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Petrified unrest: A review of the Creative Time Summit

Bret Schneider

Platypus Review 29 | November 2010

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In this situation of “crisis in perception,” it is no longer a question of educating the crude ear to hear music, but of giving it back hearing. It is no longer a question of training the eye to see beauty, but of restoring “perceptibility."

— Susan Buck-Morss[1]

THOUGH PROMPTING BOOS from the audience at this year’s Creative Time Summit, J. Morgan Puett’s declaration that “capitalism is here to stay” was unintentionally but conclusively affirmed by the content of the event as a whole. In its second year, the Summit is an annual, weekend-long international forum showcasing various forms of public art practice that strives to be anti-capitalist. Divided into themes ranging from markets and food to education and institutions, Creative Time has sought to expand the art world’s political commitments by inviting artists, curators, and pedagogues to discuss anti-capitalist aesthetic campaigns in contemporary art. Yet within and across all these themes, the panels failed to illuminate the efficacy of their own putative anti-capitalism in ways distinct from the standard platitudes of left activism. In rehashing as flat assertions the familiar non-politics of art as resistance, and by never confronting the central political question for artists—namely, how aesthetics are not only constrained by poor social relations, but also held hostage to bad politics, including bad anti-capitalist politics—this year’s Summit gave one an all-too-real sense of what it is like to live in a world where aesthetic experience has become as impossible as it is necessary.

This impasse was widely exhibited and seldom recognized. Everyone directly acknowledged the existence of oppressive social relations and, by extension, at least implicitly acknowledged a failure of earlier political interventions, including aesthetic interventions of various kinds, to transform these relations. Yet none of the more than 40 presenters generated any cohesive politics that might prove adequate to the current situation by turning a critical eye toward the history of those failed attempts. On the contrary, most went to varying lengths to naturalize anaesthetic experiences, opting instead to liquidate art into pure means for achieving economic, institutional, or administrative ends—and these ends tended to be impoverished per se when judged precisely in terms of their putative anti-capitalism.

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Hans Haacke, Blue Sail, 1965–1965, Installation

In the first presentation of the Summit, Professor of Art History Julia Bryan-Wilson addressed poor working conditions in Houston’s factories and drew interesting, if somewhat impressionistic, links between the deaths of factory workers due to air pollution in their working environments and the proliferation of “air-based” art, as in the work of Hans Haacke. Bryan-Wilson implied that due to impoverished social conditions extrinsic to aesthetics, art is relegated to attend to such crises, albeit in abstract ways that do not immediately resolve them. Foreboding the Summit content to follow, this tension—the non-identity of politics and art—was generally left unilluminated by Bryan-Wilson, and as a cover for this deficiency a ruse of harmony between the two was generated.

Near the end of her presentation, Bryan-Wilson misapprehended Marx’s famous quote, “All that is solid melts into air,” in a manner that unfortunately set the tone for the Summit. Marx saw the contradiction of capitalism, and by extension of modernity itself, as being expressed in how the ceaseless dynamism of capital enables potentially emancipatory social transformations that occur only as part of a process of change which, because it unfolds according to a logic ultimately outside of human control, proves both liberating and alienating at the same time. However, Bryan-Wilson characterized the ceaseless transience within capitalism as desirable in itself. Though at one level merely a petty intellectual violation, this misunderstanding of Marx set the stage for a politics that valued the anaesthetizing, ahistorical character of contemporary life. The dissonance of an anti-Marxist politics rooted in Marxist vocabulary prompted the audience to voice skepticism during the question and answer session. Indeed, the audience questions, generally sophisticated and intelligent, outstripped the content of many of the presentations. Several questions drew attention to the possibility that these “resistant” forms of art were simply regenerating capitalism, but unknowingly. Others pointed out the vagueness of what people actually meant by “socialism.” The presenters evaded the questions by resorting to catchphrases from their presentations, or worse, by taking refuge in what they should have been trying to clarify: the gray area between aesthetics and politics. Panelists who generally made claims in their presentations about the radicalism of dissolving aesthetics into political activism later downplayed their political stances when pressed, saying that really they were interested in “community art.” This crystallized into a paradox many presenters were insistent on not resolving: How can an effective anti-capitalist politics exist when there is no coherent understanding of what capitalism is in the first place?

Eliding this question, “community” tacitly stood in for socialism, at least in the panels on “Market” and “Food.” Even e-flux’s Anton Vidokle, one of the few presenters conversant in the history of socialism, grappled with the question of structural transformation only within the context of mundane community projects. When asked about the political consequences of e-flux’s Time/Bank project, a “platform where groups and individuals can pool and trade time and skills, bypassing money as a measure of value,” Vidokle admitted that the exchange of time is, well, capitalism. For all the anti-capitalist rhetoric, constructed upon familiar relational art idioms, Time/Bank amounts to little more than Craigslist for the art world. Representing the aestheticization of politics instead of the politicization of aesthetics, Time/Bank exemplified the state of political art in general: Beginning with a political idea, often trite in itself, it used aesthetic techniques in a wholly instrumental fashion as a means to dress up the predigested idea with design. Time/Bank was also unfortunately representative in its reduction of socialism to anti-finance. A general contempt for wealth as such reigned at the Summit, turning commodities into metaphysical entities divorced from the social conditions of production. Nearly every panel was burdened with the question of where funding for each project came from. Audience and presenters alike obsessed over tracking cash flow, which ended up mythologizing what they disdained: the source of funding came to be treated as the ultimate determinant of one’s authenticity and artistic worth. This anxiety around funding could also be detected in a different form in the website Kickstarter. A pledge-based forum for projects in need of funding, Kickstarter shows the extent to which even modest artistic projects are not possible today without extensive financial bureaucracy and peer administration. The existence of Kickstarter evidences a continual decline into poverty wherein accomplishment of the most menial of tasks hinges upon whether or not one can receive financial backing to achieve the material necessary.

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San Franciscans try to revitalize the "Victory Gardens" program, from which Amy Franceschini draws her art.

Vidokle defended Time/Bank and his artwork in general as being motivated politically by a “primitive form of communism.” But this put aside the question of whether or not this primitive form of communism may, in its explicitly premodern social relations, be worse than the current forms of capitalism. The desire for “real wealth,” for “community,” sounded as a distorted echo of an echo of the anarchism of the 19th century: the one-sided critique of capitalism, animated by the impotent yearning for a return to untarnished social conditions. When Adorno said, “The pressure of reified Bourgeois culture incites flight into the phantasm of nature,”[2] he might as well have been talking about artists today who trade in fantasies of withdrawal into premodern communalism as an answer to the ills of modern society. Such “flights,” as an immediate response to alienation, fail to orient a politics of overcoming that from which it flees. Moreover, the retrograde anarchism of contemporary art practice has become timid and tenuous, as seen in Amy Franceschini’s presentation, in which she defended community gardens as anti-capitalist on the basis that they express “anarchist consensus.” Those same gardens have been adopted programmatically by the city of San Francisco, as the political imagination of anarchism grows increasingly self-deluded about the nature of rebellion and its own practice. Resistance fuels the culture industry, while even the most basic programs of urban redevelopment and beautification today apparently require elaborate rationalizations from the art world.

The yearning for premodern life found its most acute expression in artist and writer Claire Pentecost’s keynote presentation in the panel on “Food.” Central to Pentecost’s talk was the assertion of agriculture, and by extension human culture in general, as part of nature. But agriculture was at the same time the first moment in humanity’s transformation of nature and thus of itself—the first truly human endeavor, the first step towards liberation from the arbitrary oppression of wanton natural conditions. As seen in Pentecost’s use of the phrase “The New Us” throughout her presentation, there was at least the imagination of solidarity and agreement as to the need for humankind to learn its “place” in the natural order once again. This sentiment expressed a tendency common to the Summit and the aesthetics of social activism writ large: the reinvention of folk culture as nostalgia for the “lost authenticity” of premodern life, and for a fantasy of communal existence projected onto pre-industrial society. Once clearly recognizable as a project of the conservative right, “the community” has become a fulcrum of leftist politics.

The Summit was not entirely oriented by concerns over community, however. Nato Thompson presented his survey of public art in nations ranging from Thailand to Mexico, including reports on museum initiatives. Though a salutary move toward themes of curation, Thompson’s work lacked coherence and direction. It remained unclear whether these regional reports were meant as a step towards international coordination, or simply a retread of multiculturalism that hoped to celebrate diversity. Meanwhile, Tirdad Zolghadr reported on an artist’s imperative in Taipei, Taiwan, to fund artist unions. It seemed the imperative was being pursued along the lines of what had briefly occurred in the Vkhutemas and other autonomous schools of art decreed by Lenin, though Zolghadr did not establish any historical connection. Unfortunately, such a project today seems unlikely to succeed, as prevailing conditions allow less and less space for an autonomous aesthetic and science freed from the whims of topical politics—a situation that this year’s Summit, in its blithely instrumental approach to aesthetics, actually contributes to.

The most provocative moment of the Summit was Gridthiya Gaweewong’s afterthought on the conditions of art and artists in Asia. At the end of her presentation she asked, “How much longer must artists work in the streets, and when will they work in studios?” The question cut against the predominant take-to-the-streets mentality. This actionism, common to the practice of many artists and activists alike, has also found expression in theories of art history, as seen in Agnes Denes’s presentation in the “Food” panel, which depicted the history of art as a natural—and naturally unidirectional—process of art’s breakdown into everyday life. Gaweewong’s reversal loosens aesthetics from natural determinism and points up the conditions of a world where aesthetic experience could exist. Even as it became alienating—as it increasingly had in the course of the 19th and, especially, the 20th century—the separation of art from life nevertheless remained constitutive of both. This separation was not overcome, but has merely broken down. Art and life can no longer be held in a productive and clarifying tension—each hemorrhages into the other. In romanticizing this situation, the Summit as a whole submitted to the repressive attenuation of aesthetic experience. In contrast, Gaweewong implied that aesthetic experience might not have occurred yet, because the conditions that would make aesthetics possible have yet to be achieved. Such a proposition is pessimistic only superficially; its deeper appeal lies precisely in the hope it allows for, by avoiding the one-sidedness of simply cheering the “anti-elitism” of art and life’s non-separation on the one hand, and the actionism-cum-fatalism implicit in simply declaring the continuation of struggle on the other.

Emancipatory politics are apparently so impoverished that, in an absurdity that has gone widely unremarked, even artists are expected to pick up the slack. Ad Reinhardt’s principle that no sane person goes to an art exhibition expecting to learn about anything other than art has been reversed: Now, art exhibitions and symposia are thought of and relied upon not only as bastions but also as laboratories of political ideologies that, unable to stand on their own, fashion art as their crutch. Commitment to bad politics dooms aesthetics. A leftist politics deserving the name would seek to open up possibilities for aesthetic transformation, rather than making artists into a new class of social workers. So long as the aesthetic continues to be canalized into modes of political activism that have been taken for granted to the point of becoming lifeless formulae, the possibility of aesthetic experience will remain precarious at best. |P


[1]. Susan Buck-Morss, “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered,” October 62 (Autumn, 1992): 18.

[2]. Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 113.

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