A Western Marxist reading of contemporary art, focusing on the question of the continued presence (or absence) of the avant-garde’s transgressive impulse.
Taking art’s ability to contribute to radical social transformation as its point of departure, Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen's new title from Zero Books analyses the relationship between the current neoliberal hegemony and contemporary art, including relational aesthetics and interventionist art, new institutionalism and post-modern architecture.
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About the Author
Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen is an art historian and cultural critic who has published in English and in Danish. He co-produced the exhibition 'This World We Must Leave' in collaboration with Jakob Jakobsen at the Kunsthall Oslo art space. Mikkel is Associate Professor at the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and is co-editor of the journals K&K and Mr Antipyrine.
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The Double Nature of Contemporary Art
Let us, if only for a brief moment — even though it may be cracking nuts with sledgehammers or just far, far too late — look at contemporary art in the light of the Western Marxist idea of art as an instrument of resistance, what Herbert Marcuse called "the great refusal" and Debord named "the art of change". What do we see? On the face of it, it doesn't look particularly good. The traditional forms of intellectual and aesthetic opposition no longer to seem to be available. Visual images, as well as words and music, appear to lack their former alienating effect and are rarely antagonistic towards the prevailing order. Wherever we direct our gaze, it is mostly the complicity of the art institution with established power that is conspicuous.
The speculation economy of neo-liberal capitalism pumped huge sums of money into the art market after 1989, with the result that art today is closely tied to the transnational circulation of capital. At the same time, national governments, provinces and cities use art as a marketing instrument in the febrile competition for investments and tourists. These developments towards an ever-closer link between art and capital, and between art and the ruling order, are undoubtedly the predominant tendency when it comes to contemporary art.
But at the same time, it is important to point out that the space of art is still characterized by the presence of various representations of the political and attempts to use the field of art as a starting point for the visualization of conflicts that have been marginalized in the broader public sphere. For example, "political" exhibitions are held regularly, and even large institutions here and there have facilitated "political" exhibitions, and presented (artistic representations of) "art-external" themes.
In a quickly compiled list of just some of the important ones from the last 10 to 15 years, the following comes to mind: "The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa" at Museum Villa Stuck, Munich and PS1 in New York; "The Interventionists" at MASS MoCA; "Communism" at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin; "Populism" at the Museum for Contemporary art in Oslo and Frankfurter Kunstverein, among other venues; "Revolution is not a Garden Party" at the Trafó Gallery in Budapest and Galerija Miroslav Kraljevic in Zagreb, among other venues; "Signs of Change" at Exit Art in New York; "Asking We Walk: Voices of Resistance" at Den Frie Udstilling in Copenhagen; Creative Time's "Living as Form" in New York; the 7th Berlin Biennial "Forget Fear" and "Soulèvement" at Jeu de Paume in Paris. The list is long. Since the end of the 1990s, there has been a greater interest in collective and antagonistic art, and art activism projects, which have been invited into art institutions and have been made the object of major exhibitions.
If we take the big biennials and Documenta as signposts, in the period after 1989 we can observe a movement from the highly traditional exhibitions of the early 1990s — with a preponderance of paintings by middle-aged white men, Jan Hoet's Documenta IX in 1992, for example — to the globalization-critical and postcolonial exhibitions of the late 1990s and 2000s. This occurred at Okwui Enwezor et al.'s Documenta 11 in 2002, where an attempt was made to start an explicit shift away from the prevailing colonial art-historical and political hierarchy. It is also where contemporary art, in an interaction with critical philosophy, urbanism and economics, mapped out the challenges and possibilities of the postcolonial era.
Of course, many of the exhibitions that have been described as "political" have been so only in a very limited way. Often, the reference to the "political" and the inclusion of activist projects has most of all been a sales gimmick. An attempt to "comply with the wishes of the museums, the periodicals and the market for a visual representation of the political" or, quite simply, a move to disable any potentially radical gesture. Nevertheless, there have been attempts to draw attention to pressing political issues and even to contribute to ongoing political struggles or to challenge the way we think about them.
However, such exhibitions have been confronted with the problem that they take place in the absence of a political context in which the projects could potentially have a meaning beyond the enclave of the art institution. Paradoxically, it looks as if parts of the art institution are full of representations of political conflicts and struggles because, by and large, they do not appear anywhere else. There is no global progressive political public sphere for new thinking to articulate modes of resistance and discuss effective strategies for curbing the implementation of the new anti-dissent regime that is developing across the world, from Copenhagen through Athens to Gaza. This is meant to ensure that the well-heeled survive the crises and catastrophes ahead, whether they take the form of terror attacks, immigration or climate disaster. In the absence of viable radical political projects, it seems to be at the margins of the art institution that counter-paradigms and political alternatives are being kept alive, if in no other way than as images of conflict.
What this all means is that we are dealing with a situation full of contradictions; and, of course, that was part of what Benjamin, Marcuse, Lefebvre and the others registered in their critical analyses of avant-garde art, and its ambivalent problematizing of the autonomy of art in the first half of the 20th century. They were all so keenly aware that modern art involved a promesse de bonheur, pointing beyond established bourgeois capitalist society, while at the same time confirming it.
This was what Marcuse crystallized in his formulation about the affirmative character of art. On the one hand, the autonomy of art equips artists with a freedom that is both a proclamation of a free praxis in a free society and a critique of the existing unfree society. On the other hand, modern art always legitimizes the society in which it exists. As Marcuse writes, the independent sphere of art is affirmative, since it is "compatible with the bad present".
This dialectical duality was the platform for the attack launched by the historical avant-gardes on the art institution, and their paradoxical attempts to overcome artistic autonomy and realize the freedom of art outside its institutional base as an element in the radical transformation of human life. The anarchistic imagination that had hibernated in art, but disappeared in the rest of human life because of modern life's rationalization, was to be unleashed and made available to all. But, as we now know all too well, the ambitious project of the avant-garde did not succeed. As with the concurrent revolutionary movement, the counter-revolution took over and transformed everything, with a view to making it the same as before. The grand attempts of the avant-garde to break down the boundary between art and life turned out to be no more than an immanent negation of the autonomy of art, not the desired revolution.
In retrospect, it is the institution's ability to subsume even extremely radical attempts to break away that remains when we cast our gaze over the art of the 20th century. The anti-art of the avant-gardes entered bourgeois capitalist society and strengthened it — this was the conclusion of the subversive avant-garde of the 1960s, the situationists, and the most keen-sighted and therefore resigned avant-garde theoreticians of the 1970s, Peter Bürger and Manfredo Tafuri, when they looked back at the fate of the interwar avant-gardes. The avant-garde had not been dealt a fair hand: established taste went to work to recuperate or derail everything with which it was confronted, large and small. Nothing was to be allowed to stand alone; everything was to form part of the spectacle.
The culture industry and the spectacle, today
Not only are we familiar with the contours of this development under the aegis of recuperation from the theory of the avant-garde, but also from a number of the central texts in the art-oriented part of Western Marxism. Texts include Adorno and Horkheimer's chapter on the culture industry in Dialektik der Aufklärung and the situationists' excoriation of Godard in "Le rôle de Godard".
The two Germans analysed how autonomous art was integrated into the culture industry. According to Adorno and Horkheimer, capitalist production and the logic of administration subsumed art into commodity production, and thus suspended art's inherent resistance to alienation and exchange value. The issue that Adorno and Horkheimer outlined is no less pressing for us today, when art and culture, even more than in the 1940s, have become important markets, with a plethora of niches and differentiated commodity-based styles, and when contemporary art functions quite plainly as the R&D department for the other branches of the culture industry.
As part of the neo-liberal offensive that swept across the world from the end of the 1970s, there was an increased mercantilization of the art institution: even if it did not directly have to live up to a profitability requirement, it at least had to cast off the last vestiges of its autonomy. This was not only to cooperate with the business world, but also to take it as a model, and implement private industry's notions of efficiency and quantifiability. This could be done, among other ways, by making sure that art institutions attracted investments that could contribute to the cultural tourism and urban beautification projects, which were an integral part of the gentrification processes that played an important role in the neo-liberal restructuring of many big cities. Such an activation or animation of the city, where art made it an event, was a dream come true for the production managers of neo-liberal capitalism.
As Julian Stallabrass writes in Art Incorporated, neo- liberalism made perhaps its most explicit impact on art institutionally in the mega-exhibition and the biennial, which can in many ways be regarded as a supermarket for freely circulating artworks without historical depth and regional specificity: global contemporary art as a kind of universal brand that effectuates a homogenization and hollowing out of differentiated cultures, and replaces history with global spread, as if this were a guarantee of difference rather than a disguise for the market's inevitable standardization.
In their analysis of Godard's films, Debord and the situationists grasped experimental art's consolidation of the spectacle — according to the situationists, Godard's films represented a formal pseudo-critique that hindered authentic criticism of art and of the spectacle's splitting of life into specialized activities — and pointed to the way the commodity form in spectacular market capitalism had infiltrated all aspects of life. They defined this spectacle as the anonymous totalitarian order of money, a depopulated world beyond human influence, the commodity world as representation process.
Reality, according to the situationists, had been turned into images beyond human control and any kind of dialogue had been replaced by the monologue of the image. Although it was the result of a complex social praxis, the image acted as an independent being. In accordance with the Marxist critique of capitalist society, which underpins the analysis, the situationists thought that capitalism's totalitarian need to individualize everything and privatize the collective resulted in a totally porous and disjointed society, which was only held together by permanent bombardment of slogans, brands and commercials.
The intensity with which we are all assaulted by images has not abated since the end of the 1960s, when Debord and the other situationists critically analyzed the society of the spectacle. What has happened, rather, is that the image machines produce faster and faster, to cover up a more and more threadbare sociality. Proof that society is falling apart is visible everywhere. The scaremongering images and commercials are meant to hide a standardized hollowed-out social texture, where the isolated and marketized individual is a slave of the fatuous offerings of the entertainment-fashion-information-technology system.
Returning to the narrower art-institutional dimensions of Western Marxism's critique of art, we must concede that the situationists' rejection of Godard's pseudo-criticism is also still pertinent. After all, the "political" exhibitions mentioned earlier clearly point to the discrepancy between the intended meaning of the exhibitions as in some sense critical of the institution or system, and their function as legitimation of the existing. As Oliver Ressler explains, Taiwan's president Ma Ying-Jeou was, for example, very enthusiastic about the part of the Taipei biennial in 2008, "A World Where Many Worlds Fit", in which Oliver Ressler had curated about the alter-globalization movement and its anti-capitalist demonstrations. Any biennial with respect for itself, according the president, had to be "creative, energetic, sensitive and not least rebellious". The statement, of course, demonstrates the establishment's ability to subsume criticism while citing the existence of "criticism" as proof of plurality and openness.
This affirmative dimension is just as relevant today as it was during the Cold War, when the US staged modern art — Abstract Expressionism, for example — as an expression of the capitalist world's freedom (as opposed to the Soviet Union's propagandistic Social Realism). As Hal Foster diagnosed in "Against Pluralism", pluralism in contemporary art is very much to be regarded as a legitimation of an ostensibly liberated anything-goes relativism. In effect, this neutralizes critical approaches as an updated version of Marcuse's "repressive tolerance".
Practicing the (im)possible
Let us try to shift perspective from art institution towards the praxis- oriented and take a closer look at some of the various approaches that have been used over the past 10 to 15 years in the critical, and therefore more interesting, part of contemporary art. One of the most prominent approaches has been so-called relational art, described by Nicolas Bourriaud as an attempt to produce new social conditions as a response to the destruction of human relations, which Bourriaud believes is taking place in late modern society. In the work of artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija, Philippe Parreno and Carsten Höller, Bourriaud found an intense interest in "interaction, co-existence and relational networks". For example, when Tiravanija "organizes a dinner at the house of an art collector, where he makes the necessary things available with a view to cooking a Thai soup".
In terms of art history, relational aesthetics was a way of reaching beyond the 1980s' critique of representation, which had originally taken the form of critical appropriations and displacements of mass media images. However, by the late 1980s it had ended up as shiny art objects that were indistinguishable from the commodities of the spectacular market society and the spin of the closed political public sphere. After the representation-critical art of the 1980s had been preoccupied with various postmodern theories of signs, text and simulation there was therefore a turn in the 1990s towards the performative. A movement away from representation and the (art) object towards transient and complex social interactions.
But as Hal Foster and Stewart Martin, among others, have written, relational aesthetics was characterized by a naive idea of presence and a greatly exaggerated faith in the space of art, which was assumed to constitute a socially harmonious enclave free of the disorder of the surrounding world. Bourriaud went so far as to call contemporary art a space that was "protected from the uniformization of human behaviour". Relatively quickly, relational aesthetics and its non-committal types of relations therefore came to appear as nothing more than PR for the art institution and a small group of its most privileged agents. The vague sociality that was given form in relational works in no way challenged the institution, which had no trouble reducing apparently transitory relations to art objects, commodities and representations of sociality.
Another, more interesting tendency in contemporary art has been what one could call solution-oriented intervention art, which undertakes to propose solutions for complicated social and political problems, and to create new forms of collective social interaction. This art shares relational art's aversion to the representation-critical art of the 1980s since, to an even greater extent than relational art, it is productive, and proposes specific models for cooperation and ways of solving particular social problems. Artists like Kenneth A. Balfelt, Superflex, Wochenklausur or Asyl Dialog Tanken use artistic imagination to visualize, debate and often even solve problems of a social and economic nature. For example, by giving Copenhagen's drug addicts the opportunity to fix in decent conditions, remedying prostitutes' lack of shelter in Zürich, the development of a biogas plant — which converts waste from humans and animals into gas, for the African market — and the establishment of a cultural centre and shelter for asylum seekers and immigrants in Copenhagen.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "After the Great Refusal"
Copyright © 2017 Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Against the Established Taste 1
Chapter 1 The Double Nature of Contemporary Art 13
Chapter 2 The Self-Murder of the Avant-Garde 27
Chapter 3 After Credit, Winter: "The Progressive Art Institution" and the Crisis 53
Chapter 4 The Long March Through the Institutions 64
Chapter 5 Globalization, Architecture and Containers 77
Chapter 6 Imagining a Future 96