Conflictual Aesthetics: Artistic Activism and the Public Sphere
Author: Oliver Marchart
Publisher: Sternberg Press, Germany
At a time when fashion companies like Louis Vuitton are building pompous and spectacular art museums and self-consciously critical feminist artists like Claire Fontaine are staging fashion shows for Christian Dior with feminist slogans bent in neon, it can be hard not to resign giving up contemporary art.
When international oil companies like BP fund large museums, artists like Olafur Eliason decorate luxury shops on the Champs-Élysées, and the Fredriksen sisters enter into collaborations with national museums, the art public seems to have disappeared and been replaced by the richest one percent’s promiscuous self-promotion through art. The discretion of the past is gone, and today’s patrons use shameless art as a giant advertising pillar, and this can be felt without the art institutions daring to speak out.
Fortunately, this is not the only story about the development of contemporary art. As the Austrian philosopher Oliver Marchart explains in his new book, Conflictual Aesthetics, then, in parallel with the «neoliberalisation» of art, a politicisation has taken place in which artists have used art as a kind of laboratory for the political.
«The Davidic Moment of Art»
Marchart anchors his analysis in the context of a long history of anti-systemic movements, drawing a line from May ’68 to the Alter Globalisation Movement’s 1999 Summit Protests in Seattle to the Occupy Movements in 2011 and on to the Yellow Vests in 2019. This anti-systemic tradition goes all the way back to what Marchart calls the «Davidic moment of art», in which the painter and Jacobin Jacques-Louis David played a leading role at the beginning of the French Revolution as a stage director of political events in which the revolutionaries tried to portray the new world they were by creating. These are the heirs to David’s project, which Marchart analyses in his book.
the revolutionaries tried to portray the new world.
According to Marchart, the new art activism is distinguished by revealing what he calls the «spontaneous ideology of the art field», namely that art is political when it is not too directly political. That is, the idea that art can quickly become for politics, and thus becomes bad art. It is the continuous discussion of the relative autonomy of art, where autonomy, the fact that art is a field in the sense of Bourdieu, with its own internally defined rules and norms, is both an option and a limitation. Art is set free, must not obey externally defined rules, but the concrete gesture of this release, the works of art, then, in turn, lacks a social effect.
For Marchart, Jacques Rancière exemplifies the spontaneous ideology with his idea of the metapolitical dimension of the aesthetic regime – according to which modern art points to the possibility of ‘sharing the sensual’ in a different way, ie. arranging the world differently. As Marchart nicely writes, however, the problem is that the emphasis on this abstract possibility tends to comb over into a rejection of more explicit political gestures in art. After all, there is no reason to make direct political or activist art when art is always already a metapolitical modern phenomenon. Marchart cuts through and writes, «art is political when it is political.» Faced with all sorts of easily bought attempts to make the vaguest and institutionally sanctioned works of art «critical» or «political», it is excellent that Marchart steps into character and tries to clean up all the incoherent statements a bit.
The clean-up takes place on the basis of Ernesto Laclau’s discourse theory supplemented by Hannah Arendt and Claude Lefort, ie. different exponents of so-called radical democratic theory, who think of democracy as antagonism or openness. Marchart uses Laclau’s concept of the political to outline what he calls a conflictual aesthetic that opposes both the spontaneous ideology of the art field and its demarcation of ‘over-politicized’ art while trying to establish counter-hegemonic positions or make conflicts visible.
When contemporary art becomes art activism, it can have a real political function in a wider public, such as when the Israeli performance group Public Movement became part of the Israeli space occupation movement in 2011. Public Movement danced at intersections and blocked traffic with other protesters. Marchart reads the Public Movement’s choreographed participation as an example of how art can expand the language of political resistance and be directly involved in a challenge of the political order, that art can help to give political conflicts a new form.
The dream of art
Marchart’s analysis is an important contribution to the continued analysis of the relationship between art and the political, and it convincingly manages to challenge circulating ideas about the politics of contemporary art. As he writes, contemporary art is not by definition political, it is only when it actually attempts to process, thematize or take a stand on ongoing conflicts.
But Marchart’s defense of art activism, unfortunately, stops halfway through the movement out of the institution, as he does not address the issue of capital and state, that is, the dominant forms of power. He, therefore, gets stuck in an idea of a democratic conversation. The attempt to talk antagonism up and agonism down takes place within the framework of a notion of publicity and hegemony. But as Arendt stated already in 1971 in her analysis of The Pentagon Papers, art can do nothing when politicians lie. Art must either leave the remnants of the bourgeois public and experiment in secret or get directly involved in the struggle and barricade construction. Only in this way can it keep the dream of art (and another world) alive.