Towards Engaged Arts
The engaged artistic practice as we know it today is built upon a set of axioms that this series of articles attempts to investigate. By thinking through these concepts that are so cherished by the arts, new propositions are put forward that would fit better with the premises of engaged arts as we know them. An attempt for a hermeneutics called ‘dematerialised aesthetics’ or ‘system aesthetics’ can be read between the lines.
It must appear to some as a gesture of hopelessness when the arts start to interfere in matters we would otherwise regard as the domain of politics. One would be forgiven for wondering, ‘Is our world in such a bad shape?’ As Adorno affirms, it is in politics ‘nowhere more so than where it [art] seems to be politically dead.’1 Or some might take a different tack and ask, ‘Are the arts so off track?’ that they’re delving into a world that ‘doesn’t want to listen,’2 as Hans den Hartog Jager has argued many times.
That the arts engage with the realm in which they necessarily exist is not a new phenomenon. However, the manner in which the arts have engaged with this odd and ambiguous realm sometimes called ‘reality’ has increased in intensity and found ingenious forms of doing so in the past decades. With his eighteenth-century political paintings and etches, Francisco Goya (1746-1828) was long regarded as the critic proper of politics (mostly after his death). Almost a-century-and-a-half later, Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) introduced and articulated the didactic qualities of art that engages. And let’s not forget the disciples of Nicolas Bourriaud (1965), who introduced an arts practice that took as its ‘horizon the realm of human interaction.’3 Our time, somewhat in the broad sense, knows a radical new kind of art: engaged art. Engaged art is an art where the ‘artwork’—yet again to be taken in a somewhat broad sense—is not plainly about something political; nor does it solely make claims about the good and bad as much of Brecht’s work; nor does it merely produce a somewhat romantic ‘time to be live through,’4 as much of relational aesthetics has done. This is an art in which the artwork gains the accidents and position to be a political actor itself. The artwork carries a potential within the structures that make up our reality—no matter how rhizomatic those might be—for art necessarily co-authors that reality and now takes that task upon itself ambitiously. In the eighteenth century, this radical potential of art as sketched above ought to have made us see differently; in the nineteenth century, to make us aware of otherwise obscure realities; and more recently, at the end of the twentieth century, to introduce us to those realities. Now, however, it is to intervene on and within those realities that we now not only see and know directly but which we are, in fact, part of and, therefore, experience on a daily basis.
But as Maria Hlavajova bluntly puts it: ‘If you think “art is that radical thing”, forget it!’5 This commentary accurately argues that this so-called ‘radicality’ is an overrated ability that has been ascribed to just one part of an intense but intimate relationship: that of art in and of itself. An arts student who partook in the Common Ground project, where much of this research started, echoes this sentiment: ‘I agree, it is up to us, not to “art”.’6 What, then, we could wonder, is that thing which art adds to this relationality? Without art, apparently, I would propose we should also be prepared to argue that we shall remain afloat in the status quo, even though we might be ready for this ‘potential.’ Hence, I would argue, it is not only up to us: we do ‘it’ through something, and that thing is art. There is an infrastructure that allows we artists to do things, and which complicates other things. As such, it is also up to art: otherwise, why ascribe a potential to it or pursue it at all. The question, then, is what is it that art must be to be ‘up to’ that radical potential? What is that infrastructure of art through which the potential can be realised? What are the aesthetic regimes that make up its potential?
Only a few years ago in 2015, when I was in my graduation year of Fine Arts at ArtEZ University of the Arts in Arnhem, I developed a gift card infrastructure for civilian duties we have to our respective governments as an artistic project. It was called ‘De Overheid Cadeaukaart’ (‘the Government Gift Card’, or, more accurately, ‘the Government-Gifted Card’). It was meant as a method of making explicit the tax infrastructure that underpins everything in our respective societies, and, more importantly, to create a new tool to deal with that reality. The plan was that it could be found in the gift card rack at your local supermarket, right next to the Spotify gift card, to the left of the H&M gift card, above the PlayStation gift card, and underneath the Apple gift card. You would be able to purchase the card and top it up with any amount of money you please, and gift it to someone for an occasion such as a birthday, marriage, or retirement—all events with hidden civilian consequences. Or, of course, just to someone in the dire need of it—for example, someone indebted to the government or one of its services. The card would have been used to unburden a bit of a tax load; to pay governmental fines and fees; pay for passports; functioned as visas or residence permits of all kinds; possibly even the ‘own risk’ Dutch residents pay for their health insurance whenever they make use of healthcare. I had meetings with (local) government representatives, developed a system, designed the cards, of course, and formulated arguments for the project, as any artist has to do. Although this project unfortunately never really took off—failing my ambition and somewhat my responsibility as an artist—the response of my teachers regarding the constitution of such a project as an arts project said it all: it was not received too well.
The essential thing I believe they had issues with (apart, obviously, from the project failing) was the fact that the aesthetic judgement of the project could not be derived from the artistic value of the particular gift card itself, nor from the brochures or the supermarket rack (the only proper physical objects of the project). That artistic value could only manifest itself in the system which it proposed and in which the gift card would be an actor, or rather a ‘conductor’—making each other actors in each other’s civil obligations, constructing and activating a new relationality, a configuration of our being together. The project worked with the idea of ‘dematerialised aesthetics,’ where the sacred ‘object’—be it a painting, a dance, a film, a piece of theatre, or, on this occasion, a gift card—is no longer the equinox of the artwork, but rather an actor of the artwork. Had my project at that time been a series of photographs about the role of tax in the welfare state, or even worse, a series of abstract paintings about the pains of the contemporary monetary system, their judgement might have differed strongly because they could have relocated artistic judgement to materialism proper: to aesthetics of those ‘things’ themselves, and a possible ascribed ‘meaning.’ I am not arguing against any of those as valued artistic practices—I believe all forms of art have their own (political) potentials and hiatus. I am arguing for the development in the arts of a hermeneutics that allows for aesthetic and ethical interpretation and analysis of interventions of the arts on a systematic societal level—on the level of engaged arts because in the engaged arts, it should be a substantive interaction; the infrastructure of the real; a relationality with reality that should be judged. Although I believe we can deduce such a systematic level from the object, its judgement should not (solely) be done from the formal accidents of the actor of that interaction, infrastructure, or relationality but from that system as an object itself.
In this series of articles, I propose bits and pieces of such hermeneutics regarding this contemporary form of engaged practices, which we can locate in many artistic practices these days. This form of art sees the artwork as a political actor itself. These hermeneutics might be blasphemously named ‘dematerialised aesthetics,’ or possibly, ‘system aesthetics.’7 The articles in this series are built upon a re-evaluation of some concepts most dear to the arts’ historical traditions, including all its actors. Here and there, the articles propose new readings of those concepts that would more properly fit with the aims and goals of many contemporary engaged practitioners, building as such on a lexicon of dematerialised/system aesthetics.
Navigating the articles
To navigate through some thoughts towards these hermeneutics of ‘dematerialised aesthetics,’ or possibly, ‘system aesthetics,’ I will first set out to give a bird’s-eye view of what I believe to be important landmarks on the topography of engaged practices. Although these are in no way conclusive or fixed, some concepts will be introduced here that function as historical monuments, roadblocks, or compasses of engaged practices throughout the rest of the articles. Through this odd counter-mapping, I will move on to the second article, ‘The Location of Art,’ which wonders ‘what “place” we point at when we accredit something to be “art”?’ From a quite simple but somewhat curious conceptual analysis, I trace that what we are used to ascribing art to is neither philosophically evident (and possibly not tenable), nor very functional, if we are to pursue an engaged practice. ‘What…, then, might we define as “engaged arts”?’ becomes a question I can no longer postpone thinking through. With certain reluctance—because much of engaged art is defined according to idiosyncratic elements that, as the term implies, differ radically from practice to practice and from project to project—I attempt a preliminary definition in ‘Reflective and Transgressive Engaged Practices.’ However, I do reach a point where I think, while escaping an essentialist definition that haunts much of the arts already, I can with certain conviction paraphrase the ambitions, or productive goals these ‘engaged practices’ often share. This also results in a first political criticism that will follow us as an annoying reminder throughout the series of articles, which is of ‘reflection.’ The reflective side of engagement is of importance in showing ‘what is at stake.’ However, it also carries within its structures the danger that the practice becomes not much more than a ‘stupid pamphlet,’ a stultifying piece of art that is both silent and deaf to the network in which it partakes. Although such pamphlet art is valuable, the productive goal of engaged practices is often to go beyond a ‘sterile criticism.’
Within that shear amount of possible practices, a certain approach accompanies the ambitions of engaged practices, and that approach needs some detachment from the art history that still breathes down our necks. In the next article, ‘Medium-centrism and Transmedia Thinking,’ I delve into two things that define this approach. Firstly, I will turn my head almost 180 degrees to face that which breathes down our necks. Secondly, to get away from the first point, I attempt a thought-experiment called ‘transmedia thinking,’ which is a manner of postponing pre-given from the process of making art, all the while centralising the form-of-from (i.e., content) in the making of the artwork. Hence, I will posit that we need to learn to make without ‘making’; to construct beyond the limits of our hands as interactors of material alone. In the next article, ‘Realism and Transrealism,’ this ‘beyondness’ is spoken of in terms of ‘realism’—that odd realm most engaged practices say to ‘engage’ with, and all other things necessarily do, too: ‘reality/ies.’ By sparring with the thoughts of and works by Tania Bruguera, I wonder what the historical aesthetics regimes—to use Jacques Rancière’s words—of ‘realism’ and ‘naturalism’ can and cannot mean to the engaged practice, eventually realising that it might be the ‘unreal’ that is the most important instructor for engaged practitioners, not necessarily (nor only) the ‘real’ that is so familiar to us from art history.
Now that some of the ground has been cleared, resulting in an area of engaged arts, it is important to think through some practical (and consequentially ethical) questions, such as, ‘How should an engaged artist act?’ Hence, the next article is called ‘Roleability: A Short Critique of the Use of Narratology in Engaged Arts,’ which focuses on the social infrastructure that maintains certain realities called ‘narratives’; that ‘unreal’; the ‘fairy tales.’ These narratives are often a point of interest for engaged practitioners because they allow them ‘in’ and mandate their presence within a social reality. However, this approach, often important within what many call ‘socially engaged practices,’ regularly fails to recognise the actor of engaged art, the artist, as part of that social reality; and, from time to time, makes that social reality an object of knowledge, mapping it in order to understand, and even ground to be delved for some sort of profit—be it one’s own or that of a ‘partner.’ These issues stem from a somewhat neoliberal approach to our being-together, which I will speak of through different schemes in the articles ‘Help!…Help!…Help!’and ‘Engaged Arts Incorporated.’ The former looks at a social ‘code of conduct’ we all know to enact, which in the engaged arts often encompasses ‘help,’ and how we can break the aggressive aspect of those codes. The latter article concerns the manner in which many engaged practices are enacted, following the ‘hive mind’ from which the individual dissident is easily excluded; and hence, the engagement becomes a systematic, machine-like activity that is measured accordingly: in efficiency, production rates, etc.
While thinking though the actors of social reality, we cannot forget to think through the space in which those actors are. Consequently, in the next article, ‘The Toponomy of Spaces,’ I ask what ‘sets’ and ‘backdrops’ might fit the coming-into-being of engaged practices. First, I wonder what type of educational space might fit, and secondly, whether this type of art can be ‘taught’ in general, since if art were material-centric, it would indeed be ‘logical’ to teach it in a large multifunctional workshop. But we might wonder if that would work if this materialism is decentralised; whether this workshop approach to art academy fits engaged practices? Obviously, the question of ‘sandboxing’ and possible dangers if there were not an educational space need to be thought through here, too. The next article follows on the decentralisation of the familiar artistic backdrop and wonders what that means to engaged practices through the death of the author and the loss of the aura. To put it in other words, it thinks through engagements in terms of originality, author, reproduction, and authenticity.
The last articles delve somewhat into the politics of engagement and the political potential of engaged art, questioning the sensitivities many engaged practices often touch upon. The first and obvious elephant in the room so far has been propaganda. So, the next article, ‘The Dimensions of Propaganda,’ goes through the different dimensions familiar to most artists and synchronises those with aesthetic technologies. The potential of politics as an accident of any aesthetics is evaluated, much as there is the danger of aestheticising politics and consequently ending up with the ‘pamphletism’ mentioned earlier. After the politics have been introduced, I will consider two ethical questions that delineate engaged practices from many other artistic practices. First, ‘Why So Serious?’ wonders about the (potential) role of humour for and against engaged practices. The final article in this series, ‘Just Leaving and Other Ways of Saying Goodbye,’ asks how an engaged practice can be concluded—when it is done; when to quit; and most importantly, how to do so.
Many of these articles found their starting point at Common Ground (2019), which I had the privilege of participating in as a researcher. With the support of the Asociación de Arte Útil in partnership with the Van Abbemuseum, and International Master Artist Educator (IMAE), students of multiple faculties at ArtEZ University of the Arts were invited to attempt engaged practices in multiform. I had innumerable conversations with students, teachers and other partners of the project about their experiences in doing so. Topics that sprung to mind continuously, and which were frequently discussed, have transfigured into these articles and set the direction for the theoretical research that followed. The research has been funded by Cracking the Code, a project of Professorship for Art education as Critical Tactics (AeCT). The editorial group of the research was led by Leontine Broekhuizen and Elsbeth Veldpape, and consisted of fellow researcher Emiel Copini and me. The research was supported by the Interdisciplinary Project (IP) and its tutors.
- Adorno, Theodor, ‘Commitment,’in Aesthetics and Politics. Translated by Francis McDonagh. London: Verso, 2007 , pp. 177-195.
- Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. Translated by Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods. Paris: Les Presses du Réel, 2002.
- Hlavajova, Maria. ‘BAK: Art and Politics.’ Seminar, Utrecht, 11 March, 2019, 19:30-21:30.
Theodor W. Adorno. ‘Commitment,’ in Aesthetics and Politics, trans. Francis McDonagh (London: Verso, 2007 ), p. 194. Adorno himself uses the term ‘committed art’ rather than ‘engaged art.’
Hans den Hartog-Jager, ‘Geëngageerde Kunstenaars. De Wereld Luistert Niet,’ NRC, September 18, 2014, https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2014/09/18/geengageerde-kunstenaars-de-wereld-luistert-niet-1419986-a29079.
Nicolas Bourriaud. Relational Aesthetics (Paris: Les Presses du Réel, 2002), p. 14.
Bourriaud 2002, p. 15.
Maria Hlavajova. ‘BAK: Art and Politics’ (pt. 1. seminar on March 11, 2019, Utrecht, 19:30-21:30).
Spoken by a student during the Common Ground project in January 2019 at ArtEZ University of the Arts in Arnhem. The name of the student is known by the author.
Although this ‘system’ might relate more to the Deleuzean rhizome than the classical hierarchy, we cannot disregard politics and thus intentionality in the manner our ‘reality’ is shaped.