Monday, January 3, 2011

Anti-art and plain poor art

IF ART usually makes me suspicious, I still find "anti-art" usually far more stillborn, and usually an even narrower ideology than art. Anti-art is commonly a false denominator, used by people who want to snatch whatever art holds of legitimity, privileges and alms for their own part rather than really question or actually dethrone it.

Often the aim is to reduce art to something completely different (either political activism or philosophy). Otherwise, or simultaneously, it may be about self-marketing in two steps: first one ultraliberal nivellation: art is dead, and no art can claim to better than any other; and then the logical fallacy of self-assertion: if there is no rigid scale of values, no absolute hierarchy, then that means automatically that my own works are just as good as those of all the established artists, regardless of how they actually look. (The argumentation can be recognised from that of the creationists: when the scientists themselves admit that they don't know for certain exactly how evolutionary history took place, then every other theory is exactly as good, for example our theory about divine creation, regardless of whether it completely lacks support.)

"Poetry must be made by all" has been reinterpreted into "poetry is only what everybody already do" or "poetry is done by all, so this means that whatever I do is really good". Under the flourishing of anti-art in the 60s, it became quite obvious that its underlying shared common formula actually was "all we ask is to be recognised as art". This formula is clearly alive today as well, especially in the more or less postmodern-inspired pseudo-vanguardism that makes up the tiresome standard level even in most underground forums today (and which, of course, many single practicioners active in such forums dramatically rise above simply by cultivating a poetic vision or even just a genuinely playful praxis of one or the other kind). It stands perfectly clear that many modern forms av Art with a capital A stand very close to anti-art to the point of being exchangable.

Anti-art in all its varieties (and we've seen a plethora, not just among situationists, anarchists, neodadaists and postmodernists) has its favourite genres:

1. Spontanism, unconcentrated on principle (excessive daub, graffiti-naïvism, absentminded beat poetry, etc)

2. Dashing performance art ("payed play-leader spontanism", "pee-and-poo-humour" etc)

3. Performance art boring as hell ("realistic" minimalism)

4. Conceptual art boring as hell (small gestures illustrating a usually staggering philosophical argument or a thoughtless actualisation of some topic theme)

5. Documentary realism, soul-less on principle (reality tv-shows, selfbiographical comics, underwear- and trashcan-conceptual art)

6. Simple propaganda and simple political campaigning

7. Other simple utilistic communications: classified ads and pick-up lines, humour, porn, vandalism, etc.

Parts of this philosophy, and even more, parts of this political activism, may have its points, but in that case as philosophy or politics respectively, and hardly as art. And parts of spontanist art, in its chaotic expressionism or raw naivism, may have a great poetic and artistic value, which is hardly reinforced by its polemically noisy and nivellating frame.

* * *

Situationists and their followers never grow tired of repeating Debord's 1950s formula "The dadaists negated art without realising it, the surrealists realised art without negating it, it is up to us situationists to simultaneously negate and realise it (NB paraphrase). Apart from the immediately suspect in the combination of progress-faith and grandiose self-image it expresses (that specific combination which is the very foundation of vanguardism), it is hardly a correct image historically.

The activity of the dadaists was hardly aimed at negating art, and reducing their activity to that can be done only on the basis of anti-empirical french-hegelian methodical speculation. What the dadaists did themselves was to manifest how bourgeois society had lost its legitimity, and especially how its alleged crown jewel, culture, so obviously stood without any support for all its claims to being dignified, all-human, cultivated, peaceful, rational and good. So yes, the dadaists launched a nivellation, but not an arbitrary nivellation, rather a two-headed: your art is not better than our intoxicated fantasies (which are often really good), your art is not better than our found objects, game results, automatist exercises, chance methods (which are often really good), your art is not better than our silliest provocations and most speculatively headless pathetic gestures (which are not good at all, but entirely on level with much of bourgeois culture).

Dada accomplished much poetic results that cannot be reduced to anti-art: an emblematic incarnation of the radical negation and the radical departure as a starting point, automatic writing, chance methods in general, the poems of Huelsenbeck, Arp, Schwitters, Serner, Breton, Soupault, Tzara, Eluard, Péret and Kassák, the paintings of Ernst, Grosz, Arp, Duchamp, Ray, Picabia, the photography of Ray and Schad, the collages of Ernst, Hausmann, Heartfield, Höch, Charchoune, Citroën, Schwitters, the assemblages of Hausmann and Schwitters, the sculptures of Arp, Täuber-Arp and Schwitters, the films of Eggeling, Clair and Richter, yes even the sound poems of Ball, the quasitheoretical speculations of Tzara, Arp, Picabia and Duchamp, the chaotically experimental collective poems and noise music, the cultivation of the soirée format, the particular typography, etc etc.

The major part of such concrete poetical results and the methodology that gave rise to them were integrated into surrealism. Within surrealism, the privileged position of art has been denied, but without raising quietist rules of abstention; a poetic experimentation has been cultivated inside and outside art. The forms that were demonstrated for cultivating poetry outside the poem (usually not original for surrealism but realised also in romanticism, symbolism, dada and russian futurism) were picked up by the situationists and proclaimed to be the only legitimate expressions of poetry. And some time after the formulation of that theory, the situations found some support in identifying it with situations of social revolt.

But that was around the same time as the situationist movement split, partly over the question of art. But it must be admitted that those art historians are right who claim that the situationist movement did not split in a simple contradiction between artists and political activists. Both sides had artists, and neither side had political activists in any modern sense of the word; both had an interest in artistic and political concerns. Both wanted to negate art and continue making art. But one side had an artistic praxis at its base, which banalised the poetic by identifying it with this spontanistic praxis of theirs, and they developed theoretically inferior theories where radical art was paranoically-querulantly identified with freedom of speech; their political activity was noisy, querulantic and populistic. The other side avoided any basis in artistic praxis, and thereby made the poetic into something abstract since it could only be concretised in theoretical examples, and they developed an advanced and coherent theory by focusing on the field of social theory; their political activity was the intellectual leftists' usual positionings visavis ongoing struggles which they had no direct relation to (but they focused on important aspects that few others saw, and eventually the situationists and the ongoing struggles came closing in to each other and the situationists became activists too). One side's art was the other's anti-art, similar to the point of confusion, a self-righteous noisy mix of spontanism and propaganda (not without poetic ingredients).

* * *

Within surrealism, there has been a continual insistence on the confinedness, rottenness and ideological character of the art sphere; and an emphasis that those meaningful activities that many people would like to direct there could advantageously be cultivated in completely different connections, openly collective, experimental, playful and nonconformist ones; either in the surrealist movement itself or in local initiatives, on-the-side forums and utopian workshops, festivals or mystifying everyday initiatives. Many like to emphasise the polemical denial of the art sphere further, and when this is combined with an interest in the situationists' social-theoretical criticism of the image, there are occasional attempts to launch moratioria against some or all forms of artistic creation.

In fact, the surrealist manifesto of 1924 was nurtured by the vanguardist hope that automatism and surrealist games and mediality shortly would completely replace artistic concerns and the entire art sphere. This soon came to a disappointment, not the least since it turned out that questions that were in one way or another artistic questions remained central even for the surrealists themselves and seemed partly central in the cultivation of poetry. Successively these claims were weakened until abandoned with the 1929 manifesto (where surrealism effectively ceased being a vanguardism).

Yes, if the situationist movement in its entirety is seen like an extremist sect within the broad surrealist movement, then the Situationist International after the split 1962 was one such instance of denial-moratorium. And at the same time it held exhibitions and designed journals, and insisted that this was something completely different than the confusingly similar art.

The Stockholm surrealist group too suggested a moratorium in the declaration "Open letter to Guy Girard" in the 90s. No formal evaluation has been done of this, but it became obvious that none of the extra-artistic forms at hand were completely satisfactory substitutes for the directions of investigation collected in artistic creation.

Then the Madrid surrealist group came with their declaration eventually widespread as "The false mirror". In the original version this text relaunches the situationist critique, but makes an explicit exception for the artistic praxis of surrealism itself. Over time however, application was sharpened, and led to the current point where the Madrid group has an apparently complete inner ban on production of images (which strangely enough mainly covers painting, while documentary photography and poetic writing can go on) and still keep arguing for it within the surrealist movement.

And art-stopping can still be relevant, mainly as an experiment. A moratorium against artistic creation in the right situation is really an interesting way to explore what ways the creative impulses will then take, and may reveal new possibilities. A moratorium that is permanented becomes ideology. A moratorium which isn't even a moratorium but excepts one's own praxis is not just ideology but pure self-deception and marketing.

* * *

"Art for art's sake" is on the literal level obviously pointless, but the formula has occasionally been one to gather around to hold various utilistic demands on art at bay, defending creativity in accordance with inner necessity against various political and commercial decrees. Nowadays, it seems like the vast sphere of antiart and neighboring conceptual art, performance art and political art (selfbiographical art, postmodern art, etc etc) strangely subscribes to it in quite another conditional sense, wanting to paradoxically conserve the privileged place of art while claiming the obsoleteness of traditional criteria (or any criteria at all) so that the art sphere simply becomes a pool of available resources that we can all compete for in a big free-for-all. Some are happy with securing exposure for their political propaganda (usually exposure in confined art connections where it makes very little sense), some are happy to remain underground artists as long as they get regular stipends and grants, while many are violently competitive over the favors of the bureaucrats (on stipend boards etc) and intermediates (agents and gallery owners) and the sales figures - increasingly less as a means of even old-school humanist-style bourgeois "personal development" and increasingly less with the actual art as their argument; increasingly more as a naked competition game about impressive cvs, useful contacts and effective marketing strategies. For many bourgeois feminists, some upward-mobile working class heroes, and for some ultraliberal cynics in general, the right to make a career (also without really having anything to say) becomes a political agenda itself.

The only radical general view on art remains that creativity must accept no external decrees, and no isolation from other areas of life. It is then of uttermost importance that the latter must be implimented not in the reduction of art to already available utilistic concerns (income, propaganda), but quite on the other hand, the demand to adapt daily life to the inner necessities and the profound curiousness and overall creativity that can't be confined to art.

Thus, the point where art by its own dynamics will and must coincide with politics (even in the narrow sense of the word) is in the struggle against work. The ongoing struggles to reduce the workday, to subvert work ethics, to find alternative collective solutions, to defend play and laziness and mad herculean tasks, is also the most immediate political question of art, and the one where it may make sense to be an activist in the role of artists (apart from that it is very difficult to see how artists would be politically active as artists rather than as anybody, or not). The immediate need to secure time and circumstances for everybody to do what seems meaningful and to be able to organise their sociality and habits according to real demands of creativity and curiosity rather than this ever hardening imposed nonsense, which not just exhausts and exploits, but poisons the spirit and recreates life in its own image.

The art sphere needs to be set aside, not inflated by incorporating thousands of vain gestures against it. Bickerings over the concept of art, over recognition as artists, over the distribution of subsidies, have very little to do with the human creativity, imagination, curiousness and playfulness that will keep going on in other spheres in life, and, for the time being, even in art.


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