Brian Holmes on Sat, 31 Aug 2002 16:05:57 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Freedom and Documentary

Just for a change I've been reading Pierre Bourdieu, whose mere name 
makes many good people's hair stand on end. Inevitably his work leads 
someone like myself to ask the old question of free will and 
determinism, in relation to art. This seems to have some bearing on 
our nettime debates over Documenta, over documentary, and over the 
eternal alternative: Is it art? Or is it just bad politics?

Bourdieu's angle on this is historical: he points to a change in what 
he calls the artistic field. The relevant passage from the book 
"Reponses" (dunno the English title) is this:

"Completing a process that began with the Quattrocento, the artistic 
field attains autonomy in the late nineteenth century: it is 
completely freed of commissions and commissioners, it produces its 
own market... But today we see the reappearance of patrons, whether 
private or public, of direct dependency, and the idea of a linear 
process of autonomization is brought into question.... Thus we 
discover that the autonomy acquired by artists, who were originally 
subservient in regard to the form and content of their works, in fact 
implied a submission to necessity: artists made a virtue of necessity 
by claiming absolute mastery over form, but at the price of an 
equally absolute renunciation of function. As soon as they want to 
exercise a function again, particularly a critical function, they 
rediscover the limits of their autonomy."

Bourdieu is saying that artists won substantial freedom over their 
own material practice by giving up any claim to directly influence 
the shape and evolution of fields outside their own: and one could 
support that view by pointing to the withdrawal of modern artists 
from architectural decoration, the most obvious field in which art 
lends form to effective social power. This retreat from unequivocal 
public influence spanned most of the twentieth century, and finally 
made art's provisional "autonomy" seem natural. While the market for 
artistic objects - painting and sculpture - still existed and while 
the criteria of value remained under the control of vanguard circles, 
the exaltation of formal freedom did have the solid payback of 
holding all kinds of social determinisms at bay (at least you didn't 
have to go out and paint the priest's, aristocrat's or capitalist's 
house). But today the market has been overtaken by speculation, with 
a transnational gallery-media-museum system legitimating the prices, 
at least since the time of Bonito Oliva's "Transavantgarde"; and 
although the majority of younger artists have rightly fled this 
rigged market (particularly because it collapsed  in the early 
nineties), they now find themselves very closely dependent on the 
favors of the arts bureaucracy (i.e. curators), or worse, on 
corporate patrons. Thus you get a typical phenomenon like the "New 
British Art," where the corporate ad-man Saatchi promotes and 
speculates on a group of artists who, at the same time, just to 
survive, also have to make a populist pitch to their bureaucratic 
tutors, offering them "spectacular" fare which promises to 
"democratize" museums by increasing the number of visitors (cf. 
Julian Stallbrass's devastating analysis of this, in "High Art 
Light"). Or you get, for a few years anyway, the vogue of, 
with the public sector fawning over any computer-toting geek who can 
bring in Sony money and make the museum look up-to-date (i.e. 
"wired"). Under this state of affairs, the notion of art's autonomy, 
of its divorce from any immediate social reality, of its personal 
enigmas and its diffuse, spiritual effect only on the future and 
never on the present, does look just a wee bit nostalgic. And by the 
same token, the attack on any kind of art which does try to claim a 
critical function does look like a knee-jerk response, generally 
offered sight unseen, from people who are trying to maintain their 
specific positions within what they perceive as the mainstream of 
their field. Just to name names among our fellow listers, Joseph 
Nechvatal, the cosmic computer-painter, fits in pretty well here.

But what if the mainstream of the field were in fact to change? What 
if it were changing right now, under the influence of the last two 
Documentas, as Odili Donald Odita seems to think? Bourdieu's position 
on that possibility is really disabused (but that's the whole point 
of course: the shock value of sociology is always to disenchant, 
that's what such people are good at). So let's see what the old 'dieu 
says, again in "Reponses":

"Revolutions in art result from the transformation of the power 
relations constituting the space of artistic positions, a 
transformation which itself is rendered possible by a coincidence 
between the subversive intentions of a fraction of the producers and 
the expectations of a fraction of their public, i.e. by a 
transformation of the relations between the intellectual field and 
the field of power."

Now, first I read that and I thought, Oh, wow, he agrees with me that 
the subversive desire of the public opens up space for more radical 
producers. You know, the continuous creation of "public space," of a 
"critical public sphere." But no, that's nowhere near disabused 
enough for old Uncle Pierre, as the final clause of the sentence 
more-or-less forces you to realize. What he means by "public" is that 
a fraction of _those in power_ expect that they may be able to 
instrumentalize the subversive intentions of a fraction of the 
cultural producers who perform tricks for them. Now that, I think, is 
exactly what's been going on with the recent Documentas - which is in 
no way to minimize their importance, or to entirely cancel out the 
other, slightly less dismal understanding of the word "public."

Just ask yourself the question: Why did the people who run what used 
to be the ideological set-piece of so-called "Western art," created 
during the Cold War less than fifty kilometers from the East German 
border with the transparent intention of exalting the subjective 
freedoms of contentless abstraction in the face of socialist realism, 
suddenly up and decide to pick as curator, first a French woman with 
a lingering Marxist mentality and a strong interest in Brazil, then a 
Nigerian man with an investment in post-colonial theory and 
historiography? Could the reason be traced to the contemplation of 
artistic enigmas and the mystical sense of their possible diffuse 
spiritual influence, visible retrospectively from some happier 
future? Hmm, even without Bourdieu's help I beg to doubt it. The more 
likely explanation is that "the field of power" - in this case, the 
managers and funders of the show - saw that the first post-89 
edition, curated by in '92 by the Belgian Jan Hoet, a chic, friendly 
and mildly patronizing art-world type with "good taste" and a 
willingness to have fun without rocking the boat, was perceived 
within the artistic field as a flop. Just more and more of the same, 
looking paunchy and overprivileged. How then could Documenta remain 
at the cutting edge? If the Cold War was over, shouldn't the flagship 
"Western" exhibition now somehow engage with globalization? Did not 
that first entail finding out something about what globalization is 
(Catherine David's highly intellectual show), then diving right into 
and producing its multicultural legitimacy by - gasp - actually 
_exhibiting_ a whole slew of living artists from outside Germany, 
England, Italy and America - people who've never made the cover of 
Flash Art or Artforum????

Yup, that's what they thought and that's what they did, imho. And to 
see it that way places you squarely within the fields of complexity 
where the great artistic experiment of creating new possibilities of 
values and attitudes - what Nietzsche called "the transvaluation of 
all values" - actually and pragmatically takes place. You have people 
whose radicality is also a chance for career advancement, being 
instrumentalized and trying to instrumentalize other people who want 
to add legitimacy to a globalizing society that is facing a 
groundswell of critique, because of its obvious contradictions. And, 
just to quote the title of one of the key texts in the catalogue of 
Doc X, what's the most obvious contradiction of "A Borderless World"? 
The persistance and reinstatement of borders of course, for 
unfortunate people unaccompanied by salable goods or financial 
instruments. Isn't it then inevitable that the radical producers 
would tend to concentrate on precisely this theme - to the discomfort 
of those within or adjacent to the "field of power"?

If the works in Documenta 11 make the transgressive step of trying to 
claim a critical function, I would say, in general terms, that this 
critical function consists in bearing documentary witness to the 
hard, objective operations of the power of exclusion - and the 
related power of normalization - from a subjective, artistic 
viewpoint, where the sensual and seductive experience of aesthetic 
pleasure constantly recalls the fragility of our flesh and 
sensibilities before that objective power. The attempt at a 
transvaluation of artistic values takes form in this combination of 
unflinching documentary witnessing with lush and rhythmic imagery 
(look at Steve McQueen's works, or Zarina Bhimji's film on the 
decaying prisons and military architecture of Idi Amin's regime, or 
the scene of the ritual closing of the Indo-Pak border in Amar 
Kanwar's philosophical documentary - and the list could go on). In 
this context, the question that interests me is: When does the 
spectator of such works become an actor? Or to put it another way: 
How long can the strict border between artistic representation and 
sociopolitical intervention be maintained?

This is why I find it so significant that the No-Border movement - at 
the time known better as "Kein Mensch is illegal" - should actually 
have first taken form in a relatively unsurveilled corner of 
Documenta X, the so-called Hybrid Workspace; that it should have come 
back to haunt D 11 in the form of a visit from the Publix Theater 
Caravan bus; and that the bus should have been driven off the 
premisses, not precisely by the curators, but by a manager-type 
flanked by local police (an event which, by the way, was both 
enraging and unutterably funny: the Publix Theater people gave the 
manager and the chief cop some subversive no-border tracts called 
"Refuse the Biopolice," which they, in their relative embarassement, 
proceeded to roll up and use as batons to gesticulate with militarily 
as the PA system of the bus blared out: "Thank you, thank you to the 
German police for this lovely performance, thank you...").

Now the point of all this - which is obviously the question of 
freedom in the face of social determinism - does not just come down 
to heroicizing the anarchists in the bus and vilifying the would-be 
radicals cringing with their managers in the museum. You have to know 
that other people from the No Border Network decided to organize a 
sixth "platform" (completing the five platforms organized officially, 
all over the world, by D11). They held it right there on the lawn in 
front of the Fridericianum, in solidarity (and apparently in direct 
collaboration, Coco) with some Rom families who are currently under 
the threat of expulsion from their homes in Germany. And they did 
this, if my information is correct, with the support of at least one 
of the D11 co-curators, Uta Meta Bauer, who I do believe is something 
like a cultural producer with subversive intentions. Of course, it is 
very difficult for people like her (if it was really her) to tread 
the fine line that links them to and divides them from, on the one 
hand, the broader "public" of artistic and cultural producers (who 
would in fact vilify them if they chose to be entirely incoherent 
with their own passions and principles) and then, on the other side 
of the line, their "public" funders and bosses in the field of power, 
who will of course fire them and blackball them if they are unable to 
prove, each time, that the very legitimacy of our social institutions 
is at stake when a more-or-less unruly crowd of mad and delinquant 
people want to pass out tracts and spend the night on the museum lawn.

This is what being in the art field is like these days: because art 
still matters to the public. The politics of art in democracies 
always comes down to an imaginary and real struggle between people 
with differing ideas of what is public. And the point is not just to 
tread the fine line until your promising career falls radically off a 
cliff. The point is to actually change things, in your own field and 
in the way that field relates to the "field of power." This is a game 
that is played collectively, by individuals - it puts you in some 
interesting situations. And so one of the recent questions, and I 
think a major one in the attempt to reclaim a critical function for 
art, while transforming the very values that shape our existence, has 
quite simply been: How, why and when do you join "the delinquants out 
on the lawn," or out in the street? And another is: How much do you 
enjoy the sting of the tear gas, and the sensuality of the night air? 
And yet another is: How do you explain your own so-called 
delinquancy, or your own so-called reformism - "in public"?

Brian Holmes

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