In McWorld, and of it also

Print edition : February 27, 2004

The ways of the postmodern activist

THE first part of this essay had looked at a piece of `postmodern' activism, intended to `immaterially sabotage' the workings of Capital and detailed certain difficulties in considering it as art. Doing so seemed proper because the activists had described their doings more as "performance than political demonstration". In resisting just as they did "the forces of discipline and normalisation" that maintain Empire, our activists seemed fair samples of "the monsters and beautiful giants" whose advent Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt had announced at the last Documenta, whose acts will, they said, finally dissolve the McWorld ruled by Capital in an "absolute democracy of the multitude". Let us now look at an artist whose doings would surely interest them.

The work of Santiago Serra has been considered in these pages (Frontline, November 24, 2000). His signature, so to say, is his use of the poor and the destitute as `material' for art. One such exercise involved luring young mestizo workers in Mexico City to a grand museum, to take part in a piece of ostensibly political theatre, for a day's wage perhaps, and filming them through surveillance cameras as they stood about an empty gallery, unaware that they had been duped. The taped footage was then played at the opening of an exhibition at the museum, presumably to the discomfiture of its wealthy and influential patrons. I chanced across another of Serra's experiments in Munich some two years ago, in a Kunsthalle maintained by the largest commercial bank in Germany, in a building that might have housed one of its branches once. What one saw this time were oblongs dressed in what seemed a smooth leather, their colour fawn, disposed loosely in a space that could have served as a lobby or a lounge. In section they would have blocked out a man's torso; and an accompanying plaque explained that the fawn was casing posts of solid concrete, which had been hauled there, for a nominal wage, by some unemployed labourers.

Considered simply as objects, our oblongs could be taken to allude, in some coy way even, to Minimal Art. But knowing how they had got there gives their pointing a bite. A malice of sorts had found vent here, one might think, making `gross' labour undo the formal finesse of Minimalist scale and proportion. One's sense of their bulk was oddly attenuated, though, by the setting. Their skin and proportion now called to mind the furnishing of a lounge in an airport or a salon in a museum - some zone of abstract congress, say, where `the middling sort' and their `betters' might collect as a `public' without the embarrassing presence of the poor.

Activist art, Kidney supermarket, by Shilpa Gupta.

Enough has been said, I trust, to suggest how understanding Serra's oblongs as an artwork might finally be a bodily affair, which is why one talks of artworks embodying meaning after all, and to indicate how the work's meaning - the undoing of what scale and proportion accomplish in Minimal Art, and the peculiar attenuation of the oblongs' sensed bulk - depends on our knowing just how these objects came before us. Read so, however, what Serra has done is not particularly monstrous. The `grossness' that undoes Minimalist finesse is a function of seeing Serra's labourers a certain way - of taking their labour here for a `loose' form of physical effort that had once been organised and honed by heavy industry. But one may take him to have used his labourers themselves as material only if their labouring is the substance of the work and the work itself would have been some complex event then, of which what we see is a residue.

It is not clear what bodily understanding would consist in now, but what one saw were the remains, it appears, of an event. That was one among many commissioned for a show called "Loop" organised by the Kunst-Werke of Berlin. Let us look at what the catalogue had to say about Serra. Talking of his more blunt work, where the unemployed might be paid a nominal sum to perform some pointless or physically punishing task - to fold themselves into packing cartons, for instance, or simply hold up a collapsing wall - Serra's interpreter has him "addressing power and community in the realm of labour" by "at once presenting the new world proletariat and creating novel ways of exploiting them". Exploiting the powerless seems an odd way of addressing power and community. But reading on we find that, though the `new world proletariat' lose whatever "humanity, dignity and autonomy" they might have by performing for Serra, their being `presented' so "underscores the power of pure labour - freed from any particular finality - to bring elements together and create relations between them": in this instance, an `unequal' relation between his beholders and his destitute `performers'.

That would be a wonder indeed, but there is a small logical problem. The inequality here consists, precisely, in the presumed loss of dignity and autonomy. The `creating of relation' would consist in forcing this loss only, nothing more, and as such is no measure of `the power of pure labour' - however one glosses the phrase - to create anything. It seems as true to say that Serra makes a spectacle, simply, of the loss of dignity and autonomy. One cannot accuse our interpreter of mendacity though; she seems not to have enough presence of mind for that. That she is simple in some way seems more likely, especially after we hear that "today even the artist can enjoy what was once the sole privilege of the capitalist - to command a force of workers with a wage". One might describe Serra as commanding the labour he `employs' in his work, of course, but the analogy with `the capitalist' goes no further. To believe otherwise - to believe, in particular, that "Serra creates unequal relations as artworks" - is to be estranged by words from any possible fact.1

Serra leaves his beholders morally unsure, of course, but the reading we have just reviewed does not at all bring out why. The interpretive problem can be stated thus: an `exploitative' economic transaction has to be understood as a work of art by receiving it as political gesture. Our interpreter first had Serra "transforming the clean Minimalist idiom into a trashy torture apparatus that can extract the truth about neo-liberal economics from the bodies of its victims", but the loose labour that `neo-liberal economics' makes available to him - which seems to be its `truth' now - is then `freed from finality' through the performances he orchestrates, and so comes to have "a value which lies precisely in its incalculability, in its potential to produce something beyond mere commodity". The talk we have rehearsed lies between these pronouncements, but does nothing to connect them, and so leaves the interpretive puzzle intact. Our intrepid reader might not, however, be abashed at all by being told so. She rounds off by telling us that, according to our friends Hardt and Negri as it happens, "the distinction between politics, economics and culture has disappeared".

The artworld is not noted for conceptual finesse anymore, so the circumstance of some distinction having disappeared there is no indication of its discursive status. Anyway, the suggestion must be that no aspect of actions or events is anymore distinguishable from another as `economic' or `political' rather than `cultural'. Perhaps that is so of happenings in the artworld. But we must ask how we are to recognise such of their incalculable consequences as will lie `beyond mere commodity' now, when these come clear at last. The difficulty is plain. But there is a more obvious and more basic one, which will persist even if our vanished distinction should reappear. The incalculability of their potential consequence could not be a value possessed by Serra's works, simply because the possibility of their inconsequence is just as incalculable.

A point of logic may be pressed too far in talking of art, of course, and compromise understanding. But, to note again, it is remarkable how inept the interpretation of artworks has generally become: words seem to blunt themselves as soon as they are uttered, almost, and each claim made seems to defeat some other. One wonders if artists themselves are now as witless as the generality of their interpreters seem to be; it seems uncharitable to suppose so, though, and perhaps one should look for reasons to think otherwise. The structure of patronage and the exigencies of practice make the relation of work to word only opportunistic now. Interpretation seems to have only such uses as advertising copy might - it seems to be read just as glancingly - and maybe artists have come to think that `copy' of a sort will serve them best. Why patronage and practice should vitiate interpretation is a complicated question; but how patronage has come to be institutionalised is a large reason, when that is coupled with the release from `normalisation and discipline' that practice seems to enjoy. Aesthetic entropy has come to be managed by a curatoriate whose `expertise' has to be suitably evoked, one might say, by what is shown and said of the shows they stage. Such evocation is usually performed through the catalogues that document their doings, and interpretation is mostly done there. These catalogues seem intended, nowadays, for the personnel of organisations that `promote' the arts. The functionaries of art foundations and such have become the preferred consumers, one could say, of an interpretive writing which serves to advertise the curatoriate and perhaps supply meets demand perfectly now.

COMING back to the activists we had earlier looked at, they seem to agree with Hardt and Negri that the distinction between politics and culture has disappeared; and its disappearance might be one concomitant of the circumstance that, as they see it, the powers that be are unable to manage or even track social change anymore. Whether power is less able now than before in this regard is anyone's guess. But if political action and cultural performance are no longer distinguishable, to the artworld at least, then art cannot be told from activism, of course, and any singular embodying of meaning will seem incidental now to whatever sort of activism art becomes. Optimists might come to regard the `monstrous' likes of Serra as sublating both art and activism - using this word somewhat as translators of Hegel once did, for an `overcoming' which also `preserves' - at least as much as the structure of McWorld will allow. Regarding the artworld's doings so might spare us, at any rate, the embarrassment they so often occasion.

It might be well to step back now from the fray, though, and consider matters more largely. Through much the better part of their history, the arts of painting and sculpture accommodated themselves to power: but in a more conscious and confident way than the practices they emerged from, toward the middle of the last millennium, as modes of meaning more than anything else. That accommodation may be taken for a uniform constraint on practice considered largely, for all the local variance and sporadic exception there would have been, until the last quarter of the 19th century or so when the way is prepared for modernist painting by modes of practice which appear to as it were sidestep power. Putting things so might slant fact somewhat. The emergence of the technocratic state, through the preceding decades of the century, would have redrawn the compact between image and power, and this `sidestepping' may not have been a difficult manoeuvre. The technical expansion in the means of producing and reproducing images that industrial modernity initiates, and the mass availability of the image consequent on that, would somehow or other have played a part here; and perhaps that was a factor, internal to practice, in how the avowedly avant garde among the early modernists came to actively ally themselves with mass political movements. The totalitarian finale of these movements dissolved these remarriages of art and power, though, and the formalist recuperations of its immediate past that late modernism relies on seem, briefly, to have inoculated practice against political misadventure. The political motive of postmodernist practice needs no review: another expression of which was the imperative to extend materials and procedures exponentially beyond painting and sculpture. But the antinomian energies of the postmodernist seemed to dissipate entirely as the artworld subsided, at the close of the last century, into the perfect aesthetic entropy which supposedly brings the historical career of art to an end; and with that its political agency finally evaporates, leaving practice free to embody meaning anyhow.

This is a conclusion made famous by Danto, of course, and it may record an American view only. The very simple and partial digest offered above was not meant, however, to lead us there. Strange rapprochements of art and power take place now, which tempt one to see things otherwise.2 Perhaps the embodying of meaning, whether it is the character definitive of art or not, should be thought epiphenomenal to some particular relation between image and power, which relation no longer obtains, and the working through of which, over the last 500 years or so, is visible to us as the seemingly completed history of art. That will seem a mystic suggestion, whose truth is hardly assayable, and whose only use may be to paper over the inanity of what generally passes for art nowadays. But there we shall have to leave the mystery - lit and darkened equally, now and again, by the doings of the monsters Hardt and Negri laud. The primitive Christians, rendering unto Caesar whatever was his, were not of this world they said, however much they might be in it. But Empire's new recusants, who seem in some remote and collateral way their descendants, will have to be of McWorld just as much as they are in it; or so it seems, until, at least, the multitude begins to rule.

Footnotes

1. My talk of possible fact is meant to sidestep the ontological issue between nominalists and realists - no coherent `theory' of the social world will clear enough `factual' ground, let me say, for the claim that Serra creates unequal relations as artworks.

2. Chris Burden's "Two Minute Airplane Factory", which was commissioned by the Tate and by American Airlines, is a good example here; and Burden's later career illustrates how even an avowedly anarchic artist can be brought comfortably within Capital's fold.

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