In the "post-post modern context," artists, art gestures and spaces have struggled between ongoing structural inequities (a totalizing problem), what has been called “zombie formalism” (an echo of the essentializing modernist art gesture without that gesture’s historic avant-garde role) and a weak political art (art that, echoing Foucault’s ideas of decentered power, eschews “totalizing change”). All this has tended to narrow the art object, the art space and gesture.
As Danica Radoschevich argues:
Though exhibition practices have been scrutinized for decades, the formalist "white cube" remains an international gallery standard for the exhibition of modern and contemporary artwork. Simon Sheikh … identifies that “gallery spaces and museums are still white cubes, and their ideology remains one of commodity fetishism and eternal value… The sustained predominance of the white-cube is especially fraught with respect to the art market in post bailout New York, wherein a recession era boom speaks powerfully to the character of American late-capitalism. This circumstance indicates the artist’s subservience to the inordinately wealthy, and complicity in their gratuitous consumer desires in an era of severe and increasing economic stratification… A number of artists and critics deride modern formalism because it has historically privileged artists, whose work is not framed with respect to identity, thereby trivializing the works of artists who are canonically and/or socially marginalized. But even these artists’ works are almost always exhibited in the inert, white walled formalist gallery... This pernicious double bind speaks to the paradoxes of the supremacy of formalist values in the contemporary art world.
This raises the need for an alternative idea of the art object, gesture and space—one that reasserts the idea of narrative (a proletarian subject), metanarrative (the idea of totalizing systemic change) and recasts the art space as theater (as an ancient spiritual and social platform).
This is in opposition to the ideas of atemporality expressed in Laura Hoptman’s “Forever Now” exhibition of contemporary painting. In Hoptman’s anti-teleological framework, “time-based terms like progressive—and its opposite, reactionary, avant- and arriere-garde—are of little use.” Hoptman does describe, with some accuracy, the cultural condition of a privileged minority, situated at the center of global cities, in which the cultured can encounter the world as tourists in space and time. The proletarian majority, however, remains bound and constrained by material, social and ideological conditions: the working-class trans youth who cannot afford to transition, the demonized single-mother, the Black man beaten by police, the laborer who has lost his job, the immigrant being deported, persons who sacrifice their dreams in order to “make ends meet.” That majority does experience a sort of cultural temporal displacement. The character of that experience, however, is decidedly gothic. “To let history wash over you,” as I have argued, “is to be consumed by a past of horror and nostalgia, a history of autonomy gained and lost, repeatedly, and on various levels.” The theatrical art-model poses a radical temporality and therefore reasserts the political (as well as the existential). As Alain Badiou writes:
…Politics takes place, from time to time. It begins, it ends. And, similarly, from the fact that a theater production requires the simultaneous and ordered presence of the seven elements, it follows (and this is an essential triviality) that a theatrical spectacle begins and ends. Representation takes place. It is a circumscribed event. There can be no permanent theatre.
…everything in it, or almost everything, is mortal.
The art space is a stage, and as Badiou argues, the stage summons the crowd. Therefore it is inherently political as it mimics but is not identical to the state. The seven elements, noted above, according to Badiou, are “place, text, director, actors, décor, costumes and public.” While there are clear parallels to the art space the comparison is not perfect—nor does it need to be. The art space is somewhat more “irrational” than the theatrical space. The “perishable” narrative nature of both, however, is key. What follows are only preliminary notes.
The artists and artwork here are concerned, in large part, with a kind of narrative conceptualism, dealing with subjects whose concerns exist in significant part outside the realm of art (although not entirely), subjects who are constrained by their material, social and political position within larger systems. The centrality of narrative gives new life to the concepts of Brechtian theater within contemporary art. Brecht sought to engage the audience, appealing to the traditional emotional and visual snares of the dramatic arts, while alternatively “distancing” the audience from those tropes. The goal was to spur a proletarian audience into action—towards social revolution. Today, it is disbelief that reigns supreme in the art world (in part as a bulwark against “totalizing metanarratives” like socialism). To interrupt this disbelief we need to employ a similar alternation between distancing and distance eliminating tropes. An electric shock can both stop and start a human heart.
Each of the following artists seeks to construct a new mythology, present a “constrained proletarian subject,” all the while employing distancing techniques that create an auric value. In Ilya Kabakov’s The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment (1989), the protagonist is an archetypal resident of the collective apartments in which working-class Muscovites were once forced to live. In Felix in Exile (1994), South African artist William Kentridge presents his alter ego, exiled from the apartheid state, confronted by what he has left behind, including the surveillance of state barbarism. Nedko Solakov’s semi-autobiographical Top Secret is a confession of the artist’s role in the Bulgarian police state. Emory Douglas’ protagonists are proletarian and lumpen African Americans (and others) uniting against racism, capitalism and the police.
Kabakov, Kentridge, Solokov and Douglas treat the art gesture as a social-spiritual performance and the art space as theater. In so doing they escape the straight jacket of modernist essentialism and post-modernist disbelief in metanarratives—a space that traps art between formalism, “image management” and the false neutrality of “social practice.” This does not mean we can uncritically accept the social and philosophical views of these artists. We can’t. But we can steal from them many of the narrative and theatrical tools we need to create visual art as a kind of epic theater—reclaiming the gallery space as a site of ideological contestation between a bourgeois and proletarian narrative (whether it is fictional or non-fiction).
Emory Douglas: Expressionist Agit-Prop
In the mid 1960s Emory Douglas was making props for Black Communications Project in the Bay Area—a theater collective that included the poet Amiri Baraka. Douglas produced a series of “flats” that could be easily moved and changed between acts or plays, developing what Baraka would describe as an “expressionist agit-prop.” In 1967 Douglas joined the nascent Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BBP), eventually becoming its Minister of Culture, and devoting his artistic skills, for the next decade, to the party. Douglas would design or supervise much of the art in the Black Panther (the BPP’s newspaper) and would introduce a weekly poster to be printed along with the newspaper. These images tended to fuse hand-made drawings, often with heavy black lines reminiscent of some African designs, caricatures that recalled George Grosz, along with Constructivist and John Heartfield-like photo-collages. This combination of mechanically reproduced images with subjective hand-made expressionism mimicked the distancing techniques of Epic Theater. The stories Douglas told were the heroic BPP battles with racism, war, capitalism and the police, as well as the stories of “regular” African Americans’ everyday lives.  There was both collective struggle and subjective personality—whether it was that of Douglas, a single mother, the grotesque subjectivity of the “pigs.”
Douglas did not merely aim to make propaganda (although he made excellent propaganda). He (along with the BPP) aimed to construct a counter-mythology, to “fuse everyday Black life with a revolutionary spirit.”
As Laura Mulvey argues in her essay, ‘ Myth, Narrative, and Historical Experience,’ ‘moving from oppression and its mythologies to a stance of self-definition is a difficult process and requires people with social grievances to construct a long chain of counter myths and symbols.’
With the passage of time, the older work of Douglas has taken on an ephemeral and gothic character. The newspapers and posters have become, in part, indexical records of the political performance of the BPP, a second layer of auric distancing. The recuperation of Douglas by the art world has given him the chance to preserve the memory of the BPP in a new arena, and his past work has often been presented (rightly) in a theatrical manner.
The inclusion of Douglas in the art space is an opportunity—not just for Douglas (although this recognition is well deserved), but an opportunity to change the nature of the art space itself.
William Kentridge: Double Performances
South African artist William Kentridge also got his start in agit-prop theater. Kentridge, however, became ambivalent about the project and its ability to communicate the depth of the alienation and suffering he witnessed:
We would stage a play which showed domestic workers how badly they were being treated, implying that they should strike for equal rights. This would be presented in a hall with four thousand domestic workers…There was a false assumption about the public, in that we ‘knew’ what ‘the people’ needed, so I stopped my involvement with these groups. The early twentieth-century German Expressionists, such as Otto Dix and Max Beckmann, as well as the early Soviet filmmakers and designers of propaganda posters, had a way of using their anger, drawing it quite directly, that corresponded to what I was feeling at the time.
Kentridge’s work has been shaped by his position as a witness to apartheid—the white Jewish child of anti-apartheid attorneys. Kentridge could escape the direct barbarity inflicted on Black South Africans. Contemporary 1960s and 1970s American and European art did not “translate” to South African conditions. His work became shaped by his experience with theater (on the one hand) and inter-war European expressionism and propaganda on the other—allowing him to assert a human subjectivity in an inhuman context:
Adorno’s much-quoted proclamation about the end of lyric poetry [following the Holocaust] was directly followed by his assertion that literature must resist this verdict.
Black South African artist Dumile Feni Mhlaba (“Goya of the Townships”) also influenced Kentridge’s move toward a kind of neo-expressionism. Mhlaba’s work combined African motifs, expressionism and gothic naturalism.
In 1979, after years of struggling with painting, Kentridge produced a series of monoprints, fusing drawing and the theatrical. The series, Pit, created a small mise-en-scene. Sometime later Kentridge began his “signature” works of drawings turned into film animations; animations in which you can see the residual marks of previous iterations of drawing. These works were based around a series of fictional characters: Soho Eckstein (a white, presumably Jewish, South African businessman), Felix Teitlebaum (a white, presumably Jewish, South African artist) and Mrs. Eckstein (Soho’s wife and Felix’s lover). All around these characters the struggles of South African apartheid and the early 1990s transition unfold. The residual marks of the drawing serve as a Brechtian device for Kentridge:
The principle is that there’s a double performance: you watch the actor and the puppet together. The process recalls Brechtian theatre: the actors focus on the puppets and the audience has a circular trajectory of vision from the puppets to the actors and back to itself. It’s about the unwilling suspension of disbelief. In spite of knowing that the puppet is a piece of wood operated by an actor, you find yourself ascribing agency to it.
Felix in Exile (1994) captures Felix Teitlebaum, Kentridge’s "sensitive" alter-ego, in exile from South Africa on the eve of the transitional elections. In a small one-room apartment Felix is surrounded by drawings and images of a Black African woman, Nandi surveys the violence of the Apartheid state (prefiguring the Truth and Reconciliation commission). Echoing previous films in the series, such as Mine (1991) (in which strikers miners confront the gluttony of Soho Eckstein, among other things), Felix in Exile portrays a resigned complicity in which white South Africans witness the unraveling of the apartheid regime—resigned, in part, because of the compromise that allowed the economic order to survive the transition.
Formalist echoes and conceptual detachment were, obviously, not an option in the South African context, and while agit-prop was needed, something else was needed as well: an expressionist valorization of repressed subjectivity (of Black but also white South Africans).
Nedko Solakov: Top Secret
While conceptual art in the “West” (particularly the United States) tended to focus on the definition of signs (and was therefore preoccupied with text), conceptual art in the Stalinist Eastern Block tended to focus on story and narrative. Eastern European cocneptual art echoed Moscow conceptualism in this regard. As I have written elsewhere:
Conceptual art in Moscow came into being in a different and totalitarian context. It drew on Russian and Soviet literary traditions. It therefore developed a far stronger narrative aspect, within and against the dominant narratives of Soviet life. If conceptualism in the West was driven toward categorization and definition, Moscow conceptualism was driven by a sort of “graphomania” (a compulsion to write). The targets of Moscow conceptualism were not the market or the commodification of culture, rather, as Boris Groys argues, the “rules of the symbolic economy that governed the Soviet Union in general.” This narrative conceptualism was connected to the way “normal” life functioned in the USSR. As Ilya Kabakov recalls, “[l]ife consisted of two layers, each person was a schizophrenic. Any person — a factory worker, intellectual, artist — had a split personality.”
The chest-file contains in alphabetical order notes with texts, drawings, and small objects that tell about the life of the author and about the period between 1976 and 1983, when, as a student who believed in Socialism, he collaborated with the secret service of the former political regime in Bulgaria.”
In most former Stalinist European states the records of the secret police have been (at least partially) made public. Bulgaria is an exception so there is little verifiable information about the extent of Solakov’s collaboration. Regardless, his confession produced a great deal of controversy. Putting aside, for a moment, the questions about Solakov’s complicity in a totalitarian state capitalist regime, what is most striking is the translation of crude oppressive state data into subjectivities; a symbolic restoration of what was lost. The victims of the secret police are given the dramatic value of the drawings, hand-made, individual, subjective and expressive.
Ilya Kabakov: Total Installation
It is necessary to acknowledge debts to the artist Ilya Kabakov and his idea (along with co-thinker Bros Groys) of “Total Installation.” Kabakov’s origins were in the underground Moscow conceptual movement. As such his first international works (after the fall) tended to invert the symbolic mythology of the USSR towards the individual dreams of individual working-class or other socially constrained protagonists and archetypal figures of Soviet life. As Boris Groys described The Man Who Flew Into Space from His Apartment:
[I]n his installation uses images of Red Square and other symbols of the communist, Soviet utopia in order to tell the story of the individual, private fate of the hero of the installation. The great utopian narrative describing how all of humanity would one day be collectively propelled out of the gravitational pull of oppression and misery and into the cosmos of a new, free, weightless life has often enough been dismissed as passé, old-hat, a thing of the past. Yet stories of personal, private dreams and of individual attempts to realize these dreams cannot be told other than with recourses to that good old collective utopian narrative.
Of course, the ultimate reason that the story of individual emancipation cannot be told without the “good old collective utopian narrative” is because individual emancipation is only possible through collective liberation. The false socialism of the USSR concealed the truth that democratic socialism from below was the alternative to both Western capitalism and Eastern “communism.” Regardless, Kabakov developed a series of strategies in “Total Installation” to allow for the suspension of disbelief of modern and pre-modern “utopian dreams.” In other words, “Total Installation” aimed to create a space in which metanarratives could be believed. In part this was done by creating a fictive space representing “the world” that contained within it expressive art objects. For Kabakov this has often been Cezannist paintings. Cezannism was an unofficial underground painting style (which mimicked the work of Cezanne) popular among a small layer of dissident artists before the rise of Moscow Conceptualism.
This distancing (Brechtian) alternation parallels the contradiction between the hand and collage in Douglas, the residual traces of mark-making in Kentridge and the contradiction between the “official file” and the informal drawings of Solakov in Top Secret.
“The Immortality of Things”
The fight to recast the art space as a site for a narrative "Epic Theater" will not be an easy one. A certain strand of academic art historians and curators have a vested interested in maintaining the weak echo of modernist essentialism. As the priests of art they are the keepers of an incomprehensible “word.” The art market, despite being dominated by the mega-galleries, contains many well-meaning dealers and gallery owners. Regardless, the system depends on the sale of work. This commodification does not change the fact of the gallery’s theatricality but complicates its conscious use; undermining art and the social and existential conditions art needs to address. Finally, as Groys notes, “the museum is, by definition, opposed to progress for it is the place dedicated to the immortality of things.” Our goal is not to stop the museum’s dedication to immortality, but to replace the word “things” with “people:” the billions of unique subjectivities repressed by the global anti-narrative of neoliberal capital. This includes “things” in as much as they are a record of the (very temporal) human performance.
 Laura Hoptman, The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World (New York: MOMA, 2014), 15
 Hoptman, 18
 Alain Badiou, Rhapsody for the Theatre (London and New York: Verso, 2013), 11.
 Badiou, 2-6
 Badiou, 11.
 Sam Durant, Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas (New York: Rizzoli, 2007), 176
 Durant, 177, 180
 Durant, 105
 Durant, 97
 Durant, 101
 Colette Gaiter in Durant, 97-98
 Dan Cameron, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, J.M. Coetzee, William Kentridge (London and New York: Phaidon, 2010, 15
 Cameron, Christov-Bakargiev, Coetzee, 10
 Cameron, Christov-Bakargiev, Coetzee, 13
 Cameron, Christov-Bakargiev, Coetzee, 41
 Cameron, Christov-Bakargiev, Coetzee, 16-17
 Cameron, Christov-Bakargiev, Coetzee, 19
 Cameron, Christov-Bakargiev, Coetzee, 45
 Michael Corris, “Total Engagement: Moscow Conceptual Art: Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt,” Art Monthly Issue 319 (September, 2008), 18-20
 Amy Ingrid Schlegal, “The Kabakov Phenomenon,” Art Journal Vol. 58 No. 4 (Winter, 1999), 99
 Corris, 18-20
 Anton Vidokle, “In Conversation with Ilya and Emilia Kabakov,” e-flux journal #40 (December, 2012)
 Vladiya Mihaylova, “Nedko Solakov and the Rest of the World” Flash Art 43 January February 2010, p 72
 Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Christy Lange, Iara Boubnova, Nedko Solakov: All in Order, with Exceptions (Hatje Cantz, 2011), 19
 Boris Groys, Ilya Kabakov: The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment (London: Afterall, 2006), 21
 Groys, 15
Adam Turl is an artist, writer and socialist currently living in St. Louis, Missouri. He is an editor at Red Wedge and is an MFA candidate at the Sam Fox School of Art and Design at Washington University in St. Louis. He writes the "Evicted Art Blog" at Red Wedge. He is also a member of the November Network of Anti-Captialist Studio and Visual Artists.