Today it appears as if art has entered the mainstream. Not only are the various international biennales and triennials sponsored by the biggest multi-national corporations, but they also form an important part of promotional strategies for tourism in their regions.
Similarly, new contemporary art museums like the Tate Modern in London or the Guggenheim in Bilbao have become popular tourist destinations. Outside of the cultural sphere advertising and marketing increasingly looks towards the contemporary art world for innovative and provocative visual design and content, while business has – according to the sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello – taken the calls for aesthetic freedom of the 1968 leftist uprisings to heart, and as a response introduced new management techniques that emphasize the ‘artistic’ values of flexibility, creativity, and self-organisation.
This has led in recent years to increasing economic emphasis being placed on what are called the ‘creative industries’. With many artists enjoying a celebrity rivaling film-stars, and prices for contemporary works often matching those for the old masters, we seem to be entering into a new age where the modernist ideal of art forming a cultural vanguard of experimentation and radical change has been completely subsumed and instrumentalised by capitalism. It is not that art has stopped being a laboratory for new ideas and modes of expression, it is rather that this laboratory is now integrated into the control and command centers of contemporary capitalism.
This leads us to the rather disturbing idea that art has not stopped exploring alternative futures and revolutionary forms of life, but that these explorations are now harnessed as the research and development wing for the production of visual and emotional commodities (from the mass-media to service industries). It seems there is nothing more valuable today than creativity and innovation.
This means that art has not stopped being political in its aims and outlook, but it has lost any position of exteriority or alternative from which it might base its critique or political intervention. Of course, there is a stream of art – one that is still alive and kicking today – that regards this as a good thing. The Constructivist artists of the Soviet revolution thought the political duty of the artist was to abolish the bourgeois separation of art and life, and to turn the function of the artist entirely over to the revolutionary construction of a new communist world. This led to some remarkable popular art, as artists used the mediums of advertisements, architecture and design, but could not survive the return of kitsch in Stalin’s demands for ‘soviet realism’.
In many ways we face the same problem today, art and life are increasingly close and perhaps have even become integrated under the more general term of aesthetics. Aesthetics today covers the realm of visual and emotional production that includes both art and business, both beauty and kitsch, and it is precisely this convergence that inspires either optimism and pessimism about the political potentials of art. On the one side there are those that say art is always already appropriated and instrumentalised by capitalism because there is no means of independent distribution.
In its extreme form this argument argues that when the internet allows the distribution of material ‘for free’ – as in the case of peer to peer networks – this ‘free’ thing and indeed this freedom is illusory, as capitalism will always take its cut through the rent paid on infrastructure and other hardware costs. On the other side are those that argue that it is precisely because visual and emotional production are becoming so important within contemporary economies that art is now in a better position than ever to really make a difference.
Deciding which view is right is of course often more a matter of personal inclination and personality than anything else, and if art has taught us anything it is that optimism and pessimism are equally good as inspiration in the hands of a great artist. Indeed, it could be said that optimism and pessimism are the basic inspiration of the two main threads of ‘political’ art that have marked this and the previous centuries.
Pessimism tends to be associated with art that wants to directly engage and critique the current state of affairs, and since the late 1960s and Conceptual art this current has slowly become dominant. This is, as its name suggests, an art that is strongly intellectual and discursive in its expressive forms, and engages with contemporary political issues in either a specific (art against the Iraq war) or general (feminist art) sense. This is an art that wants to give you information, and make you think. As a result, this work is often highly critical of the art world itself, regarding cultural institutions as being complicit with the economic and political structures the art wants to attack.
This is known as ‘institutional-critique’, and it has become so popular that it is, quite ironically, now taught in many of the most progressive art schools. On the other hand is what we have been calling ‘optimistic’ art, art that attempts to offer an experience that is new, and that might inspire a personal transformation on a minor or major scale, in one person or in many. Such work is more concerned with difference than with negation, in other words it wants to create something that offers a new view or feeling, rather than to critique what already is.
As a result such art is often disconnected to current events and more interested in abstract or formal concerns, taking as its content sensation in a pure sense that changes and so removes us from what is around us.
These two approaches to political art, to creating art that can change the world, are not mutually exclusive, despite the animosity that often exists between their practitioners. Jacques Ranciere, a contemporary French philosopher of art, has shown how in fact these two forms of modernist avant-garde – the one wanting to abolish art in life and the other wishing to create a new world through art – are finally two ways of doing the same thing. He argues that politics today is the control of what he calls the regimes of the seeable and the sayable, or in other words the political conditions determining what it is possible to see and say.
These conditions always exclude parts of the population (not least those parts that are still to be discovered or invented – alternative futures), and it is art’s function to introduce new views and feelings that include these parts of society that were or will be excluded. This he says, can be done in two ways, either by inventing new experiences that remain outside the existing regime, but precisely in their exteriority offer a new equality. Or by trying to change the terms of the existing regime, through a process of critique and struggle, also in order to achieve a new equality. These are our two forms of political art then, the first optimistic and the second pessimistic, but both united in the contestation of the existing conditions of what we can see and say. On the one side is invention and on the other is critique, and both are necessary and valid struggles undertaken by art today.
Stephen ZEPKE – Philosopher