By Boris Groys
Current discussions about art are very much centered on the question of art activism—that is, on the ability of art to function as an arena and medium for political protest and social activism. The phenomenon of art activism is central to our time because it is a new phenomenon—quite different from the phenomenon of critical art that became familiar to us during recent decades. Art activists do not want to merely criticize the art system or the general political and social conditions under which this system functions. Rather, they want to change these conditions by means of art—not so much inside the art system but outside it, in reality itself. Art activists try to change living conditions in economically underdeveloped areas, raise ecological concerns, offer access to culture and education for the populations of poor countries and regions, attract attention to the plight of illegal immigrants, improve the conditions of people working in art institutions, and so forth. In other words, art activists react to the increasing collapse of the modern social state and try to replace the social state and the NGOs that for different reasons cannot or will not fulfill their role. Art activists do want to be useful, to change the world, to make the world a better place—but at the same time, they do not want to cease being artists. And this is the point where theoretical, political, and even purely practical problems arise.
Michael Rakowitz, Joe Heywood’s paraSITE shelter, 2000. Battery Park City, Manhattan. Plastic bags, polyethylene tubing, hooks, tape. Courtesy of the artist and Lombard Freid Gallery, NY
Art activism’s attempts to combine art and social action come under attack from both of these opposite perspectives—traditionally artistic and traditionally activist ones. Traditional artistic criticism operates according to the notion of artistic quality. From this point of view, art activism seems to be artistically not good enough: many critics say that the morally good intentions of art activism substitute for artistic quality. This kind of criticism is, actually, easy to reject. In the twentieth century, all criteria of quality and taste were abolished by different artistic avant-gardes—so, today, it makes no sense to appeal to them again. However, criticism from the other side is much more serious and demands an elaborate critical answer. This criticism mainly operates according to notions of “aestheticization” and “spectacularity.” A certain intellectual tradition rooted in the writings of Walter Benjamin and Guy Debord states that the aestheticization and spectacularization of politics, including political protest, are bad things because they divert attention away from the practical goals of political protest and towards its aesthetic form. And this means that art cannot be used as a medium of a genuine political protest—because the use of art for political action necessarily aestheticizes this action, turns this action into a spectacle and, thus, neutralizes the practical effect of this action. As an example, it is enough to remember the recent Berlin Biennale curated by Artur Żmijewski and the criticism it provoked—described as it was by different ideological sides as a zoo for art activists.
In other words, the art component of art activism is often seen as the main reason why this activism fails on the pragmatic, practical level—on the level of its immediate social and political impact. In our society, art is traditionally seen as useless. So it seems that this quasi-ontological uselessness infects art activism and dooms it to failure. At the same time, art is seen as ultimately celebrating and aestheticizing the status quo—and thus undermining our will to change it. So the way out of this situation is seen mostly in the abandoning of art altogether—as if social and political activism never fails as long as it is not infected by art viruses.
The critique of art as useless and therefore morally and politically bad is not a new one. In the past, this critique compelled many artists to abandon art altogether—and to start to practice something more useful, something morally and politically correct. However, contemporary art activism does not rush to abandon art but, rather, tries to make art itself useful. This is a historically new position. Its newness is often relativized by a reference to the phenomenon of the Russian avant-garde, which famously wanted to change the world by artistic means. It seems to me that this reference is incorrect. The Russian avant-garde artists of the 1920s believed in their ability to change the world because at the time their artistic practice was supported by Soviet authorities. They knew that power was on their side. And they hoped that this support would not decrease with time. Contemporary art activism has, on the contrary, no reason to believe in external political support. Art activism acts on its own—relying only on its own networks and on weak and uncertain financial support from progressively minded art institutions. This is, as I said, a new situation—and it calls for new theoretical reflection.
The central goal of this theoretical reflection is this: to analyze the precise meaning and political function of the word “aestheticization.” I believe that such an analysis allows us to clarify the discussions around art activism and the place where it stands and acts. I would argue that today, the word “aestheticization” is mostly used in a confused and confusing way. When one speaks about “aestheticization,” one often refers to different and even opposing theoretical and political operations. The reason for this state of confusion is the division of contemporary art practice itself into two different domains: art in the proper sense of the word, and design. In these two domains, aestheticization means two different things. Let us analyze this difference.