Anyone excited about the potential to mobilise art towards political change should be reminded that it was avant-garde icon Karlheinz Stockhausen who crowned the 9/11 attack ‘the greatest work of art ever’ – how telling it is that a group of fundamentalist hardliners, perhaps the most extreme macho men on the planet, are the ones to produce such a strong image, the most gripping, total happening, the most subversive act of political criticism, more ambitious than anything produced by context-savvy, well-meaning Western artists, and in a tragic irony, instilling a chillingly god-fearing twist to the secular, revolutionary notion of art and life becoming one.
The extreme yet unavoidable logical conclusion of the modernist severing and atomisation of art brought the medium to its knees. The reason there is even a desire to mobilise art towards activism is because art as a discipline and language had been crippled by the blindspots that plague all political thought either left or right.
Submitting art to the political can only mean giving up on what art can uniquely achieve. Submitting art to the political can only mean abandoning and forfeiting it.
Anyone deluded to think the political is the sole arena for change does not have an interest in art beyond it serving as cold, dead source material, a-priori and inherently inferior to direct action and the one-dimensional appliance of power on the range spanning signing petitions and flying planes into landmark buildings.
It is true, pragmatically speaking, that since the retreat of the political left following the crumbling of socialism in East Europe, the infrastructure of many artistic spaces, outlets and institutes have become a refuge and oasis for activists, providing material, economical and logistical support for activities impossible anywhere else. The fact that these enterprises resonate somewhat with artistic practise allows for collaboration between disciplines that on the immediate level has concrete value and effect. Alas, in the long run, the use by activists of art as a temporary autonomous zone is, however necessary, by definition temporary and worse still, parasitically sucking all remaining vitality out of art’s domain. We must step sideways to realise and internalise that we are in fact running on the fumes of Western civilisation as such (and that is meant paradigmatically, not necessarily apocalyptically).
The last significant moment where activism and art met was more a case of politics becoming more artistic than the other way round, as echoed in the situationist call to demand the impossible and to realise desires, a call that resonates within the counterculture ever since. A close examination of these slogans reveals a fundamental schism tearing like a seismic crack all the way back to the cradle of the west. The question is, how come the situationist call was easily co-opted by the market? The answer is, it is because it was secular, individualistic, solipsist, therefore conveniently setting a framework for the lifestyle market. What is forgotten is something that was lastly remembered by the more shamanistically-inclined branches of modernist art (and each of the modernist movements possessed such streak), as well as emanating momentarily from the convoys of the Spiral Tribe: that the superior realisation of desire manifests in the dissolving of the ego, of the conscious individual self. It manifests as disappearance into continuity, into belonging. No new age dribble is implied – the importance of the moment of realisation is that it integrates the misled, partial plights of the political right (a belonging expressed through separation from the other, IE nationalism, racism, or rampant capitalism) and left (a freedom expressed through separation from time and space in the mythical, enveloping, pre-monotheist sense).
This tragic, almost satanic separation, where each political camp holds one of the two parts of a code to open the door to lead us out of this civilisation of lost souls, goes back to when ever-becoming cyclical myth was exchanged with the linear arrow of history. However, while the language of politics is unequivocally a product of that trajectory, as ultimately enacted in the secularisation, atomisation and machination of the 19th century and onwards, art does offer a portal. While to a large extent an inheritance of the Greek notion of aesthetic distancing (IE more separation), it at the same time constitutes the remaining vestige of the flickering fire of myth, and the only domain that could therefore allow for a benign integration of freedom and belonging – an integration that is as necessary as much as it is potentially disastrous if attempted within the political realm. And this is precisely why art should not capitulate to activism: on the contrary, activists realising that the only solution to the predicaments of our crumbling planet is a deep ecology of the human spirit retaking root in sacred time and space, must make every effort possible to protect the artistic realm just as they protect wildlife reserves and more, because if art holds the key to mythical holism, it is our only hope.
What our re-rooting through art entails is a revisiting of its most monumental archetypes (wrongly confused by the left with fascism, forgetting it preceded that modern regime by aeons), and a re-acquaintance with its quantum power of creation through sight and sound. In that sense, for example, artistic practice bypasses and overcomes Marxist dualism: the content of an artistic work nullifies the question of whether it operates within or outside the market. Its inherent (will to) power trumps over the economical context. Furthermore and most importantly, it is the total radiance of the various components of a work of art that carries the potential to inspire change in a certain context, regardless of whether it carries a concrete political message or not. A Marxist call to an artist to ‘choose sides’ is in that sense completely meaningless and empty. Politics is by definition a limited prism perpetually failing to grasp greater and deeper movements that are only traceable to us humans within the artistic gesture. Art should therefore never again be crippled by Marxist-activist analysis for that only results in further blinding us. ‘Activist art’ that focuses strictly on power and market relations is part of the problem and not the solution, a mere perpetuation of Western separation. A committed activist who wants to win must therefore cherish and protect the mythical autonomy of the artistic realm by all means necessary.
Avi Pitchon on behalf of the MLF