Just Give Me the Truth: a Philistine’s Guide to Public Art

Just Give Me the Truth: a Philistine’s Guide to Public Art
Catalogue essay for Freee Art Collective
International Project Space, Bournville

Just Give Me the Truth:
A Philistine’s Guide to Public Art

When Theodor Adorno said, famously, that philosophy lives on because the moment of its realisation was missed, this was not a call for melancholic reflection nor nostalgia for a different political moment; rather, this was an indication of work to be done.1 Philosophy only exists within the co-ordinates of a particular society: it’s true task is to draw out the hidden contradictions and impossibilities inherent within the social formation in which it finds itself. For Adorno, a negative conception of society is not a kind of conspiracy theory of how things have gone wrong but rather an insistence upon how the mode of production of a society constrains and excludes possibilities in unexpected ways.

Art, too, lives on because the moment of its realisation was missed. Which is to say, with art, too, there is work to be done. The name for this missed opportunity is the avant-garde. If the avant-garde seems unthinkable today, it is a sign of how far art and politics have been prized apart; of how improbable the idea of a truly transformatory practice now seems. When the separation of art from everything else is so entrenched in practice, despite the many uses artist make of the everyday; which is to say when the idea of the market has thoroughly penetrated cultural production, the thought that art could undergo some thorough transformation within society is somewhat alien. Of all the choices the market offers, the abolition of the market as the model of choice is not one.

The Freee Art Collective aim to take up the unfinished work of the avant-garde, however unfashionable and against the current image of art this may be. In relation to our relativist and pluralistic times, the avant-garde offers other, critical criteria for art practice. Indeed, at a time when collaboration in art is all the rage, to be a collective is to place oneselves in a different history. In the broadest sense, the work of the avant-garde is to think the social, the political and art simultaneously. This is to think of art as political in terms of its acts, in terms of the agency of artists, rather than in terms of either the form or content of works. If, following Jameson,2 we think of the truth of modernism not as one or other side of a division (for example, so-called high art or so-called mass culture; or etc.) but rather the fact of division itself, then the avant-garde is the name for those practices which aimed at the dialectical transformation of the state of division. It is the wager of the Freee Art Collective that this continues to be the most urgent problem that confronts art.

‘When is the public not a public?’ asks the comedian Norman Collier rhetorically, delivering a stand up routine written by the Freee Art Collective for a recent work ‘Have You Heard the one about the Public Sphere?’; ‘When it’s a market,’ is the anti-climatic punch line. For the Freee Art Collective, as for Adorno, the market affects everything in its drive to bring all things into relations of equivalence. Today, it seems, everything in art goes without saying. That is, an unprecedented variety of techniques and practices constitute the current settlement of art. And this is a condition of the market driving out older, archaic notions of distinction and taste within culture. As such, the freedom of the market has been a condition of a lot of good art. However, if the market was the great revolutionary motor of capitalism, unleashing its powerful productive forces in all areas of life, this particular form of freedom relentlessly stops other forms of freedom developing. The freedom of the market, with its embrace of tolerance and difference, comes at a price for art, as it does for society in general: the other is tolerated as long as it does not get too close to a certain limit; as long as it does not call into question the basic co-ordinates of those who preach tolerance and difference; or, to put it another way, as long as the sanctity of the market goes unquestioned. The other is tolerated to the degree to which it is the same. And what is repressed by this promotion of diversity and equivalence is not only the violent intolerance towards those who oppose this idea of tolerance but also any critical, as opposed to relativist, conception of truth. And what is finally absent is the possibility of change that might follow from the pursuit of truth.

These conditions are addressed in their recent, eerily familiar3, Manifesto for a Counter-Hegemonic Art.4 Global capital, which everywhere promulgates a cultural consumerism, draws every area of cultural life into relations of equivalence and exchange. In culture, anything is tolerated that can have the logic of the market applied to it: a logic that dissolves and reforms all social relations. As the Freee Art Collective put it: ‘The bourgeois public sphere, debased as spectacle, keeps more and more doing away with the scattered state of local culture, of the multiple centres of lived culture, and of provincialism.’ As contemporary art spreads around the world, as the accomplice of global capital, and penetrates every province as fully as every metropolis, art becomes international and standardised in the very form of shifting diversity and newness. In these circumstances, cultural hegemony operates not through exclusion but inclusion. Thus, today, any would be revolutionary art must address the conditions of cultural legitimacy per se: the conditions which aim to make the very idea of an art of truth unthinkable. It is in relation to such a project that the work of the Freee Art Collective must be placed. And the point from which to address cultural legitimacy is from that which, by necessity, cannot be brought into relations of equivalence, which cannot be included: from a philistine point of view.

The work to be done that confronts the Freee Art Collective is that of how to respond to the specificities of our own situation. What are the particular negations operative in the current hegemony of art? What are the conditions for, and function of, the ‘debased bourgeois public sphere’ within the current, global conditions of capital?

Badiou has described the short twentieth century as the century of the passion of the real, of the act.5 This is inaugurated by the October revolution; the figure, the name, that seals this moment is Lenin. For Lenin, revolutionary action was all about breaking through the debilitating absences and impossibilities that continually postponed the right moment for changing things. If the nineteenth century had been the time of romantic failure and painful defeat, this was to be the time of redemption, of radical transformation. Today, from within the hegemonic co-ordinates of liberal democracy and global capitalism, this passion for the real is presented as naÔve and utopian. It is the business of liberal democracy to try to associate radical emancipatory politics, however well intentioned, with a telos that leads straight to the gulag and despotism. In framing politics as the choice between the acceptance of multiculturalism or the embrace of bigotry, liberal democracy circumvents the possibility of radical change. In positing an equivalence between all workers, multiculturalism is the gloss on the global workforce needed by contemporary, global capital. Multiculturalism needs to be opposed by a politics of truth, which is to say a politics of class. Against the self-image of the hegemon as the carrier of universal values, it is, rather, always the remainder, the exception, that with no place, which is the truth of the hegemonic structure in question; which is the true universal.

Truth is always partisan: it cuts through the equivocations of representing all sides of an argument. For Marx, the proletariat is the truth of capitalism precisely because the proletariat is both the condition for bourgeois society and that which is excluded from it. Bourgeois claims to Universal values are false because they are founded on what they exclude. It is, in fact, the necessary exception that stands for the whole structure, that is the place of the true Universal. The Free Art Collective identify a parallel structure in culture: the claims to Universal values in our present culture are founded in the exclusion of the philistine. In culture, the philistine is the true Universal: the carrier of the truth of division within culture. The realisation that culture is founded in division and the subsequent conclusion that any art practice worth its salt will attempt to transform these divisions are staple commitments of the avant-garde. It is these commitments that the Freee Art Collective are trying to reinvigorate in today’s circumstances.

In art, too, the revolution starts in 1917. The Dada assault on Art should be understood, precisely, as an attempt at the revolutionary transformation of Art. In the same way that Leninist politics is an anti-politics, outside the law, refusing the existing possibilities of political action, Dada is anti-Art in that it refuses the existing possibilities for artistic practice. In both cases, the existing situation is understood and defined by what is absent from it; supposedly positive traits are, in effect, means of forestalling and blocking other possibilities. The two dominant accounts of Dada fail to notice this. For the Old Art History, Dada is a nihilistic rage against the senseless destruction of war and a world gone mad; for the New Art History, Dada turns out to have been a set of innovative techniques and practice all along. In both cases, it is presupposed that Art is the totality of its positive characteristics and Dada is defined in relation to this positivity. To grasp the truly revolutionary nature of Dada, one must understand that Dada begins from a conception of Art as something overwhelmingly negative and lacking. Dada’s violence is neither the nihilistic destruction of positive things nor the forging of radical new means; rather, it is the revolutionary attempt to clear away the habitual techniques, discourses and practices of Art precisely because repression resides in these forms themselves.

It is only with hindsight that 1917 appears as a year rich in revolutionary possibilities. At the time, revolutionary politics was in retreat in the face of nationalism and the end of the progressive narrative of the nineteenth century. In Art, modernist painting and sculpture had obtained an hegemonic place in bourgeois culture, the cutting edge of which was the technical politeness of Cubism. The lesson to be learned is that the revolutionary moment does not come on a plate: always it must be seized from the most unpromising of conditions.

The Freee Art Collective, faced with our own apparently unpromising times, aim to practice what they call a counter-hegemonic art. In bringing together the ideas of hegemony and art, they aim to reinvigorate the idea of Art as negative, absence or lack. Today, art is not the same as it was in 1917 and nor is capitalism. Indeed, the weapons that Dada used to attack the contemporaneous hegemonic ideas of art are now part of the hegemonic process itself. Readymades, chance, group actions, performance, confrontation, destruction and so on are all quite normal techniques at the disposal of contemporary artists. This is, of course, a sign of Dada’s revolutionary success, as well as of its failure. Nevertheless, the Freee Art Collective are reinventing the revolutionary tradition of Dada in at least three ways: 1) the conception of art in terms of what is absent from it; 2) in the commitment to changing art, not from within the present co-ordinates of art but in terms of what the co-ordinates of art are; and 3) in the realisation that this can only be done collectively.

The Freee Art Collective also share with Dada an emphasis on the performative. Dada was more concerned with such things as outings, events, performances and magazines than producing what might be called finished works. This was a commitment not only to being present, but to the present. In many of the works of the Freee Art Collective, the members of the collective speak their words or quite literally stand by their words. And in other works, it is obvious that words have been placed temporarily in situ: that their presence is a fleeting act. With such acts, the temporality of the performative is a way of being commited to the words on display, to the truth spoken.

The other historical reference for the Freee Art Collective is historical Conceptual Art, the other great revolutionary moment of art in the twentieth century. Conceptual Art begins from the realisation that language is not an appendage to art but a condition for art. The use of language is then a confrontation with, and interrogation of, what was unspoken in art, of what was everywhere taken for granted. This questioning of the constitution of art and of what it was that an artist could do, was a philistine confrontation. Once again, Art was experienced as an impasse: a set of absences and negations of possibility. The work of the radical wing of Conceptual Art was the attempted negation of this negation: philistine work. Like Dada, Conceptual Art suffers from its success as well as its failure; pretty quickly the positivists got to work, converting weapons of negation into positive objects: for example, the “dematerialised art object” still relies on a positive conception of Art, as does the idea of ‘words’ as a new medium. In contrast, the best conceptual artists were not concerned with making art because making art did not seem to be the best thing an artist could be doing.

The way that the Freee Art Collective use language is in the radical, questioning, non-art, philistine way of historical Conceptual Art. Their project is to give voice to the truth and in so doing to take sides. If their words sound somehow old-fashioned in their unequivocal directness, it is because we have become so accustomed to artist’s words being served with irony, whimsy or displacement. In the series of billboard works that address the functions of public art, a simple text printed on a plain colour background proclaims a philistine truth: for example, the truth that “The economic function of public art is to increase the value of private property.” These truths are philistine in two ways: firstly, they have no concern with qualifications, compromises or other points of view; and secondly, they bring into art considerations that are excluded within the current cultural hegemony. So, whereas Conceptual Art used language to interrogate the micro conditions of the ontology of art within art’s existing institutions and the language used in the constitution of the art object, the Freee Art Collective interrogate the macro conditions of culture directly, operating in what they call the bourgeois public sphere.

So-called Public Art is often taken to be a point of exception, if not an oxymoron, where an otherwise autonomous art allows itself to come under the sway of social determinants. If we hear little about autonomy these days, it is a sign of how much the autonomy of the market is taken for granted in art, as elsewhere. For the Freee Art Collective, this is an inversion of the truth: it is only with so-called Public Art that the true social determinants of art become visible and in relation to which the supposed autonomy of art can be seen to be illusory. In other words, the Freee Art Collective aim to instigate a philistine reversal, in which Public Art is seen as the primary condition of art and non-Public Art becomes the anomaly or exception.

The Free Art Collective use public space as the grounds or necessary condition for their work. For them, it is axiomatic that public space is problematic and historically constructed: public space is not a neutral backdrop but both an active agent in engineering social relations and a site of contestation. This is why they call it ‘the bourgeois public sphere:’ to emphasise that space, as much as the idea of the public, is constructed by class interests. It is in relation to the false Universal of public space, that the Freee Art Collective deploy philistine truths. Statements such as “The institutions and spaces of liberal democracy were built for us all in the image of wealthy heterosexual white men” have no truck with the carefully weighed, fair-minded presentation of different points of view: against a nuanced politics of representation and recognition they offer a blunt, philistine truth. The means they use to address the bourgeois public sphere are various and ad hoc in the sense of using whatever means might allow the truth to be read or heard against the grain of cultural hegemony. Much of the work is photographic or video documentation of texts being held, unfurled or placed in the public sphere. Some videos are interviews with working people in the public sphere about the public sphere. Other videos document texts about the public sphere being read, or otherwise assembled, elsewhere. In one video work, the comedian Norman Collier uses his famous broken microphone routine in attempting to make a public announcement about the debasement of the public sphere, using the interruption of the smooth comic routine to dramatise, with humour, the attempt of the Freee Art Collective to interrupt the smooth functioning of cultural hegemony within the public sphere. In another work, the words “protest is beautiful” are made out of flowers, in a short circuit of the separation of aesthetics from utilitarian politics. The importance of these works is not in the scrutiny of their particularities but in the constellation they form; a constellation which is the ongoing project of the Freee Art Collective: a strategy of truth saying.

1. Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1966; Routledge, London, 1973/2000, p.3
2. See Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity, Verso, London, 2002
3. See Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto.
4. Available from the Freee Art Collective website: http://www.freee.org.uk
5. Alain Badiou, One Divides Itself into Two, in Sebastian Budgen, Stathis Kouvelakis and Slavoj Zizek (ed.s), Lenin Reloaded: Towards a Politics of Truth, Duke University Press, 2007