Here is the short text for my ten minute contribution to the Political Performance event in Serbia this morning.
The question of political performance needs to be distinguished from the performance of professional politics. From a political point of view, they are opposites. At the heart of the difference between the two is the political failing of professional politics (both in the Former East and within Liberal Democracies): in a word, all professional politics is depoliticizing.
Liberal democratic thought holds in high esteem the protection of the private – private life, private citizens, private space, private interests and private property. Hence, if politics has been turned into administration, private life is no solution for the political failings of politics. However, in the realm of political business, the problem with politics cannot be solved by politics.
We can neither become more political nor abandon politics altogether.
The task today is not to produce a political art, which would merely inflict professionalized politics onto more victims. Political performance cannot be restricted to this kind of politics. No, the task today is to produce an art that politicizes, that takes a position and divides opinion. The task of a politicized art today is not to enter into the realm of political business – certainly not in its present, unpromising form – but to call into question the business of politics with the politicization of everything.
Julian Stallabrass argues that the economic cycle does not merely affect “the volume of art sold but its character”.
“Painting, the most easily saleable form of art, undergoes a predictable revival with each boom, while less straightforwardly commercial practices – including performance and the various strands of post-conceptual art – step out into prominence with each bust.” (p107)
According to Stallabrass, economic recession, which effectively puts the public sector and independent practitioners in a more powerful position vis a vis the market, benefits performance, political art, video and installation. Political performance is two out of the four! Political performance, video and installation are not abandoned during the boom; simply, there are more commodities saturating the galleries and magazines, leaving less space for the independent work to occupy. The market does not have any impact on political activists or on political performance artists – we do it anyway because we do not do it for money – but this does not mean we have to be isolated from all forms of support.
Independent and radical art practices need to sustain themselves in alternative ways. In the absence of the market – or in conscientious opposition to it – political performance needs institutions. Since RoseLee Goldberg set up Performa in NY, there has been a clear increase in the support for performance, especially in the Lower East Side, and some of this has been support for distinctly political performance. The UK has a very active performance scene, but it still does not have comparable institutional support.
One option for the contemporary politicized performance artist is to engage in Activist Art. This can be exciting, provocative, urgent and inspiring, but it can also mean accepting the liberal democratic shrinking of politics and operating within the narrow, professional field of political campaigning. Relational art, which proposes simple acts such as sharing a beer or having a conversation as glimpses of utopia, follows the liberal tradition in a different way. Here, private moments of interaction are framed as critical, radical and questioning. Politics, which is thought of as alienating and vaguely inhuman, is opposed with the private, intimate and convivial. Politics is saved by taking the politics out of it; and being sensitive to the ethics of everyday life.
The Freee Art Collective rejects these options for politicized art because they are nothing but adaptations to liberal democracy’s distortion of politics and inflation of the private sphere. We are committed, instead, to the politicization and political interrogation of art by immersing it into the cultural processes of the opinion formation – creating opportunities for discussion, debate, dispute and protest that are not colonized or instrumentalized by professional politics, by the state and the bureaucratic techniques. We work, therefore, somewhere between the private and the public, in the ‘space’ that Jurgen Habermas calls the ‘public sphere’.
Some commentators regard Habermas’ concept of the public sphere as a lame piece of bourgeois proceduralism. In order to understand its radical force we need to oppose the public sphere to the two dominant modes of collective decision-making in modern capitalism – collective decisions are not the result of collective decision making processes but are steered by market mechanisms or bureaucratic procedures. If we want to curb the power of these steering media, what we need to do, according to Habermas, is interrupt their flow with collective decision making, collective will formation and collective action. Let us say, then, that what we do as a society might be decided not by the purchasing power of the wealthy nor on the institutional power of decision-makers, but on the decisions we arrive at through discussion, debate, disagreement, argumentation and the sharing of opinions. This is democracy.
Democracy has not proved itself under bourgeois conditions to be able to deliver power from a small elite of decision makers. Nor has it been able to curb the power and privilege embedded in the mechanisms of the economic markets. Improving the composition of electoral democracy will do nothing to rectify this. Bourgeois liberal democracy has failed. The reason is not that it is not democratic enough – as if more participation in the state would free people instead of further alienate them.
The problem is that actually existing democracy is limited to the election of governing elites. Democracy limited to the political sphere is not democracy at all. Everything must be democratized. Production, consumption and distribution should not be decided by markets, but collective decisions. The workplace should not be managed by the agents of capital but run collectively by a combination of its workers, the local communities and the people who take an interest in the products. Education, medicine, finance, domestic life and infrastructure should all be democratized too. The democratization of everything cannot exclude the democratization of art.
We cannot have the democratization of art and retain the old fashioned cultural distinctions between high and low, or between art and circus, as it appears in the publicity for this conference. Let’s not adopt the enemy’s rhetoric by using the word circus as an insult. I’d rather hear us chant the slogan ‘art and the circus against spectacle!’ Nevertheless, political performance is necessarily in opposition to the spectacle, and to the spectacle of liberal democratic politics.
To talk about the democratization of everything is to talk about the need for numerous revolutions, which can only be brought about through numerous processes of politicization. Performance, at the beginning, couldn’t help but be political in terms of its contested status as art. We should not think that this politicizing power of performance has been eradicated simply because the art galleries, museums and academic institutions have accepted it. It remains, as Stallabrass indicates, antagonistic to the market, and in its more politicized form, it remains antagonistic to the depoliticizing state.
Political performance is political, therefore, not just in the issues it addresses (which are vitally important) but also in its politicization of art and its contribution to the democratization of art. From the very beginning, performance was a political presence within the old hierarchical ensemble of art practices. It blew the whole thing open and it continues to do so. I am not saying that political performance is our only hope, nor that political performance is a substitute for political activism more generally, but that if we need to democratize everything, and this means revolutionizing everything, then political performance is vital, urgent and revolutionary.