Address to the 2005 Cork Caucus from Los Angeles

by Fred Dewey


Writers Note:
The following text is a slightly edited version of a 2005 address delivered in the form of a letter to the Cork Caucus, a European Union–sponsored gathering of activists, artists, and writers working around issues of public space in Cork, Ireland. I became aware of the assembly through Amsterdam-based artist Jeremiah Day, who had been invited to participate. Because of my own work on public space over the last fifteen years as writer, organizer, and the director of a cultural space in Los Angeles, some of it with Day, I thought it might be interesting, in the spirit of friendship and camaraderie, to offer the caucus some of my own thoughts and experiences as related to the conference’s mission statement.

My contribution intersected the concerns of Day and others in attendance about the absence of local bridge-building and a bias towards and from a global art elite that uses the language of democracy while reinforcing, wittingly or unwittingly, old patterns and problems. My critique was appended to the event’s official monograph. Footnotes were added for this publication.

As someone who has actively worked to build public space in Los Angeles politics and art, I applaud the Cork Caucus, and its artists and curators, for the focus on “development of the democratic model.” Such concern is desperately needed, especially as we in the United States descend into the darkness of a two-party/cartel dictatorship bereft of analysis or activity to answer it. The reasons such analysis and activity are missing here are of enormous gravity for Europe and the rest of the world. Not only is there a crisis in the Western democratic tradition and its political thinking in the U.S., but also the life and protection of the public realm itself seem very much in doubt. How this could be demands attention, because dictatorship in the U.S. along with the absence of any way of analyzing and opposing it successfully poses a danger to the entire planet.

Europeans are properly proud of their “social” model, yet from this vantage, from a country where the few existing elements of a social model have been dismantled, it seems worthwhile to ask: Are European social democracy and political freedom safe? Do Europeans have any idea what battles are being waged beneath the surface for the shape of the future? Democracy has not so much been destroyed in the U.S. as carefully steadily replaced over a century and a half by a stand-in whose most strategic effect has been to take the destruction of democracy off the table as a topic. The U.S. poses for the world—setting the pace for elites everywhere—a model of Democracy, capital “D,” designed precisely to disappear deepening dictatorship. The reasons for this bear on your struggles, on European modes of thinking about protecting democracy and the artist’s role in it. Without a real public realm, nothing can last and no one will be safe.

Europeans have through enormous effort and costly lessons learned to circumscribe the merely economic realm. This is threatening to the American governing structure, for in the U.S. the economy’s tyranny is total. There is no longer a concept of freedom that is not economic at its root. I would postulate that, further, the economic is a subset of the social generally, and that there is almost no model of freedom left here that is not at its root social.

               Under the social, matters are reduced to questions of value, measurement, status, process, and single interests. This is very different from what I would call concerns of the political realm: those of meaning, speech, power, plurality, commonality, and action. Under the social, the latter set of concerns is replaced with things that only look like they are political. In the U.S., the social and economic takeover of politics is complete; it forms the heart of a left-right, two-party center system dictatorship. This takeover profoundly affects the success or failure and certainly the stability and permanence of any art, art discourse (critical or not), and the structure of the art world itself. The result is that so-called critics of the system and those concerned with art and public space virtually never focus on the political structure of the society, assuming that social structure is defined by economics and that the struggle for democracy must be economic and social. This, in fact and unwittingly, only confirms the working principles of the dictatorship.

               I would argue that, unfortunately, the insufficiencies of the concern with the social can be found in concerns, however legitimate, for social justice, social reform, and social change. Change is described as good, but seldom in truly political terms; the social as a measure and principle focuses us on status, movements, identities, social and group activities, and social rather than political equality. Such a focus cannot hope to address the political potential of a plural people. It has become almost impossible to see how much the social is a graveyard for vibrant, plural, empowered public space rooted in locality and place. That is why I believe it would help to begin rethinking the political—as the non-statistical, non-economic, non-bureaucratic people, all of us with our multiple and legitimate desires for stable grounded power and appearance—beyond group, identity, and movement. We must get past the replacement of the political by the social. This only assures that the people cannot imagine themselves in their plurality and power; they cannot, ultimately, even find each other, and certainly not as distinct actors and speakers, to come together in a way that would actualize their power and reality. It is here we arrive at the common dilemma and the relevance of this to the Cork Caucus and its premises.

One of the marks of total society, in the U.S. and, I suspect, in Europe as well, is domination by managers and professionals and the relentless confusion of professionals with the public and the public realm. The failure to see a European Union as a possible guarantor against domination, against a world movement born in the U.S., is one example of this. The Cork Caucus of artists and arts professionals echoes this, by framing itself in terms of “the relation between art and social change in a specific place” and debating “the ambition of art to intervene in social life and political thinking.” As in the U.S., those of us concerned with democracy seem to prefer and trust “social change” and “social life” over political freedom, power for people, constitutions, and public life, not to mention serious political and historical analysis, imprisoning in social terms and concerns the role art and organization can play in a secure public world of appearance. It is hard to accept, and see, that social change is not necessarily opposed to totalitarian processes—it can be their signature and means. The social has no necessary relation to political freedom or public space, time, or action. To praise the “ambition of art to intervene in social life and political thinking” puts the public realm, the realm of the people rather than managers, to the side.

I would like to refer to personal experiences of mine in Los Angeles, for they bear on the notions of the “caucus” and the “development of the democratic model” that your mission embraces: first, my efforts to build neighborhood assemblies and councils and second, to build public space and time through an alternative space for art and poetry. Your description of a caucus is a model I am familiar with: “people stand in various corners of the room with the biggest group winning the day.” This can just as well describe a dictatorial shareholders’ or party meeting and in no way assures the engagement and activation of a truly public plural space and time. It describes, at the neighborhood level, experiences I have had of the destruction of the council form by factions and slates. Domination by a majority is oppressive on the one hand and subject to fabrication and falsification on the other. I have personally witnessed neighborhood votes where control of the machinery of voting and publicity enabled a small group to be openly, publicly, and falsely called the majority; this has now become widespread, of course, all the way up to the national level, where vote-rigging and fabrication of a fictional majority is used to crush all political life and reality.

At the same time, I have experienced, again and again, in attempting to foster a truly plural space for culture and poetry in Los Angeles, the domination of a professional and market realm claiming to be the public, even as it is subverting plural democratic activity, experience, and action. The very possibility of a parallel cultural space and time safe from social and economic dictatorship, one that might nurture the seeds of resistance, public life, language, and democratic public renewal, is neutralized. Society in both cases, in the first in the form of ruthless parties and factions, in the second in the form of groups, cliques, and coteries, overwhelms a plural public realm and places it beyond the realm of recoverable experience and meaning.

It seems fitting to ask, at this point, why Joseph Beuys, an artist I understand to be a “patron saint” of the Cork Caucus, chose at a pivotal Documenta in Kassel, Germany, to make his artwork the distribution of shopping bags printed with a detailed map of the party/political structure of his country. From my vantage, this is a remarkable moment in the history of art’s relation to “development of the democratic model.” In 1971, Beuys devised such chart and titled it How the Dictatorship of the Parties Can Be Overcome. At the Palazzo Taverna in Rome on April 12, 1972, Beuys addressed the problem: “What is missing is the concept of ‘freedom’…freedom as a function of democratic law and the constitution, though it bears on economic life.” For Beuys, democracy is “not the word as it is used by political parties in their campaign slogans, but in the more concrete meaning of the term: ‘power to the people.’ We must strive for a system that allows the people—meaning all the individuals living in a given country—to offer their own contribution to the creation of a truly democratic constitution. This must be our goal.”1

To call out for a gathering of art professionals in the form of a caucus is a tremendous beginning. But where will the debate occur, among whom, and to what end? And what is its goal? Is the formation of an assembly an elite party a professional activity or a truly public activity dedicated to activating and securing a stable realm of appearance for all people and things? A caucus is a party-building party-maintaining exercise. In the U.S., such forms have almost entirely replaced the people’s space, time, and power.

I would like to pose, for the viability of a stable public world, that we consider, in terms of art objects and practices, the meaning of Beuys’s statement in 1972 that “Democracy must be built, and not by parties, by the overweening domination of a minority but through the contribution and participation of all citizens.” Can we think about such things without slipping into clichés? Beuys’s concern in the Palazzo Taverna discussion, with “freedom for society as a whole,” is more timely than ever: “The people continue to act in accordance with a system of delegation, representing itself by voting for people nominated by parties. In this way, the people voluntarily surrenders its right to manage jointly together with its right to self-determination.” “The constitution deriving from the people” deals with the constituting of all things, art included, as public things. What is at stake, however, is a structural matter: the principle of “endowing the people with all the powers that at present are held by the State.” I would argue, in summary, that this last statement by Beuys is a more effective beginning precisely because it is political.

Finally, I would like to conclude with an apology for an incident which, in my opinion, provides an example of the U.S.’s unfortunate role in the burial of such principles. Benjamin Buchloh’s public assassination of Beuys in 1980, in reviewing his Guggenheim retrospective, was an omen of the enormous cultural damage that would shortly unfold in the Reagan era, destroying for many artists a potent route for political reconstruction in the U.S. I would argue that Buchloh, by favoring the economic analysis pursued by Hans Haacke—a nonetheless important and helpful artist—helped, in his way, to pave the way for disaster. Buchloh’s review served, entirely indirectly, to discredit the political concerns and formulations Beuys was trying to establish and propose. I wish to contribute my part in acknowledging this deed, in the U.S. first but then for others, that was aimed at the very political beginnings that have led you all to gather, undaunted, as you are today.2

With warmest regards and high hopes for your assembly,

Frederick Dewey

Director, Beyond Baroque Literary/Arts Center, Los Angeles

Co-founder Neighborhood Councils Movement

1. Joseph Beuys, “We are the Revolution. A Free and Democratic Socialism,” in Lucrezia De Domizio Durini, The Felt Hat: Joseph Beuys. A Life Told (Charta: Milan, 1997), 137–59. Even Beuys, here, is haunted by the inability to frame “the political” as separate from “the social.”

2. Leaving for another day Benjamin Buchloh’s highly influential (in the U.S.) framing of Beuys as a revanchist German fascist, I was not quite accurate in saying that Buchloh preferred Hans Haacke’s Marxist and social focus. Nevertheless, the contrast in the treatment of Haacke and Beuys at the time is revealing: while Haacke was punished for his photo piece on the New York slumlord and museum donor Harry J. Shapolsky while being supported by the art world, Beuys was generally dismissed for focusing on (German) party/political structure and proposing new institutions for art, economics, education, and politics. Buchloh called Beuys’s efforts “simple-minded utopian drivel lacking elementary political and educational practicality,” dismissing his effort to “make politics into art” as “the criteria of the totalitarian in art.” Buchloh, “Beuys: Twilight of the Idol” (1980), reprinted in Joseph Beuys: Mapping the Legacy (DAP: New York, 2001), xx. Beuys was finding Marxist and social approaches limited, and Buchloh, in my opinion, successfully turned the U.S. art establishment against him for stepping outside the social realm of the academic/art world. A further and thorough discussion of this clash, at the critical juncture of 1980, would be highly useful.