The antinomy of art and politics: A critique of art as “cultural resistance”
Platypus Review 39 | September 2011
At the 2011 Left Forum, held at Pace University between March 18–21, Platypus hosted a conversation on the theme of Aesthetics in Protests. Panelists Stephen Duncombe (Reclaim the Streets), Marc Herbst (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest), Chris Mansour (Platypus), Laurel Whitney (The Yes Men), were asked to consider: “What are the historical roots that contribute to the use of current aesthetic interventions in political protests? In what ways do they expand or limit the possibilities for protests to transform the social order? How does experimenting with aesthetic and artistic sensibilities influence our political consciousness and practice?” The same theme was the subject of another event held at the New School in NYC on May 23, which featured Marc Herbst (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest), Chris Mansour (Platypus), A.K. Burns (W.A.G.E.), and Beka Economopoulos (Not An Alternative). A full recording of the discussion at the Left Forum can be found at the above link. Recordings of both events are available at the above links. The article that follows is a modified version of the opening remarks made by Chris Mansour of Platypus at both events.
The very notion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political position.—George Orwell
Gustave Courbet, Still Life: Fruit, c.1871-1872. Oil on canvas, 23 1/8" x 28 1/4" (59 x 72 cm)
There is an interesting passage in Herbert Marcuse’s short book, Counterrevolution and Revolt, which aims to flesh out how art relates to politics. In reflecting on art’s role in revolutionary struggle, Marcuse writes,
In its practice, art does not abandon its own exigencies and does not quit its own dimension: it remains non-operational. In art, the political goal appears only in the transfiguration which is the aesthetic form. The revolution may well be absent from the oeuvre even while the artist himself is “engaged,” is a revolutionary.
Marcuse cites the example of Courbet, whose paintings signal the birth of modernism, and who founded a socialist club in 1848 and was then a member of the governing council of the Paris Commune in 1871. Yet, as counterintuitive as it might seem, Marcuse remarks that “[there is] no direct testimony of the revolution in his paintings…[and they contain] no political content.” The “weight and sensuality” of Courbet’s still lifes—which were painted shortly after the collapse of the Commune—are far more “powerful” than any “political painting” could ever be. Writing these statements in 1972—four years after the failed “revolutions” of 1968—it was becoming clearer to Marcuse that the politics of the New Left were losing their grip and its revolutionary energy was deflating. Likewise, the situation that Courbet found himself in after 1848 or 1871 was probably similar to, if not more tragic than, 1968.
The separation between art and political activity that Marcuse was pointing to in Courbet may appear a bit strange to self-proclaimed cultural radicals or art-activists today. From Marcuse’s point of view, art remains autonomous from any exterior motives other than itself, and art cannot—and should not—act merely as a functional device for putting forth political aims.  “Political” art, actually abdicates its status not only as an art object, but also as an object potentially producing a novel political effect. But, on the other hand, we can also see why this approach of treating art as autonomous seems especially fraught for a politically minded person; weighing in on art’s formal qualities is ostensibly apolitical in nature and has no direct link to improving the qualities of social life. Construed this way, Marcuse’s inclination is viewed as a retreat from politics during a time of political crisis for the Left, and any deep concerns over aesthetics are perceived to be staunchly conservative, as a distraction from the “real issues” at stake. It is this latter view that we should interrogate.
As art has continued to develop since Marcuse’s time, the perceived necessity and desirability of keeping art autonomous has been under increasing attack. More and more cultural productions under contemporary art have been given some kind of political function and are understood as the wave of the future in progressive artistic practice. I would like to categorize the projects that seek to directly influence political life under the umbrella term “cultural resistance,” irrespective of whether some of these projects are considered to exist in the realm of art or not. Regardless of what forms they may take, or what discipline they are considered to reside in, upholding a politics of resistance best summarizes all these practices—and it is this core politics that remains under-clarified but widely expressed.
Cultural resistance seeks to dissolve the boundary between art and political life by making art socially responsible (or “operational” in Marcuse’s terms). Historically, socially responsible art has taken many forms, from designed objects to artworks that incorporate direct commentary on political events, or even works that seek to become instruments in social life. Cultural resistance has its roots in the constructivist movement, which originated in the early stages of the October Revolution, and in the “committed” literature and theater of Brecht and Sartre in the early to mid-20th century. Whereas once the political commitment of art was contentious and sparked a whole series of critical debates between some of the most important Marxist thinkers of the day, art as cultural resistance has now successfully created a niche for itself in the mainstream art world and is generally left unchallenged. The examples are endless: there is art activism seen in protest groups such as the now defunct ACT-UP or the Guerilla Girls; public stunts and media intrusions under the rubric of culture-jamming committed by Reverend Billy or The Yes Men, which seek to satirize mainstream culture tainted by consumerism; in the performance arts, a movement known as relational aesthetics or social practice set up platforms for social interactions beyond the alienation brought about by capitalism, as seen in the collective Critical Art Ensemble or the artist Jeremy Deller; and finally, there are interventionalist practices that carry out Situationist inspired détournements that are meant to symbolically subvert the capitalist system, seen in performances by William Pope.L or the “subvertisments” of Adbusters magazine.
To survey these people and groups, one has to wonder why, at our current historical moment, so much political energy is put into aesthetic, often largely symbolic practices. Conversely, why must so much art, in order to justify itself as art, rely to such a large degree on a putative ability to perform political work? Despite its apparent place at the cutting edge, why is it that such practices oddly hearken back and even echo the quaint moralistic arguments about the social good art does, and how art is “good for the soul”? In short, what is actually at stake, for art as well as for politics, in intentionally blurring the boundaries between art and politics? Is art emancipated thereby? And are we? If we are going to assess the quality of such projects, it might do them better justice to analyze them on different standards, judging them on their aesthetics and their politics.
One, cultural resistance cannot simply voice support for a particular political program, or if it does, reduces itself to little more than a one-dimensional slogan. So in trying to escape this sort of pigeonhole, cultural resistance art aspires to educate its audience, provoking them to experience a new kind of “attitude” towards life. But in seeking to invite its audience to share a certain attitude, cultural resistance art unwittingly reinforces what may be one of the most disturbing aspects of the status quo that it claims to be disrupting, namely, the fact that so much of politics exists only at the level of subjective “attitudes.” It is thus hard to see how such art would adequately raise political consciousness in the service of overcoming the conditions that are supposedly being resisted.
A performative protest action by Reverend Billy and "The Church" in Times Square in New York City.
On the one hand, in the attempt to convey the “truth” of social reality through acts of cultural resistance, political questions of how best to respond to the dynamics of capitalism are trivialized, flattened out to suit the predigested message to be delivered. Art as cultural resistance often takes for granted precisely what a reflective political approach would seek to raise as a problem that needs to be worked through. Reverend Billy loses all his satirical force when it becomes clear that his politics are really no more than persuading consumers to “see the light” by resisting the urge of materialism and conspicuous consumption. He preaches a politics of lifestyle to combat the alienated dreamworld of capitalism, as if all one needs to do is snap out of it, as though the world were only just sleepwalking. In Reverend Billy’s rhetoric, what constrains our freedom in the modern world is understood as a mass addiction to consumption. In the language of politics, the utopian character of Reverend Billy’s performative activism is little more than a promotion of the petty bourgeois demand for “local economies” and the romantic return to a more immediate experience that was supposedly existent prior to the exchange-relation in capitalism, or else to an earlier configuration of capitalism—back in the “good old days.” However sincerely intended, Reverend Billy’s activism, in terms of form as well as content, is hard to distinguish from what a viral ad campaign stunt might look like.
On the other hand, considering cultural resistance purely by the criteria of art, or aesthetics, one cannot help but note that in its execution cultural resistance art typically strives only to transmit an idea or attitude. Its medium and form of expression merely becomes a vehicle. The particular qualities of the aesthetic object and its medium of expression lose their authority and become incidental, and thus largely insignificant in their individual, idiosyncratic qualities. Each new artwork offers only that which is shared, familiar, and redundant. Its material properties end up becoming an illustration for a political or ethical message. Even when the message is new, the relationship between the material and the message is seldom ever novel. Paradoxically, cultural resistance often takes the path of least resistance in terms of its aesthetic presentation because the mere presentation of a message precludes, a priori, those tensions, ambiguities, and deferments of resolution that distinguish art from advertisement, traffic signs, and smoke signals. Prioritizing the issue of transmitting its political message in the most efficient and accessible way as possible, the formal elements of cultural resistance willfully accommodate themselves to the status quo—that is, to the current political situation, in which all political groups, right and left, vie for the sleekest political package, and all ideas are mangled in order to fit this Procrustean bed before they have even fully formed. Form becomes a mere instrument for expressing content that is outside the experience it brings. Or, as one of the most predominate curators and critics of cultural resistance projects, Nato Thompson, writes, cultural resistance artists use aesthetics as “tools” in order to bring in “political issues to an audience outside the insular art world’s doors.”
Cultural resistance is often defended on the grounds that it creates “pre-figurative political space,” as if the work or performance is able to construct “temporary zones” of “freedom” that anticipate what a post-capitalist world would look like. Here the questions of art and politics are merged—it takes a certain aesthetic arranging to create a zone in which people can feel “free” or see the injustice of the status quo more clearly. Nato Thompson further describes this strategy to make cultural resistance projects to function much like a “spa” that can temporarily ease the modern subject from the overwhelming speed of life of neoliberal capitalism. As he says, “In this spasmodic era, we find the arts recalibrated as a temporal, spatial, and bodily escape." However, what is troubling about treating cultural resistance in this way is the fact that setting up alternative “spas” to clear out the senses functions no differently than going off on holiday only to return to the drudgery of everyday life once again. Cultural resistance is based in the notion that “pre-figurative politics” participates in the creating the semblance of momentary freedom rather than making legible the unfreedom that still remains, underlaying all apparent choices as well as any fleeting, ecstatic fantasies of escape. In the case of Reverand Billy, when one is “saved” from the veil of consumer culture one takes solace in one's ability to make sophisticated consumer choices while capitalism as an oppressive and exploitative system not only continues, but is primed to expand to a new frontier in the increasingly profitable market for “ethical consumer goods.” To imagine oneself as temporarily “free” or outside of bleak social conditions only strengthens the system all the more.
As I asked at the outset of my remarks, why is it that, in our historical moment, we find this urge to overtly link artistic struggles with political struggles, and subsume one to the other? Indeed, this a trope has been a theme since the early 20th century, but the absence of proponents arguing for art’s autonomy in the present day forces us to understand the political commitment of art as cultural resistance in a new light. While it was once thought that a new world and society was around the corner (in the case of the constructivists), today this is no longer the case. I take this trend to be an expression of the Left’s current political helplessness, as an eager and desperate urge to overcome very real social ills when all possible options to do so seem unreachable. In response, so-called progressive artists (and activists) have become impatient with the peculiar facets of their practices, and disenchanted with the failed goals of modernist artistic autonomy. However, it is not simply a matter of making a compromise between autonomous art and cultural resistance, as they can only exist antagonistically and are irreconcilable when brought together as a whole. The politically committed art of today is only a shadow of yesterday’s, partly because its audience is politically confused, while autonomous art remains an impossibility. Adorno identified a tension between Brecht and Beckett, as exemplars of “committed” art versus “autonomous” art. But today we are confronted with ever more obtuse aesthetic symptoms that further obscure the problem of freedom. Cultural resistance fails to transform history by overcoming its Brechtian phantasm, which was arguably a more provocative approach towards politically committed art than what we are presented with today. Meanwhile, contemporary, “formal” art has become routinely neo-modern and complacent with familiar styles. What used to be two opposite poles in productive tension are now two dismal resemblances of each other. Each is pastiche.
Cultural resistance art, in falsely synthesizing politics and art, assumes that art as an autonomous field has little of importance to actually say about politics, and vice-versa. To take the compatibility of politics and art, as they exist now, for granted is tantamount to naturalizing the impossibility of both. As Adorno reminds us, autonomous art fulfills the desiderata of politically committed art better than it itself can, since “non-conceptual knowledge” can communicate by signaling the issue of freedom, or the lack thereof. But even this might no longer be the case, as autonomous art, much like art as cultural resistance, has become a caricature of itself. Art and politics: each seeks to change the world, but in different ways. Their approaches are not incompatible, but they are not identical either. Though the “correct” approach cannot be worked out in advance, it is clear that art’s autonomy must be defended, as it is clear that any demand for art’s autonomy cannot be construed as resignation, nor merely as a call to imitate the art of another historical era. |P
. Herbert Marcuse, “Art and Revolution” in Counterrevolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), 105, emphasis added.
. Ibid., 106. Marcuse actually attributes this observation about Courbet to the surrealist André Breton. He is probably referring to Breton’s 1935 essay “Political Positions of Today’s Art.” See André Breton, Manifestos of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972), 212-233.
. Marcuse quoting André Fernigier, ibid., 110.
. Ibid, 106-107. Marcuse further argues that art’s political effect resides in the ability to render new techniques or “translating reality into a new aesthetic form.” The creation of a new perceptible reality out of our existing one is where art’s political potential lies.
. Ever since the 1970s, the politics of resistance has been the battle cry from the activist left. As Žižek notes, the politics of resistance assumes that capitalism as a world-historical force stabilized itself as a form of social domination, and is now objectively impossible to overcome. In response, the Left assumes its role to “resist” certain aspects of capitalism, or to simply reform its structures in order to make a “better” more “humane” capitalism. From this perspective, human emancipation—and even political emancipation—becomes cynically viewed as a pipedream and ipso facto an impossible feat. See Slavoj Žižek, “Resistance is Surrender,” London Review of Books, Vol. 29 No. 22 (15 November 2007) . <http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n22/slavoj-zizek/resistance-is-surrender>. Or, to see a broad historical outline of how the politics of resistance has come to be, see Stephen Duncombe’s remarks at the forum in “The 3 Rs: Reform, Revolution, and 'Resistance' — The Problematic Forms of 'Anticapitalism' Today," Platypus Review #4 (April 2008). A video of the event is available online.
. For the most exemplary debates on this matter, see Adorno et al., Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso, 2007).
. See Nato Thompson, “Trespassing Relevance,” The Interventionists: Users' Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), 14.
. Theodor Adorno, “Commitment,” Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso, 2007), 193.