// Published in MAP Issue 60: Real Estate. Written in relation to the opening of Cooper Gallery's three-year long project The Ignorant Art School: Five Sit-ins towards Creative Emancipation. The first exhibition and 'curriculum' of events is led by Ruth Ewan and entitled We Could Have Been Anything That We Wanted to Be and It’s Not Too Late to Change //
Contemporary art can be whatever it wants to be
Delimiting the politics of contemporary art
Colm Guo-Lin Peare
The occasion of this text is the opening of Cooper Gallery’s major new project, The Ignorant Art School: Five Sit-ins towards Creative Emancipation. Ambitious in intent and scale, the project hopes to ‘co-constitute a collaborative and decolonised blueprint for a socially transformative art education that opens towards an emancipated future’ through a series of five exhibitions, each with an accompanying ‘curriculum’ of events. Rather than evaluate these public presentations, I’d like to use this text to discuss a theoretical concern this project provokes.
The project is driven by the refreshingly determinate curation of Sophia Hao and continues a long-standing concern for Cooper Gallery: can contemporary art be a site for politics? The question is well-rehearsed and opens up an exhausting and sometimes seemingly exhausted theatre of paradox. Nominally and ethically, The Ignorant Art School is indebted to Jacques Rancière and it is the author’s thoughts on aesthetics and politics that offer a way to vitally re-stage the question.
The first operative object in the question is contemporary art. To be schematic for the purpose of this text, contemporary art is the paradigm form that emerges in the late 1950s from the dissolution of the Western modernist construction of a linear historical development, as manifest in high modernism’s objectively determined process of material specification. This critically self-reflexive movement is informed in part by post-structuralism and indebted to modernism’s privileging of the individual as its primary subject. The rejection of universal objectivity forms contemporary art’s essential task as the semantic renegotiation of any proposed normative order. This constitutive criticality is only possible if contemporary art is amorphous: any standard criteria for its definition would disallow the ultimate heterogeneity that enables its essential task. As such, contemporary artworks must be semantically indeterminate to allow for the constant re-fixing of meaning by a plurality of perspectives.
Rancière suggests that it is the operation of aesthetics that allows for this amorphous non-identity to be identified as a categorisable form of art. Aesthetics allow for the ‘free play’ between artistic intent and the viewer’s reception for the production of meaning. In the essay ‘The Wrong of Contemporary Art’ (from which this text I am writing is largely drawn), Suhail Malik and Andrea Phillips, after Rancière, posit that contemporary art is art in the aesthetic regime: the semantic indeterminacy of contemporary art is enabled by this constitutive ‘free play’ and instigates an equality between the active intent of the artist and the passive interpretation of the individual viewer.
Here it might be useful to imagine the archetypal encounter with a contemporary artwork. The viewer is presented with the object of an artist’s work. This object could, theoretically, be made from anything, made by anyone, be from anywhere, and address any concern. However, the production of the work will, by necessity, have been determined by some specific logic. The viewer might be offered a vaguely worded contextualisation, most often in the form of a vinyl wall text or press release, which alludes to the form of this reasoning without ever disclosing an objective stance. This vagueness provides room for the receiving individual to formulate their own interpretation. In this way, the addressee of the work is taken to constitute its meaning and thus holds an equal position to the artist in its semantic formulation.
This is ostensibly a hostile environment for politics, our original question’s second operative object, to be enacted. Systemic change requires objective axioms, common causes formulated by common logics, for individuals to rally around. So while the ultimate heterogeneity of contemporary art allows for the exhibition of a slew of critical claims, it concurrently disallows them to be enacted systemically within the institutional milieu that fetishises them. I have often used this theoretical armature to argue that the ontological condition of contemporary art is essentially antagonistic to collective organising on a material level and leads to the recurrent exhaustion of those artists and art-workers engaged in the cyclical and pacifying mill of institutional critique.
However, from an extremely brief foray (of which the partialness of this text’s rearticulated argument is evidence) into Rancière’s work on aesthetics and politics via Malik and Phillips, I am interested in the generative potential of delimiting, rather than dismissing, contemporary art’s relationship to politics. Famously, Rancière defines the normative organisation of power that legitimises a specific way of being as the partition, or distribution, of the sensible. Politics is any disruption of this police order. Contemporary art, as art in the aesthetic regime, is then well placed to occasion politics. The equality expressed between the active intent of the artist and the passive interpretation of the addressee of the work is the same equality that is instantiated by whatever interrupts the configuration of a police order. For instance, equality is instantiated when a subject that cannot be identified by the logic of the police order speaks and is taken into account, or becomes identifiable. The production of a capacity for speech not identifiable within the designated sphere of experience repartitions the sensible. The equality found in the ‘free play’ of contemporary art is the same equality that enables the process of identification of the non-identifiable within a police order. In such a way, contemporary art’s operation is political in general.
This is, however, distinct from an ability to do politics in particular. Contemporary art cannot process a dispute already established within a police order, or enact a critical claim once it is established, because this would necessitate consigning to the specific police order in which this dispute is identifiable. This would result in contemporary art losing its specificity as non-identifiable through its ultimate heterogeneity. It is this non-identifiability, manifest in contemporary art’s semantic indeterminacy, that delimits its ability to be political. So while contemporary art may allow for a repartitioning of the sensible in general (instigated in any medium and by any concern) and as such to disarticulate the police order itself, it cannot enact systemic change because this would require contemporary art to be determinate with regard to the particularities of its politics.
This feels like a useful re-inscription of the cartography that describes our original question. It is increasingly pertinent to understand the delimitations of contemporary art’s engagement with politics. This is not least because there are perhaps corresponding delimitations to what is politically possible for the Left more broadly. As a lack of power and a deluge of performative contradictions signal, the inability to constitute universals might be incompatible with the task of inspiring and maintaining a commons.