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[- Who is faking it: artists or activists, or both?
By TreborScholz, Section review-a-rama
Posted on Sun May 4th, 2003 at 11:29:03 PM EURODISCORDIA TIME
Brian Holmes' provocative opening to his recent Springerin article Liar's Poker , claims that "when people talk about politics in an artistic frame, they are lying."


[ --------------------------------------------- ]

Now that political art practices are popular in the museum, many artists capitalize on hot issues like the democratic globalization process, receiving prestigious exhibitions in museums. The museum, in this symbiotic relationship benefits by appearing connected to "the outside world." Holmes gives an example, describing Thomas Hirschhorn's artwork "Bataille Monument" with skepticism; questioning the ways it manages its relations to the artistic frame (description of the work ). Holmes presents us with an artist who claims to leave the artistic frame behind but at the same benefits from corporate-backed commissions (Holmes gives us specific examples). The claim to represent a social movement ends up being about the hypocritical art world game. Is it artists faking an involvement with social movements? The critique makes sense but why is Holmes surprised?

He asks for the visible artist to have a direct social engagement and use his privileged position to directly aid movements (thereby most likely losing her/his cultural capital), using art's potential to impact concrete policy change. Holmes does not dwell in critique but provides what he sees as positive examples: from Ne Pas Plier, to No One Is Illegal, to the No Border Camp, Reclaim the Streets, to Indymedia London. All these influential groups may at one point have had access to a museum. But would many of them identify as artists? Does the art context matter to them? I would love to see more activist groups in art institutions where the museum becomes a platform for their activism. However, museumgoers expecting art historical references, media specificity or poetic aesthetics may not be very open to a campaign by No One Is Illegal, for instance. But of course museum audiences are not a monolithic abstract block but a group of citizens with real world politics.

In the recent massive anti-war demonstrations signs or gestures by artists played a very small role (in difference to the days of Seattle where art action like those of hundreds of mirrors reflecting the police were spectacular media images). Despite "Bread and Puppet," and many posters art was not a strong force in this recent massive anti-war movement. Nevertheless artist critics looked very hard and held on to each Guernica reference they could find.

Holmes acknowledges that "picture politics" as that of Rtmark can have a vital role in the museum. But does not much of this feed into capitalist media spectacle, the spectacle of democracy with Michael Moore shouting "Shame on Bush!" as tightly edited sequence broadcasted on MSNBC to make viewers feel like they really live in a democracy. The role of the art activist as court clown who is allowed to criticize as long as this critique is sufficiently general and does not implicate specific individuals for detailed misdeeds. It's OK as long as they make us laugh.

Holmes asks with Pierre Bordieux about our true interests, our real motivations: Are you in it for the money (economic capital)? Do you try to link yourself to powerful people (social capital)? Or do you want to create and distribute signs, images, and gestures that are valued now (cultural capital)? "Being interested," Bordieux elaborates, "means ascribing a meaning to what happens in a given social game, accepting that its stakes are important and worthy of being pursued."

Brian Holmes argues in favor of a specific mode of cultural production: one that very directly aids a social movement maybe best exemplified by Ne Pas Plier, a Paris-based artist collective that supports the unemployed in France with visuals and strategies for their demonstrations. Holmes rightly asks for a genuine engagement of the artist if s/he enters the realm of the political critiquing artists riding on the political wave to advance their career. But why discount the large spectrum of political art practices ?

To a certain degree artists can change the way people think and act by creating situations of communication about urgent issues. But is not any cultural model valuable that creates sustainable communities, temporary alliances online and off, in the artworld and outside of the box?

[ --------------------------------------------- ]

Who is faking it: artists or activists, or both? | 11 comments
[new] a long and impassioned comment (Avg. Score: 3.00 / Raters: 1) (#6)
by BrianHolmes on Tue May 6th, 2003 at 11:09:50 PM EURODISCORDIA TIME
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Trebor my friend, from what kind of experiences did Mayakovsky's work arise? It's a real question, what I know are beautiful typographic poems inspired by the revolution... Somehow I think you're reading me defensively - what I ask in my text is not that all art should be activist, the text, just that explicitly political art should not be hypocritical. It's true that, a little like Aileen, I personally think you can find an aesthetic experience in public space - the space of contestation - that gives meaning to art, life, politics... But I don't expect or want all art to be No Border or Ne Pas Plier (by the way, I'm not part of that last group anymore - discordia, discordia)... So I'm going to respond to your response.

You ask:

"But why discount the large spectrum of political artwork that contributes to a counter memory, an alternative visual inventory?"

Indeed? The answer is: I don't discount it. If you grasp the notion of illusio proposed by Bourdieu, and then you read the closing paragraphs of the article, you'll find that I suggest two things: The first, the premise of the argument, is that the infinite struggle for defining the very basis of the artistic field - its illusio - is open again. It's at issue right now. It turns around the redefinition of art's autonomy. And the second thing, my conclusion, is that artistic practice which is really engaged in social movements - including all the examples that I give - can serve as a point of orientation, a kind of viewpoint from which to create and evaluate art.

Because the problem with art today is this: It's a counter-memory of what? What kind of alternative inventory can it offer? If art produces its autonomy as the closure of its professional field, then there is no real access to anything counter, to anything alternative. The images and signs will gain their meaning and value within the closed field of an essentially touristical art, the kind you'll find at the tendentiously "political" Venice Biennale this summer, supported and manipulated by the banks and the state administrations. To point to artists whose personal name dissolves into a social movement is to point outside the current professionalized, normalized, and fundamentally middle-class frame. Outside the magic circle where people have the leisure to contemplate artistic production. But the reason for doing this is not to discount or destroy non-activist art, no - you got me wrong, I'm no Stalinist, really! The reason for doing this is to shift the definition of art's autonomy, to shift the magnetic north of art, which is an orientation point that we must create with our own actions. At the extreme, the touchstone for art today is the paving-stone picked up by a demonstrator in the street.

Will the stone break the window of the bank? Will the protestor die - shot down by the police, shot like the protestors in Argentina or in Palestine today, who must die at gunpoint when they rise up against the limits of hunger and deprivation? Or will that stone become the first prop in an artistic theater that displays a clear consciousness of the impasse of violence, and a double refusal: the refusal to enter a deadly dance where hope can only lose, and at the same time, the refusal to go home in resignation and accept this unbearable system?

What can a juggler do in the midst of a riot? Juggle the paving-stones, of course. It matters. It's a matter of life, at those moments. Like the unutterably beautiful protest of the white-painted hands, raised up like humanity's flags over the crowd in Genoa.

What artistic practice can do, outside the museums, is give people a chance to invent and enact other values, beyond the alternative of being complicit or being crushed. This is resistance. This is the stuff of memory and dreams. This is the experience - just the beginning - of an alternative society. It's not confined to art, not at all. But today, in the forms of protest that have evolved over the past few years, artistic practice and the theatricalization of public space have been one of the ways to elude the trap of confrontation with the armed forces, which is the dead-end that imperial power has programmed. Eluding the trap, and going on ahead with the project for a better society: that's the illusio for me. Art in the streets is an alternative to the meeting of stone and lead. It's a counter-practice, a counter-power. For those of us involved with all the vast traditions of the imagination, this counter-power can help us remember the promise of art, its latent utopia. And the example of artists who have taken to the streets can help us - just us, the people directly and professionally involved in making art, or the many more people involved in making it live with their gaze. It can help us to revive the infinite struggle that will always be needed to free that promise from the empire of banks and solidiers and the state.

Only if artists respect the realities of the world today, can they retrieve and invent the utopias of yesterday and tomorrow. That's what many people, within the field of art, are now trying to do. At certain crucial points, they disappear from the museums. They have to disappear - otherwise, you're right, they become a court jester, the emperor's fool. But let's at least fill their place with something more than another luxury product for the bankers and the bureaucrats. Let's create another society - in the studios and the museums too. In the artworld and outside of the box, as you say.

all the best, Brian

[new] Three Aces and a Joker (Avg. Score: none / Raters: 0) (#9)
by gregory sholette on Thu May 15th, 2003 at 08:24:30 PM EURODISCORDIA TIME
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Brian Holmes essay Liars Poker raises the betting stakes for every politically committed artist today. Recently published in the Austrian based publication Springerin, his call to aggressively re-frame the very notion of creative work is the first "high card" one must draw if progressive art activists hope to keep their hand in the current ideological gamble known as cultural politics. This re-mapping of art world discourse (or better yet, art world real estate assets) is ace number one. Holmes has nailed that first card down solid. However, there are three other cards that must be added to this hand before calling for a show of hands. One of these must be learning how to leverage the truly substantial wealth that is already circulating within the global art industry for other, more progressive purposes.

Finding ways inside the institutions of art in order to redirect these resources outwards, away from the narcissism of the art world is one game plan. The artists' collective Las Agencias for example ( has managed such leveraging on several occasions by taking money, visibility and the artistic legitimacy offered to them by several contemporary art museums in Spain and Italy and then using this "cultural capital" for seriously subversive ends. On one occasion Las Agencias even redirected art world assets to teach people how to successfully shop lift items from corporate-owned mega-stores. This was civil disobedience framed as art but also structured as a dance form related to Flemenco. What of the third ace?

Ace three calls for infecting and transforming the bankrupt artistic discourse of academia, avant-gardism and the art world in such a way that younger artists learn to value collective work, ephemeral actions and the "Dark Matter" not typically counted as art. Actively re-writing the "story" of art history/visual culture is an indispensable strategy in this game. In other words how to move away from strictly a game of studio solitaire to some degree of social engagement. This requires recognizing all the street based, hand made, amateur work of the February 15th protests as well as more focused and sustained public projects by art collectives such as Temporary Services ( or Las Agencias. Now, along with disseminating creativity, the leveraging of art world capital and the re-mapping of a dreary artistic landscape is a fourth, wild card draw. The joker in the deck recognizes the necessity for those of us who do not have a family trust account or lottery winnings to establish some degree of legitimacy in academic and art world circles in order to simply make a living. What one actually does with that card is of course impossible to predict. Hopefully the lure of the game will never overtake the significance of the real world play that lies beyond the narrow and self-indulgent parameters of the art world. OK: your draw...

[new] Art and Autonomy (Avg. Score: none / Raters: 0) (#8)
by MartinLucas on Wed May 14th, 2003 at 03:16:44 PM EURODISCORDIA TIME
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Much of Brian's essay has to do with the two Documentas and the relationship between artists and art institutions. [There's an earlier version of his thinking on a nettime posting, I think.]

It's clear that what is attractive to "the people who run what used to be the ideological set-piece of so-called 'Western art,'" is exactly the notion that in an era of globalization dealing with the concerns of the powerless looks to be a true example of Bourdieu's 'disinterestedness'. This seems central to Brian's "Liar's Poker".

A big problem then becomes co-optation. Bourdieu talks about giving weapons to the competition:

"The most heteronymous cultural producers [i.e. those with the least symbolic capital] can offer the least resistance to external demands, of whatever sort. To defend their own position, they have to produce weapons, which the dominant agents (within the field of power) can immediately turn against the cultural producers most attached to their autonomy." The Field of Cultural Production, or: The Economic World Reversed Columbia U. 1993. This is an ongoing problem. I remember when MTV adapted some of the techniques of the alternative video world [Paper Tiger TV in my case] as a gesture toward authenticity with its youth market.

One can argue about potential responses. One reflection is that working collectively means making institutions, even if these can be rather marginal, they have some real staying power. One hopes that they are genuinely different from the mainstream art institutions in their relation to power. They seem to act differently.

Although Trebor was perhaps right about the lack of significant role for fine art in the context of the February 15 anti-war march in New York, there was an interesting alternative media side to the event which was covered live by Pacifica Radio and Free Speech TV working with a variety of other groups including Indymedia, Downtown Community TV, the Youth Channel, the public access system. This effort gave the event real cohesion, important at an event where the police made big efforts to prevent people from gathering together physically.

In fact, reflecting on this kind of simple level, it's hard to know exactly what a fine art role should be. In the sixties, in my experience it was musicians and poets who provided main cultural inspiration, and film to some extent. Fine arts were there; I remember turning the art dept at Berkeley into a silkscreen factory when the US started bombing Cambodia. But the effort seemed modest.


Bourdieu would suggest that anyone who exposes the "game" is in for a hard time. My limited experience with discussing these issues with artists in Europe, for instance at a conference on Ethics and Aesthetics at De Unie in R'dam a couple of years ago, suggest that people could handle art critiquing the political economy of the art world in a now classic way, e.g. Haacke, Broodthaers, but had a hard time hearing politicians telling them how little autonomy they really have, and how much more constrained its going to be in the future.


One fruitful direction is toward an audience. Here I'm thinking of an art which imagines an audience of equals, rather than of connoisseurs a la high art or one of manipulees as in mass culture. I think the positionality of being 'outside with the delinquents is a problematic one seen from Bourdieu's eyes, as it is usually just a way those on the outside to get in and reproduce the game in some way. But it's not the wrong place to be. I believe there is an art which speaks to real possibilities of human freedom, even if it's hard to prove.

Of course, sometimes one proves it exactly by getting a reaction from an institution. I think of a recent work by Rotterdam's Jeanne v. Heeswijk. Working at the Wexner Center in Ohio with help from V-2, van Leishout Atelier, and the Columbus Transit Authority in a piece called `Face Your World', she had a bus going around town picking up kids who would get involved in redesigning the city in a virtual space. The museum was unsupportive, and even tried to pull the plug on the project, which was part of a series of conceptual works. The city government, ironically, supported the work. Both the Planning Dept and the bus service were more aware of the benefits of an art pointing to democracy than the art institution.

Perhaps this is just another example of what Brian is talking about. One certainly can find tension between artist and institution in any era. Hopefully, discussions like this one will help us find the possibilities unique to our moment.

n.y.c. may 14, `03

[new] don't confuse artists with the 'art world' (Avg. Score: none / Raters: 0) (#7)
by qpdoll on Wed May 7th, 2003 at 11:48:13 PM EURODISCORDIA TIME
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Hi all...

I'm just digging through all this, and a little confused by the thread and curious about some of the assumptions.

I sometimes make poltical software projects, either on my own, or in groups. a couple years ago, i made a piece of software called CueJack, which i distributed on the web. Eventually some art people heard about it, and some of them put CueJack in art museums. Personally, I don't make political projects to go in art museums, and I'm kinda suspicious of anyone who does. Ok, and to be honest, I'm kinda wary of art musuems too. On the other hand, I don't think art museums should be excluded as venues for exhibiting political projects. Art museums are public places, and you hit some people there you don't hit on the net or on the street, so I say, what the halibut, why not? I'm sure never going to make something for the purpose of putting it in a museum - I don't think it's a broad enough distribution channel on its own. But if the museum people want to show things, I am not going to be a snobby dolly and tell them they're not hip enough to show political stuff just cause they're art sno^H^H^H curators.

On the other hand, there can be problems in cases where a) the museum exploits political work and the political work thus becomes reduced to hype or b) artists, in their quest for art world validation, craft projects for hype rather than political value. However, in this doll's opinion, these specific situations should not become an excuse to dismiss all political artists (or even all art museums.)

Keep your head facing forward, and keep reaching beyond your ears...
-qp doll

[new] Art, activism, platforms (Avg. Score: none / Raters: 0) (#3)
by Aileen on Tue May 6th, 2003 at 01:50:45 AM EURODISCORDIA TIME
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There are a number of reasons I can think of, why artists/activists should make use of art institutions and any other platforms they can seize. Aside from art institutions, the artist Tal Adler with "Pettek", for example, claimed elections as an appropriate platform for art interventions. One reason for using all these platforms is to create channels for communication, for finding one another. People working in public space, creating interventions in inconspicuous, everyday situations can easily start to feel isolated. Contact with others is important for healthy (self-) criticism. Although it always surprises me to encounter curators and directors of art institutions, who still think it is awfully radical and progressive to "break open the white cube", the experience of making their resources available to social engagement can set different processes in motion.

[new] art during anti-war (Avg. Score: none / Raters: 0) (#1)
by katrienjacobs on Sun May 4th, 2003 at 07:43:51 PM EURODISCORDIA TIME
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I am not sure who exactly is saying here that art was not a strong force during the recent anti-war demonstrations. I really had a different experience during the anti-war demonstrations in Boston and Cambridge. I thought that the quality of the body movements (eg. African-American dancers), puppets, drums an slogans was really superb. One could really find a definition of art based on the value of live performance (gestures, voices, sounds energies enabling transfer of ideas) to argue that these were artful demonstration, or that the aesthetic quality of the protests had a very unique flavor. This is different from Holmes' claim that artists are activist because it is hip to be activist, and different from saying that artists were overall driving this movement. We could look at the documentation of protests and study the performance aesthetics more carefully, would that be useful? It was an unusual blend of people here in Boston, not very artsy, but gestural in meaningful and I would say memorable ways.
I was myself also curious about the naked protests going on in other cities, and it would be good to hear some testimonies of 'nakedness as art' from the people who were there. Rather than assuming that these were fashionably subversive individuals --as issue-driven claims about artists go --I was overwhelmed by the glimpses of naked bodies and wanted to get information. This quality was not recorded by the mass media.

  • being picky by Marc Herbst, 03/27/2004 12:23:29 AM EURODISCORDIA TIME (none / 0)
  • Forms of protest by Aileen, 05/06/2003 02:01:10 AM EURODISCORDIA TIME (none / 0)
  • Holmes' article by TreborScholz, 05/05/2003 11:44:49 AM EURODISCORDIA TIME (none / 0)
Who is faking it: artists or activists, or both? | 11 comments

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