Below are a few comments on Bill Roberts, “Good Old Avant Garde: Review of Brave New Avant Garde,” Mute (May 7, 2013), available here http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/good-old-avant-garde and after the following:
Brave New Avant Garde is a collection of essays written over a period of four years (roughly 2006-2010) in which I developed a theory of sinthomeopathic practice as it relates to critical art practice. It should be clear that this idea of sinthomeopathy does not describe a particular kind of art, in the manner of dialogical aesthetics or relational art or even the art of over-identification. The book is meant to be read as a series of reflections and not as an air-tight model of what is to be done. I seek in these essays to analyze and understand contradictions and overall to acknowledge the importance of social practice today while also pointing to some obvious stumbling blocks. I do not pretend in this to have a magic solution to contradictions and hope that readers will understand that the kind of criticism I propose is focused on the occupation and radicalization of the institutions of culture that we are familiar with rather than their evasion or evacuation. In other words my work is situated on the barracks with the engagés and not so much the enragés, who reject all forms of institutional organization. Despite this I do hold to Peter Burger’s critique of the institution art and consider that it remains active and effective, discursively, even in those instances when one has abandoned the studio and the solo practice for the terra incognita of community spaces or the schizoid mechanisms of new assemblages.
I was delighted to encounter today Bill Roberts’ review in Mute magazine (May 2013) (http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/good-old-avant-garde), which does a good job of situating the book in the context of recent writing on socially engaged art and of discerning some of my main arguments. I take issue with the review, however, insofar as it concludes with the statement:
“But despite this qualification, the terms of his [Léger’s] argument in favour of over-identificatory art and against socially engaged art necessarily entail the view that the latter is, if not non-aesthetic, then at least not aesthetic enough. In this respect, Léger’s position is close to that of Bishop, who at least admits the possibility of a moment of ‘rupture and ambiguity’ in participatory art, but whose substantive argument against social interventionism as best practice continues, ultimately, to turn on its purported collapse of aesthetics and ethics, its sacrifice of ‘the aesthetic … at the altar of social change’.”
This passage comes towards the end of the review and makes for one of Roberts’ more incisive comments, that is, other than his assumption about the ‘normativity’ of individual authorship, but oversteps the bounds of accuracy and even plausibility insofar as I never in this book, or elsewhere in my writing, worry about the question of aesthetics as a standard of value or social significance, and this, without worrying the point that art is a social force. In other words, art yes, critical autonomy yes, aestheticism no. I even made a point of marking this difference in my review of Bishop’s edited book on participation, which I titled “The Autonomy Between Us.”
In the above criticism Roberts echoes the mistake that Kester made in The One and the Many, when, in reference to my Komar & Melamid essay, Kester writes:
“It is typical in these debates for critics [I’m given as the example in the endnote that comes at the end of this passage] who are skeptical of collaborative or collective approaches to base their critique on a reductive opposition between an authentic avant-garde art practice, in which the artist retains complete creative mastery, and a reviled “community-based” practice, which insists on the debilitating surrender of “all claims to authority and authorship” on behalf of some naïve ideal of social unity.” (138)
Roberts would seem to have read Kester’s book and taken its critique as some kind reference point. Who knows. Regardless, the suggestion by my critics that I in some way foreclose the possibility of change or that I in some way do not support community art misses the very obvious point that the Komar & Melamid project that I discuss, “Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project,” is, in my opinion and in my words, both engaged community art, collaborative work and avant gardist (over-identification) – and not one or the other. Roberts clearly understands that I stake a great deal on this one example since the book is not heavy on declarations of what kinds of work one should engage in – and this, because I am not, unlike Kester, presenting myself as the critic-champion of a particular kind of art (a function of criticism and that I reject, or at least work hard to avoid). “Caught in this contradiction,” Roberts says,
“Léger is forced – since a blanket recommendation of any and all art would simply empty his argument – to recommend little more than the damp squib of an ironic practice of resolutely uncommitted socially engaged art, such as the work by Komar and Melamid that he discusses at length.”
Roberts could have dug a little deeper and found some positive evaluation of the work of Andrea Fraser, Thomas Hirschhorn (his “Bataille Monument”), Errorist International, Copenhagen Free University, Superflex, Juan Ortiz-Apui, and even Chto Delat?/What Is to be Done? whose “Partisan Songspiel” graces the cover of the book. In any case, even if a “damb squib,” Roberts is at least able here to recognize their work in this case as socially engaged art. He could have stopped there and avoided biasing his readers against me with accusations of presuming a naïve audience and an avant-garde that knows anything more than “the subject supposed to know.” Is it not perfectly clear that the analyst is not the one knows, but who, in the transference, acts as the one presumed to know. And what does this have to do with art? The psychoanalytic here serves to displace knowledge from possession. To put it in the words of Raoul Vaneigem: “When a poem by Mallarmé becomes the sole explanation for an act of revolt, then poetry and revolution will have overcome their ambiguity. To await and prepare for this moment is to manipulate information not as the last shock wave whose significance escapes everyone, but as the first repercussion of an act still to come” (Basic Banalities, IS#7 April 1962). To shift this from the subject supposed to know (which is nothing anyway but the predominant straw man version of the revolutionary vanguard) to the “subject supposed to over-identify” (what it means to be a revolutionary today) should at least alert Roberts to the possibility that sinthomeopathy isn’t necessarily straight up “over-identification” à la NSK and that my moves are not necessarily the same as BAVO’s (though I consider their work invaluable).
Roberts seems to want to know more about how sinthomeopathic practice works and for this I am most thankful and all I can say is that I have provided some preliminary digressions on the subject in my recent essay on Pasolini (Left Curve #37, 2013). However, rather than suggesting that it is my theory of the artist in the role of analyst that needs to be better substantiated, it is perhaps Roberts who needs to tell me and his readers why this proposal, armed as it is with references to the work of Žižek and Badiou, does not make an adequate basis for a critique - analysis - of contemporary engaged art. But this is not the only thing missing from Roberts’ piece. I do not merely rely on Pierre Bourdieu in this book but rely on his as well as Peter Bürger’s work to suggest a shift in the “structure-in-dominance” from bourgeois, modernist avant-gardism to global petty-bourgeois creative industry. While he mentions that Brian Holmes and I have differing viewpoints, I can distinctly recall the moment when, after reading my essay on “Welcome to the Cultural Goodwill Revolution,” Brian emailed me to acknowledge what he thought was a decent effort to of bring class analysis to bear on cultural criticism and not only pretending to do so as part of the usual social constructionism and radical democracy. (And Roberts is obviously wrong in assuming that social constructionism is the same thing as social practice art or art interventionism; the point is that whereas today’s social constructionism is clearly indebted to the Marxist critique of the ideological transformation of specific interests into naturalized, universal categories (or history into myth), it has learned, in institutionalized petty bourgeois settings, to do away with radical left theorists as the pathological, masculinist, contingent agency that seeks to privilege its narrow interests at the expense of some intersectional theory of race, class, gender and sexuality; what this perspective loses sight of is capital as the concrete universal and the specific ways in which culture wars operate as an aspect of class domination, i.e. by ruling out Marxism and communism as so much crime-ridden Stalinism and Zhdanovism, etc.) I appreciate that Roberts notices my insistence on class and it is a bit disappointing that he did not comment on the “Cultural Goodwill” essay in particular, which carries through in the BAVO essay, where the function of fantasy $<>a hovers over the old (bourgeois modernism) and the present (petty bourgeois globalism), perhaps even preventing us from imagining what Imre Szeman and Eric Cazdyn refer to as an “after to globalization.” Working Lacan’s four discourses, I’ve tried to think of the various ways in which the $ and the a are able to switch places in this transfer between “good old” modern and “brave new” (being another way of alluding to Brecht’s bad new) biocapitalist - or, elsewhere in my work, as the Žižekian living between two deaths: between autonomy and creative industry recuperation and dispossession. Revolutionary subjectivity is situated, I argue, in the space between, and here we can easily distinguish ourselves from those who are merely with it, who have nothing better to offer but the mantra that there is no space outside, and who go along with the bankrupting of every vestige of radical theory.
Somehow, despite the recognition that this review affords, I feel that its function, if not its intention, is to warn and bias readers about the possible return and rethinking of the “good old avant garde.” The assumption that my book eschews Hegelian Marxism and the Frankfurt School is a false one. The following phrase and others like it is problematic: “In the final analysis, Léger’s dismissal of practices of ameliorative socially engaged art comes off as insufficiently dialectical.” There is no “dismissal” here, but rather critique, and in fact, dialectical critique, which I’m more than prepared to defend against Deleuzian-inspired anti-dialectics. Like Kester, Roberts does not propose a dialectics or dépassement of avant garde and engaged art, but a paradigm, if I understand him, of mutual extorsion (to use a nasty word). This is one way to temporalize one’s relation to the other but not a great way to build solidarity based on something like what Bakhtin understood as dialogics: the popular deconstruction of official discourses and ideologies.
GOOD OLD AVANT-GARDE
Does the institutional embrace of collaborative and interventionist art spell the end of the avant-gardist attack on art as a bourgeois individualist form? In his expanded review of Marc James Léger’s book Brave New Avant Garde, Bill Roberts begs to differ
The resurgence of socially engaged art and its attendant discourse since the 1990s has a fraught relationship with the notion of avant-gardism. Peter Bürger’s four-decades-old Theory of the Avant-Garde has undoubtedly proved the most influential text in the delineation of avant-gardism as revolutionary opposition to art’s autonomy in bourgeois society. But if Bürger identified the challenge to the bourgeois categories of individual production and individual reception as indispensable for this (historical) project, it is nowadays not uncommon for discussions of interventionist, activist, participatory, collaborative and collectivist art to dispense more or less entirely with the theory of art’s overhauling as revolutionary praxis.i Canadian artist and theorist Marc James Léger’s recent collection of essays, Brave New Avant Garde, is, on this basis, a timely attempt to bring thinking on avant-gardism to bear on this resurgence. As Léger frames the matter towards the end of his book, the present decoupling of activist art and the discourse of avant-gardism may speak to the possibility that ‘extra-institutional socially engaged art has become, for good and bad, the order of the day’.ii A revealing account of an October 2010 Creative Time Summit in New York features towards the end of Léger’s book, where, under the banner of ‘Revolutions in Public Practice’, discussion among the attending artists, theorists, curators and art historians all too often boiled down to various inflections of ‘reformist biopolitics’ and ‘ambient progressivism’ – activism as the officially sanctioned art of the social-democratic left.iii While this scenario is unlikely to raise many eyebrows within post-New Labour Britain, for Léger it is indicative of a broad political shift. Casting its net wide, Brave New Avant Gardetakes to task the diminution of political imagination in contemporary art to various forms of identity politics, and to what Léger deems – quoting Hal Foster’s 1982 essay, ‘Against Pluralism’ – a ‘relativistic “arrière-avant-gardism” that considers itself liberated from the teleological framework of history and the determinations of ideology’.iv Léger’s example of the Creative Time Summit makes clear that such quietism need by no means shed the vocabulary of revolution; as Foster wrote in the same essay, this is precisely the ‘fate of … critical terms in pluralism’: ‘judgment is suspended, language is neutered, and critical orders fall in favor of easy equivalences’.v
It appears, then, that there is no longer (if indeed there ever was) an automatic link between socially engaged and interventionist practice and the self-criticism of art as a social institution. However, this need not be taken as confirmation of Bürger’s thesis of the historical failure of the avant-garde, since neither has this link been definitively broken. And yet the most sustained contemporary accounts of socially engaged practice do betray, to differing degrees, a loss of faith in the revolutionary agency of cultural work in and of itself. This is emphatically true of British art historian Claire Bishop’s critique of participatory art in her 2012 book Artificial Hells, and to a lesser extent of American theorist Grant Kester’s defence of collaborative and collectivist practice in his 2011 volume, The One and the Many, and it helps to explain why Bürger’s concept of the avant-garde finds no place in either volume. Bishop, for her part, favours a secondary, symbolic role of negation for art in ‘alignment’ with broader projects of social transformation, leaving unexplored the difficult question of precisely how this might operate in practice, given the evident way in which the apparent freedoms of the contemporary art scene function, by and large, to legitimate the political status quo.vi Meanwhile, Kester’s support for projects of ameliorative social interventionism (Dialogue in India, Park Fiction in Germany, Ala Plastica in Argentina, Huit Facettes Interaction in Senegal, among others) is explicitly counterposed to an ‘avant-garde tradition’ that he identifies with mainstream artistic modernism’s valorisation of ‘the redemptive power of individuation’, and its suspicion of collectivism as ‘intrinsically repressive’.viiKester does credit the practices he supports with transformative agency; indeed, this is central to his argument, but he does not clearly articulate this as an integral aspect of art’s self-criticism, as a radical avant-gardist critique of the institution. His equation of mainstream modernism and avant-gardism is the problem here, since it collapses the very terms that it was Bürger’s historical achievement to have distinguished. In so doing, Kester unearths questions of definition that one could be forgiven for thinking were by now sufficiently well buried. Kester is critical of Jacques Rancière as the latest ideologue of his conflated ‘modernist avant-garde’, while Bishop commends Rancière’s consoling emphasis on the inherently political dimension of aesthetic experience.viii However, all three elide due consideration of the enduring problem of art’s autonomy as a social institution under capitalism.ix Léger, for his part, makes plain from the outset that he likewise does not wish to privilege Bürger’s conception of the avant-garde and its Frankfurt School lineage; indeed, he goes further and situates his work within what he identifies as a broad contemporary ‘phase change’ and ‘break’ with ‘Hegelian Marxism and its various permutations in postwar existentialism, structuralism, and Frankfurt School Freudo-Marxism’.x Nevertheless, Brave New Avant Garde is, on the face of it, less blind than these authors to the problem of art as a social institution, and it helps in this regard that Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of art’s central role in the reproduction of class inequality is a key touchstone for Léger’s book. Hence, his polemic is not only directed against socially engaged practice, but also against the disappearance of the problematic of class at work in the ‘post-structural reduction of art to a cultural politics of representation’.xi
Bürger’s own pessimism as to the feasibility, and even the desirability, of the avant-gardist project in the postwar period opened directly onto the shrunken political horizons of what has come to be known since the 1980s as ‘critical postmodernism’, marked by the intellectual hegemony of a postmodern identity politics.xii The problem of the entwinement of such a ‘politics of representation’ with ‘institutional critique’ – understood as art’s self-reflexive critique of its professionalised confinement as a principal manifestation of the reification of late capitalist culture – has now shaped the discourse of contemporary art in the North for the last four decades or more. Increasingly since the 1980s, influential voices in these debates, such as Foster and Benjamin Buchloh, have struggled to think the place of identity politics within the tradition of institutional critique. In the latter’s pivotal early phase – in particular, in works by Michael Asher, Daniel Buren and Marcel Broodthaers – the critical force of the exposure of art’s reification rested on an intransigent refusal of art’s becoming in any way directly socially engaged or politically expedient. It was by way of this defiantly negative, Adornian prohibition that the radical promise of art’s revolutionary overhaul might be maintained. However, with the ascendancy of the critical postmodernist insistence on art as a political site of representation, precisely this radical negativity has tended to be overlooked. Could a realistic, reflexive appraisal and exposure of art’s bourgeois confinement sit comfortably alongside the claim for its powers of contestation and subversion, and the dependence of this claim on the presumption of art’s unproblematic continuity with cultural representation at large?
While Foster, writing in the early 1990s, welcomed what he took to be the drift since the 1980s towards artists’ ‘deconstructive testing’ of the institution, exactly this is at the heart of the problem for Léger.xiii His polemic roundly rejects both the pessimism of Bürger and the historical closure and pragmatism of his heirs, in favour of Slavoj Žižek’s emphasis on the ‘radical contingency of practice and of the historical present’.xiv Foster’s extension of neo-avant-garde institutional critique towards ‘different institutions and discourses in the ambitious art of the present’ amounts, for Léger, to a reversal in which that negative dimension rapidly becomes lost; it is thus a symptom of a widespread deradicalisation and betrayal of the avant-garde that leads to nowhere but the very relativism that Foster himself had earlier deplored.xv As Léger puts it in his introductory essay, ‘The Avant Garde Hypothesis’:
"What has perhaps been forgotten, or just plain abandoned, in contemporary art discourse is the fact that the critique of the ‘institution art’ was developed as part of a critique of class society and is not perfectly synonymous with the critique of institutions."xvi
Andrea Fraser is a name practically synonymous with institutional critique, and Léger’s first essay presents a lengthy discussion of the American artist’s work from the 1990s, in which he argues that Fraser’s class-based analyses of cultural legitimation as social distinction broadly exempt her from this pervasive failing. Léger singles out Fraser’s collaborative ‘working-group exhibition’ Services, conceived with the German critic and curator Helmut Draxler in 1994 – a seven-year project that consisted of a travelling research archive and a series of roundtable discussions on the subject of artists’ ‘service provision’, in the sense of site-specific projects (typically commissioned by and executed within cultural and educational institutions) that do not lead to a transferable product.xviiAmong other things, Services identified the failure of many institutions at the time to adequately remunerate artists for their work, and called for the standardisation of an honorarium for projects of this kind. By ostensibly working towards the improvement of artists’ professional and material standing, the project mobilised, and thereby revealed, its participants’ ‘subjective investment’ in the conditions and relations of the field of cultural production.xviii The project can thus be said to have performed ‘an artistic service as an excess’ by over-identifying with the institution, performing an apparent suspension of critical negativity in its demand for artists’ professional security.xix In effect – and though Léger does not quite put it this way – Services’ ‘sounding out of social contradictions’ may be said to sustain a radical negativity and to evade the familiar charge of critique-for-hire precisely by second-guessing it through a dissimulative performance of institutional critique asinstitutional troubleshooting.xx
In this way, Fraser’s work belongs to the category of what Léger – after Žižek, and after Jacques Lacan – calls today’s ‘sinthomeopathic’ practices: ‘the political version of identification with the symptom’.xxi Elaborating a theoretical framework of sinthomeopathic art across seven closely linked essays, Léger’s book argues that practices as diverse as those of Fraser, Thomas Hirschhorn, Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK), Christoph Schlingensief, Komar and Melamid and The Yes Men are all marked by an over-identification with the ‘pathological particularity of culture in the age of late neoliberal capitalism’.xxii Another of Léger’s examples, the Russian collaborative duo Komar and Melamid’s Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project (1995-2000), demonstrates the point. No less than a satirical over-identification with the very community art that Léger disparages as the ‘official art of neoliberal capitalism’, Komar and Melamid’s ameliorative and yet patently absurd project involved training Thai elephants to produce abstract paintings that were later sold to raise money for the care of the animals and their trainers.xxiii
Léger’s thinking on over-identification draws on the Dutch research collective BAVO, who have in recent years outlined a strident critique of ‘embedded’ NGO-style practices that, they assert, offer little more than a ‘diarrhoea of unconnected, highly specific, ad hoc interventions that, although offering instant relief, [extinguish] any possibility of a long-term solution’.xxiv In opposition to writers such as Kester, BAVO call upon artists to enjoy the symptom, ‘to uncompromisingly identify with the ruling order itself and to act out its logic in its most extreme, dystopian form’.xxv BAVO and Léger both lean on Žižek’s 1993 discussion of the Slovenian rock group Laibach, the musical wing of NSK, whose practice since the early 1980s has long sustained a deadpan façade of reactionary symbolism. Žižek’s psychoanalytical account of Laibach’s ‘deft manipulation of transference’ posits the group as analyst in the position of the Lacanian ‘subject supposed to know’, and argues that the confrontation of the audience, in the position of analysand, with the irresolvable ambiguity of the group’s over-identification with totalitarian aesthetics, forces the ‘dissolution of transference’, the analysand’s realisation that the analyst does not hold the knowledge about their unconscious desire.xxvi The analyst is revealed to be ‘nothing but a big question mark addressed to the analysand’, forcing them to come to terms with their own responsibility for their (groundless) desire.xxvii In Žižek’s scenario, the audience’s suspicion of Laibach is turned back on the audience itself; to the audience’s question, ‘what does Laibach represent?’, the group in effect responds: ‘what do you represent?’
Léger develops this psychoanalytical model of over-identification over the course of his book, and in his penultimate essay, ‘The Subject Supposed to Over-Identify’, he argues at length to the effect that socially engaged practice is by and large caught in the position assigned by Lacan to the hysteric, insofar as its purported challenge to neoliberal capitalism – including what he takes to be its all too easy presumption of political agency – is really only a symptomatic expression of it; that the production of activist art is nothing less than a ‘capitalist demand’.xxviii While socially engaged and activist art is hysterical and is thus merely rather than critically symptomatic, the over-identificatory practices of Léger’s brave new avant-garde, in the position of analyst, work to ‘sustain the perversity of revolutionary negativity’ by revealing the position of the audience/analysand as that of the dominated and invisible ‘part with no part’, whose investments in the cultural field, and in the ‘fantasy of community’, will yield no return.xxix
Léger’s book is a compilation of essays (around half of which have been published previously, in such venues as the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest), and there is, as a result, a good degree of repetition of arguments and examples from one essay to the next.xxx Notably, the pile-up of Lacanianisms often reads rather too much like a defensive wall erected in the face of the argument’s own difficulties and blind spots. Léger is adamant, since ‘the audience members of avant-garde productions are compelled to give up their fantasmatic identifications as self-positing subjects’, that this ‘becoming aware of oneself as the “invisible” “part with no part” opens up possibilities for critical activity’.xxxi Besides Léger’s presumption of the viewer’s prior naivety here, it is not at all clear why this emancipatory effect should follow from an encounter with over-identificatory art in particular, and indeed Léger himself points to the potential limitations of over-identification in the case of the anti-corporate activism of The Yes Men, quite rightly suggesting that where the group ‘dwell in the ambiguities of parody’, their interventions are largely reducible to the satirical ‘thrill of culture jamming’.xxxii Moreover, it is difficult to tally Léger’s support for practices of over-identification with his critique of socially engaged art as ideological. If over-identification is a form of political identification with the symptom, then this must surely include art as symptom and, indeed, socially engaged art as symptom, given that there is no art that is miraculously ‘liberated from […] the determinations of ideology’.xxxiii Caught in this contradiction, Léger is forced – since a blanket recommendation of any and all art would simply empty his argument – to recommend little more than the damp squib of an ironic practice of resolutely uncommitted socially engaged art, such as the work by Komar and Melamid that he discusses at length.
There is, further, the problem of over-identification’s differentiation from mere cynicism, given its tendency to reinforce the alienation of its audience by exacerbating the exclusion of large segments of it from the cultural field. As Léger himself acknowledges:
Because artistic transgression further distances the cultivated dispositions of the dominant classes from the ethical dispositions of the dominated, cultural transgression works to reproduce class inequality.xxxiv
That Léger, again, raises this point himself suggests a friction with his emphasis on over-identification as a spur to radical consciousness. Léger insists that over-identification ‘is not a strategy of critical complicity, the major conceit of institutionalized actors, but a form of dissidence’.xxxv But this claim lies unsubstantiated in the absence of any clear suggestion as to how the moment of alienation might foster critical activity, that is, why the one moment should necessarily lead to the other in the name of a ‘universal emancipatory project’.xxxvi If the culture at large works to reproduce class inequality, and if transgressive forms of art simply give in to or even deliberately work to exacerbate this by fostering total alienation, then the political stakes of over-identificatory practice come to rest entirely on the unlikely wager that this will strike such a chord of indignation as to incite revolution amongst the audience, and thence beyond. It is difficult to draw any conclusion other than that practices of over-identification are merely an updated version of the ‘aesthetics of shock’ that Bürger long ago criticised in the case of Dada manifestations, not merely on the grounds of shock’s nonspecificity and transience, but for the fact that art is the very sphere where shock is, if not always anticipated, at least easily ‘consumed’ and recuperated; this, indeed, is the fundamental limitation of ‘institutionalized shock’.xxxvii Léger’s reproach towards ‘institutionalized actors’ requires surer footing than his finally rather vague and conjectural idealisation of the encounter with over-identificatory art as a quasi-Lacanian/Žižekian ‘dissolution of transference’.xxxviii Léger himself, armed as he is with all the insights of Bourdieu, might wish to question whether it really is art’s typical audiences that still require lessons in irony and cynicism. And in what sense, precisely, are his favoured artists not ‘institutionalized’? Would this be Schlingensief, posthumously Golden-Lionised at the 2011 Venice Biennale?
A wider difficulty with the framework of over-identification, applicable to Léger, but also to BAVO and Žižek, is its retention of the normativity of the artist’s traditional authority (even where this takes the form of an apparent suspension of authority in the shape of Žižek’s dissolution of transference) and singular authorship. This is precisely the point of Kester’s complaint against the ‘modernist avant-garde’ in general and, like Bishop, Léger overstates the case for collaborative practice as the new norm, belying the real extent to which such practices may very well continue to work in opposition to the dominant ideology of singular authorship (by any measure, the real norm) as a thematisation and reworking of art’s cultural form, its position in the social division of labour.xxxix The failure to recognise this is also a notable shortcoming in Rancière’s writing on art. Rancière would be the first to recognise the critique of Léger’s presumption of spectator passivity and naivety; in fact, this criticism can be turned on either participatory or over-identificatory art, and is indeed levelled by Kester and Bishop at each other. Rancière might also spot the reifications of a model premised on the translation of an awakened critical consciousness into subsequent forms of ‘critical activity’ – although, as Kester has convincingly argued, he finally maintains a Schillerian insistence on the necessity of aesthetic re-education as a prerequisite for political action. Still, the institutional conventions of art’sappearance (here, the institution of the individual author) appear to escape Rancière’s critique of the ‘police order’ as that ‘partition of the sensible’ that conditions appearance in general.xl This is where, in Rancière as well as in Bishop’s largely uncritical reception of Rancière, and finally in Léger too, a politics of aesthetics jettisons a satisfactory politics of art.xli
In the final analysis, Léger’s dismissal of practices of ameliorative socially engaged art comes off as insufficiently dialectical. Kester, countering BAVO’s position, argues that the group’s dismissal of ‘constructive critique’ rests on a ‘Manichean reform/revolution’ opposition that ignores the possibility of ‘insight through durational interaction rather than rupture’, that is, of the unpredictability of praxis itself.xlii Kester’s reconstruction of the ‘modernist avant-garde’, despite its conceptual confusions, reveals just how endemic is the art world’s endless deferral of political action in the name of a pure ‘event’ or ‘absolute rupture of historical continuity’ for which we are, it seems, never quite prepared.xliiiA similar dismissal on Léger’s part casts more than a little doubt on just how open to the radical contingency of the present he really is.
Léger counterposes his model of sinthomeopathic practice to ‘social constructionism’ by arguing for its insistence, ‘in dialectical fashion, that no pure synthesis is possible between the levels of art and politics’.xliv While this in itself implies a straw-man version of a socially engaged art evacuated of aesthetics in its drive to become political practice proper, Léger goes on to affirm, at the end of his account of the Creative Time Summit, that the problem with socially engaged practice is less to do with our ‘not being able to recognize this kind of work as aesthetic but that we may not yet be able to recognize it as politics’.xlv But despite this qualification, the terms of his argument in favour of over-identificatory art and against socially engaged art necessarily entail the view that the latter is, if notnon-aesthetic, then at least not aesthetic enough. In this respect, Léger’s position is close to that of Bishop, who at least admits the possibility of a moment of ‘rupture and ambiguity’ in participatory art, but whose substantive argument against social interventionism as best practice continues, ultimately, to turn on its purported collapse of aesthetics and ethics, its sacrifice of ‘the aesthetic … at the altar of social change’.xlvi Yet the argument that collaborative and interventionist practice does indeed tend to sacrifice or devalue the aesthetic remains basically unconvincing, however much the press-release and curatorial rhetoric surrounding it may itself tend to do so. As Kester argues, many of today’s most interesting collaborative or ‘dialogical’ practices ‘mark a (cyclical) renegotiation of aesthetic autonomy via the permeability that exists between art production and other, adjacent, forms of cultural production and activism’.xlvii In this assessment, Kester echoes John Roberts’ important argument, in his 2007 book The Intangibilities of Form, that aesthetic autonomy is far from incompatible with contemporary practices of social interventionism and the ‘diffusion of art into the plan, consultancy or research-programme’ as a ‘set of activities or processes’.xlviii Here, moments of aesthetic experience may very well arise as a function, at the level of production, of the necessary mediation of ‘aesthetic reason and non-aesthetic reason’ in such activities.xlix The key revolution of the historical avant-gardes for Bürger was, after all, the provocation of a new mode of reception that, by shattering the organic unity of the work of art, compels attention, first and foremost, to art’s forms of production, and to its ‘principle of construction’.l
For Léger, socially engaged practice is hopelessly compromised by the general situation of contemporary capitalist life, in which subjectivity is put to work, social relations instrumentalised and commodified, social responsibility individualised, and cultural work quantitatively assessed for social impact. However, this is the cultural terrain that art must mediate and work through dialectically, rather than run from reactively. Moreover, it must do so less at the superficial level of over-identificatory content, than precisely at the level of form as a mimetic identification and disidentification of artistic labour with productive labour. Socially engaged practice may no more be presumed one-dimensionally affirmative than over-identificatory art may be presumed a priorioppositional. Besides which, the distributions of authorship at work in collaborative and social practice of various kinds will, in one form or another, remain key to the endeavour of a critical art within actually existing capitalist society, marked as it is by the persistence of a bourgeois individualist ideology that has only deepened with the rise of these newer modes of subjectification. It is in this way that art’s autonomy may be sustained as an immanent critique of that autonomy, in the name of keeping alive the promise of its eventual overcoming.
Bill Roberts <<billrob AT gmail.com> is a London-based researcher and visiting tutor at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford.