High Culture in a ‘Bare Art’ World: The Politics of Direct Art Activism

Capitalist crisis does not begin within art, but art can reflect and amplify its effects, to positive and negative ends. Gregory Sholette, author of the new book Delirium and Resistance: Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism, examines the disjunct between declarations of art’s virtue and high moralism, with the political economy of the cultural sector, whilst outlining his term ‘Bare Art’: a denuding of art’s entanglement with capitalism.

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Image: The Illuminator and Global Ultra Luxury Faction (GULF) confronts the Guggenheim’s planned future museum in the autocratic kingdom of Abu Dhabi, UAE, where migrant labour exploitation has been condemned by human rights groups.

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‘Art is not a luxury, not an adornment of civilization. It is a necessity. It is one of the central purposes of civilization.’ Thus begins a recent article by David Rothkopf in the online edition of Foreign Policy magazine, a liberal-leaning policy organ of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, of which Rothkopf is both the editor and CEO.  The op-ed goes on to explain that, ‘Artists lead in ways politicians, chief executives, or generals cannot. They enable us to explore the mysterious — deep within us and all around us,’ adding that ‘diplomats have found art and culture to be invaluable tools.’ But he also cautions the profound power of art is useful for political conquests including terrorist campaigns:

‘The Taliban blew up the ancient art of Afghanistan. The Islamic State did the same in Palmyra and across Syria and Iraq. Statues are toppled during revolutions. Art and artifacts that have become symbols of nations are seized or claimed almost as talismans that bring with them legitimacy or connections.’

After rightly bemoaning the recently elected US government’s desire to defund the arts, he points out that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is taking bold steps to become the world’s next cultural capital. This is an ambitious make-over proposal requiring delirious levels of infrastructure spending. This includes a new 330 million dollar Dubai Opera House, which is already boasting ticket sales outperforming New York’s Metropolitan Opera, in addition to a new Louvre museum opening in Abu Dhabi later this year and a new Guggenheim museum designed by star architect Frank Gehry. Both of these projects, together with several other museums, performing arts structures, and a branch of New York University constitute the Saadiyat Island Cultural District. Saadiyat Island is a 500 metre slab of dry desert sand, located just off the coast of Abu Dhabi, literally being terra-formed in sci-fi fashion, into what may well be the world’s largest 1% elite gated community at a cost of some 27 billion petr0-dollars.

The UAE’s costly global culture initiative recently held its grand overture. It was an impressive event billed as the ‘first Culture Summit in Abu Dhabi,’ and featured some 300 artists, arts administrators, media makers, tech leaders, and philanthropists from 80 international countries. Sponsored by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, together with support from Rothkopf’s Foreign Policy Group, it was further made possible by the UAE’s 370 Billion dollar GDP petrochemical fueled economy and inestimable savings on infrastructure costs thanks to medieval and frequently pitiless migrant labour policies. All in all, the UAE is uniquely positioned in the Middle East to take carry out such cultural world building, even though, as we shall see, the human cost of this investment is anything but aesthetic. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that Abu Dhabi’s fantastic cultural game plan is perfectly in sync with the very nature of contemporary art itself as we round the corner of the 21st Century.

According to the latest Amnesty International report, the United Arab Emirates arbitrarily restricts ‘the rights to freedom of expression and association, detaining and prosecuting government critics, opponents and foreign nationals under criminal defamation and anti-terrorism laws.’

The UAE has also been widely criticised by human rights groups for its embrace of the Kafala system in which migrant labourers, primarily from Southeast Asia, who make up 90% of the workforce, are forbidden from forming unions that would improve working conditions:

‘wages that fall far below acceptable standards in the West where such cultural industry market brands as the Guggenheim and Louvre hail from. While some recent Ministerial Decrees seek to mitigate the worst forms of labour abuses in the UAE, domestic workers are included in these untested reform efforts, and many of the 450,000 domestics are women of colour from The Philippines, Indonesia and Africa.’

It is startling therefore to read Rothkopf describe the UAE’s new Culture Summit as an exploration of how art and culture ‘can be harnessed to produce positive social change: ‘from combating violent extremism to reversing climate change, from empowering women to promoting arts education’, as well as, an effort to ‘harness the power of culture for social good internationally.’ I am not denying that the event did indeed embrace a wide range of global presenters, including many women and people of colour. But we must pause for me to point to a phenomenon I describe as ‘Bare Art’. The term refers to the stripping away of high art’s exceptional status as a human endeavour that is resistant to and autonomous from capitalist relations of production, and the socially tumultuous field of raw cultural practice that is left behind.

Riffing off philosopher Georgio Agamben’s well know phrase ‘bare life,’ ‘bare art’ is further elaborated on in my recent book Delirium and Resistance. We can get a glimpse of bare art’s actuality by considering how many hundreds of exploited migrant labourers were required to realise the UAE’s first Culture Summit, including the many who were minding the children and managing the households of the event organisers, and those tasked with constructing the spaces for performances and presentations, or preparing the banquets, and the migrant forces charged with cleaning up afterwards.

Many of these migrant East Asian, Filipino and North African subalterns find themselves deeply in debt to recruitment agencies in their home countries, even as UAE officials confiscate their passports as a precaution against escape. And whilst this invisible workforce is prohibited from seeking better working conditions, or organising amongst themselves, or speaking out against this oppression; bio-political restrictions that appear exactly opposite the freedoms enjoyed by most of the foreign guests who presented at the summit. I am not chastising the presenters so much as questioning the glaring paradoxes simply disregarded by event organisers, who, in Rothkopf’s words, see culture as the ‘most potent force for good on the planet’.

How do we even begin to reconcile the noble-sounding objectives of the Foreign Policy Group and its UAE counterparts, as opposed to the ignoble reality that makes their summit and the Saadiyat Island Cultural District possible in the first place? Or, to put this differently, what are we to make of such blatant contradictions and their transparent lack of address? I would contend that at this point in the evolution of technological communications it is simply not possible for the organisers, participants or attendees to claim ignorance of these paradoxes. In an age of ultra-accessible information overload and continuous self-promotion, the powerful and wealthy 1% –from Church officials to CEOs, philanthropic capitalists, state authorities and even their socialist apparatchik equivalents – are no longer able to resolutely roll-out the age-old narrative about the deep humanist value of art and culture. It’s a cover story that is simply no longer tenable. Even as it goes on, flimsily seeking to divert attention from the demystified exposure of high culture in a Bare Art World.

Three reasons stand out regarding these openly paradoxical conditions:

First, there is the aforementioned reach and influence of the Internet. Little effort is needed today to grasp what Walter Benjamin famously asserted over seventy years ago that, ‘there is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’ This is for anyone connected to social networks (which means virtually everyone involved in the production of high culture) is penetrated by an inescapable symptom of contemporary life that we might simply label as hyper-information awareness. We might choose to dismiss this knowledge, or possibly seek out ‘alternative facts,’ but ignoring it is not an option.

A second force behind the appearance of Bare Art is the art world’s own unrelenting self-analysis. Since at least the mid-1960s, artists have sought to expose the elitist mystification of high culture in a practice referred to as ‘institutional critique.’ As the late John Berger starkly noted in 1972, ‘Oil painting, before it was anything else, was a celebration of private property. As an art-form it derived from the principle that you are what you have.’ I will return to this point below by considering the work of artist Hans Haacke who is one of the architects of this procedure.

But these two determining explanations are joined today by a surprising and powerful third agency: the paradoxical demystifying role that deregulated capitalism plays within contemporary culture as an industry. Attempts by elites, as much as well-intentioned romantics, to paint high art as an evocation of humanity’s mysterious depths must come to terms with the realities of a vertiginous 56 billion dollar art market in a globally dispersed field where there are more artists, and more art works being produced, than perhaps ever before in history. And yet, much as things are with the neoliberal economy in general, this art world concentrates value amongst a small number of champions, leaving the majority to serve as its system of barely recognised reproduction and maintenance. I have in the past compared the art world’s political economy to cultural dark matter: a small, bright summit of highly visible artists whose stability is anchored by an internally marginalised and all but invisible multitude of creative producers, including the thousands of professionally trained studio artists generated by higher education. According to a new Art Basel/UBS report on the 2017 art market:

‘Close to half of the value of sales on the auction market came from just 1% of the artists whose work sold in 2016. Only 15% of artists had works priced in excess of $50,000, and a tiny fraction (just over 1%) had works that sold for more than $1 million.’

The report goes on to state that ‘the global share of sales from the four largest art markets in the Post War and Contemporary sector exceeded 90% by value in 2016, however they accounted for just 32% of total exhibitions,’ and that ‘despite this negative trend in 2015 and 2016, sales have advanced nearly 180% since the market recession in 2009 and have increased 51% in the decade from 2006 to 2016’. Meanwhile, the average tuition paid by MFA students in the USA is $38,000. Needless to say, the amount of debt most will have to carry after graduating is astounding for a field distinguished by its all but guaranteed unemployment. All of which seems to undercut Rothkopf’s claims about art’s imagination being the ‘most potent force for good on the planet.’ In light of high culture’s intimate kinship with, if not outright subsumption by, the global financial economy, some serious doubt must creep into these assertions, just as they did with regard to the celebratory promotion of the cultural makeover by the human-rights challenged UAE.

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Image: Hans Haacke, On Social Grease, a detail of plaque with Richard M. Nixon quotation on photo-engraved magnesium plates mounted on aluminum, 76.2 x 76.2 cm (each plaque), 1975.

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It is constructive to compare the marketing of art today by the Foreign Policy Group and the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, with efforts in the 1960s and 1970s by Cold-War policy makers, corporate leaders and political agencies in the United States who promoted art as a form of ideological lubrication useful for countering rebellious workers, students, women and minorities during a time of social and economic upheaval. In 1975, the artist Hans Haacke coolly and precisely exposed these mollifying intentions in a series of series of officious-looking, metal wall plaques presented as works of conceptual art. Each engraved panel is emblazoned with an actual citation in which art and culture are described as useful for covering-up the less than noble pursuits by businesses and states. Appropriately entitled On Social Grease, the work includes engraved citations by Exxon executive Robert Kingsley stating ‘Exxon’s support of the arts serves as a social lubricant. And if business is to continue in big cities, it needs a more lubricated environment. Robert Kingsley,’ and another by Chase Manhattan Bank CEO David Rockefeller reflecting on the ‘direct and tangible benefits’ that art investing provides businesses, including attracting qualified employees and improving the ‘corporate image.’

What image did Rockefeller hope to improve? Among other scandals he and his ideological ally Henry Kissinger supported the brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet in Chile, and helped develop financial austerity measures for bankrupt nations in Latin America and New York City following its 1975 economic collapse. Later, in 1979, he convinced President Jimmy Carter to allow Rockefeller’s friend the Shah of Iran entry to the US, leading to the hostage crisis and ultimately the downfall of Carter’s presidency. In another piece Haacke cites President Richard M. Nixon remarking that, ‘the arts have the rare capacity to help heal divisions among our people and to vault some of the barriers that divide the world,’ remarkably anticipating Rothkopf’s remarks some 38 years hence, but now with regard to the unapologetically autocratic kingdoms that comprise the UAE. What has changed since then?

For one thing, Hans Haacke’s self-critical pre-Internet era art practice required a strong commitment to frequently tedious investigative research that was truly unfamiliar to the world of the visual arts at the time (as opposed say to journalism for example or art history for that matter). However, once Haacke’s findings were presented within the ‘white cube’ context of high culture these revelations generated a profound suspicion towards corporate cultural support by the liberal art world audience.  Today, the ease with which information is accessible makes these cultural contradictions simpler to demonstrate on one hand, though strangely less consequential on the other hand. The air of suspicion is still present. In fact, a thick atmosphere of ‘critique’ and even scepticism permeates high culture, as it does most disciplines and fields of activity. But this perpetual state of bad faith recedes into a background like the rush of white noise in an office building leaving the paradoxes of the art world sitting along side one another, like so many units of discrete information. The reclamation of Haacke’s legacy of exposition has required a still more engaged level of intervention, that of direct action into the museum space itself.

By no means a new phenomenon, in fact Haacke was a co-founder of Art Workers’ Coalition in the late 1960s who directly confronted New York City museum’s with demands ranging from the rights of artists of color to providing social security for art laborers by selling off the valued work of dead artists. The interventionist museum exploits of Global Ultra Luxury Faction (GULF) against the development of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi; the choreographed anti-petroleum industry demonstrations of Liberate Tate who successfully forced the museum to disconnect from British Petroleum; the staged protests of Decolonize This Place against the whiteness of the art establishment; and the striking dramatic museum occupations by DebtFair and Occupy Museums whose recent action at the Whitney Biennial collectively and publicly repudiating art student debt all testify to the revitalisation of active confrontation as the preferred form of dissent in the epoch of Bare Art.

 

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Images: Counter-Commencement Debtor’s Ceremony at the Whitney Museum.

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A counter-commencement autonomous event organised by Occupy Museums at the Whitney Biennial in NYC took place on May 5, 2017 and a group of heavily indebted artists collectively argue that the Museum of Modern Art remove Larry D. Fink from its board of trustees. Fink is the co-founder and CEO of BlackRock Inc., a major global financial corporation that profits from holding student debt, as well as being on the board of New York University, and an adviser to President Donald Trump.

But now the hour seems almost too late to call out neoliberalism. Recently we’ve seen a political turn toward hyper capitalistic nationalism that has found an even more cynical use for the American Dream. Now it is wielded as rhetorical entitlement deserved only by white Americans; an entitlement that can be dispersed only when large populations who are not white are variously forgotten, targeted, ejected, killed.  The American Dream today is a wedge-producing weapon that is used to divide confuse and enrage people in order to obscure the quiet counter-revolution. This counter-revolution is taking shape as a takeover of all levers of power by billionaires. Their taking of power depends on the withering away of democratic institutions such as schools and libraries. The Art World is a comfort zone for many of these billionaires. This is the counter-revolution of the Collector Class.

The Collector Class is taking complete control of our space and time. They are remaking neighbourhoods into branded real estate-culture packages. The high-tech debt based economy converts people’s time into fixed income assets. All of this becomes capital whose form can only flow up to the top of the pyramid. In this equation art that does not perform the function of luxury asset gets weeded out. However, artists and even institutions are beginning to resist.

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Delirium and Resistance: Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism by Gregory Sholette is available from Pluto Press.

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Gregory Sholette is a New York-based artist, writer and activist. His recent projects include Dark Matter Games in Venice, Italy and the exhibition DARKER at Station Independent Projects NYC consisting of large ink wash drawings addressing current political conditions. He is active with Gulf Labor Coalition and was a co-founder of the collectives Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PAD/D: 1980-1988), and REPOhistory (1989-2000). A former Mellon Fellow at the CUNY Center for the Humanities he is on the editorial board of FIELD, a new online journal focused on socially-engaged art criticism, and his most recent publications include Delirium and Resistance: Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism, (Pluto/U. Chicago Press 2017), and Dark Matter: Art and Politics in an Age of Enterprise Culture (Pluto Press: 2010). Sholette holds a PhD in History and Memory Studies from the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands (2017), he is a graduate of the Whitney Independent Study Program in Critical Theory (1996), Graduate of University of California San Diego (1995), and The Cooper Union School of Art (1979), and teaches studio art and co-directs the new Social Practice Queens MFA concentration at Queens College CUNY, and is an associate of the Art, Design and the Public Domain program of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

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