Mayday! Mayday!

Art in the age of no alternatives

Social conscience and political engagement in art is back in the mainstream. As the fag-end of the Brit-Art nineties stubs itself out in a pot-pourri of anti-hype cynicism, media overkill and decorative nostalgia, recent developments point to a growing taste for practices that are participatory, collaborative, non-commercial  and openly political.  The recent ‘Crash!’ exhibition, at the ICA, and the earlier ‘Mayday’, at the Photographers’ Gallery, exemplify this shift to legitimate artistic practice through reference to external spheres of activity, and the current ‘Democracy!’ exhibition at the Royal College of Art makes no bones about wanting to go beyond the old antithesis between artistic autonomy and engagement.  Rejecting the decadence and commodification of the yBa art-object, embracing the new protest movements and renegotiating the artist’s relation to their audience, these new practices appear to offer a way out for an art increasingly integrated into the benign vacuity and political boredom of ‘Creative Britain’, offering a sense of social engagement and popular alignment on one hand, and the possibility of effective political constestation, activism and dissent on the other.

The vociferous reaction to Art Monthly’s editorial ‘1968 and all that’ and those reviews that questioned these developments, points to the importance of these developments to the moral rehabilitation of art.  Matthew Worley’s agitated defence of ‘Crash!’ and Peter Kennard’s broader accusation that this publication is against ‘art which that engages with social and political issues’ are understandable, but they do little to further any discussion on what defines the difference between art and any other form of activity, be it political activism, or social work, nor why these forms of activity, which are not without historical precedent, should generate such interest in the present.

Kennard and Worley’s responses both emphasise the subordination, or the opening up, of the gallery ‘space’ to demands and interests that exist beyond its bounds, and the rejection of art and artists who work in isolation from contemporary reality.  So for Kennard, the gallery is just ‘another space to use, as is the street, the net, the placard, the newspaper, the book’, and any question of excluding political statements in art ‘smacks of formalism in another guise’.  For Worley, the decision to stage ‘Crash!’ at the ICA was ‘to gain publicity outside the artworld’, and ‘in opposition to the marginalised artist righteously beavering away in their own space.’  And just in case you didn’t get the point, Mark Beasley, in his introduction to the catalogue for ‘Democracy!’ declares that;

…‘The ideas of individualistic art, reclusive studio-based practice, artist as hermit, artist on a pedestal, artist as genius are all challenged by practices which go beyond the gallery and involve people from various social groups.’[1]

To take these comments at face value, one would think that contemporary gallery-based art was still in the iron grip of some caricatured Greenbergian idealist totalitarianism, in which the visionary individual artist creates works of rarefied and exquisite self-sufficiency and perfection, inaccessible to the masses.  This flies in the face of reality:  If anything typified the art of the  yBa nineties,  it was the comprehensive reorientation of artistic attention towards the previously excluded realm of popular culture and  the everyday, towards what previously fell outside the ‘valid’ considerations of art.  It’s true that the one element that did persist was the exclusive figure of the individual artist, and whilst many yBa artists would be uncomfortable with explicit declarations of their singular genius, the position was someway recuperated by the phenomenon of artist-as-media-celebrity; but the radical pretensions of the current attack on the ‘specialised’ space of art has more to do with an attempt to exaggerate the failings of what preceded it, in order to make the vogue for socially-oriented practices look like an oppositional rupture, rather than the logical extension and resolution of the contradictions inherent in its predecessor.  For if yBa succeeded in reducing artistic choice and theoretical interrogation to a matter of personal taste, sourced in a common experience of popular culture, then its only real sin was that it should remain the plaything of the rich.  After all, having abnegated any claim to critical insight or aesthetic transcendence in the name of a realignment with the popular, it was only a matter of time before the ‘umbilical cord of gold’ should be seen to connect to nothing but a venal and disingenuous cabaret for the expenditure of idle capital.

It’s in this context of disenchantment with the shortcomings of art’s reintegration into mainstream culture, and the contradictory nature of Brit-Art’s relationship to the popular, that shows like ‘Mayday’, ‘Crash!’ and ‘Democracy!’ stake their claim to critical integrity. The new socially-oriented practices can of course loudly demonstrate that they are free of the corrupt influence of the market - given that it tends to turn up in publicly funded galleries;  and now that the last vestiges of the discourses which upheld art as an separate, but potentially more valuable site of cultural expression have been irretrievably tainted by their association with the interests of the elite, they are free to recast artistic practice in the image of other, more expedient activities, which is why political rhetoric and grass-roots activism feature strongly in these exhibitions.  Given the current fascination with the new transnational protest movements,  it isn’t surprising that the work in ‘Crash!’ and ‘Mayday’ often referred to the activities of groups such as Reclaim the Streets, as well as share many of their concerns.  In the context of the ‘Stop the City’ demonstrations, the Seattle riots and this month’s Mayday 2000 demonstration, the new art unproblematically aligns itself with their anti-capitalist, pro-environmental concerns. 

But this easy transition from art to political activism raises some awkward questions about art’s purpose in relation to the political and social realms, and about art’s current identity as a discreet and particular area of activity within that context.  A number of commentators make the straightforward observation that the current taste for the socio-political integration of art appears nostalgic, given it’s often express reference to the events of May ’68.  Whether this is misty-eyed nostalgia or a more conscious return to that moment of cultural and political intersection is beside the point; what is of critical importance in the revival of the ideas of May ’68, particularly the revisiting of Situationist rhetoric and methodology, is the place of cultural intervention within a wider context of political upheaval and confrontation. Whilst the counter-cultural manifestations of the late ‘sixties occurred against a background of widespread labour unrest, the civil rights movement, third-world liberation and the over-arching tension of cold-war rivalry, little of the scale of these confrontations remain today. In this sense, the sense that the new protest movements represent a significant revival of radical opposition is exaggerated, when compared to the momentous events that marked the political reality of the ‘sixties.

More significantly, the current situation differs from its predecessor in that whereas the protest of the sixties was based in the optimistic belief that human society could progress beyond capitalism and be entirely transformed for the better, no such sentiment holds sway today.  Rather, what now passes for radical politics is a miserable blend of puritanical environmentalist catastrophism, scientific obscurantism and anti-capitalist sentimentalising. Instead of acknowledging the progressive aspects of capitalism and seeking to develop society further, the new politics of restraint seek only to limit the impact of human beings and industry on the environment, withdraw from scientific investigation and return society to some pre-lapsarian subsistence-agricultural idyll.  Whatever the attendant anti-capitalist rhetoric, this is far from being a radical alternative to capitalism; if anything, it indicates the reality of popular disenchantment with contemporary society, now that the sense of their being any progressive alternative to the status quo has disappeared. The widespread sympathy that the new protest movements elicit stems more from the pessimistic, isolated and fearful apprehension that society can only get worse, than from an active and engaged involvement with political life, and the possibility of positive change.

Form this perspective, art’s new-found radicalism is not so much an enthusiastic realignment of art with a vibrant and optimistic political culture, than an expression of frustration with the moribund state of contemporary politics and the trivialised status of art in contemporary culture. That this trivialisation has come about has a lot to do with the confused critical legacy of the left in art, wherein the question of artistic quality became conflated with questions of social division and exclusion, and where art’s autonomy became a byword for its abstraction from, and indifference to the common experience of social and political reality.

The final irony of the new socially oriented practices is that whilst art historically acted within a context of continuing social change and popular upheaval, art now has to act as compensation for the lack of democratic vitality in the world outside; those practices that offer ‘models’ of democratic and consensual participation do so in the actual context of social atomisation and political disengagement.  But as one contributor to ‘Democracy!’ puts it;

“To coin a new term, it might be that the socially engaged practice of the nineties is more concerned with demophony, with giving voice or expression (phonos) to the people. Demophony does not require the direct empowerment of the people. It permits art to retain a certain aesthetic autonomy.”[2]

Empowerment without power, aesthetic autonomy without art. Whilst the possibility of progressive social change disappears from view, art becomes a vehicle for ‘giving voice’, a kind of therapeutic self-expression for the people, in a society bereft of alternatives. And in this, the new practices bear more than a casual resemblance to the interests of the new political elite; with artistic policy increasingly dictated by the rhetoric of ‘new audiences’, and with the social exclusion unit’s PAT 10 report demanding that the fight against social exclusion should be the core objective of artistic policy, the new art’s humble eulogising of the marginalised, excluded people, it’s obsession with audience inclusion over artistic insight gives it the credentials to become the official art of the new administration.  Once the fellow traveller of human progress, art now risks become the high-priest of its defeat.  Those looking for Blair’s art need look no further.

[1] Mark Beasley, Introduction to catalogue for ‘Democracy!’ exhibition, Royal college of art.

[2] Emma Mahony, ‘On Democracy and Demophony’, ibid.



Published in Art Monthly no236, May 2000 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated