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In the legislative art journal October in March 1994 a panel was convened to discuss the way in which the art of the 1960s was being received. Rosalind Krauss, Benjamin Buchloh. Annette Michelson, Hal Foster et al were all in a spin about the press’ negative reception of a Robert Morris retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim and other signs of a misunderstanding or rejection or repulsion – put it as you will – of all that Morris represents, a compendium of post-60s art movements and techniques – conceptualism and Minimalism, process art and performance, installation and land art, anti-nuclear allegorical silkscreens, moves that work variously with industrial materials or industrial concepts of design, the possibility of seriality and the challenge to uniqueness and skill, an emphasis on labour and reproduction, and in amongst that a concern with political and social themes. The mid-90s newspaper art critics – who according to the New York panel had no proper art education, unlike their 1960s forebears – reviled Morris and his ilk precisely because of what those artists deliberately expunged: expressivity, emotion, the delicate and unique hand of the artist-creator, and above all pictorialism. In its stead these same critics championed the subject of a concurrent exhibition that fulfilled all those criteria that accompanied art proper: that of Lucien Freud, described by Krauss as “a greater phony of which there never was one, a proponent of vacuously representational art”.
In fact it was just one year later that Freud painted the recently much noticed Benefits Supervisor Sleeping. That painting, of course, you’ll recall caused much furore in the press recently, as it sold in New York for a record breaking £17.2 million. And it was bought by a Russian investment oligarch and owner of Chelsea FC Roman Abramovich. Freud reigns supreme at the summit of the art market. Have the New York critics’ fears been amplified – and monetarily underpinned - in the last decade and a half? Are the retrograde tendencies in art victorious over the seemingly progressive moves made in the 1960s and immediately after, to expand or detonate the frame of art, to criticise art institutions, to redraft the work of the artist through modes of de-skilling, to make form into anti-form and art into non-art? Is the stock of Conceptualism’s derivatives at its lowest point, at least in terms of meaning-based value, if not in monetary terms, for as we know anything, however critical, ephemeral, ‘streety’ or self-immolating can fetch a price, if a signature, can be at least retro-attached. So what remains of the 1960s and its critique of art as power, art as commodity, art as reinforcer of the status quo or its alibi and compensation - or, better, what continues not to return to the artworld?
It is not just a question, though, of the 1960s and what lives, what dies, is reanimated or expunged from then. ‘1968’ in cultural terms was already a recycling, a return, a re-spinning of a previous revolution or revolutionary moment of the 1920s, as it played out in art, an art that had been politicised. Take, for example, the claims in March 1922 of the young theorist Nikolai Tarabukin who wrote a pamphlet titled ‘From the Easel to the Machine’. He dedicated it to ‘All the people of the future’. Such was the expanse of post-revolutionary Soviet aesthetics. A movement from past to present to future was tracked in the move from easel to machine, and from the still stunted humanity – that included such dilettantes as constructivists – to a future humankind who would be artist-engineers, or better, something new, a name yet unacknowledged, once art has been ‘liberated’ from literary and illusionist traits, from the fetters of ‘naturalistic tendencies’, from the ‘sujet’. Tarabukin announced the way out of what he and others diagnosed as a ‘crisis of art’. Established forms are dissolved by art forms and processes that correspond to the needs of the everyday. They are superseded by the functional and practically necessary forms of an art that does not reproduce the external world nor adorn it in decorative packaging. Art and everyday life meld. This is not to be seen as the ‘death’ of art, but rather a ‘further evolution of its forms’. Art is released from the cages of the museum to operate in life itself. Those productivist apocalyptic demands so boldly expressed a new ground for politics and art, or crumpled one into the other, or sublated both, segueing them with life, or work, or the everyday.
An authorising theorist of this and related fields of art is Walter Benjamin, who, in 1934, in ‘The Author as Producer’, called for cultural production to adopt the character of a model, to place an ‘improved apparatus’ at the disposal of authors and audience, bringing audiences into contact with the production process, turning readers or spectators into collaborators. Benjamin directed a series of questions at artists who would further revolution: Do they succeed in promoting the socialization of the intellectual means of production? Do they have recommendations for the re-functioning of the novel, the drama and the poem, music and photography? Have they made of readers authors, of authors engineers? Have they fused and recast forms and audiences alike? Behind all of this stands the key question: how does a cultural work ‘stand in the relations of production of a period?’
These questions flashed up again in 1960s practice and theory and were the context if not the pretext of Conceptualism and its derivatives’ moves. They had to flash up again because at no point did art actually die: rather the theme has been more one of artificial life support and we have been condemned to endless re-runs of its impossibility, untenability or decomposition. The post-war period, which saw first the emaciated practice of at after Auschwitz – bleak, dark stumps of negativity that found a space in galleries and museums - brought along with the social movements of the 1960s a reworking of the Constructivist-productivist and post-dada sense of art as critical practice, as it turned to process, left the gallery, worked on, or more specifically against the commodity nature of art, to the point of its non-appearance as object or non-facture in the calls for an art strike, or, more graphically, its auto-destruction.
Walter Benjamin’s return in the theory of these years focussed on questions of art and aesthetics, with an emphasis on the relationship between technological reproduction of art and art’s autonomy, as forwarded by Adorno in his critical engagement with Benjamin. Most used were Benjamin’s famous ‘Artwork essay’ from the mid-1930s and his proposed lecture for a communist circle ‘The Author as Producer’, from 1934, were investigations into the prospects for contemporary critical Left culture workers. He examined strategies that would avoid the pressures on artists to be individualistic, competitive or promoters of art as a new religion or an evasion of the ‘political’. He evaluated artists’ efforts to work out cultural forms that could not be recuperated by fascism. He assessed what the new mass cultural forms that existed – radio, film, photography, photomontage, worker-correspondent newspapers - meant in the wider scheme of the social world, and how facts such as mass reproduction change humans’ relationship to culture of the past and the present.
Benjamin, largely, though not without qualification, celebrated the progressive function of technical reproducibility in art. He mapped the implications of technological reproduction in art on art production more widely, pinpointing analogies between technological and technical-formal innovation. This work of Benjamin’s contributed in the period following the Second World War to a burgeoning critical and media theory, as evinced the work of Hans Magnus Enzensberger with his forwarding in 1970 of the potentially liberatory uses of the photocopier within the ideologically-stultifying ‘consciousness industry.
The politicisation of aesthetics that Benjamin drew from Brecht and theorised as his contribution to revolutionary struggle was invoked as a direct feed into the class struggle in the 1960s. As a vignette of this consider the filmwork of Harun Farocki, who began making films in 1966. His first films were made collectively while he was a student at the Berlin Film and Television Academy, challenging thereby the ethos of the sole genius creator. Farocki’s films were directly political in theme: the title of one, an agit-prop film, from 1968 translates as On Some Problems of the Anti-authoritarian and Anti-imperialist Struggle in the Metropolitan Areas, Using West Berlin as Example, or Their Newspapers. This short film thematised the manipulative ideological role of the Axel Springer newspaper concern, in a highly politicised West Berlin – Springer’s press was a key player in the ideological war of the 1960s and was blamed by the left for inciting an assassin to target Rudi Dutschke in April 1968, when he was shot in the head and chest after its calls to readers to ‘eliminate the trouble-makers’ and ‘stop the terror of the young Reds’. The political temperature of the time is evidenced in the film by documentary shots of demonstrations and debates – documentary was valued as the mode of accessing the data of social reality and there was a rich tradition of the left to draw on as precedent. The film made parallels between military repression in Vietnam and ideological oppression in Germany. Bombs fall onto the Vietnamese, bundles of newspapers thud onto the streets of West Berlin. A twin assault – violence towards Vietnamese bodies, violence towards German minds. Both forms distort. At the film’s close activists turn those words into weapons, as cobblestones are wrapped in Springer’s newspapers in preparation for the street fighting. These were the days in which students occupied the film academy in Berlin, the red flag hoisted above the building, now unofficially renamed, in homage to the 1920s political avant garde, ‘The Dziga Vertov Academy’. Once order was restored, the occupiers, Farocki amongst them, were expelled from the film academy. Farocki continued to work on political film outside the institution - one film NICHT löschbares Feuer [Un-extinguishable Fire] (1968/69) - exposed the atrocities of the Vietnam War in its concentration on Dow Chemicals, the makers of Napalm: its key line – ‘When Napalm is burning, it is too late to extinguish it. You have to fight Napalm where it is produced: in the factories’. This was another way of bringing the violence of the imperialists back to the cities – as image – and then as mass strategy. The film analysed the class perspectives of workers, engineers, students and bosses in relation to the production of Napalm. It demonstrated how the division of labour obscured the situation and prevented knowledge. The film was the vehicle for diffusing knowledge about the effects, profits, uses and meaning of Napalm. Two films from 1969, made with the Socialist Filmmakers Co-operative West Berlin, were titled Ohne Titel oder: Nixon kommt nach Berlin [Untitled or: Nixon Comes to Berlin] and Anleitung, Politizisten den Helm abzureißen [Instructions For Stripping a Policeman of His Helmet]. This was film as weapons, self-consciously using documentary in a Brechtian fashion, drawing on the resources of modern media with its barrage of techniques, such as montage, selection, distance and foregrounded manipulation or artifice – that which Brecht claimed needed to be constructed in order to be truthful – all in the pursuit of politicising art.
I suppose one point I am making is that then it seemed as if film was the site of politically resistant cultural practice. But it was not just film: other critical and alternative cultural practices in the 1970s and 1980s drew fruitfully on 1920s’ and 1930s’ theories of political aesthetics, which were widely anthologized, finding other modes of expression: for example, photomontage, postering, postcards were crucial for the Reagan-era CND generation. In another context, Rock Against Racism benefited from – and extended - Benjamin’s ideas on the democratic aspects of mass reproduction and the importance of popular appeal, allowing a break from the high culture fixations of those Marxists who saw culture as a mode of elevating the base instinct of the mob and those who gave credence only to ‘folk’ music, conceived as authentic, non-commercial popular expression.
As for art - art maunders on being art, making money, more and more of it or none at all. Art doesn’t need the high-minded concepts of the New York critical establishment mentioned in my opening lines. Art has its own critics and it has another settlement with the media quite different from the one proposed by Benjamin. Art makes the front page – see Hirst’s diamond skull, not for its critical aesthetics but its sheer cost. The self-reflexive, art-savvy tradition – if something so averse to traditionalism may be termed as such – finds its expression not in art or anything that would proudly and self-evidently proclaim itself as such, but rather in pro- and anti-capitalist cultural forms: advertising campaigns and political ones. Barbara Kruger may not be the only one to combine both in one mode of articulation.
But that is one line of political aesthetics, unfurling in the world of campaigns and political parties. Perhaps at the same time and with increasing momentum a parallel activity took place – in the academy, including the art academy, which appears to be a politicisation of aesthetics, but might more specifically be seen as an entry into artmaking of a politicised theorising. Theory’s entry blasted open so much in the early days – say through feminism’s critique of social relations in art, which resulted in innovative modes of practice. But it seems that the theory-quotient comes over time – over the dark days of the 80s amd 90s - to exceed its political – or practical - quotient.
I have written out on various occasions over the last few years about the ways in which ‘theory’ has moved from a sort of critical force, at least aspirantly, to a successful cultural commodity, from something which, in a certain lineage at least – the one that goes structuralism, feminism, cultural materialism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism - found its descent in Marxism, or at least ‘within shouting distance of Marxism’ and therefore the conception of praxis and has ended up as a rather marketable and diffuse entity, fractured into 57 varieties, to suit whichever niche market constituency is requesting supplies, in short from a move frm a quasi-Marxist politics to identity politics to identity affirmation.
– note that lovely old fashioned word, annexed by 19th century Italian socialist Antonio Labriola to describe Marxism, a ‘philosophy of praxis’:– the meaning of which, in Marx’s terms, is exemplified in the phrase “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point however is to change it – or in other words – theory – or what used to be called philosophy is of interest only to the extent that it informs action, translates into the world concretely, puts theoretical knowledge into practice and reflects back from practice on theoretical knowledge.
In 1967 the situationist group at Strasbourg University began the pamphlet ‘On the Poverty of Student Life’ with the following line: ‘It is pretty safe to say that the student is the most universally despised creature in France, apart from the policeman and the priest.’ Today this might be appropriately updated as ‘the art student is the most universally despised creature in Britain’. The art student is the one today who is least understood and most resented. Resentment comes from the taxpayer (pre-top up fees) who moans - these people get funded to fiddle around with paint and paper, and they make nothing practical, nothing of use - and nothing of beauty. What good is it for? And worse, they get an education in pulling the wool over our eyes - they’ll make some piece of dreck that any child or psychotic could have thrown together, and make a fortune. The art student is a cheat, a trickster. Of course resentment is close to envy. The art student is envied his or her idle life of play and experiment. The art student is simply in training to become something to be all the more envied - idle and possibly wealthy - an artist
The situationists go on to say that ‘the reasons for which he [the student] is despised are often false reasons reflecting the dominant ideology, whereas the reasons for which he is justifiably despised from a revolutionary standpoint remain repressed and unavowed.’ For the situationists the student is justifiably despised because: the student is being trained to take on a role as a ‘conservative element in the functioning of the commodity system’. Worse though, the student does not recognise this, believing that he or she is free and independent, even though he or she is subjected to ‘the two most powerful systems of social authority: the family and the state’. The situationists hiss:
As their well-behaved, grateful and submissive child, he shares and embodies all the values and mystifications of the system. The illusions that formerly had to be imposed on white-collar workers are now willingly internalized and transmitted by the mass of future petty functionaries.
And, with their eyes directed to a better afterwards, the situationists insist that:
The future revolutionary society will condemn all the noise of the lecture halls and classrooms as nothing but verbal pollution.
But it behoves us to analyse why and what for the current verbal pollution of the art college exists. I sketched out a story of the shift of radical art theory into postmodern cultural theory, designed to talk its artefacts up a storm, to justify them - but where - in the marketplace. Theory provides the excuse for empathy with the artwork. The situationists noticed that the modernisers of the Left in the 1960s demanded ‘a reform of the university structure’ so as to ‘reintegrate the university into social and economic life’, which is the same as making it relevant, which means, as the situationists gloss it, ‘to adapt it to the needs of modern capitalism.’ Here theory comes into its own. Consistent with the rise of management in the neo-liberal epoch, when we are far from the end of ideology, given its over-bearing omnipresence in the new capitalist moralism, theory hit it rich. Cultural theory theorises the identities that marketers love to fantasise in honing the appeal of their commodities. In the armoury of the art student who is now also taught to be business-minded as part of the curriculum, cultural theory provides the blah that marketing needs to sell its objects.
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