Artivism – The Battle for Museums in the Era of Postmodernism
Alexander Adams, Societas – Imprint Academic, pp 215, £14.95
GUY WALKER welcomes a spirited sortie onto the cultural battlefield
One function of placing fine paintings in ornate gold frames or sculptures on marble plinths is to demonstrate the special status accorded to fine art in human affairs. These objects earn this status by virtue of their ability to furnish us with some of the most sophisticated pleasures in the hierarchy of human pleasure. The treatment of the pulling down of statues from their plinths to serve baser ends (rather than for reasons of historical guilt) is, therefore, a cultural matter. As a result, it is in no way demeaning to say that the latest book by artist and art critic, Alexander Adams, fires an impressive salvo in what have become known as ‘Culture Wars’.
‘Artivism’ is the pressing of art and resources for art into the grubbier service of political protest and campaigning. It is also the displacement of fine art by what is no more than political activism. This is antithetical to the uplifting precepts of Emmanuel Kant, whose ‘Categorical Imperative’ made human beings ends in themselves in his ‘Kingdom of Ends’, never to be used as mere means to ends. The ability to produce representative art is a pleasure-giving end of this kind, one which appeals to deep human needs rather than shallow political outlooks. The greatest artists of the past understood this intuitively, and underwent long technical apprenticeships in order to fulfil this role properly.
Adams’ survey of the phenomenon and origins of artivism is comprehensive in its breadth. Although the book begins with the Athenian Parthenon and references Leonardo and Michelangelo, he finds the real philosophical origins of it in the rational Enlightenment begun by Bacon and Descartes. Their mathematical and “scientific method….encouraged the collection of data”. This led directly to Jeremy Bentham’s anti-Kantian, utilitarian approach which emphasised the best mathematically calculated ‘outcomes’ for the largest number above all things; there are echoes here of the impersonal big data approach and equality by outcome or ‘equity’ that plague modernity. Adams underscores an essentially conservative allegiance later, in his conclusion, by writing “….every institution established ( or substantially reshaped) according to Enlightenment liberalism has fallen to progressive subversion.”
Rather than Kant, Adams uses other big guns to underpin his art-for-art’s sake, pro-formalism, pro-connoisseurship, pro-objectivity and pro-canon thesis – first, Benedetto Croce,
“[Art] has its own object, the Beautiful, that stands independently on equal terms with the other three (Logic, Economics and Morality). […] true poetry must have no utilitarian, moral, or philosophical agenda.”
Equally weighty support comes from George Orwell:
“…many writers about 1939 were discovering that you cannot really sacrifice your intellectual integrity for the sake of a political creed – or at least you cannot do so and remain a writer.”
Goya’s images of war might be “if not a cry for passivism, a call for pity and restraint”, but they only survived to be in the canon (if one remains) in the twenty-first century by placing artistic execution above political executions that could have been recorded by a plethora of lesser artists.
The author studies the aetiology of the disease of ‘cultural entryism’ that demotes fine art and promotes activism, that has colonised our public museums. This occurred in stages. First was the movement, demanded by Enlightenment universalist and utilitarian principles, from private, monastery or university-owned art collections to public libraries, galleries and museums: “The modern state encroached on the functions of monarchy, aristocracy and church, so noblesse oblige was replaced by the duty of an enlightened bourgeoisie, industrialists and landed gentry.”
This inevitably led to a symbiotic relationship between corporate business and the state, incarnated in bodies such as the Arts Council of England (ACE) and the American National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and the emergence of a variously located ‘managerial elite’ whose progressive, Whiggish ideas involve a desire for “..homogenisation, globalisation, technocracy, atomisation and planned economies…”. To these can be added a desire for increased immigration and anti-capitalism. Once in control this elite effected a “territory grab of resources earmarked for art without any consideration for the wishes of the public…” and it is these resources that are used to commission and fund artivism.
Having explored this historical pathology and its philosophical origins, Adams unpicks economic and psychological strands. The funding of artivism by public bodies and corporations has created an underclass of artistically emasculated ‘artists’ subject to “no aesthetic competency threshold” and reduced to a kind of dependent serfdom. Some are real artists reduced to penury and dependency, others have no talent at all. Adams encourages pity for these latter“…a generation of non-artists (produced by universities) doomed to redundancy, deliberately left unskilled, chockful of abstruse theory and puffed up with self-regard, for whom the art world (and wider society) has no use whatsoever. Where else could these graduates have gravitated to except artivist quasi-social work?”
In the face of this, a return of old-style patronage of artists by wealthy patrons which guaranteed that only the excellent survived and thrived while the untalented withered from the field, might be welcomed, to put this deluded underclass out of the misery of its unrealistic artistic aspirations. It might also remove a “client class” of minorities cynically and exploitatively created by “…corporations wishing to improve their images, pressure groups wishing to make an impact, charities needing to disburse sums periodically and state agencies with annual budgets to be allocated.”
Psychologically, Adams detects a vengeful totalitarian predilection within the ‘managerial elite’ who run the arts show. In a further echo of a modernity where the BBC uses our licence fees to admonish and sermonise us on our lack of virtue, this elite uses tax pounds and dollars extracted from the populace to remind them how despicable they are. This is one of the abounding ironies and paradoxes Adams indicates. He also shows how potentially dangerous activist renegades are tamed by the “ruling class” to the extent that they become establishment “foot soldiers” – and how foreign artivist migration advocates are often in conflict with the wishes of the local populations they visit. The managerial elite use the tactic of making us pay for our own humiliation as a “power play” intended to reinforce and signal the subjugation of the populace, the desire for which may derive from the “Dark Triad (narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy)”. It’s that sombre and that pathological for Adams. As in much climate activism, a profound anti-humanism is in play, as well as a depersonalisation where ‘collectives’ refers to persons as ‘bodies’ and ‘voices.’
This is an excellent publication doing fine work in identifying, naming and recording a phenomenon which Adams describes as “a predatory pike released into a carp pool” and “an invasive species”. If I have any quibbles, they are as follows.
He makes it clear in the body of the book that real “artistic merit” and “artistic endeavour” must trump everything in the art world and complains, for example, that “Feminists state that all art must be political because there is no division between art and politics.” Orwell and Croce seem to back this up. However, the beginning of the book is a little confusing on this point. He writes, “Drawing lines between art, artivism and political action is not always possible. This ambiguity (and precedents set up by art of older eras) allows overt political action cloaked as artivism to enter the area we set aside for public arts, allowing artivism to assume the status and resources of art.”
He illustrates this ambiguity with examples of artistic resources being used in the creation of the “political statement” of the Parthenon and the lending of their talents by Leonardo and Michelangelo to the political projects of their patrons. He also cites the socialist content of Millais’ and Courbet’s work. A writer and critic of Adams’ undoubted firepower should be able to make the fine but real distinctions between the passing contemporary content and the brilliant artistic execution that makes it survive amongst a welter of similar material or between artivism – and also between an artist lending his talent in return for remuneration to projects that aren’t his, and prototype artivism. He seems to make exactly this distinction in the rest of the book.
He raises a very interesting idea early on:
There is more than a touch of the religious rite about artivism. The activist- shaman-priestess prescribes the place and time of communion, her assistants prepare the space and provide necessary materials. The tribe gathers to attend the publicly announced rite, respectfully assisting by witnessing and participating as directed.
My regret is that he didn’t pursue this line later in the book. He writes very well, but there is a strange stylistic tic whereby he frequently omits the definite article as in “…but it is worth bearing in mind that progressive artivism of today is complementary to….” This sometimes gives a clunkiness to the prose.
But excellences by far outweigh the quibbles. I could add to the former a welcome practical prescription for resisting artivism in the chapter of that name, under the headings of “1, Ethics, 2. Exclusion, 3. Defunding, 4. Reduction, 5. Education, 6. Enforcement”, and the pages devoted to the true dissidents known as the ‘Stuckists’ after Tracy Emin’s derogatory term. I also enjoyed the pace-changing of the entertaining and colourful insertion of Case Studies between chapters, especially the swingeing take-down of Banksy.
The book ends on a pessimistic note. Adams feels our arts establishment has an “inherent foundational flaw” deriving from its roots in the Enlightenment’s rationalism. He suggests, root and branch: “…maybe it would be better to lose trust in that system.” One senses, perhaps, a longing for the more Darwinian days of the Renaissance.