Art's Agency

What happens when you can no longer tell art from politics, or content from form?

In the relationship between art and politics, it follows that if the nature of politics changes, then art’s identity and potential regarding the political changes too. Those critiques that sought to relate art’s agency to a political realm of grand narratives, revolutionary political projects and mass political organizations – the defining politics of the 20th century – now find themselves charged with a different position and function when this context disappears. The rapid return to prominence of ‘politicised’ art in the last decade, and the politicisation of culture in general recently, is in this sense a symptom of the collapse of the old structures through which political agency could be articulated socially, and of the disappearance of political narratives that would offer clear alternatives for the future.

The loss of old venues for the articulation of political discourse is what in fact contributes to the exaggerated attention paid to politics in culture at the moment. At the same time, political activity is ever more focussed on new forms of organization, intervention and communication that turns political activity into an increasingly cultural form of spectacle. Culture and politics appear, weirdly enough, to be reworking old questions of form and content, but in strikingly inverted terms; whilst art and culture is busy turning itself into a mere vehicle for the communication of political content, political activists are busy turning the political into something tantamount to aesthetic form.

It’s readily apparent in the current splash of political shows around the country, from ’20 Million Mexicans Can’t Be Wrong’ at the South London Gallery, to the return of political art dad-rockers Victor Burgin and Stephen Willats, at Arnolfini and the Institute of Visual Culture respectively. The current and problematic entanglement of cultural and political agency is also the underlying preoccupation a slew of recent books, that each grapple with the confusing state of a society where political dissent is abundantly represented in culture whilst entirely inarticulate in political practice.

The broadest overview of this is Tim Jordan’s Activism!, a competent, if uncritical handbook to what he sees as the contemporary manifestations of political radicalism. Jordan’s approach typifies the confusion between content and form, between political ideas and the way they are articulated, which dominates much current discussion. Jordan traces various recent forms of politicised activity- direct action, rave culture, ‘culture jamming’, net activism – and attempts to draw them together into disparate strands of a common project of ‘ethical visions’ for the future. Whilst for some, the activist movement’s often-contradictory agendas, lack of organizational coherence and weak political analysis should be a source of criticism, for Jordan these weaknesses are a virtue. Whilst Activism! tries to subject each area to a little gentle criticism, you get the impression that Jordan, social sciences lecturer at the Open University, really wants to apologise for what he instinctively sees as positive developments. Part of the problem of his criticism is that it really only a question of degree, not fundamental principle. So the ‘pleasure-politics’ of rave culture may produce an inarticulate and solipsistic political subject, but this is good because it reinforces a sense of authentic collectivity. Or no matter that ad-busting activism is ultimately recuperable into the state-corporate ‘Empire of Signs’, or that net-activism is too disorganised for ‘such things as [political] splits to occur’. In his obsession with formal structures of current activism -a fascination shared by many on the cultural left who see in the new activism the germs of a new political agency - Jordan avoids any criticism of its political content, or the problem of its expression in practice. What distinguishes Activism! (with an exclamation mark) from plain old activism, is that it is focused ‘on the future’ rather than the present or the past. That the future-focused activists just happen to be ecologists, anti-globalisation protesters and drugged-up hedonists, rather than neo-fascists and childrens’ rights campaigners seems a handy coincidence, if you want to add a theoretical gloss to what is really only the liberal prejudice that the forces of anti-capitalism have the faintest idea what they stand for.

Jordan’s rather bizarre conclusion is that those who wish to make the future a reality, should necessarily not know what it is they want to realize, nor should any ‘state bureaucrat’ demand to know what the activists demands might be. Jordan’s celebration of disorganisation (or ‘dis/organisation’ in its trendy new form), weak analysis and plain adolescent naughtiness that characterises Activism!, only makes sense if you share his disdain for revolutionary projects and narratives that seek to understand the totality of social experience and to propose a coherent alternative. Mistrustful of either, Jordan is reduced to cobbling together a theory of ‘radical democracy’ which, like a generation of cultural left theorists before him, embraces a multiplicity of ‘oppressions’, quacks vengefully at the ‘Marxist error’ of ‘reducing’ oppression to its economic dimension, and offers in its place a cod-Lacanian theory of politics based on abolishing ‘Self/Other’ distinctions in favour of ‘Difference’. That Jordan can’t see that such distinctions are based, not merely in people’s heads, but in the practical relationships that they develop socially, and which are (forgive the Marxist error) distorted by the divisive organisation of material production, perhaps explains why he indulges political activists who choose to engage neither in coherent analysis or a methodology of political practice.

Similarly aestheticising, though on an enjoyably irreverent level, is Christian Nolde’s Mobile Vulgus. What starts out as a smartly designed little book about Nolde’s experience of the anticlimactic dreariness of last year’s Mayday demonstrations in Oxford Street, develops into an engaging exposition of the theory of modern crowd control, and the frightening arsenal of ‘non-lethal’ weapons developed by western governments to suppress potentially dissenting mobs. Nolde’s fast moving, graphically strong documentary leads the reader through the various tactics of police and protesters, from military-style policing tactics, to the use of soft barriers and body armour to resist arrest and assert the right to protest. Again, Nolde is strong on the formal aspect of protest, investing political value in the simple fact of mass participation, and is little interested in what (if any) politics are at stake. But Mobile Vulgus is partially rescued by the frankly bonkers project outlined in its conclusion; Nolde describes how a mass of people, all jumping in synchrony at a set rhythm, may start to provoke the natural harmonic resonance of buildings and structures, ultimately in order to crack concrete, twist metal, and bring the edifices of capitalist society tumbling down. That such an absurdist vision can be taken seriously exposes the infantile and empty nature of the politics of protest: just turn up and stamp your feet in syncronised frustrution, and everything will be alright.

That political radicalism should be reduced to formal issues indicates how little intellectual dynamism and reflection is present in such projects. Political content becomes truism, received ideas we already agree with without knowing why: Nike is bad, the cops are there to beat you up if you protest, capitalism is destroying the environment, the West is exhausting resources because it is ‘overdeveloped’, economic activity should be ‘sustainable’ etc. etc. given that we all agree on this, there’s little more to be done than to take to the streets and demonstrate the ‘will of the people’.

In such unthinking terms, where the content of supposedly radical discourse is often little more than an ascetic condemnation of contemporary industrial society, its not surprising that cultural practitioners begin to guiltily question the cultural value of their particular discipline, and to ask how they might contribute to the political moment through what they do. Rick Poynor’s Obey the Giant is an articulate and poignant set of essays that seeks to make sense of the ethical dimension of design in a politically disillusioned atmosphere where all professional expertise seems useless or compromised. Poynor is a sensitive, often brilliant writer on visual design in graphics, advertising and commercial visual culture, and his essays vividly express the difficulty of defining the aesthetic (and commercial) practice of graphic design, whilst attending to the political dimensions of mass culture, of complicity, rebellion, faddism and critique with which his discipline intersects. Whilst Poynor acquiesces to the self-important righteousness of the activists, particularly the ad-busters who most clearly articulate his own anxiety about design’s complicity with advertising, he is at his best when he discovers the political charge implicit in his sophisticated criticism of design’s formal means. Wanting design to be ‘radical’ is for Poynor a tricky balance between what is formally innovative and intelligent within its tradition, and those activities that reject ideas of professional competence and aesthetic discipline, but are ‘radical’ through their nonconformist means of address and presentation. In this, Poynor expresses the anxiety of cultural professionals who intuit that their practice is neither aesthetically coherent nor politically useful. The demand ‘less aesthetics, more ethics’, whilst it haunts and perplexes Obey the Giant, is nevertheless dealt with subtlety and an attention to the particular nature of Poynor’s subjects.

Less could be said of the German group WochenKlausur, in its recent anthology of projects dating back to 1993. Wochenklausur epitomises a strain of European critical practice that rejects current institutional and aesthetic forms of art, seeking to supplant it with activities it deems more socially and politically worthwhile. It seems harsh to criticize a group that has spent a decade using art as a vehicle for benevolent, if minor social intervention: Initiating lasting projects of social benefit is what WochenKlausur does, in the time it takes to put on a normal show of ‘bourgeois’ contemporary art. Mobile health clinics for the homeless in Vienna, a shelter for drug addicted women in Zurich, setting up language schools for refugees in Kosovo, all the projects catalogued sound beneficial in their own small way. But the trouble with Wochenklausur’s shrill denunciation of art world obsolescence is that they want their political cake whilst eating it in the persisting institutional space of the gallery. This leads to a strange defense of the usefulness of the artworld, insofar as it is useful as an institution when trying to get the attention of the authorities and the media. Whilst excoriating the political bankruptcy of the art world, WochenKlausur are still happy it exists, so that they can install their version of artistic practice into it, amazingly using the old gag of ‘it’s art because I say it is’ to suppress criticism of the political contradictions of their activity. Relying on the same tired formula of the ‘artist as catalyst’ that underpins artists from Joseph Beuys, to the Artist Placement Group and Stephen Willats, they speciously avoid the simple reality that in order to effect real social change requires a practical involvement in society which goes beyond the merely symbolic, and of pre-existing institutions of mediation, which for all its protestations to the contrary, WochenKlausur’s activity fails to do. Unlike Poynor, WochenKlausur’s righteous zealotry is incapable of engaging with the ongoing tensions and contradictions of institutional art, whilst making unsustainable claims for the significance of their practice beyond its bounds.

Ultimately, the insertion of politics into cultural circuits of presentation is a distorted effect of the lack of a coherent and active political culture in society more generally. Rehearsing the hollow forms of protest without knowing what you are standing for, or untenably effacing the distinction between cultural and social intervention, so that culture ends up substituting for a moribund politics is really no alternative. A greater discussion of the content and form of current politics and aesthetics, of the similarities and differences between the two, and of the distinction between cultural and political agency, is needed at the moment, if pseudo-activism isn’t to end up obliterating both.

WochenKlausur: Sociopolitical Activism in Art, ed. Wolfgang Zinggl, Springer-Verlag, Vienna, 2001

Activism! Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Soceity, Tim Jordan, Reaktion Books, London, 2002

Obey the Giant, Rick Poynor, Birkhäuser, Berlin, 2001

Mobile Vulgus, Christian Nold, Book Works, London, 2001



Published in Art Monthly no261, November 2002

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all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated