"Down with art that aspires to be nothing more than a
spot of beauty on the ugly lives of the rich. Down with art
that tries to be a glittering stone in the merciless and dirty
lives of the poor. Down with art whose sole purpose is to
escape a life not worth living. Work for life and not for
palaces, cathedrals, cemeteries and museums. Work in the midst
of all and with everyone."
Alexander Rodtschenko, Slogans, 1920/21
If one is involved with art history, then the dominant theme
of the nineties - the saga of radical change along with paradigm
change - seems to be less radical New Art and more about refocusing
on the determination of that which counts as contemporary
and relevant. In fact, what is happening is an updating of
the discourses and practices with which artists were involved
during the entire twentieth century.
At the beginning stands the project of modernism: committed
to the spirit of the enlightenment, progress-oriented, optimistic
and justice-conscious. A pre-view was already staged in one
of the century's first theatre plays, Chekhov's "Three
Sisters," written in 1900 and premiered in spring of
1901. Even these unhappy figures, who with their rudimentary
education are cut off from all intellectual discourse in their
empty provincial Russian nest, still feel the utopia of the
turn of the century. In the future, happy people will exist
who will no longer be able to imagine how miserably those
- from today's perspective pre-modern - people, lived.
When the Revolution transformed Czarist Russia into the Soviet
Republic in 1917, artists were heavily involved in designing
the new society. Lenin himself repeatedly referred to the
significance of their role.
In their central demands, the constructivists followed the
same objectives as the entire European avant-garde after World
War I: to unite art and life and to break from the indifferent
autonomy of the nineteenth century's bourgeois salon art.
However, different countries and movements have attached different
significance to the impulses for this break and have connected
it to diverse political, social, institutional-critical or
To clarify: Even the Italian futurist's project was a political
one, although it was tied to a deep-seated elitism, nationalism
and fascism. Even the futurists were calling art back into
life. In the Futurist Manifesto of 1909 there is a statement
similar to Rodtschenko's: "We want to destroy the museums."
Yet Marinetti also goes on to state: "We want to praise
militarism, patriotism and war, the only hygiene of the world."
The individual exists here merely as the man at the steering
wheel; the masses are cast as extras in the stage light of
The futurists are often put forward as counter examples when
art as social intervention is defined as primarily a project
of the left. The futurists, however, were not concerned with
actual human standards of living. Umberto Boccioni wrote in
1910, in a manifesto that follows along with Marinetti: "Human
suffering interests us to the same degree as the suffering
of an electric light bulb, whose trembling ends with a heart-thumping
screech of color."
The critical, emancipative and enlightening claim that we
identify with art as social intervention leads to its assessment
as a leftist project. But what is leftist? The Italian philosopher
Norberto Bobbio published an essay in 1994 with the subtitle
"right and left." In it, he describes the twin concepts
as necessities ever after the end of state communism in Europe,
at a time of economic interests' unchallenged priority over
political course setting. Bobbio comes to the conclusion that
it is in no way obsolete to associate the left with freedom,
equality and fraternity.
Of course, also in leftist theory, the claim to social shaping
through art is controversial. In the philosophy of the Frankfurter
Schule there are clearly divergent views. On one hand it is
obvious that there is no pure consciousness and no consciousness
outside of economically determined power structures. It is
still, however, remarkable that in the context of the authority-critical
and trial-like art of the nineties, also projects, actions,
texts and other non-object forms have long serviced their
own markets. Similarly, often our own ideological character
is the blind spot overlooked in the process of ideological
Theodor W. Adorno assumed that art in the age of the mass
media and culture industry would dissolve into a popular culture
that is understandable and accessible to the masses and into
a thin, mysterious and retreating avant-garde, whose hermeneutics
and elitism it would defend as a reservoir of resistance.
In this, he denies the possibility of an emancipative-participatory
practice of art which transverses art.
Herbert Marcuse, on the other hand, sees particularly in this
marginality and peripheral position of art its affirmative
character - as a demarcated zone in which societal problems
and neuroses can be acted out without consequences. - Once
again, nothing effectuating social change. Jürgen Habermas
speaks of a "false revocation of the separation of art
and life," in which he meets Marcuse's "repressive
de-sublimation," which means the loosening of social
coercion for the purpose of better economic and institutional
That many of the Frankfurter Schule's ideas no longer apply
in the current context has to do with the changes of the media,
power structures, the creation of more and more partial audiences
and forms of information and communication. The kind of problem
that artists of the left must confront, for example, is culturalization
- the transposing of virulent conflicts into art events. What
do events such as "Film Day Against Racism" or "Anti-Xenophobia
For Norberto Bobbio, the concept of equality is central to
a contemporary leftist worldview. Art's connection to leftist
guiding principles can take place on various levels. For one,
in the message formulated by a work: famous historical examples
are George Grosz' brutal portraits of capitalists or the worker-frescos
of Diego Rivera. However, the effort to make the art business
less elitist is also leftist, as was attempted for example
by the "Art Workers Coalition" in New York after
1969, when it took up opposition to the white-herrscher attitude
of the Museum of Modern Art. Or collaboration between artists
In the countless manifestos of the Russian constructivists,
equality is formulated as solidarity among artists, architects
and writers together with workers and farmers. The professed
commonality however, besides being a very generously described
aim of communist society, remains unclear.
In 1920, Tatlin announced the program of the "Productivists'
Group," in which he turns against the increasing individualism
of the constructivists. And in 1923, the Magazine LEF (Left
Art Front), founded by Wladimir Majakowski warned: "Constructivists!
Beware of degenerating into a school of aesthetics.... Production
artists! Beware of becoming artisans for the applied arts.
Learn from the workers while you are teaching them. Your school
is the factory."
Popular art history reduced Russian constructivism to Malewitsch's
"Black Square," perhaps also including Tatlin's
"Tower"-design. Rodtschenko is marketed today as
a photographer and Warwara Stepanowa's worker's clothing is
shown at art and fashion shows next to Elsa Schiaparelli.
And the term "Production Art" is rarely ever used
today in the sense of an interaction between artists and industrial
workers on equal levels.
The problem that resurfaced toward the end of the nineties
was also not solvable at the beginning of left art: equality
among artists and non-artists in projects conceived of and
carried out by artists remains a fiction. Alexander Rodtschenko
and Warwara Stepanowa, unlike other constructivists, consciously
give up painting; yet even these production artists finally
see themselves as teachers and graphic designers who work
for and not with the population. Their pedagogic idealism
is to be seen in the image-language which they and others,
among them Majakowski, developed for the illiterate and which
is used as political propaganda as well as for advertising.
In the equal positioning of the fine and the applied arts,
the Russian revolutionary artists are related to art producers
of the nineties. With one difference: If an artist, for example
a woman artist, creates graphic art today, then that is most
probably for a catalogue, flyer, brochure or other means of
communication within the art industry. The kind of worker's
association that Rodtschenko developed in 1925, the Club for
Cultural Workers, corresponds today to the "Depot - Art
and Discussion" in Vienna which was set up in 1994 by
the artist Josef Dabernig.
In the European/US-American writing of art history, constructivism
is seen as a formal-ism among other -isms. However, in the
space of time from the turn of the century until Soviet isolation
under Stalin (Lenin died in 1924) there had been a flourishing
exchange of political ideas between Russian and German artists.
The manifesto, for example, of the German "November-Gruppe,"
founded after the failed revolution in November 1918, was
influenced by the Russians. Their guidelines, published in
1919, could have been taken from the New York "Art Workers
Coalition's" 1969 manifesto and are also consistent with
"We want a voice and an active roll in:
All architectural projects as a matter of general interest:
in city planning, in new developments, in public administration
buildings, industry, social constructions, in private building
The reorganization of art academies and their curricula, ...the
selection of teachers by artists' associations together with
The transformation of museums: eliminating prejudice from
collection policies, putting a stop to the purchasing of objects
which are only valuable to scholars... the transformation
of museums into art centers for the general public...
Accessibility of art halls: eliminating privileges and halting
the influence of privilege and capitalism...
Legislation in artists' affairs: rights for artists as inventors
of ideas, protection of artists' ownership, doing away with
all taxes on art works."
Not long thereafter, the "November-Gruppe" was attacked
by "Opponents of the November-Gruppe" for being
false revolutionaries. Today, their challengers are more prominent:
Otto Dix, George Grosz, Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Höch.
And with this it was possible to move on to dada: to the dada
movement which of course can only be understood with a much
more anarchist political concept than constructivism, which
dada associated mainly with the rejection of the bourgeoisie.
The ideology of constructivism had already begun to fade in
the inter-war period. As of the late twenties, three concepts
became the three main coordinates of art: abstraction, realism
Popular art historical works are picture books. Since art,
through to the present, has for the most part produced images
and objects, its content continues to be falsified through
the convention of illustration. Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes
and Roy Lichtenstein's paintings of typeset copies are reproduced
in art books' chapter on the sixties. What is not shown? For
example the neighborhood projects that Stephen Willats has
carried out since the mid-sixties with tenants of English
housing developments in which he examines, together with them,
their living conditions.
The picture book as form of mediation is the side effect of
an art system whose core functions through tradable goods.
All major institutions within this system need an art that
is transmittable through individual objects: the museums,
art halls, auction houses, galleries, the accompanying magazine,
etc. As soon as artists produce something other than transportable
and representable objects or installations, they fall out
of art historic mediation and canonization. Their visibility
and with it the extent of their effectiveness is limited.
Only recently has the historical phase of concept art been
dealt with by museums - the exhibition "Reconsidering
the Object of Art" on the period 1965 - 1975 took place
at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 1996.
In 1997 Catherine David designed a documenta with a conceptual-political
focus. Yet the transmission of the history of ideas is always
insufficient. Why is Jeff Koons known but not Dan Graham;
why is Anselm Kiefer a star while no one has ever heard of
A history of activism and participation in twentieth century
art: an 'other' art history with a focus on participatory
interventions with critical-emancipative intention. It is
clear that the constructivists and productivists can only
be credited as pre-participatory art, after which they must
form the base for such a story.
Why is it at all necessary to rewrite art history? Must the
established canon be changed?
Shedding a new light on the historical bases and writing critical
artistic practices into art history: only on this basis can
art history carry weight and find a new, sustainable definition.
Without this historical consciousness, it remains possible
to attack socially and politically motivated art, by which
authority is legitimated by turning back to an aesthetically
oriented art history. In autumn of 1998 in Austria, one such
attack was made by the former dean of the Hochschule für
Angewandte Kunst. Art's capabilities consist, Rudolf Burger
wrote, "only of sensually sympathizing with individual
problem moments, of symbolic or allegorical illustration,
and this only in retrospect." Everything else is deemed
nonsense. Or non-art.
Between agitation and animation. Activism and participation
in twentieth century art:
The Duden dictionary for German foreign words and phrases
explains agitation as a compelling advertisement for certain
political views, animation as invigoration and excitement,
activism as the emphasis of purposeful behavior and participation
as (temporary) involvement.
Like agitation, activism is usually based on some pre-formulated,
mostly politically defined goal, while participation claims
to be nothing more than someone playing a role in some process,
some event, some business that could also be at a profit or
loss in an economic sense. Participatory practices in art
are developed fundamentally as a result of dissatisfaction
with the status quo. Whatever artists are dissatisfied with
is followed by a characteristic offering of participation
and enabling the participants a degree of self-determination.
Participation can be based on the equality of rights and competencies
and can be distributed in the sense of the allocation of social
capital (knowledge, skills) to real or presumed underprivileged
groups. Or animation: whereas animation - in an entertainment-oriented
Club Med style, in which artists guide free-time activities
- is a somewhat crude description for art projects. Art's
recent 'festivalization' has offered us a number of such spectacles.
After World War II, a participatory concept of art found further
development, above all in interdisciplinary collaborations.
At Black Mountain College in North Carolina, USA, the painter
Robert Rauschenberg, the musician John Cage and the choreographer
and dancer Merce Cunningham, among others, met each other.
They developed - partly together and partly individually -
works with participatory approaches. In 1952 Cage composed
"4' 33''", a piece which consisted only of sounds
from the concert hall. The same year, Rauschenberg painted
his "White Paintings," whose integral component
is the shadow of the observer. In both works, the audience
was quasi instrumentalized and not individually active. That
may appear insufficient by today's standards, yet historically
it was a preliminary step. These examples are also interesting
for a more precise definition. Without an audience, neither
"4' 33''" nor "White Paintings" can exist
at all, exist completely or make any sense. The extent of
audience participation in projects is a question that has
been very current in Austria since the early nineties. When
does an artwork become an artwork? Was it when the artist
Christine Hill opened her second-hand boutique - as she did
in Berlin and then at the documenta X - or was it when someone
first bought an article of clothing there? In any case, Hill
does not define her "Volksboutique" as an installation
but as a realm for social communication.
Even fluxus events and happenings were oriented on participation,
yet the amount of audience participation followed lines that
had been predetermined by the artist. As a result, participation
sometimes meant touching the art objects and rearranging them.
The German Franz Erhard Walther displays objects, often textiles
with choreographic instructions - which is related to Franz
West's concept of sculpture in which significance is first
given by handling the objects.
This concept of participation does not of course necessarily
open up a social realm.
In the sixties, the emancipation movement made an immediate
dynamic impact on art. In North America, above all in the
USA, the civil rights movement influenced the art scene decisively:
the women's movement, the protests against the war on Vietnam,
the struggle for the rights of ethnic minorities, black power.
Grassroots organizations were formed, citizens organized.
In 1969 artists founded the "Art Workers Coalition"
after a conflict with the Museum of Modern Art. Soon the coalition
organized protests and events on museum policies, the representation
of women and persons of color in the art world, the neglect
of the socially disadvantaged in terms of cultural offerings
and last but not least, also against the Vietnam war. These
actions were however not declared to be art works. The members
- among them Nancy Spero and Leon Golub, Carl Andre, Robert
Morris and Lucy Lippard - also carried out their work individually.
At the same time, Vito Acconci was staging participatory actions
with underlying political content. He spent every night for
four weeks in spring 1971 on a lonely pier on the Hudson and
invited the public to visit him between one and two in the
morning when he would then tell them a secret. The visitor
became an ally, at the mercy of the artist.
One consequence of the emancipation movement was in the cultural
field of integration with less privileged groups. They were
encouraged to formulate their own ideas and to find their
own cultural expression. "Giving a voice" is the
corresponding parole. In 1978 in a slum in South Bronx, the
artist Stefan Eins founded his art studio "Fashion Moda,"
which became a cultural pressure cooker in which graffiti,
rap, popular culture and high art were all steamed together.
Numerous related projects and initiatives can be cited: in
the beginning of the eighties, the "Group Material"
from the store gallery on the Lower Eastside or Tim Rollins
and his collaboration with the black ghetto youths under the
label "K.O.S." (Kids of Survival). In the mid-eighties,
the social pressure under conservative Reagonomics and the
tragedy of the Aids epidemic politically remobilized the US
art scene. With "ACT UP," the "Aids Coalition
to Unleash Power," artists, cultural workers and other
activists worked together on strategies against the repression
of the Aids crisis by the government and the increasing hysterical
homophobia and art-xenophobia among politicians. "Art
is not enough," proclaimed the artist-activist collective
Art or not art - in the urgency of activism, these questions
were the last to be asked and would first resurface when Aids
activists' propaganda posters turned up in museums.
The dominant figure of the art-politics-participation debate
in Germany never doubted the status of art. With Joseph Beuys,
everything was art: from his enigmatic objects to his candidacy
for the Green party, from his autistic-seeming performances
to the founding of the "Freien Internationalen Hochschule
für Kreativität und interdisziplinäre Forschung"
("Free International School for Creativity and Interdisciplinary
Research") in 1974.
Art - art concepts - political practice: When is something
considered art? When is it accepted and by whom? In the New
Genre Public Art, or art in the public interest, as it has
been practiced in collaboration with representatives of special
audiences and interest groups since the eighties in the USA,
the insistence on the status of art is tied to the claim of
a struggle. This is also true of the seemingly endless applications
of art practices in the nineties in Europe, where everything,
from a charitable measure to a party, from a lecture to an
interview, can be defined as art.
Since February 2000, or since the right wing, national-populist
government took office in Austria, artists have played a significant
role in the resistance. Interestingly, the status of art in
these projects and initiatives is not even an issue.
Is it necessary to draw the conclusion that political practice
by artists is only considered art when it's about nothing
serious? Even within a progressive scene, the absence of a
sense of history has its drawbacks. What was initially called
the re-politicization of art in the nineties was rejected
by various sources as a fading trend at the end of the decade
- not only for conspicuously conservative reasons. The demand
for an 'other' art history is also directed against this.
Further literature in:
Charles Harrison & Paul Wood (ed.): "Art in Theory.
An Anthology of Changing Ideas" (Oxford/UK, Cambridge/USA
Norberto Bobbio: "Rechts und Links. Gründe und Bedeutungen
einer politischen Unterscheidung" (Berlin, 1994)