Brian Holmes: Art and the Paradoxical Citizen

Art institutions, if they want to survive as something other than corporate design labs and pay-per-view leisure centers, will have to show larger numbers of people that they can serve as social sites for participation in the development of alternatives. Really, it’s no joke to associate the historical call to arms with a contemporary call to the arts. At stake is a new practice of what it means to be a citizen.

To the Arts, Citizens: it’s a fantastic title. Hearing it, anyone who’s been involved in political activism will probably think: “At last we’re getting somewhere.” The idea that art is part of citizenship, that there is a democratic exercise of the arts within the framework of public life, and that this appeal to the citizen-artist can be supported by a major cultural institution, is about as progressive as you could get today. Especially since this is a direct echo of the French republican tradition, where the phrase, Aux armes citoyens, is nothing less than a call to rise up and institute democracy against tyranny – in other words, a call to revolution. The Portuguese know the meaning of this revolutionary call to arms from decisive historical events that are still in living memory. So one can imagine that the organizers of this exhibition did not take their title lightly.

The call to arts is a recognition that citizenship does not stop at the ballot box, that an expressive politics is essential to a democracy, and that in an era saturated with media and advertising, the aesthetic dimension has become a crucial field of social interaction. What’s more, this call to arts is an acknowledgement that censorship continues to exist in all societies and is often intensifying; that archaic values and beliefs raise a barrier to free expression even more powerful than the force of the law; and finally, that citizens’ day-to-day participation in the shaping of their own societies is as urgent an occupation today as at any time in the past, precisely because of the professionalization of politics and the tendency to treat any disruption of the norm as a security issue. All this assigns challenging roles to institutions that attempt to take up the call to arts. Among them is not only that of exhibiting politically engaged art to the public, but also of mediating the ensuing debates, sustaining the inevitable critiques and scandals, archiving the results and thereby helping to build a culture of democratic exchange, which is never easy to maintain and never flourishes without the people involved taking an individual stand, beyond all bureaucratic limits and guarantees. Quite a tall order – as though we were going to wake up and start living again.

Could anything like this dream be achieved in reality? Based on work carried out with a wide range of collaborators over the last decade, what I would like to outline in this short essay is a critical and constructive program that necessarily goes beyond any single exhibition. At a minimum, such a program would have to address the relations of art to financial capital, the issues of national identity and race in artistic representation, and finally, the question of citizenship itself as a frame for the individual’s involvement in society. The call to arts requires us to face certain paradoxes. But it is a chance to examine how democratic and egalitarian ideals can be expressed right now, in the world where we are actually living.

Forces of desire
In the developed and rapidly developing countries, the most impressive urban project of the last thirty years has been the redefinition of cities as competitive nodes in a global financial network. The aesthetic-economic phenomenon of iconic “starchitecture” – including a large number of luxurious new museums – has been the most obvious sign of this competition for visibility within the world hierarchy of cities. At the level of lived experience, the process translates into the gradual reclassification of decaying residential areas as consumption zones for the new professional and managerial classes, i.e. gentrification. Here, the role of artists as “urban pioneers” who brave the difficulties of life among minority and immigrant populations has been well documented since the 1980s – often via highly critical shows in the new museums of the financialized city centers. Yet despite some radical attempts to work with social movements, the failure of critical artists to achieve anything concrete on the level of urban planning demonstrates the trap of career paths dependent on the same flows of investment capital that have reshaped the cities, driving poorer inhabitants far away from the urban centers. In this story, the “call to arts” has mainly involved, not citizenship or democracy, but the valorization of urban real estate as a speculative commodity, leading directly to the current economic crisis.

The place of the arts within the gentrification process derives from their capacity to foster specific kinds of desire. Over the thirty-year period of financialized globalization, it has become obvious that certain forms of vanguard art – for example, the dadaist practice of visual montage, the  situationist theory of the construction of ambiances, and the pop-art embrace of exuberant exoticism – have been functionalized to fit the perceptual and expressive repertoire of a networked corporate culture. Just as  pictorial abstraction offered a visual vocabulary for the dominant forms of industrial capitalism in the Cold War period, so the recombinant signifiers and improvised performance practices of relational art have shown their adaptation to today’s computerized economy of images and signs. The homogenization of the urban landscape under the cover of glittering lights and exotic attractions poses a serious challenge to cultural and educational institutions, whose long-term capacities for the generation of alternative values are increasingly reduced by demands for budget-cutting and box-office type profitability – demands which can only be satisfied by the transformation of those institutions into leisure facilities and corporate innovation centers. However, it is now possible that the economic crisis and the diminishing appeal of kaleidoscopic urban experiences will offer new missions to public culture, if anyone is willing and able to invent them.

Fenced-in nations
Perhaps the greatest challenge to an egalitarian and radically democratic stance in art today comes from the resurgence of conservative electoral rhetorics based on national identity. This resurgent conservatism and outright racism grows in direct proportion to the destabilization of traditional customs and labor relations by the individual mobility and ethnic mixing that accompanies financially driven globalization. Threatened with joblessness, established citizens attack the migrants whose cheap manpower used to make their lives so easy. In the United States, major progress in the cultural integration of ethnic minorities was countered, from the late 1980s onward, by the outbreak of the neocon “culture wars.” Since then, the US has witnessed the construction of physical barriers as well as a network of electronic security systems along its 3000-kilometer border with Mexico. The situation is even worse in the European Union, whose member states have not had such long experience with  inbound immigration and have not been able to generate the political and cultural representation that can bolster the claims of recent arrivals to full citizenship. At this point, the political systems of all these democracies are prey to racist sloganeering, resulting in the intensification of repressive policing, the arbitrary denial or suspension of visas, outbreaks of violence at street level and increased legitimacy for the seemingly endless wars in the Middle East.

The important question is, to what extent can contemporary art institutions become effective sites of social integration, beyond the mere display of exotic signifiers? At least three pathways offer real possibilities. The first and still most common is the high-culture elaboration of motifs and cultural practices borrowed from the heritage and everyday experience of minority groups, which is exactly what modernist art did with European folk motifs in the early twentieth century. The second involves the collaboration of artists with neighborhood groups on activist campaigns for equal rights and protection from violence and discrimination – a kind of work which gives minority publics a direct stake in the institution. Unfortunately this remains rare in contemporary art because of a class bias that uses the criterion of aesthetic purity as a way to screen out most local participation. The third possibility is to support and display vanguard practices from non-Western countries as a way to explore world society and to encourage the complex process of cross-cultural interpretation. All these possibilities challenge the former concept of artistic institutions as the guardians of a national identity. And the most interesting thing about them is that they all point directly to the limits of current conceptions of citizenship.

Human ecology and progress
The fundamental political problem now facing the developed nations is that the values of citizenship are conceived exclusively in terms of economic growth. The only imaginable progress lies in rising profit margins and increasing levels of consumption. But the endless search for competitive advantage requires at least four things: an aggressive expansion of markets at the expense of other countries; a cheapening of labor either through automatization or recourse to a work force not subject to national standards; a predatory use of credit to extract savings from individuals and governments; and finally, a negligence of the human and ecological costs, which are treated as “externalities” and left off the account books of a social order that is regulated only by monetary accounts. Under these conditions, the “citizen” is redefined as an increasingly cheap worker (whose economic rights should continually be diminished) and as a voracious consumer (whose pockets must be filled with borrowed money). At the same time, the “non-citizen” is invited to work for even less than the most ill-paid sectors of the national population while simultaneously being reviled and declared illegal, so as to stave off demands for expensive social programs. Clearly these are the ingredients of not one but several disasters, all of which are at least partially underway: economic penury even within the developed nations; climate change for the entire world; generalized alienation manifesting itself as terrorism; and finally, outright war. The twenty-first century is likely to see a major crisis, different from those that marred the twentieth, but perhaps equally violent.

In this threatening configuration, the artistic sphere remains a place where philosophical inquiry, sociological analysis and radically egalitarian political concepts can be articulated with common forms of perception and intimate experiences of daily life. Yet such uses of art are rare, by comparison to the major role that aesthetic production has taken in the financialized economies. And they are paradoxical, compared to the reigning doxa or dogma of financial capitalism and consumer citizenship. To sustain the democratic potential of artistic invention will ultimately require a reworking of the very notion of progress, whether through the kind of fiery debate that attends upon scandalous transgression, or through the pleasure that comes with a generous exploration of diverging values. Art institutions, if they want to survive as something other than corporate design labs and pay-per-view leisure centers, will have to show larger numbers of people that they can serve as social sites for participation in the development of alternatives. Really, it’s no joke to associate the historical call to arms with a contemporary call to the arts. At stake is a new practice of what it means to be a citizen.