and the spectacle.

The polarity between passivity and activity articulated in modern social thought might best be identified in contemporary art with the two themes of the audience and the protest group. While the spectator in nineteenth-century art frequented diversions such as cafés, circuses, and opera houses, the current fascination with audiences reflects the rise of mass entertainment as an industry central to contemporary life: Artists find their imagery in the passionately engaged fans of sports arenas and pop concerts. A few, like Gursky, place the audience clearly in the context of modernity, as part of a wider spectrum of regimented life that includes the factory and the apartment block: His 2001 photograph of a Madonna concert depicts the star as a tiny individual subject to the same gridded structure as her massive audience. The ambiguities of this relationship—energetic audiences, like those of Gursky’s rave photographs, are unpleasantly reminiscent both of the organized chaos of the stock exchange and of a fascist rally—are set into motion in Stephen Dean’s Volta, 2002–2003. Shot at a football match in Brazil, the video captures thousands of soccer fans bouncing, shouting, and waving their arms in unison. The work’s noneditorial nature implies that this reservoir could erupt in either nationalist violence or a tidal wave of self-determination.

While Dean suggests both the promise and threat of the audience, other artists seem unreservedly positive about its creative potential, even given the conditions of mass-produced culture. British artist Julie Henry’s video installation Going Down, 1999, isolates the rival fans at a football match, displaying their images in a corner on two facing screens to create a duet of opposite emotions. More recently, she has emphasized the participatory, productive aspect of leisure culture with her displays of cardigans knit by soccer fans, as well as photographs and videos of local talent shows where performers and audience are equal partners in their give and take. Similarly, recent Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller has organized exhibitions of artwork and published writing by devoted followers of the British rock band Manic Street Preachers under the title “The Uses of Literacy,” after Richard Hoggart’s seminal 1957 book on the role of culture in people’s lives. It’s probably no accident that Henry and Deller, involved with themes of fan participation and active reading, hail from the country where the birth of cultural studies was inspired by scholars like Hoggart and Raymond Williams. Arguing against the prevailing academic criticism that mass literacy and entertainment necessarily create a stupefied, passive consumer, cultural studies asserts that audiences are capable of using popular culture’s most banal forms in original, authentic, and liberating ways.

Fabian Marcaccio’s images of crowds, depicting protesters and pedestrians in parks and city streets, emphasize the tension between the mass as seen from a distance and the individuals who emerge when you come closer. Andrea Bowers’s exquisite pencil drawings are based on people plucked from audiences that she has photographed or videotaped (she occasionally uses historical footage and photographs as source material). By isolating these figures from the swelling noise and pressure of the group, she lets us see crowd behavior in the individual but also the individual as an independent actor. Some of her subjects—such as a bellowing sports fan whose face is painted with stars and stripes—are probably difficult for many gallerygoers to identify with. Still, Bowers never condescends, playing the fan herself in homages to Chrissie Hynde and Nina Simone, for example, rendering the former as an icon in her artwork or playing the latter’s music in a gallery installation. In this she is like other artists who, far from treating fans as objects of criticism, often themselves swap the roles of calculating, professional producer for that of passionate amateur consumer. Besides Bowers, Karen Kilimnik, Elizabeth Peyton, Jonathan Horowitz, and Banks Violette also depict their idols, whether Kurt Cobain or Prince William, in the swooning style of young romantics. T.J. Wilcox has also made a semidocumentary on the fan culture of The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s role-playing devotees, capturing them camping their way through the movie’s routines, swinging between fidelity and deviation, copy and original.

Perhaps the audience-conscious art receiving the most attention recently does not represent but instead incorporates a real, present audience—visitors to a gallery, museum, or alternative space—into living social situations. Philippe Parreno, Pierre Huyghe, Liam Gillick, and Rirkrit Tiravanija are the best-known practitioners of this mode, celebrated by Nicholas Bourriaud as “relational aesthetics.” You can question the meaning or quality of this participation: What new rela- tionships are built among art-world insiders hanging out and, say, dining together in a plywood apartment? Despite Bourriaud’s distaste for technology’s alienating effects, the quandary resembles that of participatory art at its most extreme, an Internet “mob” of thousands together making art. In such cases, each individual surfer adds to and corrects the marks and decisions already made by others—a concept closely related to open-source or cooperative software projects. What is the social valence of people sitting at home alone, “collectively” at work on the computer? Whatever the value of either kind of participation, both evidence the odd blurring of audience and performer that is ever-more present in popular culture as well as high art.

Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967) earned its fame with the argument that all of social life, including art and politics, was adopting the model of entertainment. His concept of the spectacle crystallized a more general feeling that people don’t participate in politics but comprise the audience for the “acts” politicians present. Alternatively, the crowd can put on the show. The awareness of media representation, a balance between action and representation, also conditions all aspects of contemporary demonstrations and the politics of the crowd. As New Left protesters being beaten by police chanted in 1968, mindful of television cameras around them, “The whole world is watching.” More recently, marchers against the latest war in Iraq and the Republican National Convention in New York often carried horizontal signs over their heads—flatbed picture planes meant to be read from above by reporters in helicopters and on rooftops, photographed, and transmitted to people watching the protest at home. From a Debordian perspective, this is politics as spectacle, and the protest is a homemade reality show rather than an effective transformation of reality.5 On the other hand, Hardt and Negri have taken a more positive view, arguing that the consciousness-shaping global media, however central to corporate and state repression, also provides new means of resistance. By raising local protests and struggles to the level where they can be seen from a distance, the media allow activists to escape their locality and mingle electronically with others to form what these theorists call “the multitude.” The visibility seems as important as the action.

This conflicted relationship between political activity and its representation plays out in ambivalent art about the media and the crowd. Dutch artist Aernout Mik references photojournalism directly, having staged and documented weirdly anarchic group interactions (like a fight in a restaurant) and fictional protests. In 2003, he made a split-screen video in which one half of the image features a crowd of photographers and reporters surrounding and jostling a generic political figure; in the other half, children seem to act out scenes from television news reports. Many more artists indirectly nod to the importance and uneasy role of the media, and photojournalism in particular. In Glenn Ligon’s silk screens depicting the 1995 Million Man March, images of African-American men surface and disappear, partially obscured by black coal dust—seemingly trying to make themselves visible in America, while their failure implies that it is impossible for the media to adequately represent them. Sam Durant makes faithful, if awkward, drawings from photographs of famous protests; he then unmoors the protesters’ signs from their original contexts and reproduces them as light boxes, stressing the conflict between representation and activity, examining the way a protest becomes a picture and a demand becomes a slogan—here invoking the historical processes of remembering as well.

Nowhere does the question of political representation become so prominent as around the mythic events of 1968. Across different forms of cultural production and social representation we have seen an enor- mous crush of popular references to the ’60s, in forms as various as Che Guevara T-shirts adorning nubile chests and analogies between the US invasions of Iraq and Vietnam. (Vietnam itself is lately having its own, even more hard-earned nostalgia wave, with cute girl groups covering revolutionary anthems like “Springtime in Ho Chi Minh City.”) In art, this can take the form of nostalgia, belated regret, and suspicion. The “wish I had been there” sentiment drives British duo Leah Elsey and Sonia Uddin, who literally collage themselves into iconic images of historic moments, as in Prague 1968, 2003.

Interestingly, while we usually associate the ’60s with political pressure and possibility, recent art about that period rarely focuses on the specific issues at stake, instead featuring the protesters themselves—the mass as message. This is true for artists picturing more recent political protest as well. Much as in her images of fans at concerts, Bowers picks out individuals from protests such as antinuclear demonstrations of the ’80s and other current acts of civil disobedience, climbing fences or being dragged away by the police. Likewise, Tiravanija has based a series of recent drawings on photographs from the International Herald Tribune of demonstrations including mass assemblies of cyclists. Tiravanija seems to reference the idea of the protest rather than the explicit political situation and its complications. Bowers abstracts her figures from their context still more, but she pushes the idea of agency and the ability of ordinary people, particularly women, to act. Here you see the tension between protest as a shorthand reference for hip rebellion and a meaningful possibility for everyone.

Obviously, the potential for the aestheticization of politics given these examples runs high. In fact, politics has become fashionable again (Durant saw this coming in 2002 when he photographed models carrying protest signs), championed by cheeky layouts in groovy magazines from BlackBook to High Times—which now calls itself an “activist guide”—and P. Diddy, who has remade him- self as a champion of the youth vote. Protests are already “spectacular,” in that they represent the will or wish to change but not the act of change itself. Olaf Breuning graphically illustrates this idea in a 2002 photograph of laconic demonstrators camped on a semi-industrial wasteland beneath a sign reading: “We only move when something changes!!!” Just as sports or music audiences push aside the ostensible stars in much of the art described above, pictured protests are removed from the historical context of political struggles, either by virtue of being conjured from the past or through their status as mediated images or simply by some effacement of the actual issues at stake.

But a question remains as to why so many artists are more interested in images of protests of the past than in the politics of today. Perhaps the erosion of the special political authority of the old organized Left—like the slow death of the avant-garde and the weakening distinction between audience and protest crowd—provides an answer. If we are “post” something, it is not modernity or production but ideology. The big ideas and structures of the past—liberal democracy, the labor movement, Soviet-style Communism, the free market, the benevolent state, technological progress, the artistic avant-garde—have either disappeared or are increasingly bankrupt. With the degradation of older political forms, the “great man,” too, has passed from view: no more Lenin, Churchill, Mao, Martin Luther King, JFK, Lumumba. Instead of leaders and parties, we have the political analogue to the group of fans and hangout art projects. Affinity groups are local and based on similar tastes, positions, and identities—they are a way to be both an individual and a member of a group.

A similar slip from older, production-based labor struggles to the pluralism of the multitude is visible in the variety of crowds appearing in Jeremy Deller’s projects. The former can be seen in his reenactment of the bitter 1984–85 strike of coal miners in Orgreave, England that marked a nadir in relations between labor and the govern- ment; the latter is embodied in a civic parade of groups ranging from tango dancers to the blind that Deller organized for Manifesta 5. On the face of it, the two works seem to represent opposing, even incommensurable visions of social organization and change, but Deller moves easily from one to the other.

If the big ideas and the great figures of politics and art are no longer with us, what are we left with? The work discussed here captures contradictory feelings: the conflicted envy someone today might feel for the ’60s as a moment of belief in both politics and art; the exhilaration of participating in a mass protest and the deflation of failing to achieve goals or affect government policy; the troubling and expansive sense that no one knows where we are going or has any special moral authority to decide. Everyone from neo-Marxist theoreticians like Hardt and Negri to free-market enthusiasts like Surowiecki insists that social decisions should be made by ordinary people, but only collectively: “We are more intelligent together than any one of us is alone.”6 Contemporary art about large groups of people responds to a world in which spectators increasingly encounter images of themselves initiating activity, while action rises above representation only with difficulty.

Art itself has changed as part of these larger social transformations. Today museum exhibitions draw enormous crowds, even to shows of contemporary art (to which museums increasingly devote money and square footage). Recent art, “public” and otherwise, increasingly acknowledges and addresses the large audience, whether through kitsch subject matter, scale, or simply its picturing of that public (as in, for example, Thomas Struth’s photographs of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin). Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that the idea of the art experience as a communion between a solitary, sensitive, even alienated viewer and an individual, even isolated artist is no longer the dominant one. As the painter Alfred Leslie put it, remembering the old MoMA: “My memories of the museum from the period between the ’40s and the ’50s was that it was like an extension of an artist’s studio; it was an intellectual destination. . . . And then when you went inside it was like noble isolation, because there was no one there. It was really an empty place; it wasn’t crowded.”7

But an artist like Gursky or Barney has never known anything besides the crowded, institutional art world we have today. And an artist like Bowers isn’t interested in communing with aesthetes. It’s as if, despite the surviving detritus of the avant-garde system—the rise from obscurity to stardom, the sincere investment that pays off, the faith in the cutting edge—artists have really absorbed its death. Their interest in crowds belongs to a new, ambivalent understanding of art as part of mass society, not alien to it. The death of the avant-garde doesn’t mean the death of art, just as the death of old-style politics hasn’t ended the politics of the crowd.

Katy Siegel is a contributing editor of Artforum. She is also coauthor with Paul Mattick of Art Works: Money, recently published by Thames & Hudson.


1. Wolfgang Kemp, “Masse-Mensch,” in Der Einzelne und die Masse (Recklinghausen, Germany: Städtische Kunsthalle Recklinghausen, 1975). Thanks to Ilse Mattick for help with translating the German.

2. Three years ago I curated an exhibition in New York called “Everybody Now: The Crowd in Contemporary Art.” What seemed at the time an original idea—or at least a unique observation—turned out, appropriately, to be shared with many.

3. Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life [1863],” in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, ed. and trans. Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon, 1964), 9.

4. Benito Mussolini, as cited in Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi, Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 21. Thanks to Emily Braun for bringing this book to my attention.

5. Taking a more positive view, John Berger wrote in 1968: “The aims of a demonstration . . . are symbolic: it demonstrates a force that is scarcely used. . . A demonstration, however much spontaneity it may contain, is a created event which arbitrarily separates itself from ordinary life. Its value is the result of its artificiality, for therein lies its prophetic, rehearsing possibilities.” Berger, “The Nature of Mass Demonstrations” in Selected Essays, ed., Geoff Dwyer (New York: Pantheon Books, 2001).

6. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), 340. It is amusing that this is the perfect synopsis of Surowiecki’s book, written from a very different political vantage.

7. Alfred Leslie, quoted in “The Modern Gone By: Inspiration for a New Way of Art,” New York Times, Nov. 18, 2004, sec. E, 3.