How to Teach Art

Michael Corris has taken me to task in the letters page of Art Monthly about my article on the difference between teaching art and teaching the arts. Here’s my article, given the title “Teaching the Unteachable” when it was published.

Paul Kristeller, in his pioneering study of the historical formation of the ‘modern system of the arts’, says the modern belief that ‘Art cannot be learned, and thus often becomes involved in the curious endeavor to teach the unteachable’ was unknown to the ancients who equated art with skill understood as ‘something that can be taught and learned’. The difficulties and controversies associated with teaching art arise as a result of the transition from the various arts to the singular concept of art in general.
The various arts had always been ordered – the distinction between the Liberal and Vulgar arts is ancient – but the specifically modern ordering of the arts, which groups several arts into the Fine Arts, took place in the middle of the eighteenth century. ‘The grouping together of the visual arts with poetry and music into the system of the fine arts’, Kristeller says, ‘did not exist in classical antiquity, in the Middle Ages or in the Renaissance’, adding: ‘The various arts are certainly as old as human civilization, but the manner in which we are accustomed to group them … is comparatively recent’. There was no immediate change in the methods of teaching the skills required for the Fine Arts from the methods of training artisans in the arts, although when academies replaced guilds the teaching became more scholarly. More severe pedagogical difficulties arise when the Fine Arts as a collection of individual disciplines were reconfigured according to the concept of art as such.
‘We have been saying “art” in the singular and without any other specification’, Jean-Luc Nancy observes, ‘only since the romantic period’. Nancy turns his back on modern usage, preferring the technical specificity of the multiple arts of painting, sculpture and so on rather than the abstract concept of art, but in doing so he suppresses the material embodiment of the general concept of art in the specific institutions of the art museum, the art magazine, the art history journal, university departments of art and art history, higher education courses on art theory and curating, the place of art in the curriculum of primary and secondary education, and, finally, the art school. Within the real circumstances of a culture ordered by the concept of art in general, the insistence on the specificity of the various arts is, ironically, the act of a nostalgic attachment to an abstract principle.
Art differentiated itself from the arts by incorporating them into its broader and more abstract category. The pioneers of the bourgeois conception of art in the eighteenth century had little or no interest in drawing a precise line between art and the arts, but, on the contrary, blurred the line in the interest of accomplishing the hegemony of art over the arts. The first history of art, rather than a history of painters and sculptors or a history of antiquities, written by Johann Winckelmann 1764, applied the new concept of art in general to Ancient Greek statues and paintings. So, when the Encyclopédie entry for Fine Arts was placed under the entry for Art in 1781, art in the singular preserved the arts in the plural within it. When the Louvre was established in 1793-99, therefore, it naturalised the new concept of art within an historical display of the continuity of art throughout history divided into the arts of various schools. This is why Adorno was right to observe that ‘the arts do not vanish completely in art’.
Tensions between the new concept of art and the old pedagogical institutions of the arts persisted throughout the nineteenth century. By 1861 Gustave Courbet proclaimed, ‘I who believe that every artist should be his own master, can not think of making myself into a professor’. To say, as Courbet did, ‘I deny that art can be taught’, was to express precisely the chasm between art and the arts, the latter understood since antiquity as a skill that can be taught. The Academy of Arts (note the plural) did not teach its students to be artists except insofar as it trained them in the arts (of drawing, painting, carving, casting and so on). On one hand, throughout the nineteenth century art was taught through instruction in the arts, but on the other hand, art was not taught at all since there was no pedagogical technique for teaching art in general.
By the twentieth century art education not only had to contend with the difference between teaching art and teaching the arts, it was also set apart from the methods of teaching design. In the 1920s Piet Zwart announced, ‘the fine art painting programme will have to be shut down completely’ in order to make way for the study of new techniques from advertising, typography, architecture, photography and film. Responding to a related perception of art’s unhappy relationship to modernity in 1957 Asger Jorn asked: ‘What kind of “education” do artists need in order to take their place within the machine age?’
Towards the end of 2013 the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam announced its radical curriculum reform in which ‘Zwart’s vision has finally been realised’, not in the mere closure of the painting programme, but in the complete dissolution of art except as an experimental adjunct to design. Around the same time, Ken Currie complained that the ‘younger generation want to learn how to paint, but this is not being delivered at art schools’. Tiffany Jenkins, a sociologist and columnist, took the opportunity of Currie’s remarks to observe that there is ‘an unwillingness to paint’ in the art school and ‘little sign of a serious craft’ in degree shows.
Until the 1980s, despite the change of approach and the change of name, the art school or the school of art and design, continued to be divided into departments based on skills that could be acquired in painting, sculpture, printmaking and, later on, in media and other disciplines. So long as it could be taken for granted that art consisted of painting, sculpture, print and so on, then a significant portion of teaching art boiled down to teaching any one (or a combination) of the visual arts. In principle, however, even before the advent of ‘generic art’ with Duchamp and Conceptualism, there was always a shortfall, as Courbet understood, between teaching the arts and teaching art. As Michael Craig Martin puts the same point, ‘what’s basic for one artist is not basic for another artist. And so you can’t have basics; you can’t build it in the normal curriculum way’. Such favourable descriptions of the art school underwrite the ‘pedagogical turn’ in curating, which rebuilds the ostensive freedom of the art school within the art museum. The Free Art Schools movement, similarly, has a high opinion of the non-standard methods of teaching art which are under threat in the university sector.
There is a perception that, if ‘industrialism triggered the end of craft and divided makers from thinkers’, as Ernesto Pujol puts it, that the marriage of art and craft is linked, however tenuously, to the resistance to capitalism. This wrongly assigns the transition from the arts to art in general to forces entirely external to the emancipation from the guild and the academy and the development of aesthetics and art’s own institutions.
The crisis of art education is not only a crisis in the legitimation of art (art education is targeted by neoliberal policy makers partly because art is seen as a luxury or a leisure pursuit) but a crisis in the pedagogical methods of teaching art, leading naturally but erroneously to the demand to teach art using the methods for teaching the arts. Against this, Allan Kaprow argued in 1971 that we need to ‘un-art ourselves’.
Disputes hang around for a reason. Plainly, the fear that a generation or two has been robbed of the ability to paint by bad art education is an unequivocally contemporary anxiety: despite its evident nostalgia, such a desire can be formed only after the relatively recent relegation of painting in the art school. The Stuckists and the defenders of painting and craft against art’s postconceptual institutions, therefore, are not stuck in the past so much as stuck with the rest of us. If time is out of joint for the Stuckists and other revivalists, then they have this at least – if nothing else – in common with the Renaissance, neo-classicism, the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the Arts and Crafts movement, primitivism, the neo-avantgarde and postmodernism. Each revival must be understood – and contested if necessary – in terms of its own contemporary situation, not in terms of the artistic world that it chooses as its precedent. Nostalgia, like science fiction, is always about the present.
The campaign to reintroduce into the art school certain craft skills with a high cultural pedigree such as life drawing or painting is as revealing of our epoch as the borrowing of classical garb was during the reign of Louis Bonaparte. The ‘awakening of the dead’ Marx said can convert tragedy into farce, but also the past can confront us with an ‘unattainable model’. ‘The difficulty’, he said of Greek works of art, ‘is that they still afford us artistic pleasure’. Our difficulty is that drawings, paintings and other crafted works ‘still afford us artistic pleasure’ and continue, therefore, to exert pressure on the institutions of art to include such work prominently in the space they devote to art and, in the case of the art school, to reproduce the skills that their manufacture requires.
Art museums continue to display drawings and paintings and crafted objects; books continue to be published on art that exhibits high levels of skill; the art market continues to peddle handmade unique skilfully produced objects; aesthetic philosophers continue to focus the bulk of their attention on painting and other skilled pursuits such as orchestral music; art historians continue to pay close attention to crafted works of art, albeit no longer exclusively so; even art magazines tend to give priority to drawing and painting: considered within the wider field of art’s institutions, the contemporary art school in which ‘craft is abandoned for theory’, as Tiffany Jenkins puts it, appears out on a limb.
Historically, the art academy and the art school have lagged behind developments in artistic practice and artistic discourse since Romanticism, but today the art school portrayed by the advocates of craft – and perhaps in reality too – appears to be at fault for turning its back on the past, not for turning its back on the future. Current concerns about the academicisation of artists through the proliferation of PhD programmes, the appointment of artists to Readerships and Professorships and the REF, therefore, is of a different order from the neoclassical academy that confronted the early modernists. Nowadays it is the critics of academia who are the neoclassicists.
What Marx failed to observe in relation to Greek art was that the concept of art as something that is not stuck in its own time, which connects modern culture to the Ancient Greeks, also gives modern artists a sense that they might produce works that appeal to a future society, or be part of a movement that calls up a new society. There is, then, a double difficulty. The falsifying notion that art is timeless and eternal is not only rooted in the material fact of the survival of ancient monuments and other works, but also to the persistence of their aesthetic value. Ironically, therefore, it is only on the basis of this apparently conservative idea of the supreme value of the art of the past that any avant-garde work can possibly be aimed at the future. So, with these difficulties in mind, what should the art school teach?
Regardless of whether one takes pleasure from art fashioned out of craft skills, what makes such products art is no longer the presence of such skills. Even after Duchamp and Conceptualism artists continue to be skilled, of course, even if in some cases their main skill appears to be in marketing. Art in the singular cannot be taught through the acquisition of skill since, firstly, as Terry Atkinson made clear in the early 1980s, there can be no ‘skill as a neutral, non-ideological technical resource’, and secondly, the skills exhibited by modern and contemporary artists are, by and large, not those acquired during formal art education and tend not to be specifically ‘artistic skills’. John Roberts says ‘there is much intellectual confusion about what constitutes skill in art after the readymade’. Art after Duchamp and Conceptualism is produced under circumstances in which the skills of making are not specifically artistic skills but those skills that are general and social insofar as they can be picked up informally by all and sundry. The pedagogical consequences are deep-seated and far-reaching.
Teaching the arts means transmitting skills but art in the modern sense appears unteachable because it is not picked up through the acquisition of skill. Pedagogically, the difficulty is to teach art without reducing art to the arts and, at the same time, without reifying the tension between art and the arts into a myopic rejection of painting and sculpture as art.
The campaign to reintroduce craft skills into the art department of the University has a foot in the past because, like the neoclassicists, it is animated by the perceived value of a lost cultural precedent, but it belongs to the present because it attaches painting, drawing and craft to art in the singular. It is also contemporary insofar as it is premised on the perception of the complete abandonment of craft and skill in art education rather than the perception, common since the nineteenth century, that the problem with art education is that it reproduces obsolete theories and formats of art through the seemingly neutral pedagogical practice of the transmission of skills.
Should art schools only teach art in the singular or is there still a role for the arts in art education? Since from the outset the concept of art included historical examples from the arts that have been relocated in the art museum, there is a necessary bond between art and the arts, especially the visual arts but also music, dance, literature and theatre, not to mention film, typography, web design, and so on – indeed, ‘an expansion to infinity of the possible material forms of art’, as Peter Osborne puts it. Teaching the arts cannot be excluded from the art school but teaching the arts is neither necessary nor sufficient for teaching art.
Joseph Kosuth’s assertion that ‘if one is questioning the nature of painting, one cannot be questioning the nature of art’ should not be taken to mean that the production of paintings is not the production of art. Kosuth reminds us, rather, that teaching the skills of painting is not necessarily adequate for teaching art. The point is not merely to include other skills such as those required to make woodcuts, welded steel structures and paper cutouts or to add new skills such as designing apps. The point is that there is a difference between painting as an art and painting as art. Learning to make paintings that count is not the same as learning to paint competently.
Art students need to acquire a wide range of skills in order to progress through a degree course, but many of these, such as how to present work for assessment, may be redundant once the student graduates. Other skills, such as basic woodworking, might be useful to an artist in a secondary way, in setting up exhibitions, building plinths or stretchers, putting up shelves in the studio and so forth. Two other kinds of skill, however, are essential to the artist. An artist must be skilled at looking at or otherwise attending to art, including the ability to analyse, contextualise and reflect, putting into practice a theoretical understanding of art and a working history of the subject that is demonstrated in the decisions taken within the production of works. An artist must also acquire skills in the manufacture, construction or appropriation of works or events that constitute their practice. Pedagogically, the curriculum for the acquisition of the first type of essential skill is easier to deliver than the latter because even if every artist acquires skills for the production of art, these skills differ from artist to artist and therefore there is no specific set of skills that can be taught to all artists.
Technique in the contemporary art school can be common technique (some students make work through walking, writing, speaking, photographing, etc) or can be specialist technique (some students use ceramics, bronze casting, stone carving, etc) but they experiment individually rather than get instructed on standard or proper technique. Art education today has a strong focus on technique, because technique is the embodiment of values, principles and commitments. To teach art rather than the arts, therefore, technique must scrutinized, theorized, contextualized and historicized, not simply transmitted from generation to generation. If the solution to the crisis in art education is skill, skill, skill, then somewhere along the line the problem of how to teach art has been abandoned in the paranoid clamour at least to teach something.


Here is my Art Monthly article on the austerity cuts to the arts written in 2012.

‘In the period since 1945 there have been two major political acts of public policy in cutting public expenditure, in 1979-80 when Margaret Thatcher’s Government took office and in 2010-11 when the Coalition took power.’ In 1981 the universities received a 15% cut over four years, in line with all Government spending. In 2010-11, however, while the average cut proposed in the Spending Review was 25% over four years, higher education suffered a cut of 40%. Mrs Thatcher made savage cuts in higher education funding but in 1984, Thatcher’s education minister, Sir Keith Joseph, despite arguing that ‘[t]oo many within higher education believe that their case for extra resources is self-evident. That is not so: there are many competing demands for the limited expenditures for which tax and ratepayers can reasonably be asked to provide’, was forced to abandon plans to introduce tuition fees. Blair’s government introduced fees, but it was not until Cameron and Clegg’s coalition government that the fees would reach the full average cost of their education. In the meantime, student grants were replaced by loans. We we warned.

The Comprehensive Spending Review slashed the higher education budget from £7.1bn to £4.2bn, a saving to be implemented in full by 2014. What is noteworthy about this second neoliberal attack on the public funding of education is that this time the attack is asymmetrical. Funding for arts and humanities is affected a great deal more than science, technology, engineering and maths degrees. The arts and humanities have been identified by the UK government as the lowest economic form of higher education (awarded 0% teaching subsidy following the Browne report). ‘By implication’, Polly Toynbee says, ‘arts are a pastime for idle moments, whose unproductive students take useless degrees.’

The hike in tuition fees for students in Higher Education to cover the cost of their education in full is not just a prudent act by a government trying to reduce the national debt. The public face of the right wing policy is the transformation of students into paying customers with effective consumer ‘demands’. If you believe in market forces or even acknowledge that Conservative politicians do, then this is a reasonable measure. But, the neoliberal campaign goes further than this: it is a deliberate measure for converting tax revenue (it is the government that stumps up the cash for student loans) into profits for the private sector, primarily the banks.

Cuts to the arts, humanities and education represent key principles and long-term plans for Conservatives in general and neoliberals in particular. However, while these cuts are the latest example of the neoliberal backlash against the welfare state that began in the 1970s to privatise profits, and socialise risks, the general principkes of neoliberalism only provide an indistinct background to the specific attack on the arts and humanities. The systematic attack on the public subsidy of art, the humanities and education has been meticulously planned in every detail over the preceding forty years by neoliberal economists. It must be stressed, however, that these plans were not produced merely by applying the general theory of neoliberalism to the field of art. The case for subjecting culture to market forces had to be constructed by neoclassical economists. This was achieved through the new discipline of Cultural Economics.

In 1994 David Throsby, one of the leading practitioners and organizers of cultural economics as a field, wrote, ‘it is only relatively recently that serious work has begun to be undertaken in the area that has come to be known as “cultural economics”, or more particularly the economics of the arts’. Throsby says, ‘if contemporary cultural economics has a point of origin, it would lie in the pages of a book by William J. Baumol and William Bowen’. Baumol and Bowen’s book, ‘Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma’, was the first book-length economic study of art. More importantly, though, this study was part of the campaign for the setting up of the American version if the Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts. Cultural Economics is not brought into the world by the perceptive work of a handful of individual economists breaking new ground in the mid-60s. It is not merely a coincidence that 1966 is the year that the NEA was established. In fact, the political forces that pushed through the formation of the NEA were also behind Baumol and Bowen’s book. Baumol, who taught both economics and sculpture at Princeton, was approached by the Twentieth Century Fund, led by August Hecksher and John D. Rockefeller III. Baumol and Bowen’s study of the ‘cost disease’ of the performing arts provided precisely the kind of argument that Rockefeller’s campaign for public funding for the arts needed.

Economists took a much stronger interest in art and culture after the introduction of state subsidies to the arts had spread to the USA in 1966. Cultural economics was born as a result of the trauma of public funding for the arts. By the end of the 1970s a fully fledged field of cultural economics had its own annual international conference, its own journal, an Association and a separate classification in the bibliography of the Journal of Economic Literature. Within a decade the agenda of the new field had turned 180 degrees. One of the earliest respondents to Baumol and Bowen’s book was Alan Peacock. He was, like all the other economists who pioneered the economic analysis of art, personally involved in the arts. He was the conductor of the LSE Orchestra, a composer, musician and Chairman of the Scottish Arts Council between 1986 and 1992. Ruth Towse, the chief chronicler of cultural economics and a disciple of Peacock, says what separated Peacock from the two Williams, ‘was essentially the willingness to accept a role for government in the arts: Baumol, tending more to views somewhat left of centre, was more ready to embrace state involvement than Peacock, the classical liberal’. Peacock had a neoliberal aversion to state subsidy.

Despite his avowed opposition to public funding for the arts, Peacock was hired by the Arts Council of Great Britain in the early 1980s to write a report. It was clear that the commission ‘sought and expected detailed confirmation’ of the cost disease, but Peacock disappointed them. His report at the time was too neoliberal for a pre-Thatcherite arts body. Peacock did not disprove the thesis or show it to be false, but he concluded that the ‘cost disease’ was not pronounced, and that there were demand-side measures that could alleviate it, thus, he argued that public subsidy was not supported by it. He described his own report as ‘a landmark in the discussions of public policy towards music’ (Peacock, 1993, p. 71) and it paved the way for the Thatcherite and Coalition decimation of public funding for the arts.

George Stigler and Gary Becker in their famous essay, ‘De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum’ and Becker’s theory of ‘human capital’ more generally, changed the agenda for the public subsidy of the arts. Economists, policy makers and politicians of all stripes became convinced that the enjoyment of art was an activity that individuals engaged in as an investment in their own capacity as employees. Subsidising artists, art venues, museums and so on, therefore appear for the first time as an interference in the labour market. If art’s public benefits from the experience of art and can command higher wages because of their cultivation and sophistication, then, the argument goes, they should pay for this. William Grampp, in ‘Pricing the Priceless’, took an uncompromisingly pro-market position, suggesting that museums need to charge visitors prices that can be supported by the market to meet their costs, lamenting that museums fail to capitalise on the growing value of their collections and ought to sell works to help fund themselves. Grampp contends that there is no economic rationale behind arts subsidies in any form and calls for their full and total abolition. Clare MacAndrew says, ‘the reality is that art is produced, bought, and sold by individuals and institutions working within an economic framework inescapable from material and market constraints’. Tyler Cowen stands on the summit of this neoliberal assault on the dominance of welfare economics in the special case of art, arguing in his book ‘In Praise of Commercial Culture’ that the market is the best possible system for the production of great art.

Recent campaigns against the cuts and concomitant changes in the economics of art’s public sector appear, unfortunately, to have failed to recognise the fact that the agenda has changed. ‘Save the Arts’, which campaigned in the run up to the cuts made the issue visible but was based, ultimately, on an explicit commitment to the value of art and an implicit assumption that public funding for the arts is self-evident to anyone who values art. Bob and Roberta Smith’s letter to Michael Gove, and his subsequent campaign for the public funding of art, is a very worthwhile and important issue, but it is bound to appear naive to neoliberal economists and th policy makers that they advise. Everything is made, the letter says, and creativity is rebellion. Art should be at the centre of the national curriculum, says the artist, not dropped from it. Michael Rosen’s open letter to Gove is based on the same contrast between economics and humanist values, protesting against the corruption of secondary education by the interests of business, industry and finance. State education ought to be about knowledge, self-improvement, critical thinking and the needs of the fully rounded individual, he argues, whereas the Coalition government is steering a course by which pupils will learn only what employers require of them. In Ireland the National Campaign for the Arts is based on the argument that the arts are vital and vibrant.

The National Society in Art and Design Education believes progress will be made by voters requesting ministers to set up an All-Party Parliamentary Group for Art, Craft and Design Education. The Precarious Workers Brigade remind arts workers of their rights in confronting bosses and campaign for equal pay, free education, democratic institutions and shared ownership of space, ideas, and resources. Their practical assistance incorporates advice for interns and a resource pack for educators who want to resist the tendency for education to become mere ‘training for exploitation’. The PWB does not argue for state subsidy as a solution to increasing threats to art’s survival, but it persistently draws on the legal protections afforded by the state for art workers as economic agents. The state, therefore, is presented as some sort of solution to the confrontation between employees and employers. Since the rights to which they refer have been won by generations of campaigning workers and their representatives, these are valid tactics. In fact, in terms of grassroots politics, this is heroic and inventive work. Nevertheless, for a campaign based on the contemporary relationship between art, education and the economy, it appears not to address the issues that are central to the current consensus in cultural economics and cultural policy.

In the era of welfare economics, when Richard Musgrave developed the idea of ‘merit goods’, it was possible to argue that art, health and education ought to be funded by the public purse because access to them ought to be free to all. Many of the people who care about education, culture and the NHS would subscribe to something like this view, myself included, but a new argument must be made for it or else the case will appear to be nothing but an outdated and economically illiterate romanticism. Simply re-asserting the case for Keynesian state subsidies will get nowhere against a new consensus that became dominant by discrediting welfare economics. Keynesianism is not the cure for capitalism but under current conditions it is not even a viable alternative version of capitalism. Spouting Keynesian rhetoric in an era in which neoliberalism is dominant is Quixotic. Neoliberalism is not merely a powerful ideology, it holds hegemony over the science of economics and therefore has the ear of policy makers and politicians. It appears to speak the truth. Heterodox economists like Joseph Stiglitz may prove that mainstream economics does not all speak in one voice, but these rare individuals are not simply restating old comfortable economic platitudes. We need to take on neoliberalism’s assumptions, doctrines and principles.

Neoliberalism has an overwhelming desire to cut public funding for art, education, health and unemployment benefits, among other things, not just because it is philistine, elitist, uncaring and spiteful, but because it believes that free markets allocate resources more effectively than state monopolies, that the consumer ought to be sovereign not the political leader or bureaucrat, and that market forces are more democratic than political democracy. Mainstream economists distinguish the soverereign consumer not from other ordinary political individuals, sovereign citizens, but from political figures such as leaders, rulers, tyrants and officials. So, instead of pitching the sovereign consumer against its political equivalent, the sovereign citizen, mainstream economists imagine ‘a clash between the economic power of consumers and the coercive power of the state’. This asymmetry makes it a lot easier for economists to make the standard case for consumer sovereignty as ruling out political ‘interference’.

Joseph Persky is quite wrong when he says ‘consumer sovereignty is attractive because under its impartiality, producers are more easily resigned to their roles as servants of society’: producers do not serve society through consumer sovereignty; they serve capital. Consumers are consumers only insofar as they own, spend and represent money which will realise the value of invested capital through sales. Consumer sovereignty is an expression of the dominance of capital over the production and allocation of social use-values. What about citizen sovereignty, or other forms of severeignty not expressed through money? Mainstream economists believe markets to be superior. They are fond of the analogy, first formulated by Ludwig von Mises, one of the most fanatical pro-marketeers in history, that every dollar spent by consumers on the free market is like a vote cast in favour of a certain commodity.

Murray Rothbard later argued that Mises’ comparison of the market to the democratic process was unfair on the free market. In democracy, the majority decision is binding on all (the candidate who receives 51% of the votes will govern 100% of the people), hence, the free market is more democratic than democracy because every dollar counts. That the wealthy get more dollar-votes than the poor shows that democracy is, in principle, superior to market forces in arriving at collective decisions. This ought to be the basis of a critique of the neoliberal dismissal of public subsidy to art, education, health and so on. Public subsidy is a political choice outside the remit of professional economists, but economists are opposed to public subsidies on principle and are regarded as experts by national budget holders. We need to state the case for democracy over economics.

Imagine a Million Ideal Onlookers

Here is a text I wrote for a short-lived zine called The First Condition which I edited with Mark Hutchinson between 2001 and 2006. This essay is from Issue 3, October 2004

Cultural Division and Rival Onlookers
Theories of cultural division, regardless of political affiliation, customarily formulate the division of culture along the perimeter of art. Simply: that cultural division is the division between art and the rest of culture. Not that the border line of art has been drawn steadily, demarcating the same cultural territory or according to the same criteria. Far from it. There is a world of difference between framing cultural division in terms of the opposition culture/anarchy and stating that modernism and mass culture are “the torn halves of an integral freedom to which, however, they do not add up”. Despite every subtle and not-so-subtle divergence between these two paradigms of cultural division – one from the founding text of modern cultural conservatism, the other summing up the most trenchant cultural radicalism – they manage, nonetheless, to agree on one thing: cultural division is coterminous with art’s horizon.

The widespread misconception that cultural conservatism is identified by exclusion and elitism derives from the assumption that what separates conformist and radical cultural positions is whether the division is regarded as porous or impermeable. This misconception has led to a certain amount of confusion on the left when faced with non-exclusionary neo-conservatism, such as in the aesthetic philosophy of Arthur Danto. And this is not all. Inscribing cultural division along the boundary of art, whether for the purposes of shoring up art’s self-image or establishing traffic between art and its others, obscures divisions internal to art. Consider, for instance, Andreas Huyssen’s treatment of gender in modernist discourses, hitching it up to the antagonism between art and mass culture rather than using feminism to cut across the old hierarchy. True enough, cultural division is gendered, but the theory of cultural division’s gendering must avoid reconfirming the formulation of cultural division that it critiques, or else it will replicate the old hierarchy’s blindness to art’s internal divisions.

If theories of culture reconfirm the horizon of art in the identification of cultural division then debates over what is at stake will fail to question the inherited category of art. This leads to familiar problems for the Left critique of art and aesthetics. It is easy for complaints about art’s role in cultural division to be hijacked by the assertion of art’s value or quality – shifting the debate from social or institutional questions to judgements of objects and experiences – only if (and this is crucial) the theory of cultural division goes with the grain of art’s own self-images. Cutting across art’s own categories would not so easily permit the reassertion of art against the charge of cultural division. To do so would insert the question of cultural division into art itself. There is a strategic value to rethinking cultural division as internal to art, but there more to it than that. What is fundamentally at stake is whether cultural divisions are taken as the limits of cultural exchange or, to take an extreme example, whether a philistine’s experience of art is to count as internal to art.

Going some way to theorising cultural division as internal to art and as cutting across art’s own categories, Art and Language, in an essay entitled “Painting By Mouth”, examined some of the implications of two distinct modes of attention for art through the analysis of two models of a painting’s (P’s) rival onlookers:

Imagine two ideal onlookers: (A) and (B). (A) goes immediately to P, waits until he gets the proper feelings, etc., and then he just might look up the title of P, seek information and confirmation concerning P, etc. (B) goes immediately to the catalogue (or etc.) seeking to discover how to read the picture. (A) and (B) may correspond to some real or possible onlookers. Indeed, we may suggest that this relative ordering of ‘reading’ of pictures and titles goes to different fragments of culture, social divisions and so on.

Onlookers (A) and (B) are more than just two contingently related possible onlookers; the distinction between them is articulated by existing cultural and social divisions. Onlooker (A) corresponds, roughly, to the post-romantic model of aesthetic appreciation taken up by modernist culture (and not fully expunged by postmodernism) in which the viewer is figured as autonomous and his (almost never her) engagement with art is predicated on a kind of face-to-face encounter with the artwork based on the Protestant idea of how the individual worshipper established his or her own private relationship with God without the mediation of clerics. In Bourdieu’s terms, onlooker (A) is only able to appear autonomous in this way because the process of acquiring the wherewithal (cultural capital) to engage meaningfully with art has been concealed or denied as a necessary feature of the acquisition. Onlooker (B) has no cultural capital to speak of and so seeks a point of entry from whatever form of mediation is available.

In other hands, onlooker (B) might be regarded as a cultural figure self-evidentially external to art or at least peripheral to its competences – a neophyte perhaps. Consequently, any cultural division identified by the rivalry between (A) and (B) could be grounded and resolved with reference to art’s proper horizon. (A)’s hegemony could be perpetually restored in this way. By considering (A) and (B) as rival onlookers for the same painting, Art and Language introduce cultural division into art as an internal tension, not a mark of distinction. Art and Language thus tie rival ‘readings’ to ‘different fragments of culture, social division and so on’ in the very act of refusing to map cultural division onto art’s own hegemonic ground. Only in this way, or some equivalent of it, can (B)’s (or C’s or etc) cultural agency begin to have an impact on (A)’s cultural world.

In the twenty years since Art and Language wrote about onlookers (A) and (B), the normative environment of the museum has (under the pressure of increasing visitor numbers, expanding new audiences and the postmodernist critique of modernism’s exclusionary institutions) shifted away from onlooker (A). Onlooker (B) is courted and catered for in contemporary (museum and other) practices in ways that would have been scandalous to the previous generation of curators. Onlooker (A) has not been ousted, though. And onlooker (B) has not been endorsed exactly. Care has been taken to preserve the experience of onlooker (A) alongside the provision of supplementary material for the influx of onlooker (B)’s. What’s more, the forms of attention advocated by the vast majority of museum catalogues, wall panels, audio guides and education programmes are those perfected by onlooker (A)’s throughout the history of modernism: visual, aesthetic, emotional, authorial, expressive, and so on. (B) does not challenge (A)’s hegemony of culture in the typical managerial mission of the new museology.

Consider, by contrast, the extent of the shift envisaged by Art and Language in their analysis of the act of painting by mouth [PBM1]:

PBM1 shifts the advantage away from (A) towards (B). In Modernist (and etc.) culture the advantage would be supposed to the other way round: the possibility of an authentic reading would tend to be favoured by the tendencies of (A). The sensitive (A’s) search for unreflected content is more likely to be doomed to remain a convulsion or series of convulsions of his firstorder discourse than is (B’s) relatively more sober practice.

If paintings executed by mouth resemble expressive (and other modernist and postmodernist) styles of paintings then it follows that onlooker (A)’s forms of attention (going straight to the work etc) will not equip the onlooker with the ability to distinguish one from the other and may find themselves emoting or aestheticising inappropriately, whereas onlooker (B)’s forms of attention (reading the title first) will know in advance not to bother. This is what Art and Language mean by shifting the advantage away from onlooker (A): painting by mouth is a trap designed with onlooker (A) specifically in mind: “it stalks the onlooker’s antecedent competences like a whiff of scandal”. Indeed, despite all the hubris about postmodernist critiques of art’s institutions and the new museology’s transformation of the cultural environment, it remains, twenty years on, something of a scandalous suggestion to describe onlooker (A)’s forms of attention as convulsions and onlooker (B)’s as sober.

Among other things, Art and Language’s summoning up of onlooker (B) is a first step in articulating cultural division as the construction of rival and contestable publics for art. Onlooker (B) is like a stain on aesthetics: its effects cannot be localised (the whole surface of the fabric is stained, not just this little corner). This is because the introduction of onlooker (B) enacts a qualitative transformation of the cultural field: without (B) or its equivalent, (A) is not an onlooker of art, but the onlooker of art. (B), for Art and Language, is not included into the community of gallery-goers as a trouble-free addition to that community. (B) transforms the cultural territory by entering it. In a word, (B) negates. Just as the identity of the ‘self’ is radically and permanently split by the existence of the ‘other’ (it is only by denying the existence or validity of the ‘other’ that the ‘self’’ can hold onto a bogus sense of untroubled identity), (B) negates the self-identity (the self-images) of art and art’s presumed proper public.

Rival Rivals of Culture’s Cultures
Much of what is gained by inserting cultural division into the fabric of art might would be lost if it was assumed that the resultant cultural rivalry amounts to a straight competition for art itself. Such a formulation of cultural rivalry revives the notion of art as a singular cultural formation. If (A) and (B) are rivals in art, however, then it would seem to be impossible to settle the question of which model of art that they represent should be regarded as the legitimate one. Art would, therefore, correspond somewhat to Laclau’s concept of the ‘empty signifier’ – “whose temporary signifieds are the result of political competition”. As such, rather than talking about art or aesthetics as having certain essential qualities, art would be opened up as the contingent result of hegemonic struggles over culture by rival fragments of the divided social whole. It would no longer make any sense to talk about what art is, what artists are or what art’s onlookers do without identifying from which fragment of culture these claims derive.

Now, at the same time as opening up art to the contingencies of contestation through the play of hegemonic struggle, multiplying art in the process, the rivals within cultural division would also tend to multiply. (A) and (B) would seem to open up the field of cultural contestation for a ragbag of cultural rivals. Onlookers C to Z seem to be worth considering. Unless, that is, the very staging of the rivalry between onlookers (A) and (B) is too narrow to open up cultural hegemony for rival rivals. Certainly there is potential for variations on (A) and (B) within the framework of (A) and (B)’s rivalry, but the question is whether the formulation of their rivalry is sufficient for a number of rival rivals that are key to art’s internal cultural divisions. There is a whole alphabet of cultural rivals that needs to be articulated.

Art and Language couch the distinction between onlooker (A) and onlooker (B) in terms of certain technical features of their respective rival forms of attention. These techniques derive from conceptualism’s complaints about the intellectual heritage of modernist painting: onlooker (A)’s forms of attention follow from the modernist understanding of the primacy of the visual; onlooker (B)’s forms of attention are Conceptualist insofar as, for instance, they correspond to Siegelaub’s formula of inverting primary (visual) and secondary (supporting, contextual, discursive) information. In this sense, of course, the institutions of the new museology are graphically not populated by millions of onlooker (B)’s in the strict sense. (A) critique of the new museology could be developed from the disparity between its conception of art’s supplementary onlookers and Art and Language’s conception of onlooker (B). At the same time, however, we need to extend our conception of art’s rival publics beyond the Art and Language’s technical, Conceptualist horizon.

To conceive of the rift in art’s modes of attention in terms of rival onlookers is already to construct cultural division according to sectional interests. Our first objection to the formulation of the rivalry between (A) and (B) is their shared status as onlookers. An onlooker is an individual who looks on but has no agency in an affair, and this automatically skews the question of art’s potential rivals in three aspects – the primacy of vision, the framing of the encounter with art in terms of individuality rather than collective action, and the implication of passivity, rather than, say, participation, collaboration or co-production. In order to extend art’s rivals beyond the rivalry between onlookers (A) and (B) we need to extend our conception of the encounter with art beyond that of the onlooker. What are the alternatives?

The onlooker is not identical in all respects to the viewer, for instance. And the same can be said for a range of cultural figures, including the spectator, the audience and the passer-by. Consider briefly the distinctions between these cultural figures. One of the most commonly used terms to describe individuals in art galleries, the viewer, was originally intended to refer to the person watching television. (A) spectator is an individual who looks at a show, game or incident (a spectacle), while an audience, strictly speaking, is a group of listeners. A passer-by is an individual who casually happens upon a thing or event whereas a visitor actively makes a trip to somewhere or something. Notice not only the fine distinctions between these various cultural figures, but also that none of them were coined specifically in reference to the modes of attention of art. In the absence of an acceptable term that refers to art’s subject specifically, seemingly neutral terms, such as visitor and gallery-goer, have come to replace objectionable terms such as connoisseur, art lover, gentleman, aesthete and man of taste.

This is not mere semantics. A genealogy of cultural figures and their respective forms of attention would go some way to mapping culture’s divisions and thereby the routes through which culture is encountered and contested. To some degree disputes over culture are disputes over who or what we are meant to be when we attend to it. Or who or what we become by attending to it. Modes of attention are modes of being and modes of becoming. Likewise, the forms of address that are deployed in objects and processes within art and culture are invitations to act one way or another, consensual forms of regimentation. It does not minimise the impact of forms of address by equating them with the contexts in which they are found; aesthetic forms of address are no less regimes of action simply because they might seem, under certain descriptions, to be appropriate to art. If cultural figures are, or stand for, these regimes of cultural encounter, then paying attention to how we pay attention to culture will contribute to understanding who or what we can be through culture and this includes how we pay attention to others through how they pay attention to culture.

There is a cultural figure that can not be left out of such attention to cultural forms of attention despite the fact – or because of the very fact – that it was coined to refer specifically to individuals outside proper culture. This is the philistine. Historically, the framing of the philistine as a cultural figure has conformed to cultural hierarchy: the division between the aesthete (etc) and the philistine is drawn along the same line as the division between the aesthetic and the non-aesthetic, between art and non-art. This is why the concept of the philistine is so handy for exclusionary conceptions of culture: the philistine, under this description, is not a cultural rival so much as a rival to culture. Significantly, then, the philistine is a cultural figure unlike any other. The critical potential of the philistine has been almost entirely neglected, however, because, as an example of hate-speech, critical thinkers have been more inclined to avoid its use. However, recognising that the philistine is a figure within cultural discourse by virtue of being a figure without culture does not mean discounting the philistine from the field of culture. Nor does it mean that the philistine is necessarily an uncritical category. On the contrary, the philistine is a vital – if largely overlooked – cultural figure by virtue of existing at the very horizon of culture. In fact, the philistine, as a cultural category, is peculiarly well placed to mount a critique of the field of culture and its symbolic economies.

The Philistine Hope
Does the philistine’s opposition to the aesthete (etc) mark the horizon of culture or is the philistine a marker of cultural division, of rivalry internal to culture? The foregoing suggests that we rearticulate this question in a way that doesn’t privilege the forms of attention and modes of address of art and aesthetics. The reformulation might be more like this: it is not a question of whether the philistine is internal or external to culture in general or the system of art in particular, the question is what kind of conception of art and culture puts the philistine outside art and culture, and what kind of conception of culture treats the philistine as an internal rival?
Preference for the latter formulation derives from understanding that art and culture are formed and reformed through cultural activities, particularly through the hegemonic struggle over what art and culture might be. An example that we have looked at illustrates what is at stake. Without onlooker (B) or its equivalent, there is no resistance to onlooker (A)’s claims to universality. In other words, the very authority and legitimacy of (A)’s modes of attention within culture is dependent upon its unrivalled hegemony which can only pass itself off as universal or necessary so long as its rivals are convincingly portrayed as illicit, off the map, naïve, inept or violent. The philistine is a cultural figure that still bears the scars of exactly this treatment. Once we begin to question the cultural hegemony, though, the trick of ruling out cultural rivals by describing them as external to culture becomes too transparent to be taken seriously. The aesthetic hegemony of art and culture is smuggled into the field of cultural production by a symbolic violence that those who profit from it cannot see. Because of this, the philistine is a valuable cultural figure: the philistine knows better than anyone about the mutilation that is concealed by those who exert cultural hegemony in matters of culture.

Just as onlooker (B) challenges the hegemony of onlooker (A), so the presence of the philistine in the cultural field transforms the cultural field itself. If the philistine is not reducible to the taunts of the aesthete then cultural division cannot correspond to the horizon of art. Cultural division is a broader struggle than that between art and the rest of culture, and, at the same time, cultural division is internal to art. One result of paying attention to cultural division in this way is to undo the idea that art is culture’s universal. What permits the equation of art and universality is the exclusion of the sort of internal rivalries which would demonstrate that competing versions of art are, in fact, particular. Onlooker (B) spoils (A)’s illusion of universality, but the philistine needs to shake off the accusation of self-interest and particularity before the aesthete’s claims to universality can be properly undermined. That is to say, the philistine could, in principle, be included as an internal rival of art but be marginalised, nonetheless, as a rogue voice. Laclau’s argument that universal values are always particular ones that have gained hegemony doesn’t help here because its levelling of competing terms does nothing to overcome centuries of accumulated bias. As equals under the present cultural hegemony, aesthetics will always win against the philistine. The task is to present the philistine’s grievances as universal.

The key to understanding how the philistine could be represented as the universal in culture might lie in Laclau’s exaggeration of the role of hegemony in Marx’s identification of the working class with universal emancipation. For Laclau there can be no objective factors which would determine the hegemony of one group over another – the only thing that can determine that, for Laclau, is the contingent result of political competition. For Marx, however, the working class suggests itself for reasons that are far from contingent. Marx argues that the working class, as the producers of surplus value, has a special place within the capitalist mode of production which singles it out as the agent of universal emancipation. Marx would have been foolish to base his hopes in the working class on, say, the belief that they were especially virtuous, brilliantly educated, wise, kind, tolerant, full of good instincts or supernaturally well equipped to govern. No, Marx put his hopes in the working class despite everything. There was nothing positive about the working class that justified Marx’s championing of them. Quite the contrary, it was the negative position of the working class in the structure of the capitalist economy that gave that class its universal status, and it was the potential negative force of the working class that suggested it for the emancipation of humanity in general by its ability, if organised and determined, to abolish capitalism. The position of the working class in Marx’s analysis of capitalism can be instructive about the position of the philistine in cultural hegemony.

The philistine is not another way of talking about the proletariat: the philistine is not proletariat and the proletariat is not philistine. Nevertheless, philistinism is culture’s hope despite everything. The philistine is not culturally superior to the aesthete (or etc). In fact, there is nothing positive about the philistine that would justify any hope placed in it. Like the proletariat in the economy, though, the philistine holds a unique place within the totality cultural relations which means that it is the key to understanding culture and, potentially, a powerful agent in transforming it. By marginalising or excluding the philistine, aesthetic philosophy, art history, art criticism, semiotics, art theory and cultural sociology fail to grasp culture in its totality; they are all, therefore, subject to the kind of critique that can only derive from an understanding of culture from the point of view of the philistine. Culture is best understood and explained fully only by rearticulating the philistine not as culture’s ‘other’ but as the negation of art’s (and aesthetic’s) ‘false universal’ (the contingent presentation of art and aesthetics as the cultural universal). The crucial difference between art (and aesthetics) and philistinism, in this regard – and this is decisive in the philistine’s claim to universality – is that the false universal requires as the condition of its own possibility a detotalising split from that which is not universal, whereas the philistine, which can gain its universality only through hegemonic battle with art, must understand its own place as operating within a totality of relations including its relation to the false universal. Philistinism retotalises.

The Philistine Alphabet
Cultural division, especially for those incarcerated on that side of cultural division that pretends it is the only culture that matters, produces detotalising splits as a symptom of division itself. It takes an extra effort to overcome those symptoms of cultural division because they are felt as privileges and luxuries. Cultural capital brings real gains, not just symbolic ones. And they are hard to impugn when you benefit from them. What’s more, taking sides with the philistine carries real dangers in a culture hegemonically dominated by art and aesthetics. More than once I’ve regretted writing about the philistine in the way that I do. But cultural division doesn’t go away, and, in fact, so long as the philistine carries with it certain disadvantages, then the effects of cultural division need to be challenged. If we are to contest culture then we need to contest the very categories in which culture reproduces itself. We cannot take it for granted that the category of art is the one that is familiar with us. It is not just the job of artists to challenge the nature of art by doing novel things as art; it is also up to art’s onlookers, viewers, spectators, publics and a whole alphabet of others to transform their relationship to art. As part of this we might need to ask ourselves whether the given alphabet of art’s cultural rivals is broad enough for what we can do with art. Maybe we need a philistine alphabet? Certainly we need to construct new relations to art and, in contesting art’s customary forms of attention and modes of address, it would make sense to devise a while new alphabet of possible cultural figures. The philistine is only the beginning.

Uncompensated Trauma: On Art, Technique and Division

Here’s my catalogue essay on Artur Żmijewski for his exhibition at the Firestation in Dublin

Today one of the key debates within art turns on how it is encountered. What kinds of experience, both individual and collective, ought to be developed for art, and what kind of art can be developed to facilitate and provoke new types of encounter? Socially engaged art is among those contemporary practices that are involved in the reconfiguration of art’s social relations, and with them, what used to be called art’s viewer. Artur Żmijewski is one of a number of contemporary artists who regard the spectator with suspicion, part a generation or two of artists, critics, curators and others pressing the case for various forms of participation, interaction, community-specificity, co-authorship, collaboration and counterpublics in art. His installation Democracies (2009), which consists of 20 videos played simultaneously of public displays of political activism, is as hard on the spectator as it is on the activists, leaving no room either for contemplation or for decisive political opinion formation.

Two Monuments continues Żmijewski examination of the tensions between spectator and participant, contemplation and action, by devising a social cocktail of Irish and Polish unemployed, and asking the to co-operate and collaborate with each other. Even though the two groups complete their tasks, what we watch on the video is not a documentary of the production of the monuments, like we might watch a documentary about the building of the Guggenheim in Bilbao. We watch the social cocktail curdle. This is not about the objects that are produced, but the social tensions ‘behind the scenes’. And this is an important set of questions today, in a period when the artworld has been pursuing the intersubjective (ie subjects encountering each other) rather than the more familiar subjective experience of art objects. At the same time, however, Jacques Rancière has been arguing that we should give the spectator another chance. Rancière, following the logic of his earlier book ‘The Ignorant Schoolmaster’,_ defends the passive, ignorant spectator as the part des sans-part of the art system. The reason Rancière does not see the aesthetic spectator as the privileged holder of cultural capital is that, for him, the aesthetic is one of the ways in which the ‘partition of the sensible’ is reconfigured.

The critique of the spectator is self-defeating according to Rancière because the spectator already ‘observes, selects, compares, interprets’. These are the narrow virtues of the contemplative aesthetic onlooker. Rancière never invokes any other kind of subjectivity for his plagued spectator. But there is simply no reason to reduce the aesthetic to such a narrow set of Romantic tropes. Except that this reduction explains why his defense of the spectator is twinned with a critique of socially engaged art: “The very same thing that makes the aesthetic ‘political’ stands in the way of all strategies for ‘politicizing art’”, he says. Rather than accepting that the passive spectator holds the place of the part des sans-part, though, we might, instead, understand the spectator as occupying a very central and powerful role within the ideology, economy and knowledge of art. The spectator is the repository of art’s established ideologies and cultural practices. It is the specific body adapted to art’s institutionalization. In fact, since the death of the author we might go so far as to say the spectator is hegemonic. It sounds to me as if Rancière wants to emancipate the privileged.

If we keep in mind the fact that the critique of the spectator today is an inherited component of a stream of modernist and avant-gardist critiques of art (each critique proposing new formal, technical, aesthetic and social possibilities for art), then we can see that it is false to separate the critique of the spectator from a set of questions about cultural and social transformation. It is impossible, in fact, to produce new works and new configurations of art without at the same time questioning the existing spectator. As such, the critique the spectator simultaneously calls forth new publics and new experiences, new kinds of art, new institutions, new social forms, new ideologies and a new world.

Insofar as Artur Żmijewski’s socially engaged work challenges the established roles and experiences of the spectator by reconfiguring the encounter with art as an ethically loaded, tense and even chilling reflection on identity and society, he is in good company. Santiago Sierra, Rod Dickinson, Plastique Fantastique, Mark McGowan and Laura Oldfield Ford, all develop socially engaged practices that inevitably challenge the spectator (the hegemonic aesthetic subject). I have chosen these examples because none of them abandon the viewer in favour of participation. In various ways they splinter art’s encounter rather than opt for one preferred mode of engagement or another. In their different ways these artists do not so much criticize the spectator’s passivity as mine fissures in the cultural and social fabric that demonstrate the falsity of the aesthetic spectator’s universality.

Sierra cuts through the public by presenting one part of it (under duress) to another part of it. The key to understanding Sierra’s work is not to analyze the way he treats the prostitutes, immigrants or homeless people that participate in his work, but to analyze the way he addresses a second public (those who view the work) by presenting to them a different sector of the public and a different type of encounter. In a similar vein, Dickinson appropriates the techniques of mass psychology for displaying society to itself. Like Żmijewski, whose work Repetition (2005) revisits the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment where volunteers are designated either as guards or prisoners and allowed to play out the situation, Dickinson has restaged the famous experiment from the early 1960s Professor Stanley Milgram, of Yale University, in which volunteers were asked to administer increasingly painful electric shocks to others (secretly in collaboration with Milgram). Earlier, too, Dickinson has tapped into the conspiracy-laden subculture of corn circles, operating somewhere between the artworld, a secret society, the mass media and hysterical fiction. Plastique Fantastique mix the carnivalesque with sci-fi scenarios of post-apocalyptic futures to portray (and call forth) a multitude of monstrous subjectivities. McGowan inserts himself into the existing mediascape to shatter art’s autonomy and thereby stages the unresolvable collision of art and popular culture. Oldfield Ford revives a militant version of urban subculture to draw battle lines across gentrified territories such as the Olympic zone.

Żmijewski prods and pinches social fissures, often the tender relic of world historical trauma, such as 80064 (2004) in which he cajoles an Auschwitz survivor to have his identity tattoo reinstated. Żmijewski uses the politically obscene encounters as the very basis of the relationship between the artist and his ‘public’. He does not compensate for these troubling and traumatic encounters with the social niceties of tolerance, kindness and conviviality. In fact, to do so would be utterly objectionable, as if genocide could be made less intolerable with diplomacy and delicate handling. There is no technical solution to social and cultural division, not even in social technique such as good manners and good management. As such, the cruelty, coldness and manipulation in Żmijewski’s work might be bad social technique, but there is critical potential (and even virtue) to be found in bad social technique when good social technique is so pernicious. His illiberalism might have something to say to the liberalism dominant in the art milieu, as Charles Esche argues, but it has more to say to the current debate on art’s encounter, on the so-called responsibility of the artist to the public, on the misplaced devotion to conviviality in relational art, and the immanent questions that must be addressed today by socially engaged art. This is a harsh testing ground for art’s encounter, to be sure, but milder inquiries lower the stakes.

Having said that, and still fully opposed to a purely ethical critique of Żmijewski’s treatment of his participants and spectators, there are elements of his working methods that do not ring true. He cajoles, asks leading questions, manipulates situations, edits wantonly, and so on. He seems to know what he wants to show and is prepared to use any trick in the book to depict exactly the tensions that he expects. I am not complaining here about his manipulation of the participants, but his manipulation of the work. He cherry picks data, orchestrates events and choeographs the very scenes he is claiming are always already there. This is a questionable methodology for science, of course, but it is also, interestingly, a questionable methodology for art. We can sum it up by saying the outcome is guaranteed with technique. And you’re unlikely to find a better definition of academicism. But the specific problem that this questionable methodology raises in terms of art is the reinstatement of the author as the orchestrating centre of meaning for the work. And just as we are critical of those who turn the clocks back to defend the spectator in its old aesthetic form, the reinstatement of the author has to be challenged also.

What remains interesting in Żmijewski’s work is the way it figures and refigures a sequence of real and potential encounters. The participants and the viewers are set apart from one another, not treated recursively as two instantiations of the same conduct. Watching the works can be harrowing and uncomfortable but the viewer looks on from a safe distance and is not the object of scrutiny. The spectator does not view other spectators, but participants. Sometimes this might be felt as a loss (participation is closer to the action) but sometimes it is a relief (the participants get all the flak). Either way, there is a rift in the social relations of the work. And it is not a failing. What is clear in Żmijewski’s work, is that the universality of the spectator has dissolved, its hegemony dissipated in a world – and an artworld – characterized by dissensus, conflict, antagonism and trauma.

It would be a mistake to focus only on Żmijewski’s treatment of his participants or only on the kind of onlookers he wants the rest of us to be. The important thing is the relationship between them. And in order to understand this relationship we need to distinguish actual individuals from the roles that they adopt. That is to say, Żmijewski’s work might victimize people, but that is neither because he is a sadist nor that they are always already capable of victimhood. The point, rather, is that, just as the literary work structurally implies an author and a reader (not as actual living beings but places to occupy in relation to the text – the latter are called actants to distinguish them from actors), Żmijewski’s work implies places to occupy that instantiate a field of power, not a field of aesthetic interpretation. Within the current conjuncture there is certainly a good case to be made for art courting with cruelty but not the reaffirmation of authorial control. In effect, therefore, the tense relationship between different publics in the work are political and ethical ones.

Include Me Out!

Here’s the text on participation published in Art Monthly in 2008

Include me out!
Dave Beech on participation in art.

PARTICIPATION FIRST BECAME A BUZZWORD AS PART OF THE NEW LEFT’S CRITIQUE OF ‘ACTUALLY EXISTING’ DEMOCRACY IN THE 50S AND 60S. It was then taken up by CB MacPherson in his theory of participatory democracy in the 70s but went missing during the monetarist 80s only to return in the 90s as a description of relational art. When you consider that participation in the new art includes having dinner, drinking beer, designing a new candy bar and running a travel agency, there seems to be justification in talking about a declining ambition for the politics of participation.

This is not to say that participation in contemporary art has been entirely removed from the political legacy of participation. Participation in contemporary art resonates with political promise. In her anthology Participation, Claire Bishop correctly distinguishes between participation and interactivity, explaining that the latter, especially in connection with developments in digital technology, merely incorporates the viewer ‘physically’ (pressing buttons, jumping on sensitive pads and so on). Participation, Bishop points out, is not so much ‘physical’ as ‘social’. This is a political distinction. In fact, it is precisely this sort of distinction that fuels the theory of participatory democracy.

Needless to say, most if not all participatory art falls well short of the political promise of participation. Bishop signals this when she criticises Bourriaud for putting sociability–what he calls conviviality–where dissent and critique ought to be. Her agonistic theory of participation raises the stakes but in doing so, I would argue, she inadvertently highlights the limitations of the whole enterprise. Simply put, participation cannot deliver what participation promises. In both art and politics, participation is an image of a much longed for social reconciliation but it is not a mechanism for bringing about the required transformation. In politics, participation vainly hopes to provide the ends of revolution without the revolution itself. And in art, participation seems to offer to heal the rift between art and social life without the need for any messy and painful confrontations between cultural rivals.

Consider, for instance, Gillian Wearing’s ‘Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say’, 1992-93. When someone complains that such work is ultimately controlled by the artist, or that the work addresses those internal to contemporary art rather than those represented by the images, what is tapped into is the underlying tension between art and the rest of culture. The point behind the complaint is that the participation of civilians in artworks does not fundamentally challenge the cultural distinctions that separate them from the artist and the minority community of art. In fact, participation simply re-enacts that relationship in an ethnographic fashion. It would be unfair to expect a single artwork to overcome such systemic ills, but this is precisely the problem with the concept of participation: it is based on the misconception that properties of the artwork could offer a technical solution to art’s social marginalisation.

Miwon Kwon, in her book One Place After Another, interprets the rhetoric of participation within ‘new genre public art’ as precisely that of democratising art with ‘pluralist inclusivity, multicultural representation and consensus-building’ that shifts the focus ‘from the artist to the audience, from object to process, from production to reception, and emphasises the importance of a direct, apparently unmediated engagement with particular audience groups (ideally through shared authorship in collaborations)’. Kwon remains sceptical about such claims, rightly so. Stewart Martin has recently argued in Third Text that the critique of the commodified art object in Bourriaud’s the-ory of relational aesthetics paves the way for the extension of the commodification of art by incorporating social events and exchanges into the field of art’s commodities. A parallel argument can be made about the politics of participation. Kwon goes some way towards this by suggesting that the utopian narrative of the challenge to Modernism’s fetishisation of the art object that leads to site-specificity and then community-specificity can be re-read as a transplantation of art’s investment in its objects, first through the reification of site and then the reification of the public.

Participation, within this historical trajectory, although disguised as a generous shrinking of cultural division, is an extension of art’s hegemony and, as Grant Kester argues in his book Conversation Pieces, an opportunity for the artist to profit from their social privilege. So, when Bishop explains that participation ‘strives to collapse the distinction between performer and audience, professional and amateur, production and reception’, it would be naive to accept this without also seeing these aspirations as ideological currency.

Bishop’s reference to performers and audiences (rather than artists and publics) indicates Bishop’s debt, here, to Allan Kaprow’s militant elimination of the audience in his development of the Happening. ‘A group of inactive people in the space of a Happening is just dead space,’ he said. Kaprow’s persistent dissatisfaction with the division between performer and audience–and the unlikely experiments that this brought about–testifies to a genuine and radical critique. He took participation too seriously to be content with anything short of its full realisation. To ‘assemble people unprepared for an event and say that they are “participating” if apples are thrown at them or they are herded about is to ask very little of the whole notion of participation’, he argued. His performances to mirrors point away from the false reconciliation of a cheaply won participatory art. Following him, we might be more inclined to echo Louis B Mayer’s acerbic motto ‘include me out’. Or Bob & Roberta Smith’s slogan, ‘make your own damn art’.

There is a temptation, within this earnest tradition of participation, to treat it as a solution to the problems endemic to the whole range of established forms of cultural engagement, from the elitism of the aesthete to the passivity of the spectator, and from the compliance of the observer to the distance of the onlooker. Acknowledging the problematic social histories of these forms of engagement, which are still in the process of being written up, the rhetoric of participation proposes a break that deserves to be called revolutionary. In fact, it comes very close to Marx’s theory of the proletariat as a revolutionary class by virtue of being that class whose historical destiny is to abolish all classes. Participation is thought of as a form of cultural engagement that does away with all previous problematic forms of cultural engagement by eradicating the distinction between all of the previous cultural types and all cultural relations between them.

It is vital to the critique of participation, therefore, that we locate it within–rather than beyond–the differential field of culture’s social relations, as a particular form or style of cultural engagement with its own constraints, problems and subjectivities. We can begin by noting that the participant typically is not cast as an agent of critique or subversion but rather as one who is invited to accept the parameters of the art project. To participate in an art event, whether it is organised by Rirkrit Tiravanija, Jeremy Deller, Santiago Sierra or Johanna Billing, is to enter into a pre-established social environment that casts the participant in a very specific role.

The point is not to single out individual artists who fail to meet the potential of participation’s promise. The point, rather, is that participation always involves a specific invitation and a specific formation of the participant’s subjectivity, even when the artist asks them simply to be themselves. The critique of participation must release us from the grip of the simple binary logic which opposes participation to exclusion and passivity. If participation entails its own forms of limitations on the participant, then the simple binary needs to be replaced with a constellation of overlapping economies of agency, control, self-determination and power. Within such a constellation participants take their place alongside the viewer, observer, spectator, consumer and the whole panoply of culture’s modes of subjectivity and their social relations.

One way of getting a handle on the limitations and constraints imposed on the participant is to contrast participation with collaboration. It is the shortfall between participation and collaboration that leads to perennial questions about the degree of choice, control and agency of the participant. Is participation always voluntary? Are all participants equal and are they equal with the artist? How can participation involve co-authorship rather than some attenuated and localised content? The rhetoric of participation often conflates participation with collaboration to head off such questions. Collaborators, however, are distinct from participants insofar as they share authorial rights over the artwork that permit them, among other things, to make fundamental decisions about the key structural features of the work. That is, collaborators have rights that are withheld from participants. Participants relate to artists in many ways, including the anthropological, managerial, philanthropic, journalistic, convivial and other modes. The distinction between them remains.

Jacques Ranciere highlights another pernicious distinction that participation cannot shake off: that between those who participate and those who don’t. Even if we view participation in its rosiest light, Ranciere argues that its effects are socially divisive. The critique of participation is, here, immanent to the development of participation as an inclusive practice that does not and cannot include all. Seen in this way, participation must be excluding because it sets up a new economy which separates society into participants and non-participants, or those who are participation-rich and those who are participation-poor.

Another strand to the critique of participation can be derived from Jacques Derrida’s critical analysis of the politics of inclusion in his book The Politics of Friendship. Despite all its humanistic and democratic promises, inclusion, for Derrida, is a brand of neutralisation. Look at how the European Union is including former Cold War enemies from Eastern Europe. Is there a more effective way of neutralising them? Incorporating the other into the body of power while repressing anything that escapes this incorporation is, according to Derrida, inclusion as neutralisation. Participation does a similar job for art and its institutions. It confronts the case against art and the gallery by bringing the culturally excluded into the orbit of art, providing much needed statistics of new audiences and proactive relations with the public, too. Participation often neutralises the individuals it brings into art, but it also neutralises cultural conflict more generally by presenting itself as a viable alternative. As such, even though a very small number of people actually participate in these works of art, the rhetoric of participation neutralises everyone nonetheless.

Judith Butler, on the other side of fence, so to speak, makes the case in Gender Trouble against being included. By examining the effects of what she calls ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ on the thematisation of gender and sexuality, she articulates a theory of resistance to incorporation. It is not just that being included within the dominant framework blocks off vital forms of subversion, which it does, but also that inclusion is never merely a technical question. The naive advocates of inclusion, incorporation and participation believe that the problem is how to include more people, not whether to do so. However, what if, as Butler shows, that inclusion is a form of subjection or violation? What if you are being invited generously to be incorporated into a foreign body? If Butler’s objections are valid then incorporation–or participation–has to be completely reconsidered in terms of that which precedes it: what pre-existing state is on offer for participation? In other words, technical questions about how to participate must always be preceded by questions about what sort of activity, and subjectivity, people are being invited to participate in.

There is great potential in the proposal of participating in a promising situation–and this is presumably the only scenario envisaged by the supporters of participation. Participation sounds promising only until you imagine unpromising circumstances in which you might be asked to participate. However, there is potential horror within the threat of participating in an unpromising situation. Participation presupposes its own promise, therefore, by assuming the existing promise of the situation to which the participant is invited. The critique of participation that can be teased out of Derrida, Butler and Ranciere asks fundamental questions of participation as such. In their different ways they each call attention a political fissure that runs right through the centre of any and every participatory event. The social and cultural distinctions that prompt participation in the first place, which participation seeks to shrink or abolish, are reproduced within participation itself through an economy of the participants’ relative proximity to the invitation. Outsiders have to pay a higher price for their participation, namely, the neutralisation of their difference and the dampening of their powers of subversion. Participation papers over the cracks. The changes we need are structural. .

From: Art Monthly | Date: 4/1/2008

Extract from ‘The Apparatus of Participation’

This is an excerpt from a talk written by Freee about our practice.

Freee have tackled the problem of participation by trialling new participatory actants that, in a very specific sense, are impossible. We only want the ‘impossible participant’ – that is to say, the participant that is only possible within an apparatus not yet in existence. Too much participation conforms to already established places within art’s apparatus, effectively meaning that participation is best understood as the deepening and strengthening of art’s apparatus by drawing the public into its mode of production. The impossible spectator is a place that can be temporarily occupied. Rancière makes the mistake of going on a hunt for spectators and defending the people he finds, rather than providing an analysis of the spectator as an actant. Our conception of the ‘impossible participant’ requires a new place for the participant to occupy in an apparatus yet to be developed. One of the reasons why our ‘impossible participants’ are impossible is that, within the current ethical consensus, they are seen as not participatory enough. This does not deter us. Although less participatory in the conventional sense, our impossible participants are, in another sense, much more vital. We can explain this more clearly with an example.
Revolution Road: Rename the Streets! was a Freee project commissioned by Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridge, UK in 2009 as part of the exhibition ‘Generosity is the New Political’. One of the key elements in the work was the precise configuration of its social relations. First, the invitation we made was not open. Freee invited a small group of Wysing staff, artists and trustees to participate in an event. This meant the participants were known to one another, shared (perhaps antagonistically) a familiarity with the place, and knew more than the artists about the institution and the locale where the performance was set. This was not an attempt, pace Miwon Kwon’s category of “community-specific” art, which typically aims ‘to foster social assimilation.’__ Our aim was to establish a pairing that stood outside the conventional grammar of participation. The participants were already a group, which meant that the initial dynamic of the social experience of the artwork would be structurally divided. The artists did not hold the monopoly on expertise in the work and they were not the most at ease in the encounter. The social configuration of the invitation began, from the start, to subvert the conventional settlement of the ‘pantomime of actants’ in ways that were at once structurally clear and yet imperceptible. After a while the preexisting dynamic of the group starts to show itself, but at first it is impossible to detect. And yet, the fact that the participants are already a group means that their experience of each other is not primarily as viewers or participants in an artwork, but as colleagues, neighbours, etc. The actants which the work designates has to compete with the identities and relations of real individuals (which are, to be precise about it, actants in another apparatus). But the actants which the work orchestrated were not that of ‘artists’ and ‘participants’. The places that the work called for were much stranger than that. And it was partly through this strangeness that the real individuals were converted into actants. We will need to describe the performance and the roles assigned to performers in order to explain how these actants related to one another in a pairing that the work required for its existence.

The work consisted of a walking tour of Cambridge town, wearing bright costumes (including ‘Liberty bonnets’ as worn by Jacobins) and performing scripted ceremonies. From the local Court building to King’s Passage, through residential, education, retail and civic areas, every street, lane, road and square that the participants passed was renamed in a ceremonial ritual performed by the participants. All the streets were renamed after key figures, events and institutions within English Jacobinism immediately after the French Revolution. The ceremonies included detailed expositions of the historical significance of the new name for the street, followed by an exchange in which a new name for the street was proposed and confirmed in a performative speech act of acknowledgement that a new name had been written in chalk on a blackboard. Although this dialogue was scripted by the artists and took place as a call-and-response dialogue between the artists and the participants, the script which renamed the streets also renamed the individuals in the ceremony: the artists were referred to throughout the script as ‘the chalk-holders’ and the participants were referred to throughout as the ‘witnesses’. Renaming the streets could therefore be seen as an alibi for renaming the actants of art. But of course, this second, explicit but inconspicuous, renaming, which reconfigures the relationship between artist and participant as an encounter between actants, takes place within a process of transforming the world by renaming it. So, we might also say, the renaming of the actants of art is figured within a performative scenario in which the world appears malleable, which we might say is a social precondition for the transformation of art’s apparatus.

For us publics are not consumers, fans, viewers, customers, taxpayers, citizens, identities, communities, clients, markets, voters, readers, victims. We prefer Witnesses, Signatories, Advocates, Spokespersons, Publishers, Badge-wearers, Distributors, Marchers, Recruits, Promise-makers, Co-conspirators, Accomplices. These alt-publics are not necessarily more active, productive or democratic than the preferred publics of public galleries, public policy and public relations. What they share is that they are performatively inscribed into processes of publishing. The ‘witnesses’ of the work are not its audience or its participants in the usual sense; they were more like witnesses at a court hearing or godparents at a christening – holding a semi-legal status, as in a wedding, without whom the performance is a mere rehearsal or a sham. The witnesses played a vital role within the performative act of renaming the streets of Cambridge. The witnesses had a script that placed them as the communal agent of the renaming ceremony. But they have another vital role, as the memory of the work. Since there is no permanent physical alteration to the streets – no monument, no vandalism, no replacement of the existing signs with new ones – the act must be remembered, documented, vouched for, and authorized. Just like at a wedding, the event was documented by photographers in both still and video format, but rather than thinking that the photographer makes the role of the ‘witnesses’ redundant, this project casts the photographers as technologically enhanced witnesses. Rather than treating the documentation of the work as external to it, therefore, the photographs and video can be seen as issuing from one of the places set out by the internal pairing of actants within the work.

Participation in art might best be understood as an ethical ‘solution’ to art’s crisis of legitimation. However, participation can only appear as a solution if we forget that art’s actants exist only within art’s institutions. Institution critique, too, must occur within the physical or discursive horizon of the institution. This leads to a paradoxical situation for the ethics of participation. While participation appears to be the antidote to institutionalisation it can also, and simultaneously, be an instrument of institutional power. The artworld seems to have forgotten how to make a place for guests. The insistence that participants are accorded a significant role within the project is the equivalent of turning down an invitation to a friend’s wedding because you feel that there shouldn’t be a distinction between those who are getting married and those who are witnessing it – I’ll only come if I get married too, the ethical participant seems to say. Likewise, an invitation to dinner would presumably be unethical unless you refused to cook the meal yourself but asked all who attended to participate in the shopping and cooking. Inequality in such circumstances is not damning; it is built into the relations of care. Let’s call it asymmetry. There is an asymmetrical relationship between host and guest, and there are pleasures in being the host and pleasures in being a guest. Equality cannot be forced onto these intersubjective relations without killing off the structures and pleasures of caring and being cared for. We call for the re-organization of the grammar of art’s social relations – an affirmative call to us all to redistribute the places which we occupy.

Ethics and Participation

This is from a few years ago.

Participatory practices are associated with an impulse to democratize both art and society, the artist as producer of deliberation and participation was borne out of the radical counter aesthetics of the 1960’s and are articulated through community art. Suzanne Lacy’s ‘new genre public art’, wherein artists worked with specific social constituents; Miwon Kwon has written on the histories of site specificity and social practice specifically on how artists explore ways to enter into deliberations with publics, with outcomes not defined in terms of material, but by ephemeral processes of interaction between local participants and the artist. In the UK this was most evident in the efforts of the Artists Placement Group; and Claire Bishop’s ‘Participation’, (2006).

Nevertheless people in the artworld seem to have subscribed wholesale to the idea that participation or collaboration is an athletic sport in which artists must compete for their form of participation to be deeper, stronger, faster, longer! The ideal form of participation or collaboration then hangs over every project that even hints at participation. This is not true of the experience of the spectator, who remains outside the work. Nobody seems to walk into a gallery to find a video installation and then immediately walks out in protest at not being invited to make the film. We seem to have lost the ability to value the whole spectrum of forms of address when it comes to socially engaged art. If the participants are not included early enough and have adequate power in relation to the production of the project, then we seem to feel that something has gone wrong.

In the field of art, the rhetoric of participation collapses ideas of participation with collaboration. In collaboration participants are active agents with equal rights. Whereas, in the majority of art projects, invited participants politely agree terms set by the host when they agree to take volunteer status. Participants in this context are therefore not collaborators; those invited are in a weakened and compromised position. Certainly volunteers and participants are not invited to be critical or to subvert any activity and must adjust their behaviour. Therefore participation can be an effective way of neutralizing the ‘other’ by including the ‘other’; give the particpant some reason to be ‘interested’ and you can rely on them seeing the advantage of your point of view.

The merit of participation is hardly ever challenged these days, doing things together seems to be the best way to partake democratically with society, but is that so? When, historically, participation was strictly differentiated, such as when only propertied men were allowed to participate in elections, participation was valued in a limited sense. The participation of non-participants was actively resisted. (We have seen the tail-end of this recently in the UK when the campaign for prisoners to be given the vote was resisted.) With only a few exceptions, today, it would be absurd to suggest that less participation is better than more participation. But participation has a dark side, which cannot be ignored as soon as we admit that being invited to participate in a horrific event is a horrific invitation. The horror of genocide or exploitation is not dampened but amplified by an increase in participation.

Ethics is a value. Within any given society, ethics appears to be a positive force, holding society together, softening the relations between people, providing values and norms by which they might treat each other with care, courtesy, consideration, respect, and so on, while mitigating the force of exploitation, violence, intimidation, brutality, coercion and so on.
However, from when we look at the ethics of other societies, including the ethics we find in earlier periods, we notice something else. Ethics is loaded with the prejudices, inequalities, abuses and hierarchies that it seeks to contain. Consider, for instance, how ‘good manners’ expects the privileged to treat the disenfranchised with humility while at the same time confirms social distinctions between the civilized and the barbaric. Consider, also, how ‘chivalry’ placed men and women in the positions of hero and victim in the very process of protecting the integrity of women against the power of men. There can be nothing more ethical than stoning criminals or throwing yourself on a funeral pyre. (it is only ethics that can charge someone to do such things.) Ethics carries the divisions of society within it, perpetuating them in the very process of counselling us to behave civilly.
As well as thinking of ethics as exemplary – as asking us to treat each other well – we need to think of ethics as the repository of ideology – as framing our good behaviour in terms of the existing social divisions and the values that help to reproduce those relations.

Participation is a value. When, historically, participation was strictly differentiated, such as when only propertied men were allowed to participate in elections, participation was valued in a limited sense. The participation of non-participants was actively resisted. (We have seen the tail-end of this recently in the UK when the campaign for prisoners to be given the vote was resisted.) With only a few exceptions, today, it would be absurd to suggest that less participation is better than more participation.
However, participation is only as valuable as the project in which one is a participant. The invitation to participate in a horrific project is itself horrific. More participation in genocide is not preferable to less participation in genocide. Forced participation, too, is not to be valued. Conscientious objectors valued non-participation, as do those anarchists who argue that participation in elections only legitimates the state.

As well as thinking of participation as progressive – as preferable to elitism, exclusion and bureaucracy, for instance – we need to think of the value of participation as completely dependent upon the value of the project to which one participates.

Before developing these arguments about the dark side of ethics and participation a little further, let me say something about their combination. The problem with participation might seem to be solved if we insist on an ethics of participation. Forced participation would be ruled out immediately. And if the project had to be ethically robust in order for participation in it to be valued, then the prospect of participating in something horrific might seem to be reduced. This, of course, is only to regard ethics in its positive light, failing to see how ethics is a repository of ideology, and therefore just as likely to be a carrier of horror as it is of promoting universal human flourishing.

Following Jean-Jacques Lecercle, who says ‘the author is only an actant, the concrete speaker being interpellated in that place by the structure’, we think of this act of construction as the labour of constructing places for individuals (and groups) to occupy. Lecercle shows how to see the participant as an actant. Lecercle ties the reader (which we can apply to questions of the spectator) in to the author and interpretation itself by understanding the transmission and transformation of meaning as taking place within circuits, mechanisms, relations and institutions of meaning production. The author, reader and work are bound together as elements of a single whole. This totality is not empirical but structural. Rather than thinking of the author and reader as actual subjects or as fictions, he traces a circuit of relations in which the reader and author are places that can be occupied temporarily by various real individuals. As such, we can say, readers or spectators do not exist as such (nobody is a reader even though everyone might occupy the place of the reader at various points in time). In addition to the obvious point that reading is only one of the things that an individual might do, we need to understand the structural place of the reader and spectator as having various modalities: reading is not one homogeneous kind of activity but includes a field of possibilities. The place of the reader is always the place of a specific act of reading. And the specific place of the reader is determined by the pragmatic conditions that link reader, author, work, etc.
Lecercle’s concept of the actant is extrapolated from AJ Greimas’ semantic theory of narrative in which the characters and events are understood as conforming to a grammar. Within the grammar of narrative, characters are redescribed by Greimas in terms of the actants that they embody. As Terence Hawkes puts it, “the deep structure of the narrative generates and defines its actants at a level beyond that of the story’s surface content”. (Structuralism and Semiotics p.89) Lecercle transposes the grammar of narrative to the social relations of reading and writing, of author and reader in which “the real ‘subjects’ of the process are not the individual agents, the real and concrete men and women engaged in it, but the relations of production that define and distribute the places”. The author, reader, artist, spectator, participant, viewer and so on and so forth are all functions of the circuits through which the work flows. The place of the reader is an effect of the machinery of the textual exchange; the reader is produced by this transaction and simultaneously captured by it. Texts can be seen as traps for literary prey but also as the homes to which certain readers belong.

The reader is captured at a place designated by the text – this is the subject constructed (or interpellated) by that which they feel to be interpreting. Texts are impenetrable when they are encountered by actual readers who do not occupy the designated place of the structural reader. Artworks that anticipate a new kind of spectator or are antagonistic to dominant forms of spectatorship are often impenetrable, too, like the modernist painting that fails to signify to its public or the abstract sculpture that appears to be meaningless or incompetent. But this does not mean the work has the whip hand. “The interpellated reader, although subjected as much as subjectified, is not powerless. She sends back the force of interpellation”. The place of the author is a trap set by the reader. In fact, readers and spectators capture authors in as many different ways as authors capture readers. But this does not mean that we simply have a cornucopia of authors and readers waiting to encounter one another in a semiotic free for all. The multiplicity of authors or artists is not independent of the multiplicity of readers and spectators: they are tied together in pairs. Author and reader are paired actants, so that each (type of) author has its own (type of) reader, and each (type of) reader has its own (type of) author. What’s more, new spectators bring new demands to old works. The task of the artgoer, therefore, is not to conform to the role assigned to it. What ties readers (etc) to authors (etc) is the work (including the circuits through which the work flows). This is why the transformation of the reader or spectator must occur within the work and within the circuits through which works flow or else no transformation can take place at all. Thus, all the attention to the viewer or participant these days will come to nought if it remains a separate concern, as an add-on to the work, like holding a picnic in front of unreconstructed artworks in the hope of allowing the viewer to be more convivial.

The actants of art and literature are not fixed but continually renegotiated. And the relations between them change too. “What we need”, he says, “is a model that combines asymmetry in the positions of author and reader, in that the two moments, or acts, of reading and writing are constitutively separated … And symmetry in that both actors, although not at the same time, are symmetrically interpellated in their respective actantial sites”. Lecercle argues that we have a ‘pantomime of actants’ in which each fantasizes about the others, and about themselves. The author cannot write without a fantasy of a reader. The writer has a fantasy about the writer too. Similarly, reading involves constructing a fantasy of the writer, and of the reader. “If the reader, qua implied, is a creation of the author, the author himself is nothing but a fantasy of the reader”.

What’s more, every author is also a reader, who fantasizes about authors. The author is never just an author but is also a reader who fantasizes about the author that they wish to be. Every reader is a potential author, or is structured by fantasies of the author they might be. This is important because the ‘pantomime of actants’ contrasts sharply with the statistical agents of sociological analysis and the empirical individuals that are either singled out by the application of political analysis to culture. The pantomime of actants follows Marx’s analysis of the relations of production, which puts the emphasis on the structural relationship between bourgeois and proletariat, not on the actual relationship between actual individuals. As such, the bourgeoisie is not a category of individuals to be determined by their character, wealth, ideology or political affiliation, but by their relationship to the proletariat, a relationship made possible and expressed through market relations. The pantomime of actants is the field of possibilities for the social relations of culture made possible and expressed through the institutions and circuits of culture. We can see that both the ‘emancipated spectator’ and the ‘passive and ignorant spectator’ are not actants but empirical, actual individuals. Ranciere argues that the avantgarde actually treated the spectator as passive and ignorant, and he argues, at the same time, that the spectator is actually already emancipated. Ranciere, therefore, ends up without any theory of how spectators might become authors, how authors are always-already spectators, how spectators are anticipated by authors and how authors are anticipated both by the spectators they address and their own experience as spectators. Ranciere’s antipathy to participation in art, which he regards as the latest incarnation of the avantgarde’s assumption of the passive and ignorant spectator, does not develop into a critique of participation as an ethical ‘solution’ to art’s crisis of legitimation.

All of art’s actants, including the participant, exist within institutions, economies, circuits, structures and so on. To speak of artists, authors, viewers, spectators and participants without referring to these material conditions of actantial relations is to cut oneself off from the grammar of art’s social relations. More importantly, if the preconditions of art’s actants are not addressed and transformed, then we are condemned to occupy the places that we inherit rather than inaugurate new, unthinkable and impossible places to occupy. Participation occurs within institutions. Institution critique always already collapses into institutional and institutionalized activity because it, too, must occur within the physical or discursive horizon of the institution. Participation appears to be the antidote to institutionalisation but it can also be an instrument of institutional power.

This is why we need to expand our conception of art’s social relations beyond institutions towards the apparatus. We 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”.’ There is a fundamental distinction to be drawn, in Benjamin’s analysis, between works that ‘supply a productive apparatus without changing it’ and works that call forth a new apparatus. Like Brecht’s plays which challenge the institution of the theatre not just its content or style, artists transform the apparatus partly by making works that do not sit comfortably within the inherited or established relations and forces of cultural production (including consumption). Benjamin uses the term apparatus to refer to something greater than art’s institutions (which Andrea Fraser outlines with the list ‘museum, gallery, publication’), more material than the Deleuzean concept of ‘dispositif’, more political than Lecercle’s concept of pragmatics, and less restricted than Althusser’s concept of Ideological State Apparatuses, although it appears to include all of these. We would like to suggest that the concept of apparatus be understood as referring to the totality of social, material, economic, discursive and institutional determinants of a practice.

Can we not think of apparatuses of participation? Or of participation in apparatuses? And partipation as the activity of an apparatus rather than the autonomous activity of participants?

We have seen that participation has become a value within culture led regeneration, acting within the given consensus as a measure of the ethical engagement of public art projects. We have also seen how the consensus on participation in art excludes and pathologizes dissent and critique. What we want to advocate is a complete rethinking of participation in art that creates new opportunities for a variety of critical and dissensual engagements. The participant can be opened up in this way only by turning against its affirmation. This means resisting the defense of the participation in order to find new modalities of participation that are not currently defended. We can see, in this, that the position of the participant is analogous to the position of the spectator in Ranciere’s defense of the ‘emancipated spectator’.

Let’s rethink the participant through the limitations and constraints of its anccestor, the spectator. Nowadays the spectator is often regarded as something inferior to the participant. But Ranciere has argued, on the contrary, that the spectator is superior to the participant so long as the spectator is not seen as passive and incapable. Insofar as Ranciere’s defence of the spectator against the participant consists of a critique of crituqe, we can reinstate the critique of the spectator by thinking beyond the concept of capacity. The spectator, and therefore the participant, must be understood as open to impossibility. When the artist creates a work that establishes a new place for the engagement with art, they call forth a spectator that was previously impossible. This is, in fact, what artists-as-spectators want from other artists too. We go to galleries in order to be stretched, in order to find new ways of thinking and being, in order to occupy new places in the grammar of art.

As such, Ranciere’s politics of art, which presupposes a conflict between the different empirical figures fixed in their roles of artist and spectator, can be replaced with a politics of art’s impossible spectators and participants.

The spectator should not come to rest in the encounter with art, but should be sent off, transported, transposed and transformed by art. The participant, likewise, should not be confirmed and incorporated by art, but challenged, stretched, uprooted. Art, in this way, always hopes for and tries to produce a new spectator, a spectator that was previously impossible, or a new participant, a participant that is impossible without this act of participation. The spectator is not meant to be capable – at least not straight away – but needs to engage in a kind of creative labour which is as much about transforming oneself as it is about knowing the work. And the participant is not meant to be ready to act – at least not without difficulty or preparation – but needs to become the participant that the work calls forth.

The labour of engaging with art is a labour of transformation from the possible to the impossible, not in terms of knowledge but in terms of subjectivity – a becoming. Art allows us to become something unpredictable, something unacceptable, perhaps, or something strange. Their capacity runs out quickly. They are not capable once and for all but are continually stretched by the experience of art – not, I might stress, by the shocking artwork or artist, but by the process of engaging with art). Capacity is dead, here. Capacity is facile; incapacity is joy. So, the avantgarde, instead of emancipating the spectator from ‘passivity and ignorance’, can best be seen as establishing places for impossible spectators.

The participant needs to be rethought in this utopian sense. Instead of the participant being an empirical category (eg local communities) that can be statistically known, or an actual group of individuals to whom a project can respond, the impossible participant is called forth by the work. A place is prepared for an as-yet-unknown or as-yet-impracticable agent. It is not the capacity of concrete participants, then, that determines their engagement with the work; it is the place that the work opens up for participation that determines the actant that anyone or someone might become. Participation, therefore, need no longer be confused with public relations, leisure, tourism or the experience economy. The impossible participant is the outcome of an encounter that is more demanding, more challenging, more stretching and more revolutionary than we have become used to. The impossible participant is not simply another name for neglect. The artist does not revert, here, to the historical position of cultural sovereign – the artist is tested. One does not produce impossible participants by reproducing the social relations of culture that are already established. The impossible participant is a demand on both artists and participants. The demand is for a new world, and it starts with a new, impossible art.