Art Militancy: A Manifesto
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.
7. The art world is a microcosm of society. It contains nothing that society does not contain. There is no cruel and deceptive art world aside from the face of hypocrisy it exposes on behalf of society. If on the one hand we profess great things of beauty and honesty, while on the other we ask where the money will come from, always with a view to profiteering, this is the face of capitalism speaking through art. If we want to change this, we must descend into the quarries of our society, to select and work its raw materials and be changed in the process. These materials comprise a great many natural and human players, of which the capitalist is one.
8. The greatest artists of any epoch had to work their physical materials in tandem with the social relations they encountered. Having to work within a fundamentally unequal system is no excuse for lack of fidelity to materials, or to nature. The famed arguments between Micehlangelo and Pope—the patron of the Sistine Chapel—appear apocryphal, yet they are a powerful foundational story for the development of later modern art that should allow no excuses for half-measures from today’s social artists.
9. We are all confronted with materials and with paymasters (including collectors, gallerists, museums, internet platforms and subscribers) as we try to shape nature into truth. In reality they are all equally materials and the task of contemporary art, of memes production, podcasting or online video production, is to dialectically shape these materials into economic, ecological and community models.
10. Did Michelangelo kiss the hand of the marble excavators and ring the neck of his rich benefactors. Or vice versa? Did Frida Kahlo experience a dopamine rush at the smell of linseed oil, but wretch at the smell of collectors’ money? We can imagine they endured the money in order to procure the natural materials to express a truth about existing in the world alongside fellow people, very few of whom were art patrons. In an ideal world we would all be artists, sunbathing in Hawaii with an endless supply of materials delivered by benevolent AI robots as we look out upon a beach populated by a community of happily individuated fellow humans. Lacking such a utopia we must work dialectically on the social conditions at hand, producing communities as much as canvases.
11. We need only ask ourselves the for Ws: Who, why, what, where?
Who are we? -- Artists and creators setting out to mold ourselves and society into an honest representation of what we are and can become. Why? -- Because we have looked deep inside ourselves and at society and we find this to be the art-historical moment for a direct confrontation with society as a material. What? -- We aim at an honest dialectical reckoning that places the relations of the art world and online creativity at the service of the wider community. Where? -- We must put all art and mediatic spaces at our disposal, using them as platforms for reworking our relation to each other and nature.
12. The question of patronage must be considered part of the imminent research we carry out with the patron open to change along with the artist, curator, gallerist, critic, art audience, museum cleaner, the administrators, the bookshop staff and owner, and the entire supply chain. When all elements have become involved in a communal questioning that extends to schools, to supermarkets, to tech companies, to banks, to churches, to online stores, to social media giants and their workers, then we can start to consider ourselves social artists, critics and curators.
13. Art Militancy makes it the task of art to subvert the class-based system of art production, display and consumption by using the resources of the art world for ongoing consciousness-raising, as regards economy, ecology and community and individual awareness. In this respect we must wrest the word ‘wellbeing’ from profiteering publishers and social media influencers. Other words may equally suffice, such as ‘health’, ‘individuation’, ‘spirituality’, and so on. Above all, the act of being well in oneself and with others needs to be restored to the community as a common good, owned and operated by all.
14. In the pursuit of such self and community awareness, the art world has much to offer materially and in terms of experience. The pact made between the artist and nature in the phase of production, is reflected in the phase of art ‘viewing’, which is in fact a total immersive bodily experience for the initiated. Experiencing art amounts to making a pact with the external object, suspending one’s physical boundaries, if only momentarily. This is in turn a powerful example of how we might live non-conflictually with nature and one another. The task of the Art Militant is to extend this experience out into the community, treating social and economic relations as the material we enter into a pact with.
15. The task described above requires first a reckoning with our own relation with art, with society and with the dream of community that we claim to want to pursue via art. We must distinguish between the occasions we truly enter into sustained effort to research and shape social materials and those when we make compromises in order to satiate a system that chooses spectacle over sustained and concentrated relations with those materials. A painting or photograph of a migrant bears a relationship to immigration policy similar to the relationship that a contemporary painting of sunflowers bears to actual sunflowers. Van Gogh’s radical experimentations upon paint as matter once took artwork off its pedestal, turning painting into a material pursuit that bore the marks of its labor upon materials that were themselves labored. Today we need to continue along this path and treat labor itself as a material.
16. Hegel envisaged the final stage of history coming about when art fused with society, effectively ceasing to exist. Some people have mistaken the conceptual turn for this moment, announcing the end of art as a kind of subsumption of art within social spectacle. This kind of negative Hegelianism skips an entire philosophical chapter in which Marx identified the need to dialectically work upon the field of human relations and upon ‘work’ itself. The art world has up to now only produced a negative Hegelian treatment of Marx. It has conceptualized Marxism so as to collapse it into the economic whole as representations of political struggle that can be bought and sold. Many artists have acquiesced with this formula, blinded by the economic machinations that keep them in bondage. The myth that the dialectic has been resolved such that Marx appears daily in our museums and on our social media feeds in memetic form, only thinly veils the reality: the opposition to domination has been duped into serving its masters as kitsch signifiers.
17. Escape from the well documented co-optation of community oriented cultural forms will not come in the form of representations of the plight that has already befallen. images that are ever more tenuously connected to the aim of emancipation only to serve to remind us of our complicity with capital. The image must become the aftermath of our work upon ourselves and our communities, with art spaces becoming simply hosts to this activity. Where no image is issued forth from our activity in interrogating social relations in order to work through collective trauma, then the artwork will have existed in the process alone. Those who want mementoes can visit the souvenir stalls of Vatican city.
18. Of course, artists who paint for its own sake will exist, as members of the community within which we engage while consciousness raising. Their work is valuable in its demonstration of the emancipatory power of art as it signals the possibility of a pact with the natural object and with one another. But our aim now must be to rework our communities with the visual artist as just one practitioner among others who are useful to the process of reclaiming wellbeing.
19. This process can only be carried out through a steady and constant application of the principles outlined above. We must leverage grant money, we must educate collectors, we must convince and cajole museum directors. We must enter into conversation with our class superiors and ask the uncomfortable questions, as co-conspirators in a new vision of the art world. We must take the money and the platforms necessary to forge an art world capable of rising above the production and consumption of kitsch revolutionary paraphernalia.
20. We must start this process with ourselves, applying our unremitting critique to the art, memes, exhibitions or texts that we produce. How will we go further each day along the path of Art Militancy? How will we work upon the social materials without prejudice so as to realign the art world and wider societal priorities putting the money in service of the people? Are we prepared to accept the burden of working within the system to help grow community and foster wellbeing in non art spaces? Are ready to put art in the service of community activism and to free communitarian politics from its reduction to kitsch in the museums?
21. Art Militancy requires we are equal to the material history of the art world and able to answer the call to confront ecological degradation and political upheaval utilizing the vast resources of the art world to step in where politics fails us. Who looks at the raw material of society and sees a community to be formed? We have nothing to lose but our kitsch painted chains.
Mike Watson is a UK-born art and media theorist, critic, and curator who holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Goldsmiths College. Watson curated at the 55th and 56th Venice Biennale, as well as at Manifesta12 in Palermo. He has written regularly for Art Review, Artforum, Jacobin, and Radical Philosophy. In 2021 he published the book, The Memeing of Mark Fisher.