Foreword by Artur Żmijewski
This publication is a report on the process of arriving at real action within culture, at an artistic pragmatism. What interested us were concrete activities leading to visible effects. We were interested in finding answers, not asking questions. We were interested in situations in which solutions are implemented responsibly. We were interested neither in preserving artistic immunity nor distancing ourselves from society. We consider politics to be among the most complex and difficult of human activities. We met artists, activists, and politicians who engage in substantive politics through art. The book is the result of our encounters with those people.
I have been working in art, and in its cause, for years. It has become a way of life for me, life itself, and a passion. For years I have been observing its possibilities and limitations. But a few years ago I stopped »needing« it. I used to like visiting galleries, anticipating the thrill that comes when you see reality filtered though the mind of an artist. Today, at such a sight I feel lassitude and a mood verging on depression. This is the result of repeated disappointment with artistic propositions. Art is a mechanism which works by combining the powers of intellect and intuition, with a desire for dissent. It might give rise not to strange and somewhat inscrutable artworks, but to substantive tools for acting on the world. Usually, however, the mountain of art gives birth to a mouse. Thus, people otherwise extraordinarily well-equipped—artists—produce paradoxical or utopian visions and a social critique which neither they nor their viewers are willing to translate into a political (or any other) practice of any tangible social value.The dominant curatorial strategy is based on administrating art objects; these are commissioned, transported, and insured, with attention paid to copyright as well as to properly mounting and taking them down. These practices are characteristic of the entire art world, still dominated by a popular belief in the magical power of the object. Thus it seems as if producing an object and distributing it among people is sufficient to effect change, political change as well. The art object alone, whatever else it may be, is expected to perform the social and political work assigned to it, without human agency, without any work at convincing, without difference of opinion or conflict, and thus essentially without any politics. This somehow seems to be the definition of today’s artwork. These objects do indeed perform certain work, but it is the work of aestheticizing reality, changing ideas into spectacle, and transforming the political into a call that no one follows. »Art serves no purpose,« »Art is autonomous,« »Art is protected by an immunity which allows us to do more,« »An artist can see through walls«—one can easily find other such views. But we may ask: what perceptible or appreciable change has been brought about by artists protected by immunity? And can one really speak of artistic immunity after the director, activist, and actor Juliano Mer-Khamis, who ran the Freedom Theater, founded by his mother, Arna Mer-Khamis, in the West Bank town of Jenin, was murdered; after the arrest of the artist Ai Weiwei; and after the repeated arrests of members of the Russian collective Voina? It seems that with practically every exhibition the art world declares its aversion to direct politics, while it is enough for artists to engage in substantive political activity to face threats, censorship, repression, or imprisonment.
The pact between the artist and the authorities has been broken. While it was still in effect, the rule went as follows:
»The master no longer says: You will think as I do or die. He says: You are free not to think as I do. Your life and your goods are your own. But from this day forth you shall be a stranger to us.«
The people in power are not stupid and know of the political ambitions of artists and curators. Politicians will of course not allow the competition to be protected by any kind of immunity. The current situation in the funding of culture—the proto-fascist leader of the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands has no use for art and demands that its funding be slashed, and in the UK this funding is being drastically reduced as we speak—can also be seen as a lifting of artistic immunity. We are witnessing an attack on the fiscal foundations of culture. In the case of art, this means future domination by the commercial sector, with its tendency to oust politics, promote an ineffective »velvet« critique, and transform the majority of artists into financial dissidents, shunting them away from any share in the profits made in the art market. In more straightforward terms, the majority of artists are in fact part of an artistic proletariat. They are often people who barely earn enough to live.
Practitioners of Impotence
My critique of my own field is ultimately very simple and can be summarized in one sentence: art doesn’t act, and doesn’t work. Despite the fact that it has enormous potential for conceiving and creating a reality or practicing politics, it usually goes no further than presenting ideas that no one has any intention of putting into practice. Is there any way out of this vicious »circle of creative impotence«? How can art help in performatively creating reality? One of the dominant beliefs in the world of culture is that art operates under the logic of the miracle. There, everything is possible. One biennale may be boring and bad, but the next might be wonderful and »sexy.« It’s as if the possibility of doing a boring or captivating biennale were not a result of the existing art system as a whole, but of some exceptional ability or capacity on the part of the curator or artists. Art, in the minds of its practitioners, can in a moment transcend any limitation. But in fact, its possibilities are no more than those we have created in common. A miracle, that is, the possibility of abolishing all limitations, is an illusion, because one has to operate within a system of limitations ubiquitously dominated by the same Newspeak: freedom, autonomy, participation. It is a system where the know-how is provided by traveling philosophers, ready to offer their intellectual services to any artistic excess. If, in the art world and beyond, we continue to hear the view that art has become a décor for a neo-liberal system, then this décor includes not only art objects, but the intellectual discourse that frames them. It is a discourse which revolves around them and, like a black hole, sucks into its center each and every radical proposition, transforming it into speculation and theoretical reflection—but not into action. Artists, as well as the theorists and philosophers gravitating in their world, have become »practitioners of impotence.« The limited imagination of today’s artists and curators is unable to cross the threshold into genuine action. »Empty« and ineffective artworks and exhibitions are the paradoxical reaction to this situation. All that art has now is spectacle, where social and political problems are played out with no substantial impact on reality. And no substantial impact even on the players in the field of art: other artists and curators.
The Stakes for Curators, the Stakes for Artists
Speaking of miracles, abolishing the system of regulation and liberating art from the ideology of impotence would indeed be a miracle. One conceivable solution would be to limit the influence of institutions on artists. Art, in its radical and potentially transformative version, is a social and political enfant terrible, the curse of almost every institution, in particular the major publicly funded galleries, professionalized white cubes. The latter must above all play for their material survival, not on the side of artists. They hold on to their bureaucratic procedures and rules of production, not to the pursuit of ideas—not for them a democracy to be attained with means such as those used by artists. Some artists offer a short cut: at times brutal, at others shocking, often perverse, one in principle irreconcilable with the goals of the institutions and their practice of eliminating any potential dangers. For years now, we have been witnessing a process of incapacitation whereby artistic radicalism is transformed into velvet critique. This process can be linked to the emergence and growing influence of the profession of a curator and the overwhelming institutionalization of art. What is at stake for the artist is different from what is at stake for the curator.
The curator has become a traveling producer of exhibitions, one who speaks of social issues in the soft language of pretended engagement. What is at stake for the curator is the next project, not any radical social or political goal. In this way, filtered through interests, institutional fears, and soothingly formulated goals, art is drained of its own power. The status quo in art has settled on a level of aestheticized politicality, or even its negation, as well as on artistic impotence. A handful of artistic desperados like the Voina group from Saint Petersburg is not enough. They fall more into a logic of exception—offering a perfect alibi for any opportunists wishing to claim they operate in a field as radical as art. Besides, art addresses its criticism to people who have no intention of taking up the critical challenge or bringing its critical ideas to everyday life. Even when the appeal and demands of the art are to the point and well thought out (which is often the case), there is no one to follow them.
The curator does not usually talk with the artist, let alone discuss things. A discussion assumes debate, and can lead to dissent or even a breakdown of relations. The curator cannot afford to break with artists, which means he or she can’t afford an actual discussion. The artist has become an untouchable fetish—no longer a neighbor occupying the same spot on the earth with whom one can talk about common problems. The effects of this situation are usually accidental, and are not judged according to criteria of efficacy, but rather by rules governing »good art« and intellectual spectacle. The lack of discussion is explained as »granting artists complete freedom,« as if engaging in discussion were a form of captivity.
The aversion to politics has turned art into a kind of »panic room,« a refuge from politics and ideas. Here artists can feel safe from danger, as no truth of life, no activity of any real consequence, will intrude. The predominant form of consensus is agreement that the main goal of art institutions, and the artists aligned with them, is bringing culture to people. The underlying ideas are secondary; what is at stake is »culture,« further undefined, an empty word which can accommodate any content. If the task is formulated in this way, it essentially means the self-reproduction of the system.At the same time, the world plays for stakes of its own—democracy or its elimination, freedom and its limits within the capitalist status quo. There is no art directly participating in this contest. There are a few exceptions, however: artists ready not only for artistic risk, but also for a radical break with the system which raised them.
The Stakes for Neo-liberal Elites
In Russia, I spoke with Boris Kagarlitsky, a left-wing intellectual, who told me that art today plays for stakes set by a neo-liberal elite, even when these stakes are purely symbolic—a stronger position in the market of ideas, maintaining the status of the group, or self-reproduction. But the actual and socially relevant stakes are to be found elsewhere, and are delineated by economic exploitation and poverty. Changing poverty into a minimal form of well-being is not something art will play for, even though it affects extreme economic differentiation within its own field—with its prominent wealthy artists and millionaires and an artistic proletariat striving to compensate for economic immiseration through symbolic profits. The question of the art market is a moral one, and concerns the creation of extreme economic inequalities within its own field, alongside a critique of the mechanisms of economic exclusion that operate outside the art world.
Kagarlitsky said something else: that art will never get out of its own ghetto until someone comes to need it. Among those who need it might be social movements that work toward solving the economic and political needs of societies all over the world. Unfortunately, these movements seem not to need artists to achieve their goals. Art needs to be reinvented, but not as some crafty option to aestheticize human problems in a novel way by turning them into a formal spectacle. What we need is more an art that offers its tools, time, and resources to solve the economic problems of the impoverished majority. For the actual limit to the possibilities of left-leaning art is effective engagement with material issues: unemployment, impoverishment, poverty.
An Individualist Politics of Survival
What artists do today, standing before us in the attire of art, can be termed an individualistic politics of survival. The artist’s freedom is essentially the need to constantly adapt to the demands of the art system, its fleeting fashions and short-term interests. The effect of this mimicry is to transform artistic efforts into a selfish politics of survival. Something that looks like art is actually a mode of existing in the market. How much hesitation, how much angst there is among artists, that they might make a mistake and fail to meet the standards of the institution or the expectations of the market. We have all brought about this situation together. The institutionalized art world, which above all represents its own interests (fundraising, surviving among the institutional competition), strips the artists of their radical and formative political potential. Contributing to this is the need to flatter the artistic ego. Artists have been trained to brook practically no discussion. They are capable of pursuing only their fancy or ego. The ultimate goal of even the most noble artistic action is not the social organism in whose cause one works, but the work of art produced in the process. When art is depoliticized, this means it does not represent the interests of people, but serves the individual careers of the artists. To make art political would mean determining what is at stake together with others and openly representing it in the public sphere. I want this field to be strong, and conscious of the power it possesses. I want it to be willing and able to politically deploy this power, not to create spectacle, but to substantively direct reality.
The most important thing at stake, something we want to play for today, is art that brings change, art that is not critical in an empty fashion; art that does not produce pseudo-critique, but is genuinely transformative and formative. For this reason, we are looking for people who have »stumbled« into art when they were supposed to be working in other fields—in pure politics, perhaps, in parliaments and government, or in the media, or possibly as tribunes of the people, researchers in the social sciences, or even therapists or doctors. One thing is certain—they should be out there, wherever social and political transformation is at stake.
I want to make one thing clear: I am not calling for all art to be like this. May it be even more pluralist. But let us remember that the schism in art is already present, and that the political turn is underway. »What was the essence of the ›political turn‹ in culture? An opposition to the necessity of reproducing known ›differences‹; a refusal to ride the postmodernist merry-go-round of cultural pluralism, slow reform, and gradual development of new languages that satisfy everyone; a declaration of disobedience to a falsity of aesthetics, existence, and humanity of art; the moment when artists abandoned the ship named ›the free market of ideas‹ or ›the post-political feast of differences,‹ and began forming a movement on their own.«
Discussions With Practitioners
All of us, Joanna Warsza, Igor Stokfiszewski, Zofia Waślicka, the artistic office, and myself, were seeking an art that acts and works, with effective procedures of change and an ongoing influence on reality. This is, after all, what politics is about—an endless process of reacting to change and an attempt at either maintaining or transforming the dominant order. Even defending the status quo is an active task, since there are so many people wanting to change it. It thus has to be actively defended.
We were looking for practitioners, people who with their every public action practice politics. We therefore talked with people who are creating an art museum geared towards civic politics that finds its force in the grassroots politics of ordinary people, a museum that strives to express progressive views and educate its public to be critical towards the institutions of the state, to educate citizens in the enforcement of democracy.
We spoke with an educator who claims that art has become a representation of the system of power, reinforcing it by training audiences to passively attend exhibitions and concerts; that the egotism of people in the art world has made them blind to everything except their own story, one where there is no room for acknowledging the value of a culture created by audiences or degraded social groups. According to him, art is for the most part a façade for the system, a celebration of the false exceptionalism of artists and a tool for empty political representation. The goal of art, however, is not maintaining its own illusions, but employing its instruments, in education, for example. We spoke with an artist-politician who employed his artistic intuition and the skills of a performance artist in his political and administrative work as the mayor of a great South American metropolis.
We talked with artists who set as their goal deposing Vladimir Putin via democratic means and transforming the political awareness of Russian citizens. We spoke with a curator who founded an Israeli gallery whose main political goal was ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and bringing an end to exclusive democracy, »only for Israelis.« We talked with artists who in their activity visualize class struggle and take it to be played out in the streets. We spoke with many others, as we tried to get directly to practice, to find a mode of substantive, hands-on influence on reality, an escape from the trap of simply exercising artistic freedom. We sought to verify whether practice is equivalent to theoretical activity, to its creation and immediate confirmation.
We don’t need philosophical Newspeak to go into the streets and spray-paint buildings with the alphabet of freedom. Making art, politics, and the philosophy of politics, are all entwined by artistic imagination into the knot of fantasy and action. But the goal is pragmatic—the creation of social and political facts; taking and bearing responsibility for views publicly expressed and decisions taken; real action in the real world and a final farewell to the illusion of artistic immunity.
The model of curatorial action I have adopted is not based on administering art objects, fishing them out of an artist’s oeuvre, transporting, insuring, and hanging them on walls. It is one based on moderating and negotiating between conflicting political positions attired in the guise of artistic action. The only thing that can truly demolish this model of work is angst, the petrifying fear of bringing about real effects and taking responsibility for them. It makes it impossible to even imagine any pragmatic formula of action.
I am also afraid, but I am trying to forget fear.
Translated from Polish by Krzysztof Kościuczuk
and Warren Niesłuchowski