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On avant-garde art in the age of Cultural Capitalism

by on January 17, 2011

On avant-garde art in the age of Cultural Capitalism[1].


In this paper I explore the possibilities in contemporary culture, specifically visual art, to create work which transcends the boundaries of art discourse and moves into wider social and political discourses – work that is “twice political”[2] – by examining some particular works of art and artists who have made work which seeks to create various sorts of rupture or disruption in society. I will explore different ways in which disruption operates, and how it relates to the concept of antagonism.

I am taking as my benchmark Mayakovsky’s[3] imperative: “Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it.”[4] In other words, I shall be investigating whether art can go beyond reflecting back to the audience the problems in society, to actively inspiring action for change in them.

My theoretical framework comprises: Relational Aesthetics (Bourriaud, N); Relational Antagonism (Bishop, C); and Socially-Engaged practice (Kester, G). I consider works from 1968 to date that reflect each of these theories, considering the opportunities and limitations of each; and I locate these art debates in a wider cultural and political-philosophical framework (Marx, K; Debord, G; Rancière, J), looking at key concepts such as: alienation; the role of the spectator; and the politics of aesthetics. I use individual case studies to illustrate these positions, limiting my area of critique to work which: is individually authored; exists within, or has a strong relationship with the formal institutions of visual art; and uses as its methodology a relational approach.

“If the concept of the avant-garde has any meaning in the aesthetic regime of the arts, it is […] on the side of the intention of sensible forms and material structures for a life to come.”[5]

I will be looking at artists from 1968 to date, whose practices comment directly on the way society is structured, or on how it operates, as well as those who show us another way of being in it.

The beginning: 1968 onwards

VALIE EXPORT: Tap and Touch Cinema (1968-71)

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“The screening takes place in the dark as usual, except that the movie room has shrunk a little. It only has a room for two hands. In order to see the film, which in this case means to sense and feel it, the ‘spectator’ (consumer) has to put both hands through the entrance to the movie house.”[6]

So VALIE EXPORT (b1940) describes her work, Tap and Touch Cinema.

EXPORT repeated the performance throughout Europe, frequently causing both a hostile reaction and often physical disruption too, including a riot in Essen, following which the Stuttgart police banned a proposed performance there[7]. The piece itself disrupted social norms by taking a usually private and intimate experience between two people, where sexual power relations remain hidden, and placing it in the public realm, and between strangers, shifting the power relationship both between men and women, and between artist and viewer.

Action Pants: Genital Panic is usually experienced as a black and white image (the Tate owns a copy); but it is in fact a trace of another performance by EXPORT, where she burst into the screening room of a Munich porn cinema while a film was being shown, wearing the “action pants”, with a machine gun strapped across her chest, walking up and down the aisles inviting the shocked theatre audience to experience “the real thing”. The images from the performance were then flyposted on the streets.

VALIE EXPORT: Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969)

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Both these works clearly hold up an uncomfortable mirror to society, challenging the dominant ideology which was predicated on the sexual exploitation and social objectification of women. The works also embody perfectly the feminists’ slogan “the personal is political”.[8]

Both the performative nature of her work, and her guerrilla methods refer back to Dada and the Situationists, as well as referencing the direct action of the political period, and her work also clearly is influenced if not directed by feminist theory. EXPORT detournes her own body and then gives it (back) to us. This work is ultimately an expression of her personal (and, she suggests, men in general’s) alienation.

The work of artists like EXPORT played a significant part in raising the issue of women in society, to good effect, and even today it remains powerfully uncomfortable to view. From the political culture of consciousness-raising groups in the early 1960s, in this later work EXPORT literally uses the body as a site of power. She also refers back to the political-economic and artistic language of the Situationists, identifying the participant-viewer as both “consumer” and “spectator”. Certainly these works are early examples of “Relational Antagonism”.

Signs of antagonism have been taken up and used by all sorts of different groups seeking to effect change in society. As Kobena Mercer says “no one has a monopoly on oppositional identity.”[9]

Relational Antagonism

In both institutionally-bound relational art as defined by Bourriaud, and Socially-Engaged Practices outside the gallery, as described by Kester, the spectators become participants in good social relations, and the documentation audience are witness of something inspiring that they can empathize with. A key difference however, is that whereas Relational Aesthetics maintains the artist in a position of authority, Kester’s concept of Socially-Engaged practice places the artist instead in a position of “delegate”, “confirm[ing] and legitimat[ing] his or her political power through the act of literally representing or exhibiting the community itself”.[10]

In the relational art explored by Claire Bishop, what she terms “Relational Antagonism”, the participants become involved in problematic social relations, and the documentation audience are witnesses of something uncomfortable that also involves them as accomplices.

She compares this directly with the mode of practice described by Bourriaud as Relational Aesthetics. In Relational Aesthetics, the aesthetic value of any outcome (i.e. the production of an art “object”) is subordinated to the supposed value of the shared process of the encounter – the relational experience. This work method, Bourriaud suggests, is more than simply interactive art – it is a means of locating contemporary art practice and production within the dominant culture, by creating “microtopias”: temporal but real experiences of unity and happiness in a brief here and now, over the faint possibility of any real or lasting change in the future. Perhaps Bourriaud’s most often-cited example of Relational Aesthetics is Rirkrit Tiravanija’s lunches.

On Relational Antagonism, Bishop says, “The model of subjectivity that underpins [this] practice is not the fictitious whole subject of harmonious community, but a divided subject of partial identifications open to constant flux”.[11] By making antagonistic work, therefore, artists can in a very real sense engage and empower the viewer, by causing them to consider the tensions in society. An artist Bishops often refers to is Santiago Sierra. Bishop identifies a range of contemporary art that is predicated on disruption. Sierra’s work is certainly an extreme example of antagonistic practice.

Since 1998, Sierra has hired or otherwise remunerated so-called “disenfranchised” people to do various things. Representing Spain at the Venice Biennale in 2001 he paid over 100 illegal street vendors (mainly African and Asian) to have their hair dyed blond (for which each person was paid $60)[12]. In another piece he paid 5 workers to hold a gallery wall at an incline while a sixth worker checked that the correct angle of incline was maintained ($65 each for 5 days). He has paid Cuban male prostitutes $20 to masturbate.

Perhaps his harshest device – his most brutal works – are his “lines”, made between 1998 and 2000, where he tattooed a straight line across the backs of various people. First a random man, “who did not have any tattoos or intentions of having one, but due to a need for money, would agree to have a mark on his skin for life”, whom he paid $50.

Santiago Sierra: 160cm line tattooed on 4 people (2000)

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He then made two composite lines: the first across the backs of six unemployed young men, who were “hired” for $30; then a line on four prostitutes addicted to heroin, who he hired for the price of a shot of heroin – twelve thousand pesetas ($100 at 2010 rate). Normally they would charge 2,000 or 3,000 pesetas for fellatio.[13]

In response to his critics, of these pieces Sierra says, “The tattoo is not the problem. You could make the tattooed line a kilometre long, using thousands and thousands of willing people”[14].

My interpretation of this series is that he goes beyond reflecting some of the worst economic oppression of those with whom he works, to effectively – if artistically – reproducing them. His work is prima facie as exploitative if not more so than the actual experience of the people he engages as “performers” in his work. As an internationally renowned artist, represented by world leading galleries such as the Lisson gallery in the UK, Sierra’s profit margin will be well in excess of those of the sweatshop bosses and their ilk. As such, the power of the message is more than negated by the process and actuality of realising it. I would say that it is reactionary.

Much has been written about Sierra’s theme of remuneration and disenfranchised people, work made primarily for consumption by a specialist art audience, but he also makes work that directly confronts that same audience, and the art world’s commercial structures.

For example, in 465 Paid People (1999) at the Rufino Tamayo Museum in Mexico City he simply hired enough “ordinary” people to occupy the gallery space so that there was no room for the private view audience.

Santiago Sierra: Space Closed off by Corrugated Metal (2002)

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In 1997, for the reopening of a section of Galeria Art Deposit he destroyed its interior with fire in Gallery Burned by Gasoline. For the reopening of the Lisson Gallery in 2002 he had a corrugated shutter installed over the building front, so that he could simply leave the invited guests standing out on the street, in Space Closed off by Corrugated Metal. As a result, at least one of the gallery’s clients withdrew his account from the gallery. Nicholas Logsdail, the owner of the gallery, defended the work. ”Santiago’s idea – which I sympathise with – is that there is an exclusive club at the core of cultural activities, and he wanted them to experience the sensation of being excluded.”[15]

So while some critics suggest that Sierra exploits the people he uses in his work, I would suggest that the way he uses the disenfranchised participants is really not different to how he treats the art establishment and art audiences. He is not making any relationship between them and himself as an artist, but he instead creates a dialectical relationship between the two groups, and by implication invites us as the viewer to reflect on the nature of these two disparate groups of people with whom we, in common, share the world.

This detachment and exploitation in Sierra’s work practices and the conceptual and abstract titling of his work, as well as his apparent ambivalence towards both the participants involved in it and the audience viewing it is, I suggest, because Sierra believes he can highlight the problems of Capitalism and the inherent concept of human dignity as an economic privilege, and arguably restore it to the disenfranchised or take it away from the elite art audience, in a suggested inversion or reversal of “dignity”. But he doesn’t believe he can be part of anything positive to change people or society. I suggest this is reflected in the ultimate bleakness of his work, and the alienation inherent in both conceiving each work and in realising it.

I can’t change anything. There is no possibility that we can change anything with our artistic work. We do our work because we are making art, and because we believe that art should be something, something that follows reality. But I don’t believe in the possibility of change.[16]

Sierra doesn’t believe in the capacity of art to inspire change at all, and sees his own role as limited to making almost invisible people briefly highly visible. But in the process he exploits and degrades them too, and this gives his work a reactionary hue, ultimately. By turning his participants into a “spectacle”, he is objectifying and dehumanising them, alienating both them and himself in the process, the culmination of which he offers to us as spectators.

Sierra exploits all his subjects equally, be they of high or low status. He offers his audience a bleak perspective of both the present and the future, and he makes a very comfortable living from doing it. While Relational Antagonism can hold up to its viewers a very uncomfortable mirror of society, I don’t think that such brutal art can ever equate with “good” or “progressive” art, wherever the artist positions themselves in terms of the political debate.

Relational Aesthetics and Socially-Engaged practices: rose-tinted spectacles?

“It seems more pressing to invent possible relations with our neighbours in the present than to bet on happier tomorrows”.[17]

Bourriaud suggests that the social form of relational work makes it inherently avant-garde:

The possibility of a relational art (an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space), points to a radical upheaval of the aesthetic, cultural and political goals introduced by modern art.[18]

Relational Aesthetics seems to reinforce the opposite idea to the possibilities for real collectivity of experience and action: ideas which can only lead to more passivity and inertia, ultimately underlining, reinforcing and feeding rather than ameliorating feelings of alienation. “Qualified permission to evoke and explore what lies beyond, the promise of happiness. […] But: only in art, not in life”[19].

While Relational Aesthetics is about creating microtopias, Socially-Engaged art practices are trying to engage with the world as it is.

Socially-Engaged practice contains a critical element, within an overall “feel-good” arena.  Grant Kester describes this as “dialogical” practice (2004) and sees it as a more radical form of relational work than that put forward by Bourriaud. However, the participants in Socially-Engaged practice are likely to share a common social identity, and as Claire Bishop argues, the targeting of such pre-defined groups actually reinforces those boundaries and the label of “otherness”. Grant Kester’s examples in Conversation Pieces (2004) include many tightly choreographed encounters between different community or ethnic groups, and the local “establishment”. For example, Kester refers to WochenKlausur’s 2004-5 work, Intervention to Aid Drug Addicted Women (2004-5) where local women drug addicts, and local police and council officials went out on a boat together to have some “conversations”. The project’s aim was to foster mutuality, and hence prospectively ameliorate social ills long after the artist had left.

Kester, like Bourriaud, elevates these work methods to an inherently political form of art. But I suggest that even Kester’s Socially-Engaged practice examples will not necessarily produce even a superficially positive experience, never mind any authentic or lasting social effects.

Much public and charitable art funding under the New Labour Government (1997-2010) was predicated on a perceived link between “social inclusion” in society and “participation” in art; and hence on a misapprehension of the purpose and possibilities of engagement and involvement in art. It is not difficult to match New Labour’s 1997 election motto of “things can only get better” with Relational Aesthetics microtopias. Previous Governments had not given a high public profile to their cultural policies, but from the outset New Labour sought an active engagement with the cultural sector, especially through its “Cool Britannia” sub-manifesto, associated with the YBAs[20] in particular. It very much suited the Blairite agenda to generate income, through tourism and the creative industries generally, using the message of Cool Britannia – money which could then be spent on a social inclusion agenda, through participatory art practices, funding cultural interventions which created microtopias, on the basis of the Government’s neo-liberal thinking of the “improving” value of public participation in art. This in turn led artists whose practices were in some way participatory to become more visible and more normalised, which in turn encouraged very particular, safe and non-threatening forms of relational and participatory art practices.

However, regarding both Relational Aesthetics and Socially-Engaged practice – the dominant forms of the genre – I concur with Dave Beech (2008): “The participation of civilians in artworks does not fundamentally challenge the cultural distinctions that separate them from the artists and the minority community of art”.[21]

A key difference Bishop (2004) identifies between Relational Aesthetics and Relational Antagonism is the concept that each sub-genre has of the “subject” (viewer / participant). Relational Aesthetics suggests a relationship with a subject complete and unified; Relational Antagonism sees the subject as divided and shifting, and therefore open to influence. The “whole” subject is happy and centred. The “divided” subject experiences the very tensions in society that Relational Aesthetics wants us to ignore. Socially-Engaged practice sits between the two.

At its heart, Relational Antagonism seeks to set up an uncomfortable, culpable or otherwise reflective relationship with the viewer. Relational Aesthetics says, “don’t worry: play!”. But where Dada saw play as having chaotic and therefore revolutionary potential, Bourriaud and to a lesser extent Kester seem to not want to literally or metaphorically “rock the boat”.

In this way it could be argued that far from being progressive, Relational Aesthetics, with its focus on conviviality is reactionary at worst and a sop at best; and that Relational Antagonism / critical relational art can in fact have a much more real impact and effect on its participants and viewers.

Discourses on disruptive, discursive and dialectical art

 “A revolutionary action within culture must aim to enlarge life, not merely to express or explain it.”[22]

Mark Wallinger State Britain (2007)

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Taking on the Blair Government head on was Mark Wallinger’s State Britain, on display in Tate Britain’s Duveen Gallery during 2007. The work reconstructed Brian Haw’s on-going protest against, first, sanctions against Iraq in 2001, and then against its invasion by Coalition forces in 2003.

In 2005 the government passed the Serious and Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA)[23], colloquially known as Haw’s Law. SOCPA demarcated a kilometre circle around Parliament, and was applied retrospectively to Brian Haw’s presence at Parliament Square.

The space where Wallinger’s work was shown visually bisected that circle. So, as a viewer at the Tate Britain – one of the country’s most hallowed and prestigious public art galleries – in addition to experiencing a hugely powerful piece of art, you were implicitly invited to cross the line, break the law, and “join” the protesters.

Brian Haw’s original protest in Parliament Square

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Wallinger’s primary concern is “to establish a valid critical approach to the ‘politics of representation’ and the ‘representation of politics’.”[24] While I commend both the artist for making the work, and the Tate Britain for showing it, I suggest that the work sanitises Brian’s protest to some degree. The Tate’s notes do this very effectively, by carrying a warning: “This display contains images of human suffering which some visitors may find distressing”. At least the galleries where Sierra shows his work have so far resisted such a notice. Perhaps they don’t think his use of people is distressing, or perhaps it’s that private, commercial galleries are less accountable to their audience, and have less of a social responsibility. They are also not generally subject to public and media scrutiny in the same way.

The anti-war movement in Britain and across the globe was massive. On 15th February 2003 there were global demonstrations against the war. Six hundred towns and cities around the world united in a day of action involving up to 30 million people. Perhaps one could argue that to raise the issue of the war through art was hardly radical at this point.

One could also argue that Wallinger manages to convey the idea of protest against the war as the work of a dedicated but marginalised individual instead of capturing any of the grass roots and mass opposition to the invasion that we were all seeing on the news and reading about in the papers. Perhaps, he also makes visible one man’s life-changing commitment to being part of the struggle to change the world for the better.

Wallinger won the Turner Prize[25] in 2007, and in the same year Brian Haw won Channel 4’s annual award for the Most Inspiring Political Figure of the Year. Both of these also increased the visibility of the opposition to the war, and of State Britain, and the piece consequently attracted more media coverage.

On 10 July 2010 the police conducted a massive and highly publicised night-time raid, removing most of the placards from the demonstration and occupation of parliament square (“Democracy Village”), turning Wallinger’s piece into a memorial and sole record of the protest. Thus Wallinger’s aim was sadly met: State Britain became the “representation of politics” of Haw’s and his cohort’s decimated installation.

In the pieces I have discussed so far, both Wallinger and Sierra firmly situate art within the system of social relations. Sierra’s “lines” permanently deface people for no good reason other than “art”; Wallinger’s piece does the opposite: he shows us the brutality that is inherent in Capitalist society. And the detail of Wallinger’s installation is much more shocking than Sierra’s work, showing as it did pictures of babies burnt to death and other highly distressing, real images. Yet Sierra’s work attracts much more controversy than Wallinger’s. I suggest that this is because Sierra’s work is merely “negation”[26], which makes it safer, less revolutionary and certainly could not be considered as inspiring. Sierra says “The world is wrong”; Wallinger says, “The world is wrong. Join the fightback.”

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There is another, altogether more dialectical method of 21st Century art practice that seeks to create a different set of dialogues to these two models: designs for more shared, equal, open encounters, which sits within both art and social structures and discourses. The binary positions of the Cold War have been replaced by globalisation and a plurality of responses.

From the Situationists to the Interventionists: a cultural revolution?

“Revolution is not ‘showing’ life to people but bringing people to life”.[27]

The artists and the art debates I have mentioned so far all reside firmly within institutional art discourses; but globalisation has sparked its own avant-garde: the ”Interventionists”[28]: artists and cultural activists whose practice reflects “a deepening interest in cultural practices that directly engage social and political issues”.[29] Clearly with this agenda they are following in the avant-garde traditions of Dada, the Surrealists and the Situationists, but from a more plural perspective. I suggest that a key positive difference is that these cultural activists make a direct link between culture and politics in a way that the old European Left never achieved.

The theoretical underpinning of the Situationists’ position on the relationship between art and life has been updated for the 21st Century by the Interventionists. The arguments of the class system of Marxism are being challenged by the concept of the multitude, as advanced particularly by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their books Empire (2000) and Common Wealth (2009).  However, as Hal Foster points out: “[such] artists […] frequently cite the Situationists but they [the Situationists], as T. J. Clark has stressed, valued precise intervention and rigorous organization above all things”.[30]

Responding to these differences in the structure of society, there are some key differences in the practices of the Situationists and the Interventionists. The work of the Interventionists is encouraging of reflection and questioning, as opposed to the somewhat separatist and didactic approach of the Situationists. The post-colonial and post-modern psychological concepts of the multiple, divided self rather than a unified whole self, means accepting a multiplicity of truths and therefore of many solutions, where the Situationists saw only one solution – revolution.

These differences, I suggest, are a consequence of a popular (i.e. of the people) tactical reorganising and realigning to respond to political and social changes in society – a response to political and economic globalisation – while still, essentially, seeking and finding ways to challenge and respond to the dominant ideology.

The Situationists described themselves as “Revolutionaries”, and the Interventionists stand largely with them. The ideology of Marx lives on in the new terminology: they are the “anti-Capitalists”.

The practices of the Interventionists / anti-Capitalists range from socially-engaged to antagonistic, but are never exploitative. One of the founding Interventionists who Thompson and Sholette cite is Krzystof Wodiczko, many of whose works are highly politically charged.[31]

Krystof Wodiczko: Homeless Vehicle (1988-89)

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In Homeless Vehicle (1987-1988) Wodiczko worked with a group of homeless people in New York, to design and construct a mobile vehicle which could provide them with physical shelter, using a detourned shopping cart. The vehicle also facilitates bottle and can deposits within its structure, so that the occupant could take them for refund.

Wodiczko calls this practice “interrogative design”. Homeless Vehicle offers both a practical benefit to the occupant, and also raises visibility of the issue of homelessness to the wider audience of the piece. Wherever it is situated it encourages a social or political critique of the subject matter.[32] Wodiczko also refers to his works as “bandages”, since “they not only draw attention to a wound, but also work towards healing it”.[33]

Thompson and Sholette also reference the example of e-Xplo’s 2004 bus tour Roundabout – Love at Leisure: Help me Stranger. In this piece, e-Xplo identified two art galleries geographically near to each other but far apart in socio-economic terms. The galleries also reflected very different views of “art”, and had different places within the art establishment (one “high”: the Clark Art Institute, and one “low”: MASS MoCA). e-Xplo ran a bus between the two galleries, with people from each of these localities as its passengers.

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During the rambling bus journey, traversing both the rich and poor localities, the bus played various sounds, triggered by a GPS positioning unit, which articulated both the things that united the passengers and what kept them apart, creating a narrative that was in itself both provoking and stroking. The bus journey had a purpose beyond any interpersonal exchanges: two guided tours of two very different galleries, in very different parts of the city. The form and content of each gallery inherently created social and political tension through the very different works: both the subject matter and value of the works in each gallery, in each part of town. To facilitate debate around all these artistic, social and political issues was part of the function of the work.

The tensions created by e-Xplo’s journey were then ameliorated but also highlighted further by the world of differences of the galleries at either end of the route. The Situationists would never have condoned going to a “bourgeois” art gallery as part of a work unless to disrupt or interrupt it!

In his co-authored book The Interventionists Nato Thompson defined detournement without any overt reference to the Situationists, saying that “the trick is to reveal the underlying power relationships behind an image”. But he concludes that it seeks to “channel [the reading of the work of such artists] into a productive, potentially ambiguous, sphere”, which I would suggest delinks art and politics; partially sanitising it and totally disempowering it.

This is not, however, to suggest that these contemporary works are less “political”. Other sharply critical responses to societal developments include a wealth of work, from the detournement of advertising posters by AdBusters, to the street works of Bansky.

Contemporary currents in the 21st Century: The anti-Capitalists

“If there were any doubt that the anti-Capitalist movement represents a major revival of the Left on a world scale, it was removed by the vast demonstration against the G8 summit in Genoa on 21 July 2001”.[34]

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I hesitate to suggest any single theoretical underpinning of the Interventionists or within the anti-Capitalist movement (hereafter referred to as “the Movement”), which clearly has different and often contradictory aims within it.

One only has to think of the groups that have mobilised around the WTO in Seattle: church groups who “merely” seek to ameliorate the worst excesses of Capitalism; syndicalist Trades Unions; pacifists; Anarchists; Revolutionary Socialists; and a whole host of other smaller groups and individuals traditionally outside the usual modes of political activity. Many of these different groups march in “blocs” towards a central meeting point on demonstrations, reflecting both a separate set of aims and a shared common goal. A recent student demonstration in London, against proposed fees hikes, contained a “book bloc”.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have “become the unwitting sages (and critics) of the [anti-Capitalist] Movement”[35]. In their books they have attempted to critique the Movement, which they describe as manifesting “diversity of tactics: diversity of desires”, in response to what they see are multiple nodes of “the enemy”, and the increasing international nature of these organs of power exampled above. They suggest that the working class has largely been replaced by the “multitude”, and the factory replaced by the streets. Their hypothesis, contained in their book Common Wealth (ideas from which were presented at the European Social Forum in Malmö in 2008) is that “the metropolis is to the multitude what the factory was to the working class”.[36]

Hardt and Negri see the metropolis as having three main characteristics: the site of production and creativity; the site of exploitation; and the site of rebellion. This clearly connects with the work of Wodiczko and e-Xplo, as well as to the very nature of the make-up of the Movement: the broad range of disparate, independent, self-organised groups, coming together for moments of collective action.

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While Hardt and Negri are keen to critique the Movement, they steadfastly refuse to engage with the debates on the way forward for it, and it is difficult to see how many of the essential differences within the Movement could be overcome. It is, though, worth noting the success of such loose alliances on the Left, including in forming Governments, in Latin America.

Conclusion: can art be a radical cultural agent?

Sadie Plant (1992) describes “Dada’s central dilemma: how was it possible to stand free of the despised values and structures whilst at the same time remaining sufficiently engaged to make some difference to them?”.[37]

Nearly a century after Dada, this question remains unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable.

Peter Burger makes the same point on the avant-garde (1974): “An art no longer distinct from the praxis of life but wholly absorbed by it will lose the capacity to criticize it”.[38] And, crucially he concludes by implicitly concurring with Rancière, asking “whether the distance between art and the praxis of life is not requisite for that free space within which alternatives to what exists become conceivable.”[39]

The works and the artists I have referred to above can and do hold up a mirror to society, in an uncomfortable way. There is increasingly a connection between radical contemporary art and real life, but artists disagree on the solution/way forward, or even if there is one.

The artists and work I have discussed encourage a degree of critical social evaluation by the viewer, and varying senses of personal culpability or responsibility. Some seek to embed the viewer in the work, while others rely on spectacle. Socially-Engaged practices can give us a brief feeling of engagement, and antagonistic work, although didactic, can be breathtakingly shocking. All are examples of art that has as attempt to create instances of social/political disruption; however, the examples I have looked at all come from different perspectives.

Some artists will inevitably choose to engage directly with the world around them by creating work that seeks to create a dialogue with it. We can call this art “radical” or “progressive”. In contemporary art we can encounter it in the most prestigious art institutions or on the streets, but increasingly artists are operating and making work outside the formal confines of the traditional gallery space. Sometimes it is diluted or sanitised through that mediation; sometimes the experience is viscerally raw; and often, to some extent, both. Mediated images often lose the immediacy of the live moment, but it is through mediated images that we are most likely to experience most of the artworks I have discussed.

In this way artists can be engaged with the counter-hegemonic struggle from any perspective: from pure expressions of personal or general alienation (Sierra); to political ideology (EXPORT, Wallinger); to more unfocussed reflections, interventions and resistance to the economic imperative of global capitalism, as experienced on a day-to-day level (Wodiczko, e-Xplo). However, each of the artists I have looked at have a different perspective on the nature of the problem and the solution.

A key slogan of the anti-Capitalist Movement is “Think global: act local”, and a potentially helpful by-product of political and economic globalisation is that any of the works and work practices which I have discussed can effectively translate anywhere in the world in the 21st Century. They highlight unresolved social and political problems which will inevitably exist in the country of exhibition – for example Wodiczko and Rosler on homelessness – and this “roving relevance” itself can be agitational, for example EXPORT’s Tap and Touch Cinema causing a riot.

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Relational Antagonism has a tendency to offer merely a negation of the existing order, and hence a somewhat hopeless view of the world, but other artists, including the Interventionists / anti-Capitalists, help us imagine that “another world is possible” and other ways of relating to this one, in a much more hopeful way.

However, it is neither the responsibility of artists to lead the struggle, nor is it possible, since artists, as producers of cultural capital, cannot be placed as a unified group within the economic structures of class society. Their practice can, however, either challenge or reinforce the dominant ideas in society.

As I have tried to demonstrate, contemporary (i.e. Post-Structuralist and Post-Modernist) ideas encourage a multiplicity of readings of the problems (and solutions to the problems) of the way societies around the world are structured and constructed. This offers both challenges and opportunities for artists making work that has a wider cultural and political influence.

Ultimately, Gene Ray identifies the fundamental and on-going political limitation experienced by artists under Capitalism:

What remains unrealized is the next spring of the dialectic; the positive creation or invention that would take the promise set free through the negation and code it into the new forms and practices that would replace the bourgeois work altogether. […] While the positive mutation that would initiate the supersession of art still awaits actualization (revolution) the negation itself has been accomplished.[40]

I would respond to Mayakovsky by paraphrasing Marx[41]: artists, like philosophers, can help us to interpret the world, but only organised and collective human agency can effect its actual change.


Beech, D (4.08) Include me out! Art Monthly

Bishop, C (issue 100, Fall 2004) Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics, October Magazine and MIT Press

Bishop, C (February 2006) The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents Artforum.

Bishop, C (ed) (2006) Participation. London: Whitechapel and Cambridge, Massachusetts, The MIT Press

Bourriaud, N (1998, trans 2002) Relational Aesthetics. les presses du reel

Burger, P (1974, trans Shaw, M 1984) Theory of the Avant-Garde University of Minnesota Press

Callinicos, A (Autumn 2001) Toni Negri in Perspective Issue 92 International Socialism Journal

Debord, G (no imprint) Society of the Spectacle Rebel press

Frieling, R et al, (2009) The Art of Participation 1950 to now. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art / Thames and Hudson

German, L (1989) Sex, Class and Socialism. London: Bookmarks.

Hardt, M and Negri, A (2000) Empire Cambridge MA

Hardt, M (20/09/2008) European Social Forum lecture and discussion: [accessed 28/8/10]

Hardt, M and Negri, A (2009) Common Wealth. Harvard University Press

Kaufmann, V (2001) The Poetics of the Derive. In: Johnstone S. Ed. The Everyday London: The MIT Press

Kester, G (Winter 1999/2000) Dialogical Aesthetics: A Critical Framework for Littoral Art Printed in Variant Issue 9

Kester, G (2004) Conversation Pieces. University of California Press

Knabb, K (ed and trans. 2006) Situationist International Anthology. Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets

Kwon, M (2002) One Place After Another. The MIT Press

Marx, K (1845) ad Feuerbach Available from: <> [Accessed 17/1/2011]

Thompson, N and Sholette, G (eds) (2008) The Interventionists. North Adams, Massachusetts: MASS MoCA and London, England: The MIT Press

Plant, S (1992) The Most Radical Gesture. New York: Routeledge

Rancière, J (trans. 2004) The Politics of Aesthetics Continuum

Rancière, J (trans. 2009) The Emancipated Spectator Verso

Ray, G (2007) Avant-Gardes as Anti-Capitalist Vector Third Text, vol 21, no 3

Speigler, M (June 2003) When human beings are the canvas ARTnews

Vulliamy, E (15 July 2001) Empire Hits Back The Observer newspaper

Wallinger, M, Warnock, M (eds) (2000) Art for All? Their Policies and our Culture. Peer


Sierra, S 2002-1990 (2002) Birmingham, England. Ikon gallery. Article by Katya Garcia-Anton


 Hardt, M (20 September 2008) On Commonwealth European Social Forum, Stockholm: [accessed 28/8/10]


Blair, K (26 February 2008) Tate Britain

Crippa, E (5 November 2008) Lisson Gallery

Telephone calls

Crippa, E (5 November 2008) Lisson Gallery


Beech, D (January 2010) 2 x 1 hour typed internet conversations

[1] So Slavoj Zizek describes the period 1968-date

[2] “[…] Political in terms of its subject and also political in terms of its analysis of art.” Beech, D, in conversation with the author 4 January 2010

[3] Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) was a leading poet and playwright of the Russian revolution of 1917, and of the early Soviet period.

[4] Although it is generally accepted that this quote is from Mayakovsky, it has also been attributed to Bertolt Brecht. Both The Times and The Guardian’s book of quotations cite Mayakovsky, but not the original source.

[5] Rancière, J (2004) The Politics of Aesthetics p29

[6] Quoted in Thompson, N and Sholette, G (eds) (2008) The Interventionists p110

[7] see Zimbardo, T in The Art of Participation, 2009 Frieling et al, (2009)

[8] Attributed to Carol Hanisch

[9]in “1968” : Periodizing Postmodern Politics and Identity.

[10] Quoted in Kwon, M One Place After Another pp139-40

[11] Bishop, C, October magazine (issue 100, Fall 2004) Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics, p79

[12] Sponsored by the hair dye manufacturer Schwarzkopf

[13] Around the time this was made, the price of heroin in Spain had grown enormously; all sorts of lateral markets were growing. Some women who had “normal” jobs, who were also heroin users, were being forced into prostitution in order to support their habit. (Crippa,E, in conversation with the artist, 2008)

[14] Quoted in Speigler, M (June 2003) When human beings are the canvas ARTnews

[15] ibid

[16] Quoted by Katya Garcia-Anton in 2000-1990 exhibition catalogue

[17] Bourraiud, N (1998, trans 2002) Relational Aesthetics p45

[18] Ibid p14

[19] Ray, G (2007) Avant-Gardes as Anti-Capitalist Vector Third Text, vol 21, no.3

[20] Young British Artists

[21] Beech, D (4.08) Include me out! Art Monthly

[22] Debord, G (1957) in The Report on the Construction of Situations and on the International Situationist Tendency’s Conditions of Organisations and Action

[23] See also Rikki Blue’s 2007 “SOCPA: the movie”

[24] Tate website [accessed 26 June 2010]

[25] The Turner Prize is a contemporary art award that was set up in 1984 to celebrate new developments in contemporary art. The prize is awarded each year to ‘a British artist under fifty for an outstanding exhibition or other presentation of their work in the twelve months preceding’.

[26] Debord, G The Society of the Spectacle Chapter 8: Negation and Consumption within culture

[27] Debord, G For a Revolutionary Judgement of Art, 1961

[28] Thompson, N and Sholette, G (eds) (2008) The Interventionists

[29] ibid, foreword to the second printing

[30] Foster, H Chat Rooms (2004) in Bishop, C (ed) (2006) Participation p194

[31] See for example his current work with Iraq Veterans Against the War at

[32]  See also e.g. Martha Rosler If You Lived Here… (1989) and If You Lived Here Still …” (2009).

[33] Thompson, N and Sholette, G (eds) (2008) The Interventionists p25

[34] Callinicos, A (Autumn 2001) Toni Negri in perspective in Issue 92 of International Socialism Journal

[35] Vulliamy, E (15 July 2001) The Observer newspaper

[37] Plant, S (1992) The Most Radical Gesture p44

[38] Burger, P (1974, trans Shaw, M 1984) Theory of the Avant-Garde p50

[39] ibid p54

[40] Ray, G (2007) Avant-Gardes as Anti-Capitalist Vector Third Text, vol 21, no.3

[41] Marx, K (1845) ad Feuerbach “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

  1. martin wooster permalink

    Thank you for sharing your work. I found it informative and very timely given recent events.

    However I do have issues with your argument- not least because I feel you have not explored Nicolas Bourriand’s ‘relational aesthetics’ sufficiently. From my perspective this requires greater critical scrutiny. According to the artist Phillippe Parreno, who I think is still showing at the Serpentine gallery, he writes of relational aesthetics as being an art that should indicate, as part of its content, an open and democratic relationship with the audience and this relationship should be put to the service of poetry. He also states that this is an elegy with no fixed subject, something you seem to be implying in your work to the contrary. In Bourriand’s own words on p36 of Relational Aesthetics he writes, ‘Through little services rendered, the artist fill in the cracks of the social bond’. This implies something to the effect that the social ills and their possible cure may only be rendered through a certain mystery (the linking of heterogeneous elements where seemingly none can be found to exist).

    You mentioned briefly in your work the coming together of what appears to be disparate forces such as those broad based alliances that come together in politics of partnership and consensus of which we could argue exist in South America, notably Brazil today. Could we not consider these alliances as having an echo with Bourriand’s ideas? In this respect I think it will be worth keeping an eye on events in Tunisia to see if the alliance parties comprising of trade unionists and civil society activists will be able to ward off the return to order in the shape of the Unity government led by Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi. There are doubtless a lot of Arab governments who are extremely concerned at the present moment and we could find that the impact of this battle reaching the shores of Europe in uncomfortable ways for its leaders as well. But for the moment an empty space in the political fabric has opened up and it would seem to me that a relational sensitivity to progressive notions of democracy will be crucial in the coming months to taking advantage of this fact. A Marxism where praxis and poiesis constantly pass over into each other – a practice that is neither purely physical or intellectual but complimentary in its relations and yet deepened with a poetic sensibility is what I argue is needed if Abul-Qasim al-Shabbi’s words, ‘If one day a people desire to live, then fate will answer there call’ is really to be felt with the true force of destiny.

    The force and speed with which political events on the ground and in the streets can take place can be giddy with excitement and not a little scary. A fact not lost on Kant, who not disputing the undoubted sublime quality in such events yet nevertheless will argue that this is a quality that can only really be experienced from a safe distance. Yet what Tunisia has again taught us is that these events are non-announced, there appearance comes with the turning of a corner bringing an altogether different present and whatever will have taken place cannot of been foreseen. What is always unpredictable is precisely the spark that flies between these two sealed and as it were unrelated areas – the base, the mode of production and its accompanying economic crisis and the sudden spark generated by contact with a specific mentality in the superstructure. The connecting spark will always have something of Nietzsche’s untimely quality to it. For the philosopher such happenings often resemble if he is being honest, his relationship with art in the respect that they both present an insurmountable differend, an unexplained interval, an aporia for thought and no matter how many words he may pour into these gaps there will always remain a spectral mystery. In Lacan’s formula the connecting spark can be read as ‘not everything is possible’ but the ‘impossible happens’, of which he calls the impossible real. This is the real act that is neither in the power of mere thought any less than in the power of mere action either but nevertheless produces the real act that changes the very coordinates of what is possible.

    There is still much to add regarding the art-poetry-democracy nexus in Bourriand’s notion of the relational of which Ranciere is certainly instructive in giving this notion greater depth. Will send you something on this later if interested. Once again thank you. Best martin

  2. I don’t think I agree with Sadie Plant’s idea of Dada’s central dilemma, and I don’t think this is a burning dilemma for contemporary artists either. What’s more, it sounds liberal to me – ‘standing free from despised values’ sounds too close to ideas like ‘autonomy’, ‘neutrality’, ‘objectivity’ and so on, which put the individual (and her ‘conscience’) against society.

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