PRINT December 2007

T. J. Demos

IT’S NOT WHEN WILL it happen? but Where will you be when the bubble bursts? That is the question on everyone’s lips in London. For in 2007 the city’s gravity-defying art market continued to spiral upward to vertiginous heights. Its most obvious signs: the reportedly “stronger than ever” success of the recent Frieze Art Fair; the ceiling-shattering revenues of auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s, which exuberantly if nervously have raised price guarantees for sales of contemporary art to record highs; and, not least, the unveiling of beautifully refurbished white-cube commercial galleries, including Frith Street’s new Soho location and Wilkinson’s spanking six-thousand-square-foot space on Vyner Street in the East End. Nonprofits and public institutions are growing, too: Witness the new David Adjaye–designed five-floor Institute for International Visual Arts (Iniva) near Old Street and Tate Modern’s ongoing plans for a pharaonic expansion, once again designed by Herzog & de Meuron, set to open with London’s Olympics in 2012. All of this owes in large part to the capital’s booming financial market and its relaxed regulatory system, so attractive to the financial sector and to its private investors, including the nouveaux riches of Russia and Asia. This laissez-faire environment is also salubrious for newly formed art-focused hedge funds, now growing in the UK at a rate far higher than in the States.

That said, the political engagement of contemporary art has been just as intense, with activist shows in London eyeing global war, terrorism, and geo-political crises worldwide, directing art to interrogate political systems and invent new strategies of resistance. Exemplary were Mark Wallinger’s State Britain, which tested the boundaries of free speech in public space by reconstructing, in the middle of Tate Britain, activist Brian Haw’s Parliament Square anti-Blair protest camp; Steve McQueen’s memorialization of British soldiers lost in Iraq, Queen and Country (commissioned by the Manchester International Festival and the Imperial War Museum), which proposed putting portraits of the dead on special-issue Royal Mail stamps; and lastly, at Stephen Friedman Gallery, Thomas Hirschhorn’s Substitution 2 (The Unforgettable), a gory assemblage comprising stomach-turning reproductions of exploded bodies paired with “flat daddies,” the cardboard replacements to which children cling in their soldier-parent’s absence.

Institutions, major and minor, have also enthusiastically taken on political themes. This year saw the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ international group exhibition “Memorial to the Iraq War”; Tate Modern’s “Global Cities,” a comparative examination of the urban crises of sustainability and unequal social inclusion in places like Cairo, London, Mumbai, and Shanghai; and the temporary Contemporary Art Platform’s series of exhibitions dedicated to Middle Eastern art. The energy has also intensified in dialogue, as discussing art and politics presses forward, with the continued courtship of cultural intellectuals by mainstream art and educational institutions resulting in endless invitations to lectures, conversations, and symposia. The ICA’s series “New Left: Then and Now” included such notables as political philosopher Ernesto Laclau and urban theorist and political commentator Mike Davis, and—to mark the fortieth anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza—the institute hosted an exchange between literary theorist Jacqueline Rose and architect-theorist Eyal Weizman. Other standout events were artists Walid Raad and Jean-Luc Moulène conversing at the French Institute about Moulène’s Products of Palestine; Hirschhorn’s presentation about “making art politically” at the Southbank Centre; Paul Gilroy and Alfredo Jaar in conversation at Iniva; Okwui Enwezor at University College London; Antonio Negri at the Serpentine; Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak at Goldsmiths; and Slavoj Žižek and Étienne Balibar at Birkbeck College. All roads, it seems, lead to London.

The apex of the unholy conjunction—not quite an alliance—of bull market and art’s oppositional politics was reached, appropriately, in the heat of summer. In June, at White Cube’s still-sparkling Mason’s Yard gallery, Damien Hirst exhibited For the Love of God, 2007, his life-size platinum cast of a human skull, encrusted with 8,601 diamonds, its price set at £50 million, while over in Kensington Gardens artist-activist Paul Chan’s show at the Serpentine included a conference called “On the Conditions of Politics” held at the South Place Ethical Society. Dedicated to considering the intersection of cultural practices and political commitments, the conference featured Polish sociologist and philosopher (but long-standing British resident) Zygmunt Bauman, Marxist political aesthetician Esther Leslie, and artist Gustav Metzger among its participants. If Chan’s melancholic-transcendental videos, resembling cast shadows and offering mythopoetic dramatizations of death, were already diametrically opposed to Hirst’s fetishization of precious material and financial adventurism, then the Serpentine’s conference provided further opportunity for juxtaposition. Metzger, of 1960s fame for his auto-destructive happenings (and notable for living as a stateless person in Britain since World War II and for refusing to acquire a cell phone, or even a landline!), spent his entire presentation focusing critical attention on Hirst’s extravaganza. He cursed its salivating media coverage and permission-giving power to even higher prices in an already obscenely inflationary market, but then surprisingly admitted that when he had seen the thing in person he had marveled at its awesome appearance.

In some ways this nexus of money and critical art resembles the explosive coincidence of market boom and politicized postmodernism of the ’80s. One discursive signpost of that period remains The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (1983), edited by Hal Foster and with contributions from Jürgen Habermas, Rosalind Krauss, Douglas Crimp, Craig Owens, Fredric Jameson, Jean Baudrillard, and Edward Said, among others. In his introduction, Foster contemplates the end of “the notion of the aesthetic as subversive,” and goes so far as to ask whether “aesthetic space too is eclipsed—or rather, that its criticality is now largely illusory.” If Foster concluded by arguing for the necessity of reconceptualizing the “practice of resistance,” one based in “a politic (e.g., feminist art)” and deeply suspicious of the aesthetic, then today’s difference is evident in the challenge that seems to loom everywhere: how to rediscover politics within aesthetics, motivated partly as a response to what has become an exaggerated dismissal of aesthetics tout court—a category frequently denigrated by activists as ideological deception, autonomy, and depoliticized beauty. This explains the recent relevance of the work of Jacques Rancière (as discussed in these pages). The arguments outlined in his book The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, first published in French in 2000, seem to many to offer the most viable framework to date for addressing these problems. It’s no surprise that the French philosopher has appeared frequently in London in recent years.

With or without an overt grounding in this discourse, seeking political engagement within the aesthetic is exactly what many artists are doing, even if in a diversity of ways, and the recent shows of Chan, Hirschhorn, McQueen, and Raad demonstrated this dramatically. There, critical, transformative relations to the work of politics were sought outside of governmental and official channels, in aesthetic space wherein visual form could accrue generative, oppositional power. The creative force of art, its capacity to “distribute the sensible” in experimental ways, was also evident in a recent show at Frith’s Soho gallery, where Tacita Dean showed her exquisite new film about the late translator and poet Michael Hamburger, and in Tate Modern’s exhibition (organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and curated by that institution’s Mari Carmen Ramírez) of early Hélio Oiticica paintings and installations.

The consideration of the present coincidence of political art and market frenzy has led some commentators to suggest that it’s precisely art’s criticality that attracts risk enthused investors, lured not despite but because of art’s perceived radical content. This implies, for them, that art’s political engagement is not a challenge to financial power as much as a legitimation of it. While this logic might be said to explain cases such as Hirst’s, where the aura of risk clearly functions as a highly manipulated spectacle directed at high-flying buyers (and indeed, For the Love of God allegedly sold at its asking price to an undisclosed investment group), one could also say that Hirst’s case simply reveals the sophistry of the argument, since it so clearly exemplifies cynical opportunism. One can’t give up on the oppositional potential of art just because some exploit it as a profitable enterprise. For many others, art infuses life with vital meaning, emancipating criticality, and intellectual sustenance. These qualities—and not the market’s seductiveness—are what have lately made London’s scene so exciting.

T. J. Demos is a lecturer in the department of art history, University College London.