IT IS BY PUTTING THE MUSEUM in the context of radical democratic politics that I wish to address the question of its role today, considering in particular ways in which art institutions could foment new subjectivities critical of neoliberal consensus. More generally, I want to take issue with the negative way public institutions are perceived by the mode of radical critique fashionable today: Celebrating "desertion" and "exodus," to use the terminology of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri--whose writing recently appeared in these pages--such critique asserts that political action should withdraw from existing institutions so that we might free ourselves from all forms of belonging. Institutional attachments are presented here as obstacles to new, nonrepresentative forms of "absolute democracy" suitable for the self-organization of the multitude. Yet such an approach forecloses any immanent critique of institutions--critique with the objective of transforming institutions into a terrain of contestation of the hegemonic order. Instead, all institutions are perceived as monolithic representatives of forces to be destroyed, every attempt to transform them dismissed as reformist illusion. The very possibility of disarticulating their constitutive elements, with the aim of establishing a different power configuration, is precisely what is rejected by the exodus approach.
In the artistic and cultural domain, this perspective suggests that critical artistic practices can have efficacy only if they take place outside cultural institutions. To imagine that museums, for instance, could provide sites for critical political intervention today is, according to such a view, to be blind to the manifold of forces--economic and political--that make their very existence possible. The strategy, here again, is to ignore them and occupy other spaces, outside the institutional field. But endorsing this course of action is, in my view, profoundly mistaken and clearly disempowering, because it impedes us from recognizing the multiplicity of avenues that would otherwise be open for political engagement. Indeed, it is to ignore the tensions that always exist within a given configuration of forces and the possibility of subverting their form of articulation. By contrast, I am convinced that fostering a strategy of "engagement with institutions" is absolutely crucial for envisioning democratic politics today. We must acknowledge that what is called "the social" is the realm of sedimented political practices--practices that conceal the originary acts of their contingent political institution--but recognize as well that such moments of political institution can always be reactivated. Every order is predicated on the exclusion of other possibilities, but as the temporary and precarious articulation of contingent practices, each order is always the expression of a particular structure of power relations. Things could have been otherwise. And so every hegemonic order is susceptible to being challenged.
The success of counterhegemonic practices depends on an adequate understanding of the relations of forces structuring the key institutions in which the political antagonist is going to intervene. With respect to artistic and cultural practices, then, counterhegemonic interventions must first and foremost recognize the role of the culture industry in capitalism's transition to post-Fordism. To mention just a few familiar yet central features of the current dispensation: the blurring of the lines between art and advertising, the exponential development of "creative industries" dominated by the media and entertainment corporations, and the reduction of cultural institutions into entertainment centers--all these can only be understood in the context of the post-Fordist stage of capitalism. Today's capitalism relies increasingly on semiotic techniques to create the modes of subjectification necessary for its reproduction, and cultural production plays a central role in the process of valorizing capital. …