[The Seven by Nine Squares home page] [YAWN 24] [Art Strike 1990-1993]

Why Bother with Propaganda?

The Art Strike asserts that art is bourgeois and elitist. You only have to compare the coverage in the tabloids and the "quality" papers in terms only of the square centimeters devoted to its propagation to reveal the class emphasis of something that apologists claim to have universal value.

When the artists and administrators choose to make work "accessible" it is in the hallowed chambers of the secular cathedrals, the gallery and museum. People are ushered in to pay their respects to the relics, the dead skin of the humanist saints.

Artists of course lead the way, blazing new trails, boldly decorating where no one could be bothered before. This seeps down to us lesser mortals in the form of exciting new adverts, repackaged goodies and novelty philosophies readily bowdlerized by color supplement hacks.

The insistence on metaphor and allusion to placing in the art historical context make it a coded world as specialistic and mystifying as stamp collecting.

Commodification is, if not an inevitability, financially useful. Art objects are the next step up the ladder from executive toys. Intellectual arguments surrounding work become interesting accessories. Neo-expressionism competes with Minimalism for the market share in much the same way as Acid House does with Techno. The most trite examples of this tendency are companies like Hunter and Philip Morris; the one a bomb manufacturer, the other a tobacco corporation; both arts sponsors, and both responsible for thousands of deaths, maybe attempting a little expiation by applying a philanthropic gloss to their facades.

Art creates a false sense of space, an illusionary sanctuary where integrity and intellectual freedom flourish untainted by the coarser aspects of life. From this radical nature reserve artists feel that they, when conscience dictates, are able to make forays into social and political activity. The activist artist is always more interested in success within the art sphere rather than a re-alignment of society where our stolen creativity is repossessed. A recent particularly crass instance of this is the US artist who painstakingly reconstructed a shanty town in a gallery.

Precisely because of the free reign that they feel they have been allowed, artists are able to fine-tune the order of appearances. In this way artists, as other professional intellectuals, become valuable technicians of dominant culture.

Whatever doesn't kill power is killed by it. This is as true for paintings of the reproductive organs of certain plants nicely arranged in a vase as for self-consciously critical work.

There are several possible responses:

To produce art in a strictly formal way. Refine it to a craft of technical, aesthetic and mathematical precision. The old cliche of art for art's sake, and why not? The problem only occurs when the structure of society detaches the by-product of an individual period of creativity, maybe with the artist's connivance, and institutes it as a sterile husk, a coinage.

To subvert its supposed transcendence from within by producing superficial work in the hope that art might implode under the immense density of its own meaninglessness. In this way a lot of self-importantly named Post-modernist art simply reels out knowingly bad jokes. But you can only play about with the pieces of shit for so long.

Others have tried to widen the boundaries of art to achieve the aestheticization of all life. Instead of turning inwards, thrust it out. This can be the highly romantic view put forward by Oscar Wilde or the Surrealists. It can also end up with the nice looking flat roofs of Corbusier that just happen to leak like sieves, or result in the missionary zeal of the community artist, rushing around worried that the vast majority have always been on art strike, desperate to introduce us to the delights of arty-farty vicarious experience. Everyone grins themselves silly when they've got a multimedia arts complex.

To an extent this avoids the issue. By defining everything as art the word loses any currency. (Which is probably a good idea.)

We live in the most highly aestheticized point in history; adverts, TV, music, everything redesigned and repackaged with rabid ferocity. Muzak is the creation of a complete aestheticism. Alone it is not enough. To expand out into life effectively it must be part of a broader onslaught, ideological and economic as well as cultural. That's where the real fun begins.

Silence-the position of the Art Strike. This is possibly the worst, most incoherent response. When we go to bed, cook or laugh, do we do so for capital? Although we are at present doing so in a society where the major benefactors are bastards, to credit them with complete control, accidental or not, is paranoid conspiracy theory. To talk of your existence merely in terms of strategy is to deny the most important and revolutionary impulse-pleasure.

On a level of mundane practicality the only people who go on strike are probably pretty decent anyway. (It would be great to get the pop star artist to shut up for awhile though.) To disarm ourselves of methods of struggle/creativity is doing the recuperator's job for them. Capitalism would of course be different, but would it be any better if nothing had ever been said against it? The strikers are very vocal in exactly why they choose to produce this art of silence.

The Art Strike has been claimed as a good "propaganda act." Why bother? I am only interested in a sustained period of real life-and will not exist as a theatrical symbol. Symbolic acts rely entirely on the media coverage given to them as opposed to real acts which have a direct impact. In this aspect the strike becomes ultra-leftist posture politics. A holier-than-thou pose rather than the arty-farty one.

The most interesting idea to arise in support of the Art Strike is a calling into question the role of "artist" or "politico." Presumably the people who define themselves into these categories are making an honest attempt at a reaction to society. The trouble comes when they see themselves only in these terms. The reaction becomes a self-policed act of conformity. You still refer to yourself as "artist" if you make a point of desisting from the practice known as "art" for a certain period of time. It remains a defined role, albeit negative.

Surely it is common sense to avoid this adoption of stereotypes, but to impose another on top makes an equal contradiction.

The voluntary shifting of roles can be fun, allowing for play, but then why only three years? And why do people have to do it at the same time? I can imagine the Art Strike Action Committees becoming self-help groups for those with cultural cold turkey.

Silence = death, not just for AIDS. Renunciation of creativity is a tactic of despair, not even that but the abandonment of any tactic whatsoever.