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Autonomy, Antagonism and the Aesthetic and The Social Turn






San Diego-based Professor of Art History Grant Kester crafted a magnum opus of an essay on the grand sweep of sociological connotations of art across several eras and cultures with Autonomy, Antagonism, and the Aesthetic, the initial chapter to the 2011 book The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context. Invoking quotations and wisdom from a diverse ensemble of individuals ranging from the 4th century AD Roman church father St Augustine of Hippo to Russian Jewish art theorist El Lissitzky [1890-1941] and German Enlightenment philosopher and writer Friedrich Schiller [1759-1805], the intended scope is transoceanic. I would argue that a key conclusion Kester seems to work towards is that the environment into which art is conditioned and created - outside of traditional salon painting or other works under contract that must represent the accepted narrative and aspirations of the prevailing culture – is fundamental to both individual and collaborative artistic practice, whatever those cultural mores may be. In his own words; "individual utterance, action, or ideation can only ever be treated as a symptom of some deeper structuring logic."

Cambridge-educated art historian and author Claire Bishop initiates her highly praised 2012 book Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship with the first The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents. This chapter in weighty enough to be taken standalone independent from the remainder of the book. While many themes and ideas are in line with Kester – and he is even quoted and sourced – Bishop pays closer heed to the roles of governments, particularly the policies of the British and Dutch governments, as they relate to art. Internal British political/economic discord is referenced, particularly the 1984 The Battle of Orgreave riots and civil disorder initiated by steel workers – and for which Bishop goes so far as to describe the confrontations as “metapolitical”. 2001, University of Sussex-educated conceptual and performance artist Jeremy Deller created a detailed reinactment of the Battle of Orgreave on camera, with filmmaker Mike Figgis. It is perhaps worth considering that the differing perceptions and assumed relevance of these events gives support to the metaphorical overall book title – Artificial Hells.

Perhaps another artificial hell is the concern that Kester appears to have about the possible future, reductuve use or even abuse of art. He writes of a detachment required: "... detachment is necessary because art is in danger of being subsumed to the condition of consumer culture, propaganda, or "entertainment" (cultural forms predicated on immersion rather than a recondite critical distance).” But with that requirement for distance, there is always perhaps unhealthy extremes - Kester notes Santiago Sierra's Wall Enclosing a Space that appeared in the Spanish section of the 2003 Venice Biennale was restricted to only those who could demonstrate Spanish citizenship!
Citing examples like the Ala Plástica project in Argentina, Kester appears to believe that collaborative art is a very reliable, largely pure medium to express art within a structure outside of that demanded from the modern “salon” or commercialised. He writes: "I would argue that some of the most challenging new collaborative art projects are located on a continuum with forms of cultural activism, rather than being defined in hard-and-fast opposition to them.”


But just as a reaction to the fear of art practice being overwhelmed by consumer culture is understandable, reacting to harshly could be just as dangeous. Kester writes: “On the one hand this autonomy is necessary in order to achieve an adjudicatory distance from dominant cultural, social, and political values (already here we are collapsing any distinction between “dominant” values that are imposed on a given social system and those values that evolve consensually). At the same time, autonomy implies a relationship of segregation or exclusion. It is this second connotation that fuels hygienic criticism: the defensive fear of affiliations or interconnections with contaminated or impure realms (and the corollary assumption that all forms of cultural production within modernity, aside from the arts, are complicit with, or symptomatic of, a repressive social order). The persistence of this fear among critics, curators, and artists is understandable. An antagonistic relationship to the viewer and a defensive relationship to other domains of cultural practice are written into the very DNA of modernist art.”

Claire Bishop also had observations on maintaining delicate balance – albeit in the practical, with regard to the potential for conflict an artist has in compromises they may feel they have to make to maintain themselves, versus having no resources to pursue an art practice at all. She writes: “Of course, at this point there is usually the objection that artists who end up exhibiting their work in galleries and museums compromise their projects’ social and political aspirations; the purer position is not to engage in the commercial field at all, even if this means losing audiences. Not only is the gallery thought to invite a passive mode of reception (compared to the active co- production of collaborative art), but it also reinforces the hierarchies of elite culture.”


Comparison Notes

  • Claire Bishop's work is contains far more political analysis – in how governments sustain non-commercial art financially and some of their planning, and protests that became political issues coming to inspire events which in turn inspire civil disorder.


  • Kester is more focused on finding the very core building blocks of expressions, practice and reception of art.


  • In terms of collaborative art, both appear to have very similar notions, and it is clear that collaborative art converges with the political, and in this Kester and Bishop intellectually “shake hands”.

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