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Together, What Can We Do?

This was a guest post (originally here) for the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest blog, in response to this call out, about how people practicing whatever kind of activist-art can engage with the current vogue for this stuff among big art institutions and how it gets curated by them. The call out was written partly in response to my earlier post about the Berlin Biennale on the protest camps blog, which coincided with a parallel, similar response by Stephen Lambert and Stephen Duncombe to the Creative Time summit. The other posts on the JOAAP site are well worth a look too.


Pick Apart the Different Approaches

The claim often made by art critics and historians of activist-art, that “this is bad art but good politics” (or more rarely heard, vice versa) is inadequate to address either its art or its politics. In so far as this art is explicit about its uses, the two are interdependent. Tania Bruguera has framed this work as ‘useful art’1 but in discerning the specific kinds of use involved, we might more critically say that this is strategic art. As is often observed, this work does not attempt only critique or representation, but action and change. Writing about this work then needs to engage with its aims and its use of resources, position and manoeuvre towards these aims. Similarly the claim that this work represents an ‘ethical turn’ requires an imaginary prelapsarian state of aesthetic autonomy from which this work has turned. Behind its seeming neutral periodisation lies the old familiar bourgeois fear of ‘fine’ art falling to crude ‘propaganda’ (itself a claim tied not just to fine art’s ideological ways of seeing, but to the strategies of exclusive cultural policies that sustain it). This strategic aspect was not lacking from previous art, but simply unaddressed, or critiqued without action. The turn here is not towards ethics, but strategy.

Art history, even in the form of visual cultural studies, is not conceptually well-equipped to writing about this work. Art-historical terms which try to identify and grasp a coherent artistic community or tendency—whether ‘social practice,’ ‘activist-art’ or earlier, ‘interventionism’—are far weaker and more vague as a means to grasp the wide breadth of strategies involved in this area. This is a problem of composition. Critically moving forward would mean picking apart some of the different approaches taken within what is actually a very broad strategic range. Not just in what works aim to achieve, but in their methods—even when using the same words to describe them. What critics, artists, and others actually mean by ‘activism,’ or the specific organisational forms of ‘social practice,’ can vary widely, from direct action to community organising or various forms of social or charitable work.

One way to grasp this strategy, as Stephen Duncombe has in his work, is to draw not on art history but on the world of marketing strategy. He and Steve Lambert argue that the most relevant tools might be found in “textbooks in the fields of marketing, advertising, and public relations. Theories in human cognition and decision making, for example, are far more applicable, useful, and insightful into the work of the artistic activist than discussion of its relation to the newest aesthetic or Albers’ color theory.”2 Indeed, many coinages to grasp this work draw from these worlds, from Holmes’ “Reverse Imagineers” to Duncombe’s own “ethical spectacle.”3 We might argue, as the autonomist Raniero Panzieri did of academic sociology and its method of inquiry, that we can re-engineer these disciplines’ conceptual tools into weapons, if only we hold them right.4 But holding them right involves a close attention to how these tools ordinarily function. The most common basic problems are that they negate any conception of already-existing agency in characterising their subjects in the role of passive receivers, or that although they also focus on the efficacy of success, what they mean by winning is something very different and so their criteria of measuring it is problematic. For example, some critics argue that their very means of measuring agency are also the means of exploitation.5 At least some of the values of real grassroots social change may be ‘immeasurable’ in these terms. The risk here is of providing a fuzzy language which, eliding key issues of strategy, instead eases the passage of radical cultural opposition not just into forms of ‘ambient advertising’ but into other cultural forms of ‘ethical’ capitalism, for example in artists offering to museums educational programs whose visibility and critique is diminished, or a box checked in their social responsibility programs and policies.6

Arguably less warped by capitalist strategy and more easily appropriated are some of the more critical tendencies within the disciplines of history, sociology, design, and material culture. Their attention to history from below, peoples’ history, social movement studies, or ‘the material turn’ of affect and effect provide a conceptual vocabulary often already allied with existing grassroots political strategies. This is an approach I’ve tried to develop in my use of notions such as ‘affective composition’ in an article reprinted in the last issue of JOAAP.7 Perhaps the closest disciplinary language is provided by returning to the notion of art’s existing uses. Although often less critical than these latter disciplines, cultural policy studies (and with a narrower institutional focus, museum studies) are directly concerned with the social role and impact of art and culture, and usefully do so in a manner that, already closely tied to current artistic modes of production and reception, allows an easier entry into existing discourses and debates on art and its institutions. Activist-art’s strategic focus on social impact and institutions means that here the artists’ work expands into cultural policy’s realm of concerns. What it does is forge one part of what Stefano Harney and Fred Moten have framed as what we might call a kind of cultural policy from below.8 That is, activist-art’s labour and strategy extend organisationally into the labour and strategy usually only attended to by others around the artist and their work (from museum workers up to government employees). But the policy they take part in attempts to enact a strategy of instituting the common rather than enclosing it, and the institutions through which it is enacted are not usually those of government, but at root, those of social movement.


1 Bruguera’s ‘Conversation on Useful Art’ took place in New York on 23 April 2011 and in London on 27 May; and Dean Kenning and I organised the symposium, ‘Art… What’s the Use?’ on 14 Jan 2011 at London’s Whitechapel Gallery.

2 Stephen Duncombe and Steve Lambert, “An Open Letter to Critics Writing About Political Art.”

3 Brian Holmes, “Reverse Imagineering: Toward the New Urban Struggles“, Stephen Duncombe, Dream: Reimagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, New Press, New York, 2007.

 4 ”A socialist sociological practice demands a rethinking of sociological tools in the light of the hypothesis underlying this basic assumption: given that conflicts are functional to a system that is advanced by them, they can be turned into antagonisms and no longer be functional to the system.” Raniero Panzieri, “Socialist Uses of Workers’ Inquiry”.

 5 See Massimo De Angelis, Measure, Excess and Translation,” The Commoner, 12, 2007.

 6 A parallel strategic critique argues of earlier community art that it was often turned into ineffective but cheap forms of social work. Martha Rosler, “Theses on Defunding,” Art, Activism and Oppositionality: Essays from Afterimage, Duke University Press, Durham, 1998 pp.94-135.

 7 Gavin Grindon, “Surrealism, Dada and the Refusal of Work: Autonomy, Activism and Social Participation in The Radical Avant Garde” The Oxford Art Journal 34:1, 2011, pp.79-96.

 8 Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, “Policy and Planning,” Social Text 27:3, 2009, pp.182-187.