The Ethics of Discomfort: John Douglas Millar on Art and Politics According to Simon Critchley

By Millar, John Douglas | Art Monthly, March 2012 | Go to article overview

The Ethics of Discomfort: John Douglas Millar on Art and Politics According to Simon Critchley


Millar, John Douglas, Art Monthly


When I don't say anything about my practice I have found that its interpretations become even narrower, because they most often simply subscribe to contemporary intellectual fashion ... If you don't write your own history, someone else will, and this 'history' will suit their purposes. Mike Kelley 1954-2012

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History, or rather histories have become an increasing concern for contemporary artists. The exploration and questioning of archives and the parallel process of dredging up small utopian groups and projects for dissection - be they Iranian feminist cells, Parisian anarchists, Italian autonomist groups, experimental psychiatrists, Palestinian co-operatives, Marxist orchestras or whatever - leads to the proliferation of the kind of docu-art pieces, exhibitions as research projects and institutionalised restagings that characterise the work of artists as diverse as Petra Bauer, Susan Hiller, Jeremy Deller, Luke Fowler, Ilya Kabakov, and the Otilith and Atlas Groups. Jacques Derrida's book Archive Fever and the concept of hauntology formulated in his Spectres of Marx are now prescribed reading on fine art MA courses and have become widely influential, as have Christian Boltanski's archival explorations of the 1960s, while the influence of the mournful, semi-biographical travel fictions of the German novelist WG Sebald can be felt strongly in the historical narrative work of an artist like Tris Vonna-Michell (Profile AM313).

Moreover, philosophers with utopian inclinations are increasingly attending to contemporary art and finding it a worthy vessel for their theorising. While Jacques Ranciere, Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek are among the most obvious celebrity examples, it seems every continentally inclined thinker worth their salt wants to have a say in this fashionable area of enquiry. On every panel at every biennial in Europe, the US and Asia there are insouciant philosophers ready to proffer their opinions. What are the stakes of this strange cross-pollination? Why has contemporary art become the place where the wreckage of utopian thinking is sifted through, restaged and, perhaps, rehabilitated? Some of the clearest and most striking thinking on this topic is to be found in the work of the philosopher and literary critic Simon Critchley. A close reading of his work on the porosity of the relationship between art and politics might help us find a thread here.

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Critchley's work is omnivorous, ranging from his mapping of a Derridan ethics in The Ethics of Deconstruction, 1992, to his masterful examination of mourning and his attempt to return questions of life's meaning to the centre of philosophical debate in Very Little ... Almost Nothing, 1997 - a book that also contains one of the freshest and most engaged readings of Beckett available - right up to Infinitely Demanding, 2007, where he returned to ethics and, in the process, ignited a heated public debate with Zizek, whom he has called the 'Hamlet of Slovenia'.

In his most recent book The Faith of the Faithless, 2012, Critchley locates a blurring between the activities of certain contemporary artists and some contemporary insurrectionist groups. In examining on the one hand the possibilities offered by Nicolas Bourriaud's brand of relational aesthetics embodied by the work of Liam Gillick and Philipe Parenno and the curators Maria Lind and Hans Ulrich Obrist, and on the other the experiment in communal living and secession carried out by the Comite Invisible in France, Critchley sets up his premise: 'If a tendency marks our time, then it is the increasing difficulty in separating forms of collaborative art from experimental politics.' In the works of the above artists and curators there is 'a deeply felt Situationist nostalgia for ideas of collectivity, self-management, collaboration and indeed the idea of the group as such ... So much contemporary art and politics is obsessed with the figure of the group and of work as collaboration, perhaps all the way to the refusal of work and cultivation of anonymity'. …

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