Pablo Helguera. Endingness. Performance at Julia Friedman Gallery. 2005
The figure of artist, created by the project of modernity, without doubt has changed in recent years. Artistic practices that used to be realized predominately in the space of the symbolic have been brought into the real politics by activist collectives and networks, suggesting new models of socially-engaged art that are akin to forms of political struggle.
However, it is individuals and not collectives that secure their visibility and develop their careers locally and internationally. This proves the assumption that in general, the field of contemporary art, having inherited the modernist image of the solitary artist, turned into one of the sectors of the late capitalist production, with its "factory of stars", consumerism, and where autonomous space disappears.
Current discussions on the subject of art education reveal that the typical for the time of the Bauhaus dilemma "artist-craftsman" versus "artist-intellectual" has lost its meaning, as the created by the modern didactic machine standarticized subject Ц whether he/she is a "craftsman" or "intellectual" Ц equally, and without any conflict, is integrated into the system.
On the one hand, rudiments of the aesthetics that served in the period of classical avant-guard as a poetical framing of various political doctrines and in which artists appeared to be megaphones for ideas of politicians (like, for example, dadaism and futurism in the history of communist and national-socialist movements), are still present in contemporary art.
On the other hand, today the space of everyday life is filled with political rhetoric that is expressed in various visual codes, which link, for example, 'leftist' phraseology and iconography to the language of advertisement, reducing political message to an image which can serve both as an ad for a bank and for a political party.
Pablo Helguera. Instituto de la Telenovela (Soap Opera Institute). Havana phase: The Right to be Born" ("el derecho de nacer"). Installation (radio booth). Interview with soap specialist Silvia Perez Yera 8th. Havana Biennial. Cuba. 2003.
Within this compromise Ц a politicized hybrid of mass-culture and intellectual trends Ц artistic-political communities arise and form their unique "tactics". These communities shift their focus from aesthetic issues towards re-difinition of the figure of the artist and space of representation (exhibition) based on their potential to directly engage the real politics, appropriating forms of political activism and arguing against modernist models of self-isolation.
Questions pertinent to changes in models of artists' political activity and artistic practice since modernism were addressed to three New York-based artists Ц Martha Rosler, Pablo Helguera, and Yevgeniy Fiks, who Ц each in he/ his own way Ц leads a polemic with modernist and post-modernist forms of artists' engagement into politics.
Born in Mexico, 1971, lives in New York, USA. His work usually depart from research, connecting disperse historical facts, or exploring popular forms of perception of culture. Works usually take a form of polymorphous performances, with participation of opera singers, art historians, or scientists, and the elements of panel discussions, slide presentations, puppet-shows, etc. Among important projects are "The School of Panamerican Unrest", 2006; "The Foreign Legion", Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, New York, 2005; "First Imaginary Forum on Mental Sculptures," Museo del Barrio, the Sculpture Center, and the Hermetic Lounge, New York, 2004; "Instituto de la Telenovela," Galery P74, Ljubljana, Slovenia, 2002.
Pablo Helguera. The School of Panamerican Unrest. Projected schoolhouse at the Plaza de la Merced. Tegucigalpa, Hounduras. 2006
Born in New York. Since the 60s, Martha Rosler has been one of the most vivid proponents of the autonomy of art. A significant number of her works analyze the structure of public sphere and its intersection with everyday life. Rosler's consistent and active artistic and theoretical career embodies a link between the tradition of the 60-70s activism and today's understanding of "political art". Her latest projects were participation in "Utopia Station" at the 50th Venice Biennale, 2003; "Martha Rosler's Library", e-flux, New York, Frankfurt; 2005-07; unitednationplaza, Berlin. 2006-07; Documenta12, Kassel, 2007; Munster Sculpture Project, 2007.
Born in Moscow, Russia, in 1972, lives and works in New York, USA. Yevgeniy Fiks was one of the first artists who began to conceptualize the hybrid identity of a post-Soviet diasporic subject in contemporary art in the 2000s. In one of his projects, "Song of Russia", shown at a Moscow gallery "ArtStrelka Projects" in winter 2005-2006, Fiks addresses not only the history of socialist realism in cinema and its influence in the culture of the Other (the 40s United States), but he also tests modern political subjectivity, based on awareness of interwoven histories of the Soviet Union and USA. Fiks' recent significant works include "Communist Party" (2006-07) and "Lenin for your Library" (2005-2007), exhibited in Lenin-Museo in Tampere, Finland, and "Communist Party USA" in Marat Guelman gallery.
1. Modernism privileged the artist as an almost mythical, god-like figure, deprived of reflexivity and perceptiveness. Then, postmodernism introduced its corrections, tending to change the status of artist to a transmitter of currents of politics, media, and mass culture. To which degree can we consider artist capable to act independently and aesthetics compatible (capable to compete) with politics?
2. If we assume that in the post-Fordist world, where formerly political subjects (like labor workers) have been depoliticized, there is no public space any longer, but there is public intellect, language, "common places" of knowledge, what is the role of an artist then? Does that mean that artists only contribute to the general knowledge and power balance, instead of undermining it? Is the assumption of subversive role of an artist's work valid today?
1. I believe that Post-modernism freed the artist from the art historian and the critic, allowing the artist to awaken to his own place in the world and explain for himself/herself their role in it. From that point on, I think artists have been essentially independent, free to operate individually or be subsumed by whichever theoretical or curatorial team they may want to belong to. And once an artist chooses to operate this way, I don't think it is an issue of competing with politics or against any predominant aesthetic, as usually most artists who adhere to what they believe in end up finding a place for themselves.
The issue is that most of the time artists don't want to be independent. Their desire to connect with a community or be recognized as a prominent part of it forces us to conform to preexisting communities or ideas. In other words, I believe that the kind of communities that we create in the art world push us toward homogenization, not towards individualism.
I don't think that true creativity is limited to constantly breaking new boundaries- you can perfectly make wonderful art by using fairly conventional language. However, it is worrisome to me that such degree of complacency is so dominant today.
2. I think it is evident that the dominating processes and codes that characterize contemporary art today are fairly passive, grounded in commonplace notions, and not too threatening or upsetting to the social or political establishment. This phenomenon, I believe, is usually faced with two different practical attitudes:
On one hand we have the pessimists, who affirm that the art practice has become critically unthreatening as a result of being subsumed and regulated by the art market. They long for the time when art had a real impact and revolutionary effect in the world- or, if it did not a quantifiable effect, at least was driven by a spirited determination to change the world, and, as a need for that goal, be subversive. The problem with this view -as in most pessimistic views- is that it hardly proposes an alternative model other than generally confrontational, guerrilla-style sort of art, which can deliver a message effectively but also be alienating to audiences.
The optimists, on the other hand- which I believe include most young curators and artists today-would affirm that in our self-conscious time art does not need to bother to reinvent the wheel in order to provide a provocative and thoughtful response to reality. They would also argue that when art becomes too involved with social theory or politics, it only becomes bad illustration of them, instead of remaining as a pure representation of a higher state of reality. The artists, in this sense, are aware that they play along in a pre-established playing ground, but their attitude is no longer that of the radical artists of decades before who would see art as a transformative social or political tool. Similarly, to deconstruct art in itself is already considered pass√©. Art in this sense is free to borrow and comment on previous art, but it rarely pretends to reveal profound truths as we once aspired art to do. Artists in this position, which are generally fairly established in the market and do not have qualms about their work selling and becoming a product, have a lighter attitude that dismisses the gigantic, revolutionary responsibility that artists had taken upon themselves in the 20th Century.
On one hand the pessimists would be right in asserting that the art practice looses by becoming all-complacent, and the optimists would be right in saying that art looses when it abandons its original symbolic territory and attempts to become poor sociology or anthropology.
I have a critical stance towards both of those attitudes, as neither of them attempt to radically question and/or reinvent the art practice, which is what I think has to be done. I believe that the problem lies in coming up with a model of art making that would not be entirely subservient to the art world, the art market, or to a prescribed understanding of contemporary art vocabulary, and yet still retain its identity as art. Paradoxically, we arrive at a point where art has to stop behaving like art in order to continue to serve the function that art used to serve- which to me is, being a catalyst for collective experiences and cultural dialogue.
The challenge is to find ways of making art so that it still serves that purpose. Stephen Wright 1, has written very well on this subject, adding that "The question of the use-value of art is about identifying a universally recognizable function, genuinely specific and exclusive to art". In other words, we need to find a meaningful place for art in our world, instead of letting it exist in a rarified corner of our human activity. At least, as an artist that is what I try to work towards, as difficult or unattainable it may appear to be.
Olga Kopenkina: It seems to be pertinent thus to point out the opposition between individual and community. Is there still such an opposition in our time, after the notion of community has been redefined in the way that community is no longer considered as constructed by the state, or any other paternalist institutions, in which everyone converges towards the One? It is rather dispersed in individuals, united by common language, intellect, knowledge. Why don't we assume that there is no longer an art world community, with its focus on Chelsea galleries, dealers, curators, national pavilions, etc? Can we just for a moment imagine art without an art community, similar to what Virno described as "publicness without a public sphere?" 2
Martha Rosler and FLEAS international collective with students from Konstfack, Stockholm; Royal Academy, Copenhagen; and Yale University, New Haven; "In Our Beautiful Future", at Utopia Station at the 50th Venice Biennale. 2003
Pablo Helguera: I have a really hard time imagining any kind of art without an art community, and moreover, without a community at large. I think that in order to define what the art community or communities are today we need to take into consideration the issues of visibility and common interests.
First there is the issue of visibility, or of "silent" art communities. There are all sorts of individuals and communities around the world that consider themselves practitioners of art- from a whole town in Lindsborg, Kansas, to artists collectives in El Salvador or Slovenia. They simply are not visible or interesting to the dominant international contemporary art community.
So the other issue is the kind of interests that bind this community- or rather, this web of communities Ц together. Perhaps we could argue that the economic interests supersede the purely academic or spiritual interests that we may find in art, perhaps because they are more concrete and by default establish clearer directions. I would like to imagine an art without a commercial and/or individual interest, but isn't that what Marxist aesthetics wanted to do? Most of us are trapped in this dilemma, aiming for pure communication and on the other hand resorting to promotion and marketing as a support tool to carry our message- and that almost inevitably leads to turning an artist into an individual brand.
I think that two of the forefathers of post-war art Ц Warhol and Beuys Ц embody the contradictions that we have concerning the idea of community in art today. On the one hand, both claimed for an egalitarian approach, where everything could be art and anybody an artist. And, at the same time, their behavior and strategy was highly individualistic and self-serving. One could argue that Beuys and Warhol cared about the community only inasmuch as it served their purposes, or as it became their medium. Like someone said of Christo's work, it was a perfect marriage of socialist and capitalist theory. And since then, only with the interesting exceptions of artists collectives in non-market dominated regions like in Eastern Europe and Latin America at certain times, most of the art that resulted in what we consider our art world has remained overwhelmingly individualistic. I don't object to individualism, but it is disappointing when it leads to individual product instead than to independent thinking- the dialogue becomes more about product development, not about intellectual exchange, making us look like any other industry in the commercial world.
I think that we can't dismiss communities, nor can we dismiss the one that exists before us, or that we belong to. Instead we should actively press to redefine its agenda and its priorities. And our challenge right now consists in finding a new focus for art making rather than allowing it to default into a conventional fashion system.
Olga Kopenkina: Summarizing Pablo's reply, I can conclude that one of the ways to redefine art community, and an art practice, which inevitably (according to Pablo) resides in a community, is to assume that art begins to serve for community when it stops being the Art, when it lays down a platform for dialogues and collective experience, instead of a passive viewing. Isn't it what was already anticipated in the 70s? Are we coming back to Lenin's slogan "the future of aesthetics is ethics"? I guess the issue what I'm trying to discuss here, is not whether or not it is so, but where is the evidence that such an approach towards art succeeds now, or what are the chances that it will succeed in future? Meaning that the "ethics" Ц which is, in Lenin's sense, art's engagement in social reality Ц will be widely accepted as important part of aesthetics. As we remember, the independent and anti-commercial spirit of art of the 70s ended in the 80s, with the reinforced value of a "beautiful art object" and even more vigorous submersion into aesthetics. Or, I might be too pessimistic... I wonder what Martha would say about those chances.
Martha Rosler: It is hard to run away from the observation that, by and large, artists used to have guiding principles about their work and now have only themselves or perhaps fleeting interests (more below). I also have problems accepting that we live in a fully atomized world, with neither community nor politics nor public space, which is what the questions seem to imply. The role of art world artists is always fractured and conflicted. The revulsion over the privileges and tastes of the bourgeoisie, its elevation to an elite position in industry and culture, and its financial ability to underwrite and purchase their work, is the cliché of the 19th-century French avant-gardes. That guiding story, with multiple scissions and conflicting allegiances, persisted into the twentieth century; a utopian vision of social transformation from the standpoint of those immiserated and dispossessed by nascent modernity was transmitted and developed by communities of intellectuals. Here and now, at least, such communities are hard to identify.
Cultural transformations have overwritten what we used to recognize as grassroots culture (or popular, vernacular, or folk culture). Yet it is only a mirage that these forms have been completely effaced. Working-class forms centered on workplace mores and customs are gone, but others persist, and people naturally still congregate in workplaces and in public arenas, form interest groups and so on. Questions of the public sphere are perhaps more difficult, since it is now more often virtual than actual, facing a corporatized mass media and a culture industry of entertainments and diversions. Granted, then, it is harder to address or engage people as citizens, but I am not sure how well elite artists -in the West-were ever able to do so. A small group of aesthetic 'aristocrats' typically perch atop the pyramid of influence, where, amplified in mass culture, their work informs trends in representation and decoration. The social ideas of present-day artists-as opposed to pop culture figures-are not sought or respected.
The perquisites of "middle-classness" Ц longer life and better education and futures for ones children- have fallen within artists' reach. By the 1980s the institutionalization of artists, through galleries and academies, made them members of the "new class," the professional and managerial sector, no matter how bohemian their proclivities -the wild cards of the professional deck. That has not eradicated a crucial motivator of the art world, identification with nonelites; the vanguard myth still sustains art world artists. But many have lost heart in the face of the expanding reach of the culture industry that aims to produce a homogeneous world of taste, rendering local cultures either folkloric or undefended, in peril of extinction.
Yevgeniy Fiks. Semiotics of Explosion. Stills from digital video. 2006
Changes in the educational system are both symptomatic and productive. Most artists pass through art programs before entering the art world; art schools and their informal networks are the primary portals of entry. They produce professionalized artists who know how and where to put their work forward and how to provide the appropriate contextualization. By the mid 1960s in the US, art education found a comfortable home in universities and colleges, where the salient feature was a graduate program granting the Master of Fine Arts degree, or MFA. The MFA is a teaching credential that enables graduates to apply for, and hopefully obtain, jobs that would provide income while they were developing their artist practice. For about 30 years, the professional art world and academe partially overlapped. But soon enough, US graduate art departments saw the precipice: far too few teaching jobs for the many artists they were graduating. In the 1980s, this drew many young artists, who might otherwise have joined the still-robust alternative (artist-run, nonprofit) system, into the commercial galleries then springing up to serve yuppies (young urban professionals) seeking low-priced cultural capital.
The negativity or criticality of vanguard culture nevertheless persisted-and entering an intellectual community provided another cogent reason to go to graduate school. But now criticality is collapsing in every professional field (cf. architecture). The 'success model,' in the US and perhaps in England, has provided graduate art departments with a new mission: they are now hiring halls. Artists learn productive crafts, even if not quite a set of objects, and gallerists or stalking-horse critics (more properly, art journalists), recruit artists. We might say of students now that they do not follow masters or join intellectual communities so much as they learn to perform themselves, becoming exemplary subjects- the projected ideal subjects of contemporary mass cultural society. Practice-oriented education can lead to artists' producing idiosyncratic projects with little resonance and whose utopianism is a sort of sentimentalized hope, if it exists at all.
Artistic communities in the present era are sometimes assembled by curators who thread together an intellectually engaged group, inviting them to various locales on the biennial circuit. Obviously, there is something pernicious about this traveling ship of fools, but I don't think that it can be dismissed, in those instances where intellectual labor is actually undertaken. It also gives the curator the role formerly ascribed to the critic, removing a layer of mediation-not necessarily a positive development.
In our industrial/postindustrial society, in which intellectual labor is regarded as simply another instrumentality, the capacity to subvert through artistic acts remains symbolic. Post-utopian practices that aspire to embody a Foucauldian heterotopia Ц modest-seeming meliorations or palliative practices, often staged in public locales- can seem discouragingly weak, modestly self-reassuring group rituals, but the best are pilot lights of resistance. Many artists have tended to smaller actions, appealing to audiences of social elites, even if enacted in public spaces-the same push/pull of addressing the bourgeois world of lookers and buyers, but which includes other artists. Mass events and smaller symbolic actions of the 60s set a standard for publicly subversive actions that may not have been surpassed, but they have contemporary successors: those who flew a giant banner over the Seattle meeting of the WTO in 1999, or the Yes Men, with their fake corporate talks and press releases. There are "bona fide" artists groups-and other mediatized groups-in many cities that work outside the art world, from the Zapatista minions of Subcomandante Marcos to the Spanish group Yomango, which performs stylized shoplifting to the presumably non-artist groups like Attac (formed at the initiative of Le Monde Diplo journalists), to Tutte Bianchi to the venerable Bread and Puppet Theater.
Yevgeniy Fiks. Semiotics of Explosion. Stills from digital video. 2006
However distorted, the idealized picture of the artist as a resister or detourner of culture remains in the cultural memory of artists. Artists continue to resist and refuse, whether they do so as individuals or in groups; the problem is that this is often based on an imaginary anarchism. There are ongoing artist alliances-like those of all types of intellectual and professional communities of shared discourses- formed in person, perhaps, but maintained, even if tenuously or temporarily, via the internet. Media and "new media" networks are determined to work outside centers of power and to put forward alternatives.
1. One thing that post-modernity did introduce indiscriminately across the national divide is a certain "postmodern neutrality", which allows an artist to simply avoid having a clearly articulated political stand, a type of simulative independence. That is, a fundamental question of responsibility of the artist Ц for her work, context, and politics Ц has been suspended for quite some time now by the ideology of postmodernism. To my mind this is more of a choice issue rather than a capability issue. The choice "not to compete with politics" is often made by artists quite conscientiously. I would point at the artist him/herself as someone to blame for the failure to compete with politics, for not caring.
2. Sadly, the question about subversive role of an artist's work is more than anything a relativist problem. In the current post-utopian situation, criticism and subversion comfortably exist on the territory of the art system, in fact, they are highjacked by the art system. A critical stand is limited to the art world and any attempt to overcome this situation that is advocating of "taking to the streets", is viewed as a manifestation of a type of sinister "nostalgia for utopia". But how can we move forward if not by engaging the boundaries of the art system at any point in time? The rhetoric of the 60s is as relevant today as there were back then. For until the problems raised in discourses are resolved, these discourses cannot be dismissed as nonparadigmatic, and the problems posed in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s unfortunately haven't really gone away.
Much of the current activist art has become what Moscow artist Anatoly Osmolovsky calls "salon activism", limited in its effects to the white cube. Such an activism presented within the constraints of the art system is fundamentally unthreatening and even "proper". As Susan Buck-Mors rightfully noticed, in labeling the rebellious among us "contemporary artists", the late capitalist society assigns us to a rather particular place, excluding from the actual society-building. Those who in not-so-distant past would have been called "revolutionaries" now are called "contemporary artists". This activist art has no chance or pretense to engage the streets.
Banner of the International Anti-globalist Movement ATTAC
And yet, this "salon activist" art is critical and subversive and clearly distinguishes itself from the late capitalist fine art within its predefined framework. I guess, there is no shame in being a "salon activist" and I prefer "salon activism" to the late-capitalist fine art any time, but such art leaves one with an overwhelming feeling of unresolved issues, unfinished business, a feeling that is rooted so deeply that predates the longing for utopia as we knew it in the 20th century.
Olga Kopenkina: Summarizing what have been said above, I think we should point out the former intellectuals/ revolutionaries becoming "contemporary artists" (Yevgeniy Fiks), "aesthetic aristocrats", whose resistance is still based on "imaginary anarchism" (Martha Rosler), "nostalgia for utopia" and culture of the 60s (Yevgeniy Fiks). However, with all this pessimism, we can say that art has a potential to go in avant-garde of resistance Ц be it a mass event, or a small symbolic action Ц at the moment when it goes beyond its own system and limitations imposed by corporatized market, or by the communities with the dominant "degree of complacency" (Pablo Helguera). But one should also take into account those practices, which prefer to balance on the surface of things and introduce political positions from the point of view of a mass culture consumer (even with Marxist implications) and TV watcher Ц practices like those of Thomas Hirschhorn, for example. Such artists, while accumulating visual material on wars and political cataclysms, aim to create a spontaneous, community "on the streets," based on common experience in informational and cultural consumerism. This is probably a certain subversion of avant-garde-like canon of artist's behavior and standard of intellectualism Ц the practice, which can go far and reach masses (if one really wants to do so), and from the other hand, appear as a remedy from utopiac thinking.
1 Stephen Wright, "The use-value of art". Paper presented at Apex Art, New York, April 2000.
2 Paolo Virno, "A Grammar of The Multitude", Semiotext (e) Foreign Agents Series.
Born in Minsk. Critic and curator. Worked in the National art museum of Belarus. From 1994 till 1998 worked as a curator of the gallery "The Sixth Line".
Lives in New York.