Author: John Abbate  
Posted: 21.01.2003; 03:20:13
Topic: Question 6
Msg #: 637 (in response to 428)
Prev/Next: 636/638
Reads: 64744

This defensive reaction to my remarks (6/17) is not justified. My own position is probably closer to that of Art & Language than anyone reading your text would guess. The phrase 'romance with painting' was not intended to negatively characterise the work of Art & Language. I thought I made it clear that I don't think any medium is inherently reactionary or radical, nor do I feel that to paint today is automatically reactionary (perhaps I should have clarified things immediately Michael Corris attributed that view to me). Painting does, however, occupy a curious position in that any relevant practice has to justify itself in the face of numerous irrelevant painting practices, and the contemporary proliferation of images generally--at first glance painting will seem reactionary. I never said that Art & Language fails to do this; I only said that I wasn't going to do it for you in front of Thomas. I find your work rewarding enough to devote significant attention to it, and I would have thought that my comments signal this, even when they deviate from the 'official' Art & Language view. Moving on...

Thomas, although it is true that the borders that delimit art and activism are in a state of flux, it should be possible to ascertain the nature of the relation between them as it manifests itself in individual works and actions. It occurs to me that there are at least five possible relations that may operate together or individually within a work of art/activism, without necessarily assuming a fixed definition of either:

1) The activistís relation to art is seen as parasitic if the discursive structures (semantic networks, if you like) of (old) art are used to raise the profile or prestige of the activist and their actions. This is one example from a broader set of problems that stems from an instrumental approach to language endemic to overtly political art. A tendency exists among those engaged in art-as-activism to unselfconsciously appropriate the languages of art as a means to an end. Alternatively, if the relation is not consciously instrumental, the activistís attachment to art is unconsciously libidinal, so that art becomes an object of desire; art promises something the activist lacks.

2) Conservative or bureaucratic forces and strategies within art eventually lead to the aestheticisation of specific political actions or goals, to the point where a kind of political formalism emerges, in which de-territorialisation, gender/ethnicity, hybridity, etc, become the new line, colour and shape. In this scenario, art enhances its own prestige by gaining a radical 'edge' while activism is potentially burdened or diluted by aestheticism.

3) I would term the relation negative or hostile when the meeting of the two leads to the perversion of both, i.e., when (1) and (2) above are combined.

4) The relation is dialectical when both art and activism remain independent modes that are yet able to cooperate under certain conditions to achieve simultaneous aesthetic and political goals.

5) The relation is one of identity. This is a radical idea that Thomas is perhaps proposing. But what can this mean? Any attempt to collapse art into activism or vice-versa has the extinguishment of both as its logical endpoint. The unification of art and activism under the banner of a broader framework of description that supersedes the old art models is an enticing, but potentially violent prospect. What can it mean to operate outside an art context, while continuing to speak of art?

The idea of a distinction (within art) between notation and realisation is at least as old as the first musical score. What this shows is that an 'originals producing art', in terms of the production of individual objects, isnít the real problem; fetishistic tendencies and modes of territorialisation will attach to multiples as easily as originals. The claim that intermedia art is inherently democratic or immune to the vicissitudes of ideological sway is untenableóspecific forms may only mediate our meaning or our politics, but never determine them or carry them wholesale, like Trojan horses, into the discursive structures of the art world.


Last update: Tuesday, January 21, 2003 at 6:45:56 PM.