Translated by Gerrit Jackson
The editors of this volume aim high: “cannot do everything” not only offers a historical panorama of the theory and practice of civil disobedience but also seeks to tie the latter back to strategies in the visual arts. That is an uncommon move, as most on the political left subscribe either to the belief—originally developed by the educated middle classes—that art is autonomous and loses its freedom once it gets politically involved or to the notion that any kind of artistic protest remains constrained to the field of art and thus without social consequence. Against these conceptions, the political scientist John Holloway argues in his contribution “On Poetry and Revolution” that we must imagine the revolution in artistic terms: it cannot merely respond to violence with violence, to ugliness with ugliness, postponing the question of an art that might be conducive to it. Even if it is almost hubristic to speak of revolution, given the current state of political affairs, Holloway here touches upon an important set of issues. For art is most often a blind spot of the left, or confined to the precincts of Agitprop and romantic representations of the revolution. Yet if the latter were indeed to take place and capitalism abolished, then propaganda art, too, would become superfluous. And would be next? The question of an adequate material aesthetic—one that Adorno once raised, and which he himself answered in very rigorous terms—does not appear in Holloway’s essay. Still, he warns against imagining a revolution without poetry. Pointing to Marx’s distinction between “abstract” and “concrete or useful work,” Holloway argues that artistic work represents, even now, a path toward self-determination. It gestures toward a world based on use-value, not on exchange-value. Yet this quickly gets Holloway entangled in more than one self-contradiction. Capitalism, for one, allows for artistic self-determination only as long as there is a market for it. And what Wolfgang Seidel, formerly a member of the leftist band Ton Steine Scherben, said with respect to the peculiar situation of art within capitalism still rings true: “Calling for a general strike from the theater stage is one thing; doing so in front of the factory gate is something else entirely. The first is art and meets with applause; the second is politics, and touches upon the very foundations of our society.”
Still, as some of the works by visual artists documented in “cannot do everything” illustrate, it is indeed possible to work at an intersection between acts of real civil disobedience and artistic intervention. The Spanish artist fran meana, for instance, holds miniature landscapes mounted on sticks in front of surveillance cameras and later exhibits documentation of these actions in a museum—he is thus both engaged in agitation and educating the public. On the one hand, his works ‘disrupt’ by temporarily suspending surveillance; on the other hand, documenting the intervention in the museum creates awareness of the omnipresence of this surveillance.
Yet it is not merely the close engagement of the visual arts in the context of civil disobedience that makes “cannot do everything” an extraordinary publication. Writing that even addresses civil disobedience as such has become a rarity. As the editors explain in their introduction, the debate, at least in the German-speaking world, has come to a virtual standstill since the Berlin Wall fell. With a view to the anti-globalization movements in the so-called emerging nations and to new alliances forged during the protests against the 2007 G8 summit in Heiligendamm, however, interest in the subject is resurging also in Germany. Yet it is to be feared that much knowledge about the history and development of civil disobedience has been lost. That is why “cannot do everything” is designed as a historical introduction, beginning with Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government” and tracing the development from Gandhi’s anti-colonial resistance in India across the British sit-in called “Operation Gandhi” against the deployment of nuclear weapons in the early 1950s to the protests of the New Social Movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Lou Marin’s historical overview points to an interesting aspect that may be specific to Germany and yet represents a typical case of appropriation by democratic politics: in the early 1980s, some politicians in the Social Democratic Party “sought to co-opt concepts of action including that of civil disobedience for the state, to reconcile them with the lawful state.” Civil disobedience was reinterpreted as a democratic civic duty, but at the price of denying the legitimacy of any sort of illegal action. But once civil disobedience limits itself to a critical letter to the editor or a collection of signatures that all parties involved know will immediately be shredded by the recipient or forwarded to the authorities for data mining, both resistance and democracy itself become farcical. Still, as the fence that kept protesters at Heiligendamm miles away from the politicians made clear, their fear of civil disobedience and its consequences, far from abating, has indeed become panic-like.