Writing about art and politics often falls into one of two camps. On the one hand, there are those who espouse “art for art’s sake,” arguing that art is a restricted and autonomous domain, concerned solely with aesthetic quality, the imagination, enjoyment, and so forth. On the other are the partisans of “political art,” for whom art is not only always political, but is to be judged according to how it meets certain political standards. Two new books, by the philosopher Gabriel Rockhill and the curator Nato Thompson, aim to oppose both camps. Neither of these, Rockhill and Thompson claim, offers a framework sufficiently attuned to the complexities of actual artistic and political practice. Rather than abstractly theorizing art’s role in society, they argue, we should follow and engage the artworks through their historical and social contexts—as they are produced, displayed, circulated, and interpreted.
Rockhill, for his part, proposes a rigorous theoretical reformulation of art and politics. His book both surveys the recent history of political aesthetics (engaging figures such as Theodor Adorno, György Lukács, and Jacques Rancière), and proposes his own theoretical intervention through concrete historical examples (such as the design communities of the Bauhaus and CIA involvement in abstract painting), which are discussed below. Thompson, meanwhile, has set out to understand the historical and political conditions in which practicing artists have worked since the mid-20th century. He shows that, rather than artists who engage in politics, there are meaningful communities created by art-activists (such as Rick Lowe, Jeanne van Heeswijk, and Teddy Cruz) who are living the connection between these spheres in complex ways. Thus, from different but perhaps not incompatible perspectives, the two authors set out to understand the actuality of art and politics today. Hoping to further encourage the crossing of theory and practice, I invited them to discuss their works with me and each other this past April.
I | The Failure of the Avant-garde?
Avi Alpert (AA): It’s rare these days to be able to have a conversation across disciplines, let alone across professions. My thought was that you were neighbors not just spatially here in Philadelphia, but also conceptually, as you both have been trying to work through the relationship between theoretical reflection, artistic practice, and political praxis. Maybe we could start by having you each put on the table what you take to be the major stakes of your arguments with regard to this relationship.
Gabriel Rockhill (GR): The project in this book, Radical History & the Politics of Art, consists in calling into question a standard starting point for debates on art and politics. This point of departure is the assumption that there’s something called art that is unique unto itself, something else called politics, which is distinct from art, and that these two realms, practices, or concepts might or might not have a privileged relation. The alternative starting point that I propose in the book, and which informs its overall methodological framework, is to take things the other way around. I start by looking at various practices that are labeled “artistic” or “political” in particular cultural contexts, and I consider how those practices overlap, intertwine, or merge in certain cases, as well as how the very borders between them are socially defined, redefined, and negotiated. In short, I argue that art and politics are not givens, but sites of struggle.
Nato Thompson (NT): My vantage point was basically as someone who’s lived through and in a lot of the art produced by people who might call themselves “art-activists.” That is, the community across the United States and elsewhere that’s been formed through the alter-globalization movement, most recently through Occupy, and also the kind of moribund, but fun, periods in between. In living through these moments, and also working in the arts, I’ve seen certain discussions repeated to the point of exhaustion, and so in a way the book was an opportunity to tease those problems out. These involve concepts like social capital, concerns about who’s getting paid for what, questions regarding the didactic versus the poetic, and other classic pitfalls of the field. Mostly I was concerned about the lack of a cohesive thinking-through of how art-and-activism is actually experienced as a practice in relation to the institutions and infrastructures that produce these fields.
AA: You’re both working to clarify how we think about art’s relation to politics in the present, asking, “What exactly is the sphere we’re working in, how do we define it, what terms are we using, how are those terms related to actual practices?” But to do so, you engage historical problems. What conclusions have you drawn about our situation today through your research?
GR: Many of the dominant historical narratives that saturate our contemporary imaginary have led to impasses and even to a veritable stranglehold on theory and on practice. To take one example, the “end of illusions” thesis is extremely widespread today. This is the thesis according to which there was once a grand era, in the early 20th century, when avant-garde art—from Futurism and Constructivism to Dadaism and Surrealism—revitalized artistic production, and vanguard politics brought about the Russian Revolution. These eventually led to the institutionalization of the avant-garde and to the bureaucratization of vanguard politics, so they’re now perceived by many as failures. I think that this entire history—and it’s one of the things I try to demonstrate in the book—needs to be revisited in order to question whether or not this idea of a failure of the avant-garde, and of a failure of not only vanguard politics but of socialism and radical politics across the board, holds up to scrutiny. In calling this history into question, we can take distance from a framing of the present moment as being a time in which revolutionary politics has proven itself to be useless and artistic radicalism is destined to be completely co-opted by the very system it attempts to resist.
NT: To pick up on that point—over time, patterns of criticism reveal themselves. It’s not just the myth that the avant-garde was a failure, what you find is everything in the history of art is described as a failure. There is a certain cynicism that permeates the political project of the arts, so that you can go through historically and show that there are these moments of hope, but you’re supposed to show how they end in failure. The inevitable recourse to the “failure” narrative itself demonstrates the lack of imagination to develop any other terminology. We do not know how to read the past except in terms of failure. Today, there is very little in the way of positive, constructive methods of writing. Marxist art critics often ignore the actual practice of art or ignore the complexities of the practices of the art-activism community. A successful Marxism, it seems to me, would need to engage these complexities more directly. These are certainly generalizations, but such tendencies are quite pervasive in my experience.
AA: There’s also a question of the temporality of “success” and “failure” here, which you’ve discussed, Gabriel—
GR: The question of success or failure is fascinating because, methodologically, what theoreticians tend to do is flatten out the social dimension and establish a simple cause-and-effect relation in which there’s a singular correlation between an artistic project (the cause) and either success or failure (the effect). However, if you look at the various ways in which a given art project impacts a particular social group, this will change over time, and it will vary based on the cultural context and stratum of society. If we develop more complex models of efficacy, then we’re no longer trapped within these simplistic concepts of success or failure. The idea that the avant-garde failed, for instance, collapses the massive proliferation of avant-garde practices into a singular concept (“the avant-garde”) with a unique social consequence. If you look at the avant-garde architectural practices of the early 20th century, those of the Bauhaus, for instance, you would be very hard-pressed to make the argument that they simply failed, since they have left their mark on the majority of modern cityscapes, and the design process itself has saturated everyday life.
NT: I have to admit to taking a cautious stance on the field of art and politics. As much as my writing and working life are entangled in this field, I remain cautious about its efficacy. I am quite convinced that the questions it raises are important, but solving them is another thing entirely. Socially engaged art poses incredibly difficult problems to solve. In all honesty, I don’t feel capable of actually reading these artworks the way I think things need to be read, which is to say, I don’t totally understand the effects that certain processes have in terms of readership, or audiences. Grasping the effects of events in space and time and how they work across the array of people who experience them is not an easy thing to do. “Art,” as it’s traditionally understood, doesn’t get us there. To do this we need to first produce a lens that allows us to read cultural phenomena writ large as opposed to through the tautological lens of art history. One of the projects of this book, and of the follow-up book I am finishing now, is to really open up to culture and its effects, to get away from just artists and also to talk about advertising and pedagogy in the same breath. At the same time, we need to admit that working with this expanded picture isn’t easy.
AA: Does that become a task of criticism? That is, not just to do the thickest description that you can of what happens, but also to reconstruct possible narratives? Not to choose winners and losers of political art, but more to perform a kind of reconstructive hermeneutic?
GR: Yes, absolutely. I would just say two things. One is that part of the project in this book is to step back from the production-centered conception of art and politics and to look much more broadly at the social inscription of the material practices of production, the ways in which art objects and practices circulate, and their various modes of reception. If we consider all three of these levels, then we already have a much more complex method for analyzing what is generically called the politics of art or culture. To speak more specifically to your point, we can then develop models for receiving and critically engaging with works of art in which we’re not simply passive spectators, drawing up a laundry list of good and bad works of art. This is what I try to do in the book, for instance, when I critically reassess Jean-Paul Sartre’s and Theodor Adorno’s condemnation of Picasso’s Guernica as being politically ineffective. I seek to demonstrate that the politics of art cannot be reduced to the supposed power of an isolated artistic product to more or less magically produce political consequences. By resituating Picasso’s work in the complex weave of social relations, it becomes clear that it provided direct financial—and sometimes ideological—support to the Spanish Republic (which is not, however, to say that it was somehow politically “successful” across the board).
II | Capitalism Everywhere, or Alternative Economies?
GR: One question that I wanted to ask you, Nato, concerns the relationship between capitalism and alternative economies, in the very broad sense of the term. In some parts of Seeing Power, it seems like you understand capitalism as the sole force. However, it is crucial to recognize, in my opinion, that capitalism is not a unified or omnipotent system, and that there already exist different systems of value and even alternative economies. Where do you stand on this issue?
NT: Oh, of course there are alternative economies and capitalism isn’t the sole force. But in my experience, it is a big one. To put this into perspective: my experience of art does not take place in the abstract—I get paid by the art system. I work in it. I went through its graduate programs. I’ve written for its magazines. So I’m very interested in the spaces where one might say, “I just experienced art.” And there is a specific political economy there. There are also alternative economies, and I’ve been part of a lot of them. I have experienced non-capitalist friendships, open-ended art movements, and beautifully odd situations that one couldn’t completely explain by way of capitalism. So it isn’t totalizing. As much as I might not be a complete totalizing Marxist, I have to nevertheless appreciate the power of capitalism because in my own firsthand experience, capitalism not only produces the jobs but, by doing so, produces the language as well. And what I mean by that is what I said at the beginning of this conversation—that the same questions keep coming back in large part because of the underlying economic structure, to which these alternative economies always have to articulate their relation. Critics sitting back to reimagine language can only do so much as long as the economies that support the old concepts remain intact.
GR: What do you make of artistic practices that are generally ignored by the global art market because they are alien to the mainstream of contemporary art? I’m thinking of grassroots aesthetic practices, such as the work of retirees who paint saw blades in Kansas.
NT: It just depends. I have to be very qualified here. My greatest interests are in a small niche: the use of culture for the direct production of social change. That’s not a massive community, and that probably excludes what you might call “the crafts trades,” and even outsider artists, not that I would dismiss them as not interesting. But I’m typically focused on this group, because I think the problems they raise have a lot to do with the collapse of art and politics into a confining language. I think it’s a useful space, one that’s actually creating new social structures, practices, and language. This is not to discount other artistic disciplines. I just think that because artistic practice is so vast it becomes easy to conflate them into one community and, in my opinion, it’s apples and oranges. But both these apples and oranges, you’re right, aren’t always sold in the mainstream market.
III | Ideology and the Fear of Co-optation
AA: In terms of how you talk about art and politics today, how do you understand practices, then, as not simply in or outside of the market, but as in complicated relationships with a variety of markets that are coexisting?
GR: My book is not a work of political economy, but I engage very explicitly in one of the chapters with the question of private funding and governmental patronage of the arts. One of the things that I highlight is that a simplistic opposition between the Establishment and the outside is insufficient. This is, in part, because there are multiple poles and sites of agency that are constantly in struggle. I foreground in this regard the extent to which there was very extensive public and private intervention into the postwar American art world, but I also show that this did not necessarily hijack the agency of all of the artists and intellectuals involved. On the contrary, it tried to corral them, to canalize them in various ways, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
What I try to develop methodologically, through the analysis of concrete cases like this, is an account of the complexity of these interrelations between various institutional mechanisms and other sites of agency. The CIA, for instance, went behind the back of Congress in order to surreptitiously funnel money into organizations like the Congress for Cultural Freedom and to support exhibitions—such as “The New American Painting,” “Modern Art in the United States,” and “Masterpieces of the 20th Century”—that ironically promoted an image of the “autonomous” art of the free world in juxtaposition to the controlled and manipulated artistic production of the Soviet Bloc. Artists like Ad Reinhardt and Emile de Antonio, although they did not, to my knowledge, explicitly reference the CIA’s covert operations in the cultural cold war, were certainly not duped or oblivious to these forces, since they foregrounded in some of their work the complex set of social, institutional, political, and economic relations structuring the New York art scene in the postwar era.
NT: I would like to build off what Gabriel is saying, as I too have witnessed this concern over co-optation, or being outside the establishment, as a fundamental tension in the art-activism community. It is both a reasonable concern and one built on what could only be described as paranoia. Art-activists are constantly concerned that they, or perhaps all the more tellingly, that someone else, is succumbing to power. I don’t even know if I want to use the word “simplistic,” because it’s more paranoiac. This is very destructive. Capitalism produces these conditions where things are constantly co-opted, but it also produces other spaces. In the paranoiac reading, all signs of power are signs of co-optation, so art-activists are always being lured into a corner, where they’re not allowed to get any power, and then anyone who does get power is co-opted. And so you produce this winless state.
GR: I think that one of the positions that this leads to is a kind of omniscient defeatism, where you always already know that everything is going to be co-opted, so it’s futile to try and do anything, except perhaps recognize the fact that everything is already doomed to failure. This position is equivalent to blindly painting ourselves into a corner, and then looking up and finding self-satisfied solace in the fact that we are farsighted enough to know that we will not be able to escape! If capitalism has tentacles that are extending in multiple directions, there are also those who are fighting to tear those tentacles off, or even sever them at their source. We have to be attentive to the ways in which capitalism is not an all-encompassing system. To develop a different metaphor: it is not only that it is an edifice with cracks; it has massive fissures in it. And those interstices allow for very interesting and productive work to be done.
AA: One of the arguments I hear a lot lately is a kind of totalizing analysis of “the new capitalism,” which is flexible, capable of turning ethnic and gender identities into productive niches, praises mobility, etcetera. And one of the responses has been to say that we need to be conservative in response. We should be protective of family, the non-flexible, the non-mobile, because that’s what’s anti-capitalist now. I’m wondering if some of what you’re proposing, with this critique of an absolutist view of capital, is a more nuanced way of talking about tactics in the present. Perhaps there’s even a lesson to be learned here from capitalism itself, an idea that success in organization and gaining power is less about opposition and more about constant creative production?
NT: Well, one of the things I’d say is that I’m more and more these days a Lefebvrian and a Gramscian. What I mean is that I believe in building structures, infrastructures, and I believe in space as a way of producing politics. Of course, producing structures in the world requires a dash of Machiavelli. Producing power is a world of give and take. It is not flat. You must exist in this world, you must exist in capitalism like a fish needs to exist in water. You can’t not breathe capitalism. It’s just the case. I can’t stand the kind of bland Marxist critics that find capitalism somewhere, and they go, “I found capitalism! It’s a disaster!” So, to go to your point, as opposed to trying to find the non-capitalist maneuver, I’m interested in taking for granted the existing reality that we’re in and then producing spaces of possibility, with a clear-headed sense of the pragmatic possibilities, and also the power of space over time. What we have then is a relation of infrastructure / space / methods of distribution, not just the poetic gesture, but the actual longer-term building. Because unlike theory, structures produce the case. They are not a theory against but instead a reordering of relations that makes its case by sheer existence.
GR: I have a different take on your question, which will partially reformulate some of the comments I made earlier. There is a widespread narrative concerning not only the ubiquitous and inescapable tentacles of capitalism, but also the massive success of capitalism itself. It is often presented as being extremely productive, efficient, and flexible insofar as it is capable of incorporating anything and everything, including the most radical forms of critique. Whether it’s celebrated or contested, the so-called miracle of capitalism is, among other things, its ability to successfully integrate everything into a massive system of production. However, if you look at the history of modern industrial capitalism since the 19th century, this history is one of unprecedented destruction and colossal failure. Capitalism is responsible for the brutal destruction of life as we know it, including not only the quality of human existence but also life itself and the vitality of the entire biosphere. In this regard, and in many others, it is a completely bankrupt system. What is miraculous about capitalism is thus not that it has successfully recuperated everything into a juggernaut of unrelenting production. The miracle of capitalism is that this failed system, which has been debunked by astute economists and never ceases to demonstrate that it is a dead system, continues to live. Therefore, the central question is not: how do we oppose the spectacular many-headed hydra of capitalism? Instead, the crucial question is: how can we kill a specter that’s already died? For the specter haunting the world today is the specter of capitalism, this walking-dead that continues to bedevil the contemporary world, this Lazarus-like zombie that refuses to remain in its historical tomb. [Laughter]
NT: And it’s also just to say, these times, you call it “capitalism,” but there are other historical words you could use, like feudalism, because it’s gotten to the point where we’re talking about a wealth inequity that’s so vast, we’re not talking about the 1%; we’re not even talking about the .1%ers. We’re talking about the .0001%ers. Giving it the word capitalism gives it too much credit for what it really is, which is just straightforward corruption in another guise. Gabriel’s point is really interesting, because it is a total failure. Don’t give it too much credit. But I would also say, there’s one really important thing to talk about, which is in terms of co-optation. That is hugely important. The role that capitalism played with the culture industry should not be underestimated. This system, whatever we call it, hasn’t just eaten up signifiers, revolutionary signifiers; it’s eaten through language; it’s eaten through belief in a very profound way. And I say that because it’s not so easy to get our symbols and language back. There’s a kind of greenhouse effect of the culture industry in our linguistic environment. It’s eroded our trust in the language we fought for, because the symbols that rally people are deeply corrosive at this point, and the paranoia that people feel about their symbols being taken away from them—“democracy” perhaps being the most recent example—it’s all real! Because they’ve seen it. Their favorite bands, their favorite music, their favorite TV show, or whatever, something that meant something at first and was deep in them when they were a kid. They watched it sold back to them as crap. And that is not just some bland abstraction. That is real, and I don’t want to underestimate the power that it’s had in terms of producing an environment where people expect the power of capitalism to destroy the most personal parts of themselves. So yes, it is a failure, but one that exists deep inside us.
IV | On Critical Language and Practical Change
AA: There are two issues here involving the question of language. To begin with, there is the possible recuperation of certain positive language games. Secondly, there is the question of what kind of critical language we can use to talk about ideologies today. Because I think we all feel that a kind of art-historical ideology critique, of the form “this is what’s wrong, this is how this artist successfully defeats it, this is how that artist fails,” is insufficient for these tasks. And at the same time, as you’ve just said, ideology coming through the culture industry remains an incredibly powerful force. And so, what might be the place of ideology in our criticism, our theory, our curation, our practice today? And what other modes of articulating our historical moment are there?
GR: The vocabulary of political ideologies is so strongly linked to a state- and capital-centered approach that it often leaves aside the various ways in which there are competing political imaginaries in different social matrices, and in various cultural contexts. By a political imaginary I don’t mean something purely in the mind, but instead a practical mode of intelligibility, an operative understanding of politics that manifests itself in the social world. A more variegated analysis of political imaginaries would allow us to look at the ways in which there are many of them that are beholden to a certain system or set of interests, but there are also those that regularly contest these interests in various ways.
NT: I think this model you’re putting on the table, Gabriel, also helps us talk about artistic practices, particularly those that are producing civic models, projects like Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses in Houston’s 3rd Ward, Jeanne van Heeswijk’s work in Liverpool, Teddy Cruz’s research on a “government of learning” in Medellin, Colombia. They’re all infrastructural models, aligned with Gramscian ideals of institution building, or space-building, or civic building. There are also artworks that come and go—temporary autonomous zones—and those can be good, too. They just need to appear in the right place. The site of reception needs to be such that they’re productive, or at least produces a kind of politics and reception that are dynamic.
AA: Along these lines, it seems to me that we lack today what I’d call an “organizational imagination,” or the ability to conceive of how to create long-term, in-depth political organizing. Historically, novels and films such as W. E. B. Du Bois’s Dark Princess or Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront were both inspiring and critically investigating such an imagination. What kinds of practices are you seeing and what are you interested in either curating or theorizing, along those lines?
GR: I’d say that one of the things that is important to recognize historically is that many of the attempts to develop aesthetic practices with a radical political edge were also invested in creating institutional mechanisms and relatively new forms of organization and federation. Consider, for instance, the numerous institutions founded by the Russian avant-garde (the UNOVIS, the Inkhuk, the VKhUTEMAS), or the rich history of the Bauhaus. The ubiquitous story of the avant-garde overthrowing the institution in order to demolish the concept or practice of art is untenable when you look at the historical avant-garde’s investment in doing precisely the opposite (at least in certain instances): developing institutions, modes of organization, and social networks that allow for greater leverage when you are trying to make social and political change.
NT: I just saw a talk by Charles Esche, the director of the Van Abbemuseum, who’s a phenomenal curator, one of the more left-wing prominent curators on the globe. His basic point was, we need to build new institutions, and also that we have to get over this infighting, with everyone trying to outdo each other in terms of being “more radical.” What we need to do is team-build. And I also heard Tom Finkelpearl, the former director of the Queens Museum, who’s now the director of Cultural Affairs for the City of New York, who was basically saying the same thing: that he’s really interested in civic models. He also believes that the arts can work across low-income communities, across race and class. And, what’s more, that instead of thinking of this as a kind of battle that cannot be won, we totally can win it, that there are ways in which we can reconfigure art and our institutions. It’s just that to do so we need to team-build. I find this deeply inspiring.
AA: One final question. To get back to your books—Nato, you discuss this problem of “politically ambiguous art,” which is art that claims a political affiliation but it’s unclear in what sense, and then Gabriel you talk about the “politicity of apolitical art,” and the ways in which even things which don’t claim to be political are wrapped up in political systems. So I’m interested in what the question of judgment becomes. I mean, one of the historical functions of art criticism and art curation was to choose the “best” works and then present them to the public. In some sense, contemporary art criticism took over that practice in this very funny way, of simply judging whether art was political or not. I’m wondering what modes or methods of judgment you both might suggest, given the complexity? What do we do when, if you try to make the perfect political work, it can go terribly, or if you try to make the most apolitical abstract expressionist painting, it turns out that it’s completely embedded in political networks?
NT: I’ve been working on this essay, “Can the Spectacle Edify?” I was thinking about the Ronald McDonald House, which is the philanthropic education portion of the vast McDonald’s empire. So here’s this context where corporate culture is in fact providing much-needed services, but it could be argued, it is merely trying to put a good face on a highly unethical business. What is fascinating is that ultimately this tension exists in all works today, not just that of the Ronald McDonald House. To take an opposite example, I did this project with Paul Chan, Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, where a lot of community organizing went into producing a site-specific production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in the devastated landscape of post-Katrina New Orleans. In that case, it could also be argued that it was an elaborate project made by Paul Chan and Creative Time to provide each other with a heavy load of social capital (which did in fact happen). That is to say, in a world of black and white, neither the Ronald McDonald House nor Waiting for Godot in New Orleans fits. The question of how these projects touch lives, how many lives and in what ways, is all important. It all requires specificity. It’s a lot of work of course to write in this manner and art writers are going to have get paid a lot more to do the adequate research to make works legible. [Laughter]
GR: I agree, and I would add a few things. One is that it’s clear there is no perfect form of judgment regarding the art-critical assessment of the political dimension of works of art. Moreover, there’s no simple binary that would allow us to identify the ideal forms of political art, and the types of political art that do no work. This leads me to a second point, which overlaps significantly with what Nato just said: we need to tease out all the complexities, not only of the effects of a particular artistic intervention, but of everything that goes into the material production and the concrete circulation of specific works. We also need to recognize that artists, like political activists, always begin in the middle. You do not have the opportunity to choose the economic system or set of institutions governing the world into which you are born. You’re thrown into a situation in which there are a series of mechanisms that are in place, and you have to find ways of working with them, through them, or against them (or developing alternative mechanisms). As Jean-Luc Godard reiterated on more than one occasion, “you do what you can, not what you want.” The complexity of this situation needs to be foregrounded so that we don’t fall into a simplistic moral binary of absolute good and utter evil. The last thing I would say is that even when you map out all of this complexity (as much as you can), it’s also important to undertake a fallibilist intervention by saying: “Yes, in this particular conjuncture, I think that this type of work is important.” We should acknowledge that what we say or do might need to be revised, but it’s also critical to be able to take a stance, and not to simply fall back on a descriptive account of all of the complex variables. Because if you don’t take a stance, then the political stakes remain extraordinarily low.