Delirium and Resistance: Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism
(Pluto Books, 2017)
It seems like just the other day we stood on a bluff—a river below us and the woods behind us. Do you remember? The light was bright and everything around us appeared in doubles. You were looking up at the tall trees when we noticed one had fallen over. Near it we found large rocks overturned. You turned each rock over, examining it from different angles. The fallen tree had been impaled with a sign: “Danger: upside down.” Protruding below it were interconnecting root systems, and we followed one until we reached the water below. You sighed and recited a quote from Giacometti, “It’s the delirium that comes from the impossibility of really accomplishing anything.”
As it grew dark your torch lead us out. I remember this day fondly.
In solidarity, Gretchen
This event never happened and I don’t know Gregory Sholette. My imaginary letter recounts an anxiety dream pointed to a heady irony—teaching Plato’s cave and his belief that art was dangerous at the same that I was reviewing Sholette’s new book, Delirium and Resistance: Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism (Pluto Press, 2017). The two texts posed entirely different propositions altogether. In her foreword to Delirium and Resistance, art critic and activist Lucy Lippard remarks how social media has flattened affect and effect in recent years, and suggests Sholette’s exposition might just be a necessary antidote to this apathy and paralysis. Lippard and theorist Kim Charnley, who writes the introduction and has edited this book, both describe Sholette’s personal commitment to activism and his deep engagement with the critical debates around activist art and social movements. As cofounder of Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PAD/D), and as an active member of Gulf Labor Artist Coalition (a group opposed to migrant labor exploitation in the construction of the new Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi), Sholette has become an art world luminary whose incisive essays place central emphasis on the political economy of the art world in the neoliberal world order. Delirium and Resistance divides into three sections—“Art World,” “Cities without Souls,” and “Resistance”—and includes previously published and new writings. Each section begins with an extended introduction that binds the essays to the section’s theme. Sholette’s adopted home, New York, often to today) from which they arose. Well known 1980s collectives like Group Material, PAD/D, as well as the more obscure Colab (Collaborative Projects) and La Raza Graphic Center Art Workshop, join Critical Art Ensemble, Occupy Museums, Art Workers’ Coalition, and Conflict Kitchen to form the case studies Sholette highlights throughout the book. Sholette often recontextualizes these groups in different chapters and in doing so sketches the genealogy and theoretical terrain of the interrelated contemporary forms of cultural production that each group explores.
Those familiar with Sholette’s writing, including his previous volume Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture (Pluto Press, 2010), will recognize his main argument: resistance, in the form of artistic “dark matter” (those unseen parts of the art world, which often include socially and politically oriented artists/activists), challenges the delirious condition, or affect, brought about by thirty years of neoliberal capitalism and its resultant social policies. Sholette cites the late Mark Fisher to pinpoint this delirious state: “To a degree unprecedented in any other social system, capitalism both feeds on and reproduces the moods of populations. Without delirium and confidence, capital could not function.”1
Sholette transposes this resilient affect into the art world, and it is with his new book that he posits a concept interconnected with dark matter: “bare art.” Sholette’s effort to untangle the political, economic, and social threads that weave into the larger tapestry of cultural production within a neoliberal mileu allows him to dispel any remaining myth that the art world exists in a protected autonomous realm. As a result of being subsumed by and operating within this system, cultural production has succumbed to a condition he describes as “bare art,” a slightly less harrowing notion than Agamben’s “bare life” (referring to those persons deprived of all liberty and human rights), except for when we learn of the plight of migrant workers building the Guggenheim’s new museum in Abu Dhabi. “What is remarkable, however,” according to Sholette, “is the way so many art world pundits, institutions, and policy makers continue to use the language of social justice and democratic ideals while remaining faithful to capitalist principals of maximum growth, unremunerated cultural labor, and deregulated supply and demand thus blatantly contradicting the ideal image of art as an exceptional mode of human activity.” Art, or the art world, cannot exist without, in some way, compromising or colluding with the means of production that make that world possible. In his third chapter “Bare Art, Debt, Oversupply, Panic!” Sholette identifies the bare art of the art educational system that produces the surplus of MFAs needed to reproduce the “successful” tiers of the art world. In “Art After Gentrification,” Sholette cites examples from Turner Prize winner Assemble collective, Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates, and Pittsburgh’s Conflict Kitchen to outline how art’s surplus labor has been put to use in the public realm, especially those projects and artists involved in urban regeneration. Sholette most fully articulates “bare art” in the chapter “Delirium and Resistance After the Social Turn,” his most discomfiting one. Since social practice intially seemed to offer up ways to circumvent many of the institutional frameworks it sought to avoid or challenge, Sholette lays bare many of the operating strategies that tie such work to larger economic mechanisms.
My introduction to Sholette’s work, as for many of his readers I imagine, came first by way of his co-editing with Nato Thompson of The Interventionists: Users’ Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life (MIT Press, 2004) (revisited in this book) and then with Blake Stimson of Collectivism after Modernism: The Art of Social Imagination after 1945 (University of Minnesota Press, 2007). Both of these form some of the conceptual groundwork for today’s discussions about socially engaged art. Community arts, despite being similar in form and intention to social practice art, never registers on the art world radar like the category of social practice, which has come to preoccupy degree programs, residencies and fellowships, educational programs at major museums, international biennials, and funding from large foundations. It is Sholette’s view, on which he agrees with theorist Stephen Wright, that social practice recuperates the social in a one- to-one correspondence with the world, dissolving any boundary between art and life. The unease he expresses with even the most well-intentioned socially engaged art comes from its inability to challenge the underlying structures that have created instances of social alienation (lack of social services, etc.). Socially engaged art, too, is compromised by capitalism. While he doesn’t dismiss these projects outright, his point is well taken: “By working with human affect and experience as an artistic medium, social practice draws directly upon the state of society that we actually find ourselves in today: fragmented and alienated by decades of privatization, monetization and ultra-deregulation.” His elucidation in this chapter undermines and contests usual perspectives on social practice as art that takes these practices as neutral. Earlier in the book, he outlines what he sees as an alternative: “In other words, a self-conscious autonomous activism in which artists produce and distribute an independent political culture that uses institutional structures as resources rather than points of termination.”
I would argue many of the more politically oriented projects included under the header of social practice risk judgment as spectacle, and at worst, as cultural inversions instead of subversions. I have never believed that all social practice art has to be political or even “socially engaged” in the sense that it attempts to ameliorate a social problem; this would exhaust the aesthetic. This may be a problem of language when terms like “art and activism,” “social practice,” and “socially engaged” are used interchangeably; yet many artists make fine distinctions between how these terms apply to their current practice and to historically similar work. Sholette works out these differences through his case studies, but these terms often function on different registers, specifically as they are understood in our globalized world.
Sholette resists any simple solutions in Delirium and Resistance. Though the book is dense and meant to be read slowly, his writing is incisive and clear, and at times poetic with a savvy use of metaphor. His soft but polemical tone addresses art activism with a nuanced and substantial reading of its condition (“bare art”) while affirming the need to harness resistance (“dark matter”) into an ever-expanding activist and discursive realm that can navigate art’s relationship to capital, education, gentrification, and social movements. His essays resist, too, any notion of an inside or outside to the art world. However, despite his careful exposition of the art world and neoliberalism, these two entities remain amorphous—you can only ever catch a glimpse of either of them. And perhaps that is his point, to remind us of the shifting processes that overlap the two and leave them simultaneously visible and invisible. Sholette keeps the horizon of utopia in our sights and feeds the social imaginary necessary to see beyond Fisher’s notion of capitalist realism; he makes sure we proceed, knowing the most well-intentioned art practices can be turned upside down.