Bojana Kunst“Artist at work”
The Uneasiness of Active Art
We could be easily frozen in this kind of pose, but no, we immediately begin to argue.
(Builders, Chto delat 2005)
It is evident that the video by the British artist Carey Young takes place in one of the numerous offices of a modern high-rise corporation centre. The camera is focused on a woman in a dark blue business suit standing in front of a huge glass office wall. The woman keeps uttering a single sentence, using different accentuations, gestures and intonations in the process. She seems to be practising as though in a business presentation course. She pays attention to the pronunciation nuances and precise gesticulation while practising it over and over: “I’m the revolutionary.”1
This unique exercise in style is a very good indication of the complex situation into which I want to place my reflection on the relationship between politics and contemporary art. We live at a time when creativity, a wish for change and constant reflection on creative conditions are the driving forces behind development in the post-industrial world, marked by the need to constantly revolutionize methods of production and creativity. Young’s statement is therefore not only an exercise in style; this kind of ‘coaching’ is actually essential to the ways of working in contemporary capitalism, especially creative and artistic ways of working. In the contemporary corporate world, ‘I’m the revolutionary’ suddenly turns into a speech act par excellence. The transfer of the obsession with social change (which deeply marked the twentieth century) into a transparent sky-scraper helps us understand the topical social and political situation, which profoundly affects the way of thinking on the connection between politics and art, especially on the changed role of the autonomy of art today, which needs to be closely connected to artistic work itself. Today, politics is frequently understood as a system of organized interests, of bureaucratically structured activities planned in advance, and of organized and discursively conceptualized possibilities, which include various exercises in style in terms of artistic freedom. According to Slavoj Žižek, we now live in a world where pseudo-activity rather than passivity poses the basic threat. Furthermore, politics almost comes across as an urgency, as a coercion into constant participation and activity: “People intervene all the time, ́do something ́; academics participate in meaningless debates and so on.”2 Žižek places this passivity in the opposition to the contemporary political situation, which, like many other theorists, he terms post political, and one where we are faced with the reduction of politics to the expert management of social life.3
Arising from this post-political situation is a profound uneasiness that overcomes us when discussing the contemporary relationship between politics and art. At first sight, the art of today seems insufficiently engaged; artistic and creative powers seem more-or-less isolated from social contexts. It appears that today artistic freedom is proportionate to artistic unimportance or the powerlessness it exhibits as regards wider social change. The need for political art has never been at the foreground to the extent it is now; art has been called upon to comment on, document, discover and address political themes, as well as to actively intertwine with social and political participation processes.
Isn’t this call for the politicization of art – the articulation of forums and conferences where politicization is discussed, of festivals that are being (sub)titled in this way, the differentiation between political and non-political generations – a sign of what Slavoj Žižek terms ‘pseudo-activity’? Isn’t the art of today deeply ingrained into the method of expertly managing social interests, a part of the contemporary urgency for ceaseless activity? Act, be active, participate, always be ready for opposition, generate new ideas, pay attention to contexts while constantly reflecting on your methods of production… Doesn’t all that stand for the activity that profoundly defines the so-called post-political condition? In both visual art and the performing arts, political art is actually in good shape. It connects contexts, is topical, provokes, opens up forms of participation, is ceaselessly critical, reflexive, provocative and different. Art exists as the non-stop production of critical deviations and comments that are organised and intermediated through thematically oriented applications and pseudo-active models of the artistic market. Many contemporary art market contexts – exhibitions, productions and festivals – are based on a critical meta-language where art frequently appears as an autonomous field of freedom, different views and provocative creativity. Along with this meta- language, there is a growing political powerlessness of art, which seems increasingly isolated in its glass revolutionary tower. For this reason, Badiou finds that it is now constantly necessary to actively cover up the nothingness of what takes place, and makes the following statement at the conclusion of his manifesto of affirmationism: “It is better to do nothing than to contribute to the invention of formal ways of rendering visible that which Empire already recognises as existent.”4 The art of today seems to be generated in this field in-between pseudo-activity and the quest for a real effect; it is profoundly marked by the loss of the event and the desire for a radical cut at the same time.
The question I will therefore be discussing on many pages of this book is how artistic processes and creation intertwine with political processes, especially when they try to overcome positions of powerlessness and establish a new relationship with contemporary capitalist processes. I will show that, in order to critically understand this intertwinement of art and politics and also take a step forward from bemoaning the powerlessness of art, we need to rethink the relationship between art and ways of working. The ways in which the artist works today and the things produced by the artist’s work place art intimately close to capitalism.
It is characteristic of the contemporary ‘post-political’ period that it no longer recognises the traditional twentieth century political artist, termed ‘the party-member artist’ by Oliver Marchart. This artist sacrifices part of their autonomy for the good of heteronomy – i.e. renounces the autonomy of art for the benefit of politics. As an illustration, Marchart offers the well- known dyptichon by Immendorf situated under the caption: Where do You Stand with Your Art, Colleague? (Wo stehts du mit Deiner Kunst, Kollege?) as a painter in his studio, with political demonstrations taking place outside his open door.5 According to Marchart, the prevailing model of the political artist from the historical avant–gardes until the end of the 1960s was someone that constantly challenged the limits of autonomy in favour of politics, someone who constantly demolished the borders between art and other activities, between art and life. Today, this kind of activity seems naive if not anachronistic; contemporary artistic statements are articulated in the direction of the market, with the emancipatory power of creativity becoming the driving force of capital – whether we like it or not. As Marchart states, there is little we can do but ascribe ideological blindness to an artist who decides on autonomous heteronomy (because the party-member artist still believes in their own undiminished autonomy). In a world of politics as spectacle, creative economy and capital governed by institutionalized critical and political discourses, it is very hard to believe in the undiminished autonomy of the political artist who presents works at festivals of ‘political art’ and gives rise to provocative art at globalized festivals. Hence part of the disappointment in the artistic avant–garde and neoavant–garde practices of the twentieth century, as their emancipatory power of liberating art and life goes well with the liberation power of capital: nowadays, creativity and artistic subjectivity are at the centre of the contemporary production of value.
The contemporary marketing of freedom and the transfer of revolutionary themes from the class struggle to the hedonistic entertainment industry and the creative industry of ideas has resulted in today’s art rarely being articulated along the lines of revolutionary utopias and the emancipatory thinking of the future. If this does take place, it is usually in the form of specific pragmatically usable suggestions. For this reason, art frequently focuses on the production of the social; it is becoming a field and place of social relations (…). Art frequently articulates its relationship with politics by inventing models of sociality and community, by active participation and interaction, and by means of propositions of and ways of meeting that constantly give rise to proposals for various forms of activities. This testifies to a problematic relation between art and the community; at the same time, this kind of politicization is close to another important artistic position that appears chiefly at the end of the twentieth century, replacing so-called party-member art.
According to Marchart, we now frequently face “heteronomous autonomy”6 rather than autonomous heteronomy. Today, this is the prevailing hegemonic model of art. It is no longer about the party-member artist torn between loyalty to art on the one hand and the party on the other. As Marchart states, artists now adopt a position of pseudo-autonomy; they are subjectivised as creative joint-stock personalities or functioning service monads. The artist is their own (autonomous) entrepreneur and heteronomous (employee) at the same time. Interestingly enough, “at the moment of their greatest heteronomy (market dependence), these market entities harbour an auto-imagination of full autonomy.”7 If the politicization of art actually occurs, this is more or less to appease one’s conscience to draw from the joint pile of existing references that are to be discarded and replaced by a more effective offer at the first available opportunity. Although this kind of activity appears less anachronistic and more in accordance with the current social and political shifts, the basic political articulation of themes and contexts is still dictated by the market. The political stance of artists is similar to that of contemporary creative industries. They articulate their ideas by forming contexts and communicative social situations in advance, where particular relations can take place safely and without antagonism; this is where temporary communities can be formed, enabling the participation of different users, as well as the contingent and free-flow of various interests. It therefore seems as though it is actually the prevailing heteronomy that Žižek terms ‘pseudo-activity’.
None of the two prevailing forms of twentieth century politicization give rise to political antagonism nowadays. Autonomous heteronomy is no longer the kind of politicization that can respond antagonistically to contemporary political reality. The party-member artist no longer has a field of activity; we could say they actually exist without a party. The actions of this kind of artist do not establish a potential for different political communities and forms of co-existence; today, it is no longer important which side artists sacrifice their autonomy for in terms of leaving art in order to set up a political community.
At the end of 2007, Slovenian theatre saw a very interesting attempt to retopicalise the avant-garde political stance in Ragged People/Pupils and Teachers (Raztrganci/Učenci in učitelji), a performance directed by Sebastijan Horvat. Not only did this engaged rendition of Matej Bor’s agitation play take a direct stance on topical political events (especially toward the World War Two partisan movement in Slovenia and the current attempts to rehabilitate Nazi-sympathizing White Guard members), but also connected all this with the universal progressive values of resistance and radical affirmation, attempting to restore forgotten utopian twentieth century themes. Director Sebastijan Horvat purposely staged Ragged People as an agitation for specific values, choosing its form along the same lines – an almost realistic agitation theatre performance that attempts to affirm the utopia of a more engaged world through a clear narrative about the incongruous oppositions of good and evil. However, there is a paradox in such autonomous heteronomy, where art makes a direct appeal yet addresses a group of people that has already been formed or ‘subjectivised’: a similar effect could be achieved if the political subject targeted by the performance was on the opposite side of the political spectrum. An agitation and production based on the other political perspective and foundations could have been equally successful. The politicization of art by abandoning artistic autonomy in order to establish progressive and engaged politics no longer has a direct effect in the post-political world because the artistic market offers various possibilities of political choice. The spectator communities established through these choices are not articulated through a political subjectivisation that is difficult and full of contradictions. Quite the opposite: the spectator communities are mainly articulated as pre-established moral communities that are formed along the dividing line between good and evil, where one’s friends are suddenly separated from one’s enemies. Today, the need for engaged theatre and art can frequently be discussed along the lines of what Chantal Mouffe terms “politics in the register of morality”.8 Her hypothesis is that, due to the disappearance of constitutive antagonism (which forms the essence of the political), political discourse is replaced by moral discourse. It is not that politics has been replaced by morality or that it has become more moral, but that it takes place though the register of morality. Political antagonisms are created as moral categories that contemporary communities identify with and thus become established in an imaginary way. It is no longer about the antagonism between those addressed by political articulations – between ‘us and them’ as bearers of certain articulations and forms of political subjectivisation. As Chantal Mouffe states, instead of a fight between the left and the right, we nowadays have a fight between those in the right and those in the wrong.9 In this sense, the most radical works include those that do not allow us any possibility of choice, triggering uneasiness regardless of their political orientation – uneasiness at both the left and the right. This uneasiness is a consequence of the antagonism they create by means of their form (e.g. the Slovenian group Laibach), their anarchism (e.g. many anarchist works by Russian activists, such as Voina or some artistic predecessors at the beginning of the 1990s like Alexander Brenner or Oleg Kulik), or by means of a direct intervention into life itself (e.g. three Slovenian artists officially changing their name to Janez Janša, the name of former right wing Slovenian Prime Minister).
Therefore, art seems to be in a helpless position from the perspective of heteronymous autonomy as well, especially because artistic subjectivity is now at the centre of new models of creativity. Not only does art frequently function as an autonomous space of freedom, it also participates in a network of pre-established models of criticality and reflexivity, as a sort of ‘politicisation with reason’, or a choice between ready-made possibilities of discourse.
In contemporary performing arts, at least in the wider European space, it was held for a decade or so that the political was actually part of the form, of the way we make art, and thereby an answer to the question of what art is. From the middle of the 1990s onwards, through the practices of authors like Jérôme Bel, Xavier Le Roy, Janez Janša, Via Negativa, politicality was understood through an endless questioning and critique of the theatre apparatus itself and the relation to the audience. According to Bojana Cvejić, such questioning formed a kind of new regime of representation, which forms the tautological character of the performative. Here, the performance always questions and addresses the spectators in their role, leading them “to reflect upon their history, their taste, their capacity to perceive, the frames of references they should mobilize in order to be able to read the performance.”10 It is about the problematic status of post-modern theory, which becomes a sort of ‘self-referential speech act’, questioning the role of the spectator and revealing theatre in the role of the dispositive. This self-referentiality of one’s own production conditions is at the centre of understanding contemporary post-political and pseudo-activity. Today, the facts that formed the basis of Benjamin’s concept of political art at the beginning of the twentieth century have been radically changed.
In his famous essay The Author as Producer (1934), Benjamin rejects any kind of instrumentalisation of art for political purposes, stating that art is only political in the manner in which it observes the conditions of its own production; this means that it is aware of the production relationships within which it is generated and works towards emancipating these conditions. This emancipation of one’s production conditions, the constant reflection on the models and protocols of production, is tightly connected to the contemporary models of production in the postindustrialised era. The creative solutions, the reflections on management hierarchies and non-material work forms of non- material work constantly place the author as producer into the very centre. From this perspective, we can even more accurately understand the ‘powerlessness’ of the artistic creator, constantly oscillating between various discursive models of specialized contexts shaped by curated contemporary festivals and many open methods of production that have seen market success.
Since contemporary politics renounces the constitutive dimension of the political, many philosophers see the political as within a deep caesura that, according to Chantal Mouffe, occurs as an ontic/ontological difference. She therefore proposes a differentiation between ‘politics’ and ‘the political’; politics concerns daily political practices within which order is created, while the political concerns the manner of constituting society with antagonism as an essential characteristic.11 The difference between politics and the police is also discussed by Rancière. According to him, the police is “organised as a set of procedures whereby the aggregation and consent of collectivities is achieved, the organisation of powers, the distribution of the places and roles, and the system of legitimising this distribution.”12 Contrary to that, politics is an activity that breaks up this unity of processes and interferes with the orderly configuration of the sensual. This makes politics profoundly linked to change; politics “is first and foremost a conflict regarding the scene in common, regarding the existence and status of those who are present there”.13 Although this difference, as established by philosophers when they want to think politically, could also be ascribed to the philosophical separation of the notion from its actuality in order to reveal its essence, this is not the main reason behind it.
This kind of differentiation between politics and the political itself – in order to return to its constitutive dimension – is also a consequence of something that is directly revealed to us through the speech act practice taking place in the film by the British artist Carey Young. It is not about living in a post-political world; this addition of post- actually springs from the considerably more difficult option of creating forms of reality through which communities are established. We cannot ignore the fact that the political effects people’s communities. The simple fact that, when we want to talk about the political, the first problems we encounter are connected to language (in which we articulate political and life’s ways of being), brings us to the problem discussed by Giorgio Agamben: the exploitation of life forms common to mankind establish the social conditions of capitalism. Agamben states that language is one of the basic forms of the communal. By means of language, people have always been able to realise themselves in terms of the truest path of human existence: they have been able to materialize their own essence as a possibility or potentiality.14
The inability to realise one’s own essence as a possibility or potentiality, which springs from the exploitation of the forms of the communal that are most related to life, experiences its apotheosis in the democratic spectacle of organizing activity and interests. If we wish to think of the political in relation to art beyond the caesura and actually connect art with the essence of the political, then what primarily needs to be rethought is the post-political approach, where ‘the political is truly in shape’ or, we might even say, in vogue. This different approach is no longer just a consequence of the perspective that there is always something that needs to be deconstructed, e.g. the theatrical apparatus, the spectator or the context. Today, this protocol frequently comes across as politically ineffective, especially when we reflect on the political in the direction of insoluble antagonism. This means that we need to profoundly rethink the status of so-called critical art, which has become one of the most important ways for art to connect with forms of contemporary life and take political stances.
The critical art of today continues the active, progressive political role of avant-garde art without actually having a proper addressee. Art may provoke, show different views, warn and take critical stances, but there are few cases where it interferes with ways of being so radically that it can actually open up possibilities for life that lies ahead. It can be topical, but rarely does that topicality shatter the form through which it is established. According to Rancière, the relationship between politics and art is not a relationship between two separate partners. Art brings to politics what politics already contains: art makes visible the division of the sensible, an articulation of the political field that is closely connected to the being of the community.15
Here, we can agree with Rancière that politics does not consist of “relations of power, it consists of the relationships between worlds”.16 In this sense, the political subjectivisation that can take place in theatre, for instance, is not the recognition of the community as it already is, nor is it the recognition of those who are right or the recognition of things we have in common. Subjectivisation gives rise to a certain new multitude that calls for a different kind of enumeration. “Political subjectivisation divides anew the experiential field though which everyone’s identity and share has been bestowed.”17 Every subjectivisation is therefore also a dis-identification, a painful and paradoxical process of being torn out of the place of the usual political order. The basic question on the relationship between art and politics is therefore that of the antagonistic and inevitable place of the communal, which concerns possible material and perceptive paths of life still to come. In this sense, art is firmly intertwined with questions concerning the conditions and possibilities of life itself; art interferes with the disclosure of potential modes of common realities. Art is therefore not articulated within the discoursive contexts of self- referentiality and critical distance from its own self, but directly challenges and demolishes a colourful range of contexts in which it appears and becomes visible, and at the same time, does not consent to the reduction of art to a moral and didactic stance. The new political effect of art could therefore be sought “producing situations from the assumption that the capacity to act is larger than the pre-given institutional means to realize it; that the potentiality is really different from the possibility understood as opportunity in the institutional market.”18 This is why the continuation of this book will deal with various methods of artistic work; I am of the opinion that these methods are closely connected to the question of the political powerlessness or power of art. The question central to this book, is the following: how and what does art actually produce in contemporary capitalism?
Studying the artist at work reveals many traits of the ambivalent closeness of art and capitalism. On the one hand, the work of the artist is at the core of capital speculations on art’s value; on the other hand, by means of its work, art also resists the appropriation of its artistic powers. Artistic work is the focus of my interest because it allows us to analyse some important characteristics of the development of contemporary art in the last few decades and especially the changes in the forms of artistic autonomy that appeared with the increasing closeness of art and life. The aim of my book is therefore to note that these changes are closely connected to the changes in contemporary capitalism and the entry of post-Fordist ways of production into the centre of contemporary production.
An excerpt from the book:
Bojana Kunst, „Artist at Work. Proximity of Art and Capitalism”, Zero Books, Wincherster/Washington 2015, p. 6-18
1 Carey Young, “I’m the Revolutionary (2001)”, Incorporated, London: Film and Video Umbrella, 2002, 173.
2 Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, London: Profile Books, 2009, 183.
3 The post-political state can be connected to the changes in post-industrial society. Many theorists state that the politics of today mainly involves the bureaucratic organization of everyday interests (Rancière), politics without antagonisms (Mouffe) or tightly connected to the changes in the mediati- sation of politics as well as to economic and social changes (Baudrillard). We can also link the post-political state with the theories of Negri and Hardt, where the post-political is connected to the role of non-material work, the dominance of the empire and the changes in the perception of class ideologies.
4 Alain Badiou, “15 Theses on Art”, Maska, 3-4, 19, (2005).
5 Olivier Marchart, “In Service of the Party. A Short Genealogy of Art and Collective Activism”, Maska, 6-7, 21, (2006), pp. 88-99.
6 Ibidem, 94.
7 Ibidem, 99.
8 Chantal Mouffe, On The Political, London: Routledge, 2006, 72.
9 Ibidem, pp. 72-76.
10 Bojana Cvejić, Learning by Making, [online], Available from: http://summit.kein.org/node/235 (Accessed 26 January 2015).
11 Chantal Mouffe, On The Political, London: Routledge, 2006.
12 Jacques Rancière, Disagreement. Politics and Philosophy, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998, 28.
13 Jacques Rancière, Aesthetics and its Discontents, Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2009, 24.
14 Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
15 Jacques Rancière, Aesthetics and its Discontents, Hoboken:
John Wiley & Sons, 2009, pp. 60-65.
16 Ibidem. 57
17 Jacques Rancière, Disagreement. Politics and Philosophy, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998, 57.
18 Bojana Cvejić, Learning by Making, [online], Available from: http://summit.kein.org/node/235 (Accessed 26 January 2015).