Art is not political action. Art is not education. Art does not exist to make the world a better place. Alana Jelinek recalls the episodes behind the writing of her new book, This is Not Art.
Back in 2010 at the Association of Art Historians conference in Glasgow, I gave a paper called, ‘I used to think I was an activist and then I met some’. In the audience sat the then-commissioning editor for visual culture at I.B.Tauris, Liza Thompson, who watched as the furore unfurled around her.
I was oblivious to the impact of my paper at the time, being used to tempers fraying and difficult questions, but I was well aware I had trod on favoured artworld orthodoxies – particularly those derived from the Frankfurt school about culture and the role of the political or socially-engaged artist. I knew it was holy ground because, in the past, including in my doctoral thesis (submitted January 2008), I too had respected the consecrated soil, making sure I wrote something original for my doctorate, as is the phrase, but not so original as to dig too deeply at the well-manured ground around art and activism.
What set me digging was a time in 2009 when I happily said yes to PLATFORM, an activist organisation who had been asked to stage an event, an exhibition, a happening, at Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol. I was not asked to contribute as an artist or as a curator, but as a broker between the worlds of art and the worlds of activism, given that I seemed to have experience of both the artworld and of activism. Mine was a purely diplomatic role in a situation where everyone, including those at PLATFORM and those at the Arnolfini Gallery, were shocked to realise the need for such a role.
Everyone in the artworld that I knew who was political, socially aware or ethical (whichever epithet is preferred) assumed that we were artist-activists and that no division between the cultures, knowledges and values of art and of activism existed. This assumption had also reigned at the Arnolfini. How wrong-headed this proved to be once we, in the artworld, actually started to work with real-life activists. That experience taught me there were more cultural differences between me and PLATFORM in practice, however much we admired each other’s work, than there were between me and other artists I have met from various cultures across the world (including those whose work I do not admire). This situation required examination and so, in 2010 after a great deal of reflection and some theorising, I delivered a paper that started to explore these differences.
One of the ironies that still tickles me is the different relationships to theories of power maintained by PLATFORM and all the other activists I met, as compared with the artworld. While art students of my generation were steeped in Marxist theories of power and the power-culture nexus, activists tend not to have read Marx, the Frankfurt School or any other theories of power. In fact, many didn’t seem to know there was such a thing as a theory of power. Their educational backgrounds seem to be very different from artists of the same generation, with but few exceptions. Without analysing the source of their model of power the activists tended to work with an understanding of power as being concentrated in the hands of the few to the detriment of the many and that most of mass culture was harnessed to replicate this iniquitous situation, bamboozling the majority into believing that we want things this way: all very Animal Farm. This contrasts with artists who, despite all the emphasis in art schools on reading theory including Derrida, Barthes and Foucault, also tend to work within the model of power imagined by activists – but the artworld does so while burping up undigested theories that imply otherwise.
The norms and orthodoxies of the contemporary artworld today actually serve to maintain neoliberal values. Meanwhile artists perform a faux or fuzzy activism based on old and improbable models of power. I hope that instead of unthinkingly replicating these, as individual artists understood collectively, we can start making art that is interesting and actually performs its potential social role. It’s artists and our relationship to power, how we enact and embody power in our own relations and in relation to the artworld as metonymic of wider social relations that interests me.
I am interested in art. I am also very interested in politics but not in the sense that both activists and parties conceive it. I continue to admire the work of PLATFORM. They do important things but what I now know and am willing to defend is that they are not artists. Art is profoundly different from activism and creative activism is not art no matter how creative it is. In fact, art is something different from creativity despite the fact that, for many, art and creativity are synonymous. With this confusion comes art’s easy slippage into the values of neoliberalism. Capitalism too is creative.
I now understand that art is more important than activism to a society that values freedom and equality and it is even more important where it does not. And when I say art here, I mean art as instantiation of individual difference that is the necessary condition for making politics possible. ■
Alana Jelinek is the author of This is Not Art: Activism and Other ‘not-art’, and AHRC creative fellow at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge.