The Anti-Aesthetic Essays On Postmodern Culture Pdf Merge

This is my full paper given as a lecture at Northumbria University in Newcastle on Wednesday 27th April 2016.  It is the beginnings of an attempt to free radical social practice and activist art interventions from the ragwort-like sprouting of institutionalised and depoliciticised "socially engaged art".  My research considers radical social practice: as praxis as theory and practice.  It necessarily situates its theoretical perspective in critical theory, on the one hand, and radical avant-garde art on the other.  Here, I attempt to liberate the aesthetic experience from bourgeois notions of traditional aesthetics and the positive liberatory potentialities hidden in Herbert Marcuse's writings.  I focus on art's role in direct action against artwashing and gentrification as examples of how these acts of resistance reflect critical theory and avant-garde practice.  My intention is to repoliticise theory and art practice in direct opposition to the current false consciousness of "The Culture Industries" and "The Art World (Eco)System".

ABANDON ALL ART NOW, Press advert, The K. Foundation, 1993

Art & Life? Culture, (Anti)Aesthetics, Anti-Art, Activism & Social Practice

Introduction

Marcuse wrote prolifically from the 1930s until the 1970s, although perhaps his most interesting works were written in the years before and after the protests of May 1968[1].  He was deeply influenced by the Enlightenment aesthetic tradition throughout most of his working life[2], particularly the works of Schiller and Kant and the anti-utilitarian notion of the disinterested role of art (Lukes, 1985).  Marcuse’s faith in classical aesthetic theory led him to reject avant-garde art’s attempts to integrate art within social praxis as ‘anti-art’[3], including art practiced as forms of living   (Marcuse, 1972b, pp. 85-86).  Art as social practice or activist art would, from Marcuse’s perspective, also be rejected as ‘anti-art’.  Indeed, some social practice artists and activists refuse to describe their practice as ‘art’, although for very different reasons.  And yet, Marcuse also offered a glimmer of hope in An Essay on Liberation (1969): ‘a new Form of living’ – society as ‘a work of art’.  It would therefore seem appropriate to attempt to unfetter Marcuse’s liberatory philosophy from its overinvestment in the restrictive and elitist dead-end realm of the classical ‘aesthetic dimension’.

I argue that it is essential to consider radical social and activist art practices within a different understanding of aesthetics as sensual, material experiences, to reverse the fractures and divisions imposed by the Enlightenment ‘invention’ of ‘fine arts’ (or ‘Art’) little more than two hundred years ago that led, amongst other things, to what philosopher Larry Shiner described as the separation of ‘aesthetic conditions from utility and ordinary pleasures’ (Shiner, 2001, p. 5).  It is also essential to recognise the importance of the pre-Enlightenment ‘utilitarian system of art’ and its integration within everyday life (ibid., p. 3) as relevant to radical forms of social practice and activist art.  The critical starting point for this enquiry is Martha Rosler’s open-ended question: ‘What is the responsibility of the artist to society’ (Rosler, 1994, p. 55)?  To which might be added a  second question: What are the responsibilities of art and culture to society and nature?

Appropriating Marcuse: Beyond the Aesthetic Dimension

Today, the break with the bourgeois tradition in art, serious as well as popular, seems to be all but complete.  The new ‘open’ forms or ‘free forms’  express not just a new style in the historical succession but rather the negation of the very universe in which art has moved, the efforts to change the historical function of art.  Are these efforts really steps on the road to liberation?  Do they really subvert what they are supposed to subvert (Marcuse, 1972b, pp. 82-83)?

Herbert Marcuse’s later writings offer an insightful analysis of the power of the Establishment and the expansion of capitalism at a time pre-dating neoliberalism.  His predictions about the strengths and weaknesses of both consumer society and oppositional movements were (and remain) accurate; perhaps even more relevant today.  Marcuse identifies that global capital oppressed (and would increasingly oppress) ever more of the world’s population from ‘the wretched of the earth’ to the relatively affluent people living in the totally administered technocratic societies of the West, creating new threats to the status quo in so doing (Marcuse, 1972b, p. 14).  For Marcuse, consumer society was (and, still is) the inward reflection of Western neo-imperialism (ibid., p. 23).  The effects of ever-increasing capitalist exploitation of people and nature would lead, Marcuse warns, to the ‘global destruction of resources’ and to tightening controls of the majority of the world’s population through ‘the goods and services it delivers and through a political, military, and police apparatus of terrifying efficiency’ (ibid., p. 7).  The powerful fear revolution.  Liberation ‘appears as a threat’ which must become a ‘taboo’ (ibid., p. 31).  Liberation from the tyranny of capital would necessarily take place on an individual level, in acts of refusal, which ‘must [also] incorporate the universal in the particular protest’ as well as ‘the images and values of a future free society’, which, for Marcuse, would ‘appear in the personal relationships within the unfree society’ (ibid., p. 49).  I argue that much of Marcuse’s later work is valuable to today’s oppositional movements of all forms within the West and, when decolonised, perhaps globally.  His analysis offers activists important theoretical perspectives upon which to build a movement of movements that can potentially counter the dominant neoliberal, neo-colonial hegemony .

Yet Marcuse’s conviction that aesthetics could resist domination in ways that were crucial to the creation of a free society seem tainted by his faith in classical aesthetics and high art.  This is, I contend, dangerous ground, for, as Terry Eagleton suggests  when writing about the general relationships between aesthetic and artistic discourses in his treatise The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990):

[T]he peculiarity of aesthetic discourse, as opposed to the languages of art themselves, is that, while preserving a root in this realm of everyday experience, it also raises and elaborates such supposedly natural, spontaneous expression to the status of an intricate intellectual discipline  (Eagleton, 1990, p. 2).

Marcuse’s aesthetic dimension can therefore be considered as an attempt to elevate human experiences beyond the everyday - a process that can undermine the value of individual experiences as well as segregating some forms of art and social practice from others on the basis of mere aesthetic value.  As Eagleton explains:

With the birth of the aesthetic… the sphere of art itself begins to suffer something of the abstraction and formalization characteristic of modern theory in general; yet the aesthetic is nevertheless thought to retain a charge of irreducible particularity, providing us with a kind of paradigm of what a non-alienated mode of cognition might look like.  Aesthetics is thus always a contradictory, self-undoing sort of project, which in promoting the theoretical value of its object risks emptying it of exactly that specificity or ineffability which was thought to rank among its most precious features (Eagleton, 1990, pp. 2-3).

So when Marcuse sees ‘the political potential of art in art itself, in the aesthetic form as such’ (Marcuse, 1979 [1977], p. ix), he seems to be skirting very close to the concept of art for art’s sake: a decadent affirmation akin to that of Aestheticism.  Schulte-Sasse argues that it was, in fact, ‘[a]estheticism’s intensification of artistic autonomy and its effect on the foundation of a special realm called aesthetic experience’ – its ‘social inconsequentiality’ - that enabled the avant-garde, in response, ‘to attempt to lead art back into social praxis’ (Schulte-Sasse, 1984, p. xiv).  Whereas when Marcuse asserts that ‘by virtue of its aesthetic form, art is largely autonomous vis à vis the given social relations’, he confirms his belief that art (or at least ‘high art’) is somehow separate from life, from ‘reality’, and thereby able to simultaneously ‘protest’ and ‘transcend’ social relations by subverting ‘the dominant consciousness, the ordinary experience’ (Marcuse, 1979 [1977], p. ix).  For Marcuse, the ‘law of the aesthetic form’ require reality to be ‘necessarily sublimated’ – ‘stylized’ so as to reshape and reorder the ‘immediate content … in accordance with the demands of the art form’ (ibid., p .7).  It was at the end of the eighteenth century that aesthetics  - ‘the category designating the sensible fabric and intelligible form’ – divided ‘art’ to create ‘Art’ – a uniquely Western experience  (Rancière, 2013, p. ix).  Marcuse, accepts that ‘high’ art is ‘elitist’ and ‘meaningful only to a privileged minority’ (Marcuse, 1972b, p. 91), yet oddly also believes that revolutionary art must conform to a universal aesthetic dimension  derived from (and responding to) classical and bourgeois forms of ‘higher’ art.

Eagleton supports Marcuse in so far as he also believes that the aesthetic is ‘contradictory’: both ‘inseparable from the construction of the dominant ideological forms of modern class-society’ and ‘a whole new form of human subjectivity appropriate to that social order’ and, at the same time, able to present ‘an unusually powerful challenge and alternative to these dominant ideological forms’ (Eagleton, 1990, p. 3).  But Eagleton remains suspicious of the pre-eminence of aesthetic theory, believing instead that cultural theory offers a more fruitful means of understanding and critiquing contemporary social conditions (Eagleton, 1990, p. 1).  His focus is on calling for universal human rights rather than a universal esoteric aesthetic realm or a privileged artistic hierarchy:

The privilege of the oppressor is his privilege to decide what he shall be; it is this right which the oppressed must demand too, which must be universalized.  The universal, then, is not some realm of abstract duty set sternly against the particular; it is just every individual’s equal right to have his or her difference respected, and to participate in the common process whereby that can be achieved (Eagleton, 1990, pp. 414-415) .

Critically, Marcuse vehemently opposes artistic practices which he describes as ‘anti-art’ or ‘living art’  because of their supposed ‘rejection of the aesthetic form’ (Marcuse, 1972b, pp. 85-86).  And yet, he is equally as convinced that art (or, more specifically, certain forms of ‘higher art’) can open ‘the established reality to another dimension’ and to ‘possible liberation’, but only ‘if art wills itself as illusion’ (Marcuse, 1972b, p. 87).  His dismissal of much of what might be considered revolutionary avant-garde art as ‘anti-art’ appears both idealistic and elitist.  I argue that it is rather odd for Marcuse to associate revolutionary potentialities with classical, bourgeois Art, rather than radical avant-garde praxis.

Of course, twentieth-century modernist art was, particularly in its radical avant-garde incarnations, deeply opposed to the dominant languages of aesthetics and formalism; it was also deeply political.  These practices did indeed, as Marcuse suggests, attempt to close or annihilate any distinctions between art and life; they also, in the end, became part of the Establishment (ibid., p. 101).  I contest that today’s neoliberal systems are of such bewildering totality that Marcuse’s faith in  romanticised notions of aesthetics seems both naïve and revolutionary.  So, when he argues that ‘[s]trategies must be developed which are adapted to combat the counterrevolution’ (Marcuse, 1972b, p. 133), perhaps this might, as a reaction to the perversities of totalising neoliberalism, mean one such strategy may involve adopting different languages and practices that are at once (relatively) divorced from and simultaneously directly developed from those of the Enlightenment and the bourgeoisie (and all other histories of revolutionary struggle)[6].

Marcuse is left struggling to find a way past his own aesthetic impasse:

A subversive potential is in the very nature of art - but how can it be translated into reality today, that is to say, how can it be expressed so that it can become a guide and element - in the praxis of change without ceasing to be art, without losing its internal subversive force?  How can it be translated in such a manner that the aesthetic form is replaced by "something real," alive, and yet transcending and denying the established reality (Marcuse, 1972b, p. 103)?

I argue, following Douglas Kellner, that those on a continuing quest for utopia and liberation ‘must appropriate Marcuse’s legacy and go beyond his theoretical positions, just as Marcuse appropriated and went beyond Marxism’ (Kellner, 1984, p. 375).  His condemnation of Marcuse’s notion of a universalising aesthetic and its neglect of ‘the social’ offers a potential solution:

Only a complex analysis of the dialectic of form and content and its relation to its society and political context can show what political potentialities and tendencies a work or author contain.  To make form alone the bearer of art’s subversive and emancipatory potentialities seems particularly wrong … Most works in fact contain at once subversive and stabilizing, conformist and oppositional, tendencies which require detailed analysis to explicate their ideological and emancipatory content and possible effects.  Thus Marcuse’s universalizing aesthetic form neglects analysing the social function of art in a given society, and suppresses the dialectic of form and content, artifect and context, and production and reception that is essential in analysing and evaluating works of art from a materialist standpoint (ibid., p. 361).

There is, however, another side to Marcuse’s writing about the liberatory potentialities of art and aesthetics.  For a brief period around the time of the 1968 protests, he temporarily recognised ‘a real oppositional culture in the art and life-style of the student movement’ (Wolff, 1983, p. 43).  Marcuse’s 1969 text An Essay on Liberation advances the notion of a newly reconstructed society in which the expression of reality, in an essentially aesthetic ‘Form’, would effectively result in the development of society as ‘a work of art’ (Marcuse, 1969).  This new ‘Form’, necessarily tied to ‘the social process of production’, would, Marcuse recognised, change art’s ‘traditional locus and function in society’ so it would ‘become a productive force in the material as well as cultural transformation’ (ibid.).  Art would then become ‘an integral factor in shaping the quality and the "appearance" of things, in shaping the reality, the way of life’ (ibid.).  This notion is completely at odds with Marcuse’s previous and later writing about art and aesthetics.  But Marcuse further expands his concept of society as a work of art to declare that such an environment would ‘end … the segregation of the aesthetic from the real … [and] the commercial unification of business and beauty, exploitation and pleasure’ (ibid.).  Remarkably, Marcuse then describes the collapsing of art into life:

Art would recapture some of its more primitive "technical" connotations: as the art of preparing (cooking!), cultivating, growing things, giving them a form which neither violates their matter nor the sensitivity - ascent of Form as one of the necessities of being, universal beyond all subjective varieties of taste, affinity, etc. (ibid.).

Marcuse recognised, during this period, that the ‘value and function of art’ were changing, militating against both the ‘affirmative character of art’ and art’s ‘degree of sublimation’ (ibid.).  He realised that contemporary ‘anti-art’ practices necessarily rebelled against the traditions of art: it’s notions of style, meaning and art-form.  But anti-art’s rebellion was, for Marcuse, nothing more than a short-lived ‘wild revolt’ that quickly led to its absorption within ‘the art gallery, … the concert hall, … the market, and … the plazas and lobbies of the prospering business establishments’ (ibid.).  He believes that radical attempts to transform art’s intent are inherently ‘self-defeating', incapable of overwhelming the nullifying power of the ‘Estrangement Effect’ (ibid.).  Following this argument, he describes ‘happenings’ and ‘living theatre’ (both types of practice historically linked to social practice and activist art) as nothing more than deceptive attempts to create false communities.  Critically, however, whilst Marcuse believed that ‘rebellious art’ had not, at the time of his writing, achieved its potentiality as a ‘liberating force on the societal scale’ – ‘a subverting force’, he foresaw a future in which radical art, in a myriad of forms, might, via what he termed ‘mediations’, come to ‘reside in modes of work and pleasure, of thought and behavior, in a technology and in a natural environment which express the aesthetic ethos of socialism’ (ibid.).  So, whilst he understood that such mediations would lead art to lose its privileged status and separateness, he also recognised this collapsing of art into life as a future potentiality presaged by anti-art.  Marcuse describes this as follows:

This may be the future, but the future ingresses into the present: in its negativity, the desublimating art and anti-art of today "anticipate" a stage where society's capacity to produce may be akin to the creative capacity of art, and the construction of the world of art akin to the reconstruction of the real world - union of liberating art and liberating technology.  By virtue of this anticipation, the disorderly, uncivil, farcical, artistic desublimation of culture constitutes an essential element of radical politics: of the subverting forces in transition (ibid.).

Marcuse was responding, in An Essay on Liberation, to the revolutionary fervour whipped up by the global wave of protests during 1968 – a time many are reflecting upon in light of today’s ever-increasing momentum towards social justice and liberation.  The essay develops some of Marcuse’s most utopian ideas for an autonomous, classless socialist society based on notions of equality, individual responsibility and self-determination: ‘a new way of life, a new Form of life’ (ibid.).  It is crucial to understand that, at least in An Essay on Liberation, Marcuse recognised that radical and rebellious art - anti-art – could play a significant role in achieving liberation from the suffocating, one-dimensional capitalist society, whilst also become an integral part of the new society.  I argue that An Essay on Liberation, whilst anomalous to Marcuse’s overall body of work on art and aesthetics, offers both a prescient future vision of the collapsing of art into life – of living as ‘Form’ - and a means of better understanding the potentialities of radical social practice and activist art today.

Marcuse also developed this utopian vision for art as part of life in another essay, Art as Form of Reality (1972a) in which he takes issue with the ‘familiar slogan’ of ‘the end of art’ (ibid., p. 51) and the accompanying political and artistic ‘attack on art in all its forms’ and ‘on art as Form itself’. (ibid., pp. 51-52).  He recognises the ‘very real’ impatience of the oppressed, particularly young people, people living in ghettos, and people from all around the globe.  He understands why the oppressed associate ‘Art’ as integral to ‘the tradition which perpetuates’ their subjugation and thwarts any development of their liberatory potentialities (ibid., p. 52).  His argument is that the division of labour separated art from its ‘practical’ purpose, amongst ‘techniques’, and created its own ‘Form’: a ‘new function of Art in society’ destined:

to provide the “holiday”, the elevation, the break in the terrible routine of life - to present something “higher”, “deeper”, perhaps “truer” and better, satisfying needs not satisfied in daily work and fun, and therefore pleasurable (ibid., p. 53).

And, after the ‘cultured holiday’, it is back to ‘business as usual’ (ibid.).  Marcuse is clearly critical here of the aesthetic idealism of art in capitalist society.  Indeed, he considers notions of beauty and sublime as offensive to ‘the human condition’ (ibid., p. 55).  He understood that anti-art offered ‘a way towards the liberation of the subject’, towards the development of the ‘new sensibility’ (ibid.).  In discussing ‘living art’, which, for Marcuse, might be self-contradictory and self-defeating, he offers a perspective that aligns with today’s social and activist art practices:

In its own internal development, in its struggle against its own illusions, Art comes to join the struggle against the powers that be, mental and physical, the struggle against domination and repression - in other words, Art, by virtue of its own internal dynamic, is to become a political force.  It refuses to be for the museum or mausoleum, for the exhibitions of a no longer existing aristocracy, for the holiday of the soul and the elevation of the masses - it wants to be real (ibid., p. 56).

Marcuse remains suspicious that ‘living art’ and ‘living theatre’ removes ‘the distance between actors, the audience, and the “outside”’, and draws ‘negation’ and ‘rebellion’ into daily life in a false and constructed fashion in which participation is ‘spurious’ (ibid., p. 57).  Nonetheless, he postulates another form of ‘living art’ – the ‘realization of Art’ (ibid.).  He envisages a society in which liberated individuals live and work to free their ‘suppressed aesthetic possibilities’ and is quick to define this aesthetic as consisting of ‘forms and modes of experience corresponding to the reason and sensibility of free individuals’ (ibid.).  His vision of a ‘new art’ – ‘Art as Form of reality’ - is nothing less than the creation of ‘a free society’: an ‘entirely different’ reality opposed to ‘the beautification of the given’ (ibid.).  Marcuse even tentatively touches on the notion of art becoming ‘creativity, having recognised the impossibility of developing ‘Art as Form of reality’ in any concrete sense (ibid., p. 58).  He concludes his essay by proposing that the role of creativity in the new and totally transformed (socialist) society would involve:

a creation in the material as well as intellectual sense, a juncture of technique and the arts in the total reconstruction of the environment, a juncture of town and country, industry and nature after all have been freed from the horrors of commercial exploitation and beautification, so that Art can no longer serve as a stimulus of business (ibid.)

His conclusion does not negate the appreciation of the traditional arts but offers another role for art as creative expression to be an integral aspect of everyday life.  These concepts are at the fore of present day thinking and practice around social and activist art.  His vision of ‘a new type of human being as producer’ is an important concept today, although Marcuse is clear that this can only be achieved by a new society that ends the ‘role-playing … of the established social division of labour, of work and pleasure (ibid.).

It would appear then that living art, art as form of reality, society as a work of art, even ‘anti-art’, are potentially subversive if conceived of in the sense of a new art form (or forms), or possibly as forms of creative expression.  I argue that in the two essays discussed above, Marcuse offers incredibly powerful ideas that link new forms of art (or creativity) as lived, experienced social and political praxis.  I contend that these works represent some of Marcuse’s most forward thinking theories that are eminently applicable to social practice and activist art on many levels.  A new avant-garde in the form of radical social practice and activist art can perhaps replace obsolete  aesthetic language with real and often temporal modes of direct action that transcend and deny ‘the established reality’ whilst, undoubtedly, simultaneously reproducing certain elements of that reality.  These forms of art, perhaps, offer a response to Marcuse’s questions in his final work The Aesthetic Dimension:

How can art speak the language of a radically different experience, how can it represent the qualitative difference?  How can art invoke images and needs of liberation which reach into the depth dimension of human existence, how can it articulate the experience not only of a particular class, but of all the oppressed (Marcuse, 1979 [1977], p. 40)?

These questions remain incredibly relevant today: radical social and activist art practices mirror (to differing extents and in radically disparate ways) Eagleton’s assertion that radical art may need to adopt ‘guerrilla tactics’ to free itself from art world co-option as part of its integration into neoliberal world of commodity production (Eagleton, 1990, pp. 368-369):

There would … seem only one route left open, and that is an art which rejects the aesthetic.  An art against itself, which confesses the impossibility of art, like those full-blown postmodernist theories which proclaim the impossibility of theory.  An art, in short, which will […] go right back even before the beginning, before the dawning of the whole category of the aesthetic, and seek to override in its own way that moment at the birth of modernity when the cognitive, ethico-political and libidinal-aesthetic became uncoupled from one another.  This time, however, it will seek to do it not in the manner of the radical aestheticizers, by the aesthetic colonizing these other two regions, but by folding the aesthetic into the other two systems, in an attempt to hook art up once again with social praxis (ibid., p. 370).

This is Eagleton’s ‘revolutionary avant garde’ which proceeds on the basis that ‘you can’t do [revolution] by aesthetics, aesthetics is part of the problem, not of the solution’ because ‘[t]he problem of art is art itself, so let’s have an art which isn’t art’ (ibid.).  Of course, art which isn’t art is still art, or can be, if it denotes itself as such – it is just a different form.  Such a practice can offer resistance to the Establishment by refusing to produce anything that can be appropriated or institutionalised and by refusing to ‘distance itself from social practice’ (ibid., p. 371).

Radical social and activist art practices actively oppose institutions and instrumentalisation.  These practices acknowledge that much of what purports to be politics today is ‘an art of display’ – a reactionary form of ‘mediated political spectacle that enforces passivity’ and compliance (Leslie, 2011, pp. 188-189).  Drawing upon Walter Benjamin’s writing about the aestheticisation of politics and the politicisation of art, Esther Leslie suggests that only arts practices which completely reject ‘systems of display, production, and consumption, monitoring and inclusion as well as elitism and exclusion’ can be considered to align with Benjamin’s idea of the politicisation of art (ibid., p. 189).  Leslie is referring to the self-organised artistic practices of radical social practice and activist art; practices in which ‘art disperses into everyday practice and becomes political’ (ibid.).  This is a critical theoretical perspective for much social practice and activist art today, alongside an acceptance that Marcuse’s notion of the affirmative character of culture has been annihilated by the ‘logic of late capitalism’ via an explosive process in which culture has expanded to engulf every aspect of our individual and social lives (Jameson, 1991, p. 48).   For arts activists and social practice artists today, it is difficult to gain critical distance from the neoliberal system, even at local levels.  Nonetheless, such practices remain committed to the Utopian vision of Marcuse’s later writings which, as Jameson reinforces, we cannot abandon (ibid., p. 159).

Today, many current forms of radical social practice and arts activism seek to engage with and enable new liberatory social relationships through forms of public, direct action that often use a gamut of aesthetic and anti-aesthetic approaches to oppose hierarchical oppression in all its forms and to call for social justice for all global inhabitants.  These practices use art as a means rather than an end.  They recognise their invaluable role inside and outside the totally aestheticised culture of neoliberalism as offering both forms of creative grassroots engagement and spectacularly performative, often participatory, always political, interventions.  It is interesting to consider the work of Platform London in this context.  They presented a range of aesthetic interventions alongside tours, debates, documentary film and performances during their unauthorised occupation of Tate Modern in London for their self-organised, three-day Deadline Festival (4th to 6th December 2015).  Much of this ‘arts festival’ would most certainly have been perceived as ‘not art’ by Marcuse, and yet this form of social practice, avoided the spectacular mode of intervention in favour of grassroots engagement and the enabling of public discourse in an occupied ‘public space’,  challenged the impacts of neoliberalism and neo-colonialism via the subject of climate change [7].  Meanwhile, at around the same time as Deadline Festival was taking place, Art not Oil, another non-hierarchical art and activism collective, came together at The Louvre in Paris to create a spectacle  (similar to their previous interventions at Tate Modern) using molasses and other carnivalesque performative techniques that not only supported the broader COP 21 protests but also garnered significant media attention.  Many such interventions involve other ‘non-artist’ activists as well as the public as participants.  These movements are currently joining forces with other activist groups to broaden anti-capitalist actions to include the essential and often under-acknowledged need for cultural decolonisation, dispelling the myth that ‘white western culture is “the” location where a discussion of aesthetics [and almost all philosophical theories] emerged’ when, in fact, it was ‘only one location’ (hooks, 1995, p. 69).

Cultural activism today, in its embrace of ‘full spectrum resistance’, can be considered as a crossroads at which ‘art, activism, performance and politics meet, mingle and interact’ (Verson, 2007, pp. 171-172).  As activist theatre-maker and researcher Jennifer Verson  explains, whereas ‘the old resistance’ took the forms of ‘barricades, marches or armed guerrilla groups’, cultural activists prefer to intervene at ‘points of potential, assumption and consumption’ in forms of resistance that use ‘our media saturated society’ to constantly reinvent practices to ensure they always attempt to remain ‘one step ahead of those who want to co-opt and restrain us’ (ibid., p. 173).  These are typical points of departure for social practice artists and arts activists who seek to use artistic techniques to address ‘complicated questions about how we build the world we want to live in’ which, whilst ‘driven by [a] hunger for new processes of art and protest’, are deeply ‘rooted in the blueprints and patterns of political movements of the past’ (ibid., p. 174).  This new form of activist art ‘in pursuit of an engagement with the possibility of real social change’ always seeks ‘to work in ways that break with the dominant paradigms and established institutions of modern art’ (Bradley, 2007, p. 10).  Resistance to neoliberal and neo-colonial exploitation has generated new alliances around collective calls for climate justice at a grassroots level and movements including those opposing rampant urban gentrification.  John Jordan  believes these movements ‘need all the imagination and creativity that artists have’ to create new forms of activism (Jordan, 2015).  He situates his practice on:

the knife edge between the two, the space in between, neither one - nor the other - but both.  I try to reside in that most powerful place on earth: no man’s land, the land where the unexpected always happens (Jordan, 2006, p. 12).

Indeed, much of Jordan’s work can be considered from the perspective of the carnivalesque, creating spaces where ‘everything is pregnant with its opposites’ and creative interventions with ‘a built in affinity for the oppressed and the marginal’ (Stam, 1988, pp. 140-141).  For Robert Stam , Bakhtin’s celebration of difference offers the possibility of interrogating and shifting ‘the center from the margins’ – including age, race and gender as well as class (ibid., p. 141).

Marxist aesthetic theories always (in one form or another) attempt to identify ‘the emancipatory impact of the work of art’ (Johnson, 1984, p. 1).  Following Gordon Graham, the notion of ‘an essential “Form” or universal “Idea” called “Art”’ does not empirically exist (Graham, 2000, p. 199).  Practices considered by Hal Foster to be anti-aesthetic are thus not only legitimate forms of ‘art’ but specifically interdisciplinary forms ‘that deny the idea of a privileged aesthetic realm’ by being ‘sensitive to cultural forms engaged in a politic […] or rooted in a vernacular’ (Foster, 1983, p. xv).  This description aligns with Platform’s use of ‘art as a catalyst’ that is ‘not primarily about an aesthetic’ but is a form of ‘creativity’ that can be ‘applied to real situations’ (Platform, 1993).  These ‘situations’ include:

initiating a 168 hour forum of international dialogue; setting up a support fund for striking hospital workers; creating a 10 week performance in a tent that crossed the city; installing a turbine in a river to generate light for a local school (ibid.).

Platform consider these ‘acts’ to be ‘art’; acts that ‘focus on physical and meta-physical change […] both in the tangible space of the material world and the intangible space of people’s hearts and imaginations (ibid.).  Their process of collective working frequently brings different disciplines together in ‘an open space for dialogue and ideas’ (ibid.); it combines ‘art, activism, education and research’ to ‘create unique projects driven by the need for social and ecological justice’ that frequently involve acts of participation (Platform, 2016).  Written in capitals on a large chalkboard above the entrance above the entrance to their London office is one of artist Joseph Beuys’s eminent statements: ‘THE HIGHEST FORM OF CREATIVITY IS THAT WHICH ENCOURAGES THE CREATIVITY OF OTHERS’[8].  This is a clear signal of their belief that creativity is not limited to the realm of art nor the practice of artists but part of broader social and cultural spheres.

And yet the appropriation of arts and culture is endemic in twenty-first century Western neoliberal societies.  Esther Leslie writes:

In Britain today, as elsewhere, culture is the wonder stuff that gives more away than it takes.  Like some fantastical oil in a Grimm fairytale, this magical substance gives and gives, generating and enhancing value, for state and private men alike.  Culture is posited as a mode of value production: for its economy-boosting and wealth-generating effects; its talent for regeneration, through raising house prices and introducing new business, which is largely service based; and its benefits as a type of moral rearmament or emotional trainer, a perspective that lies behind the “social inclusion” model, whereby culture must speak to – or down to – disenfranchised groups (Leslie, 2011, p. 183).

Art has become an essential weapon in the soft power arsenals of housing developers and creative ‘placemakers’.  There are deep roots connecting art to gentrification.  Rebecca Solnit describes gentrification as a shark eager to lay waste to ‘cultural diversity’ and ‘creative activity, artistic and political’ (Solnit, 2000, p. 18).  But, can art, as Gittlitz asks, ‘resist gentrification’ rather than ‘mask the violence of displacement’ (Gittlitz, 2015)?  And, if the art world is ‘part of “business as usual”’ and ‘the universal grease relied upon to make the cogs of business turn better and the joints of society mesh smoother’ (Leslie, 2011, p. 187), can, as David Holmes enquires, ‘cultural practices become political acts’ (Holmes, 2012, p. 81)?  These questions are particularly pertinent at a time when artists are increasingly portrayed as ‘the expeditionary force for the inner-city gentrifiers’[9]; their ‘colonising arm’ (Ley, 1996, p. 191).  It is little wonder that, in response, some artists are committed to reorganising ‘socially and theoretically’ to create ‘art and revolution simultaneously, never content with just one or the other’[10] (Gittlitz, 2015), or the fuse ‘Art into life’[11] (Holmes, 2012, p. 73) because, as David Holmes contends:

What has to be grasped, if we want to renew our democratic culture, is the convergence of art, theory, media and politics into a mobile force that oversteps the limits of any professional sphere or disciplinary field, while still drawing on their knowledge and technical capacities (ibid., p. 74).

Holmes is calling for an exploration of ‘how we act, and what role art, theory, media and self-organization can have in effective forms of intervention’ (ibid.), because this form of activist practice ‘is the making-common of a desire and a resolve to change the forms of living, under certain conditions, without any guarantees’ (ibid., p. 79).

So how can artists resist gentrification?  I will briefly sketch out some of the artists and collectives I feel reflect attempts to guard places and people[12].  Back in the 1980s, the activist art collective Political Art Documentation/Distribution staged a series of ephemeral poster projects and protests against the gentrification of Lower East Side, New York[13].  At the same time, community artists Loraine Leeson and Peter Dunn worked with local people to oppose gentrification with the Docklands Community Poster Project[14].  However, as the pace of ‘urban renewal’ quickened, it became impossible for artists involved in supporting the work of developers to claim they were but ‘innocent pawns in these processes’ (Hornung, 2014).  So, by 1994, the group of artists, musicians and local people who became known as Park Fiction were prepared to use self-organised activism to go beyond earlier, more representational approaches to contesting gentrification in the then rundown dockland area of St. Pauli, Hamburg.  Using a wide range of techniques, the collective’s ‘strategy of tension’ deployed militancy and play and games and art ‘to multiply its fronts of engagement’, ‘neutralise’ the threat posed by the administrators of the area’s proposed redevelopment and expose the limitations of ‘consensus management and soft control’ (Vishmidt, 2007, pp. 457-458).  Their efforts led to the developers’ plans being rejected and the physical installation of Park Fiction in its place in 2005.  Although, it is worth noting that today the park is a popular location in Hamburg and may, as Viola Rühse argues, have increased property values and supported the area’s ongoing gentrification[15] (Rühse, 2014, p. 44).  However, one of Park Fiction’s founders, Christoph Schäfer, went on to instigate the anti-gentrification urban activist network It’s raining Caviar in 2008 which developed the ‘Degeneration Kit’ and seeks to defend neighbourhoods around Hamburg threated by demolition by a range of tactics including performative gentrification tours and a permanent protest picnic in Park Fiction (Richter, 2010, p. 467).  Also, in 2008, Schäfer was instrumental in setting up Hamburg’s Right to the City movement which later produced an important manifesto Not in Our Name!  that opposed the corporate branding of the city by gentrifiers[16] (Oehmke, 2010).  The manifesto[17] begins with the statement: ‘A spectre has been haunting Europe since US economist Richard Florida predicted that the future belongs to cities in which the “creative class” feels at home’ (NION, 2009).  Not in Our Name! ends as follows:

We say: A city is not a brand.  A city is not a corporation.  A city is a community.  We ask the social question which, in cities today, is also about a battle for territory.  This is about taking over and defending places that make life worth living in this city, which don't belong to the target group of the “growing city”.  We claim our right to the city together with all the residents of Hamburg who refuse to be a location factor (ibid.).

I have only sketched out a few examples.  But I will quickly skip through some other notable projects such as BAVO’s Plea for an uncreative city, Rotterdam (BAVO, 2006); the collectively ‘indignant’, sometimes confrontational activist ‘performances’ of the PAH (Mortgage-Affected Citizens Platform) in Madrid, Barcelona and elsewhere[18] and their embodiment of Lefebvre’s ‘notions of “rights to the city” in their radical potential to resist urban neoliberalism’ (Micu, n.d.); Balfron Social Club’s demand for fifty percent social housing in Ernő Goldfinger’s Brutalist icon, the now gentrified Balfron Tower, London, and their sharp critique of the role of socially engaged artists as ‘place-makers’[19] (Balfron Social Club, 2015); Bushwick, New York City: the Mi Casa No Es Su Casa: Illumination Against Gentrification project[20] produced in conjunction with NYC Light Brigade and local residents (Voon, 2015); the incredible Illuminator 99%[21]; the resolute acts of resistance by Focus E15[22] – a group of young London mothers whose motto is ‘Social Housing not Social Cleansing’ (Focus E15, 2016); and the FREEE Collective.

Clearly, there are many examples of activist and radical social art practices that fuse performance and visual representation with direct action against gentrifiers and place-makers in attempts to guard complex community structures and rights and to protect existing ways of living.  They, like Lefebvre, Harvey et al., believe it is time for ‘the dispossessed to take back control of the city from which they have for so long been excluded’ (Harvey, 2008).  To some, this may seem utopian, to others ‘[d]emanding the impossible may be … as realistic as it is necessary’ (Pinder, 2015 [2013]).  It is then, I suggest, in its resistance to these neoliberal and colonising systems of instrumentalism that radical social practice and activist art finds its new forms.

Art as Life, or Living for Culture within Nature

The first steps toward a post-capitalist practice involve the redefinition of art itself.  Call it anti-art, the overcoming of art, art into life, the aesthetics of existence: all these formulations represent a major inheritance of the twentieth century (Holmes, 2013, p. 166).

For David Holmes, the avant-garde understanding ‘that an image of emancipation  provides only a contemplative respite from exploitation, hierarchy and conflict’ also opens up a ‘protean world of exploration and intervention’: the practice of ‘art into life’ (ibid.).  This is art as a process not an object: a type of practice that can challenge ‘[t]he specific character of “art”’ because ‘building a community centre, planting a garden, preparing a meal, writing a text together, or just talking around a table’ may not appear to be ‘art’ (ibid.).  For Holmes, this is ‘fundamentally part of art after capitalism’: the creation of ‘new means of production, where subjectivity […] is the primary thing we produce together’ (ibid.).  This type of anti-art practice clearly conflicts with Marcuse’s primary belief that art is not life nor should art simulate reality but should instead retain its ‘Otherness’ and an ‘incapacity for ready assimilation’ (Becker, 1994, p. 119).  For Schulte-Sasse avant-garde anti-art praxis:

[A]imed to intervene in social reality.  The avant-garde saw that the organic unity of the bourgeois institution of art left art impotent to intervene in social life, and thus developed a different concept of the work of art.  Its concept of art sees a chance to reintegrate art into social praxis if artists would create unclosed, individual segments of art that open themselves to supplementary responses.  The aesthetic fragment functions very differently than the organic whole of romantic artwork, for it challenges its recipient to make it an integrated part of his or her reality and to relate it to sensuous-material experience (Schulte-Sasse, 1984, p. xxxix).

Art as life (or as living) can therefore be considered central features of social practice and activist art; and art as a way of living clearly has spatial and political dimensions.  One space where the spatial and political intersect, where ‘artistic intervention’ often focuses today, is ‘the gap … between cultural institutions and the public’ (Cruz, 2012, p. 58).  It is here that the defenders of art ‘as a self-referential project of apolitical formalism’ meet those who shun artistic autonomy ‘to engage the socio-political and economic domains that have remained peripheral to the specializations of art and architecture’: radical artists and activists who expose the relative ‘powerlessness’ of traditional arts practices when faced with some of ‘the world’s most pressing current crises’ (ibid., p. 60).

I conclude, then, by arguing it is essential, as Esther Leslie explains, that aesthetics must be situated at the heart of lived experience:

The reification of human activity into the separate realms of work and play, aesthetics and politics, damages all and must be overcome.  The aesthetic must be rescued from the ghetto of art and set at the centre of life (Leslie, 2011, p. 190).

It is this concept of art as lived experience that underpins my ongoing research.

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[1] Marcuse was a firm supporter of the revolutionary actions of 1968 and, for a time, of the New Left movement.

[2] From 1922 to 1978.

[3] Marcuse also rejected many other forms of contemporary art practice.

[4] Marcuse wrote in Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972): ‘Now the question arises: if today we are witnessing a disintegration of bourgeois culture which is the work of the internal dynamic of contemporary capitalism and the adjustment of culture to the requirements of contemporary capitalism, is not the cultural revolution then, inasmuch as it aims at the destruction of bourgeois culture, falling in line with the capitalist adjustment and redefinition of culture? Is it not thus defeating its own purpose, namely, to prepare the soil for a qualitatively different, a radically anticapitalist culture? Is there not a dangerous divergence, if not contradiction, between the political goals of the rebellion and its cultural theory and praxis? And must not the rebellion change its cultural “strategy" in order to resolve this contradiction? The contradiction appears most clearly in the efforts to develop an anti-art, "living art" - in the rejection of the aesthetic separation of the intellectual from the material culture, a separation which is said to express the class character of bourgeois culture. And this class character is held to be constitutive in the most representative and most perfect oeuvres of the bourgeois period.’ (Marcuse, 1972b, pp. 85-86) Emphasis added.

[5] The terms ‘open forms’ and ‘free forms’ were used negatively by Marcuse to denote a broader array of non-classical forms of ‘modern’ art practices which he also sometimes referred to as ‘anti-art’.  Open and free forms mentioned in Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972) included realism and ‘Storm and Stress’ (p. 101), ‘proletarian culture’ (p. 124), ‘montage, documentation, reportage’ (p. 125).  He later spoke out against avant-garde art in a similar manner.

[6] Marcuse argues in An Essay on Liberation (1969) that ‘the new sensibility’ will require a ‘new language to define and communicate the new “values”’.  He defines ‘language’ in its broadest sense to include ‘words, images, gestures, tones’, etc.

[7] Platform London and the Deadline Festival will be discussed in more detail in later chapters.

[8] Field notes 3.

[9] Ley argues that this positioning of artists as a sort of urbanising vanguard leads ‘the surfeit of meaning in places frequented by artists becomes a valued resource for the entrepreneur’Invalid source specified..

[10] Similarly, Rosler believes that ‘the cultural sphere, despite relentless co-optation by marketing, is a perpetual site of resistance and critique.  Bohemian/ romantic rejectionism, withdrawal into exile, utopianism, and ideals of reform are endemic to middle-class students, forming the basis of anti-bourgeois commitments – and not everyone grows out of it, despite the rise of fashion-driven (i.e. taste-driven) hipsterism’Invalid source specified..

[11] To which Holmes asks: ‘Is there any more persistent utopia in the history of vanguard expressions’ (Holmes, 2012, p. 73)?

[12] This is a very short and completely superficial discussion on what is a very large and very disparate field of practice that ranges from the ‘soft’ activism of ‘craftivism’ to the ‘hard’ activism of Class War and others.

[13] For more about PAD/D’s actions, see, for example, http://www.sholetteseminars.com/home/the-lower-east-side-is-not-for-sale-with-greg-sholette/

[14] For more about the Docklands Community Poster Project, see, for example, http://www.arte-ofchange.com/content/docklands-community-poster-project-1981-8

[15] Indeed, Christoph Schäfer later reflected that ‘it was our most radical gestures that could best be made use of – to increase the value of real estate, to construct new neighbourhood identities.  As soon as there was an illegal club somewhere, a cappuccino bar would open next door, followed by a new media agency […].  [W]e were management consultants’Invalid source specified..

[16] For more information about Not in Our Name! see http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/squatters-take-on-the-creative-class-who-has-the-right-to-shape-the-city-a-670600-3.html

[17] Read Not in Our Name! Jamming the gentrification machine: a manifesto in full here: http://www.signandsight.com/features/1961.html

[18] Andreea Micu described the ‘indignant performances’ as follows: ‘[Their] radical political potential lies precisely in the possibility to transform affect into specific gesture and action.  These gatherings have the very concrete goal of stopping evictions and more broadly, specific housing rights agendas that depend on the local context.  However, insofar as performance is mobilized to do so, the energy released in these gatherings may unleash affective potentialities that then might transform participants and carry into the everyday.  These outcomes are notable in their pedagogical potential to signal possibilities of collective action; in the fact that they modify participants and observers; and in the fact that they leave traces of the utopian that remain long after the performance is over’ (Micu, n.d.).

[19] Read Balfron Social Club’s critique of social practice art as placemaking for gentrification here: http://50percentbalfron.tumblr.com/post/116281372004/brutalism-redacted-social-art-practice-and-you

[20] Read more about Mi Casa No Es Su Casa here: http://hyperallergic.com/265264/activists-and-residents-light-up-bushwick-with-anti-gentrification-signs/

[21] For more about Illuminator 99%, see: http://theilluminator.org/

[22] For more about Focus E15, see: http://focuse15.org/

[23] The notion that emancipation could be achieved by an ‘aesthetics of existence’ that understands that ‘energies devoted to the creation of a privileged object could be better spent on reshaping the everyday environment’ (Holmes, 2013, p. 166).

Editorial Reviews

Review

"Essential."
—Glyn Banks, Studio International

"[M]ay have initiated the rising wave of books that both criticize modernist art and take new critical approaches to art in general."
Vantage Point

"[P]robably the most useful, serious and rewarding anthology of its kind."
Art in America

Read more

About the Author

Hal Foster is the Townsend Martin '17 Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University.

Read more

Editorial Reviews

Review

"Essential."
—Glyn Banks, Studio International

"[M]ay have initiated the rising wave of books that both criticize modernist art and take new critical approaches to art in general."
Vantage Point

"[P]robably the most useful, serious and rewarding anthology of its kind."
Art in America

Read more

About the Author

Hal Foster is the Townsend Martin '17 Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University.

Read more

Editorial Reviews

Review

"Essential."
—Glyn Banks, Studio International

"[M]ay have initiated the rising wave of books that both criticize modernist art and take new critical approaches to art in general."
Vantage Point

"[P]robably the most useful, serious and rewarding anthology of its kind."
Art in America

Read more

About the Author

Hal Foster is the Townsend Martin '17 Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University.

Read more

Editorial Reviews

Review

"Essential."
—Glyn Banks, Studio International

"[M]ay have initiated the rising wave of books that both criticize modernist art and take new critical approaches to art in general."
Vantage Point

"[P]robably the most useful, serious and rewarding anthology of its kind."
Art in America

Read more

About the Author

Hal Foster is the Townsend Martin '17 Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University.

Read more

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