What can art do

Useful art
What role can art play in politics?

Florian Malzacher | Photo: Robin Junicke

Suddenly there is this persistent call for an art that is useful, the call for direct engagement, for artistic activism, for interference in the political realities of our societies and economies. And that's good.

Of course this is a provocation: after hundreds of years of struggling for the autonomy of art, after decades of learning that the essential quality of art is its ambiguity, after years of repeating that art asks questions and does not give answers, suddenly there is this one persistent call for an art that is useful, for direct engagement, for artistic activism, for interference in the political reality of our societies and economies.

This reputation is not new, it has forerunners: the productivists, for example. Contrary to Naum Gabo's stipulation that constructivism in post-revolutionary Russia should be exclusively committed to abstraction, artists such as Aleksei Gan, Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova demanded a practical, socially useful role for art. In 1973, around fifty years later, Joseph Beuys opened his Free International University (FIU) and proclaimed that “being a teacher is my greatest work of art”.

The concept of socially committed art has been further developed with renewed intensity since the early 1990s. Artistic activism has become a favorite topic in the art world, especially in recent years with its countless political and economic crises. Because whether on Tahrir, Zuccotti, Syntagma, Taksim or Maidan Square, in front of the Kremlin, in Japan to Fukushima, in the middle of Brazil's iconic architecture or under the umbrellas in Hong Kong: artists are always among the first to who participate. But one question keeps cropping up: What role can art play in politics?

Against a homeopathic understanding of politics

It seems that we are witnessing a paradigm shift in the relationship between art and politics. In the previous generation, it was philosophers who had developed their theoretical concepts from their own, very concrete, often radical political experiences and engagements, for example in left-wing groups in France and Italy in the 1970s. Generations of philosophers, artists, and curators have followed them, especially since the 1990s, who, while continuing these considerations, all too often fail to tie them back to their own contemporary realities. We have become accustomed to calling concepts, cultural theories and works of art political, even if they are only remotely based on theories which, in turn, have already been abstracted from the concrete political impulses that they generated. A very homeopathic idea of ​​the political has often become the guide of contemporary cultural discourse. The constant awareness of the complexity of concepts such as truth, reality or even politics has maneuvered our western middle class discourse into a dead end. Either we simplify too much or we make everything too complicated, either we are too populist or we hide in hermitages. We either include too much or we exclude too many. We have reached a point where the necessary awareness that everything is contingent and relative is often used as an excuse for intellectual relativism.

The growing need for socially engaged, participatory art, for intervention and activism, for an art that interferes very directly and practically, is also a reaction to this relativism. The Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, one of the main protagonists of this movement, explains in her Introduction to Useful Art: "It has been too long since we have made the gesture of the French Revolution the epitome of the democratization of art. We do not have to enter the Louvre or the castles, we have to enter people’s houses, people’s lives. This is where useful art is. "

Is that still art?

No wonder that such demands immediately bring back the old question that has accompanied all avant-gardes and essentially defined the aesthetic discourse of the 20th century: Is that still art?

But repeating this question is all the more superfluous as most of the answers to it have already been given. Socially engaged, participatory and useful art practices are often based on artistic strategies from the 1960s and 1970s: Installation art, performance and conceptual art, for example, have always focused on creating situations and reality instead of representing them. They emphasized processes and social contexts, and they questioned the concepts of authorship and individualism, thereby criticizing the logic of the capitalist system. The idea of ​​participation and intervention has radicalized the understanding of audiences and redefined the very subtle and often misunderstood differences between voluntary and involuntary participation.

Of course, the call for usefulness is not unproblematic - it seems to be in line with social democratic instrumentalizations of art as social work or appeasement strategy. But this fear underestimates the resistant qualities of art. The most impressive examples of socially committed art are far from being satisfied with symbolic gestures. Tania Brugueras Immigrant Movement International grew into a political party and union-like organization for illegal migrants in Queens, New York. Jonas Staal's artistic and political organization New World Summit opens up alternative political spaces for organizations that are excluded from democratic discourse and the rule of law. The Berlin Center for Political Beauty - inspired by the New York activists Yes Men - uses targeted media campaigns to get neglected topics on the newspaper front pages and politicians on the palm. The Viennese artist group WochenKlausur is always finding new ways to divert money and attention from the art market to social projects. Santiago Sierra or Artur Żmijewski stir the wounds in disturbing ways that we would so much like to ignore, while Paweł Althamer or the late Christoph Schlingensief try and try to be part of the complex process of healing.

Such works do not offer easy answers, they do not create simple relief. They are useful not only through their direct engagement, but also through their subtle or polemical criticism of the capitalist status quo. Their practice is symbolic and concrete at the same time. And they shift the weight from the ambiguity of the artwork to the ambiguity of our own lives. In very different ways, they all underline Tania Bruguera's appeal: We must bring Duchamp's urinal back into the toilet - where it can be of use again.
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