Art and Politics - Some Theses

delivered at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 13 October 2002, at '25 Years After Stammheim'

1. There is no politics - in the professionalised and alienated way in which it has come to be understood for us today - that is not already art, in the professionalised and alienated way. Politics is all acts of rhetoric, managed presentations, shows, shocks, scandals.

2. There is no art that is not already political. The relationship is a pre-given, even if, as Walter Benjamin notes, it is forcefully present only by its loudly proclaimed absence or exclusion.

3. Some art proclaims itself to be 'above politics' - it is not and can never be. Art - as it exists within our world - cannot avoid the relationship to the totality, which is to say it cannot avoid implying the entire social relations in which it exists, because that is its ground.

4. Some art is made explicitly for political reasons - and most usually, since the latter part of the 19th century, its motivation is socialist or communist. For this art there are three ways in which politics is manifest. Art's politics may emerge in terms of content - heroic workers, miserable workers, labour in process, great revolutionary leaders, great moments of revolutionary history, or the personal - babies' nappies, sexual histories, domestic spaces, boredom and oppression - all exposed to the light of scrutiny for political ends.
Art's politics may be borne in its formal structures - for example, photomontage as analogue of the dialectic, socialist realism as privileged mode of shadowing the upstoppable victory of the proletariat, epic theatre as mirroring human processes of ratiocination, or ethnic folk art as assertion of alternative values.
Or politics may be asserted in art through techniques of making - such as photography and its implied democratic referent, film and its relation to analytical penetration of a social field, embroidery as feminist statement, house paint or chalk used instead of bourgeois oil paint, posters, graffiti and stickers, these mass-reproduced formats countering the very uniqueness of art itself.

5. The question of politics in artworks should never be one of the political authority of an artwork's content. Nor should the class nature of art be traced back to the class origin of the producer. Both these stances are errors derived from Stalinist art criticism.

6. Stalinist cultural politics demanded reflection in artistic content of social contents (that is, classes and class relations). In Stalinist Russia the artist officially received the classification engineer: 'the engineer of human souls'. This appeal to Great Realism marked a return to cultural tradition. Cultural tradition denoted the heritage of the nineteenth century, and the work of its rightful descendants. It betokened the promotion of classical values of harmony, heroism and grandeur. Stalinist aesthetics roll back the discoveries of the technophilic revolutionary avant-garde of the early post-revolution years. Though it draws in part on an avant-garde language inspired by machinery and mechanics, socialist realism ranks the intelligibility of content above form, and its images are sugary and romanticized, showing rosy-cheeked, happy peasants as often as they show smoke-billowing factory stacks.

7. Benjamin and Brecht could see this, where many others couldn't. Of Lukács, Gabor and Kurella, the leading communist literary critics, Benjamin says 'with these people no state can be formed'. Brecht's reply:

Or only a state, but no communality. They are simply enemies of production. Production gives them the creeps. It cannot be trusted. It is unpredictable. One never knows what will come out of it. And they themselves do not want to produce. They want to play apparatchiks and control others. Each of their criticisms contains a threat.

Brecht cuts to the quick, specifying the bureaucratic mind-casts of the Stalin-friendly hacks who defend the centralized control of industrial production as much as they dictate the forms and contents of cultural production. Self-activity - or production - scares them. Self-activity implies workers' activity rather than diktat from above. Autonomy unbalances the hoped-for sureties of the five-year plans. Instead, bourgeois models are imitated and bureaucratic control insists the only legitimate subject for art is hero-worship. In June 1938 Benjamin notes:

Then we talk about poetry and the translations of Soviet Russian poetry from various languages that flood Das Wort. Brecht thinks that the authors over there have a hard time. It is seen as a deliberate provocation if in a poem the name Stalin does not appear.

8. One of the most important statements ever on art and politics stems from Walter Benjamin's 1934 essay 'The Author as Producer'. In this essay Walter Benjamin makes the assertion that a political tendency that is 'correct' includes a literary tendency that is 'correct'. Literary tendency - or equally artistic tendency - is disclosed as consisting 'in a progressive development of literary techniques or a regressive one'. He explains the term 'progressive' later on in the lecture as any act that is 'interested in the liberation of the means of production'. In Benjamin's account, the progressive development of literary - or artistic - Technique, what we might otherwise term the productive forces in art is a process that enables new relations of production and consumption. This is what Benjamin meant by the 'politicization of art'.

9. But those are debates that, for the moment, have lost their currency, and not many Stalinists lurk, even in the darkest corners. The question of art and politics for us has less to do with of prescriptive hackery and more to do with commodification, indifference amongst a welter of cultural experience - both are related and both are questions of the marketplace.

10. That art exists - or culture more broadly - as a specialised area means that it can only be an alibi for the guilty portion of non-cultural life. This means that art directly justifies exploitation and oppression. In other words: Marx notes that human activity constitutes social reality through praxis; and truth is gained through process, the process of self-development; or, as Marx more famously put it, the rounded individual of mature communism is a hunter in the morning, a fisherman in the afternoon, and a critical critic at night - without being defined socially as either a hunter, a fisherman or a critic. Artist could also be one of these roles. It is an unfreedom for some people to be charged with the task of being an artist, bearing that social role, while others are excluded from it.

11. Conversely, marred by commodification, artistic practice today is a deformation of the sensuous unfolding of the self that indicates real human community. The reification of human activity into the separate realms of work and play, of aesthetics and politics must be overcome. The aesthetic must be rescued from the ghetto of art and set at the centre of life. That is a politics of art, politics in art and through art.

12. But this is all too widely cast. Some words on the specific conjunction of today - Baader-Meinhof group, art and politics. The German terrorist group can take on a post-existence fashionable glamour in a bored society. To understand it in itself necessitates reconstruction of the very specific conditions of post-nazi Germany and consumer boom. Unconvinced that consumer-applianced, psychologically-authoritarian working classes would revolt, the RAF sought - through bombs and kidnapping - to shatter the terms of everyday life. Such shattering of the terms of everyday life is what art dreams of achieving. The vanguard and the avant-garde meet on this point. Subjectivity in rebellion is common to both. Ways of living differently are not only proposed by both advanced parties, but also lived out. Dany Cohn Bendit wrote in We Loved It So, The Revolution, 'Everything which took place in the world was interpreted in the light of one's own lived experience …The radical desire for autonomy and self-determination accompanied daily behaviour and grounded the spreading rebellion'. What occurs here is less the 'politicisation of aesthetics' that was the aftermath of an earlier revolutionary wave annexed to democracy - in the Soviet Union, in Germany - and more an 'aestheticisation of politics', which had been most enthusiastically propounded by dubious forebears. Having defined the state as fascist still, perhaps the RAF thought fire had to be met by fire, but they might have known they'd never win on that front, for their adversaries were simply too well-practised, having had a 40-year head start.

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