Postartistic Practices in the Age of Total Spectacularization – Interview with Gregory Sholette and Kuba Szreder

Dr. Gregory Sholette is a New York-based artist, writer, teacher, and activist whose forthcoming book, The Art of Activism and the Activism of Art (Lund Humphries) joins Dark MatterDelirium and Resistance, and Art as Social Activism to focus on issues of collective cultural labor, activist art, and counter-historical representation. He is a co-founder of several political art collectives, holds a Ph.D. from the University of Amsterdam NL, a graduate of the Whitney Independent Studies Program in Critical Theory, and as a professor at Queens College co-directs with Chloë Bass Social Practice CUNY (SPCUNY) funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation at the Graduate Center, City University NY.

Kuba Szreder is a researcher, lecturer and interdependent curator, based in Warsaw. He actively cooperates with artistic unions, consortia of postartistic practitioners, clusters of art-researchers, art collectives, and artistic institutions in Poland, UK, and other European countries. Editor and author of books and texts on the political economy of global artistic circulation, art strikes, modes of artistic self-organization, instituting art beyond the art market and the use value of art. His most recent book, the ABC of the Projectariat: Living and Working in a Precarious Art World was published in 2021 by the Whitworth and Manchester University Press, as part of the Whitworth Manuals series.

We invited Kuba and Gregory to have a conversation with us about art activism, ‘bare art,’ and the projectariat in the summer and fall of 2021. But before the Mezosfera issue was published Russia invaded Ukraine, and we felt that the conversation would be outdated without reflecting on this drastically new situation in Europe at the end of the interview.

Ágnes Szanyi & Gábor Erlich: We would like to start with a clarifying question. There are several different conventions in the literature of art activism, with the same phenomenon varyingly referred to as “social practice,” “socially engaged art” or “art activism.” For example, the Queens College program was named Social Practice – Art + Social Action, and in your writings both of you use the term “art activism.” How would you explain the difference between these concepts? Is there a difference?

Gregory Sholette: Activist art is a facet of the fast-growing field of a more broadly understood socially engaged art, a cultural phenomenon primarily situated in the visual arts that also goes by such names as new genre public art, participatory, relational, dialogical aesthetics, and social practice art. In little over a decade, all of these artistic modes have moved from the margins of the art world into a far more central and visible position. With this shift comes increasing scrutiny and interest from younger artists, critics, theorists, art historians and teachers, but also from NGOs, cultural foundations and policy makers, as well as even commercial galleries and art collectors. (For example, social practice artist Rick Lowe, known for his innovative Project Row Houses in Houston, Texas, recently joined the Gagosian global network of commercial art galleries). But without question, the increasing desire of artists to transform their practice into a mode of direct protest and political activism is the most prominent, and in many ways the most perplexing, constituent of this sphere of contemporary culture. The artist as activist supersedes Walter Benjamin’s author as producer today, but they do so at a time when capitalism has spread its particular aesthetic of networked media and spectacle to almost every corner and electronic device around the globe, just as the working class and socialist movement of Benjamin’s 1930s world is becoming a negligible force, even as the nemesis of fascism returns.

Kuba Szreder: Here, in Poland, in a feat of semi-peripheric fancy, we tend to talk instead about so called “postartistic practices.” Which we do when we assemble in the Consortium for Postartistic Practices, or establish such patainstitutions as the Office for Postartistic Practices. Artists who assemble in CPP work closely with social movements and engage in antifascist, feminist, ecological, antihomophobic and antiracist campaigning, so you can possibly call them art activists or socially engaged artists, if you like. But then we prefer to use other terms, like “art beyond art,” borrowed from Rasheed Araeen, or a conceptual vocabulary of usership, developed by Stephen Wright. It makes an interesting conceptual detour. The very concept of “postartistic practice”[1] is based on the writings of Jerzy Ludwiński, a theoretician of conceptual art, who back in 1971 delivered a short lecture on “Art in the Postartistic Age,” whose last few lines still serve as a motto for the organizations I’ve mentioned: “Perhaps, even today, we do not deal with art. We might have overlooked the moment when it transformed itself into something else, something which we cannot yet name. It is certain, however, that what we deal with offers greater possibilities.” Ludwiński was definitely not an art activist—it was a complicated matter in a socialist Poland, where artists had to deal with the troubled legacy (and influence) of the socialist realist doctrine (even though he co-organized one of the first summits on art and ecology in 1971). What I like about the notion of postartistic practice is that it locates the debate about art and activism at the crux of the conceptual revolution in art (its deskilling and dematerialization), realigning this potential for the sake of social causes that we consider important.

GE: In the light of this, what do you think about the socio-political role of such practice? Oliver Marchart uses the term “pre-enactment”[2] to indicate that such a practice can only ever be a rehearsal, because politics proper happens in a more spontaneous manner. I am hesitant to accept this, but am curious about your take on this: can art activism or social practice be politics proper?

KS: Well, I think that politics proper is a rather unspontaneous and pretty dull matter, unless someone has a penchant for romanticizing revolutions. Other than that, you possibly hint at the perennial question of the efficacy of art. I think that leftist art is currently as effective as the leftist politics that it supports, maybe even a bit more, but, considering the current sorry state of affairs, that is not much. I do not buy into the ethos of a romantic intelligentsia that overemphasizes the role played by individual gestures. It is not that I want to make light of art and culture in general, but I want to apply a sense of proportion. Social change is about social shifts of massive proportions, and an artistic ecosystem of leftist ideas and aesthetic idioms does have a role to play, but what it takes is not individual artworks or texts, but a vast array of them. To influence change, art has to function as part of the wider and vibrant stream of ideas and idioms, which require their own media, channels of communication, and users who are eager to put rhetoric into practice. Art notwithstanding, social change is never attained solely by armchair revolutionaries.

Street sign designed by Jenny Polak and David Thorne as part of the 1998 REPOhistory collective project Civil Disturbances. It focused on the unpunished and often unlitigated killings of people of color by members of the New York Police Department. Courtesy: gsholette archives

AS & GE: Beside the debate on art and ‘politics proper,’ a growing number of scholars, theorists, and practitioners claim that art activism is also a new mode of artistic production which provides a novel understanding of not only the economic role of art but also of the social identity of the artist. In your respective practices, how did this change the ways you understand the role of art and that of the artist?

GS: The upsurge of activist art, especially over the past one or two decades, may explain why noted art historian and theorist Boris Groys describes activist art as “a new phenomenon,” one that is “central to our time” and “quite different from the phenomenon of critical art that became familiar to us during recent decades.”[3] Indeed, a half dozen books on the topic, not including my own, are coming into print as I write this. What has changed, and how is this possible? Is it simply that by having remained on the shadowy margins of mainstream culture for so long, activist art appears like a charging bull, seemingly coming out of nowhere as if without a past? Or, as I suspect, is something else going on here? For Groys, the orphan status of this new wave of activist art is due to its faith in art itself as a medium of social change. This he compares to art’s traditional social “uselessness,” a notion encapsulated in the early-19th-century idea of art for art’s sake, which he argues often “compelled many artists to abandon art altogether—and to start to practice something more useful, something morally and politically correct. However, contemporary art activism does not rush to abandon art but, rather, tries to make art itself useful. This is a historically new position.”[4] And yet, contra Groys, a solid backstory can be constructed for art activism, although it is less of a linear history than an archive brimming with minor victories, compromises and outright failures, even if it has been largely closeted within mainstream art history. Consider Jacques-Louis David’s elaborate public floats designed by the painter for public fêtes to rally support for the French Revolution in the 1790s. Or less than a century later, Gustave Courbet had a decisive role in the dramatic toppling of the militaristic Vendôme Column during the Paris Commune, an action that also coincided with the development of mass-produced photographic images that transformed this spectacular event into widely circulated cartes postales. Still, I think Groys has a point after all: what happens today in the entire arena of socially engaged art challenges the very notion that artistic practice is, with Rancière’s expression, a “third force,” which mediates between life and culture, art and activism, artist and spectator.[5] We must confront the possibility that the line separating these classical subject/object relations is no longer relevant today, in what has become a fully aestheticized reality in which designations such as artists and non-artists, professionals and non-professionals lose their clarity if not their essential meanings. New tools and modes of analysis are needed to address this uncanny reality or unpresent. (See also: my response to Groys, and more back stories on activist art.)

KS: I totally agree with what Greg says here, I think that we need to think about the current historical conjuncture as both a period for the intensification of poststudio practices, and as a part of the interrupted historical lineage of similar practices that date back to the very inception of the autonomous field of art in the late 19th century. Everybody knows about the proto-socialists of the arts and crafts movement, the revolutionary constructivists, the antifascist Dadaists, the communist surrealists, the Lettrists, and situationists. One of the iconic works of art, Picasso’s Guernica, was painted as an antiwar statement, and was commissioned by the Spanish Republican government. This art object shifted between its political allegiance and status of discrete artwork, was put to different uses by activists, scholars, artists, laypersons and institutions. I tend to think about this history as a dynamic field of historical struggle, where different forces were always present, changing the status of artworks and artists that became engulfed in them. Some of them served as decorators of consecutive gilded ages, some dissented and put their skills in service of social change. And some shifted, like Picasso. Some of the artistic evocations of social struggles can be used to decorate bourgeois salons, but then royal castles can be used as public museums. Coming back to your question, I think what changed in the last four decades is a weakening of art’s exceptionality as an autonomous field of social practice, a social illusion specific to Western modernity. Currently, large artists’ studios are turning into art factories, the art market is becoming similar to the markets of other luxury goods, and art museums are integrated into tourism and entertainment complexes. And, on the other side of the barricade, activist art blurs with varied forms of creative self-expression that emerge in social movements, online communities, fringe groups.

AS: It also occurred to me when we formulated this question that mainstream art education, art criticism, art history writing (as you point out, Greg, in your essay, The Courbet Conundrum) can only interpret artists as singular individuals, brands, where the emphasis is on productivity, on the individual genius of the artists, and success depends on the artist’s embeddedness in the system of art institutions. Institutional theories of art – especially the very influential theory of Pierre Bourdieu – reproduce this concept of the artist (as you, Kuba, point it out in your essay, The Political Economy of Icebergs). At the same time, an activist approach requires giving up authorship, not producing art objects, or at least anything of value for the art market, not striving for institutional acknowledgment or canonization, and working instead together, relying on others, caring for each other’s well-being. How can this apparent contradiction, these opposing attitudes be resolved in art activism, among artists who were socialized in the first paradigm? How have activist experiences changed your own practices, if they have?

GS: I am not sure artists need to give up, or that they are even in the position to give up, something that they don’t truly possess in the first place, i.e. original authorship or artistic singularity, whether we interpret this from Bourdieu’s perspective of institutionalized art, or on a more “subjective” level, as with Butler or Lacan. Instead, artists as activists will have to learn to mobilize the socially imaginative labor that already constitutes their practice, along with whatever archival forces haunt and energize that very same process of mobilization.

KS: I do not see any reason why art education, criticism, or writing should sustain dominant modes of thinking and practicing art. In fact, I always argue against such an understanding of the artistic universe as something that reifies the social hegemony of what you call mainstream. That is why at the Centre for Plausible Economies we picked the metaphor of the iceberg to explain economies of contemporary art. The feminist economists who call themselves J. K. Gibson-Graham use this metaphor to challenge capitalocentric notions of the economy, emphasizing that the monetary economy is just a fraction of the economy proper. We apply the notion to the art world, to suggest that the social conventions that prioritize the authorship, objecthood and marketization of collectibles are just the peak of the artistic iceberg. The vast, underwater realm of art beyond art is defined by such aesthetic conventions as a line between “high” and “low” art, proper art and visual culture, pure aesthetics and activist propaganda. That, I believe, is at the core of the dark matter argument spearheaded by Greg, as it is also a basic tenet of the theory of usership popularized by Stephen Wright. If you consider memes as artistic expressions of a community of users who take pieces of visual culture and change them at will, one quickly sees that their authorship is blurred, the objects are dispersed, their exhibitionary value is unimpressive, and their romantic pathos diminished. And yet, the memes can be witty, surprising, provocative, transforming perceptions and attitudes. They are frequently made outside of the capitalist value form, much more so than most of contemporary art.

The logo of The Centre for Plausible Economies, with the silhouette of an iceberg. “The Centre for Plausible Economies was initiated by Kathrin Böhm and Kuba Szreder and opened on 08 June 2018, it is affiliated with the Company Drinks, located in Barking and Dagenham / East London. Economy is a strange beast. Everybody is exposed to economic forces, but nobody seems to be in control. Responding to this frustration with upbeat pragmatism, the Centre for Plausible Economies brings together artistic action and critical thinking to reclaim the economy. It is as a new platform for mapping and reimagining economic systems, in the arts and beyond.”

AS & GE: Is it important in art activist practice whether you come from a curatorial or an artist background?

GS: I really don’t know how to address this question, sorry.

KS: One of the pertinent, and possibly totally inconclusive, debates out there is about what actually delineates artistic competence in an age when, along with art objects, artistic practices have also lost their defining characteristics. A division of labor specific to an expanded field of art is confused along those blurred lines: artists curate, curators do installations, and everybody makes projects. Curators and artists are equally exposed to the structural pressures of the current phase of capitalism, and are engulfed in the defining conflicts of our age, like the ones between rising fascism and democratic socialism, disaster capitalism and green new deals. As I argue in my upcoming book the ABC of the Projectariat, just as proletarians had nothing to lose but their chains, the projectarians have nothing to miss but their deadlines.

AS & GE: While you come from different professional backgrounds, you are both educators, and have an art activist practice. How do you implement the activist approach in art education? Is it possible to transfer that into an institutional environment?

GS: The City University of New York (CUNY) where I teach is pretty porous and still allows faculty to do mostly what they wish, though in exchange, we suffer from an austerity budget so that this academic freedom can only be reached if one is willing to sacrifice their own time, labor and financial resources to make it happen. With that proviso, I have found it possible to incorporate issues of art activism and socially engaged art into seminars, and it is very satisfying. As you point out, with my colleague Chloë Bass, I co-direct Social Practice CUNY, and thanks to an Andrew W. Mellon grant we worked very hard on in our own time, the program now offers MFA graduate students a partially funded and concentrated study in the area of art and social justice broadly speaking. In this regard, I do teach a course on the history and theory of socially engaged art, starting from the community arts movement of the 1960s, that includes such issues as collectivism, art and labor, and I also discuss debt because in the US context that is crucial. I have also been fortunate in being able to invite socially engaged art practitioners such as Rick Lowe, Suzanne Lacy, Stephanie Dinkins, Josh MacPhee, Dread Scott, Avram Finkelstein and scholars such as Lucy R. Lippard, Grant Kester, Tom Finkelpearl and Claire Bishop to meet with my students. In the coming year, Lacy will also be working directly with our SPCUNY cohort as she opens a retrospective at the Queens Museum. You can find the past three years of documentation here, here, here and here. You can also find a downloadable reader on socially engaged art.

Occasionally I delve into collective activist art projects such as PAD/D and REPOhistory and Gulf Labor, groups that I have been personally involved with over the past four decades in NYC, but when a student shows particular interest in art activism, then I will provide more direction focused on this topic. Recently I created a new seminar course entitled Imaging Resistance: Photo Media & Socially Engaged Art, which is really a history of the ways lens-based representational technology has intersected with social movements and political activism from the 1871 Paris Commune to May 1968 into the present with Syrian photographers and videographers and BLM, and so on. You can find the syllabus here.

KS: Thanks, Greg for sharing these resources, I find them really useful. I teach at the public art academy in Warsaw, at the department of artistic research. I have seminars on the sociology and economy of art, and on art beyond art. At the latter, we discuss various examples of post-artistic practices, art activism and socially engaged art. A lot of my students come from other, fine art and design departments, and I try to show them a vast spectrum of what art can be, expose them to a plethora of plausible art worlds. We look at databases, read texts, discuss current developments in theory and practice. In courses whose focus is more sociological, we discuss the social architecture of the art world and its topsy-turvy economy, emphasizing the social context in which it emerged and is sustained. My focus is on the realities of artistic labor, as I strongly believe it is our duty as teachers not to reproduce social illusions of artistic self-sacrifice that can result in the misery of art workers. On the other hand, I do not want to be a kill-joy, juggling between critical commentary and a hands-on approach. For this reason, I find the work of feminist economists so inspiring, as they manage to create a compelling vision of social change while not blunting the critical edge of their arguments against the systemic exploitation of feminized care labor.

AS & GE: You are both interested in the economic role and labor conditions of art. What has changed, in your opinion, with the emergence of art activism: does this new practice help us re-imagine or repair the somewhat subordinate state of art in late/neoliberal capitalism?

GS: Maybe art is subordinate today, not really sure, but if yes, then subordinate to what exactly? If instead we think of this phase of capitalism that stretches back (at least) to the post-WWII era in the form of a total society of the spectacle as the situationists famously framed it, then I would say that artistic affectivity is a central constituent of networked capitalism today, and increasingly more so all of the time. This is what I was getting at before when I doubted the familiar mode of artist-genius or isolated studio practice really means anything today, beyond the extrusion nozzle for squeezing-out a stream of artworks as a type of investment capital. Groys is not the only one who sees art problematized by this state of “total aestheticization,” Rancière also writes about the “esthetic regime,” and so forth, but just step back and try to turn away from all of the commodity pageants, cultural dividends, news morsels, calling out for clicks, and likes and shares, many specifically pitched to your zip code or to your libido, all flowing unstoppably into our undetachable prosthetic glow-devices and mutually alienated, digital reality, well, where is that zero point from which one even starts imagining being a critical spectator today? We are now always already caught up in a manufacturing process of our own inexorable participation in this total capitalist design project. And sure, while “art” as in “fine art,” or “high culture,” may technically be a thin slice of this hyper-spectacular capitalist project with its seemingly “outside the box” creative class of the cognitariat, or what Kuba labels the projectariat, we must raise the question if a certain kind of very redundant and excess artistic labor is not in fact central to our current aestheticonomic circumstances, but also therefore potentially posing a risk to that very same hegemony, to recall Hegel’s parable about masters who direct, and slaves who know how to actually do things.

GE: Absolutely, Greg, I think we’re in total agreement there. What I was trying to point out by the rather intangible term of “real subsumption” (which, it seems to me, has been undergoing a rediscovery, thanks in large to the meticulous work of Marina Vishmidt, who discusses it in depth in her Speculation as a Mode of Production,[6] drawing on Sohn-Rethel and many others) is that contemporary capitalism thrives on labeling the “excess artistic labor” you mention under human capital. This allows the culture industry to expand production rampantly, and feed us with “Cheap Culture,” a phrase I use following the logic of Jason W. Moore’s “Cheap Nature,” to shed light on the major role of that specific form of artistic production. (It also plays a part in the various industries that drive global heating: consider but the jet-set duty-free art world or the plethora of streaming services and their energy consumption). Mao Mollona goes as far as to suggest that “industrial capitalism is a cinematic mode of production.”[7]

KS: Well, I do not know what is so cinematic about Malaysian sweat shops. I also think that the role of artists as prime subjects of new modes of accumulation, supposedly related to the creative industries, is grossly inflated. It tends to repeat ungrounded theories of the creative class, peddled two decades ago as miraculous cures for the ills of neoliberal globalization, in which traders, speculators, and lawyers are much more important actors than artists or other creatives. I think different, more complex processes are at play, and the emergence of a creative projectariat is a side effect of wider changes at hand. When Paolo Virno published his A Grammar of the Multitude[8] in 2004, where he isolated opportunism, cynicism, and fear as the dominant sentiments of this phase of capitalism, he was writing about changes that had transpired in the Western economies since the late 1970s and 1980s. The neoliberalization, deindustrialization, and decimation of trade unions resulted in an extremely precarious labor market, where workers find themselves at disadvantage, have to prey and beg for work. This process was paired with the popularization of short-term jobs, project-based assignments and zero-hour contracts. The artistic workforce is also affected by this process: the employment conditions to be found in the global artistic circulation are similarly precarious—hence the term, projectariat. I think the emergence of artwork-centered art activism has a lot to do with these labor conditions, and also with the exponential growth of the global art industry, which constitutes this creative glut or artistic dark matter, which Greg writes so compellingly about. Still, it is important to remember, that this industry, though much, much bigger than fifty years ago, is still relatively small, and it is important to take the self-aggrandizing claims of the creative industries with a pinch of salt. And yet, this industry is a workplace for many. There are attempts at creating artistic trade unions that engage in collective bargaining for exhibition and project fees (like the Citizens Forum for Contemporary Art in Poland and W.A.G.E. in the USA). There is also a growing sector with various cooperatives, NGOs, and collectives that often operate on a shoestring level, and yet are able to provide their affiliates with a bit of money, as well as with alternative structures for artistic production and social safety nets. In the ultra-competitive world of art and academia, where you publish or perish, circulate or dissipate, it is extremely important to create such alternatives. Otherwise, atomized art workers are left to their own devices (and inherited portfolios of capitals), and often end up with nothing but their own resentment.

AS & GE: Both of you have been advocating for a transformation of the art world, for a greater visibility of invisible artistic labor. Could you elaborate on this? Is such a transformation possible in an art world that owes its structure to capitalism? What is the guarantee that it won’t be hijacked again by the art world? We know that MoMA acquired the protest signs and print portfolio of the OWS movement for its collection.

GS: I think the art world is in fact fully visible, as never before, though perhaps not always in terms of its own choosing. The term I have been using for this current state of exaggerated illumination is “bare art,” which I define, with apologies to philosopher Giorgio Agamben, as a condition in which the presumed sovereignty and freedom of high art has been stripped clean of its claims to autonomy, and where the economic and political contradictions of the art world are impossible to conceal. But if high culture has lost its centuries-old ideological privileges, it has in turn gained a front-row seat to a visually and sensually rich and contentious struggle aimed at rethinking the way culture, history and social value is generated, for whom, why, and to what ends. It is not merely the exceptional privileges art is granted within society that has made this proliferation possible, but instead art’s earthbound plummet into the everyday. This is of course precisely what the early 20th-century avant-garde proposed more than a hundred years ago.

Activist art, and the art of activism, is, if it is anything, a fugitive and promiscuous bricolage of practices and operations, a “glitch in art history,” as Kim Charnley suggests,[9] a force acting upon the surplus archive of hopes, failures, excesses, dead ends, and its basic drive, or perhaps simply its default mode, as succinctly stated by Kuba, is “repurposing social energies, reputations, ideas, and resources, gleaned from the global circulation of art, for the sake of [broader political] struggles.”[10] Indeed, what has not been apparent, at least not until very recently, though is now becoming emergent thanks to bare art and total aestheticization, is a reversal of causality, whereby the activism of art becomes the art of activism, reasserting, in unpredictable fashion, all those long-unfulfilled and unstable demands for autonomy, historical agency, and desire, so many decades in the making, but now writ large, and congealing into a nascent horizon of risk, uncertainty, and promise.

KS: To concur with Greg’s argument, the art world in which we dwell is just a marginal faction of the global polity. The terms of its visibility tend to be influenced by different parties that operate within it in their struggle for hegemony, shaping the means and modes of artistic expressions, defining what is made as art, how, by and for whom. I would not mind activist art to be commissioned, collected, taught and popularized by a truly democratic and properly socialist government. For me it is a real challenge worth consideration: can art workers contribute to its development, and if so, how, given how very modest the tools at their disposal are? It is quite likely that in order to change their art into a progressive force for the 21st century (to quote Araeen[11]), they need to step beyond the limiting conventions of what used to be deemed as art proper (which are changing in any case, as Greg pointed out). Sailing these semi-charted waters, without a map but equipped with cognitive tools and aesthetic faculties, can be a lot of fun though. Even if we do not yet know whether and how to label this shifty and ever expanding realm of art beyond art, it still offers us much greater possibilities.

GE: Thank you both for your response. One of those modest tools Kuba mentions, I believe, is to start conversations like this that contribute to the knitting of a supra-national network of practitioners with very different geographical and class origins. This network is growing, thankfully, as does the support we can offer each other, to tackle, amongst others, the most common ailment of activism, the burn-out syndrome. Is there a way for art activism to offer a remedy for that?

KS: I think about it a lot, and in fact one of the entries in my book is called “B is for Burnout.” I would rather not expand on this here, as I believe that a question left open is the best conclusions to an interview like this.

*******

Ágnes Szanyi: This interview originally took place in writing last summer and fall. The world around us has changed tremendously since then. The Russian invasion and war in Ukraine put everything in a different light, and after weeks and months of shock, we all felt that we needed to reflect on this situation.

The independent art and cultural initiatives had been booming in Ukraine since Euromaidan and the beginning of the war in Donbas in 2014, and their social and political relevance had significantly increased in recent years. These projects thematized the ongoing war and the experiences of Internally Displaced People and probably contributed to the emerging solidarity and unity that we witnessed among Ukrainians when the invasion started in February 2022. But what can artists do in a time of total war? Kuba mentions Picasso’s Guernica earlier in this interview as a historical example of wartime activism, but we can also mention the anti-war activism of artists in the US in the 60s and 70s. Are the tools, strategies, or the potentials of art in this respect changing with time? 

Gregory Sholette: To my mind, the significant difference between the politically active engagement of artists in the 1930s and 1960s, as compared with today has less to do with different artistic methods and practices than it does with the broader social reality that we live within. Returning to the theme of total aestheticization previously mentioned: my take on the current circumstances of politicized protest culture paces that of theorists Boris Groys, João Valente Aguiar, and Márton Szentpéteri (who refers to this process as a facet of “design capitalism”), in so far as the overlap, if not full-on cohesion, between the art of activism and the activism of art is an integral feature of spectacularized global capitalism now fully hegemonic. This development was of course first recognized with alarm by Walter Benjamin, and later elaborated upon by Guy Debord and the situationists. And notably, both Benjamin and the situationists proposed methods for exceeding representational modes of political engagement by artists, writers, and intellectuals. Concepts such as the author as producer and detournement were drawn from such avant-garde movements as surrealism, Dadaism, Soviet constructivism, factography, and other montage-based or productivist modes of art making. By contrast, Picasso’s massive and celebrated oil painting Guernica is fundamentally opposite in its approach to artistic protest, even if his representational approach also reflects aspects of these same avant-garde innovations, surrealism in particular. (This does not mean the imagery of Guernica has not been mined and repurposed on countless occasions for activist purposes from Palestinian demonstrations in Gaza to anti-gentrification street stencils in 1980s New York City).

Street stencils created by Michael Anderson for the Not For Sale project of Political Art Documentation/Distribution 1984. Courtesy: gsholette archives

So, what exactly has changed today? If it wasn’t already clear during the heady years of tactical media’s neo-situationist techtopia in the 1990s, it has become unavoidably so today: activist art is no longer fixated upon or bound to artistic precedent or any specific aesthetic mandate, including the history of the avant-garde. Instead, artists who become activists today now draw freely, even promiscuously, upon the surplus content of what I refer to as a phantom archive and its previously dark mass of creative labor, made ever more accessible thanks to the communicative networks and hyper-opticality of global capitalism. This deep well of oppositional culture, both high and low, is available for repurposing and reactivation. But consequently, and perhaps paradoxically, this archive is accessible not only for pro-democratic and anti-racist activists but also for those working in precisely the opposite mode of political agency, including efforts to rekindle fascism via ultra-nationalism, white supremacy, misogyny, heteronormativity, reactionary religious and folkish mythologies. Bringing with it another, almost unutterable possibility, that rather than having failed, as Peter Bürger[12] famously proposed, the goals of the artistic avant-garde, including the desire to merge art into life, have succeeded. Except, what should have been a beautiful story of victory is instead taking place within a reality far removed from the exhilarating anti-bourgeois and socialist ideals of Benjamin or Debord, or most of the avant-garde for that matter.

That does not eradicate progressive political resistance by artists, although it shifts the terms of this practice. When artists in Ukraine turn their productivist skills towards producing anti-tank barricades, for example, we cannot help but notice that these “hedgehogs” also look like minimalist sculptures.[13]  Thus, the unending crises and delirium of contemporary capitalist reality, along with contemporary art, is haunted by this phantom archive and an unquenched desire for emancipation without conditions or compromises.

Kuba Szreder: The example of Guernica is provided solely to shift the debate from the aesthetic forms, the focus on which is still somehow implicated in Greg’s response, to the ways various artistic works are being used by political movements, parties, or constituents, and how artistic labor is always embedded in wider social assemblages. From this standpoint, there is nothing surprising in the fact that avant-garde aesthetics is being used to decorate oligarchs’ salons (Russian or otherwise), the art market is hand in glove with plutocrats (the denunciations of sanctions against Russia by some sectors of the Western art worlds are interesting, if not very surprising reads), Hermitage serves as a spearhead of imperialist policies, the Russian pavilion in Venice is used as an amplifier of soft power operated by scions of the higher apparatchiks of the regime, and a network of Russian-oriented art foundations, research institutes, and commissions reinforce its hegemony. The problem here is not an apparent breach of – assumed – autonomy, but rather the fact that supposedly autonomous art (and research) has been used to strengthen the authoritarian regime for at least two decades, while the global art world operators decided to turn a blind eye (examples are too numerous to mention, and this is not a witch hunt). On the other hand, the war in Ukraine prompted international solidarity of equal proportions, in Ukraine and beyond. Vast sectors of the postartistic milieu in Poland have been engaged in the direct help networks, providing direct support to people fleeing Ukraine: Biennale Warszawa was transformed into a greeting point for BIPOC refugees, Museum of Modern Art into a sandwich kitchen operated by the Sunflower Solidarity House of Culture, an initiative of Belarusian, Polish and Ukrainian art workers. Many art workers turned into drivers, cooks, hosts, or fighters. Some of those efforts were directed specifically toward people working in the arts – residencies, positions, jobs, projects, safe places were offered. We have witnessed a vast array of counter-propaganda activities, from ephemeral and postartistically charged ones, like demonstrations of suprematists paintings recalibrated in solidarity with Ukraine, to more direct ones, like organizing seminars, conferences, and publishing platforms, writing, posting and sharing texts, organizing exhibitions or spearheading and contributing to the collections in support of refugees or Ukrainian armed forces. Obviously, art cannot change the world by itself, it will not stop Russian artillery shells, fifty thousand of which are fired every day by the Russian army on civilians and the military alike. As it has been said many times in this interview, postart is just a tiny sliver on the global field of forces, and yet it may have its own role to play.


Gábor Erlich is an artist/activist/researcher from Eastern Europe. He is currently a Marie Skłodowska-Curie ‘Early Stage Researcher’ at the ‘FEINART’ Programme where he looks at different aspects of ’socially engaged art’ such as the economic role of such artistic production as well as the artist as producer’s social identity – focusing his scrutiny on the semi-peripheral region of East-Central Europe both as a geographic entity and a pool of knowledge-production. 

(FEINART has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program.)

Bibliography

Araeen, Rasheed. Art beyond Art, Ecoaesthetics: A Manifesto for the 21st Century. London: Third Text Publications, 2010.

Bishara, Hakim. “Ukrainian Artists Are Building Anti-Tank Obstacles.” Hyperallergic, March 9, 2022. https://hyperallergic.com/716141/ukrainian-artists-are-building-anti-tank-obstacles/.

Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Manchaster University Press, 1984.

Charnley, Kim. “Art on the Brink: Dark Matter and Capitalist Crisis.” Unpublished draft essay, June 29, 2016.

Groys, Boris. “On Art Activism.” e-flux Journal, no. 56 (June 2014), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/56/60343/on-art-activism/.

Marchart, Oliver. Conflictual Aesthetics Artistic Activism and the Public Sphere. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2019.

Mollona,Massimiliano. Art/Commons: Anthropology Beyond Capitalism. London, New York: Zed Books, 2021.

Rancière, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. London, New York: Verso, 2009.

Szreder, Kuba. ABC of the Projectariat: Living and Working in a Precarious Art World. Manchester University Press, 2021.

Vishmidt, Marina. Speculation as a Mode of Production: Forms of Value Subjectivity in Art and Capital. Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2018.


[1] For more on Jerzy Ludwiński, see Magdalena Ziółkowska: “A Phantom Matrix for Post-Artistic Realities. Jerzy Ludwiński’s ‘The Museum of Current Art in Wrocław [General Concept],’” Mezosfera, no. 6 (February 2019), http://mezosfera.org/a-phantom-matrix-for-post-artistic-realities-jerzy-ludwinskis-the-museum-of-current-art-in-wroclaw-general-concept/.

[2] Oliver Marchart, Conflictual Aesthetics: Artistic Activism and the Public Sphere (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2019).

[3] Boris Groys, “On Art Activism,” e-flux Journal, no. 56 (June 2014), 1, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/56/60343/on-art-activism/.

[4] Groys, On Art Activism, 3.

[5] Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2009).

[6] Marina Vishmidt, Speculation as a Mode of Production: Forms of Value Subjectivity in Art and Capital (Leiden: Brill, 2018).

[7] Massimiliano Mollona, Art/Commons: Anthropology Beyond Capitalism (London: Zed Books, 2021), 15.

[8] Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, trans. Isabella Bertolett et al. (Los Angeles: Semiotext[e], 2004).

[9] Kim Charnley, “Art on the Brink: Dark Matter and Capitalist Crisis.” Unpublished draft essay, June 29, 2016.

[10] Kuba Szreder, ABC of the Projectariat: Living and Working in a Precarious Art World (Manchester University Press, 2021).

[11] Rasheed Araeen, Art beyond Art, Ecoaesthetics: A Manifesto for the 21st Century (London: Third Text Publications, 2010).

[12] Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, Manchester University Press, 1984.

[13] Hakim Bishara, “Ukrainian Artists Are Building Anti-Tank Obstacles,” Hyperallergic, March 9, 2022, https://hyperallergic.com/716141/ukrainian-artists-are-building-anti-tank-obstacles/.

© 2022 tranzit.hu - Contemporary Art Organization

Main partner of tranzit is Erste Foundation

erste stiftung logo