The Paradox of Art-as-Activism

Courtesy Just Stop Oil

On the ambiguities of demanding that ‘high culture’ be abolished while its institutions remain

The US-based art activist and writer Gregory Sholette opens his new book with the observation that ‘the prevailing desire by artists to transform their practices into a form of highly focused protest is the most prominent – and in many ways the most perplexing – constituent of contemporary art today’. Tracing the emergence of art-as-activism to the political radicalism of the late 1960s – when artists across the western hemisphere began to challenge both orthodox politics and the dominant models of artistic practice – Sholette sees the current explosion of art-activism as the final, if somewhat ironic, realisation of the unrealised project of the twentieth century avant-garde; ironic, because ‘the avant-garde, in conjunction with neoliberal capitalism, has at long last brought about the merging of art into life’.

It’s an interesting conclusion for a book that is otherwise enthusiastically committed to the relentless advance of art-as-activism-as-art: The Art of Activism and the Activism of Art is staged in punchy historical summaries of key movements and moments, from the Situationists’ influence on the events of May 1968 through the turn from conceptualism to feminist, Black radical and leftwing projects during the 70s, to the interventionism of collectives such as New York’s Group Material and the ‘culture jamming’ and ‘tactical media’ approaches of art groups during the 90s. As Sholette notes, the forms of art-activism that emerged from the 80s onwards ‘were focused less on seeking broad political transformation or establishing a progressive alternative counterculture, than on targeting highly specific social issues’.

Today, of course, it’s impossible to miss how the earlier boundary between activism and art has blurred. While earlier artists took their skills and energies into, say, political activism or direct social action, or protested against the privileged and exclusionary nature of the gallery and museum, now those distinctions – between aesthetic and political worlds – have become porous. This, Sholette argues, is because of ‘the full-on aestheticization of the social itself ’, by which he means the way that capitalism has invaded and ‘aestheticized’ every part of social reality as the final realisation of the ‘society of the spectacle’ of which the Situationists had earlier warned.

Sholette’s argument tries to explain how it is that artists now make art about political and social issues as if they were activist campaigns, yet at the same time protest and denounce the institutions in which they show. He remarks on what makes the new BLM- and decolonisation-inspired protest groups of recent years different to the art activists of the 1960s and 70s: ‘the leading edge of the new wave of institutional critique’, Sholette notes, ‘is far less interested in reforming high culture than in calling for its abolition’.

The ambiguities of demanding that ‘high culture’ be abolished while its institutions remain, and in effect get taken over by progressive artists-as-activists, is a problem that Sholette doesn’t address, since he doesn’t really see it as a problem. The more conservative British critic and commentator Alexander Adams definitely does, taking a profoundly critical view of what he terms ‘artivism’, the contemporary nexus of ‘fine art that is intended to effect political/social change’; and ‘political action that is described as fine art’. Artivism: The Battle for Museums in the Era of Postmodernism is a caustic polemic against what Adams identifies as the political-utilitarian turn in art during the last decades, which, unlike Sholette, he sees as incorporating activist art into a state-led takeover of culture that serves the outlook of the global ‘managerial elite’ – interests that in fact are largely shared, Adams argues, by many artists and functionaries of the artworld. ‘It does not occur to an artivist’, Adams notes ironically, ‘that the institutions she rails against are filled with individuals who believe as she does. It does not seem strange to her that such huge entrenched forces of patriarchy and capitalism seem unable to resist a guerrilla movement of the oppressed and that concessions come regularly… and lavishly funded’.

Adams is certainly not against political content in art, nor ‘artivism’ as such; Artivism surveys the long history of artists aligning with political causes – from the painters of the French Revolution, the Surrealists’ alignment with communism, and the Chicano, Feminist and Black art movements of the 70s – while he treats with respect the courage of an artist such as Claude Cahun, who (with Suzanne Malherbe) ran the gauntlet of Nazi occupation, deploying forms of artivism as anti-Nazi subversion. But in Adams’s artistic conservatism, the problem is not so much activity whose goals are primarily about changing social attitudes or using culture therapeutically, but that the shifting priorities of cultural policymakers and administrators have allowed this to take place in the spaces of, and with the resources supposedly committed to, art.

You don’t have to agree with Adams’ defence of ‘traditional values’ (artistic or social) to take the point that a certain kind of progressive politics tends now to dominate contemporary art programmes. Nor does one have to agree that art (state-funded or otherwise) should reflect the tastes of the majority. But Adams’s wider point, that publicly funded culture should at least reflect the plurality of perspectives and opinions that exist in society, needs addressing when an art culture is becoming increasingly orthodox, even if this is a supposedly liberal, ‘progressive’ orthodoxy. Adams does flirt with reversing the same instrumentalism (‘there has never been a piece of publicly-sponsored artivism that encouraged viewers to be less anxious about the environment… or celebrated traditional marriage’) and bunkers down for majoritarian ‘traditional’ values, which ends up sounding like a rightwing version of the ‘leftist’ identity politics he scolds. But therein lies the problem for both writers: Sholette celebrates the Occupy protesters and their slogan ‘we are the 99%’, but then panics about the rise of ‘populism’. Clearly artivism, or art-as-activism, has a significant problem today: over how it relates to mainstream audiences who may not share its values; to its patrons in the new ruling elite who do; and, finally, to the fate of artistic freedom at an increasingly illiberal and polarised moment in history.

Gregory Sholette, The Art of Activism and the Activism of Art, Lund Humphries, £29 (hardcover)

Alexander Adams, Artivism: The Battle for Museums in the Era of Postmodernism, Societas, £14.95 (softcover)

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