Art as agitprop

Banksy graffiti in Bethlehem. Credit: Eddiedangerous. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Artivism: The Battle for Museums in the Era of Postmodernism
Alexander Adams, Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2002, 201pps, pb., £14.95

Ars gratia artis – ‘art for art’s sake’ – was the motto of the Metro Goldwyn Mayer studio, seen at the start of their films, surrounding their logo of a roaring lion. MGM was of course mostly interested in money, but that redolent motto evokes one of the major modern philosophical debates – should art exist for its own sake, or should it be seen more as a means of social change? It is Alexander Adams’ contention that today art is too often seen as the latter, to its and our detriment.

All art is a reflection of the society in which it was created, and from its inception has been deployed to make political points, or demonstrate dominance. The Parthenon shows how artistic genius can be wielded in the service of a political idea – the perfectly proportioned building an architectural analogy of a supposedly harmonious state. Emperors and monarchs everywhere were cast in profile on their coinage, their mettle embodied in the metal of the money, making coin clipping or counterfeiting not only theft, but even a kind of lèse majesté. Medieval monarchs, nobles and the Church commissioned paintings and tapestries whose excellence and imagery bolstered patrons’ prestige, boosted their interests and helped shape the way viewers perceived the cosmos.

But these productions were seen by very few people, mostly peers of the patrons, who shared an understanding of an artwork’s deeper aspects – aesthetical, allegorical, documentary, historical, iconographical, and technical. With the arrival of public galleries, libraries and museums from the eighteenth century on, the scope for social messaging – and the ever-present temptation to lecture – became correspondingly greater. Artists, especially Victorian ones, increasingly produced works highlighting private preoccupations – such ills as alcoholism, poverty and suicide – which partly in consequence became more generic concerns of steadily democratizing societies. Some artists, like the French Revolution-supporting Jacques-Louis David, had world-upturning agendas (although others, like Eugene Delacroix, were conservatives), and captured them on canvas to edify their ages, and ours. Adams is strongly in favour of publicly accessible art collections, but they always carry risks of capture by motivated minorities using the status of art to promote pet agendas.

Academicians and curators can also alter perceptions by choosing which or whose artworks to display, and which or whose to deaccession, even discard. Existing exhibits can be ‘contextualised’ or made ‘relevant’ by new presentation – the old, baldly descriptive labels in galleries and museums (title of piece, artist/collector, date) slowly replaced by labels, then multimedia and immersive experiences, telling viewers what they were seeing, where they should look, and by increasingly strong implication what they should feel. Radically styled new artworks with powerfully unsettling messages could also be introduced to often dubious audiences by publicly-funded cultural institutions whose managers did not need to worry about commercial viability. During the second half of the last century, as the personal became politicised, the pedagogy deepened and intensified.

Influential commentators declared art could or should not simply exist in and of itself; connoisseurship, with its distinction of ‘fine’ art and focus on skill, was condemned as boringly old-school, cruelly judgemental, heartlessly unengaged, an uncritical endorsement of manifold injustices. The ‘bully pulpits’ of other eras began to be replaced by bully palettes, Victorian highmindedness by twenty-first century passive-aggression. ‘Conversations’ were sometimes started by summarily removing popular works from display, as pictorial correctness seeped into galleries suddenly cognizant of connections with empire, racism, slavery and sexism. A showy new exhibit appeared simultaneously in arts institutions across the Western world – the tender consciences of curators. ‘Artivism’ had arrived, and art may never again be enjoyed uncomplicatedly – or enjoyed in any way, as the ‘ivism’ increasingly overshadows the ‘art’. (Adams is always indulgent towards art of excellence, even when it is politically antithetical.)

Adams has dug manfully through mounds of almost unreadable academic texts, arts journalism, exhibition guides and mini-manifestoes to provide an authoritative summary of arts-for-activism’s-sake movements from all periods but especially the twentieth century, with its plethora of Futurists, Socialist Realists, Muralists, Surrealists, Actionists, Situationists, Outsiders, and conceptual artists all seeking to change the world through brushstrokes, chisel-strikes or installations.

These movements were never monolithic, but they more often than not tended towards internationalism and socialism. He focuses on feminism, with its emphases on collective working rather than individual achievement, such subjects as menstruation and ‘sex workers’, and crafts over ‘high art’, for example working in textiles rather than stone. Perhaps he paints with too broad a brush by simply saying ‘feminist’, but certainly many radical feminists have often aligned themselves with other actually or ostensibly marginalised minorities, and used their skills to subvert more than the domestic sphere.

We also get glimpses of counter-movements – the Decadent and Aesthetic movements, and more recently the Stuckists (formed in opposition to the Young British Artists of the 1990s). The author dreams of a conservative artivism – for example, promoting patriotism – and even indicates how it might be jumpstarted, but such would not be assimilable into what he calls the “unspoken consensus of the public-arts monoculture”. More likely would be a gradual reduction in unbeneficial artivism, through ethical arguments against appropriation of public property and misuse of public funds, a reduction in state funding for the arts, and enforcement of existing laws against political stances, for example within charities.

The author has also given us a valuable précis of current elite thinking on culture, from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport down through all the chief galleries and museums – places of hushed study now becoming flexibly vacuous ‘spaces’. The arts establishment which so congratulates itself on open-mindedness is in truth a closed ideological shop, with a narrowly demarcated range of permissible views, albeit often presented in witty ways. Government ministers, gallery and museum bureaucracies, charities, cultural critics, corporate sponsors and the artists themselves are mostly engaged in a self-confirming circular dance, constantly accruing status (and funding) while believing sincerely in their own originality, radicalism and responsibility. Interests, outlooks and tastes converge to incorporate ‘diversity, inclusivity, equity’ into all arts, which ineluctably entails the exclusion of other voices; soft power often has a hard edge. Adams has risked his reputation, perhaps career, with this withering dissection of the art world’s well-connected – and this is only one of his cannonades in the conceptual war presently coursing through superficially quiet offices and across the walls of venerable institutions.

Crucially, these well-connected include self-seen radical onlookers, like Banksy and Extinction Rebellion, whose worldviews handily coincide with (or can be co-opted by) the plutocrats they decry, and the politicians they despise. Banksy and XR believe themselves brave crusaders, but their stencilling and self-supergluing, their conventional wisdom on everything from consumerism to migration and Palestine, cannot be compared with the genuinely radical, superbly brave activities of Claude Cahun and Suzanne Malherbe, communist-sympathising artivists sentenced to death (thankfully never carried out) in Nazi-occupied Jersey for years of resistance – writing clever messages in public places, slipping reproaching notes into soldiers’ pockets, and hiding an escaped prisoner. Theirs is one of several absorbing case studies which intersperse more abstract explications of art history, commercial realities, artivist psychology, or elite theory. A more amusing example concerns Italy’s IOCOSE collective, which in 2009 created a self-assembly guillotine looking like an IKEA product, which they placed surreptitiously in IKEA stores, to lampoon calls for capital punishment – only to find there was serious public interest in buying a real version.

Museums’ uncritical promotion of every passing artistic sensation, and rush to be ‘relevant’, may carry a long term cost. The presently high public regard for galleries and museums will inevitably decrease if they are seen to be hectoring or patronising many of their visitors. These strategies diminish public trust in them, and may ultimately actually drive people away not only from the institutions, but from all arts. Perhaps it is already too late; anyway, as Adams notes with gentle regret, “maybe it would be better to lose trust in that system”, and start building the institutions of the future. In any event, those who have a genuine interest in the future of fine arts should acquaint themselves with this passionate and powerful argument.

This review first appeared in issue 34 of Bournbrook Magazine, and is republished with permission

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