Twin Towers: The Strange Disappearance of Art and Politics

A paper presented to the 28th annual conference of the Association of Art Historians, Liverpool April 2002

In the past five years in Britain, we’ve seen a remarkable, or perhaps curious, revival of artistic practice that appears to address the social and political spheres of contemporary life, and which has reopened hopeful discussions about the political effectivity and role of art as an agent for change in contemporary society. After almost two decades of political and cultural conservatism in the Western world, many observers would hope to find in this current resurgence signs of a renewed radicalism and criticality in art and culture, and in parallel, a similar resurgence of radicalism in the political and social spheres.

The appearance of the ‘new protest movement’ both in its guise as new forms of activitist mobilisation, and in the establishment of the broad church that constitutes the ‘anti-globalisation’ agenda, represents a significant change in both the discourse and the organisation of a potentially radical political activity. In both artistic and political agitation, we seem to find a direct return to an earlier period of radicalism. We can point to the reappearance of some supposedly ‘Situationist’ ideas both in contemporary artistic practice, and in the methods of the anti-capitalist street protest groups; never has the opposition to the ‘Society of the Spectacle’ been a more mainstream concern. Similarly, we might also point out the revival of criticism of Western consumer culture, in artistic practice with such high-profile projects such as Michael Landy’s Breakdown, and in the ‘Ad-busting’ and Culture-jamming’ strategies of the anti-consumer activists; Naomi Klein’s hit book No Logo, has popularised the case for an new form of consumer activism not satisfied with merely ethicising consumer choices, but with striking against corporate interests through the targeted withdrawal of consumer spending from those companies deemed to conduct their activities in an unethical or socially detrimental way.

We can further note the emergence of artistic practice that seeks to propose models of cultural or social production that go beyond the current heirachical, mediatised and commercial imperatives of contemporary culture. Forms of collaboration and decentralisation in artistic production have become increasingly visible in recent years; the critique of modernist originality and uniqueness, and its implicit relationship to the class-based hierarchism of culture and commodification, informs both the debate about alternative structures of production and distribution in art, as well as the discussion on the relationship of art to popular culture and the people. Jeremy Deller’s recent Battle of Orgreave project points to the mainstream popularity within contemporary art presentation of these forms of activity. Also of significance is the renewed interest in an older generation of artists who have pursued many of these ideas consistently in activity spanning three decades; notable examples can be found in the ongoing work of artists Gustav Metzger and Stephen Willats. Socially engaged artistic practice is if nothing else historically indebted to the cultural radicalism of the late 1960 and early 1970s.

In parallel to these various developments within the institutions and circuits of contemporary art, and in the broader arena of political debate and activism, we should also pay attention to the way in which apparently socially progressive ideas have been integrated into government policy on the arts. On its election, New Labour set about introducing a significantly different agenda for the role and function of funded arts activity in this country; on one hand this involved the thorough recasting of the funded arts as one part of that sector now known as the ‘creative industries’.

But of greater importance in changes in state policy, at least for those of us concerned with the relationship between cultural activity and political society, has been New Labour’s explicitly instrumental definition of the function of the arts and culture in their exchange with society. These have been controversial developments, and much has already been said about state policy, so I wish simply to register the importance of these changes in the broader landscape of cultural-political developments in recent years. New Labour’s cultural mantra, issuing from the Department for Culture, media and sport, and in the policy of the arts councils and then the regional arts boards, establishes new criteria of accountability, popular access and social inclusion, criteria which it might be argued, are essentially extrinsic to the principle of public support of particular artforms, and artforms in general. Without arguing the legitimacy or otherwise of such a perspective here, it is sufficient only to register that these developments are driven by the assimilation into government of ideas and principles that have their origin in, and draw their personnel from, the cultural New Left of the 1970s and 80s. The ideas that formed the debates of the left in opposition now define the cultural policies of New Labour in government.

So from this outline, we can already note various levels of practical repetitions and historical returns. What I want to try and unpick is the particular nature of our current historical moment, in order to reflect on what makes the present situation especially new, rather than discussing it simply in terms of an erstwhile ‘revival’, ‘resurgence’, or ‘return to’ an earlier history of artistic radicalism towards the socio-political realm. This is I think important, because there is a clear danger that in the current euphoria of returns and resurgences of ‘political art now’, we end up making easy assumptions about what we believe to be political, and how art should define itself in relation to those assumptions. History never repeats itself, much as it is comforting to pretend that it might, and I want to argue that the current period does not afford us the luxury of a stable historical continuity into which political art has simply staged an unproblematic if belated ‘come-back’; instead, I want to propose that it is because of special kind of discontinuity in the political and social realm, because of phenomena peculiar and unique to our current historical moment, that art and politics now appear to be in such active dialogue.

As I’ve just outlined, the forms of practice we’re witnessing currently are hardly new: indeed if an idea of continuity is appropriate, it is certainly in the way in which strands of critical discourse in art have been successful in maintaining a presence, albeit often marginal, allowing an often unbroken link to the radical moments of the 60s and 70s: Rediscoveries of long-forgotten artists, the revival in the fortunes of those artists who continue to pursue ideas first developed a generation ago, the reworking of older theories, strategies and methods by young artists working in contemporary contexts, the assimilation of previously radical ideas into state policy.

These factors undoubtedly influence the perception, perhaps entirely correctly, of ‘political art now’ as a ‘resurgence’. But we should be wary of too quickly celebrating the return of a too-long repressed political awareness in art, however encouraging this might be at the moment, without carefully examining the circumstances in which this return is occurring. Equally, an attempt should be made to account for the circumstances that frame the emergence of the ‘new protest movements’, as these are currently influential in how much politicised artistic practice defines the quality and effect of its engagement.

To do this, I need to suggest an alternative account of the political events of the past decade that recognises an important historical rupture of earlier terms of political engagement, the significance of which is often ignored. This break with the past is both ideological and concrete, and affects the way in which western society now understands its relation to the past, and its conception of the idea of history itself. This rupture is what lays the ground for the what I would describe as the contemporary ‘politics of terminus’, a new political framework that defines life in the industrialised west, and which is key to understanding the how the resurgence of political art responds to a political problem that is unique to our current epoch.

The origins of the politics of terminus are to be found in the end of the cold war, and the difficulties encountered by the western capitalist elites after the disappearance of the political and ideological threat of the communist east. After a century defined by the conflict between two opposing grand narratives, the collapse of the soviet block appeared to confirm both the practical and ideological superiority of the western capitalist project. But the triumphalism of the west was curiously short-lived. Francis Fukuyama’s controversial ‘End of History’ thesis is a concise example of a more general problem; triumphalist in tone and conclusion, Fukuyama argued that with liberal market democracy confirmed as the best of all attempted forms of social organisation, the goal of history had effectively been realised. But the trouble with such a conclusion was that if history had indeed come to a close, then one could expect no more of society. The end of history thesis echoed Thatcher’s dictum that ‘There is No Alternative’. The end of history would not necessarily be such a problem, had western free market liberal democracy then gone on to deliver a clear and unequivocal demonstration of its potential. But a decade of sluggish economic growth in the west, coupled with an inability to address the entrenched failings and corrosive social effects of the market system, failed either to inspire popular support for the current system, or offer a cohesive and positive vision for the future. As the nineties wore on, the triumphant exclamation ‘This is it!’ was replaced by the uncertain question ‘is this it?’ No longer under pressure from the discredited ideological alternative of the communist left, or the imminent and practical danger of popular militancy of the labour movement, western liberal democracies spent the nineties chaotically attempting to reinvent their identity, purpose and direction, both in the changed international politics of a unipolar US-dominated world, and the social consequences engendered by an increasingly unfettered free market and a quiescent and atomised population. In international politics this is most clearly manifest in the moral re-armament of western power through increased military intervention under the banner of ‘humanitarianism’; in domestic issues this is visible in the steady reworking of the relationship between the state and individuals, away from the autonomy of positive rights, and towards conditional rights based on reciprocal obligations and responsibilities, particularly in the increasing involvement of the state and authorities in regulating relationships and exchanges between individuals. With no more compelling vision of society other than the repetition and preservation of the status quo, the west has become ever more uncertain and prone to anxious introspection over its own cohesion and direction, inflating even minor or incidental threats to social and political stability into a series of never-ending crises.

But the greatest casualty of this ‘end of history’ is the one that goes the least noticed, perhaps because it also appears to be a discredited ideology. The politics of terminus now occupy the place left empty by the disappeared politics of progress.

In broad terms, the differing political approaches to historical change have classically tended to polarise around those who desire and actively seek positive social change and transformation, and those who attempt to protect and preserve the status quo. In the nineteen and twentieth centuries, this easily demarcated and defined the opposing positions of the left and right wing. But whether the inherent differences of left and right wing are based on the opposition of radicalism versus conservatism, it is critical to note that both positions assume social progress to be their goal and their legitimate claim. That the better part of the twentieth century was defined by two competing projects, that offered differing accounts of social progress does not negate the fact that both tended to assume progress to be historically self-evident, and the criteria by which to judge it equally clear; greater productivity and prosperity, enhanced leisure, longer life, personal freedom, self-determination and democratic control of society by and for its participants. For all their differences, the earlier polarities of left and right-wing political discourse turned on the same axis. The main difference lay between those who wished to revolutionise the productive potential of society in the interest of the majority, rather than see it develop for the benefit of a powerful minority.

Nobody of course talks of progress in these terms anymore, and when they do it’s usually as terms of abuse. Progress supposedly hides an arrogant, eurocentric, implicitly imperialist and expansionist agenda, intolerant of difference, environmentally destructive and unsustainable. And yet because such criticism is now so widely accepted, it might be worth paying attention to how the critical distinction between socially conservative and radically progressive agendas has shifted in recent years, and how this shift, driven by the new politics of terminus, serves to confuse and short circuit our usual understanding of left and right wing. This is particularly relevant if we are to assess the merits of political engagement in current artistic practice. To put it bluntly, not all political positions are equally constructive or socially beneficial, and it follows that if art is to ally itself to certain political agendas, whether in thematic content or organisational form, its merits are inevitably dependent on the former terms. Merely because artists are aligning themselves with apparently radical political positions, does not automatically put them on the side of the angels.

With this in mind, I’d like to offer some suggestions on the two areas of activity mentioned earlier: socially inclusive state policy, and the agenda of the new protest movements. The anti-globalisation agenda in many respects epitomises the confusion between apparent radicalism and underlying conservatism in current political discourse. These are probably going to be unpopular views, but I might as well try them out. Because although in general we might be content to support an agenda that is vocally anti-capitalist, or at least anti-corporate, I have serious doubts about the inherently progressive nature of some of the alternatives on offer. In particular, the environmentalist strand of anti-globalisation strikes me as particularly anti-progressive, even anti-human, at least on the terms I would subscribe to. At root, the environmentalist agenda seeks to limit and restrain human expansion, experiment and development. This may not always be explicitly stated, but environmentalism in effect imposes a culture of restraint on human social endeavour. Henceforth, human development should be ‘appropriate’ and ‘sustainable’. And yet the thesis of sustainability far from being a radical extreme is now a mainstream political truism, that can as easily be applied to pass judgement on road-building projects in Surrey, as is can on dam-building projects in India. Elsewhere, in the guise of anti-corporatism, the environmentalist agenda serves to restrain and impede scientific experiment and development in areas such as genetic engineering, a technology thats offer potentially massive benefits for food production and biological health enhancement. And further, in its criticism of the ‘unsustainable’ and wasteful excesses of western consumer society, the anti-globalisation agenda denigrates the huge human advances offered by industrial society, and implicitly condemns the developing world to pre-industrial levels of appropriate economic development.

But as the popularity of Michael Landy’s dismal Breakdown shows, the ascetic withdrawal from the contradictions of contemporary industrial society is a widely held sentiment, not limited to narrow conception of radical extremes. It points to the fact that such ideas, rather than being the preserve of a progressive minority, now form the consensus of a socially conservative and exhausted culture. Political content in art is the same as political content anywhere, and should be assessed accordingly.

A similar reactionary inversion is to be found in the socially inclusive cultural policy of the current government. From another epoch, the rhetoric of anti-elitism and participatory cultural activity might indeed have been been culturally progressive. But when the state enforces such policy on cultural activity, the politics of terminus at its heart become clear: like many managerial social democratic governments, New Labour is reconciled to the ubiquity of the free market system. Reduced to tinkering with interest rates and tax levies, and with little desire to intervene directly in the economy or to improve things through increased social provision, the government has begun to use culture as an instrument of social cohesion and pacification. In so doing, it is prepared to subordinate any discussion of artistic quality, or creative liberty, through the false opposition of the interests of artists to those of so-called ordinary people. Whether cultural activity is socially inclusive or not, if it is conducted primarily to improve statistics on health, education, crime and employment, the quality and value of what is produced become necessarily incidental. In this respect, the use of art as a therapeutic treatment for the ills and frustrations of marginalized and atomised communities seems a popular motif, exemplified by another art project sponsored by that notoriously radical organisation Artangel. Jeremy Deller’s recent reenactment of The Battle of Orgreave condenses all the current preoccupations with popular culture and public participation, but critically transforms the business of re-enactment into a kind of art therapy for the politically defeated miners at Orgreave. Whilst Deller’s project professes a superficial solidarity with popular political organisation and militancy, it is entirely silent on what that might mean in the here and now, preferring to retread the political defeats of a bygone working class, whilst mourning the disappearance of strong community solidarities in the present. If Orgreave had been a truly, radically progressive political artwork, offering imaginative potentiality for the present rather than mute closure in the past, Deller might have changed the ending of his re-enactment so that the miners win.

In conclusion, the reality of political art now may be less promising than we would hope. Instead of a vibrant independent resurgence within culture, allied to a democratic and progressive socio-political project, we might be faced with a more complicated, more contradictory situation, in which aspects of regression are confused with the radically progressive. This is a situation that takes us beyond discussions of art, and requires that we operate as political thinkers with an interest in art, rather than artists with a special interest in the political. This is vital if the tokenistic reflection of political consensus in art is to be avoided. With the disappearance of the old politics, and the breakdown of the traditional structures of political mediation between left and right- party organisations, trade unionism, the church and state institutions- there is an effective absence of structures through which an effective radical politics can effectively be articulated. The anti-globalisation movement are of course attempting to cohere a global decentered network of organisation, but it’s too early to know how this will develop. In the meantime, we note that those areas of activity previously known as culture are being colonised by political agendas that currently lack other venues for their articulation: in this regard it’s a mistake to dismiss popular culture’s flirtations with radical politics as merely ‘radical chic’. It is partly the disappearance of other forms of political articulation that encourages the politicisation of cultural activity. Or conversely, cultural practice is impelled to reject the traditional distinctions of the limits of art, in order to compensate for in an inarticulate political scene; the historical irony is that, where as the avant-garde’s desire to merge art and politics came from awareness of art’s separation from an dynamic and coherent political culture, it now does so to substitute for the lack of one.

So the current moment is fraught with dangers and opportunities. Political art can merely reinforce mainstream political prejudices in thematic content, whilst as a agent of social intervention serving as a substitute and palliative for a moribund democratic culture and politics. The problem for political art now rests in how to define what is radically progressive politically, rather than merely political; whether to reconfirm consensus expressions of political terminus, or instead to articulate culture as a venue for the expression of imaginative and social potential. The most we might want to achieve might simply be a return to first principles; this might mean a reassement and reconnection with of the terms of the agenda of progressive social transformation. It might also mean as a cultural precondition, the defence of the social freedom of individuals and of artistic freedom of expression in a culture too quick to repress debate and dissent. A free and dynamic culture goes hand in hand with a free and progressive political project. If the concern with art and politics is to mean anything but a mourning for the disappearance of both, it is to these problems that we should now address ourselves.



A longer version of this article was published in a special edition of Third Text, January 2003, and will be available here shortly. back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated