Art Militancy: A Manifesto

Mike Watson

October 12, 2022

Theorist and curator Mike Watson returns to a consideration of the dialectical relationship between creativity and capitalism, arguing for a rigorous and sincere approach to challenging art world hypocrisy.

1. We live in a period of unprecedented political commentary within the art world as well as the deployment of sophisticated creative techniques within the official political sphere. In addition to this we have a burgeoning image culture existing online and within advertising and the mainstream media that operates at a savage level of political polarization even when the content is essentially prosaic and related to lifestyle, beauty or sports. The ‘60s era statement ‘the personal is political’ has effectively become inverted, so that all things end up within the nexus of power, emanating from a corporate elite while the ‘personal’ is reduced to a carrier of messages on behalf of the establishment. Today, the personal is capital.

2. We vent our emotions and express political ideas like never before, though such personal outpourings are reduced to analytics for Big Data corporations or, for those who have a platform within the cultural sphere, to soundbites intended to attract investors (‘art collectors’, who are really ‘money collectors’). At our most expressive we have become our most hollowed out. The invitation to a previously marginalized community to express their identity in a regional or national museum signals the categorization, cooptation and financialization of that identity.

3. We might reflect that this could not come at a worse time: When we need strong voices amidst climate collapse, inflation and conflict, those voices are being captured and reappropriated online and in art spaces. Yet such a reflection misperceives the sequence of events. We are not subject to nth degree cooptation in spite of our revolt. We have, rather, long presented ourselves as rebels for hire, as rent-a-quote (or rent-a-meme). We have observed the opportunities given to us for advancement by the capitalist system and we have adapted ourselves to them. Perhaps we have dressed this up as ‘playing the system’, ‘changing the system from within’ or ’using the algorithms’, but such unquestioning tactics only serve to reinforce the level of our complicity.

4. We have two options. One, to keep on along this same path for fear of losing our considerable investments in time and relationships. Two, to perform a hard and fast change in approach which ceases our role as supplicants of revolutionary pastiche for the whitewashing of capital and replaces it with a living critique of the social, economic and political system, leveraging the resources of the art world to create a space for reworking society.

5. In this task, we need to deploy a radical honesty about our intent and methods. The aesthetic masterpieces from antiquity to modernity were based on deceptions. Carrara marble was shaped into La Pieta’ by Michelangelo. Velasquez turned the court of King Phillip into canvases for sublime contemplation. Cindy Sherman made herself into multiple protagonists from a collective filmic memory that didn’t exist. These illusions required an artistic fidelity to the aim of expressing truth via an interaction with materials, objects, nature and one’s self. None of them were possible without a wider community of marble miners, canvas spinners, tailors, grocers, farmers, midwives, and more.

6. As we increasingly turn to art producers and professionals to apply the detachment of aesthetic values to society, to create a space for contemplation on our future as politics fails us, it is fundamental that we approach the task with fidelity to our materials. Increasingly that material, shaped, cajoled and displayed in museums and at biennials is society itself—people and communities. It follows then, that just as the sculptor or painter gets to know their materials, entering into a pact with the natural object that yields truthful illusions, we too must enter into a pact with nature and the community. It is not enough to parade symbols associated with elusive utopias or to represent poverty in images. We need to know our communities and nature, be part of them and breathe with them. Just as the painter quivers at one end of her brush, moved by nature and by paint, we too need to enter into society and be moved by it.