Aesthetic Theory, Aesthetic Praxis: The Poetics of Activism

Contributed by Josh Robinson Research Fellow at University of Cambridge
January 02, 2012
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The theory of imitation should ultimately be inverted; in a sublimated sense it is reality that should imitate artworks. But the fact that artworks exist points to the possibility that what is not could one day be. The actuality of artworks testifies to the possibility of the possible.1

In a reflection on the mobilisations against the G8 in Gleneagles in June 2005, Jennifer Verson reports an altercation she has with a ‘very serious’ black-clad acquaintance who had taken exception to the tactics of the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army:

This isn’t funny. We are at war and we need to be able to fight. … You are encouraging people to think that this is a joke, and the state is very, very serious.2

Verson’s response is to insist that the actions of the clowns in Scotland were not simply about lightening the mood of those engaged in resistance against the state, that cultural activism – which she defines as the place ‘where art, activism, performance and politics meet, mingle and interact’3 – is not simply a matter of ‘making things pretty, fluffy or fun’.4 My aim in this essay is to point to some of the insufficiencies in such activism, and to give an account of why it is that I think that the arguments and praxis of various forms of ‘cultural activism’ are ultimately subject to the flaws similar to those that Verson identifies in the claims made by her ‘very serious’ interlocutor. I do so not by denying that it is the case that art and politics necessarily meet, mingle or interact, but by calling into question Verson’s understanding of both the site and the manner of such interactions.

Verson advances her understanding of cultural activism in opposition to a conception of ‘traditional campaigning’ that involves more or less straightforward attempts to persuade and win over:

Giving people long sermons on the need for them to get involved in change can often be patronising and disempowering. Traditional campaigning tends to involve attempting to attract people to a cause by bombarding them with facts and fiery speeches. Cultural activism tends to move away from one-sided monologues, speeches and propaganda into porous forms that use dialogue and interaction.5

It would be nice to be able to argue that the position Verson opposes is little more than a straw man – experience of the tendency to moral exhortation that exist across much of the traditional left, both liberal and Marxist, only confirms that this is not the case. As examples of the sorts of practices she is advocating, Verson offers the possibilities provided by the public praxis of visual arts in murals and the subvertising, the politicisation of the stage – in the dual sense that overtly political themes are addressed and that the stage is opened up for the ‘spect-actors’ to intervene6 – in forum theatre, and the application of principles learned from carnival to street-protests as ‘tactical frivolity’ in the form of samba bands and groups of clowns.

The first of these examples is perhaps the least interesting, involving as it does little more than the pressing-into-service of artistic principles and techniques for what is at best a more effective or subtle means of attracting people to a cause. This objection cannot be raised so easily either to forum theatre or to tactical frivolity, which both in different ways go beyond attempts to influence a public that is conceived as being a mere observer or consumer. Both are means of empowering the subject, the former by using the medium of theatre to explore possible courses of action that can then as it were be acted out in life away from the stage, the latter through the attempt to ‘make rebellion enjoyable, effective and irresistible’, to create forms ‘of rebellion that embody the movements’ principles of diversity, creativity, decentralization, horizontality, and direct action’.7

At the same time, they both retain a strong similarity to subvertising and murals in that their mode of operation consists in the subordinating of elements of artistic praxis to – in the broadest sense – political means. While practitioners of tactical frivolity claim that the transformation of carnival into a militant presence on the streets ‘means turning what we consider to be political on its head’,8 this redefinition of what we think of as the political sphere takes place only within very restricted limits. It enables what is perhaps best seen as a change in the content of politics within the limits imposed on it by bourgeois society, without challenging these limits in which politics takes place. Even by this expanded and transformed understanding, politics remains the site of interaction between different social forces, even if these interactions are no longer so strongly mediated by the state. The attempts of forum theatre and tactical frivolity to strengthen the subject are a means of redressing power-imbalances that result from structural inequality and violence. They do not, however, as such alter the framework in which this inequality exists. As means of strengthening the subject under capitalism, they seek to effect a redistribution of subjective power. As such they are bound to the reinforcement of capitalist subjectivity – by which I mean not the subjectivity of the capitalist as defined in opposition to the proletarian or peasant, but rather subjectivity as it exists under capitalism – rather than its abolition.

In subordinating art to the service of the political, however widely understood, such attempts lose sight of what it is that constitutes art’s specific political potential. This potential consists not in the capacity of art to reach an audience that might otherwise not be exposed to particular political arguments, nor in its ability strongly to move and thereby to arouse profound emotions about political issues. It consists rather in the aestheticist ideal of art for its own sake. By proclaiming that it exists purely for its own sake, art rejects the logic of commodity society according goods are produced for the sake of what they can be exchanged for. The artwork that exists purely for itself rejects this logic of being-for-another and in so doing points to the possibility of a world that is not mediated by commodity-production. This is by no means celebration of an apolitical aestheticism but rather an insistence that it is inappropriate to consider even what appears to be the most aloof withdrawal from the political sphere as apolitical.

This is what Adorno terms art’s ‘turn away from praxis’, by virtue of which it performs ‘the denunciation of the narrow-minded untruth of practical being’.9 This claim of untruth is deeply normative. It is not a claim that practical being – life as we are compelled to live it – is somehow inauthentic, but an insistence that things as they are differ radically from things as they should be. Or to put it in Adorno’s terms, that life as we live it is profoundly damaged. Art constitutes the critique ‘of activity as the cryptogram of domination’.10 The critique, that is, of activity mediated through capital, activity as defined in relation to the production of exchange-value – that is to say, the making of things for the sake of what they are not. The instrumentalisation of art for overtly political ends accepts not only the reality of the political situation it aims to change, but also the restricted field of politics in which it operates. In contrast, the aestheticist ideal of art for its own sake points to the possibility of life beyond this restriction.

In the rest of this essay, I discuss the relationship between this act of pointing and what we might try to conceive of as an emancipatory praxis, a praxis that is in the broadest sense political, but which is not confined to the limits of what we are currently able to think of as the political sphere, instead aiming at the opening up of these limits. The task is to conceive of how we might be able to move from an aesthetic theory to an aesthetic praxis, and of how aesthetic theory and praxis might be related. Adorno insists that there exists within art the trace of a praxis that is in a radical sense yet-to-come. ‘Artworks draw credit on a praxis which has not yet begun, and of which no one can say whether it will honour its exchange.’11 There is something necessarily unknowable about this praxis – it has elements which ensure that it cannot, under existing social relations, be known in its totality. Like artworks themselves, such a praxis must be understood as being not only far removed from empirical reality, but also aimed at fundamentally altering and removing the constraints in which it exists.

This praxis that is yet to come is related to the development of artworks out of cultic ritual, what Adorno terms

the magical origin of artworks: they were elements of a praxis, which wanted to influence nature, separated themselves from it in the beginnings of rationality, and gave up the deception of real influence.12

Artworks, that is, carry within themselves the trace of the historical and prehistorical mystical praxis in which they have their origins. It is by renouncing this praxis – by renouncing the claim to influence through ritual the reality in which they exist – that artworks take on their peculiar character within capitalist social relations, that they come to stand outside the means-ends rationality that characterises bourgeois (if not only bourgeois) society. Artworks, that is, take on a status that resists the permeation of life by the social of commodity society precisely by renouncing their claim to have a direct influence on life, a renunciation that becomes inevitable only through the development of the very instrumental reason whose influence artworks come to resist.

And yet there are different ways in which artworks can develop from their origins in the rejection of magic praxis. Adorno’s comments on Beckett’s Endgame offers a stark rejoinder to what he terms ‘the art which through its beginnings, its distance from any praxis, in the face of the threat of death, became ideology through the harmlessness of its mere form’.13 This is the significance of Adorno’s claim that what artworks say ‘is not what their words say’14 – any attempt to reduce an artwork to its paraphrasable content (and indeed, any artwork that makes the claim to be identical with this propositional content) will lapse into the promotion of ideology. In Endgame, in contrast, ‘the determinate negation of its content becomes a formal principle and the negation of content as such’.15 This is the necessary consequence of the forced retreat from praxis with which art begins: it is through the negation of artistic content by means of artistic praxis – technique – that artworks are able to remove themselves from the context of means-ends rationality.

This has significant consequences for the way in which we might think about the relationship between art and society – and more particularly, about the interaction between art and emancipatory politics. For this interaction cannot consists simply in the application of artistic techniques or procedures in order somehow to make a restricted version of political action more playful. Anything that can be thought of as an aesthetic praxis must aim not at a reconfiguring of relations within the framework of society as we know it, but rather at the dissolution of this framework:

What is social about art is its immanent movement against society, not its obvious assumption of a position. Its historical gestus pushes empirical reality away from itself, of which artworks as things are themselves a part.16

This tension between artworks and reality – that they are condemned to be part of the reality which they want to reject – is central to the emancipatory potential of art. This is the sense in which artworks are destined to fail, a failure that consists in the failure of empirical reality to admit the richness of experience. They contain an ambition that berates the world for their own impotence.

It is in this sense that we must read Adorno’s claim that reality must imitate art. It would be wrong to see artworks as any sort of immediate representation of utopia: this would only determine such a utopia in advance and in doing so destroy all that is utopian about it. Reality’s imitation of art must rather consist in the preservation of that which cannot be subsumed by conceptual thinking, of that which resists the logic of commodity-production for the sake of exchange value. A praxis that might begin to enable such an imitation would have to give up its attempt to fight for changes within the means-ends rationality of commodity society, and instead start from the moments in which the reality of this society is challenged. Such a praxis would have to be free from the restrictions imposed by the requirements of political activism, and instead based on the means of satisfying the needs of life – enjoyment, pleasure, autonomy.17 This is not to claim that there exists in the experience of artworks – less still in the enjoyment of them – some sort of experience of heaven on earth, of utopia within damaged life, but rather that the beginnings of a liberated society – a society beyond both irrationality and the instrumental rationality of means and ends – might be found within a praxis of making that does not allow itself to be constrained by the logic of exchange. A making, in Adorno’s terms, of ‘things, of which we do not know what they are’.18

1Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1970), pp. 199–200.

2Jennifer Verson, ‘Why We Need Cultural Activism’, in Trapese Collective, ed., Do it Yourself: A Handbook for Changing Our World (London: Pluto, 2007), pp. 17–86, p. 171.

3Ibid., p. 172.

4Ibid., p. 171.

5Ibid., p. 175.

6Cf. Augusto Boal, Games for Actors and Non-Actors, trans. by Adrian Jackson (Abingdon: Routledge, 2002), p. 15.

7Notes from Nowhere, ‘Carnival: Resistance Is the Secret of Joy’, in Notes from Nowhere, ed., We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anti-Capitalism (London: Verso, 2003) pp. 173-83, p. 174.

8Ibid., p. 175.

9Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, p. 358.

10Ibid., pp. 358-9.

11Ibid., p. 129.

12Ibid., p. 210.

13Ibid., p. 371.

14Ibid., p. 274.

15Ibid., p. 371.

16Ibid., p. 336.

17Ibid., pp. 472-3.

18Theoder W. Adorno, ‘Vers une musique informelle’, in Musikalische Schriften I-III (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1978), pp. 493-540, p. 540.