[The Seven by Nine Squares home page] [YAWN 16] [Art Strike 1990-1993]

Critique of the Art Strike

The Bible narrates that the Jews conquered Jericho by playing the trumpets with such an intensity that the walls tumbled. Today, a group of artists have repeated this story with a certain difference. They want to destroy the walls of powerful art institutions by means of radical silence: by the refusal of all activities of art.

A total Art Strike has been suggested by Stewart Home and the PRAXIS Group for the three-year period of 1990-1993. This Art Strike is being organized by Art Strike Action Committees residing mostly in America and England. Several months after the start of the Art Strike, I received documents of the following kinds: statements and letters from artists, declarations by magazine editors active in the strike, and pages of discussion from the underground and serious press alike. These reactions portrayed a frustrated group of people. Major institutions did not take much notice of this strike, which was being directed against them. Furthermore, a debate raged among the organizers and other artists concerned with the art strike: does such a strike make any sense at all?

I took all the art strike documents available to me since the start of this action, and I tried to find out the reasons for this disturbance and frustration.

Stewart Home's reference to the successful "strike" of the Polish artists in the period after 1981 was an error and a starting point for a number of later mistakes.

A strike is

  1. an organized extortion;
  2. for a concrete purpose;
  3. by people who stand in opposition to their employer.
There was not any artists' strike in Poland because
  1. it arose spontaneously and amorphously;
  2. for no concrete result;
  3. by independent carerrists who took part in a general boycott against a military takeover.
It was part of a national resistance in a desperate situation and it was an attempt to demoralize the authorities. It was combat; that is, a revolutionary act completely in the spirit of classical history.

The other action, Metzger's art strike (1977-1980), was planned as an economic strike; however, it failed because the individual producers failed to organize. Their personal intents vary so greatly that every member of such a social group became scabs (even in the situations where some large institutions are acting as "employers".) Furthermore, Metzger could not offer any concrete agenda to the individual participants in his strike, and no concrete organization was brought forth to formulate and administer possible individual declarations.

In contrast, the current (second) Art Strike was planned as a political resistance and not as an economic strike. But a resistance is a general movement supported by a whole population, and its precondition is a kind of extreme emergency; that is to say, a "revolutionary situation" is required. To imagine that intellectuals or artists would take part in such a resistance at any time (like a walk-out) because of their unique problems (as an attempt to break the monopoly of the institutions of the arts or to destroy the present cultural hierarchy) is simply not realistic. It is possible to build an administration corps for this job and propaganda can be distributed, as well; but one cannot create a revolutionary situation complete with the required general "desperation". Therefore, this attempt remains simply an advertisement, a campaign for something "like a strike" with the usual mixed echoes that normally goes with a campaign among the intellectual elite (indeed, such internal affairs are always hysterical and turbulent, but the culture generally has trouble taking it seriously).

However there is another important fact of this strike. This is the very "metaphysical" nature of the attempt: the strike was thought to be the refusal of all kinds of creative activity; that is, a radical form of silence. Let us say no more about the difficult question of reaching an audience with this silence; an audience that's been ignoring you all along anyway. We still have another question: how should artists who stop their activity act? What should they do?

The human being who goes on strike interrupts his professional activity. But the creative work of an artist doesn't work that way. Creativity can take different forms (not just artistic, but also such forms as being a mother, a politician, or a gambler, for example) but it is never a profession. Instead, it is an existential question for each individual.

The artist can be forced to fulfill their work as a "job", but it will only last if one can succeed in "changing their identity" as well. It's evident that the result would be enormous resistance against the attempt. An atmosphere similar to general desperation would need to be created, only it is not in favor of the idea but against it. All energy would be turned against it. The prevailing mood would be characterized by uncooperative aggressiveness, caused by the fear of losing one's identity.

In an optimum state it can have a very useful effect. The Polish resistance after the declaration of the state of war in 1981 had the following interesting result: the artists produced more art than before-but this art was explicitly samizdat art, an aggressive expression turned against the ruling elite. These artists would lose their identity only if they continued their earlier professional work in the style of "fine art" (a highly interesting situation).

I visited some artist friends in Kracow and Wroclaw a year and a half after the takeover, and this underground activity had at that time just reached its peak. Some older "constructivist" artists-real "museum" artists-left behind their abstract style and made small graphics and text designs in the form of leaflets, sometimes in a brutal realistic style. It was not the expression of a culture but of a primary demand of vital interests. This was a very strange form for an agitative "postmodernism" to take, considering it came after a very esthetic abstract art period.

I think this feature of the human being and the nature of creativity wasn't taken into consideration in the present art strike. The ASAC in California treated it in a better way: it took up in its program the idea that artists whose art was turned against serious culture and elite institutions should expand their activity. Also other publications emphasized that creativity should grow and not decrease during the strike. These concepts should function as a resistance and could ensure that the coherence of the network remains intact, no matter if the strike has any success or not.

But anyway this notion collapsed at the start. A different concept took its place, one which I attribute to the initiator of the strike, Stewart Home. He calls for the total refusal of all kinds of creativity during the strike. Some activists took this call so seriously that they decided to stop the political and review activities and all kinds of public interventions, as well.

One might talk about the possibility that this rigorousness was a manifestation of a strong radicalism in the spirit of the class struggle. There is no reason to deny it. But we can also consider another, more personal motivation with a philosophical background.

It seems that for Stewart Home, the feasibility of a strike is of minor importance. He postulates the use of underground culture as a testing ground for his idea. This program is the strategic negation of all creative forms, seen as the current strategy of the artistic individual and art activity.

The various forms for such a negation that Stewart Home proposes (multiple names, plagiarism, art strike) are all excellently conceived, and deserve appreciation. Following from these ideas, I can see an opposition to the monopolistic nature of art institutions, which was caused by making the underground reflect upon these issues. This philosophy had exerted a great influence on the underground and the alternative art scene long before the art strike became current. Of course, such concepts, built with such virtuosity, have little to do with a political program. It is a rather ordinary cultural accomplishment.

To combine it with politics is dangerous. Since a few people have adopted the opinion that only active negation can be the strategy of true creativity, the import of this highly abstract philosophy into the arena of the strike resulted in the strike (which was hopeless anyway) losing its creative energy from the start.

Another question is: to what extent was Stewart Home aware of the fact that he himself with this conception had brought into being an instrument which could be suitable for buttressing authority? This authority would be able to discipline a part of the artistic sub culture. (It is in fact much easier to control a negation that a production.) Home was very narrow-minded concerning productive activity in general and the forms of independent art activity in the alternative scene in particular (see the recent issue of Smile magazine or his book, The Assault on Culture).

Home had the enormous gall to postulate a general validity for his own ideas. I don't know if he realized at all that in case of the total participation of the underground in a strike which lasted three years, the whole network would decay. Or is there not much to regret? (Maybe this egomania is an element taken from Neoism. But Stewart Home had this mentality before his neoist period began: his first known project was a band he was in called White Colours. His aim was to have all bands in England call themselves White Colours.)

Even when I pay respect to the expression of Home's opinions, I must say: this is not an explicitly leftist mentality, and as a political activity, it has nothing at all to do with the emancipation of humanity. It is much more an aristocratic phenomenon or-in the microcosm of the alternative scene-a standardizing of all opinions according to the model of totalitarianism.

We can also say that we have to face the problem of the difference between intellectual abstraction and practical thought. We can thank Stewart Home that the second art strike was begun at all, but in reality the views and ambitions which initiated the strike were major causes for frustration, as well. But, the first months of the strike demonstrated that a lot of problems could not be solved without this crisis. What these problems are begins to become clearer now, and this is a positive result. But good motives need better and more professional instruments. Maybe because of this lesson the art strike was worth the trouble.

[Geza Perneczky