// Commissioned by EMBASSY and Edinburgh College of Art for 'Systems are doing it for themselves' symposium. Symposium has been postponed due to Covid-19 but thought I would put a rough draft up here. //
Not sure on a title yet but has bits to do with Rearticulating Hegemony, Socialist Systematisation, and the Case for Ideological Institutions
Colm Guo-Lin Peare
1. Our current situation
Hegemony is achieved when ideological presuppositions are installed as naturalised and invisible rules of governance. The construction of hegemony entails interlinking mutating forms of critical validation, economic reason and socio-cultural ideology, putting them in the dynamic business of both generating and extracting their constitutive logics in symbiosis with each other. In a recent text I presented at the Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival in 2019, I used a conceptualisation of the distributive mechanism of the global art circuit to reveal how a certain form of liberalism has become hegemonic, locating this image in the exhibition and explication of Marwa Arsanios' work.
[Here I was going to quote at length from 'mutability of freedom' which can be found in the sidebar—not entirely essential, just some context so skip past if you want!]
My goal in this text was to reveal the violent obfuscation of distributive inequality by a politics of recognition that wants for equality of expression. There are, of course, many names for such a hegemonic ideology: Nancy Fraser has termed it progressive neoliberalism and Elizabeth A. Povinelli has developed a theory of late liberalism—both diverge, are tangent and intersect with each other in different manners.
2. The use of hegemony
Having laid out such a proposition for what currently defines such a socio-cultural-economic situation, I’d like to shift focus. My aim going forward is not to further justify a belief in such a situation’s ideological inheritance to liberalism, nor try to convince yourselves to champion one conceptualisation over another. Rather I’d like to look at what the transformation of such a system might require, with what I have laid out above (in 'mutability of freedom') acting as a backdrop for this proposition.
From the standpoint of the art institution, I believe an understanding of transformation is necessary: we expend a lot of energy tempering distributive inequality in small ways within our institutions and yet largely remain apolitical when it comes to participating in radical societal shifts that require an engagement in the democratic structures of our society. Hegemony is a promising concept for this use as it replaces a notion of power that is defined by how discrete blocs of subjects belonging to specific identities vie for control over governmental policy. By conceptualising power as not something which is merely held as a static object, nor just a stable entity that one can wield, but as something constantly remade through social interaction, then power must be defined by its ability to produce a communally held logic, what we understand as common sense. As entities that could be described as dialectical in how they exist to produce culture but also act as products of their culture, art institutions can hold great power in the formulation of a common sense.
It is also important to note that while there is great benefit in rallying numbers around a cause in order to transform governmental policy (or perhaps, say, to perform acts of resistance that wield a type of sovereign power), if we are to sustain a commitment to a form of liberal democracy in which any coercion enacted by the state must be in service to enabling a variable quantum of individual autonomy for every citizen and to disabling the growth of total authoritarianism, then this requires commonplace social relations to be transformed. It is in this attempt that a self-generating politics can be embedded, as opposed to a politics that must expend all energy in resistance.
Despite the prominence of ideas surrounding universality and hegemony arguably reaching their peak in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, it has seemed pressing and necessary of late to discuss such issues now in this era of late liberalism. The absorption of political movements such as various feminisms, civil rights, queer rights and decoloniality into the neoliberal schema has occurred precisely because of the hegemonic strength of how the market is conceived to be, as Wendy Brown states, ‘the, rather than a site of veridiction and becomes so for every arena and type of human activity.’ Herbert Marcuse has argued that political homogeneity sets in precisely through this closing off from alterity: all alternatives to a very specific economic model are annihilated by claiming that their foundations rely on a deluded understanding of practical economy. This is the legacy of New Labour and what has seemed, up until recently, an unwillingness for the left to imagine a new economics. The ‘There is No Alternative’ message of the Thatcher/Reagan years is exactly the sort of ideological mechanism through which to embed neoliberalism into the very infrastructure of society. This creates subject formulating machines that lace neoliberalism through the citizen-subject. For instance, by running the logic of finance through the institution of education (moving it into the realm of the market through the charging of exorbitant fees and thus imposing a subjugation of debt onto its participants) students begin to think about such an endeavour as an investment into their personal capital and thus will more likely apply to courses that will help them offset this debt in the employment of structures that uphold the same ideology. This machine-politics thus invisibly and efficiently upholds the hegemony of neoliberalism.
As a quick aside, this was recently discussed by Hussein Mitha in a reading group held at the Cooper Gallery as part of the public programme for Jasmina Cibic’s Pleasure of Expense exhibition last October at the Cooper Gallery. Mitha discussed Walter Benjamin’s thoughts on the creating of a ‘proletariat education’ by which class-consciousness could be embedded into citzen-subjects. This would happen through a refusal of the Enlightenment structures of education that condition students to seek an impossible mastery of knowledge in an assimilative, teleological and thus colonial framework. This ‘end of history’ promise is ultimately unattainable and so both creates a passive and un-critiquing subject that can also justify its passive enactment of violence through a false notion of ‘progress’: as Benjamin states ‘The bourgeoisie requires an idea toward which education leads.’ I will speak more about this toward-which spirit inherent to liberal capitalism later in relation to Elizabeth A. Povinelli’s theory of late liberalism.
To return to my main text, Nancy Fraser has posited that the Gramscian proposal of ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born’ can be applied to our current moment: the hegemony of progressive neoliberalism is breaking with the rise of right-wing nationalism but also through growing support for socialist ideals, and the question for us as institutions and as individuals is how to nurture a new hegemony in its place. If judged under a socio-cultural rubric, the political movements of the ‘60s (feminism, civil rights, queer rights and decoloniality) have been successful in shifting opinion on who counts as a subject. However, the assimilative potential of neoliberal market ideology was very successful in pacifying these anti-hegemonic movements into sources of further extraction and exploitation. The poststructuralist theories that influenced the formulation of these movements failed to provide a substantial theory of what is universal to all subjects that form the citizenry of a political state. (Or that the post-structuralist insistence that being is difference did not provide a substantive enough ground for a subject constitution that could be used to gain power in a democratic system.) Thus as globalisation increasingly changed the population make up of Western democratic states, there has been a struggle for the socialist left to achieve coalitions large enough to get into power. In such a vacuum, market rationality has always filled the space of what common sense should be defined as. If we are to be living in an increasingly global world, market rationality can not be the sole universal definitive for an international society.
3. Hegemony and cultural institutions
Institutions need to be operating under constantly re-articulated and intentional ideologies. This means they need to be inherently political in both their cognitive and material operations. If we don’t intentionally understand the hegemony we are situated in, and also intentionally pursue a transformative re-articulation of it, it then cultural institutions resort to merely producing culture that is solely defined by the itemised objectives of funders. The neoliberalisation of the anti-hegemonic movements of the ‘60s has produced a pacified identity politics that feeds the inequality produced by its economic model. In discussion around this topic, a former co-committee member at Transmission, Myriam Mouflih, pointed me towards the thoughts of Yazan Khalili of Ramallah’s Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center:
…identity politics is the liberal take on what I mean by ideology; it breaks the collective, or even the universal into individualistic, identitarian struggles and interests that do not allow for broad, collective action, ie. compartmentalization. What ideology does in this usage of the term, is to allow one to connect the individual to the collective, the specific with the general, the local to the universal, and vice versa. Ideology is a position, a stance and a starting point for action.
At the current conjuncture, cultural workers are often mechanical administrators, as opposed to intellectuals that have autonomy to fill their institutions with localised meaning. This turns cultural institutions into solely bureaucratic ventures in which most of their time is dedicated to producing culture to attracts funders, as opposed to attracting funders by producing culture. In other words, these institutions’ main operation becomes the management of funds. Khalili has a conceptualisation called the Total Work of the Cultural Institution which aims to imagine the “Total Work” of culture, and therefore the cultural institution, as being formed from politics, economics and society—I read this to mean that the Total Work of the Cultural Institution should be defined by its transformative re-articulation of hegemony. Instead of accepting the compartmentalisation of cultural funding that institutions chase, and therefore the compartmentalised, thematic and atomised production of exhibitions, institutions should be investing in the long-term political needs of their communities through the production of culture.
The work of the Sakakini can’t be imported wholesale into the cultural environment of Scotland. Palestine has experienced decades of an NGO economy that drew funding from international funders such as the Ford Foundation that do not have a longterm stake in the health of the local community. I can, however, find strains of this impetus in our current collective efforts at Transmission Gallery in Glasgow and the Artist Run Initiative funding pilot project that Transmission, Market, EMBASSY, Rhubaba and Generator have been involved with in the last few years.
In recent history, Transmission has been practicing with, for and apart from this thing we call decoloniality. As a transformative device it has been useful because if we understand colonisation as justified by the idea that indigenous peoples of those places colonised did violate and are violating the ‘universal’ natural law posited by Enlightenment thinkers, decoloniality has to be antithetical to the ‘civilising’ mission of liberalism. I think this mission does not necessarily stem from liberalism’s endeavour to create a universal that demands freedom for the individual, rather that this liberal horizon is not formulated as a dynamic being: as Povinelli states, ‘the spatial imaginary brackets all forms of violence as the result of the unintended, accidental, and unfortunate unfolding of liberalism’s own dialectic’. Coupled with a positivist position of privileging empiricism as the only form of knowledge, liberalism formed itself as a factual object. Povinelli continues:
And like neoliberal economics, liberalism shifted the burden of the care of the self away from itself and onto those it has already harmed, in a doublespeak that imposed a double bind onto the legally enunciative possibilities of others. Just tell us your cultural and social values. Just don’t tell us anything that will actually threaten the “skeleton of principle which gives the body of our law its shape and internal consistency.” This doublespeak double bind of recognition—this revised horizon of the Human—marks all others as having been let in. This mark genders and racializes the bodies of all excluded from the horizon of whiteness, a point Franz Fanon made long ago, and which has been more recently discussed by Denise Ferreira da Silva.
This speaks to the antinomy of liberalism that I laid out earlier in the first section. The “skeleton of principle” that Povinelli mentions is a quote from the ‘Mabo v Queensland (no. 2)’ decision of the High Court of Australia in 1992. The case sought the right of entitlement for the indigneous Meriam people to own, possess, occupy and use the Mer Islands, and was an unprecedented success in recognising 'native title' in Australia. This was a landmark case due to its rejection of terra nullius, which was a doctrine that imported all laws of England to a new land, and claimed that such a basis for law could not be utilised where there were already inhabitants present. The ruling states that although ‘Australian law is the prisoner of its history, it is not now bound by decisions of courts in the hierarchy of an Empire then concerned with the development of its colonies.’ However, it continues: ‘Although this Court is free to depart from English precedent which was earlier followed as stating the common law of this country, it cannot do so where the departure would fracture what I have called the skeleton of principle.’ What I am trying to say with this is that embedded within our liberal structures is a colonial impetus and perhaps as such it is not that its endeavour to find universals, or at least nodes of solidarity, is a problem, rather that the original, modernising, toward-which movement of this endeavour is necessarily assimilative and violent.
This brings me back to how we formulate a shared logic without homogenising the difference of those subjects who participate in this sharing. What structure of governance can sustain solidarity while maintaining difference? If we return to the Sakakini, Khalili notes,
Workers, the administrators, and the public have to challenge and question institutional structures all the time in order to avoid rigidity. Our convictions need to be reconcilable and not too disparate from one or another. We need to believe that cultural and political practices are solid and tight-knit… For example, one of the first things we wanted to do at the Sakakini Center was to engage its workers. We wanted to go back to the idea of the center being an infrastructure. We, as a center, have specific powers, accessibility, and capacities. How do we use these to build and support culture without the institution growing vertically, without having a corporate notion of growth as our main goal? We were thinking of horizontal growth, one that is based on working with more partners and producers rather than budget and team. We decided to open the Center to collectives and individuals to utilize it in the ways they need to produce and work. The Centre now works with more than forty collectives and individuals on a continuous basis, who contribute to a large part of Sakakini’s programming.
I don’t have an answer to the question of how to provide a substantive enough universalising principal that can form axioms which coalitions may be built around, to the question of how to provide rigour without rigidity. However, working with community groups, social collectives and activist groups at Transmission has so far offered a way of thinking about an institutional practice that is both plural and consolidating. These include, but aren’t limited to, the necessary efforts of such collectives as The Unity Centre, Ubuntu Women’s Shelter and Migrants Organising for Rights and Empowerment. For us, this has generated mutually beneficial and intrinsically decolonial relationships that help us understand the going-ons of our locality which in turn feeds into how we programme. Gerald Raunig and Gene Ray call this the ‘fourth wave’ of institutional critique: a critique that in practice examines the specificities of institutional working (both its benefits and pitfalls) instead of understanding institutions to be passive truths of a society, or calling for a complete anarchist dismantling of them. For example, Raunig suggests that ‘instituent power’ involves a collective trust between participants of the institution and can, if not necessarily must, provide a mechanism for accountability that keeps in check the tendency of ‘congealed structures’ to become oppressive while helping bind temporary energies that would otherwise burn out. They can act against the atomisation of individuals and, if the same politics are really written into the infrastructure of the institution, build and sustain radical social movements. This can be set in distinction to previous waves of institutional critique that perhaps act as a sort of ungenerative cultural commentary that compounds institutional violences through what Hal Foster and Andrea Fraser, via Slavoj Žižek, have called ‘cynical reason’ rather than acting as an active practice of institutional transformation.
For me and my experience at Transmission, decoloniality has been an important framework for this to happen and has provided a common grammar to the plural activities that take place in the space. It’s provided a framework of solidarity both on the local level and the global, as we are often translating collaboratively constructed decolonial projects into the language of our context for new ideas and possibilities: an instance of this would be the Decolonise This Place movement that took over New York’s Artists’ Space that the MTL Collective wrote about in October a few years ago. Something that the MTL Collective mention in this text is Walter D. Mignolo’s conceptualisation of decoloniality as ‘epistemic disobedience’. This is why, for me, decoloniality is crucial to the transformation of hegemony as the attempt cannot be dictated from a ready-made blueprint, it must be always based in critiquing the context of the locale. I read Alberta Whittle, in her text Biting the Hand that Feeds You, positioning this ‘epistemic disobedience’ in the framework of the art institution as a strategy of ‘wayward curating’ that actively resists the feeling of ingratitude towards the hegemony.
If we return to Nancy Fraser’s conceptualisation of our current hegemony, ‘progressive neoliberalism’, in which a superficial allowance of difference through a politics of recognition both obfuscates and justifies the very material inequality produced by its politics of distribution, it becomes salient to stay cognisant of all contributors to the creation of hegemony that I laid out in the start of this text: that is, to stay cognisant of not only the biases that exist within our systems of critical validation and socio-cultural ideology, but also economic reason. Again, decoloniality has been useful for this purpose in that through its ideological inheritance to decolonisation (the actual, political decolonisation of formerly colonised states) we can see the importance of economic reason in the subjugation through a hegemony. The rapid political decolonisation of formerly colonised states in the mid-to-late ‘50s through to the mid-to-late ‘70s left an infrastructural vacuum in many newly independent states. This caused a movement from internal subjugation to external dependance, as the domestic political and economic structures of these new states were extremely fragile after the colonisers' exit. Their ability to deploy revenue from the sale of goods to transform their domestic primary economies into secondary economies was continuously undermined by the structure of the global economy. Jamaica is probably the most cited example of this external dependance. Michael Manley, who served as Jamaica’s Prime Minister from ’72 to ’80 and then ’89 to ’92, tried to instigate a democratic socialist programme, utilising such theories as the ‘village community model’ in which the focus was shifted from industrialisation to a focus on egalitarian forms of production. However, the intensely neoliberalised Bretton Woods institutions (such as the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund) that had been set up by the West post-war to essentially redevelop Western Europe had become ideological enforcers of neoliberalism in the ‘80s with their use of the Structural Adjustment Programmes that were created after the Mexico default of 1982. The SAPs were conditions of structural economic change that would accompany any loan, with the higher the risk factor (which were commonly attributed to developing nations in the South) the more severe the conditions. Many of the conditions laid out in these programmes were intensely neoliberal in character: the cutting of government spending and the implementation of austerity policies; the privatisation of state-owned industries; the deregulation of markets to increase competition; and the opening up of economies to free-trade. To transition into an independent economy after colonisation, Jamaica had to plug huge holes in their public spend with borrowed money from the IMF. The consequent SAPs that were enforced shrank the growth of the economy resulting in further debt.
5. The ARI pilot project and the importance of economic reason
What I want to display with this situation is the importance of economic reason in the formulation of hegemony. If we look at how the domestication of difference happens when a politics of recognition allows for supposed independence while a politics of distribution causes subjugation and inequality in an international context, we can draw parallels to the neoliberal absorption of the anti-hegemonic movements of the ‘60s that happens to the individual subject. This loops me back round to what we need to stay aware of in cultural institutions if we truly want a transformation of hegemony. As Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang have stated in Decolonisation is not a Metaphor, the terminology has provided a radical shell for pacified and uncritical practices of multiculturalism in the arts. We are all at risk of this appeal to liberal tolerance that cannot be transformative in its practice. By doing so we put a temporary plaster on a huge societal wound: it deals with the symptom and not the cause. This can be seen, for example, in the tokenisic platforming of artists of colour that is becoming more increasingly the norm. Without an effort to not only increase the representation of people of colour at the governing level of institutions but also to rethink the very structures and underpinning ideologies of this governance, there will be a continuation of forcing complicity on to artists by engaging them in structures that, in the long-term, homogenise difference and are antithetical to their own ethics.
There seems to be a resurgence in economic thinking within the arts, or at least an infrastructural turn. In the US there have been many recent examples of collective action by art workers: the unionisation of the New Museum’s workers; W.A.G.E.’s work to systematise fair pay in the U.S.'s art sector; the grassroots Art/Musuem Salary Transparency 2019 database; the contestation of Warren Kanders’ place on the board of the Whitney; as well as a wealth of literature arising on the subject including the Precarious Worker’s Brigade’s Training for Exploitation and Leigh Claire La Berge's Wages Against Artwork: Decommodified Labor and the Claims of Socially Engaged Art. Here in Scotland as well, there has been marked action on the issue of pay and remuneration in the arts: EMBASSY’s very own Gradjob programme, in which a cohort of recent graduates are paid a substantial fee to participate in a collective-building effort of what one could call consciousness-raising about the structural qualities of the art world. This, to my knowledge, stemmed out of a dissatisfaction with the usual graduate show at EMBASSY that exhibited recent graduates’ work in a group show. Gradjob is an inspiring act of programming that realised that exhibition opportunities such as this were similarly problematic in furthering the belief that that artist has to be an atomised and competitive individual working in an unsustainable economic model that cannot possibly hold the amount of artists and art workers it states that it can with the amount of funding it has.
Similarly, five Artist Run Initiatives (Transmission, EMBASSY, Market, Generator and Rhubaba) have recently entered a pilot funding project by Creative Scotland with an aim to create a funding model that more suits the flexibility of these spaces. One of the main decisions made was that the funding provided must include budget for partial, monetary remuneration for the committee members at these galleries who have historically worked for free (all the spaces agreed to this bar Generator, who decided to remunerate committee members with benefits such as paid studio spaces for its committee instead.) I was not on the committee of Transmission at the point of these discussions, but I can speak to what I have learnt of the discussions through conversation and hand-over. While the remuneration would only cover a modicum of the hours worked, it seemed necessary to widen access to the committeeship of these committees to those who cannot work completely for free. State remuneration for this sort of work has always existed and is a necessary payment for the benefits of production that we absorb by working for free. There’s a complex local history that is intertwined with these economic politics, what with the Thatcher years heralding in neoliberal dogma and the consequent marked decrease in public funding for social provisions but also Glasgow’s so-called ‘regeneration’ that happened through the late ’80s and early 2000s (including the 1983 Glasgow miles better campaign, it’s European City of Culture award in 1990 and what has been informally known as the Glasgow Renaissance council projects of the early 2000s). Even in the spring of 1990, Transmission mounted a groups show called ‘Dependants’ in which artists were paid funds equivalent to a week’s worth of government welfare to offset their productions costs, pointing to the familiarity of these structures to artists and art workers during that time. Lane Relyea briefly discusses this relationship in Your Everyday Art World, including a quote by Hans Ulrich Obrist to Vogue in 1995 that states ‘In Britain, there is much less support for contemporary art from public money but the artists don’t sit around complaining—they do it themselves’ which, I would say, is a clear example of neoliberal ideology excusing economic inequality. I make this point to claim that none of these ARIs could exist (which means none of their programmes which largely support local emerging artists and none of the professional development gained by their committee members: both crucial to the local ecosystem of the creative arts in Scotland) and haven’t been able to exist historically without the cost of the unpaid labour that goes into them being offset in some way by the state.
However, this is relevant to this text because of how such an initiative, while incredibly important, has a similar cadence to the tones of compromise and ostensible reform then it does to the striking of the structural root of the problem. We try, in small ways, to temper the inegalitarian distributive model of our society through these institutional changes, but without an engagement in a larger state politics to transform such an environment these efforts constrict the amount of opportunity for others. If we are in agreement that art workers and artists are not reasonably compensated for the work they put into the economy (I would in fact welcome a higher level of transparency in artist and art worker payment from Scottish art institutions so that we can more efficiently organise around this point), then the amount paid must increase. Here in Scotland, Creative Scotland and other public funds provide the vast majority of capital for most institutions. Quite simply, this amount of capital won’t change without a transformative rethinking of a larger politics, and so we can argue for fairer distribution (and should) but if the apparatuses of quantifying value in our society don’t change then we face a decision between limiting access with fairer pay or absorbing costs onto ourselves. More radically, if art institutions could position themselves as consolidating forces within leftist politics and, say, an elected socialist government could introduce universal and free access to education, housing and sustenance, then accessibility to the arts would be exponentially increased.
The other potential threat is that, when we announce a call for fairer pay without similar efforts to procure such rights on a national scale, we are not critical of where such extra funding materialises from. Rachael Simpson and Abigail Webster, respectively previously of and currently on the EMBASSY committee, brought this up to me in a recent example. In the second round of Creative Scotland’s Bridging Bursary an extra two million pounds was found to support art workers who were economically affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. One million of this fund was procured from the Freeland Foundation, with an extra million match-funded by the Scottish Government. The Freeland Foundation is infamous as a point of scrutiny within the UK arts scene as it provides a vast amount of capital each year to arts initiatives, funded almost entirely from the pocket of Elisabeth Murdoch. It’s not to say that this money wasn’t well allocated for this use, nor that applying for the fund is in anyway damning through a complicity to the Murdoch Empire and other, unknown to me, personal investments on the part of Elisabeth Murdoch. However, there is a question of what this does in cementing what I have previously described as a neoliberal hegemony by alleviating the need for the state and replacing the democratic imperative of state provision with the whims of private foundations.
A last point I would make on this subject is that the model of relying on, or even supplementing public funds with, generous donations from private purses subliminally legitimises the belief that the state is inefficient and wasteful while redefining social benefits according to, in the case of charitable foundation donors, undemocratically formulated beliefs and, in the case of private-public partnerships, economic rationalities. For a talk held in conjunction with Cameron Rowland’s project for the 2017 Whitney Biennial, Justin Leroy employs a case study of Social Investment Bonds (SIBs) to this effect. In a similar obfuscation, SIBs use the language of ethical justice to provide a platform through which to privately invest in public services, which then become accountable to stakeholders rather than citizens of a democracy.This accelerates the privatisation of the public assets, shifting public wealth into private hands. Leroy makes clear that he does not mean to deny any benefit of SIBs, and in fact makes reference to a successful instance of one, and similarly I don’t mean to deny the benefit such a partnership with the Freeland Foundation on providing necessary funds for those lives made more precarious due to Covid-19. I think what is relevant here in my position is that such a partnership fortifies an underlying logic which posits that democracy, in holding a different apparatus of value creation, is less important than competitive economic efficiency. When such a partnership chips at these foundations, the work of decolonisation, the work to undo the colonial-capitalist structure of subjugation and inequality, is impossible due to the subject's complicity with these funding structures. Even though it is important to make clear that this is not applicable to the Bridging Bursary, which came with no stipulation from the Freeland Foundation on how Creative Scotland was to allocate such money to those in need due to Covid-19, with the contract reported to have been thoroughly interrogated by Creative Scotland’s legal team, the underlying logic of such a decision shares its impetus with that of the privatisation and financialisation of the state. As Leroy states:
It's impossible to think about the development of financial practices without recognizing the long intertwined history of race and finance. Specifically finance has historically developed new innovations by experimenting upon racialized bodies and making these populations investable, making life itself more productive and profitable bestows a kind of moral power to finance years legitimizing both their social vision and their methods of capital accumulation.
7. The Indeterminacy of Contemporary Art and Conclusion
To return to the beginning of my text, how can the importance of fighting for the recognisable subject-hood of those that have historically and contemporarily been unrecognisable be reconciled with this critique of a neoliberal formulation of individualism, especially when it comes to the ethical considerations that have to be made when engaging in the economic models that surrounds us? What I would say is that there must be a focus on the transformation of hegemony on a national scale in order for us to escape the quagmire of institutional critique and thus I would call for art institutions to refuse operating in the apolitical as it pertains to a wider national politics. Small steps in this direction are, I believe, led by coalition building with socialist efforts on a local level and a rethinking of contemporary art’s propagation of individualism and its compliance with market rationalities.
What I’ve done in this text is perhaps argued that such a formulation of progressive neoliberalism exists and that it has a sort of exacerbated visibility in the arts, translated it to our local context, and recounted experience of practical efforts that have attempted to counter the economic inequality that is obfuscated by a progressive politics of representation, as well as the consequent trials due to paradoxes thrown up by such a system. It’s here that I’ll conclude, however I am aware that I haven’t necessarily given an argument for why the environment of contemporary art is seemingly so unconducive to engagement in transformation, for I don’t think that it’s through lack of will alone that such paradoxes cannot be reconciled. This is an area I'm currently researching, but I'll round off with this sort of under-developed adendum.
There’s something inherent in the logic of what we call Contemporary Art that is paradoxical to the logic that produces the mechanics of a leftist politics. Suhail Malik has written extensively on this, analysing how the primacy of indeterminism in contemporary art, the correlationist notion that ‘all accounts of reality are necessarily accounts of how reality is thought or known’ and that ‘reality itself cannot be known “in itself” since it is always thought or apprehended by a consciousness’, is antithetical to the logic needed for the democratic construction of a socialist majority, as this necessarily requires conceptualising universality:
The systemic issue, or the generic issue, is that as a genre without identity and with its insistence upon the always singular, the always personalised semantics of the work, Contemporary Art is necessarily asystemic; it plays a systemic role but it's never responsible to its systemic conditions […] So, what do we do? Well, if you want to do Left Accelerationism, this is obviously a systemic political program […]: it's called Post-capitalism, Luxury Communism and so on. […] As a systemic political program, Contemporary Art is not adequate for Left Accelerationism. And here you have to make a simple choice: either you opt for Contemporary Art, because that's our convention and it's the hegemonic form of art, but then you have to understand that it's going to be impossible to […] [achieve a] Left Accelerationist program or demand. Or you say that, yes, the Left Accelerationist program and demand is the right thing, or the required thing, in which case we have to abandon contemporary art and that’s, of course, the correct thing to do.
From the point of the art institution, if we are to make a claim of leftism or support any such agenda and would like to resist any of the professed issues that appear prominently in the content of what we present, we must take the issue of Contemporary Art’s indeterminacy seriously. Further to this, I’m interested in what a decolonial formulation of what Fredric Jameson terms the cognitive map could look like as an attempt to use aesthetics to at once commonly represent the complexity of capitalism while mapping one’s individual relation to such a system. As Malik posits, such a systematicity seems to be incompatible with contemporary art’s ‘favour of the singularity of the recipient, of the interpretive moment’ and it is ‘that emphasis on the individual as the constructor of meaning that fits in very well with the whole notion of a neoliberal hegemon.’
So if there is to be a concerted effort for art institutions to engage in a transformative leftist politics, we need to have an understanding of what constitutes hegemony in order to rearticulate it, understanding the specificity of its economic reason, employing intentional and systematised ideology to this aim. This will involve, I believe, a reimagining of Contemporary Art and more broadly our the self's relationship to universalisation. I’ll end with an extract from Judith Butler’s writings and responses to Ernesto Laclau and Slazoj Žižek in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, a fundamental piece of literature in Butler’s wider work on creating a systematised, yet inherently plural, ideology of egalitarian cohabitation which includes her recent work on non-violence that shares, in the reasoning behind its creation, a similar impetus as that of the work of formulating an idea of the precarious subject. In a characteristic homage to Lacanian extimacy, Butler asks:
[W]hat are the specifically theoretical questions raised by these concrete urgencies? In addition to providing an inquiry into the ideal conditions of possibility for hegemony, we also need to think about its conditions of efficacy, how hegemony becomes realizable under present conditions, and to rethink realizability in ways that resist totalitarian conclusions. The open-endedness that is essential to democratization implies that the universal cannot be finally identified with any particular content, and that this incommensurability (for which we do not need the Real) is crucial to the futural possibilities of democratic contestation. To ask after the new grounds of realizability is not to ask after the 'end' of politics as a static or teleological conclusion: I presume that the point of hegemony on which we might concur is precisely the ideal of a possibility that exceeds every attempt at a final realization, one which gains its vitality precisely from its non-coincidence with any present reality. What makes this non-coincidence vital is its capacity to open up new fields of possibility and, thus, to instil hope where a sense of fatality is always threatening to close down political thinking altogether.