Just Leaving and Other Ways of Saying Goodbye
Notes on Disengagement
Abstract: This series of articles has covered engagement. But what about disengagement? In other words, once a commitment has been made and a practice has been conducted, how does an artist ‘quit’ it? This article looks at some key considerations that make moral evaluation of engaged practices possible. In thinking through these evaluations, we come across a set of methods of disengagement that rethink the relation engaged practices have to ethical judgement.
Once an artist has found a way to enter a certain topic or field of work, something special happens. If the act the artist performs is received as a success, leaving and finding another ‘project’ is thought of somewhat as a shame, or at the very least a missed chance. This is because the artist has found an authentic fingerprint so full of potential that it is seen a blunder not to stick to it, and also because the art market builds value on the stable production of coherent aesthetics—not to mention the personal satisfaction being successfully received brings. Above all, a lifelong sameness is most profitable because one can calculate and speculate with a reasonable risk, which might be why the more commercially minded artists who are regarded as ‘successful,’ such as Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons, tend to make editions in such high numbers.
This is to say that the expectancies of the persuasion of practice throughout a life of artistic production are explicitly interlinked with the realities in which they occur, which always ask something back from the artist. In a way, this mode of expected production coerces what the artist can and cannot do, or rather should and should not do. Theoretically, this distinction is mostly dichotomous, but in practice, the ought and is are diluted into each other, whereby one can appear as the other. However, if this artist is to break with a verified itinerary of practice, no moral judgement should be expected. The artist might only hear an existential affirmation: ‘Do whatever you please; you are the artist.’
This artist, so it seems, has no moral obligation to stick to the practice that everyone is so familiar with, nor to any of the specific artworks they are making. The artist can thus change their work at any point without any harsh consequences. Numerous examples, such as Picasso, can be found throughout art history, where artists manoeuvre through disciplines and genres and abandon various endeavours, marking moves throughout the itinerary of their oeuvre. Abandoned practices can even be regarded as lost treasures, although often post mortem, and obviously here a capitalist reality colonises a domain deprived of the potential of consent. If we are to extrapolate the structure of abandoning practices to engaged practices, something special happens that has not occurred in the aforementioned procedures of quitting: the formerly appreciated existential shifts so specific to the arts now become a moral act. As Rancière notes, ‘Politics and art today are increasingly submitted to moral judgement bearing on the validity of their principles and the consequences of their practices.’1 These principles or intentions—as well as the consequences of their commitment to those—become part of the oeuvre.
The cause of this ‘increase’ can be designated to many political contingencies, but it must at least be linked to the theoretical realisation of the intertwinement of practice with the world in which it takes place, and thus the failing of an old and excessively short-sighted dichotomy. Although we live in a hyper-individualised society, we are more conscious than ever of our intersectionality, which can indeed produce a nervous immobility, a consciousness of our intertwinement to everything and simultaneously nothing. Nevertheless, it repeatedly confronts us with the consequences of our own doing and often does so legitimately; but similarly, this moral consciousness points as often in the wrong directions.
If we turn to engaged practices with this case, the argument that I think underpins this increase of moral responsibility has to do with engaged practitioners posing to work with the social reality: it is not incidental or accidental; it is deliberate. For engaged practitioners, this means that once a commitment has been made, a certain relationality comes into play, which simultaneously coerces a responsibility towards being an actor in that social reality. Intentions here are somewhat in a straightforward dialectical relationship with consequences. However, the form might be more important, which is the intermediary between intention and consequence. The pivotal question in moral evaluation is indeed what sense of determination is pursued in linking intention with consequence. It is this determination that produces much of the moral response to engaged practices. Within our Western capitalist culture, it is expected that the engaged practitioner cannot ‘just’ retract from the endeavour once a commitment has been made. It is not unconditional, whereas aesthetic deviances could even be seen as some sort of ‘progress’ in other practices—specifically, because effect is singularly linked to cause; that is, of cause without chance and intentional cause.
This consideration is overly but oddly built on a moral plight binding the wellbeing of the subject to the effort of the artist, which does indeed invoke a hierarchy of agency, an appropriation. In other words, the artist has more of ‘it’ than a subject, which is called its subject in this context, allowing the artist to act over that subject as if it were just a medium, a material to be configured. This infrastructure, which can be found in much of art history, still very much produces the logistics of practice today, as well as those of engaged practices, even though the premises on which engagement are set do not cohere to the form that mediates between intentions and consequence within engaged practices. The hierarchy of the subject of an artist as being its property, something they ‘have’ and act over—even though it is often done with the most sensible care—cannot be the premise for engaged practices because it withdraws the subject from the world in which it occurs. This is actually something the engaged practitioner moves towards and does not subtract from. It is also the reason that ‘entry’ is such an elaborately discussed topic within this discourse.
In this article, I don’t just want to discuss the act of ‘entry’—in other words, of ‘committing’ to a cause no matter how abstract it may be. I want to especially focus on that of ‘leaving’; of terminating a commitment; of disengaging. If engagement is a legitimate action, it implies an approach that must be in a dialectical relationship with withdrawal, centralising the question what structure occurs between both, and how it is evaluated. More precisely, I want to discuss how to terminate a commitment and what morals that invokes because an itinerary can be sketched here (rather than at the point of ‘entry’) between intention and consequence mediated by form.
In order to discuss how to quit a practice, I will first delve into the cornerstones that make up the bond that has been made in working with a social reality. This firstly concerns commitment itself because it has a contractual element to it that designates intentions by negotiating them with expectancies. Secondly, I look at the role of responsibility that interlinks with the difference between the responsible status and the responsible action as discussed in a previous essay, ‘Why So Serious? Responsibility in Engaged Practices’. In this essay, the question is not primarily about the difference between those two faces of responsibility, but about the scope of the responsible action. Thirdly, and in coherence with the perspectives on responsibility, I will put forward a few methods of leaving, which even the first type of artist described in this introduction might appreciate. I will also put forward some conceivable criticisms to the formulated types of ‘leaving.’
Intentions and Committing to Them
Before exploring commitment, we need to look at what to commit to—in other words, intentions. With intentions, what can be expected is always the question. Not in the sense that an intention is an expectancy towards something, but because it determines the expectancy of itself: intentions are always about the intention itself. If I note that my intentions are good (which might appear as an empty statement in itself) but the consequences are bad, something needs to be discussed, which is the relation I have to what I intend because that intention apparently gives rise to something completely the opposite. The intermediary between intentions and consequences is artistic form, which takes place precisely between cause and effect. Nevertheless, the odd quality of intentions is that they are handless; they cannot act, but without an intention, acting is impossible, and it is true that intentions can be unconscious. Without this intention, there is nothing to do, and much harm is done precisely under the false pretence of a no intention, or a lack thereof, that in itself might appear wonderfully neutral and ambivalent. Realpolitik is founded on this principle: it negates consequences by saying it has no intentions, just consequences to respond to with even more lack of intentions.
Therefore, my earlier ‘empty’ statement of good intentions must always lay the groundwork for any action to arise. That is not to say that good intentions necessarily produce good consequences, but it is true that bad intentions necessarily produce bad consequences and no intentions negate consequences. Any intention is formulated in response to a status quo, which breathes the aforementioned expectancy. In this sense, an intention is a silent demand, a passive action, an immobile movement, which is precisely why it is necessary but also what it needs to form: to strike through the ‘silent,’ ‘passive’ and ‘immobile.’ Without a status quo, an intention is otiose because it intends to do something about something, not about nothing, and this something is how the things are, or at least as they appear (which obviously idiosyncratic elements are always diluted into). Now that the bare minimum is set, intentions give directions: they mobilise towards and only towards an object of engagement—that is, something that is going to be worked with. It is not working with an object of engagement, but perhaps a geography of that object of engagement. Working with an object of engagement—commitment, form and consequences—will be discussed later.
It is so important to take intentions deeply seriously because those intensions—even though they hold no formal power in any project—paraphrase what else is to come throughout a practice. In his film Episode III: Enjoy Poverty, Renzo Martens starts with the thought that poverty is a resource, one of the last resources being stolen from the precarious—for example, by Western photographers who visit the Democratic Republic of the Congo to take pictures of people in misery. His intention is to find a form in which those living in poverty can reclaim this resource—that is, their own poverty, and profit from it in a way that those Western photographers do, or even more prosperously. He sets out to with a bundle of photo cameras and recruited trainees whom he teaches to take press photos. They take pictures of the familiar images of suffering and offer those to a few of the big press agencies. The press agencies decline the photos because they deem them ‘unethical.’
Because the goal of Martens’ endeavour was to find a structure in which the poor could profit from their own position, he had to conclude the project had failed. In the end, Martens paid the photographers he had taught himself. Without the intention of working against infrastructures that produce and maintain poverty globally, Martens’ project2 would not only not have existed, it would also have been justifiably unethical. Therefore, the question as to why this practice was nevertheless regarded as unethical is of vital importance to the thesis of this essay: how are engaged practices regarded as unethical as opposed to non-engaged practices.
When he realised his artwork was to be a failure, why did Martens evoke such hard criticism for affirming it throughout his film. In the first instance, he took upon himself the mission of affirming poverty as a resource, through which the poor themselves could benefit, rather than just rich white photographers and journalistic organisations. He was thus intentionally working against poverty, which news agencies do not do; they simply show it. And after cultivating that resource and offering it to the market, it was rejected on the grounds of being unethical. The only sensible, and therefore fair, realisation he could arrive at was that it had failed, and he thus had to quit. Hence, the title of the film he made about the project, Episode III: Enjoy Poverty: a dejected imperative to enjoy poverty now that it cannot be profited from by those who suffer from it, alongside the thought that in our current system that thrives off poverty, poverty itself is no object for philanthropy. Martens committed to a social cause, and an apparent ethical obligation towards the cause was also constructed in that commitment. To fail an obligation is like failing a contract: it indebts in a manner that gives rise to a contractual relationship of ‘creditor and debtor.’3
Following the itinerary from creditor to debtor, this contractual relationship produces in its turn the idea of ‘damage done.’ And as Nietzsche put it, this appeals to the false idea that ‘damage somehow has an equivalent and really can be paid off, even if this is through the pain of the culprit.’4 Martens was seen as indebted to the social realm in which this project took part, and he became indebted because he could not deliver on the premise of the commitment to that social reality, even though the damage was already done before he ever set foot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Being indebted is the worst form of politics because it economises a relationality, and thereby puts responsibility on the side-line. The contractual element of commitment can take many forms, but the familiar form in which a line is drawn at the simulated end of a practice installs an ethics of indebtedness.
So, we have discussed the necessity of intentions because they mediate with the status quo and therefore form the premise of any commitment. Before we delve into the discrepancies between commitment and consequences through the apparatus of form that give rise to the aforementioned ethical judgements in engaged practices, we have to investigate commitment itself. As the example of Martens has shown, a certain contractility comes to be at the moment of commitment because however abstracted it may be, the act of committing to a cause functions as a promise. Although it is well known that this promise is more of an intention, in the end it is treated as an agreement between parties of an arrangement. The crucial element that mediates between this apparent promise and the real situation is form: the form, seen from its end at least, illustrates what was needed to be done, even though this could have never been argued for from any other moment within practice.
This retroactive evaluation closely links to a history of the term commitment. Today, the term commitment has somewhat loosely been used to denote an act of involving oneself in something, even though it can also function as more of an expression of intent. Although the historic contingencies of the meaning of words does not hold proper argument centuries apart, the earlier meaning of the word commitment does shine a light on its contractual side. It was used in the seventeenth century as an ‘action of officially consigning to the custody of the state,’5 or in other words, a ‘detention order’ [terbeschikkingstelling] or being committed (in)to an institution. This definition signifies that commitment always has an object and a method; it is aimed towards a cause.6
Although the object(ive) is always present, the method cannot be predetermined in engaged practices. In extension of this argument, we can find the familiar question of why engaged practitioners do not just join an NGO or political organisation in order to pursue the objects of their practice. The error in this argument is that it fails to understand that it is not just about the what for engaged practices, but mostly about the how. That is, how a method can be formulated that breaks the present attitudes towards objects of engagement—in other words, to pursue the same goal as NGOs but to do it differently. Therefore, it would be false to centralise a method in the act of commitment, which might explain why the term ‘engagement’ has come to replace the term commitment in popular usage, which draws even more strongly on the status of a relationship than commitment.
Above all, commitment contains a ‘pledge; a promise’7 and the promise itself places itself in coercion with the moral pledge to what is promised. Engagement is quite literally the formalisation of that promise. In reference to the seventeenth-century definition, both the state as well as the to-be-detained person knew quite well what was expected of each other and how their relation was to be executed, regardless of the potential that one of those parties might want to evade this apparent fate. The method was overly clear and the consequences were too. In a way, a commitment thus regards a coercive contract, and failing that contract very much falls in line with the seventeenth-century use of the term. It criminalises the contract-taker. Along this line of thought, Theodor Adorno noted that ‘committed art’ does not necessarily concern ‘ameliorative measures’ (that is, to improve or better a situation) ‘but to work at the level of fundamental attitudes.’8 In other words, how we relate to things around us; the relationships we hold to what we surround ourselves with, not necessarily the status of those relationships.
Thus, a commitment also always needs to come with a question about what that commitment entails, and never just solely the apparent obligatory ‘pledge’ of ameliorative measures because those build precisely the same attitude towards the world that we already occupy. Commitment hence regards an attitude towards something, not yet a method of solving things nor a status of that attitude. If it entailed a method, the commitment would valorise a priori the consequential ethical judgement, just as the detainee before being detained was already subjected to having to be detained, from which this act of commitment draws the ethical playing board—what is regarded good and bad. Obviously in this structure it is bad if the detainee does evade the contractual obligation put on them. Obviously in this structure it is bad if an engaged practice fails. The issue that might shimmer through in this structure of thought is that we are inclined to think that because there is a contractual relationship, the contractual conditions must valorise. This is false, not just argumentatively, but also because, as pointed out earlier, engaged practices do not live up to the two credentials to form a contractual relationship: they negate pregiven method and therefore cannot pledge anything.
Intentions as Contractual Pledges
A commitment is only the second aspect of an engaged practice; it is preceded by an intention. An intention is the will to do something without knowing what, and commitment is the affirmation of doing what is willed, similarly without knowing what precisely this will can be constituted as. Therefore, doing what is willed always somewhat fails in the sense that only after doing what is willed, does the question arise of where the responsible status (to will) is equated by the responsible action (to do). If we knew what to do before willing it, there is no need to will it at all, and therefore no reason to do what is willed because the will is lacked. Intentions can thus shimmer; performances can differ, and the sense of what is to be done can oscillate effortlessly between contingent and necessary.
This is what allows for practices to be reactive, meaning that one can respond to earlier positions, actualities and activities, which also implies that there is a permanent possibility of failing. As suggested by the earlier example of Martens, this failing is where most engaged practices are indeed problematised. And to be clear, this is not an argument to relativise failing, or to debunk intentions so that one cannot fail because there is indeed something at stake. There are no engaged practices that have nothing at stake. Therefore, the opposite is true: the reality of the potential to fail also yields the potential to be a success. The problem of this discrepancy between intention, commitment and the following actions lies in the contractility between intention and commitment and how it is mediated by what is done— that is, by form.
The act of committing to a will produces a set of constraints, or perhaps even rules, that designates what is willed and how that will is to be performed. The constitution of these constraints is not only set by the will but also by the mode of commitment, ‘attitude’. This is where the frequently heard question of ‘entry’ is introduced because how something is approached—whatever it may be, a social reality or a set for a still life—produces in a way how it is responded to. A shift in perspective, a move in semantics, creates ‘what’ is approached and thus very often how it is approached. Therefore, the premises of commitment are the cornerstone of ethical judgements in any engaged practice. This is not to forget that the implicit belief that the artist’s intentions are always positively ethical is a problem in itself, as Maxim Februari also notes in his lecture for bad art: ‘The good […] nowadays seems so hopelessly fixated.’9 Commitment creates conditions with an unconditional will that mediate the corresponding actions. The approach sets the bounds as to how this will is enacted, but the more vivid question that formulates the potential for any judgement is how this commitment is terminated because only then is there a viable link between intention, commitment and action.
Reification of the Attitude
We can think of commitment if it is publicised as a form of a social bond; we can also speak of responsibility because a specific moral indictment also takes place here. I would like to illustrate the formalisation of an attitude that interlinks well with engaged practices, whereas they precisely differ because the example—a political party during an election—has a premediated and often predetermined form. As already argued, form is intermediary between intention, commitment and consequence, and if the attitude of commitment is contractual, it leashes form to the ethics of the status quo. If the political party that has gained office does not live up to the promises (read: intentions) made, there are no harsh consequences one way or another—no juridical processes; possibly only a decrease in votes for the next election.
How does this come to be, especially since in politics, publicness, and therefore a social bond, hold a great position but do not coerce responsibility? Above all, they have made promises. A first answer would be that there is no higher power to validate what is done and what is not done. (Law only checks; it does not set the goals.) Secondly, the track record has been set in a way to accept that these promises will not be lived up to (it is normalised and resides in the status quo). Thirdly, the promises might be so unrealistic that, regardless of their appealing qualities, people do not expect them to be lived up to. From the perspective of a political party, this might also relate to the idea of ‘concurrence.’ In other words, people will vote for somebody who is prepared to offer the promises you are not for the sake of realism, but this structure also functions well the other way around.
The speculative power of promises is that it unlinks form from moral responsibility. Fourthly, the attitude of commitment ascribes to speculation, not to realisation, and is therefore subjected to different ethical calculi. Politics is expected to be relative, ideological and therefore always diffused. We allow it to be different than it promises itself to be because we know reality differs from what we intend from reality. Then, however, art is also speculative and very often does not even make a claim for realism. It offers, or rather even proposes, the absurd: it breaks with reality, whereas politics all too often is reactive to it. The premise many engaged practices are built on is that it is exactly that realism that fails to serve a social reality, and thus more speculative approaches are needed.
An important question we therefore have to ask is: ‘What does politics offer?’ Our disappointment with the power of politics might lie in the attitude we ascribe to how it commits to its objects, say actualities, which is like a product, although we know this product is not a ‘real’ thing. It is not a usage object, such as a pencil, we acquire warranty of. The ‘product’ that politics offers is a promise that has been made through the representative structure in which the mandate of voters is diverted to a party that gains the agency to speak through your vote, which constitutes the relationality of politics. This collection of votes on a quantitative basis is a currency that can be used as liquidity in political debate, but it in no way ensures a product with such a thing as a warranty: promises are always and never made in politics. There are many structures like this present in politics, such as the permanent ‘no!’ of Realpolitik that functions to institute the ‘yes!’ that politics has to loan its mandate from.
In a way, politics does not offer you a product but offers a party the means to acquire a product, a political product. Here, very much like financial markets, the speculative aspect of politics shows itself because you do not ‘buy’ something off your politician; you ‘bet’ on your politician. The point, at least here, is that politics in the end does not concern a product, nor is it an economical transaction, although it draws on many of the infrastructures we find in contemporary capitalism, such as marketing. We should never centralise a product-minded approach in evaluating anything political because it would imply that what is done could be purchased as a commodity. This process is called reification and concerns transfiguration of something social into a commodity.
However, when the engaged practitioner works on a project while drawing from a speculative approach, I believe we too often think of this in the sense of a product with a warranty. This might have to do with more classical artistic hermeneutics that is object-based, rather than the process-based hermeneutics we find in the representative democracy, where we tend to say a process can be fair or unfair, in which the product of that process is not necessarily considered. So, although many engaged practices are process-based practices, it is the product that is used to evaluate the process rather than the process to evaluate the product as we would see in representative democracies. Many reasons can be given, but the hyper-focus on the ‘thinglyness’ of art definitely co-produces this false ethical judgement. (The quality of a democracy is based upon the quality of the process—say, to what extent elections are free and open and to what extent politicians are bribed.)
Failure is the first way out of a project. But the realisation that this project is intertwined with a social reality also means failing not just at any endeavour; it has the additional weight of a social reality, resulting in possibly real consequences, even though this relation was never of a contractual constitution. Failure can be regarded the worst way imaginable, even though it is the most obvious and most prevalent form of disengaging. A pressing and sometimes choking grip holds much of the field of engaged practices—the problematisation of failure. It cannot or rather should not fail, even though it usually does in one sense or another. Although a complex conclusion to draw within the arts in general, failure has another intensity within engaged practices because intentions here are somewhat disregarded in the shadow of consequences, which determine most of the evaluation.
Nevertheless, disregarding intentions could give the stage to serendipity, which is not at play within this evaluation because that would imply contingencies unbound from the contract of the commitment. The sentiment that underlies this problematisation of failure remains to be founded on the formalisation of commitment into a contract of pledges, promises and warranties, rather than of attitudes and forms, even though a pledge and a promise always implies a predetermined method. This is in spite of the fact that within engaged practices, this method is particular, reactive and often unique (as in not quantifiable within an ethical calculus).
It seems that the problematisation of failure of a project in this social reality, especially through the mechanisms of the arts, is not implicitly acceptable in the same manner artists might abort experiments in their studios. That is even though the engaged practitioner’s studio can be said to be social reality itself and in spite of this being a false premise, as much as it is false to say that the other artist experiments in their studio. The first reason that could motivate ethical reproach is that of the contract of commitment: once committed to something, you cannot quit without having to expect interrogation. Commitment, it seems, invokes a censorship of failure, precisely because to commit to something encompasses a promise; it is not unconditional. What this censorship consists of is not that these artistic practices are in themselves unethical, but that they cannot be verified according to a predetermined system, and in that sense, all engaged practices are necessarily somewhat unethical because this is precisely how the reality principle is broken; it is how the status quo is confronted.
Why, then, can ethical remarks be made at the point in practice that is its end? Because here, an itinerary between cause and effect can be drawn, however contingent it may be. As Timothy Morton notes, ‘To make an artwork is to interfere directly with the realm of causes and effects.’10 The mysticised intermediary of artistic singularity—for example, this ‘studio apparatus’ we might find in different artistic practice—otherwise obscures any of these determinations. Because this engaged process is not, or at least less, mysticised (it is usually even explicitly transparent), its object unveils itself to opinion. It is something to have an opinion on because it is a disclosing process that explicitly interlinks with stakeholders and therefore with witnesses (especially in regards to the aforementioned seventeenth-century definition of commitment).
The basis on which we conclude whether something has failed or not is relative to intentions and a certain dissonance of those intentions with their eventual formalisation. However, the qualification of failure that stems from this dissonance is not internal to those intentions and form, but external to it, which means that the object failure presents itself to evaluation within a reality and thereby regains quantification: being surrounded by moral beings that judge a respective practice. Now that a failure is within reality, it will be measured accordingly, but we should never forget that this apparent reality—whoever’s it may be—is never neutral, which also means it shall not be neutral to whatever breaks it. Although engaged practices in a way do not expose themselves to moral judgement like other practices might (such as the odd cases of politics or healthcare), this does not mean that engaged practices escape ethics altogether.
The point is that on which premises moral remarks are based cannot be the same as quantifiable practices such as healthcare. To say it does is to say that the arts are like healthcare, or like politics, or whatever other discourse. Obviously, the fact that we occupy a reality about which we think things is a given, and that is not to say that it cannot be made worse. But that the status quo is already unacceptable, meaning that responsible action is imperative, which is immediately somewhat of a deadlock since that responsible action does not coincide with prevalent ethical action and cannot therefore be quantified. This is also evident by the sheer lack of quantity of similar activities: it does not cohere to the economics of ethics; that is to say, the knowledge of lived experience as to how to respond to certain activities and events as moral beings within an era’s old society.
The question might become what the tipping point is in ethical evaluation. An obvious answer might be found in the shape of a calculus that could propose that the more something is regarded as good, the better it is. However, because the engaged activity is singular in its constitution and breaks the reality principle precisely for the reason that something is regarded as good that should be thought of as bad, this calculus will hopelessly fail. A democratisation of the nature of the arts must always result in a demagogic art. However, if we were to take the meta stance, we could remark that for precisely these reasons, an engaged activity is always less of a failure than no engaged activity, even if it hopelessly fails.
Let us consider some options.
Option One: Recognising Failure
Failing is more something one recognises than a sharp conclusion, which is to say that there are no rubrics on the basis of which we can assuredly note that a practice has failed, apart from the ethics we already hold. Based on, for example, a growing discrepancy between intentions and consequences, or even solely based on consequences themselves, determining failure can be an extremely important step, especially to protect the object of engagement—say, a social reality, societal issue or marginalised group of people. Therefore, the art of failing is to do it before it happens. To declare something a failure allows one to distance oneself from what has passed, much like stepping out of one’s car after a crash and then looking at it before the emergency services arrive. It surpasses one’s own scope of acting. One deposits one’s agency for others to adopt, but stays occupying the responsible status.
Now that this agency is renounced through expressing a failure and possibly calling for help, the next step before extensive reflection must be to pacify the situation. In other words, to make sure the failed practice stops, or, to illustrate this with the example of the car, to make sure it doesn’t catch fire, doesn’t hurt (more) people, and doesn’t obstruct traffic (too much). A psychological reason could be given for any fail-based reasons to quit, which is that it allows the engaged practitioner to distance themselves from the object of their practice and note, ‘It has failed, and that’s the way it is.’ Hence, the conclusion that something has failed allows, no, insists on, disengagement, to terminate a commitment. Disengagement is imperative to failure. However, the sharp question remains of what failure is, realising that engaged practices have nothing to do with the very strict and regulated realm of transportation and traffic as put forward in the earlier example. As stressed before, to note failure before failing can be crucial because damage can be done.
Commitment and Publicness
Terminating a commitment to a cause is somewhat like quitting a bad habit. At the moment the commitment is made official—preferably through some sort of a public ceremony, such as telling your friends—inconsistency with what one has committed to will most assuredly invoke in those friends the need to pose questions. Nevertheless, those friends will often be forgiving too because the commitment one had made concerned a commitment to and with oneself; there is no ‘other’ party benefitting or suffering from its consequences (at least, not directly). The social realm is thus not dependent on the commitment, nor does it undergo consequences if you fail to maintain your commitment or fail to live up to it. Something happens when that commitment is not directed towards oneself, but to something other than oneself. In other words, when it acquires a public or collective element.
Option Two: Do Not Make Your Commitment Public
The relation between commitment and being chastised for not living up to it hinges on the manner in which the commitment has been made public and thus about unveiling the practice to its own premises. If the commitment is silent, there is nothing to cite in which a direct link of responsibility can be drawn between your act as an artist and a certain decrease of welfare in the regarded social realm. In other words, publicity makes the contract. No publicity equals no contract because for a contract to be valid, it needs more than one party. However, one important contradiction resides in veiling commitment, which is that within engaged practices that take part in a social reality—which, by necessity, any engaged practice does by grace of the fact that its object is never just particular—one cannot work publicly without working publicly. Therefore, a silent commitment cannot be a commitment: a formalisation of the relation with the object of engagement is imperative. How this formalisation looks—be it a strict contract or a loose affiliation—is part of the engaged practice and should be considered.
Option Three: Process-Ethics
Especially in socially engaged arts, a familiar approach is to disregard the product of a practice in the same manner to emphasise the ‘process-ethics.’ Although this does dissimulate many of the goals of engaged practices, it is a manner in which leaving can be ethically legitimised. As Bishop notes, ‘Ethics of interpersonal interaction comes to prevail over a politics of social justice.’11 The helpful aspect of this approach is that if we do not speak of ‘justice,’ no sort of a contract comes into play because the commitment is not with a social reality but ‘interpersonal.’ Here, moral judgements concern the ‘collapse of artistic and political dissensus in new forms of consensual order.’12 The aim here is towards ‘mending social bonds’ and according to Rancière, it is where ‘politics and aesthetics vanish together in Ethics.’13 ‘Politics comes about solely through interruption’14 and this approach is not interruptive but affirmative. If what is to be done is not working, then making sure that how what is attempted is done in an ethical manner.
The question of process ethics relocates the focus of ethical judgement, away from the consequence, onto the manner in which those came to be. Process-ethics are of sheer importance to engaged practices because they focus precisely on the same element, that is, on the infrastructures among which reality manoeuvres and how intervention is placed on parts of those. It judges the intervention not how reality is changed. The problematic element of looking at how a practice unfolds rather than what it unfolds into is that it unlinks consequences from intention and form, which loops us back to classical aesthetic evaluation that solely retraces the object on itself to its maker, and therefore in a way negates the motive to do something about something.
So far, we have mainly discussed a necessity for disengagement in different pressing circumstances that ask for it. Nevertheless, there are also many situations imaginable where it is imperative to disengage in the good sense of the word. Above all, if a practice seems to live up to its intentions and the consequences are well justifiable in light of the commitment, at a certain point the central role of the initiating artist might even obstruct the continuation of the practice. To recognise the scope and reach of a practice is an important characteristic to engaged practitioners, especially in regards to the thought that it is often easier to add something, to do something extra, than it is to taper off or even take something out of a practice (that ‘something’ being the practitioner of that practice itself, de-individualising it or rather collectivising practice).
The question here might be whether something, firstly, needs to be able to exist on its own, and secondly, whether something can. The existence criterion is always a co-existence criterion because ‘on its own’ here means within a reality, amidst its actors. The fundamental difference with disengaging with failure and this disengagement is that one cannot distance oneself from failure. The responsible status will remain, although the responsible action is problematised. In this case, the responsible status needs to be distanced in a manner where the social reality in which this practice took place can gain responsible status over the practice and thereby agency over it. It is true that this, like many of the arguments in this essay, are generalising in the sense that no project is like another. However, whether someone makes usage objects that help with stimulating new types of practices, or whether someone works together with a group of people to think through ways to tackle social injustice, or whether someone organises community activities—in all cases, the ‘other’ who is engaged with always goes beyond the classical idea of a spectator because the practice itself transcends the discourse of arts—or possibly any discourse—and draws on the fact that we are humans living life and only then artists. This seems like a superfluous remark to make, but it is imperative to remind oneself of. If the itinerary of practice remains linked to the initiating artist in a chronological way of the word, the realms in which it arrives are always subjected to what arrives: they must become consumers, spectators, onlookers.
- Adorno, Theodor W., ‘Commitment: The Politics of Autonomous Art.’ New Left Review 87-88 (1974).
- Bishop, Claire, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London: Verso, 2012.
- ‘Commitment,’ Online Etymology Dictionary. Accessed June 10, 2021. https://www.etymonline.com/word/commitment.
- ‘Commitment,’ Lexico. Accessed June 10, 2021. https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/commitment.
- Februari, Maxim, ‘Slechte Kunst.’ Huizingalezing Universiteit Leiden. December 11, 2020. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JqAXrsMEVP4&feature=emb_logo.
- Morton, Timothy, ‘Charisma and Causality.’ ArtReview. December 10, 2015. Accessed January 11, 2021. https://artreview.com/november-2015-feature-timothy-morton-charisma-causality/.
- Nietzsche, Friedrich, On the Geneaology of Morals. Translated by Douglas Smith. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
- Ruitenberg, Claudia W., ‘Art, Politics, and the Pedagogical Relation.’ Studies in Philosophy and Education 30.2 (2010).
Quoted in Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012), p. 28.
As also discussed in ‘Reflective and Transgressive Engaged Practices’ in APRIA, January 7, 2021.
Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Geneaology of Morals, trans. Douglas Smith (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 45.
‘Commitment,’ Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed June 10, 2021, https://www.etymonline.com/word/commitment.
‘Commitment,’ Lexico, accessed June 10, 2021, https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/commitment.
‘Commitment,’ Online Etymology Dictionary.
Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Commitment: The Politics of Autonomous Art,’ New Left Review, no. 87-88 (1974).
Maxim Februari, ‘Slechte Kunst,’ Huizingalezing Universiteit Leiden, December 11, 2020, YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JqAXrsMEVP4&feature=emb_logo. Translated from the Dutch by the author.
Timothy Morton, ‘Charisma and Causality,’ ArtReview, December 10, 2015, accessed January 11, 2021, https://artreview.com/november-2015-feature-timothy-morton-charisma-causality/.
Bishop 2012, p. 25.
Bishop 2012, p. 28.
Claudia W. Ruitenberg, ‘Art, Politics, and the Pedagogical Relation,’ Studies in Philosophy and Education 30.2 (2010), p. 214.