Apparatus and the Politics of Art

Some issues that have been raised recently in relation to the politics of participating in biennial exhibitions need to be clarified.

In his essay ‘Author as Producer’ from 1924, Walter Benjamin does not interpret works but analyses the relationship between the artwork and the productive apparatus, arguing that there is a distinction to be made between works that ‘supply a productive apparatus without changing it’ and works that call forth a new apparatus.

Brecht’s plays, and the radical Moscow theatre of Tretyakov, were not merely adventurous in their form but challenged the institution of the theatre. Some of Benjamin’s themes will be familiar to students and advocates of institution critique but his examples do not fit the mould. One waybof thinking about Benjamin’s concept of apparatus and the examples he gives is that they constitute the pre-history of institution critique, namely the avant-garde (itself described by Peter Bürger as ‘the critique of art as an institution’). A more radical reading, I would argue, is to see Benjamin, Brecht et al as pointing towards a more expansive conception of art’s social, political, economic and material production and reproduction.

Mel Ramsden picked up Benjamin’s theme in his essay ‘On Practice’ from The Fox magazine in 1975, which Alexader Alberro tells us is the first published reference to ‘institution critique’, though, it must be said, Ramsden is caustically critical of this nascent strategy. ‘The products may change,’ he says, ‘modifications occur all the time (an endless spectacle), but the form of life remains the same’. If we read ‘forms of life’ as a more sociologically inflected version of what Benjamin calls the apparatus, then Ramsden is clearly having a Benjaminian moment here!

Just like Benjamin, whose essay on the author as producer introduces the concept of apparatus to counter the apparent politics of both Socialist Realism and Russian Futurism, Ramsden dismisses the idea that new, better, more critical artworks can ‘solve’ the problem of art’s commodification and bureaucratization. Neither political content nor the politicisation of form can adequately substitute for the political transformation of the apparatus. ‘Even those [artists] who profess unique political awareness’, Ramsden says, ‘just don’t make the connections they ought to between their work and (e.g.) the spread of a marketing expedient like “international art”.’

Robert Smithson, two years earlier, called for an ‘investigation into the apparatus the artist is threaded through’. This has been interpreted as a precursor of institution critique, perhaps justifiably, but Smithson’s reference to apparatus is, at the very least, ambiguously related to the concept of institution. Is apparatus a synonym for institution, does it refer to some element within the institution (perhaps the infrastructure rather than the discourse?), or does the apparatus refer to the specific social conditions in which the institution is situated?

Institution Critique has raised the bar for thinking about art’s immanent political engagement. Jean-Luc Godard’s injunction, which retains its validity today, not to make political art but to make art politically, finds an echo in Institution Critique. Here the artist confronts the conditions of artistic production directly, like the proletariat confronts capitalism via the factory or the feminist confronts patriarchal society via the family. Institution Critique is the politicization of art itself. Alexander Alberro constructs a very elegant account of Institution Critique, in which the Enlightenment created the institutions of the public sphere on the basis of a formal universalism (universal public access to knowledge and the arts among them) which has consistently failed to include the whole of actual society.

Institution Critique, Alberro argues, has for most of its history been shaped by the agenda of demonstrating that art’s apparently universal institutions are in fact bias towards particular social interests. The coherence of Alberro’s argument is philosophically satisfying, as is Blake Stimson’s somewhat Adornian version of the same argument that ‘institution critique preserved the institution of art … by holding it accountable to its founding ideas’. It is not easy to confirm this account empirically, though, as many artists who are central to Institution Critique do not share the particularist agenda. Michael Asher, for instance, does not move walls and other things with any specific social group in mind. And Carnevale’s ‘Lock Up Action’ used the gallery as a stand-in for the invisible constraints, discomfort and anxiety of everyday life.

The expansion of institution critique in the 1990s, which argued that the institution of art is suffused with extra-institutional factors such as class, gender, race and geography, is ambivalent in this respect, implying both that there are material forces at work outside the frame of the institution while arguing, simultaneously, that the institution is an immanent carrier of these extra-institutional structures. That is, the institution is recognised as significantly less than the totality but can be a stand in for the totality because it is regarded as a filter of society at large. The relationship between institution and totality can be fudged to reinforce the value of institution critique. Some precision is called for, I think.

In one sense totality is out of fashion, but in another, namely the tendency to refer to the society or the world as a whole (eg globalization, post-Fordism), totality is a conspicuous and perhaps inevitable symptom of contemporary thought. Peter Osborne defines the concept of ‘contemporary art’ precisely in terms of the necessary fiction of the global. But totality is often expressed through its parts, in ways that suppress the totality. When one element is singled out as having privileged significance or agency in relation to the totality then we correctly speak of determinism or reductionism.

In his book Television Raymond Williams highlights the problems of technological determinism in particular but rejects all forms of determinism in favour of an analysis of the full range of factors, or, we might say, the totality that the privileged aspect appears to monopolise. Roy Bhaskar calls this ‘detotalization’, rightly putting the emphasis on the suppression of (all other) factors. David Harvey lists the typical or dominant forms of reductionism, including economic determinism, technological determinism, class determinism and linguistic determinism. Harvey’s list includes institution determinism.

David Harvey explains that social theorists often take one aspect of the totality ‘and view it as the “silver bullet” that causes all change’, explains everything and is the sole or primary focus of political and intellectual attention. Harvey gives us a list of current versions of ‘silver bullet’ theories, including technological determinism, environmental determinism, daily life determinism, labour process determinism, class struggle determinism and, finally, institutional determinism. You can add your own favourites to the list, perhaps incorporating linguistic determinism, discourse determinism, epistemological determinism, solid state material determinism or particularity determinism. Harvey points beyond these various types of determinism by urging us to trace ‘the dialectical motion across … moments’. Harvey identifies 7 moments of the social totality, which he expands from a list of 5 elements identified by Marx.

I think we need to expand the list still further, but I will start with Harvey’s list. ‘Social change arises … through the dialectical unfolding of relations between … a) technological and organizational forms of production, exchange and consumption, b) relations to nature, c) social relations between people, d) mental conceptions of the world, e) labour processes and production of specific goods, geographies, services or affects, f) institutional, legal and governmental arrangements, g) the conduct of daily life and activities of social reproduction’. This list may not be exhaustive but I think we can agree that institutions count as, at most, just one of the 7, or only part of one. If we are going to address the full extent of art’s material and intellectual conditions of reproduction, therefore, we must look further than art’s institutions.

I don’t want to retreat from Institution Critique; I want to expand its terms of engagement. I would argue that art has to be understood in terms of the totality of forces and relations that reproduce it and reproduce the society to which art, in its current forms, belong. Art’s institutions are not coextensive with this totality. The totality I call the apparatus. I take this idea from Walter Benjamin, who, in his essay ‘Author as Producer’ from 1924, extended the argument of Sergei Tretyakov that ‘specialists’ after the revolution need to perform a critical appraisal of their field rather than use it as a platform from which to issue universal truths. Tretyakov worked in the experimental theatres with Eisenstein and Arvatov in Moscow in the 1920s. As Raunig puts it, ‘Tretyakov saw the future of Soviet production art in the mass of worker correspondents, the reporters and amateur photographers, the newspaper and radio-makers, in short the “factographs”.’

Peter Bürger’s theory of the avant-garde as the critique of art as an institution, or what Thierry De Duve calls ‘generic art’, as well as the avant-garde’s own term, anti-art, all capture something that is vital to the first wave of Institution Critique which Alberro, Fraser and Rogoff appear to neglect. Institution Critique does not begin as a complaint about how art’s institutions are not as universal as they ought to be, but, as the frameworks for designating what art is, are the means through which to critique art as such rather than this or that art. John Searle, Arthur Danto and George Dickie’s analytic and conservative institutional theory of art establish an unlikely alliance with Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben and Gilles Deleuze in theorising art not in terms of artists, artworks, intentions, taste and so on, but in terms of the institutions that produce the conditions for the possibility of art. So, traditional thinking on art goes something like this: everything starts with the artist and proceeds naturally to the art which the artist freely makes.

The sequence of the traditional humanist view of art is a causal chain beginning with the individual producer:

artist -> art -> gallery

This can be enough for certain studies of art, with only peripheral or grudging reference to art’s institutions or the society in general in which the institution is located. After the advent of a range of institution theories, from the Frankfurt School to the art critic of the New Yorker, the causal chain appears to have gone in reverse. In Carol Duncan’s brilliant analysis of the civilizing rituals of the art museum from 1995, the institutions of art are characterised as scripting behaviour. The old humanist sense of individuals making their own meanings across a neutral continuum of time and space is challenged by the Foucauldian conception of institutions as regulating discourses that produce subjectivities. In the institutions of art viewers enact a drama of enlightenment, Duncan says.

The effect of the institution, in her view, is indiscriminate: it is no different for viewers faced with anti-art, avant-gardism and Pop: ‘In the art museum, even reproductions of beer or soup cans achieve this meaning as do other works that depend heavily on non-art objects for their form or materials’. The artist is made possible by the pre-existence of art, which is shaped by art’s institutions, which are, in turn, created and sustained by certain specific kinds of society. When this chain is abbreviated, as it often is, we are left with the uncomfortable assertion that artists serve the narrow interests that dominate society at large.

The causal chain is reversed:

museum -> art -> artist

Instead of turning the arrows around that link artist-art-institution-society, I want to speculate about other, non-causal, connections. Can we not imagine artists having an antagonistic relation to art? Of not merely being the instrument and agent of art as such. Don’t artists necessarily take sides with one kind of art, not all of it? In this sense, to be for or against art as such rather than taking sides with one kind of art against all others, is to be naive, indiscriminate and dull. Can art not stick in the throat of art’s institutions? No matter how much we are convinced of the recuperative power of art’s institutions, don’t we recognise that some art is more difficult to recuperate, more risky and more trouble than others? Are institutions not capable of defending practices from society at large?

Rather than thinking of art’s institutions (galleries, museums, magazines, schools) as the passive conduit through which power and wealth control art, should we not acknowledge that art’s institutions can hold off political instrumentalization and market forces? Institution Critique has been ambivalent on the these questions, emphasizing the artist’s complicity and reducing the extent of the artist’s potential antagonism with art, often by placing the artist in a hysterical relationship to the power of the institution.

Institution Critique has come to lament its own success in transforming art’s institutions, suggesting that art’s transgression of the institutional framework has a limited shelf-life and afterwards is fully recuperated by the institution making minor adjustments. The idea of art’s institutions safeguarding art from society at large has played little or no part in the history of Institution Critique, recuperation theory and avant-garde practice. This is enormously regrettable, in my view.

Think, for instance, of Virginia Woolf’s extraordinary book ‘A Room of One’s Own’ based on two lectures given in 1928. Addressing the question of the relationship between women and literature, Woolf rejected the idea of talking at length about the few women writers who had published successfully with great works. Instead, she argued that there are material preconditions for writing which most women throughout history have been denied. It is in this book that Woolf famously imagines the fate of Shakespeare’s sister.

Equally gifted but female, she would not have gone to school to learn grammar and logic, would not have read Horace or Virgil, and, like all women, would not have been permitted to act in the Elizabethan theatre, as her brother did. What if she picked up William’s books once in a while, Woolf asks. No doubt her parents would scold her and tell her to mend the stockings or mind the stew. Reading was not appropriate for girls and women of that epoch. Genius, she says, must have existed among women and the working class throughout history but was always suppressed, under-nourished and would have felt more like a torture to them. Woolf explains, ‘a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry old have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty’.

Woolf, argues, therefore, that ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’. A room of one’s own is an institution for writing that women and the working class had been denied for centuries.

The home has been shown to be an institutional of social control by feminist political analysis. In fact, Woolf herself talks about rooms in which daughters and wives are beaten. Women have been ‘flung around the room’, she says, or locked up in a room. The family home and marital home have been precisely arranged to control women, to put them under the law of the master of the house. Taken as a whole, the home is an institution that has interpellated women as wives, as mothers, as unpaid workers, as chattels and worse.

The ideology of the home as a place of domestic bliss is the perfect mechanism for recreating this zone of violent subordination, just as the ideology of artistic autonomy is the perfect foil for the instrumentalization of art. The home institutionalizes women within the patriarchal system, just as the gallery and museum marks us out as cultivated or philistine, artist or viewer, expert or consumer. But what of the room of one’s own? And what of the institution of one’s own? The room of one’s own is an institution of emancipation.

I want to stress here that the room of one’s own is set aside within the home: the institution of emancipation exists, in this example, inside the fabric but outside the regime of the patriarchal institution of social control. Imagine, then, a young woman at the time of Woolf’s youth who writes secretly in the attic or the barn. She is discovered by her father and beaten. Her mother, who, let’s say, was a thwarted poet, manages to convince her husband that writing poetry is acceptable. Now, the father agrees to allow the girl to use the vacant servant’s bedroom as a place to write on certain days of the week after her chores are finished. Are we going to say that the young writer has, therefore, been recuperated, or is this room of her own, a room that is her domain, an institution that makes great writing possible? This institution of writing is also an institution of a new subjectivity for the girl. What every thwarted individual needs, surely, is an institution of one’s own. These are institutions of emancipation.

Benjamin uses the term apparatus to refer to something greater than art’s institutions, more material than the Deleuzean concept of ‘dispositif’, more political than Lecercle’s concept of pragmatics, more infrastructural than Bourdieu’s concepts of ‘habitus’ and the ‘field’ and less restricted than Althusser’s concept of Ideological State Apparatuses, although it appears to include all of these. The concept of apparatus can be understood as referring to the totality of social, material, economic, discursive and institutional determinants of a practice. The politics of art cannot be limited to confrontations between engaged artists and art’s institutions, nor merely to a concatenated understanding of the embeddedness of art’s institutions within capitalist society.

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Note on art and the economics of Machinery

What is the relationship between art and capitalism? Most of the time, these days, this question is answered in political terms (about the relationship between art and the state, or art and power as it is dominated by big business) informed mostly by sociological analysis. An economic analysis of art, however, shows up anomalies that are politically significant. One example is art’s relationship to machinery.

For Smith the key to the production of wealth resides in the division of labour and use of machinery. The example of the pin factory indicates the enormous benefits, including profits, to be had from these two processes. But in doing so, he leaves several questions unanswered for those types of production, including art, where no such division of labour or use of machinery has taken place.

Artists’ studios have since the Renaissance been filled with apprentices, assistants, technicians and what today we call fabricators, but the division of labour has never broken down the process of production into the sort of simple operations that Smith observes in the pin factory (‘One man draws out the wire; another straights it; a third cuts it; a fourth points it…’).

Machines Adam Smith said, ‘enable one man to do the work of many’. Artists have always used technologies of various kinds, from brushes to tubes of paint and from circular saws to HD video cameras, but technology when used by artists does not typically put others out of work.

Commercially successful artists employ assistants, some perhaps employing one or two while the more globally successful artist might employ a dozen or several dozen. At the top end, Jeff Koons employs over 120 assistants, Damien Hirst employs between 60 and 100. But these ‘factories’ are do not divide processes into simple operations. All the assistants are skilled makers. Rather than using machinery to enable one man to do the work of many, Koons and Hirst use the hands of many skilled technicians to do the work of one artist.

There is a great industry which supplies artists with the means of production, and this industry consists both of industrially produced materials according to the division of labour and the use of machinery, as well as handcrafted high-quality goods. But the economic imperatives that reward increases in productivity within this industry do not seem to have penetrated the artist’s studio with any regularity.

No new technologies have been developed since the invention of the paint tube specifically to increase the productivity of the artist’s studio. Artists have benefitted from new technologies developed as the means of production for other industries, and even new technologies developed as consumer items, but the means of production of art specifically has not undergone the kind of innovation, revolution and advancement that is typical of the capitalist mode of production.

Since, in Smith’s day, the division of labour was rare within the production of necessities such as food and clothing, it may not have been worth mentioning that the artist’s studio had not been re-organized to be more productive, but today this fact stands out far more against a backdrop of extremely widespread division of labour in necessities and luxuries alike.

If, according to Smith, the self-interest of producers who look to their own advantage brings about the division of labour, then why have artists not done so? Are artists more advantaged economically by not applying the division of labour? Would artworks produced in volume by the division of labour and machinery be more profitable? Are artists not incentivized by financial reward? Do market forces not penetrate decision made by artists, or is the demand for high quality handmade luxuries (etc) precisely the force that prevents artists from exploiting the efficiencies of modern industry?

On first blush we would have to say that the artist’s studio’s use of machinery is not organized along the lines described by Smith to bring about the most efficient productivity exemplified by the pin factory.

Political Art Needs to be at least Twice Political

I gave a talk at the Royal College of Art in 2010. This is the text. It seems to speak to some current debates so I thought I’d post it.

The tradition of Marxist philosophy has made an outstanding contribution to the study of art, aesthetics and culture. While Marxism is one of those ‘systems of thought concerned with the nature and direction of society as a whole’, Perry Anderson makes the point that it has ‘unlike most of its rivals in this field’, also ‘developed an extensive discourse on literature’. We must add immediately that Marxism has also enriched our understanding of film, theatre, radio, painting, sculpture, architecture, photomontage, photography, the media and everyday life, as well as the new practices of installation, performance, video, appropriation, net art, the digital image and the new art of encounter. The breadth and depth of Marxism’s intellectual and practical engagement with culture can be seen in the work of Antonio Gramsci, Mikhail Bakhtin and Andre Breton in the 1920s, Georg Lukacs, Ernst Bloch and Sergei Eisenstein in the 1930s, Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, Max Raphael, Meyer Schapiro and Theodor Adorno in the 1940s, E.P. Thompson, Herbert Marcuse and Jean Paul Sartre in the 1950s, Louis Althusser, Pierre Macherey and Guy Debord in the 1960s, Fredric Jameson, T.J. Clark, Gillian Rose, Eugene Lunn, Stuart Hall, John Berger and Michael Lowy in the 1970s, Terry Eagleton, Margaret Rose, Janet Wolff and John Roberts in the 1980s, Slavoj Zizek, Chantal Mouffe and Alain Badiou in the 1990s, Julian Stallabrass, Steve Edwards, Gail Day, Malcolm Miles, Esther Leslie and Grant Kester in the 2000s.
Post-Marxists such as Jacques Ranciere and Gerald Raunig have turned to art and aesthetics as one of the agents of the transformation of everyday life, either in terms of the partition of the sensible or the Deleuzean switch to micropolitics.

How should we explain the extraordinary attraction between Marxism and art? The answers that different Marxists provide to this question can be seen as so many manifestos for one strain of Marxism or another. Jameson acknowledges that the range of Marxists who attend to questions of art, aesthetics and literature can appear, in the eyes of their more politically and economically oriented Marxist opponents, to ‘run the gamut from neo-Hegelian idealism, simple revisionism, and existentialism to extreme left deviationism and ultra-Bolshevism’. While many Marxists would defend the attention paid to culture by taking issue with the orthodox limitation of Marxism to questions of economic analysis and political strategy, Mouffe counters by insisting that ‘artistic practices can play a role in the struggle against capitalist domination’. Anderson, who notes Marxism’s valuable contribution to the study of culture, argues that this is a result of political defeat, saying that, in these circumstances ‘the needle of the whole tradition tended to swing increasingly away [from activist politics] towards contemporary bourgeois culture’. Eagleton, facing in the opposite direction so to speak, claims that the bond between culture and Marxism derives from the ‘contradictoriness of the aesthetic’, for which, he says, ‘only a dialectical thought of this kind can adequately encompass’.

The gap between art and politics.

Typically, the problem of the gap between politics and art – of the depoliticization of art and of art’s alienation from social life more generally – is traced back to the emergence of art’s autonomy. When art freed itself from the dictates of state, church and academy, it also distanced itself from society and politics. But to account for the gap between art and politics as a result of art’s withdrawal is just not good enough. What we need to understand is how the state of modern politics contributes to art’s withdrawal from it. In fact, what becomes apparent on closer inspection is that the withdrawal from politics is not something idiosyncratic about art but is utterly endemic to modern liberal democracies.

At the heart of liberal democratic thought is the esteem and protection of the private – private life, privacy, private citizens, private space, private interests and private property. So, one of the key contributions to political thinking made by the liberal tradition has been that private individuals need to be protected from the state. Politics within liberal democratic societies is reduced to a minimum that, if it works, private individuals can ignore and simply live their lives. Now, what this means is that liberal democratic societies are not participatory democracies in the strict sense because they do not call their citizens forth into political debate and collective action. What happens instead is that politics becomes ever more professionalized, specialized and separated off from society in general – in a word, politics becomes autonomous. And when the autonomy of art meets the autonomy of politics we are left with a very unpromising situation for political art and politicized artists.

One option for the contemporary politicized artist is to engage in Activist Art. This, in a nutshell, means accepting the liberal democratic shrinking of politics and operating within the narrow, professional field of political campaigning. Another option is to become a really useful member of the community by producing Public Art or engaging in Culture Led Regeneration. This, effectively, reenacts the liberal colonization of the public sphere by the values of the private sphere, producing an ethics instead of a politics. This is why community based artists justify themselves in terms of their relationship to their community (how long they spent with them, how well they listened, how participatory they are and how sincerely they care). The new relational art, which proposes simple convivial acts (such as sharing a beer or having a conversation) are 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 refashioned as 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 reject 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 the German philospher Jurgen Habermas calls the ‘public sphere’.

Politics has been turned into administration but private life is no solution for the political failings of politics. As such, the problem with politics – and the gap between art and politics – cannot be solved by becoming more political or by abandoning politics altogether. Politics needs to be rejuvenated at grass roots level, people need to become more involved in making decisions, forming judgements and sharing opinions. This does not mean bringing official politics to a wider audience, it means producing spaces and events for collective opinion formation.

What this must include is a sustained challenge to the apparent monopoly of the mass media on the power to form opinion. This is why our billboard works, for instance, temporarily reclaim public space for the purposes of debate rather then promotion and commerce.

We often work with slogans to animate public spaces and activate individuals as critical citizens. Slogans do not ask to be interpreted in the way that artworks tend to; they ask you to make a decision, form a judgement. ‘Do you agree or disagree?’ the slogan says, in additon to whatever else it says. If you agree, the slogan implies, pass it on, and if you disagree, write your own. Sogans, in this way, are the currency of politics but also, and more importantly, one of the key tools in the process of politicization.

The task today is not to produce a political art, which would merely inflict professionalized politics onto more victims and by so doing underline the liberal division between the private and the public; 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 a million little wake up calls.

Whenever the question of political art or the politics of art is raised, the tendency is to respond with the transformation of a single key element be it technological, formal, technical, economic, ideological or procedural. Marxist aesthetics has been plagued by strategic differences of this kind. No one element of art is the key to art’s politicization. We need to politicise art on every front.

Critical Art after Postmodernism

We are living in a protracted period of reassessment for radical politics and critical art. Postmodernists leapt ahead of the process by baldly pronouncing the end of history and the death of the Avant Garde. Now, with postmodern theory and postmodern art a declining force, the reassessment of radicalism is showing signs of recovery.

Critical art was theoretically condemned when Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, Françios Lyotard, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan dominated the intellectual terrain of the art world. Squeezed out by the eclipse of the real on one side and the historical integration of the Avant Garde on the other, critical art was no longer feasible within postmodernist terms. What price critical art when, as Baudrillard put it, the image ‘bears no relation to reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum’. When postmodern art occupied the territory of critical art, all that appeared was a profusion of images drawn from a radical lexicon that had been emptied of radical charge. Consider, for instance, the Scottish painters, who used social realist techniques to depict Romanticised scenes of the everyday, or the appropriationists, who deployed the Readymade affirmatively, without avant-garde bite. Postmodernists often used images, techniques and other elements of art’s critical traditions but only once it had been reduced to a sign, a code or a set of known protocols.

Postmodernism traded in art’s radical history only at its retail value, so to speak.

The mistake of modernism – to make an art that has an immanent politics without a politics at large (or only insofar as the politics of the outside world penetrates issues internal to art)

Bourdieu on the politics of language

The politics of art is not the deferred politics of politics proper. This is not because art is a special case. A similar argument can be teased out of Pierre Bourdieu’s politicising theory of language, which begins with the acknowledgement that power relations operate within language, not merely in the social conditions within which utterances take place. It is because of this that Bourdieu emphasises the actual speech situation in which the definition of the legitimate and the illegitimate is established and imposed. The politics of language is not the politics of speakers glimpsed through their words; the politics of language is the politics of speech despite the politics of speakers. To get at the politics of linguistic exchange, then, we don’t brush aside language in order to reach the politics of the social situation. Language is political because it is intertwined with social relations. Language is political exchange.

If the same can be said for art, then much of what passes as political art will have to be politically reassessed. If art, like language, is always already political exchange, the politics of political art cannot be read off the political content of the work. A version of this understanding of the failure of the picturing of politics in political art has been digested by ambitious artists and has led, among other things, to a range of practices engaged directly with art’s own institutions, economies, traditions, discourses, and so forth

The mistake of political art – to make art that addresses politics at large without a politics of art
Political art is not immunized from the obligation to be also the most advanced contemporary art practice. Conventional political art or activist art is political only once, in its content, the issues it addresses. This means that even the most propagandistic or militant activist art is simply not political enough. What we seek to do, what seems important to us, is to develop an art practice that would be political twice: in its content and in its process. Politicizing practices and the process of art has to be done in relation to the art world, the history of the avant-gardes, of conceptual art and more generally the debates that organize the art world. There is no sense in having a political practice of art that would take place only within the art world or only outside it: a fully political art must cross the boundary between art and everything else. Politics cannot be a reinforcement of autonomy and specialization. One has to politicize all spaces and to cut across divisions between spaces, practices, institutions, and values. Political art in its fullest sense must take place at every level of detail, too, from the politics of art’s encounter, to the politics of scale, skill, beauty, technology, display, distribution, funding, the status of the artist and the construction of the viewer, observer, spectator, public, audience and so on.

Political art is not ‘self-expression’ for political selves. It is participating in collective political opinion formation.

The politicisation of art

Political art in liberal democracy has a tendency to limit itself to various modes of picturing politics, either semiotically in the work or relationally in the framing of art’s encounter. The former limits the politicisation of art to high class satire or ideological interventions. The latter restricts the politicisation of art to the management of the art’s relationship to its audience or participants. There is no ideological solution to the politics of art. At the same time, there is no technological, social or economic solution. Converting viewers into participants is not enough. The politicisation of art cannot be achieved by giving artists pastoral responsibilities, managerial functions, broadcasting appeal, expressive integrity or cultural populism.

Two demands.

Art must develop publics. Unlike markets or existing communities, publics are established and sustained through their participation in collective opinion formation. A public is formed through the public sphere. It is not like a fan base, an interest group or a mass of passersby. Publics do not already exist – to be drawn on like oil fields – nor can they be conjured up by good intentions or authorised by curatorial fiat. They have to be won, earned and held together. Sometimes this requires patience and humility; sometimes it requires leadership and charisma.

The politicisation of art must occur at every level. Let’s start with five distinct but related struggles in which the politicization of art must engage. For each of the five fronts there is a facile artistic solution that needs to be abandoned as an obstacle to the politicisation of art. Our five fronts are:

Economic struggle
Social struggle
Political struggle
Ideological struggle
Armed struggle

The economic struggle turns on whether the counter-forces of capitalism have the economic power to force change (for instance, with a general strike); art’s engagement on this front cannot be reduced to the question of whether the art is funded from a source regarded as ethical or unethical.
The social struggle is a question of whether the forces that oppose capitalism are organised, solid, have strong communication channels, good social infrastructure etc; art’s engagement in the social front cannot be reduced to the question of whether the artist and curator set up projects that are adequately participatory, caring, inclusive, deeply embedded and so on.

The question of the political struggle is decided by the level of the collective will to take power in the hands of the majority; art’s engagement on the political front cannot be reduced to satirical statements, heartfelt expressions of commitment, reconstructions of the media, attacks on political leaders, doing good deeds and so on.

The question of the ideological struggle is whether militant political subjects are active in counter-hegemonic self-education programmes; art’s engagement on the ideological front cannot be reduced to telling the truth behind appearances or wirking with schoolchildren in deprived areas.
The armed struggle is a question, primarily, of whether the armed forces and police will take sides with the revolution or will defend the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie against the revolution (therefore requiring an armed response from revolutionaries); art’s engagement on the armed front cannot be reduced to the artist’s display of humanity in the face of state violence.

Conclusion: a million revolutions

We know that liberal democracy gives democracy a bad name, but even if we could achieve a genuine political democracy, this would not be democratic enough. We need to democratise the economy, democratize the workplace, democratise the media, democratise education, democratise the legal system, democratise the armed forces, democratise town planning. We need to democratise art. (By the way, saying that art must be democratized is to combat the idea that art ought to be universalized, popularized, massified or commercialized.)

We don’t want a revolution, we want a million revolutions.

Artists need to get involved in every one of these revolutions. The experience they bring from the practices and discourses of art can be valuable. Doctors, architects, poets, sociologists, engineers, musicians, farmers, hairdressers and childminders need to get involved, too. We all have a contribution to make. Artists have a particular role to play in the reorganisation of art. But just as we would not expect to have a revolution in medicine just by consulting doctors, nurses, etc (local communities would have a lit to bring to the table, too), artists should not imagine that art is the realm where they have the last word. The revolution in art is not about refashioning art in the interests of artists. It is about artists refashioning themselves in the image if the revolutionary subject.

Art and the Cognitariat

The most important contribution of the Italian post-Fordist re-equipment of Marxist economic theory is the concept of ‘immaterial labour’ established by Maurizio Lazzarato and developed by Negri and Virno. Lazzarato defines immaterial labour as ‘labor that produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity’. Negri (alone and in collaboration with Hardt) defines immaterial labour either as that kind of labour which is immaterial (intellectual, affective-emotional, informational) or as the labour which produces a kind of product that it immaterial (his list reads: ‘knowledge, information, communication, a relationship, or an emotional response’). Virno characterizes immaterial labour, in deliberately sharp contrast with the deskilled, standardised and anonymous labour of the Fordist factory, as a virtuosic and linguistic performance with no end product. ‘Activities that have been part of leisure time should now be included in the economic sphere’, Zravko Kobe tells us with the example of the dog walker as a post-Fordist immaterial labourer. ‘The principle breakthrough in post-Fordism is that it has placed language into the workplace’, says Virno. Bifo identifies the post-Fordist worker as the ‘cognitarian’. Cognitarians, Vercellone explains, ‘are the social body of the soul at work in the sphere of semiocapital’. If the unskilled factory worker was the standard bearer of labour in Marxist and Fordist thinking, the new economy pushed a very different character to the fore, namely the educated and highly skilled, perhaps even talented, freelance worker in ‘audiovisual production, advertising, fashion, the production of software, photography, cultural activities, and so forth’. While Fordism brought the private life of the worker under the scrutiny, control and organization of the paternal productive capitalist, actively constructing a productive character for the worker, post-Fordism extends work into leisure, spare-time, domesticity, intimate interactions and personality, profiting from unpaid work that is impossible to separate from paid work. As Virno says, the dividing line between labour and non-labour disintegrates in post-Fordism. Immaterial labour is not only harder for the capitalist to break down and re-organise, it is harder for the worker to identify and therefore to separate work from everyday life thus making it impossible to ‘clock off’. This is why, in Tronti’s words, ‘the changed conditions of contemporary work [are] fragmentation, dispersion, individualization, precarisation’.

Wolfgang Haug, doubts whether the concept of immaterial labour can be stretched beyond its original referent to the students who occupied their universities when the heterodox Italian Left first identified this movement as the new subject of social change. ‘This was the birth-hour of “post-workerism”. It declared that students are “immaterial workers” and then expanded this concept to include ever more groups.’ This expansion, Haug argues, gets out of hand. Negri, along with other Italian post-workerists, he says, ‘never tires of using “immaterial labour” as a collect-all concept for all post-Fordist labour’. It might be politically expedient to call students ‘immaterial labourers’ (to place students in the place of the working class without them actually – materially – having to become wage labourers) but it is not at all clear that labour can be considered immaterial except as a vague and inaccurate category. Lazzarato, in fact, abandoned the term that he coined precisely because distinguishing between ‘the material and the immaterial was a theoretical complication we were never able to resolve’. The concept of immaterial labour appears, in fact, to be an oxymoron. ‘Ideas about the specific kinds of work to be included under this concept [immaterial labour] are hazy and shifting’, according to Sean Sayers. The claim that contemporary work is immaterial and the related claim that Marxist economics and politics (which post-Fordists characterize as having a ‘productivist’ bias) needs to be rethought as a result, is not borne out by a close reading of Marx. Sayers responds to the post-Fordist theory of immaterial labour with a thorough analysis of Marx’s differentiated theory of labour. Sayers identifies four kinds of labour in Marx: direct appropriation (such as fishing), agriculture (such as breeding animals), craft and industry (including the skilled transformation of raw materials), and “universal” work (such as administration). Is immaterial labour an additional type of labour not included in the four kinds of labour theorized by Marx? Sayers subject the two most promising versions of immaterial labour, symbolic and affective labour, to a Marxist examination. Symbolic labour, which is ‘primarily intellectual or linguistic’, does not directly produce an object but it remains material, according to Sayers, for two strongly related reasons. First, it involves ‘making marks on paper, agitating the air and making sounds, creating electronic impulses in a computer system or whatever’. Second, it is ‘formative’ and ‘has material effects’. Sayers therefore turns the accusation of ‘productivism’ against the advocates of immaterial labour, explaining that their error ‘is to imagine that “immaterial” symbolic work has no material result and that only work which directly creates a tangible material product, like industry or craft, is “formative” activity’. Affective labour, which includes hospitality, caring, legal work and entertainment, is meant to have an immaterial result (manipulating feelings rather than raw materials), but Sayers points out that while none ‘of these activities is primarily aimed at creating a material product … they are formative activities nonetheless’._ What’s more, Sayers reminds us, Marx had a dialectical understanding of labour in which
all “immaterial” labor necessarily involves material activity [and] all material labor is “immaterial” in the sense that it alters not only the material worked upon but also subjectivity and social relations. Sayers concludes: ‘There is no clear distinction between material and immaterial [labour]’.

For Marxist economics, the quality or type of labour does not in itself determine its relation to the mode of production. Intellectual, symbolic, affective and cultural labour is wage-labour or not according to whether the worker sells their labour or their product, and so-called immaterial labour either produces surplus-value or not according to the whether a capitalist mediates between the consumer and the producer. Lazzarato argues that post-Fordism’s immaterial labour in the information economy achieves its aims ‘without distinguishing between productive and unproductive [labour]’. Post-Fordist theory seeks to ‘deconstruct the division [between] productive and non-productive activity’. This overlaps with the feminist critique of Marx’s concept of productive labour which casts ‘reproductive’ domestic labour as unproductive. Marina Vishmidt is among those who reject this analysis by arguing that housework, caring and affective labour was always ‘directly productive insofar as it was producing … labour power, and as such was directly inscribed in the circuits of capitalist value production.’ I don’t know what kind of economic relationship is implied by the term ‘directly inscribed’ here. There is no doubt that the ‘immaterial’ labour of rearing children who later become productive wage labourers is necessary for the reproduction of capitalism but the ‘product’ of domestic labour can also be unproductive. Children become wage labourers from which surplus-value is derived, but they also add to the numbers of the unemployed, to the unproductive labour force of the administration, army, education institutions and so forth. No capitalist makes a profit merely from the existence of potential wage labourers, but only, as Marx says, by putting them to work. More importantly, though, regardless of the potential surplus value that might be derived from the products of childrearing, insofar as no capitalist draws surplus-value from this activity, then it is, in the Smithian and Marxist sense, unproductive (of profit). When childcare is commercialized and industrialized, so that parents pay professionals to look after their children, then the situation changes. Professional childminders are paid to care for children. If these workers derive their pay directly from the consumers of their labour, then they are also strictly speaking unproductive labourers, but if they are employed by an agency that profits from their labour, then they are productive of profit and are productive labourers. The deconstruction or supersession of the distinction between productive and unproductive labour cannot be achieved by claiming that certain practices are productive of something even if they do not produce surplus-value. Nor is so-called immaterial labour somehow independent of the categories of productive and unproductive labour because it is informational or affective. The qualities of the labour are irrelevant to the question of whether it produces surplus value or not. Economically, the introduction of language into the workplace does not alter the relationship between capital, wages and profit.

How can art be economically exceptional with regard to an economy based on the model of art? If it is true that the post-Fordist economy is characterized by flexibility, mobility, language, communication, precarity, information, culture, immaterial labour and virtuosity, then there is certainly a prima facie case for arguing that artistic labour is exemplary of post-Fordism, since artists have been working under conditions of precarity, virtuosity and mobility for centuries. Artists have almost always lived precariously despite their symbolic capital. Artists are also steeped historically in the values of communication, inventiveness and immaterial labour that Virno stresses in his account of how the world works today in the information, service and cultural economies that are distinctive features of contemporary capitalism. Immaterial labour, like artistic labour, doesn’t stop. Mobile phones, laptops, email, internet and other technologies allow work to extend into spaces and times previously set apart from work. Artists, who have always been advised to carry a sketchbook or notebook with them at all times, are very familiar with the dissolution of the division between work and non-work. Post-Fordism commodifies flexibility, creativity, networking and conviviality thereby collapsing the critical difference between artistic labour and wage-labour. Thus, whereas artists since the Renaissance have insisted that their commitment to art could not be contained by the division between labour and non-labour, this is not the best way to understand how post-Fordism has developed working practices that colonize everyday life, leisure, the domestic environment, private life and friendship.

Artists struggle to make a living but the precarity of someone who has made sacrifices in order to produce the art that they choose is not equivalent to the precarity of the unskilled labourer holding down two or three part-time jobs just to stay above the bread line. Artists are creative labourers whose personality is performed in a virtuoso display, but this is not equivalent to the fast food worker who is instructed by her employer to add personal details to her uniform because the marketing department believes that this will add to the customer experience. Artists tend to continue with their work in some way when they leave the studio, by visiting galleries, reading theory, attending conferences, hanging our at private views, networking with critics and curators, taking notes, making sketches or taking photographs of things that catch their attention, picking things up that might come in useful and so on, but this is not equivalent to the retail worker who is expected to work beyond their contracted hours in the shop, who is under pressure to retrain in their own time and at their own expense, and who comes up with ideas for products or display from which the shop owner ultimately profits. While artists might justifiably belong to the precariat, we should not proceed, therefore, without differentiating between what we might call different levels of precarity, different intensities of precarity and even different modes of precarity. In fact, capitalism is a precarious system. The capitalist who ventures a fortune on a business enterprise can find themselves ruined by it. By and large, however, capitalist invest money over and above what they need to reproduce their own standard of living, and their precarity is a rather limited one. Some artists can be as poor as church mice, but for other more well heeled artists, or artists cushioned from necessity by wealthy parents, their precarity, we might say, is more formal than real. Economic and social distinctions must be brought to the idea of precarity. Consider the romantic avant-garde artist who chooses precarity against a regular job. In this context precarity equals freedom, freedom from wage labour. Precarity is riddled with distinctions. Being precarious because you are a working–class wage labourer in a region that has lost all its industry is rotten; becoming an artist despite the fact that income for an artist is rarely secure is a different matter.

We need to scrutinise the apparent convergence of post-Fordist techniques of labour and management with art, artistic labour, artistic practices and the precarious lifestyle of artists. The literature does not specify precisely what kind of convergence that has supposed to have taken place. Does art resemble key features of the post-Fordist economy or is there a stronger relationship between them? Does art share technical, social, political, economic or cultural characteristics with post-Fordism? Or, more strongly, does post-Fordism make profits from art today in a way that Fordism couldn’t? If post-Fordism generates more profits from circulation and finance, is art more prone to capitalism in the new economy than ever before? Artists live precariously and post-Fordism re-introduces precarity into the labour-market. Are these two forms of precarity the same? Artists typically do not draw hard and fast lines between work and non-work, often having a second job which funds their ‘work’. Post-Fordist workers are encouraged or pressurised to continue working outside of the specified working day and to feel that their work is not just a job but is fulfilling activity for its own good. Are these forms of eradicating the distinction between work and non-work the same? Artists work flexibly and creatively, training and retraining with new skills, new ideas and new technologies, adapting to changing conditions and responding to the latest developments, and post-Fordism requires the workforce to be flexible, to have ideas, to be open to change and to switch jobs or roles frequently. Most artists do not earn a living from the sale of their work and require second jobs, and post-Fordist workers are employed on temporary, casual contracts and therefore tend to have multiple jobs. Artists do not only earn money from the sale of their products but can also generate income from participating in residencies, urban regeneration projects, talks, commissioned performances, consultancies and royalties, and post-Fordist labour often has no material product to sell but derives its income from virtuosic performances in convivial settings. Artists travel to distant parts of the world to put on exhibitions, taking opportunities as they arise, and post-Fordist labour is characterized by mobility and immigration, but surely these global movements of labour are not the same. Artists are not employed as wage-labourers by productive capitalists, but merchant capitalists and finance capitalists can, nonetheless, make vast profits from the circulation of their works, and the post-Fordist labour market is made more precarious by requiring workers to be self-employed, casual, freelance or even free (in the case of interns), which alienates workers from their rights and gives employers more liberty to hire and fire as the market demands. Each apparent convergence, I would suggest, is as indicative of the gulf between artist and the typical post-Fordist labourer as it signifies the centrality of art to post-Fordist capitalism.