Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Give up art and save the starving?

If art and design is understood as the expression and reflection of a particular set of values, systems and interests, then most artistic practice today tends to express the interests of the class that controls and profits from society — the bourgeois or corporate class and their markets. It is these interests that dominate and control the standards of value in art — that defines its emphasis, and excludes its more subversive, egalitarian alternatives. Likewise, when our society places so much importance on the individual, technical virtuosity of an artist instead of the social motivations and commitments of that artist, one doesn’t have to look much further than the world of art and culture in our society to see where fascism breeds.

These are heavy and rather confrontational definitions of mainstream art, but one only needs to experience the fishbowl of a typical art opening to take them as truisms.

But what of alternatives? For practitioners of a completely different kind of art, these dominant understandings make using the term ‘artist’ rather problematic. Are we artists, or something else? Should we separate ourselves from the term ‘art’ altogether — or reclaim it for an entirely new set of standards and values, values in tune with our political, social and economic realities? Or, do we completely destroy the separation of art and everyday life, as the Situationists tried before us? Do we take it one step further, to ‘give up art and save the starving’, to ‘paint all the paintings black and celebrate dead art’, as Tony Lowe would have us do. And why not? Capitalism and the global financial crisis continues its drunken march of exploitation, playing havoc with the millions of working people who always suffer the effects of the hangover while never being invited to the party. For practitioners truly willing to empower more than just themselves — the barricades — and not the gallery, may be the new canvas on which to create.

Of course, practitioners with any kind of decent analysis should already be ‘on the barricades’. Cultural production plays an integral role in the current way of life — it is the means by which a monopoly of content and control by a few over the many is kept in check. Consumption, and the spectacle of consumption, contribute to the alienation and social poverty we currently experience. And yes, that includes hip, avant-garde, ‘edgy’, political work supposedly with ‘something to say’ while continuing to hang upon the white (or brick) walls (or pages) of our capitalist utopia.

If we decide not to leave art for dead, and instead embrace its omnipotent potential for radical, social change — it will be important to collectively create perspectives and values which clearly illustrate the realities of everyday, working life, and the possibilities of libertarian alternatives. Rearrangement of our institutions — cultural ones included — is simply evasive. A tree that has turned into a club cannot be expected to put forth leaves. Any artistic practice short of advocating the abolishment of capitalism and replacing it with logic, frankly, should be left to die.

Alec Icky Dunn, Thicket. 1 color block print.


James David said...

You're quite right that capitalism has us in its snares more and more. There's even a whole discourse surrounding the "creative industries" that encourages our participation in constructing/maintaining neoliberalism. However, I see carving out a space within existing institutions for libertarian and social practices as a lived expression the adage that we should "build the new world in the shell of the old." More, I think that those practices that implicitly espouse such politics are successful for being doubly subversive, or at least convincing enough that the alternative that they posit is worth material support. At times, I am also tempted to buck all but those strategies that are explicitly anti-capitalist, but I've come to think that one of the most appealing aspects of activist art is its ability to change without necessarily following the reductionist course. The question becomes one of how to change the conditions of creativity (as you ask) and collectivism (as you offer in practice) carries a lot of potential... it's just a matter of how broadly we conceive of our collective identities.

Jared Davidson said...

Thanks James, thats a nice touch.

I totally agree with the maxim 'build the new world in the shell of the old', but that depends on what we are building of course! To critique the system while continuing to support the system (through, say, showing work in a gallery, making profit off our work, solely working alone etc etc) then what we are actually doing is 'reproducing the old in the shell of the old!' Of course, its near impossible to not reproduce the system we grew up and were socialised within, but not exploring truly new ways of operating, with new values and new perspectives — and instead falling back on the safe space of the gallery while we try to do that — is something we should actively try and avoid.

Your last sentence is a goodie, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post and the website.
i would like to translate the text to Hebrew and post on the online magazine Ma'arav.
I think it would important to bring this discussion on capitalism and art to our readers.
Please contact me to know if that is possible and if you have any questions about our agenda.
Ronen Eidelman