Burden of Proof: Tom Holert on Contemporary Art and Responsibility

Article excerpt

ONTOLOGICAL TROUBLE

In our age of fatigue and collapse, it is harder than ever to know what we mean when we speak about "art." Art has always been entangled with power, its autonomy and self-definition thus perpetually troubled. But today, as finance capitalism displays a baffling and disastrous vitality in the face of its triumphant failure and annihilates its last vestiges of moral legitimacy, the art world's deep interdependence with the sectors of society benefiting most from the crises caused by capital--from the debt-induced deterioration of labor, the elimination of the middle class, and the global commerce of war to the fracking of our natural environment--has become obvious, a scandalous fact. What, if anything, can art do in the face of such crises? What are art's responsibilities in this brave new world?

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Doubts concerning the ethical integrity--and even necessity--of art are nothing new, of course. Their pedigree stretches back to various radical gestures of denigration and rejection throughout the twentieth century. An anti-art stance has long converted distrust in the institution of art into new possibilities for action, motivating the historical shift from art reflecting on reality to art producing realities. Such practices might include Russian Productivism, Warhol's Factory, the Situationist International, Tucuman Arde, and, more recently, Christoph Schlingensief's expansions of film, theater, and performance. All these attempted, in various ways, to merge art and life; and around the world today, the numerous collectives engaged with politics, pedagogy, and research have integrated such a merging into a uniquely contemporary anticapitalist activism. These recent endeavors push the art object into political and performative acts, producing what theorist Brian Holmes calls transdisciplinary "eventwork." In this model, artists invest their energies in social movements for the sake of goals that--as political events--necessarily lie beyond the art world as such, as well as beyond the lifestyles and false moral composure of the superrich class this world helps sustain.

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But the unique challenges facing such work were made all too clear by the three large-scale European curatorial projects of the past summer--Manifesta 9, Documenta 13, and the Seventh Berlin Biennale, each of which took as its subject the issue of art's responsibility to address economic and social concerns. In their scathing review of these exhibitions, artists Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmann proclaimed that because any "critique" of capitalism pursued by artists, curators, and theorists is usually spawned within the contemporary bourgeoisie (and therefore remains firmly grounded in the art world as we know it), such critique is not capable of bringing about structural political change "but is first and foremost a question of the political ethics of each individual protagonist." (1) One way of understanding their response is that there is simply no time for art right now. Because of the pervasiveness of neoliberal ideologies, in which creativity in the service of life has merely become another tool of capitalism, the contemporary modes of art-as-critique--the assumption that art can intervene in life in such a way that artistic acts are mapped directly onto social effects--are condemned to be immediately co-opted by the very structures they ostensibly seek to resist or subvert. And so calls for artistic responsibility today typically ask not so much to merge art and life but to leave art behind altogether.

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It is no surprise, then, that the burden of responsibility is linked to fantasies of fight and escape. In a lecture on "Exit Strategies," delivered at the third congress of the multinational research and curatorial project Former West in Utrecht, the Netherlands, last September, theorist and curator Stephen Wright offered sweeping "escapologist" observations on the need to radically dislocate art from its current place in the world. …