Artforum, May 2006
I WAS SURPRISED to learn from Claire Bishop (“The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents,” Artforum, February 2006) that “politically engaged” collaborative art practice constitutes today’s avant-garde. A more measured assessment might recognize a continuüm of collaborative and “relational” practices, ranging from the work of biennial-circuit stalwarts like Rirkrit Tiravanija, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Santiago Sierra to that of more overtly activist but less visible groups such as Ala Plastica, Park Fiction, and Platform. The general discomfort of mainstream art critics and institutions with politically engaged art is long– standing (consider Douglas Crimp’s break with October in the early ‘90s over his interest in AIDS-activist groups). This discomfort is evident in Bishop’s own essay. She begins by offering an olive branch of reconciliation to “activists who reject aesthetic questions as synonymous with cultural hierarchy and the market,” but one would be hard pressed to find many contemporary artists or critics involved with politically engaged practice who would espouse such a simplistic position. Her complaint about the “standoff” between “aesthetes” and “activists” notwithstanding, Bishop herself does much to encourage it, ending her essay by dismissing activist art en masse as “politically correct,” “Platonic,” and even “Christian.” All that is lacking in this rather puzzling litany are accusations of child abuse and the clubbing of baby seals. This is hardly the kind of thing likely to encourage a convivial rapprochement. Rather than a continuüm of collaborative practices, Bishop seems determined to enforce a fixed and rigid boundary between “aesthetic” projects (“provocative,” “uncomfortable,” and “multilayered”) and activist works (“predictable,” “benevolent,” and “ineffectual”). Thus, in her critique of Nicolas Bourriaud, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics” published in the November 2004 issue of October, Bishop reassures her readers: “I am not suggesting that relational artworks need to develop a greater social conscious–by making pinboard works about international terrorism, for example, or giving free curries to refugees.” For Bishop, art can become legitimately “political” only indirectly, by exposing the limits and contradictions of political discourse itself (the violent exclusions implicit in democratic consensus, for example) from the quasi-detached perspective of the artist. In this view, artists who choose to work in alliance with specific collectives, social movements, or political struggles will inevitably be consigned to decorating floats for the annual May Day parade. Without the detachment and autonomy of conventional art to insulate them, they are doomed to “represent,” in the most naïve and facile manner possible, a given political issue or constituency. This detachment is necessary because art is constantly in danger of being subsumed to the condition of consumer culture or “entertainment” (cultural forms predicated on immersion rather than on a recondite critical distance). Instead of seducing viewers, the artist’s task is to hold them at arm’s length, inculcating a skeptical distance that parallels the insight provided by critical theory into the contingency of social and political meaning.
What Bishop seeks is an art practice that will continually reaffirm and flatter her self– perception as an acute critic, “decoding” or unraveling a given video installation, performance, or film, playing at hermeneutic self-discovery like Freud’s infant grandson in a game of “fort” and “da.” In addition to naturalizing deconstructive interpretation as the only appropriate metric for aesthetic experience, this approach places the artist in a position of ethical oversight, unveiling or revealing the contingency of systems of meaning that the viewer would otherwise submit to without thinking. The viewer, in short, can’t be trusted. Bishop’s deep suspicion of art practices that surrender some autonomy to collaborators and that involve the artist directly in the (always already compromised) machinations of political struggles. In Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy and Performativity (Duke Univeristy Press, 2003), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick offers a useful interpretation of the rhetoric of exposure in her analysis of the “paranoid consensus” that has come to dominate contemporary critical theory informed by structuralism, psychoanalysis, and Marxism. Based in part on the historical identification of critical theory with the act of revealing the (structural) determinants that pattern our perception of reality, the paranoid approach obsessively repeats the gesture of “unveiling hidden violence” to a benumbed or disbelieving world. As enabling and necessary as it is to probe beneath the surface of appearance and to identify unacknowledged forms of power, the paranoid approach, in Sedgwick’s view, attributes an almost mystical agency to the act of revelation in and of itself. As she writes:
The paranoid trust in exposure seemingly depends … on an infinite reservoir of naïveté in those who make up the audience for these unveilings. What is the basis for assuming that it will surprise or disturb, never mind motivate, anyone to learn that a given social manifestation is artificial, self-contradictory, imitative, phantasmatic or even violent?
As Sedgwick notes, the normalization of paranoid knowing as a model for creative and intellectual practice has entailed “a certain disarticulation, disavowal, and misrecognition of other ways of knowing, ways less oriented around suspicion.” Sedgwick juxtaposes paranoid knowing (in which “exposure in and of itself is assigned a crucial operative power”) with reparative knowing, which is driven by the desire to ameliorate or give pleasure. As she argues, this reparative attitude is intolerable to the paranoid, who views any attempt to work productively within a given system of meaning as unforgivably naïve and complicit; a belief authorized by the paranoid’s “contemptuous assumption that the one thing lacking for global revolution, explosion of gender roles, or whatever, is people’s (that is, other people’s) having the painful effects of their oppression, poverty, or deludedness, sufficiently exacerbated to make the pain conscious (as if otherwise it wouldn’t have been) and intolerable.”
As delightful as it is to hear yet another disquisition on the glories of The Battle of Orgreave, 2001, or Dogville (2003), a more complete account of collaborative art must begin with some measured reflection on the diversity of practices encompassed by that term. And it must include a more substantive analysis of precisely the concepts that Bishop abandons to ad hominem cliché: “activism,” “political engagement,” and the aesthetic itself. On one level Bishop’s discomfort with activist art is typical of post-cold war intellectuals embarrassed by work that evokes leftist ideals. At the same time, I think there’s something more at stake in her obvious revulsion (the lowest circle of hell in her essay is reserved for “the community arts tradition”). It would seem, after all, to be relatively uncontroversial to locate the relational projects she embraces (those of Sierra, Carsten Holler, or Jeremy Deller) on a continuüm with socially engaged projects that employ processes of collaborative interaction. However, activist work triggers a kind of sacrificial response for Bishop, as if to even acknowledge this work as “art” somehow threatens the legitimacy of the practices that she does support. A reductive version of engaged or activist art (“free curries for refugees”) thus functions as a necessary foil, representing the abject, unsophisticated Other to the complex “aesthetic” works of which she approves. This isn’t to say that there is no reason to interrogate activist-art practices, but only to question the readiness with which critics like Bishop revert to the nuclear option of challenging the ontic status of this work as art qua art. While otherwise quite keen to question the limits of discursive systems of meaning in her criticism, she exhibits an unseemly enthusiasm for policing the boundaries of legitimate art practice. Rather than deploring the fact that some contemporary artists refuse to make the “right” kinds of work, she might consider the “uncomfortable” possibility that her own version of the aesthetic is simply one among many.
–Grant Kester, San Diego, CA