Denise Ackerl – Art (community); a revolutionary power or an illustration of powerlessness ?

“Revolutionary art should be revolutionary. That surely is a simple statement from which we can begin discussion.”1 But when is art revolutionary? One could argue that art activism is one of the starting points here, despite it being caught up in the continuous query of why it actually is art. There are many examples of art activism, or in fact passivism, such as the boycotts of the Sydney Biennale2 or the Manifesta 10 that eventually resulted in the production of anti-art, leaving the act of boycott as a vacuum for “real” activist artworks. One of the most recent exhibitions in the Victoria & Albert Museum, “the disobedient object”, a display of crafted objects intended to promote social change shows that the combination of aesthetics and activism is possible, but in most of these cases artists were not involved. Although the Guerrilla Girls display-dummies were about to set a direct link to artists being activists, their presence seemed more like an allegory to Lenin´s glass coffin assuring you that Leninism is dead, or in this case Guerrillaism. But the Guerilla Girls are not dead. Or?

Other non-art related activist movements in the recent years such as Occupy-Wall-Street have developed methods of activism and protest based on Gene Sharp’s “Methods of non- violent-protests”3 which can qualify as art and, at the same time, as a subversive means towards the subject and, eventually, as revolutionary. Despite the fact that “Peter Osborne deflated the utopianism of this quick transition of Occupy from political activism to a ‘symbolic’ event by characterizing Occupy as the protest of ‘powerlessness and refusal’ which, he argued, ‘places it in a social space related to, yet institutionally distinct from, art’”4, there are examples that could prove again the contrary. One is Monica Hunken’s rioter choreography5 where she potentially offers an effective and playful way to claim public space instead of a substrate for confrontation. Still, the question if these sorts of activism could also qualify as a piece of art remains open.

The current increase in production of politically-engaged art, qualified as art, partially a reaction to budget cuts for arts and education, lacks the ability to impact. Instead of providing a solution/revolution, they are reduced to a pure illustration of the dilemma of the current economic and social conditions of art production. But should art actually give the solutions? Maybe the illustration is just good enough. At least it provides the art community with sympathy rather than a backfire to the claim for change of conditions as it could be observed in the media coverage of the most recent student protests in London against tuition fees (not supported by the National Students Union).Those who intended to subvert and claim attention for their dilemma were instrumentalized by those they tried to oppose. BBC´s coverage of the events focused on a wrapped-up 10-people-strong splitter group seeking confrontation with the police in the backstreets of Whitehall, while thousands where simply marching in front of Westminster .

In “A crime against art”6, a film by Hila Peleg about a staged trial at an art fair in Madrid in February 2007, the two artists/writers Anton Vidokle and Tirdad Zolghadr, as representatives for the art community, are accused of collusion with the “new bourgeoisie”. The Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter, saw the “new bourgeoisie” as the driving force behind the capitalist engine, particularly entrepreneurs who took risks in order to bring innovation to industries and the economy through the process of creative destruction. In the 50’s Schumpeter derived his theory and the term “creative destruction” from Marxist economic theory, where it refers to the linked processes of the accumulation and annihilation of wealth under   capitalism. At its most basic, “creative destruction”   (German: schöpferische Zerstörung) describes the way in which capitalist economic development arises out of destruction of some prior economic order.7

Today, in 2014, the art community has undergone a change in its social stratification as a consequence of the “zeitgeist”, turning the collusion into a fusion, which stabilizes old orders but creates new ones at the same time.

As a MA fine art graduate, I am part of this new order, where the split is apparent even at the very basic of fee status, either Home/EU or international. My dilemma and that of my fellow colleagues is that we are too privileged to identify with the “proletariat”, but actually not privileged enough to be part of the “new bourgeoisie”, which could lead into the formation of a new class. According to Marx´ theory, as soon as we develop a consciousness and solidarity, we start the conflict with the other “classes” and eventually a revolution.

So instead of asking if art can be revolutionary the more appropriate question is if the artist community can be a revolutionary force? But I think that is very unlikely due to the lack of solidarity among artists. The utopian and at the same time reactionary-sounding project of an artist’s trade union, initiated 6 months ago, is probably bound to fail for the same reasons. The “neomaterialised” art graduates are becoming personality-centered brands8 not willing to be contaminated with something unsexy such as “trade-union”, particularly in an era where philanthropy and corporate sponsorship have out ruled the state support, driven by the latter. Another reason for failure is the huge financial burden in form of debts caused by expensive art education and the resulting urgent need after studies to earn money to pay it back.

While we have seen in the Occupy-Wall-Street movement that the state of high indebtedness and no possibility of escape caused solidarity among certain parts of the population, especially the young, I think that at least UK art graduates are not there yet. Although the situation is desperate it is probably not desperate enough to cause solidarity, the development of a consciousness and finally a revolution.


1Read, Herbert; To Hell with Culture, Routledge Classics London (2002)p.126

2 In its announcement to withdraw from Manifesta 10, Russian art collective Chto Delat? (W hat is to be done?) said: ‘Manifesta has shown that it can respond with little more than bureaucratic injunctions to respect law and order in a situation where any and all law has gone to the wind. For that reason, any participation in the Manifesta 10 exhibition loses its initial meaning.’ Meanwhile, under the slogan ‘Don’t Add Value to Detention’, 92 artists boycotted the 19th Sydney Biennale, which resulted in the Biennale severing links with its chief corporate sponsor, Transfield, which operates refugee detention centres off the Australian mainland. Art Monthly; Oct2014, Issue 380, to BOYCOTT or not to BOYCOTT?

3 published in 1973 in his book The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Vol.2.

4 Art Monthly; Oct2014, Issue 380, to BOYCOTT or not to BOYCOTT?



7 Reinert, Hugo; Reinert, Erik S. (2006). “Creative Destruction in Economics: Nietzsche, Sombart, Schumpeter”