Grassroots Modernism/Issue 8         Writer's Biographies         Purchase Issue 8 in Print

The Slow Breakdown of the Art/Politics Divide

By Sue Yank

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, i 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.

According to Rancière in his article Problems and Transformations in Critical Art, the avant-garde project in art "intends to raise consciousness of the mechanisms of domination in order to turn the spectator into a conscious agent in the transformation of the world." However, promoting understanding alone does little to incite action amongst the oppressed, and rather than engendering a greater capacity for resistance, art settles for the appearance of it. Not only that, as Rancière puts it, "critical art that invites you to see the signs of Capital behind everyday objects and behaviors risks inscribing itself into the perpetuation of a world where the transformation of things into signs redoubles the very excess of interpretive signs that make all resistance disappear."ii To avoid this risk, some suggest that art must withdraw from politics altogether. This reading of critical art suggests the impossibility of the political implications of aesthetics, yet depends on the assumption that the avant-garde project was indeed solely dedicated to raising consciousness through formal means. In his excellent article on social participation in the radical avant-garde, Gavin Grindon urges another reading of the avant garde- not based on the failure of its ideological critique but rather on its continued social engagement with "revolutionary agency.”iii By re-articulating art's autonomy as contributing to a political and social tactic rather than a formal one, as an oppositional response to the mechanisms of capitalism rather than an ineffectual retreat from it, Grindon positions the aesthetic avant-garde within the context of larger political social movements, especially in the early twentieth century. He traces this lineage from Dada and Surrealism to today's socially-engaged art practices which, he argues, comprise the actual success of the avant-garde.iv

In Grindon's analysis of the shifting meaning of the autonomy of art over time, we can gain some insight into how such divisions service the commodification of art and the perpetuation of a capitalist system. He speaks of the autonomy of art as holding a "positive sense of embodied autonomous labour-power"v in which the autonomy of art is freedom from any means-end relationship. Grindon articulates this as the "play-drive" as described by Friedrich Schiller and Emmanuel Kant. In this sense, art's autonomous social value could be read as having distinct political implications - as Grindon writes, "this ambiguous tension between aesthetic play and capitalist work meant that it was possible for the notion of art as play to be reactively articulated against work. The sovereignty of art, expressed in autonomy-as-a-value's ideal of free play, could be imagined as allied with attacks on other forms of sovereignty, such as that of capital or the state."vi Here, we clearly see how the social tactics of art's autonomy in the avant-garde were once aligned with a radical political agenda. Seeking such freedom for art (art for art’s sake) backfired on progressive modernists, and art became increasingly absorbed into a closed formalist sphere – in which the purely visual, self-determining nature of art held it necessarily separate from the coarse realities of society and politics. Formalism quickly absorbed artists and cultural institutions into the grip of an increasingly self-referential discourse, but underlying the nuances of discussions regarding color, line, and form lay a more insidious and hidden means of conservative control over a previously progressive societal element. Art historian Christopher Witcombe sums up this evolution:

In the hands of the conservative establishment, formalism became a very effective instrument of control over unruly and disruptive art. Many of the art movements spawned in the first half of the 20th century can be seen as various attempts to break the formalist grip on progressive modernism. The system, though, articulated by the more academic art historians and critics, operating hand–in–hand with the art market which was only interested in money and not meaning, effectively absorbed all attempts at subversion and revolt into a neutral, palatable, only occasionally mildly offensive history of art of the kind encountered today in art history textbooks.vii

Though today's cultural institutions are no longer (and perhaps never were) based on closed formalisms alone, a persistent cloistering of the social has driven a wedge between the historical political avant-garde and its attendant social movements and the "failed" aesthetic avant-garde. Rather than art playing a significant role in disrupting the status quo, revealing systemic injustices, and proposing alternate societal forms (as the best art still does, in many formats) the field as a whole overwhelmingly surrendered its radical social relevance for self-reflexive quotation and mild, toothless subversion. Even as “the social” or “the political” has entered critical discourse, museums and academia have largely succeeded in formalizing these elements as self-referential and aesthetic aspects of often performative or participatory art works – especially evident in the relational aesthetics and institutional critique works of the 80s and 90s. Confining social or political subject matter to the concerns of the institution perpetuates an insularity that undermines the true political potential of the avant-garde.

The reverberating implications of decontextualizing the aesthetic avant-garde from political and social action are evident in universities. Art departments have struggled to reconcile their pedagogical development amidst growing pressures to demonstrate their revenue-generating viability and bolster the existing capitalist system. Rather than a move towards greater relevancy, the entrenched division separating aesthetics from political action has caused departments to contort themselves to satisfy these provisions. Many schools have uber-professionalized their programs, in some cases by withdrawing further into insularviii discourse (the recent popularization of visual arts doctoral degrees comes to mind here) . As Grant Kester proposes in his keynote address at a recent UCIRA conference, echoing theorists and teaching artists such as Ernesto Pujol and Boris Groys, “[The University, especially departments of art and humanities] has evolved a curious symmetry with modern notions of art and the aesthetic as sequestered realms dedicated to the preservation of certain utopian impulses, carried over from our religious past in desacralized form. These include the harmonious reconciliation of the individual and the social, the cultivation of an ostensibly intrinsic ethical impulse, and a projected notion of humanity striving towards perfection or improvement.”ix Kester is implying that as currently formulated, the social in university art departments is a false utopian representation, divorced from reality, and arising from the self-reflection of the individuals within. Upon entering the art market or public cultural institutions, the social is a continuation of this introverted introversion (the insularity of the “art world” and the artist). social constructs of the utopian art department and that of the art world (as well as the ill-defined space where they overlap ) are irrelevant to a larger social context, and herein lies the conundrum.

We may wonder why these seemingly artificial divisions between art and politics continue to persist (especially in the face of dwindling funding ), and sociologist Mary Douglas reminds us that institutions have a peculiar way of tactically remembering and forgetting, and this revisionist tendency I completely related to inscribing the current social order.) As Douglas writes, "the revisionary effort is not aimed at producing the perfect optic flat. The mirror, if that is what history is, distorts as much after revision as it did before. The aim of revision is to get the distortions to match the mood for the present times."x The distinction of a political, activist avant-garde as separate from the formalist, modern notions of art and the aesthetic in art history persist in our universities and museums because it is a convenient construction of history that matches our present mechanisms of domination - not because such a separation was deliberate or always evident in history (in fact, Grindon makes an excellent point that aesthetic production in social movements and radical political ambitions in art were fluid, couched spheres in the early twentieth century Dada and Surrealist movements).xi In ignoring the social, our institutions are in fact an object demonstration of our current socio-political reality.

Though we cannot always call these the perpetuation of the art/politics separation deliberate ( Douglas cautions us that institutions cannot have purposes), they are systemic. In fact, institutions "direct individual memory and channel our perceptions into forms compatible with the relations they authorize."xii What social relations are authorized by this tactical division, and in service to what larger order? Art education in this country, along with modern notions of art and the aesthetic, seeks to cultivate new forms of consciousness in the passive receiver, inevitably emphasizing the division between the enlightened and active expert/artist and the ignorance of the student/viewer. The structural amnesiaxiii of cultural institutions is reflective of the current social order, and resistance is difficult to maintain in the face of it. History is institutionalized through the incentive of private transactions - as Douglas maintains, "a community works because the transactions balance out," .xiv Through this institutionalization, we see the commodity-form of art, the role of the artist, the social autonomy of art lose its political implication and social history in favor of aesthetic formalism. As such (and as Peter Burger laments ), art's autonomy comes to mean withdrawal and reification, which enhances exchange (rather than social) value to the art object and "can only serve to affirm, legitimate, and stabilize a capitalist society."xv This formalization threatens to undercut art’s revolutionary agenda of social and political change.

So how, then, can cultural institutions become a site for political action and social change? Not only through a transparency and porosity that addresses these entrenched divisions , but by crossing boundaries illuminated by this critique and instituting new systems. The boundaries laid out above are persistent, but are more collapsible than they seem - historically the social implications of art practice have impacted activist agendas, and current tactics move fluidly between the activist imagery in art and aesthetic production in social movements. Though current institutions may continue to systemically remember only the failure of the avant-garde and thus the necessary divisions between art and politics, a Modernist notion of the social is emerging which opens the university and cultural institution as potential sites for political change. As Kester calls for in his UCIRA address, there is a value in preserving the university (and specifically the Arts and Humanities) as a place where new ideas can be discussed for their own sake – not driven by the forces of the market, capitalism, and neoliberal politics. In a way, art departments must become the “conscience of the art world” – and universities the conscience of our broader social context.xvi This call re-constructs the social agenda in art, in which the autonomy of the university department is once again structurally and institutionally oppositional to capitalist mechanisms rather than withdrawn completely from them. This agenda is neither utopian or Romantic in its overtones (whether in the university or the museum) - this is not an attempt to construct social relations in hermetic white cube settings à la relational aesthetics - but rather enacts larger social orders through transparent production, and deconstructs hidden labor-powers endemic to institutional systems. The Serpentine Gallery in London’s Hyde Park is an excellent current example, structuring its organization horizontally so as to equalize educational (social), activist, and aesthetic programs under the same umbrella. This fluidity allows for innovative programs like the Serpentine’s Edgware Road project series – community engaged artistic interventions, educational public programs, community spaces, and sweeping multi-year social practice projects (like Ultra-red’s school curriculum project) all centered in the same South London neighborhood. The concerns of the artists’ projects mirror those of the people who live on Edgware Road, and test new systemic actions to address social realities – often over the course of years.xvii

Though the Serpentine is a rare example of an institution experimenting with new systemic models, individual artists have consistently striven to blur these boundaries, occasionally even with the support of traditional institutions. Though ironically a poster child for relational aesthetics in the 1990s, Rikrit Tiravanija's current artistic practice is evolutionary in its iterations, often seizing on a theme or way of working and building upon possible tendrils of meaning, form, distribution processes, and contexts over a series of exhibitions and projects – while successfully responding to the restrictions and constructions of an institution or art context in the process. His current work includes collections of traditional images of protest from around the world (hand-made signage, peaceful and violent gatherings, rallies and marches) clipped from newspapers and then carefully re-drawn by art students in Thailand and elsewhere. These images are then displayed within institutions around the world - framed as works on paper, fabricated into silk-screened wallpaper, drawn as collaborative wall murals over the course of an exhibition, or translated into sound and pressed on to vinyl records. Alongside this, Tiravanija has begun to experiment with the fabrication, distribution and display of that most ubiquitous and anonymous vehicle of protest imagery, the t-shirt. Sporting tongue-in-cheek phrases like “No Country for Old Prime Minister” (distributed and photographed at the Bangkok protests of 2008), or “Less Oil More Courage” (which has since made its way on to Greenpeace tote bags), these shirts have most recently been fabricated by art students in a makeshift pop-up shop in Gavin Brown’s space in New York, and displayed in “parades” (not protests or marches) on the backs of teenage models in art fair contexts. The slogans, a jumble of appropriated, submitted, and made-up phrases referring to a variety of social issues and protest contexts, are gathered haphazardly into the frame of art before fluidly migrating back into life.

Tiravanija employs, embraces and lays bare the distribution methods of imagery dedicated to social change (of the t-shirt, the newspaper, the hand-made sign, the protest gathering, the gallery, , the spectacle), as well as issues of labor and authorship - and this, perhaps the most compelling and critical aspect of his work, is also what opens him to the most vitriolic criticism. After a recent talk at USC, a young MFA student attacked Tiravanija for using the labor of “Thai children” to produce his work, for failing to produce anything with the trace of his own hand, for ethical irresponsibility and charlatanism.xviii This reaction is completely reflective of the endemic institutionalization of an art/politics divide, but artists like Tiravanija are creating critical art by contributing to the social and political processes in their aesthetic production. By re-appropriating anonymous activist imagery to an artistic context and applying complex layers of authorship and distribution to it (like licensing slogans for free to Greenpeace, selling t-shirts for $10-20 fabricated by paid art students, re-drawing media images, and producing parades/not protests ), Tiravanija is collapsing an aesthetic and political agenda through his work that rejects art's autonomy and comments on the opaque mechanisms of the market. Rather than attempt to assert or remove himself, rather than insist upon a false frame for what he does, Tiravanija navigates the many complexities and contradictions of these very systems of aesthetic distribution, influence, and power to produce images as commodities to be sure – but commodities that announce (and implicitly critique) their own means of production. He is merely one of a diverse number of artists and collectives that make work that fluidly transgresses divides - and their work is increasingly recognized by cultural institutions. Though a re-writing of institutional memory is slow and reluctant, the artificial divides that separate art from a larger social order are gradually breaking down. A radical institution can follow his and others’ lead.


i This narrative was made central by Peter Bürger in his Theory of the Avant-Garde (University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 1984).

ii Jacques Rancière, “Problems and Transformations in Critical Art,” in Participation, ed. Claire Bishop (Whitechapel and The MIT Press: Cambridge, 2006), 83.

iii Grindon prefers the term “radical” so as to use a less-totalizing terminology to refer to the “section of the avant-garde which sought anti-capitalist social change through its practice,” but also uses “revolutionary agency” to refer to Peter Bürger’s distinction from ideological critique. Gavin Grindon, “Surrealism, Dada, and the Refusal of Work: Autonomy, Activism, and Social Participation in the Radical Avant-Garde,” Oxford Art Journal 34, no. 1 (2011), 81. Reprinted in issue 8 of JOAAP online.

iv Grindon, “Surrealism, Dada, and the Refusal of Work,” 81.

v Grindon, “Surrealism, Dada, and the Refusal of Work,” 82.

vi Grindon, “Surrealism, Dada, and the Refusal of Work,” 83.

vii Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe, “Art for Art’s Sake,”

viii I use the term “insular” not to suggest that artists in these programs are unconcerned with political or social action outside of cultural institutions, but rather that they are operating within a system and frame that privileges self-reference rather than subversion.

ix Grant Kester, keynote address “State of the Arts with Grant Kester” at the Future Tense conference hosted by University of California Institute for Research in the Arts (UCIRA), University of California San Diego (UCSD), November 19-21, 2010, (link)

x Mary Douglas, How Institutions Think, (Syracuse University Press: Syracuse, 1986), 69.

xi Grindon, “Surrealism, Dada, and the Refusal of Work,” 82-83.

xii Douglas, How Institutions Think, 92.

xiii “Structural amnesia” is a term that first emerged in the writings of social anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard in the 1940s to refer to the differences in public, institutional memory (or lack of memory or willful lack of memory?) across societies related to and determined by their transactional social orders and hierarchies. Cited in Douglas, How Institutions Think, 70.

xiv Douglas, How Institutions Think, 74.

xv Grindon, “Surrealism, Dada, and the Refusal of Work,” 83.

xvi Kester, keynote address, November 19-21, 2010.

xvii Serpentine Gallery, Edgware Road Project, (link)

xviii Rikrit Tiravanija, Master of Public Art Studies Critical Conversations series, University of Southern California (USC), March 22, 2011.