The following is part of an ongoing attempt to articulate potential anti-capitalist strategies for contemporary studio art.
1. Narrative Conceptualism: The first concern should be the re-introduction of the proletarian subject. This does not mean an abstracted idea of the proletarian subject inherited from the past (although that need not be ignored) but the actuality of the present proletarian subject: the laborer, the teacher, the bus driver, the fast food worker, the barista, the nurse, the college drop-out, etc. Here we are discussing the individual members of the “army of labor,” the downwardly mobile petit-bourgeois (soon to be proletarians) and the “reserve army of labor.” Taking a cue from underground Moscow conceptualism and strands of post-Soviet Block Eastern European art (as well as elements of so-called “outsider” art in the U.S.) we can resituate the working-class subject within art; not to present merely a victim but to present that subject’s agency and subjectivity.
2. The Constraint of the Proletarian Subject: The contemporary proletarian subject makes history, to borrow from Marx, but not in conditions of their choosing. They are constrained (like the characters of a Brecht play) by material circumstances and the ideologies of the moment. They dream and aspire but are trapped (by wages, gender, disease, failure, heartbreak, war, etc.). The proletarian subject is in a constant state of negotiation and rebellion with that constraint. In this way the subject mirrors the condition of most contemporary artists (trapped by the art market, their days jobs, the demands of the academic avant-garde, art fairs, kitsch, popular culture, their own interactions with class, race, gender, etc.)
3. The Need to Interrupt Disbelief: When Brecht aimed to interrupt the belief of the theatrical audience with distancing techniques he exposed false consciousness: the social construction of the theater and the construction of ruling ideologies. But Brecht’s most important works existed in tandem with corporatist and fascist ruling-classes as well as mass socialist and communist parties. Breaking with ruling ideas often meant embracing oppositional ones. The collapse of “really existing socialism” (such as it was) along with the triumph of neoliberalism produced a cultural ideology of disbelieving all meta-narratives: post-modernism. Brecht used distance to create disbelief. We must use it to interrupt disbelief: To connect the proletarian subject to the auric quality (see Benjamin) of studio art. This seems counter-intuitive to cruder Marxists (including the post-modern “Marxists” of the old October). It is not enough to expose false consciousness. The possibility of revolutionary consciousness, that modernist “utopia,” must be asserted within our work.
4. The Return of the Crowd: The collective working-class, the majority of the population defined in terms of a relationship to economic production, is the key to the transformation of society. But the working-class is not homogenous. It is defined by its thousands of differences: race, gender, sexuality, nationality, psychologies, cultures, biographies, etc. It cannot come together by subsuming those differences. It can only come together in a collective expression of those differences. Neoliberal culture (once called post-modernism) depends on the isolation and separation of all these elements. A left-wing cultural opposition unites these in a differentiated totality. It comes together towards its common interests without sacrificing the subjectivities of its constituent parts. It avoids vulgar Marxism as well as the fatalism of post-modernism and middle-class strands of anarchism. It echoes Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas of the carnivalesque but it is fused with the avenging crowds of the Zola novel. Differentiated totality is the enemy of both rhizome and (class) hierarchy. The crowd has returned but not yet cohered: in Spain, in Greece, in Occupy, in Ferguson. In order to avoid the fate of the Egyptian heroes it must learn to express a new totality.
5. Total Installation and the Cave: To create space for believing the “fictions” of emancipation, the proletarian subject and differentiated totality. The total installation of Ilya Kabakov (theorized by Boris Groys) is useful here. We have been told that metanarratives are inherently oppressive; that dreams of collective emancipation failed; that history and ideology ended (more or less). By creating a fictive environment, a conceptual metanarrative, both inside and beyond the “white cube,” we can allow the art audience to suspend disbelief. We can construct a world in which “dreams can take revenge” (to paraphrase a Greek activist following the election victory of SYRIZA). We can reconstruct the “primal” origins of art and simultaneously attack “Platonic” neoliberal disbelief. We can evoke the dreams of a human gesamtkunstwerk to counter the digital “total installation” of contemporary capitalism.
6. Gothic Naturalism, Magic Realism and Surrealism: This evocation, however, must be tied to the actual concerns of the majority of the human race. This does not mean appealing to the “lowest common denominator” (see differentiated totality). It means relating to the actual tragedies and comedies of “real life” beyond the rarefied art world. Think of Zola, the war etchings of Goya, EC Comics, George Romero. This should be coupled with magic realist and surrealist anti-capitalist literary traditions. Our work must connect to the way in which the proletarian subject dreams personal liberation and individual revenge: How the individual subconscious intersects with the collective subconscious (see Breton and Benjamin).
7. The Return of History: Its return was not marked by a new October (yet) but by new slaughter and immiseration. The contemporary anti-capitalist studio artist stands in the tradition of the revolutionary history painters. It cannot, obviously, mimic their work. We speak the “post-modern” visual and cultural language inherited from modernism. Moreover, our relationship to history is complicated by the gothic quality of capitalist culture. As I have written elsewhere:
The material convulsions of capital constantly create new spaces (and the promise of new spaces) for semi-autonomous social and cultural relations — only to tear them asunder. Each of these is a trauma to the social unconscious… The initial impetus for the Gothic in art and literature stemmed from the marginalization of medieval forms by bourgeois relations and industrialization. The Gothic castle and the abbey stood in ruins, projecting both a nostalgia and fear of the past — things that were lost but also alien and threatening to modern life. The dynamics of capital continually recreate this process in contemporary culture, on various scales and in various geographies. This dynamic is the cultural echo of combined and uneven development.
We therefore experience temporal displacement when confronted with cultural artifacts—both within the “art world” and the broader culture. It is a displacement intimately connected with the subconscious and conscious histories of art, of social struggle and (so far largely) failed emancipations and emancipatory dreams.
8. Material Poetics: Art is marked the 20th century and the language articulated by Duchamp, and developed by Beuys: the language of material poetics and the actuality of the materials that comprise the artwork. What are the (immense and varied) material poetics of the (immense and varied) proletarian subject?
9. The Weak Avant-Garde: The heroic avant-garde is dead. It played its role in the creation of contemporary culture—not unlike a deflected permanent cultural revolution (see Tony Cliff). Against most ruling-classes avant-garde artists (often allied with anti-capitalist politics) created the visual and cultural language of full-blown capitalism. The inheritors of the avant-garde model—the academic wing of the “art world”—are likewise marginalized from the bulk of the population. Unlike the modern avant-garde we have no historic mission. This is not to argue that the weak avant-garde produces nothing of value (see Boris Groys). It suffers, however, from relative isolation and the “lack” of an historic mission.
10. The Problem of Audiences: The contemporary anti-capitalist studio artist faces a crisis of audience. We can find a “weak” home in the academic avant-garde. Here we find intellectual validity and vitality but we are separated from the social forces that can realize actual change. The established art market, dominated at the top by so-called “cultural entrepreneurs,” is obviously problematic. Social practice art appears to offer a dynamic working-class audience, but the need for financial backing and the potential for messianic relations “problematizes” social-practice art. Finally, the small size of the left makes it hard for it to sustain “serious” art production. The anti-capitalist artist, therefore, must relate to multiple audiences: the academic avant-garde, the art market, the working-class and the left. This means accepting the commodity status of studio art within capitalism. Academic and non-profit art is also commodified (through financial underwriting, tenure, etc.) In making this “concession” to actual conditions we free ourselves to reach working-class and left art audiences by selling our work at reasonable (but compensatory) rates to working-class patrons. We do this while simultaneously engaged in the ideological struggles of the “art world.”
11. Modularity and Muralism: Our work is therefore modular, able to combine into one thing in the academic space, another for the established art market, another to be sold (in its parts) to working-class, anarchist and socialist patrons. Together it is a “mural.” Separate it is “easel painting.”
12. Anthropomorphic: Finally, in this way our work reflects the proletarian condition within itself. Collectively it asserts something beyond its commodity status: the crowd. Separately it is bought and sold, piecemeal, until the day it dies: the atomized individual.