Critical Artistic Practices
The well-known political theorist Chantal Mouffe has known Baddy Dolly Jane and her actions for many years. Mouffe speaks of the political dimension in the arts and the aesthetic dimension in politics. Exclusively for the Baddyforum International, she describes her agonistic approach to artistic practices as criticism and depicts such notions as “critical art” and their importance for society.
»AN AGONISTIC APPROACH«
The central question that artists aiming at challenging the status-quo should ask is the following: how can artistic practices still play a critical role in societies in which every critical gesture is quickly recuperated and neutralized by the dominant powers? There is currently an important debate around this issue and a wide disagreement about the answer. There are those who argue that we are witnessing a ‘vaporization of art’, an aesthetization of all the forms of our existence. They declare that aesthetics has triumphed in all the realms and that the effect of this triumph has been the creation of a hedonistic culture where there is no place any more for art to provide any truly subversive experience. The blurring of the lines between art and advertizing is such that the idea of critical public spaces has lost its meaning, since we are now living in societies where even the public has become privatized.
In a similar vein, some theorists, reflecting on the growth of the global culture industry, claim that Adorno and Horkheimer’s worst nightmares have become true. The production of symbols is now a central goal of capitalism and through the development of the creative industries, individuals have become totally subjugated to the control of capital. Not only consumers but cultural producers too are prisoners of the culture industry dominated by the media and entertainment corporations and they have been transformed into passive functions of the capitalist system. Here, again, the possibility of an effective critique in a range of public spaces seems to have disappeared.
Fortunately this pessimistic diagnostic is not shared by everybody and we find several theorists who claim that the analysis of Adorno and Horkheimer, based as it is on the fordist model, does no longer provide a useful guide to examining the new forms of production which have become dominant in the current post-fordist mode of capitalist regulation. They argue that those new forms of production allow for new types of resistance and a revitalization of the emancipatory project to which artistic practices could make a decisive contribution.
I would like to intervene in this debate with some reflections about the way to envisage the politics of artistic practices from the agonistic perspective that I have developed in my work. However, I need to clarify at the outset that I do not see art and politics in terms of two separately constituted fields, art on one side and politics on the other, between which a relation would need to be established. There is an aesthetic dimension in the political and there is a political dimension in art. From the point of view of the theory of hegemony that informs my approach, artistic practices play a role in the constitution and maintenance of a given symbolic order – or in its challenging – and this is why they necessarily have a political dimension. The political, for its part, concerns the symbolic ordering of social relations, what Claude Lefort calls ‘the mise en scène’, ‘the mise en forme’ of human coexistence and therein lies its aesthetic dimension. This is why I consider that it is not useful to make a distinction between political and non-political art. Instead of speaking of political art, we should rather speak of critical art.
From the agonistic perspective, the enquiry about the possible forms of critical art refers to the way in which artistic practices could contribute to questioning the dominant hegemony. In addressing this question, my starting point is that identities are never pre-given but that they are always the result of processes of identification and that they are discursively constructed. This is why the question to ask concerns the type of identity that critical artistic practices should aim at fostering. To adequately answer this question, we need to grasp the nature of the present conjuncture. Today’s capitalism relies increasingly on semiotic techniques in order to create the modes of subjectivation which are necessary for its reproduction. In modern production, the control of the souls (Foucault) plays a strategic role in governing affects and passions. The forms of exploitation characteristic of the times when manual labor was dominant have been replaced by new ones which require constantly creating new needs and an incessant desire for the acquisition of goods. Hence the crucial role played by advertising in our consumers’s societies. It is in fact the construction of the very identity of the consumer which is at stake in the techniques of advertising. Those techniques are not limited to promoting specific products but they aim at producing fantasy worlds with which the consumers of goods will identify. Indeed, nowadays to buy something is to enter into a specific world, to become part of an imagined community. To maintain its hegemony, the neo-liberal system needs to permanently mobilize people’s desires and shape their identities. Counter-hegemonic politics need to engage with this terrain so as to foster other forms of identification. This is why the cultural domain occupies such a strategic place today. To be sure, the realm of culture has always played an important role in hegemonic politics, but in the times of post-fordist production this role has become absolutely crucial.
According to the agonistic approach, critical art is art that foments dissensus. It is constituted by manifold artistic practices, whose objective should be the transformation of political identities by the creation of new practices and languages games that will mobilize affects in a way that allows for the disarticulation of the framework in which current forms of identification are taking place, so as to allow for other forms of identifications to emerge. Critical artistic practices should contribute to the development of agonistic public spaces where the dominant hegemony would be questioned by giving a voice to all those who are silenced within the framework of the existing hegemony.
I would like to stress that to construct oppositional identities it is not enough to simply foster a process of ‘de-identification’ or ‘de-individualization’. The second move, the moment of ‘re-identification’, of ‘re-individualization’ is crucial. To insist only on the first move is in fact to remain trapped in a problematic that sees the negative moment as being sufficient, on its own, to bring about something positive, as if new subjectivities were already there, ready to emerge when the weight of the dominant ideology was lifted. Such a view, which informs many forms of critical art, fails to come to terms with the nature of the hegemonic struggle and the complex process of construction of identities. It is also important not to envisage this struggle as the displacement of a supposedly false consciousness that would reveal the true reality. Such a perspective is completely at odds with the anti-essentialist premises of the theory of hegemony, which rejects the very idea of a ‘true consciousness’ and asserts that identities are always the result of processes of identification. It is through insertion into a variety of practices, discourses and languages games that specific forms of individualities are constructed. This is why the transformation of political identities cannot consist in a rationalist appeal to the true interest of the subject, but rather in its insertion into practices that will mobilize its affects towards the disarticulation of the framework in which the process of identification is taking place, thereby opening the way for other forms of identification.
I am convinced that cultural and artistic practices could play an important role in the agonistic struggle because they are a privileged terrain for the mobilization of affects and the construction of new subjectivities. To revitalize democracy in our post-political societies, what is urgently needed is to foster the multiplication of agonistic public spaces where everything that the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate can be brought to light and challenged. What needs to be relinquished is the idea that to be political requires making a total break with the existing state of affairs in order to create something absolutely new. This is why some people claim that it is not possible any more today for art to play a critical role, because it is always recuperated and neutralized. We find a similar problem with those who believe that radicality means transgression and that the more transgressive practices are, the more radical they are. When they realize that there is no transgression that cannot be recuperated, they also conclude that art cannot play a critical political role any more. Another mistake consists in envisaging critical art in moralistic terms, seeing its role as one of moral condemnation. Given that we find ourselves nowadays in a condition where there are no generally agreed criteria to judge art productions any more, there is a marked tendency to replace aesthetic judgments by moral ones, pretending that those moral judgments are also political ones. In my view all those approaches are in fact anti-political, because they are unable to grasp the specificity of the hegemonic struggle. On the contrary, according to the hegemonic approach that I have been delineating, it becomes possible to understand the crucial place of the cultural dimension and how artists can play an important role in subverting the dominant hegemony. ■