Magazine article Artforum International

Out of the Vox: Martha Rosler on Art's Activist Potential

Magazine article Artforum International

Out of the Vox: Martha Rosler on Art's Activist Potential

Article excerpt

Art with a political face typically gains visibility during periods of social upheaval. "Marxism and art" of the '70s and "political art" of the '80s are among only the most recent examples. A good proportion of artists typically aim their work into the thick of things, but institutional gatekeepers try to manage the political dimension of art, blunting artists' partisanship into a universalized discourse of humanistic ideals and individualized expression. Virtually all avant-gardes and art-world insurgencies, from Constructivism to Dada to Abstract Expressionism and beyond, have suffered this reinterpretation.

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But the game changed when curators with a bent toward geopolitics organized successive recent Documentas, confirming an international trend that legitimated some political expression in art, mostly work fitting the rubric of postcolonialism, but also collaborative and extra-institutional work, such as that of Park Fiction, Superflex, and Raqs Media Collective. (A commonly voiced witticism, however, was that to be a "postcolonial artist," you had to move to Europe and become a market artist, and similar reframing problems attend most importations, whether from artists working long term in local communities or graffiti artists and skateboarders.)

Generally speaking, a lack of clear political alignments--"artistic autonomy"--works well for most Western artists and their institutions. Who are we, after all? What are our allegiances? "Embourgeoisement"--in home, health, family, and leisure--has for many supplanted bohemianism, making it harder to identify too strongly with the dispossessed, the dejected, and the disenfranchised, let alone with those whose labor is exploited. Fine! mutter those who observe how little use the organized Left has had for artists. But the total freedom of the artist in Western society also ineluctably signals total irrelevance, just as obsessive interiority speaks of social disconnection and narcissism, if not infantilism. The collapse of utopianism as a horizon has often deprived art of a philosophical or ethical backstory, allowing curators to treat whimsical activities (tartly termed "sponsored hobbies" by Russian curator Ekaterina Dyogot) as symbolic of autonomy, of artistic advance, or even of social transformation. Thin notions of communalism pass for social engagement, and weak interpretations of art as a gift freely given reduce the claims made for its socially transformative power to a therapeutic time-out for atomized individuals--the new postbourgeois subject performing self anew every day.

I am ambivalent about the return of "political art" as a flat field of action or analysis. Fashionability makes it susceptible to dismissal. Much worse, artists are hailed as merry pranksters, as some curators actively celebrate the frivolously empty riff (by what might be termed the Monkees of the art world) on '60s collectivism. Conversely, there is a sad superficiality in reducing art's political possibilities to agitprop, ignoring the debates about the instrumentalization of art between Adorno, Brecht, Benjamin, and others. This thought recently drove me--and, by odd chance, the young activist-artist reading group at 16 Beaver in New York--to revisit Adorno's 1962 article "Commitment," in which art is called upon to provide a silence and reproach to the deformations of modernity: "Today, every phenomenon of culture, even if a model of integrity, is liable to be suffocated in the cultivation of kitsch. Yet paradoxically in the same epoch it is to works of art that has fallen the burden of wordlessly asserting what is barred to politics."

One stumbles over "wordlessly asserting," over Adorno's expressed scorn for "information theory" in art, since much today depends on direct information retailing. Especially since the Seattle protests of 1999, many activist artists find they can't be bothered with the art world and what art historian Chin-tao Wu has called its "enterprise culture. …

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