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Greg Sholette: Public Art, Protest, and 21st-Century Politics, Part III

“Art has lost its centuries-old ideological privilege, and yet has gained in this process a front-row seat in a contentious struggle to rethink the way expressive, imaginative, and artistic value is generated, for whom, why, and to what ends.”

This is Part 3 of a selection from Greg Sholette’s essay “Can a Transformative Avant-Garde Art Survive in a World of Lolcats, Doomsday Preppers, and Xenonphobic Frog Memes? Do We Have a Choice?” from More Art in Public Eye; catch up on Part 1 and Part 2.

Last Meeting (ReWorked) in progress, 2019 — “Art prefigures,” Sholette told More Art last fall, quoting David Graeber. Repetitive toil, unseen labor, the obligatory slog of activist organizing, this piece depicts the commonplace, overlooked, invisible work of activism, Sholettes writes. It is secondarily about the preposterous, but necessary effort to radically reform contemporary art. It is not so much a portrait of specific individuals, though the meeting depicted did take place on February 19, 2016, the last meeting between the Gulf Labor Coalition and Guggenheim Museum board members. “I have spent untold hours laboring at similar meetings over 45 years. I will also confess the absurd pleasure of rendering this moment in pseudo-classical, social realist style…Let’s call this style Magic Social Realism.”

“What is social practice in a post-social world?” Scholar, artist, and activist Greg Sholette posed that question to us last fall; it’s one of those reflections perfect for the moment — September 2020, when self-isolation was largely the norm — but, as usual with Shoellete’s line of inquiry, that stretches backward and forward in time, uncovering heretofore ignored links between past, present, and future.

From the Paris Commune to the Art Workers Coalition to recent bouts of “monument-cide”, the intersection of art and social movements is often cast as totally synchronous, evidence of a truly collective moment. As the line between art and activism becomes more “elusive” — so evident it seems in the work of artists like Dread Scott, Pablo Helguera, Ernesto Pujol, anchors for Sholette's sprawling essay “Can A Transformative Avant-Garde Art Survive in a World of Lolcats, Doomsday Preppers, and Xenophobic Frog Memes? Does It Have a Choice?”— what of the rest of the world, our seemingly non-artistic responses to it? We put immense and sincere support behind the notion that socially engaged art can affect and inspire real progress, but are the arts really the leading edge of social change?

Two years after writing his essay for More Art in the Public Eye, and 6 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Sholette raised such questions, if not doubts, in an Instagram Live with More Art. In a relatively short amount of time (but even that is relative), he had moved from a notion of bare art, a version of art’s aura stripping in the 21st-century so elucidated in the essay excerpt below; to capitalist realism, underpinned by a realization that there’s no longer a pretense that we’re going to detour back anywhere (this was prime 2020 election season); to the un-present, an uncanny if nebulous description of life, work, and art in a kind of suspended animation. Can the perceived stalling or slippage of time offer anything generative to artists, activists, and those of us in between? How do we create, or frame, the bigger narrative? As always, how do we build from the ground up?

“Ten years after September 11, and following the horizontal structure of the Arab Spring, a new generation experienced a shared sense of possibility with the Occupy Wall Street movement, but faced a difficult road ahead,” Sholette writes in “Can A Radical Avant-Garde Art Survive…” “The egalitarian aspirations of the Occupy movement, despite infusing new forms of life into many facets of society and providing new language for the left, were seemingly swept away by an upsurge of illiberal rhetoric and white nationalism, coinciding with the rise to power of right-wing politicians around the world. A recent resurgence of the politics of civic resistance, boycott, and the right to clear and articulate free speech may help us finally move towards a more equitable society.” In the first half of his essay, Sholette traced a loose yet compelling history of activist art but also of the growing influence of neoliberalism —primarily the symbiotic rise of global capital, surveillance technologies, and economic precarity — and reactionary politics, and as such the particular “new wave” of protest movements in the cultural sector in recent decades. In the final section, excerpted below, he teases out the nefarious, or at least confusing, elements of mass communication and even collective response when filtered through the hegemonic powers that be, be they governments or corporations. “Within this multi-pixelated contemporary world, we can no longer count on art’s once radical autonomy to set its practice apart from other forms of production, exploitation, and fear. When everything is spectacularized, monetized, and brandable, the realm of fine art is left undefended against the voracious appetite of affective capital.” What can artists do?

Contradictions abound: “It seems we have arrived at a moment of great possibilities, and equally great risks, where art is both the name for a particular act of defiance, and the name of a sixty-some-billion-dollar industry tracked by leading investment funds.” If art prefigures, as Sholette has quoted the late economist and Occupy-proponent David Graeber as positing, is it capable of envisioning our way out of the unique form cognitive dissonance described? We ask again, what is social practice in a post-social world? The below is from 2018, a lifetime ago, but the clash between social change and its commodification, between those struggling for freedom and those aestheticizing conflict remains, even more reason to “rethink the way expressive, imaginative, and artistic value is generated, for whom, why, and to what ends” today.

L to R: Euromaidan, the Revolution for Dignity, tire barricades, Kiev, Ukraine, between fall 2013 and spring 2014. “To détourne a Situationist slogan: Beneath the streets, petropolitics; above the streets, blood, tires, asphalt, and chaos,” Sholette wrote in Hyperallergic.

While the left and right most often expressed opposite positions (though at other times shared nearly identical views regarding questions of governance, democracy, identity, and most of all globalization), this paradoxical phenomena of commingling was perhaps most palpably present in February 2014 during the so-called EuroMaidan uprising in Kiev, Ukraine, when the population occupied and barricaded the city’s central plaza in protest of the government’s shift away from ties with the European Union and towards Putin’s Russia. In that embattled town square, known locally as Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, liberals, conservatives, and several far-right parties briefly cohabited. All of this took place despite the occupiers’ contradictory ambitions regarding neoliberal markets vs. social democracy, and the establishment of secular governance vs. a form of Christian nationalist authority.¹ As strange as that was, today when we look to Brexit and the 2016 US election results, we can see that there is a continuum moving forward from EuroMaidan to the current political situation, as anti-globalist forces, once viewed primarily as a phenomenon on the political left, meld with, or are replaced by, conservative, but also extreme-right, protestors. Put differently, this seeming historical and political anomaly has its own ludicrous logic.

Further muddying post-Internet expectations for the spontaneous emergence of a pro-humanist cybercommons has been the recent phenomenon of bigoted, alt-right websites including 4chan, and the even more grotesque and misogynist 8chan. All the same, even such racist, nationalist, or post-human imaginaries do not forgo all utopian longing, and offer some degree of physiological comfort to the chronically alienated individual. The need to push back against chronic unfreedom has thankfully given birth to countless politically progressive online platforms, but also millions of spritely Instagram posts featuring amusing household pets, impudent children, and electro-comical faux pas spoken by Alexa and her AI kin, along with the inverted dystopian conspiracies such as pedophilic pizza parlors and fake gun survivors paid to denounce the National Rifle Association.²

Silly, paranoid, fascist — these defense mechanisms may all be a far cry indeed from the promised dawn of the digital neo-enlightenment foreseen by Lessig and other techtopian dreamers almost two decades ago (though it now feels more like a century has passed since then). Still, the unconcealable contradictions that today result from dramatic climate-change–induced weather, staggering income asymmetries, structural xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and racism, but also the dreaded emergence of a total surveillance state are always only a swipe or click away, thanks to the more than seven billion mobile devices that link our neural pathways together in the glimmering global matrix of fear, hope, longing, and connectivity, where instantaneous clickable consumption offers partial, though only temporary, satisfaction.³

Within this multi-pixelated contemporary world, we can no longer count on art’s once radical autonomy to set its practice apart from other forms of production, exploitation, and fear. When everything is spectacularized, monetized, and brandable, the realm of fine art is left undefended against the voracious appetite of affective capital. We have entered the era of what I call Bare Art.⁴ It is an unsettling moment when the institutions and practices of high culture continue to subsist as such, and yet where art is now bereft of mystery, depth, aura, and all those curious traits that once made art appear to operate in an exceptional state, autonomous and detached from the vulgarities of the marketplace. Nevertheless — and this is one more paradoxical wrinkle in this game — high art’s peculiar social license to misbehave, to imitate or even mock reality, to blur genres and disciplines has not vanished, but instead has been simultaneously amplified and decentralized as this contrarian aesthetic value is now imputed to almost everything that jumps, pops, and flows across our glow-screen–bedazzled collective attention span. And it is precisely from this weakened state that new strengths must emerge.

The practices of [Dread] Scott, [Pablo] Helguera, and [Ernesto] Pujol, together with many more socially engaged activist artists and collectives, operate within this fully illuminated space of Bare Art. Everything is now out there in plain sight, right alongside the profusion of every other cultural output including Pepe the Frog memes, Lolcat posts, and Doomsday prepper videos. Art has lost its centuries-old ideological privilege, and yet has gained in this process a front-row seat in a contentious struggle to rethink the way expressive, imaginative, and artistic value is generated, for whom, why, and to what ends. Finally we encounter the missing ingredient regarding the explosion of art activism today. It is not the exceptional position of high culture 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-twentieth-century avant-garde had proposed just about one hundred years ago. Though it now arrives with a twist.

Artist Krzysztof Wodiczko brilliantly argues that the very possibility of a transformative avant-garde art, if it is to exist today, requires simultaneously “deconstructing and constructing participation through language, but also bodies, histories, affects, etc.”⁵ And perhaps we already bear witness to this process, not only with the work of Scott, Helguera, and Pujol, but also with such near-spontaneous social protest formations as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and Viacrucis del Migrante (Migrant Caravan). It seems we have arrived at a moment of great possibilities, and equally great risks, where art is both the name for a particular act of defiance, and the name of a sixty-some-billion-dollar industry tracked by leading investment funds.⁶

If Wodiczko is correct, and I hope he is, then we who are both true defenders and relentless critics of contemporary art must act like a cadre of hooded ninjas, or sorcerers, upholding past ideals, while coldly confronting the most abject contradictions, like irradiated apostles of an uncertain future. This is an uncomfortable, maybe even untenable, position that we will learn to live with, as mass collective agency once again impulsively erupts into public places and media spaces. Informed by oppositional lessons learned from a long-suppressed history from below, inspired by a host of once-marginalized pedagogues, and armed with a disruptive tactical technology that reanimates a socially engaged artistic agency by any means necessary, let us celebrate a haunted necromantic vanguardism that casts impossible dark-matter shadows across the brazen and bright world of bare art.

Check out Greg Sholette’s talk with More Art on Instagram Live

1. Sholette, “On the Maidan Uprising and ‘Imaginary Archive’ in Kiev,” Hyperallergic, July 16, 2014.

2. So-called Pizzagate was a viral conspiracy theory claiming human trafficking, a child-sex ring, Hillary Clinton and a Washington DC pizza parlor were all connected, while the organized anti-gun survivors of the Parkland High School shooting were accused by alt-right networks of being paid crisis actors.

3. For a sobering overview of this phenomenon, see “Art, Anti-Globalization, and the Neo-Authoritarian Turn,” FIELD Journal of Socially Engaged Art, Issue 12/13 (Spring 2019).

4. Theorist Giorgio Agamben uses the term “Bare Life” to describe a human being deprived of all socially constructed legal rights and thus reduced to a state he calls homo sacer: no longer human but a purely biological entity. What I am calling “Bare Art” is a condition that emerges when art’s traditional autonomy, mystique, and romance boils away, leaving the world of high culture stripped down and subsumed by the forces of modern capitalism and its political ideology. I expand on this in my book Delirium and Resistance: Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism (London: Pluto Press, 2017).

5. Unpublished excerpts from a 2013 exchange between myself and Wodiczko.

6. Katya Kazakina, “Global Art Sales Rose to $63.7 Billion Last Year,” Bloomberg News, March 13, 2018.

Gregory Sholette PhD is a founding member of Political Art Documentation/Distribution PAD/D (1980–1988), which issued publications on politically engaged art; of REPOhistory (1989–2000), a collective of artists and activists who repossessed suppressed histories in New York in the 1990s; and more recently, of Gulf Labor, a group of artists advocating for migrant workers constructing museums in Abu Dhabi. His books include Art as Social Action (with Chloë Bass, 2018, Skyhorse Press); Delirium & Resistance: Art Activism & the Crisis of Capitalism (2017), Dark Matter: Art and Politics in an Age of Enterprise Culture (2011, both Pluto Press), and It’s The Political Economy, Stupid (with Oliver Ressler from Pluto Press, 2012), and he has contributed to such journals as FIELD, Eflux, Artforum, Frieze, October, Critical Inquiry, Texte zur Kunst, Afterimage, CAA Art Journal and Manifesta Journal among others. He is a Professor of studio art and co-directs the Social Practice Queens MFA concentration and certificate at Queens College CUNY, and is an associate of the Art, Design and the Public Domain program of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. Sholette’s blog is Welcome To Our Bare Art World.

Join the conversation — follow More Art on Medium and Instagram as we share updates on current projects and revisit past work to better understand our present moment and what’s to come.

Excerpts are from More Art in the Public Eye, distributed by Duke University Press, now available in paperback and ebook formats; Micaela Martegani, Jeff Kasper, Emma Drew, editors.

To learn more about More Art, visit www.moreart.org

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More Art is a nonprofit organization that supports collaborations between professional artists and communities to create public art and educational programs that inspire social justice.

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More Art creates thought-provoking public art projects and educational programs that inspire broad discourse around social and cultural issues.

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