In his new article for the March issue of Art Monthly, Francis Frascina argues, following Zizek, that art is inextricably linked to real violence such as ethnic atrocities. Art’s political culpability is rarely framed in such specific terms, both in regard of what it is associated with and in regard of the actuality and reality of its complicity. Since Bourdieu we have got used to thinking about art’s ‘symbolic violence’ but now, this is not enough.
It is important how Frascina and Zizek link art with violence. They do not reiterate the old argument that art colludes with power through its elitism, or only when it defaults to propaganda or kitsch. Art is attached to coercion when it is at its most spiritual, aesthetic and pure. The ‘ethnic national myth which gives to people the perverse strength to kill other people’, according to Zizek, needs something like art because it ‘needs something spiritual’.
Putting this another way, structural coercion (eg state violence, civil war, religious crusades) want art to be pure and aesthetic as a kind of proof of the value of the civilisation that is being fought for. Art does not have to glorify violence in order to promote it. On the contrary, art that remains aloof from the material world (of politics, the military etc) is far more functional for the atrocities because it shows us who we ideally are, not what we actually do. This is the role of ideology. It is by over-shooting reality and representing our very highest ideals that ideology manages to serve those in power. Ideology does not do its job by telling us lies. The reason that Marxists have described it as ‘false consciousness’ is that it secures the existing social relations in processes of socialization and social reproduction. But it achieves this by promoting fine feelings and deeply held beliefs. Art is at its most ideological, then, not when it is politically instrumentalized but when it is autonomous, presenting an image of ourselves as cultivated, disinterested and high-minded.
It is important to insist that all art is ideological. It is not that each artwork is ideological and constructs itself as ideological. Insofar as art is the official or dominant culture of any society, it is an ideological instrument of that society. Art is institutionally ideological. Just as education is institutionally ideological (the school is an ideological instrument, the teacher is an ideological agent, the pupil is an ideological subject, etc), so art is ideological regardless of its content. Even when art does not comply with official beliefs and sentiments it can still promote existing society ideologically by representing its highest ideals.
This is why Marcuse’s argument that the aesthetic is implicitly resistant to ideology must be treated with extreme caution. In fact, rather than think that art and aesthetics are typically oppositional to hegemony, we would be better to assume that art only manages to do this in its exceptions. According to ideology, such exceptions would be so-called ‘great’ works, because it is through our highest ideals that ideology ties us to the values of the existing social relations. The critique of ideology suggests something like the opposite: art distinguishes itself from ideology not by retreating into an autonomous space of purity but by rejecting art itself. If art is ideological, the only art that can possibly break with art’s ideological function is anti-art.