In the most recent issue of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, I consider the role of the university in the cloistering of the aesthetic avant-garde from political and social action…playing off of the work of the marvelous Gavin Grindon and delving into the recent work of Rikrit Tiravanija and the Serpentine’s Edgware Road project as interesting counter-examples.
In a time of practically no public support for the arts and the rapid privatization of our institutions- public universities, museums, small arts non-profits, and art departments- are fighting a relevance war and losing. For the first time ever, the University of California public university system is getting more revenue from tuition than from the state, subjecting a generation of youth to ever more crippling debt. Except for the very rich, their options are limited, and as a result many visual arts departments fear slashings as debt-ridden students stream to what are perceived as more relevant and lucrative professional programs. Some of this fear is due to the fact that our cultural institutions of art are haunted by the narrative of failure of the revolutionary ambitions of the avant-garde, which seemingly renders them irrelevant as sites for social and political change. This is because we commonly translate this failure as leading to the impasse facing critical didactic art, and the estranged relationship between aesthetics and politics. I perceive that the public feels that art has become cerebral but not visceral, intellectual but not actionable, stuck in a closed system of commodification, and thus indefensible and irrelevant in its disconnection from social and political reality. This disconnect has only widened after the supposed failure of the avant-garde project , and I maintain that this perception infects institutions more drastically than ever in the face of such high stakes – the very survival of our institutions of art depends on systemic shifts of perspective on their own relevance.
Read the rest here.
Nato Thompson, chief curator of Creative Time and genuinely innovative thinker, gave a talk Wednesday night (March 20th) at the Hammer Museum to a crowd of artists, students, and art world friends. Like other talks of Nato’s I’ve heard in the past, it was highly performative, peppered with humor, and distinctly lacking in jargon or coded touchstones of an art historical theoretical canon (except, perhaps, as the butt of jokes). Wearing a hoodie in solidarity to honor the memory of shooting victim Trayvon Martin in central Florida last week, Nato set the current political stage for a discussion of activism and art (“a false duality” as he called it) and proceeded to systematically break down the artificial divisions that the so-called “art world” places between itself and everything else – especially broader cultural production (in advertising) that drives consumerism and impacts our very subjectivities, affecting how we make meaning in the world. What was so refreshing about this talk was that Nato was calling us out, collectively, for pretending that art is separate from this broader cultural context. By way of example, by refusing to take into account the effect that advertising guru Leo Burnett (inventor of the Pillsbury doughboy, the Jolly Green Giant, and others) has had on contemporary artists makes us (the art world) seem insane. Burnett said of advertising: “We absorb it through our pores without knowing it. Through osmosis.” Of course we do, and of course that changes how we think. How powerful, and how insidious.
Starting with the industrial revolution, Nato painted a broad-reaching picture of the ability of capital to consume people and radically change our very understanding of ourselves, tracing generations bombarded by the mechanisms of cultural production and the increasingly rapid co-optation of identity by forces of power. He made a very apt observation about the odd phenomenon of the hipster – the paranoid product of generations accustomed to forming identity through the consumption of music, fashion, and image that then sees that identity co-opted and sold back to them in an ever-diminishing time frame. Hipsters are “the shadow” of all of us, afraid to “hitch our wagons” to anything at all. Hipsters are everywhere, yet no one will admit to being one. And though Nato used such heavyweights as Adorno & Horkheimer, Guy DeBord, Walter Benjamin, and of course, Marx to underscore his argument, he did so in such a fluid, cogent, and narrative way that their dense theories became accessible and powerful as a result. This cultural history portion was very resonant, but once he began to draw a line between the production of space, meaning as created by bodies in space, and the rising tide of social aesthetics (basically, art’s reaction to this cultural context by seeking new access to meaning via relationships of bodies to space) the connections didn’t feel quite so strong. Perhaps this was because he cut himself a bit short towards the end, but the points raised did make sense in the larger context he had set up. My review of his presentation is short and inadequate, but the full video podcast version will soon be available on the Hammer’s website. This talk also anticipates his new book, Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Age of Cultural Production which is due out in May.
I always admire Nato in how his form and style of presentation follows his content. Nato does this very deliberately, and is sometimes criticized as an “anti-intellectual,” which I think is crazy - he posted a great little essay about this recently on his blog. He fights the good fight against the false sequestering of art, and does so in a way that enhances accessibility rather than obfuscates it in a haze of self-referential jargon. Breaking down these dichotomies moves both ways – forcing the art world to engage with everything else does not necessarily make the world engage with art, but it certainly allows us to better grapple with our eyes wide open.
As I was reflecting on this talk and its implications for my own little world, I recently received this in my inbox:
Here is an interesting petition for a good cause: a notoriously criminal art gallery is working with the Democratic party under the banner of the 99%. Please share! Maybe we can hold these groups accountable:
Here is a blog about it with some interesting discussion:
(Thanks to Jennifer Gradecki for sending this along).
This petition against ACE Museum in conjunction with the Democratic Party co-opting the language of Occupy and the 99% is a case in point of the insipid nature of the political/cultural/advertising complex. But we cultural producers and consumers are a bit more saavy now – we can peer through the visual and emotional onslaught, and we’re getting better at it all the time.
In preparation for a recent class on art and activism I taught as part of CCA’s Social Practice Workshop, I had some time to reflect on the series of Occupy interviews with artists that I posted to this blog over three months at the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012. Using Gregory Sholette’s recent work Dark Matter and Dave Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology as touchstones work, I have begun to slowly peel back some of the complex layers of the many issues relating to the intersections of art and activism touched upon in the interviews. As the Occupy movement and the AAAAAA list are somewhat more dormant these days, though just beneath the surface, it feels a good time to reflect so as to gear up for future action.
The Occupy movement was born soon after my daughter, and when people began setting up camp in front of City Hall in Los Angeles, I was recovering from major surgery, sleepless, with a newborn. Yet something about this phenomenon happening in cities across the nation seemed beyond protest for me, it was an active practice of direct democracy on a scale not seen in my lifetime, a brave seizing of public land, a leaderless people’s movement with real momentum, and I couldn’t tear myself away. Unable to directly participate in General Assemblies or the physical occupation itself, I learned of several artist friends of mine (through Facebook and an email listserv encompassing a much larger group of cultural workers under the loose affiliation AAAAAA) who were organizing actions down at Occupy and directly participating to various degrees.
The inception of the Occupy LAAAAA interviews on this blog was due directly to my hunger to vicariously experience the sweep of Occupy, and to support the movement in the best way I could, which was to document and archive what was happening through the eyes of artists and thinkers I know. I asked some people I knew to participate in order to get the ball rolling, then invited anyone who might be interested via the listserv and met others that way. I took every suggestion I got, reached out to everyone I could, and thus chronicled the articulate musings of 10 artists over three months: John Barlog and John Burtle, Emily Lacy, Nancy Popp, Matias Viegener, Elana Mann, Janet Owen Driggs, Anna Mayer, Robby Herbst, and Adam Overton.
I asked artists first about their experiences with Occupy itself, particularly participating in the direct democracy and horizontalism of the General Assemblies. I was interested in getting the perspective of people on the ground, rather than the media-filtered commentary that was often bewildered by the dispersed, leaderless polyphony of the movement and its lack of specific “demands.” I then asked about how respondents negotiated their own roles as artists within a larger activist context, how they interfaced with the site, performance tactics they used (as most worked in primarily performative ways), and finally, their thoughts about the affinity group AAAAAA, to which they all were connected.
Though there is much to consider within the complexity and depth of their responses, I would like to highlight two concentric layers through which I have begun to access this broader discussion and formulate an understanding of Occupy and the artists working within.
The first connection, though I have rarely heard it described in this way, applies the work of Occupy to the anarchist project focusing on self-organization, voluntary association, and mutual aid. One artist paraphrased theorist Dave Graeber in response to my question about the lack of specific demands coming out of Occupy at first: “by not issuing demands you’re not recognizing the authority [of current social institutions].” It is fitting then, that Graeber talks about anarchism not as ideology but as attitude in his Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology:
We are talking less about a body of theory, then, than about an attitude, or perhaps one might even say a faith: the rejection of certain types of social relations, the confidence that certain others would be much better ones on which to build a livable society, the belief that such a society could exist. (4)
This focus on interrelationships, engaging a vast and polyphonic landscape of different people and ideas and allegiances in a messy, often protracted consensus-based democratic process – that is the site through which Occupy gains its resistant power. “Answers are not the answer,” claims Adam Overton as Guru Rugu. Rather, demonstration is the answer. As Graeber describes anarchism as a creative rather than destructive force:
It is also a project, which sets out to begin creating the institutions of a new society “within the shell of the old” to expose, subvert, and undermine structures of domination but always, while doing so, proceeding in a democratic fashion, a manner which itself demonstrated those structures are unnecessary. (7)
With the destruction of the encampments, so too this “site of condensed difference,” as Matias Viegener calls it, was dispersed and diluted. It remains up to us to imagine Occupy’s potential beyond the encampments, and Graeber and anarchism can help us dream up the ultimate expression of these self-organizational forms, to connect the multiple “networks overlapping and intersecting in any way we could imagine, and possibly many that we can’t.” (41)
Secondly, the inner concentric ring of the Occupy-supportive artist affinity group AAAAAA (called “a loose affiliation rather than a coherent whole” by one of the artists and not part of the official Occupy structure by design), bounces up against its own framing inside and outside of both the art and activism worlds. AAAAAA cannot function as a demonstration of new processes in the way the encampments could, because the opposing forces within the group have not realized such a structure – for many valid reasons relating to the cultural precarity and economic balancing act its members are mostly engaged in. AAAAAA is split between a determined looseness tied to the ability to retain creative agency but also the need for a collaborative support structure with the potential to become a dynamic laboratory for ideas. At times, AAAAAA struggles with its autonomy from the larger Occupy LA, recognizing that its loose status cuts off access to the way art can engage with politics and activists can engage with structures of art. John Burtle and John Barlog describe this inner war of artist ego and political project:
We were trying to have the meetings operate on the same type of consensus model that Occupy does, but artists are too individualistic/egoistic to have that work successfully. You know, there are people who are very verbal, have a vision and want that. Artists tend to be bad at trying to manipulate things discretely, and it was pretty obvious that some people had expectations that the group would become some sort of modern day situationist internationale, so they were pushing for something more coherent or formalized that they could attach their names to. And other people, myself included, were not interested in that at all. The AAAAAA group works better as a loose affiliation, rather than a coherent whole.
So rather than a forum for “creating the institutions of a new society ‘within the shell of the old’” as Graeber describes (7), AAAAAA functions more as a way to draw a thread between what Greg Sholette calls the “growing illumination of creative dark matter.” To Sholette, creative dark matter is a metaphor for the strengthening collective force of “artists who self-consciously choose to work on the outer margins of the mainstream art world for reasons of social, economic, and political critique.” (4) Many of the artists I interviewed in this series would fall into this category, in spite of the great success and reputation many have within art institutions as well, because most have practices (by choice) that are indelibly separated from the mainstream market-driven center of the art world.
Sholette describes the activist work of many such artists not as the revolutionary avant-garde, but rather as reflecting Michel de Certeau’s notion of the “everyday dissident,” the tactical trickster who uses mimicry and flexible tactics as a dispersed form of resistance. Sholette writes, “As opposed to the committed radical of early decades who rejected capitalism tout court, de Certeau’s rebel consumer uses the power of the market against itself.” (34) Sholette cautions us, however, that such activities are not necessarily “intrinsically progressive” or imbued with any kind of moral imperative. How can we then realize the potential of these artist/dissidents, Sholette wonders, and draw connections between “occasional eruptions?” (44) Perhaps this is more useful way to consider the AAAAAA project, and to realize its potential for progressive political activity – as bridge, thread, connector that may someday coalesce small actions to effect great change.