Saturday, 18 September 2010

Toward a Radical Historiography

Here is an unpublished essay completed in the Spring of A.Da. 91 (2007) for a publication which never appeared. As there was a word limit, this text is particularly condensed in its logic and argumentation. I am currently undertaking a theoretical manifesto likely to end up as a thick chapbook which pursues much more radically the conclusions implicit in this text. Elements of the text I am posting here will end up integrated into this larger undertaking, which is intended as a burning of bridges. But as that text will most likely not see the light of day until spring, I make this available here.

Creative Sociality and the Traditions of Dissent:
Toward a Radical Historiography
Olchar E. Lindsann


If I were to state that I am writing on Art (or even art), and provided that I present neither a straightforward exposition of technique nor an unadulterated report on economic activity in the home-decoration industry, it would be understood that I referred to a cultural edifice dealing with a concept of Art inextricable from an intellectual or discursive dimension--a notion of Art as being related to Thought. What was once called 'High Art', and has since been given the euphemism of Fine Art, is a cultural edifice which distinguishes itself from the broader range of human aestheticreative activity, and especially from domestic decoration ('kitsch') destined for popular consumption, through either the controlled and managed scarcity of material objects or through the assumption of formal frameworks and characteristics destined to alienate normative audiences; Art justifies this (implicitly hierarchical) distinction and elevation from the general field of production of social artefacts on the grounds that Fine Art is uniquely self-critical. In turn, Fine Art's intellectual veneer is what makes it valuable to the avatars of established power, providing them with a hypocritical yet serviceable ethical alibi for the systems they perpetuate.

Utopia is thus implicit in the very genetics of any concept of Art entailing this distance from the normative (which is, after all, inseparable in practice from the Mass Market). Art, and Artists, buy their status as Intellectuals; and the currency they use is their presumed responsibility toward the Higher Ideals of a culture whose designers and maintainers do not in fact subscribe to them. High Art can maintain the ethical legitimacy of its distance from popular culture (the ivory tower, the hermetic vessel, the white gallery walls, the subculture) only if this distance, this self-definition, serves to create new techniques of living and of thinking which can materially and radically re-register society, granting that such shifts must (by reason of this necessary distance) be transgenerational and indirect.

Yet around this model of Art as a Utopian Island which carries on the selfless work of the best of our culture and floats above the petty materialism of our actual society, an infrastructure of closely-entwined institutions has simultaneously developed--museums, publishing houses, financial support from Nation-States, contests and State-funded biennials, commercial and non-profit galleries, corporate-funded residencies, academic tenure systems, philanthropic and corporate endowments, festivals, auction-houses, etc.--all closely allied to the political and economic entities responsible for the maintenance of Capitalist Imperialism.

These institutions mark the removal of Art from the mass market, but at the same time they reinstitute within this sphere of presumed integrity another market, this one targeted at small elite audiences, well-educated enough to feel a twinge of guilt about the global cost of the lives they live and of the systems for which they provide specialized support. This market creates and manages cultural Capital in a sociopsychological economy, its function to perpetuate amongst the educated classes the lie that they are living up to their ethical responsibilities as the privileged children of the Western Polis and, by extension, the very symbol of the decadence of the human project.

Starting years before any potential student or cultural worker's formal education and intellectual life begin, these institutions regulate every possible facet of the discourse which defines Art itself. They gradually establish the intellectual terrain in which students are to attempt to establish themselves as artists or intellectuals--which is also to say that these institutions of power establish the borders, the blind-spots, and even the psychological logics and insecurities which will keep the sheep within the fold without their feeling the bite of a whip; for a whip might bring too many realities home.

Thus liberally domesticated, the situation of the artist in relation to society is altered and channelled; in the gentlest and most discreet of ways, the avatars of power (or their more euphemistic avatars) offer the Artist status, security, and possibly money (at least enough to keep off a workshop floor and avoid the stigma of Worker) in return for an elaborate, quasi-conceptual proof-of-purchase declaring implicitly, and any overtly 'political' content not withstanding, that the system is all right, and that at least those holding the reins still support the advance of Abstract Culture, even whilst starving entire continents with the policies that they design and execute.

Every element of the dominant discourse on creative activity must therefore be looked upon as suspect.


If we examine any mainstream historical treatment or ‘analysis’ of creative currents (‘Anti-Art’, ‘Avant-Garde’, ‘Alternative’, etc.) standing in defiance against the commercially and institutionally mediated infrastructure of ‘High Art’, we will nearly always find that this analysis, and the historiographic framework which it silently presupposes, organizes itself around productions (objects, public actions, published texts, etc.) and ideologies (positions, units, and systems of thought, segregated from the practical contexts in which they acted). The social structures of these groups and traditions, their internal dynamics and modes of interaction, organization, and communication, are effectively ignored or marginalized.

Since the majority of such anti-institutional projects in the ‘creative’ domain have been emphatically collective endeavours, the exclusion of this dimension of avant-garde activity in orthodox histories, the slight of hand by which the strategies and modalities of this collectivity are whisked under the rug in official pedagogy and analyses, reveals itself a politicized blind-spot. It is incumbent upon those of us attempting to continue this broad tradition of dissent to examine this historiographic ploy, and to haul the issue into the open with an eye toward combating it.

One consistent project of this dissenting tradition―arguably its most defining project―has been to abolish the social definitions and the discursive, disseminative, and commercial walls that pen creative activity within the edifice of ‘High Art’ and away from the social conditions in which everyday life takes shape.

The collective impulse―in all of its countless manifestations―represents a focus on creative sociality. The sociality of the 'creative' subculture is merely the hermetic vessel within which the Avant-Garde performs experiments; more pertinently, its project might be conceived of as the conscious re-designing of how humanity can relate to itself. This consciousness and active involvement in how we conceptualise subjectivity and society constitutes the greatest revolutionary potential of the creative project―and the greatest threat to the commercial and institutional structures whose function is not so much to profit from it (despite its decadence, the yields of the Art Market form a negligible portion of the GDPs of the great Western nation-states) as to constrain it.

The radical potential of Thought emerging from the Avant-garde does not reside in Ideas: it resides in the way ideas are made. Different communities communicate differently; new ways of relating and interacting lead to new ways of thinking and of acting collectively upon the world.

The maintenance of this social prison, ‘High Art’, has therefore found its principal task to be that of mediating and regulating creative relationships through institutional structures. Students (formal or, less directly, autodidact) in their most formative, insecure, and critically-undeveloped stage are inculcated with the idea that validation and respectability can be easily located and enumerated through either the commercial gallery system or the State-sponsored University and Artist Grant systems (the former too often a compensatory myopia, the latter by design a monetary leash). The discourses and organizational protocols--both official and conventional--are ready-made; and thus new forms of sociality, which might threaten to destabilize the discursive and commercial infrastructure that this notion of High Art veils and supports, are curtailed. Creative agents are segregated and neutralized as ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’, ‘creators’ and ‘critics’, ‘practitioners’ and ‘theorists’. Ideology, in turn, is as subject to this operation as the production of objects or actions; it becomes something to be consumed or rejected, not discussed and activated.


Within anti-institutional traditions, a group’s productions and the ideology they articulate reflect, they do not embody on their own, or merely through their transgression of the boundaries of dominant social ideas of ‘Art’, the deeply radical stance of a group. These gestures have been metonymic, not self-sufficient. A new technique or material was an element and manifestation of a deeper revolt; its goal was analogous to, or a tool toward, but not equal to, an alternative vision of human potential. Moreover, as originally presented, these ‘artistic’ gestures were inseparable from the presence of the collective, because the collective permeated the context of the creative act, its creation and its circulation.

The dominant institutional discourse with which we are faced today―‘Post-Modernism’ or its derivatives―has rendered this kind of transgression inadequate. Their symbolic function has been pre-empted. Such gestures are immediately recuperated into its intellectually hazy brand of ‘relativism’―merely a euphemism, when so employed, for its abdication of ethical responsibility, whose fruits it nonetheless continues to collect. The artistic ‘production’ can no longer be effectively transgressive so long as it can somehow be consumed.

The same ‘Post-Modern’ logic also neutralizes any Ideology it encounters by obscuring it through a metadiscourse of ‘irony’. Even an explicit challenge to orthodoxy becomes atomized, circumscribed, packaged, and imported into the self-assured commercial and status-economy of the institutional infrastructure. Anti-Institutional gestures end up published by Phaidon. This is why it has been possible for this system to discuss, to varying degrees and with staggering distortion, the productions and ideologies of Dada, Surrealism, Fluxus, etc.

But the creative sociality developed in these and other collective efforts cannot be recuperated in this way; they are not symbolic of a dissenting stance, but rather constitute a tangible, practical structural threat. The sustained existence of a non-mediated or self-mediated community makes the functioning of a stabilized commercial infrastructure literally impossible, by removing the very conditions in which a controlled and centralized discourse can operate. This is why mainstream history and historiography―always instruments of subtle propaganda―have attempted to ignore and bury it.

Radically new and productive modes of sociality have always continued to develop―e.g. Mail Art, heteronyms, virtual and mythic projects, countless new forms of international cooperation on every level enabled by technological development (at least in more privileged nations)―and forms of collectivity inherited from earlier generations continue to be developed, amended, and expanded, in both local and international configurations. Nonetheless, much of the discourse coming from within or occurring between dissenting communities continues to focus almost exclusively on transgressive forms and ideology, thereby limiting the revolutionary potential of the practice of the creative re-structuring of interpersonal relationships, which in underlies the production and the thought of dissenting communities. It also effectively limits the applicability of this discourse, constraining it (as the institution also does) within the social and conceptual boundaries of High Art.

We must recognize that the frontier between ‘life’ and ‘art’ has largely shifted to the level of structure rather than ideology.

Without abandoning ANY of this discourse then, we must begin to articulate explicitly and in detail that what is at stake are not merely new forms of making, but new forms of living, thinking, and relating. We must examine the various strategies of socialization that have been adopted, their successes and failures, and we must explicitly address these issues among and between communities continuing these struggles and explorations. Only by forcefully establishing and maintaining rigorous and strategic alternate historiographies to combat the subtle propagandists of the commercial Institution can we locate and attack the governing structures themselves which support that orthodoxy, recover the significance of creative activity itself (which would cease to be ‘production’ and ‘consumption’), and begin the definitive erosion that constrains the potential compass of our various developments within a bounded ‘subculture’ of educational elites, while the rest of our society withers and contaminates the rest of the world with the poison leaking from it. We must collectively strategize, both within and between the various communities involved in this heteroclite struggle. Our collective strategizing and our strategies of collective action must constantly reinforce and develop each other. Only in this way can we dissolve the foundations of this particular avatar of Power, and deny it the opportunity to rebuild.

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