The contemporary political moment is inflected with both optimism and collapse, unexpected insurrections and brutal repressions. In Greece, Russia, the United States, Canada, Mexico, China, Spain, and elsewhere, the current historical crisis of our economic and political order has given rise to political and aesthetic movements that have produced a multitude of ruptures and solidarities.
While we fortunately find ourselves witnesses and participants in a proliferation of aesthetic and political experimentation, many of the discourses surrounding the relationships and entanglements between these aesthetico-political projects remain stuck in diffused generalities and misleading assumptions.
The 2012 Creative Time Summit in New York aimed to “reflect upon recent upheavals in the international political and economic climate,” and in this spirit I feel it is necessary to mark out the critical territories that frame these upheavals and the discourses active within them.
Stephen Duncombe and Steve Lambert of the Center for Artistic Activism (CAA) recently published a letter in response to what they describe as an underwhelming amount of critical reflection to the Creative Time Summit and political art in general. Their text advocates for the practices they think should be adopted by critics when evaluating political art, and prescribes several approaches that they hope will generate new critical traditions.
It is without doubt that exploring the resonances and disjunctures between the aesthetic and political is incredibly essential in this historical moment. Unfortunately, the way Duncombe and Lambert frame many of their arguments only serves to depoliticize our approach to aesthetics, and fails to acknowledge the urgent political questions at the foundation of every practice.
In what follows, I will challenge many of the assumptions and claims mobilized in Duncombe and Lambert’s text, and will also suggest different frameworks for approaching these questions which are undoubtedly at the heart of both the political and aesthetic practices in this unfolding crisis.
Politics are only made possible by the reality that people are ineradicably different from one another. This entails that individuals all embody and live fundamentally different histories, stakes, investments, aesthetics, materialities, and ethics.
This also means that to engage in something politically, in artistic practice or otherwise, is to not allow for these radical differences and disagreements to simply coexist in a placid pluralism, but rather to produce spaces and times in which they can conflict and engage with one another in a nonsuperficial way. As Claire Bishop has aptly articulated:
“… a fully functioning democratic society is not one in which all antagonisms have disappeared, but one in which new political frontiers are constantly being drawn and brought into debate—in other words, a democratic society is one in which relations of conﬂict are sustained, not erased. Without antagonism there is only the imposed consensus of authoritarian order—a total suppression of debate and discussion, which is inimical to democracy.”
Central to Duncombe and Lambert’s writing is the assumption that political artists and their critics participate in a shared struggle and in their words are “part of the team”. When Duncombe and Lambert assert that their imagined community of political artists and critics are all interested in a “better world”, they mistakenly contend that there is already a consensus on what constitutes their speculatively better world in the first place.
What they fail to consider is that no such consensus exists; there are as many articulations of what composes a better world as there are people in it, many of which are irreconcilably different from one another. Politics is the process that arises precisely because of these differences and is the basis of both antagonism and solidarity.
Thinking politically entails acknowledging that both our potential solidarities and antagonisms are mobile and dynamic. In the opening lines of his talk for this year’s Creative Time Summit, Slavoj Žižek challenged the problematic “we” found in both Duncombe and Lambert’s text as well as in the presuppositions of the Creative Time Summit itself:
“There is a crisis, there are revolts, and so on, and so on. I’m sorry, but, now let me be brutal [because] we deserve the truth: is it your impression that there is some global Left which knows what it wants? I don’t see this”.
Duncombe and Lambert’s analysis could be read as a reaction to the anxiety that comes along with the contingent potentials of both conflict and solidarity, specifically rooted in the distress that there is no coherent political “we” to speak of in this moment of upheaval and crisis. Reconstituting and articulating an effective and broad global Left is certainly a struggle worth participating in, especially in this moment, but to assume that such a political “we” already exists, nonetheless a homogenous one, is only to deepen the problems in need of approach.
Duncombe and Lambert’s assertion that critical practice itself “aligns (the critic) with the dominant competitive logic of the commercial art world” is to fundamentally misconstrue the nature of both politics and critique. Being in coalition with or in conflict with others entails a reckoning with these differences, and to deny this is to deny the conditions of the political itself. Any claim to belonging to a “we” must always also critically reflect on the conditions and oppositions inherent in participating in any collective formation; to resist doing so only functions to reduce our capacity to participate meaningfully in social struggle.
Political and ethical enclosures
While Duncombe and Lambert are correct in asserting that different works of art irrefutably require novel approaches and a consideration of specificity, any aesthetic, political or ethical framework of value must also be robust and flexible enough to consider practices and objects that resist being read through them. This is precisely what is meant when it is said that someone ‘politicizes’, ‘criticizes’ or ‘aestheticizes’ something, they take a thing which normally is considered outside of the bounds of critique or encounter and immerse it in new critical registers.
Much of the Creative Time Summit, as well as the historic avant-garde or more recent adventures in relational aesthetics, were attempting precisely this work in their insistence that everyday life was worthy of aesthetic and political approaches.
A current of thought that guides much of the argument in Duncombe and Lambert’s text is the assertion that political art is fundamentally different than other practices and requires a new critical tradition. While the claim that critics should actuate ethical and political registers when critically evaluating art and aesthetics is potent, by circumscribing these frameworks to our encounter with art that is readily legible as political is to depoliticize the majority of artistic and cultural production that fails to be coherent as such. Aesthetics themselves always produce the frames within which the political is legible or illegible, visible or not. As Jacques Rancière describes:
“There is thus an ‘aesthetics’ at the core of politics … It is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and stakes of politics as a form of experience. Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of space and the possibilities of time.”
By delimiting the political to a specific field or circuit of aesthetic production, there is a failure to consider how other works of art which do not conform to Duncombe and Lambert’s descriptions also activate their own ethics and politics. By conceptually pushing these works outside of the political register, the possibility of generating a politics between various artists, works, audiences, and critics is foreclosed.
The false binary between political and apolitical art ultimately curtails our ability to think about and discuss broader sections of cultural production, particularly in relation to the power exercised from normative positions that establish hegemonic values and metanarratives and thus are not intelligible as political but rather as natural.
Critique is the process with which one can attempt to rupture these hegemonic positions and generate new conditions of aesthetic and political possibility. Critique, in this sense, comes to perform political work of its own in complicating the aesthetic sensibilities of normative hegemonic positions that are themselves the potential terrain of political antagonism.
Perhaps the most obvious and well known contemporary example of a readily legible political art practice is currently being enacted by the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot. As a group, they meet many of Duncombe and Lambert’s criteria for political art: They speak in a punk-rock vernacular, take popular culture and the broad public as their audience, and refuse to conform their practice to neatly fit into a gallery context.
Their performances are popularly read as political for precisely these reasons, and certainly not any less so by the fact that they’ve been imprisoned by the Russian state because of their activities. As a result, it comes easily to consider the political valences of Pussy Riot’s practice and perhaps even mobilize some of Duncombe and Lambert’s criteria in readings of them.
Duncombe and Lambert’s argument as well as our readings of groups like Pussy Riot would very much benefit from considering how both artists and critics presuppose and mold the contours of their legibility through the aesthetics, institutions and circuits that they circulate in.
Artists and critics participate in already-existing discourses which assume a speculative audience familiar with the discourse’s rhetorics, vocabularies, histories and concepts. Furthermore, art and criticism are both inescapably captured in circuits of distribution and discursive ecologies which shape who reads those works and how they are read; discourses are by their very nature a force of fragmentation and accumulation.
An outside to these discursive enclosures does not exist, and there must be a refusal of the notion that any artwork could ever simply appeal to a singular public beyond these containers. The power of normative categories rests largely in both their simultaneous indecipherability and familiarity, and any successful political approach to art must recognize and challenge these normative aesthetic formations that dominantly produce the discursive context and audiences of these works.* Pussy Riot’s practice can be seen as acting aesthetically in this way by expanding upon the limits of the recognizably political in contemporary Russia through rupturing stratified discourses that take patriarchal and capitalist power relations as the norm.
Pussy Riot’s ‘punk prayers’ are already framed by a diversity of discursive and institutional forces, each with their own assumptions and politics. In the immediate sense, their performance in Moscow’s Red Square was aimed immediately at both the international tourists who happened to be present as well as the Russian police that would inevitably respond, while their later performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour forced an encounter with the Russian Orthodox Church.
On a secondary and perhaps more significant circuit of distribution, their work was recorded on digital video and then reposted on an archipelago of blogs and social media sites. Their arrest and subsequent imprisonment by the Russian state can be read as yet another aesthetic capture of their practice, in which their performance was recontextualized in a legal-juridical enclosure manufactured by the Russian courts. And last, we can also see an instrumentalization of their case by parties in the U.S. as a way of delegitimizing the justice system of the Russian state. Each of these instances of performance and circuits of distribution radically alter how we read their work.
In this way, we can see how there is no singular society, market, audience, or community to transform as Duncombe and Lambert suggest, but rather many layered and entangled societies, markets, audiences and communities which are in a constant state of contestation and interpellation. Political projects must always recognize and act within these often contradictory discursive architectures to either subvert them or make the most use of them.
Duncombe and Lambert’s approach unfortunately does not allow us to do political work in this way through their appeal to a “transformation of an entire society” as well as their assertion of a singular “we”, and the chance to critically consider how politics are largely playing out in the very discursive distribution, subversion and/or capture of their work is passed by.
Duncombe and Lambert’s understanding of what constitutes the political is further compromised in their denigration of work that speaks outside of a vernacular language and also in their eschewing of critics that choose to “problematize” works of art. This is both expressive of an anti-intellectualism, and reveals their vision of a politics in which difference is rendered inconsequential in the interest of conjuring an all-inclusive singular public. They largely assert the role of the critic is to be found in “understanding, analyzing and aiding”, rather than consider the political itself is perhaps playing out in the exchange between the artist and critic.
Furthermore, the political art movements assumed to be championed by Duncombe and Lambert do not benefit from suppressing critique in the interest of “being a good team member”, but rather are held back by their refusal to confront the radical alterity, contradiction and friction that are always present in those same movements. Judith Butler proves to be helpful here in describing these productive capacities of critique:
“What (critique) is really about is opening up the possibility of questioning what our assumptions are and somehow encouraging us to live in the anxiety of that questioning without closing it down too quickly. Of course, it’s not for the sake of anxiety that one should do it (I don’t think one should do anything for the sake of anxiety), but it’s because anxiety accompanies something like the witnessing of new possibilities. It is important to call things into question.”
Problematizing a work of art, a piece of writing, a social structure, is an essential technique of the political — it allows us to defamiliarize and challenge the limits and character of what constitutes the political and ethical in the first place.
Furthermore, when Duncombe and Lambert suggest that an effective politics speaks in the vernacular, they deprive us of the sometimes-complex languages that are needed to describe the incredibly complicated processes that have produced the crisis. Antagonistic critique is not, as they suggest, a “demonstration of how smart and clever you are”, but rather an affirmation of the generative power of critical thought. Just as politics necessitate struggle and endurance, the approach to the languages that are used in political struggles often requires similar undertakings.
Part of any political project is the need to develop the languages and concepts necessary for both understanding the many structures of power, and also in articulating the possibility of alternatives. To curtail ourselves to the vernacular is to shut off the possibilities of educating ourselves and others in the interest of generating a more effective and critically astute praxis.
Political action and intervention can of course be done in the vernacular and quite powerfully so, but it isn’t required and difficult language is often an essential part of many political projects. Ideas, and the languages used to express them, matter, and movements aren’t helping themselves if they are unwilling to multiply their vocabularies and rhetorical approaches in ways which allow for a more nuanced and complex collective political imagination and critique.
Critical and aesthetic weapons
Duncombe and Lambert set out to challenge us to think politics in art, and this is a worthwhile pursuit. However, those of us who desire to assemble an effective and broad Left must greatly expand upon and complicate their analysis if we hope to meaningfully act in the world. It’s important that it is recognized that the many serious problems we find ourselves entangled with in the contemporary moment are going to require larger and larger political coalitions that will certainly contain profound disagreements and differences within them.
Combatting climate change, financial capital, patriarchy and other power structures will all require these coalitions of us. This will mean both articulating differences, and at times, mobilizing critique as a way of constructing coalitions that move alterity to the center of our approaches instead of obscuring it.
At times this will also mean formulating antagonistic critiques against those that are in opposition to our political projects. If the value and power of critique is foreclosed, much of our capacity to act politically has already been forfeited in the failure to recognize the aesthetic nature of politics. Political life is characterized by the reality that we all share a singular world in common, while we also embody and live differences that stubbornly persist in that space. Both Duncombe and Lambert’s analysis as well as the Creative Time Summit would benefit from committing themselves to reckoning with these irreducible differences and the conflicts that come along with them.
Those of us interested in participating in a global political Left all have an ethical responsibility to engage with and be critical of each other’s politics and aesthetics — just as it can manifest as a vector of attack and negation, critique also can be a powerful gesture of solidarity. A critical act is never purely negative, but rather, just like art, generates unexpected and useful insights and outcomes.
Both political and aesthetic projects are always without guarantees, and both force us to consistently engage, reevaluate and critique if we are to seriously commit ourselves to these projects. If we are sincere in our desire to develop more effective critical and aesthetic weapons with which we can engage in ethical and political struggles, then we must not shy away from the potential conflicts and irreducible differences which produce the conditions of these struggles in the first place.
Ian Alan Paul is a writer and artist living in the Bay Area of California. His current research focuses on feminist and poststructuralist critiques of human rights discourses. He can be found online at www.ianalanpaul.com, emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org, and contacted on twitter at @ianalanpaul.
*For example, Duncombe and Lambert suggest in their text that political art ‘acts’ in the world, rather than represents it. This only serves to establish a false dichotomy between representation and action (representations unquestionably have material effects, just as actions produce representations) and curtails our capacity to critically approach culture. A more productive and generative approach would consider how certain forms of both representation and action exist in their own contexts and ecologies that determine if and how they are understood.
Image: Occupy Oakland demonstrators shut down the Port of Oakland on Nov. 2, 2011. (Photo by ButterFlying / CC)
“An Open Letter To Critics Writing About Political Art”, Stephen Duncombe and Steve Lambert
“Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics”, Claire Bishop
“The Distribution of the Sensible”, Jacques Rancière
“Changing the Subject: Judith Butler’s Politics of Radical Resignification”, Gary A. Olson and Lynn Worsham