May 20, 2021
It is that time of dusk where the sun is long behind the silhouette of Istanbul. The pthalo blue has sunk down towards the land enough to give everything an estrangement, painting the trees dark and ghostly. Among them, there are bodies like countless pillars erected atop the grass, so tight-knit that the green is eclipsed by the blacks of their clothing. Beside them, tents like natural bulbous curves of the land line the other side of the park. As the blue darkens into navy and obscures much of the details around, more bodies join, sitting, pacing, masked, bags on their backs. Singing takes over and lights up corners of the arena at times, echoing in the night wind. Food is shared, water passed around. The dark is pierced only then, by the sudden red flare, by shouts and threats, by eventual streaks of pressurized water and by smoke from the bombs. A scattering dance of the pillars, some motionless and clashing against the shields of police, accompanied by screams and slogans alike — a natural symphony of cacophony.
When the sun lights up the trees once more, the protestors of Gezi are still there, by their tents, sharing food and water, singing anthems where they have set up camp inside the metal fences of the Turkish police. The wounded have been moved to hospitals, houses of friends, even inside establishments that have declared solidarity with them, and more walk into the park to fill their space. When the sun rises to the peak of its route, they will set up the makeshift stage as they do every day, for debates and performances to come. When the police shows up again with TOMA vehicles and attack them with water and gas and flares and batons and rubber bullets, they will stand again with masks and signs that read “OCCUPY GEZI,” “The more you fire, the more we grow,” and “'Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance.”
The Gezi Park protests in May 2013 (fig.1) were without a doubt one of the largest incidents of civil unrest in contemporary Turkey, with multiple weeks of protests, countless wounded and more than ten dead. Having started as a sit-in protest to protect the to-be-demolished Gezi Park in Taksim, it soon turned into a clash of the government and its police with the people who demanded a different, fair, democratic rule. The movement, also called Occupy Gezi, was particularly joined by the youth of Istanbul, including high school students that boycotted their classes so they could participate in Gezi in the daytime instead. That is what my school did.
During my time at Gezi, I was shot with water cannons, but I also listened to debates of philosophy, of politics of our homeland. Gezi changed people. It reframed life and thought. It had affect. In all aspects of its definitions it was a “period of time to be lived through, like an opening to unlimited discussion;” the exact words Nicolas Bourriaud uses to describe the ever-evolving condition of contemporary art (RA 15). So, it begs the question: is this art?
In a similar vein slightly closer to what Yates McKee calls the art system, in his account of the 2014 G.U.L.F. Action in the Guggenheim Museum (fig. 2) where fake currency embedded with the images of the upcoming construction of a Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi and inscribed with “No sustainable cultural value” and “What does an ethical global museum look like?” was showered upon museumgoers, McKee poses the same question: “Was this a work of art? After all, the event was unfolding in an art museum” (McKee 1-3). The inquiry is a sound one to explore, yet he falls short in the second statement as the reasoning for why the answer to the first might be yes — the location of the event is not what defines it as art, or at least, not since the artwork first left the confines of the museum with performance art and spilled onto the streets. What would define G.U.L.F. (and perhaps Gezi) as art instead, as will be discussed, is its ability to create affect and influence over the viewer as art aims to do, in whatever medium or time it is envisioned and unfolded. Whether it is the Mona Lisa, Fountain, raining bills onto the museum floor from the sky, or hundreds standing up against government police, the intention is a ripple effect, the creation of voice, and hopefully an echo that will bounce back from the audience (ideally, louder than the work itself).
In such events, the boundary between what we define as art and what we deem as action (or protest) seems to blur. Is getting gassed by the police art in itself? If so, why? And curiously, why does the idea of such an event being defined as art not seem far-fetched in our understanding of art anymore? After all, the question itself seems a perfectly reasonable one, though it could have never been asked a few decades ago where protest was simply protest.
The evolution and blurring of the boundaries of art have been steady, but never slow. In comparison to what art once was, in all its traditional definitions that call to mind the Renaissance, the countless portraits of royalty and the landscapes that line the Louvre’s walls, we now look on Kusama’s polka dot and color dreamscapes, Oldenburg’s car-kissing spectacles, and Pope L.’s whisperings traveling across streets of Athens (Whispering Campaign, documenta 14, 2017), and decidedly and factually name them as art. The seeds of this discussion as to how we define and understand art starts with the concepts of relational aesthetics and social practice — here, a concise history of their formulation and evolution can prove fruitful to understanding the eventual creation and proliferation of the heart of this paper, protest (as) art.
Bourriaud defines relational art as “an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space…in an effort to inhabit the world in a better way” (RA 14). Of course, this definition post-dates the creation of such an ambition to establish a new role for the artworks to become “ways of living and models of action within the existing real” — art has always in some varying degree been relational, concerned with creating a social and interactive discussion around the work, whether it is a Goya painting of the 1808 Spanish resistance or flyers handed inside Guggenheim about the ethics of Sadiyyat Island (RA 13-15). Claire Bishop in her discussion of Bourriaud’s text explains that since the 60s, this effort and change in art from modernism to art as active agent has been prevalent much earlier than it was stated: in Happenings, Fluxus, 1970s performance art and onwards in the surge of performativity in the art realm, accompanied with a potential trigger for participation and a social interstice, creating, as relational art suggests, free areas that “encourage an inter-human commerce,” a “rhetoric of democracy and emancipation,” (Bourriaud, RA 16; Bishop “Antagonism” 61). Indeed this desire found at the core of relational art to activate the viewer and manufacture work that produces conditions of what Umberto Eco calls communicative situations is easily theoretically underpinned by Walter Benjamin’s “Author as Producer” (1934), Roland Barthes’s “Death of the Author” and “birth of the reader” (1968), and Eco’s The Open Work (1962), and is particularly effective in turning art into a mechanism for grouping, creating micro-communities and collective reactions. This is exactly what is achieved, for instance, when Jens Haaning broadcasts her work Turkish Jokes (1994) through a megaphone in Copenhagen Square, attracting all common tongued members (even non-speakers) into a momentary community.
However, relational art, alongside its success as a connective tissue and platform for interaction and creation between individuals through art, has simultaneously proven to fall short in satisfying the aims of the art system and the sociopolitical emancipatory goals of its liberalist artist community. It has transpired instead as a new wing of art commerce even if it was pitched as “a form of constructive opposition to an over-commodified world [and] a way of recovering moments of communal experience, …attacked for being essentially mystifying, staging pretend moments of togetherness and obscuring the very real divisions that split the world with happy rhetoric of ‘participation’” (Davis). Thus it comes as no surprise that the progressive-minded and oftentimes self-consciously left-wing artist, in their search for more affect and more ripple effects, founded social practice from the skeleton of relational art, radicalizing the recent trend and “picking up on the intellectual armature of ‘relational aesthetics’ but attempting to give it a more explicitly political edge to escape the latter’s incorporation into the art industry” (Davis).
The idea of charging art with a concrete social mission, as well as the questions about the boundaries or the merging of art and non-art, have been recurrent and essential in the history of contemporary art, but it cannot be denied that they are seeing an all-time rise and being lauded more than ever in our post-Fordist age of New Anarchism. By any and all definitions, social practice plays with and reframes “object making, performance, political activism, community organizing, environmentalism and investigative journalism, creating a deeply participatory art that often flourishes outside the gallery and museum system” (Kennedy). This new order of the art system is not limited to the artist either, involving more than ever non-artists, non-profits, and even social service organizations. And in so participating in this blurring of lines, they push an old question —“Why is it art?”— as close to the breaking point as contemporary art ever has. Nato Thompson, one of the leading figures to spearhead the movement itself particularly with his curation of the Living as Form exhibition and his eponymous book, outlines this concept saliently: “Socially engaged art is not an art movement. Rather, these cultural practices indicate a new social order — ways of life that emphasize participation, challenge power, and span disciplines” (6). In some extreme examples deemed as art, we witness: a functioning abortion clinic on waves, sailing into ports where abortion is illegal and performing the procedures on international waters (fig. 3, Women on Waves, 2001); a shipping container in front of the Vienna Opera House with refugees locked inside as participants on a TV show competing for the prize of a residency visa (fig. 4, Please Love Austria, 2000); an abandoned house-turned-sustainability center that uses agriculture, art, and education to provide clean water, food, and affordable housing on Chicago’s South Side (Sweetwater Foundation, 2014-ongoing) — even the spontaneous celebration and jubilation at Harlem upon Barack Obama’s 2008 election can be found on the list of social practice/art as street theater.
Having highlighted these art-historical points of reference and contemporary relevance, we come back to where we started: What is art? Social practice markedly establishes that “the boundary separating art from other kinds of social activity, such as education, academic research, urban planning, and environmental engineering, is increasingly porous” (McKee 27). Then, what stops us from adding protest to this list in any and all of its definitions? Do we have to paint protest to count it as an art piece?
In order to try and explore the contemporary phenomenon of protest as art — here I put emphasis on try, for the discussion of art and action echoes across the art system’s walls and individuals much more equipped than I are still grappling in their own essays with the same issues — there are a few questions we can and must follow: If we accept that art is “de-disciplined,” as Silvia Kolbowski puts it, where do we draw the line between art and life? Or rather, is there a desire or requirement for such a line to be drawn in our contemporary understanding of art and action’s contemporaneous nature — except for the need of the forces of capital to deem value on objects and otherwise by the definitive name “art”? How have the ideology and value of art evolved as it leaves the boundaries of objecthood behind? And if we accept that the question ‘what is art?’ is more elusive than ever, what is the question we now must ask as artists, thinkers, critics, viewers, and participants? Through the exploration of protest and these (notably difficult) inquiries with an overarching discussion of Occupy Gezi, this paper hopes to reach a novel understanding of artistic emancipation and its contemporary, active relationship to political contestation as an art form.
Self-expulsion from the museum
Greg Sholette states in his renowned essay “Public Art, Protest, and 21st-Century Politics” that “the very term ‘art’ is radically shifting, twisting, inverting, if not undergoing an outright self-expulsion by moving out of its familiar dwelling places to occupy the public sphere at an ever-accelerating tempo.” If the fake bills with Guggenheim sketched on them and the water-bound abortion clinic were not proof enough, we can at least take his word for the movement of art out of the two-dimensional wall space into the three-dimensional performative streets — into art as action. Per McKee, this neo-renaissance has been characterized “not by a canon of Great Artists of the kind sanctified by traditional art history… but rather by the collective genius of insurgent multiplicities [emphasis added] engaged in a simultaneous negation and affirmation of art itself” (6). As a continuous evolution and furthering of art as a practice, this era of social practice bleeding into what David Graeber calls creative direct action undeniably opens up new avenues and considerations of art itself, namely a reinvention of art as direct action, collective affect, and political subjectivization. McKee’s analysis of art as action through Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is compelling, and perfectly can be negotiated and reframed to discuss the anarcho-resonant ethos of Occupy Gezi and other protest movements of the same vein that either take a page out of OWS’s book or have informed OWS themselves, such as the Arab Spring, the 2009 Iranian Green Movement, and the Spanish Indignados Movement, as well as from the overall global wave of anti-austerity protests of 2010 and following. As art gets involved with and even positions itself centerstage in such movements, it becomes embedded in a radical mindset and works, not unlike the core of the movements’ politics themselves, to reconstruct the commons “in the face of both localized injustices and systemic crises that characterize the capitalist order” (McKee 6). In the discussion of Gezi, this is most apparent in the methods of creative protest that took place: performances that borrow from Shakespearean soliloquies to street theater; dances and songs to boost morale or to stand up and create voice against the police; even instances where a single protestor stood in front of an army of police and TOMA, silent, unmoving, pillar-like in their strength before a physical clash would take place. Such actions resonate with their connection to the art system as they borrow from essential art historical moments: the solitary, silent protestor mirrors Marina Abramović sitting across the viewer in the museum (The Artist is Present, 2010), only he is self-expelled from the white cube; the speeches that spill from megaphones remind of spoken word poetry, only staged on grass and debris of protest.
On the reverse of the same coin, art as action forces a definite unmaking of art “as it exists within the discourses, economies, and institutions of the contemporary art system — including its progressive sectors nominally concerned with public participation and civic dialogue” (McKee 7). A protest or action as large and commanding as Occupy Gezi takes on the status of event, per Alain Badiou’s definition. Badiou deems event as “something extraordinary that ‘punches a hole’ in the constituted order of our knowledge, expectations, and historical horizons” (Badiou qtd. in McKee 24). Such a rupture is not healed but instead creates change alongside its creation, demanding that we “persist in the rupture,” as Rosalyn Deutsche puts it. This rupture, both political and artistic as is visible in the ramifications of Occupy Gezi and OWS, opens a void, a call to action beyond what was previously possible — an echo is created through the voice of protest, and more follow. In Occupy Gezi and Turkey, this is abundantly clear in the rise in outspoken action and protest against the right-wing traditionalist government in the last eight years since Gezi took place, and alongside it, a rise in arrests, trials, and police-civilian clashes across the country, especially in Istanbul. Protest created, and does at all its instanced in history, action performed with defiance, finding not simply an antagonistic voice, but a voice that was complicated (Rakowitz). In the art system of Istanbul, too, the echo of Gezi and art as action since then has taken off, bringing about a surge in the creation of liberal, unconventional, outspoken artworks inside and outside the museum, spanning from a real buffalo skeleton in the white cube (Monochrome, Ozan Atalan for the 16th Istanbul Biennale, 2019) to flipped cars turned into protest monuments with graffiti in the spirit and memory of Gezi.
In the face of such events overpowering and imprinting the art system with an echo as was the case in OWS or Occupy Gezi, the art system as we define it is unmade through the creation of a scenario that does not solicit direct identification or familiarity as does walking inside a gallery and encountering art as expected. Rather, the audience/participant must grapple in uncertain terms with the singular relations set up by the protest/artwork between the audience themselves and the objects, images, and spaces comprising the protest. This, in Rancière’s terms, is the politics of aesthetics “which negotiates between art as a realm of autonomous, non-instrumental experience, on the one hand, and the pressures of social antagonism on the other;” The ruling order is challenged even as a new, alternative world is prefigured in the action itself (qtd in. McKee 15, 101-2). This is not only true for art but the social status of the space as well: it is astonishing to experience how a space, a city, or a people become first utterly foreignized from their environments, and yet how very quickly in a few days and weeks the system is so very refamiliarized with the rupture. This was exactly the case with Gezi. One day, what we call home was threatened and arms were taken, the news seemed from a different planet, and an uncanniness, an Otherness set in; it was only a week later where hearing and talking about Gezi had become the norm of everyday, and its eventual disappearance was not only a re-foreignization but also a disappointment to most who had invested hope and effort in its possible success to do something. Of course, Gezi did do something — the ever-present rupture and its echo in our arts, politics, and even our everyday behavior as a chance to protest is reminder and proof that protest has done something. The social status of the space that undergoes protest evolves permanently into a new identity and understanding, and thus our relationship with Taksim (or Wall Street in NY) will forever be reframed through this action that left a permanent mark in its wake, the prefigured new world in the protest.
Alongside the reinvention and unmaking of art we have outlined, another avenue that protest opens and reframes is the status of the creator. The artist, previously and historically is placed on a pedestal (an ivory tower, more times than not) as a singular brain behind the work, slaving away in their studio and reflecting all this turmoil and mental agony of being an artist into their work that eventually is presented to the public as the trophy of their suffering — as an artist I can vouch that at one point of their life, most artists were likened to a version of this description considered as their own existence. Even today, a basic search online can bring up articles on ‘artistic genius and how it can change the world,’ loading the weight of it onto the artist as sole creator. This wave was lightened with the efforts of Happenings and Fluxus-era artists where the artwork was accepted as a holistic experience created not by one but many including — and at times, most importantly — the participants; the most critical challenge against the sole artist archetype was with Joseph Beuys’ claim that “Everyone is an artist.” With the previously discussed outline of art’s evolution into social practice and action, this concept of the artist is further muddled and blurred not unlike the blurring of art and life into one another — here in action and social practice, both dichotomies of artist-participant and artist-viewer get blurred and even erased. The participants at the abortion clinic are arguably a bigger part of the ‘art’ than its creators, if ‘art’ here is the performance and action inside the boat; similarly, Christoph Schlingensief with his megaphone shouting at the passersby, presenting and dictating the goings-on of the refugee contest taking place inside the container, is closer to a commentator than the artist, whereas the ‘art,’ if it is the action, is created for the most part by what is inside and by the watchers outside.
If we then turn to protest and Gezi, what happens to the artist? Is it the creator of the #OccupyWallStreet poster that called the people to bring tents to the statue of the Bull who should take credit for the OWS event as an artwork? Are the journalists whose cameras captured the many beautifully haunting images and videos now used as the principal imagery of Gezi the ones to be deemed creator? Is it the protestors? The fact that there is no definite answer as to the creator of protest as an artwork only affirms how protest furthers the blurring social practice has already induced on the artist identity. To further this already complicated non-traditional understanding of the creator, protest also brings about a new definition of the artist as organizer. The phrase alludes to Walter Benjamin’s infamous figure of “author as producer,” per McKee. In a similar vein to Benjamin’s claims on his figure, here too “the political significance of the artist’s work lies not simply in expressing a radical tendency within the established institutions of the art system” (Benjamin 225; McKee 26). Rather, our current understanding and relationship with art is suffuse with radical tendencies and content, and in adopting that content as their practice the artist takes on an “organizing function” as a new paradigm for authorship, artist, and audience is established, embedded in the new and ever-evolving paradigm for art as protest in artistic and political spheres.
In Gezi as well as historically as part of other political and protest movements, the artist has found themselves in this emergent role of the organizer — so central to their function in protest it was that the professional identity as artist is found to be pushed to the secondary. In OWS and beyond, for instance, they were found designing street actions, facilitating large assemblies and protests, choreographing training; in the Arab Spring they found their place with a belligerent and organized street art and graffiti movement to further visibility. In Occupy Gezi, though artists and art took a central role in organizing the protest and ensuring its survival, some of the most popularized and talked about visuals of art(ist) as protest were the photos of famous artists, actors, writers, and performers of Istanbul at the front row of the human fence created against the police forces standing meters away. Thanks to their actions and visibility, many found courage to join that fence and stand against TOMAs and smoke and batons. Beyond the forefront where the clash took place, artists and art found another avenue to enter Gezi Park — as I briefly brought up before, on stages and behind tables set up around the park, performances, debates, platforms for conversation and creation of voice along with its echo found life. Thus, in these moments of protest and within protest as art, the visual of the creator in their studios and museums is broken down and replaced with the artist as part of the people, bringing artist and art itself down from the pedestal and embedding it at the center of protest from where thought, action, and change are culminated. In action, every individual is involved, non-hierarchically, in the practice of art, including the practice of being alive.
Is getting gassed by the police art? Do I have to paint it?
Returning to me being sprayed with freezing water in the midst of Taksim Square, perhaps it is best to consider first why people participate in action in the first place. As previously discussed, McKee in his account of G.U.L.F. Action in the Guggenheim mentions that it could be art, as it is in a museum, to which my critique was that there were other, affective reasons as to why such events were indeed art. Beyond the ideologies outlined above as to why this performative, action-based new status of art that is breaking all definitions of art itself is so sought-after and trending, there is another simple reason: affect.
“Though affect is most often used loosely as a synonym for emotion...[in this context of the experience of art and media], intensity will be equated with affect;” affect is central in art theory to an understanding of the master narratives and to capturing viscerality, “of our information- and image-based late-capitalist culture, in which so-called master narratives are perceived to have foundered” (Massumi 88). Originating from the Latin word affectus, meaning disposition, affect is pre-personal, and the type of experience it involves is unconscious. Not unlike a bifurcation point in chaos theory, affect or intensity creates a sudden critical point in the viewer where a smooth change in the subconscious reaction occurs. The experience of affect is hard to pin down as its birth in the physical body precedes cultural emotions, personal feelings, and the thought that would normally pinpoint what the sensation actually is — skin reacts before the mind can comprehend what it is reacting to at all. When comparing the affect of a two-dimensional painting with a three-dimensional all-encompassing performance, it is no surprise which side prevails. Now consider a performance watched, and a performance taken part in.
In terms of participation in the art itself, social practice or an Badiouan event provides the audience, who is at once the participant and the artist, with an experience that is completely uncanny yet inviting. It is uncanny, for it defamiliarizes and estranges the individual from the real by an experience larger than life; in a rupturing event such as protest, for instance, “a double response of fear and fascination [is triggered] when we confront someone [or something] concealed within ourselves… When we grasp ourselves as Other, the [event and its place once familiar] becomes utterly unfamiliar. We discover that we are ‘strangers to ourselves’ and our place in the world, in the artwork itself” (Freud 192-200, qtd. by Rumble 302). As what Julia Kristeva calls the Stranger, in that moment of action we exist on the threshold, and the action is distanced and furthered from the real and moves closer to the Debordian spectacle, perhaps in a push and pull between art and life. Thus, protest is caught in the ultimate dichotomy of art and life, one which does not demand a choice between one or the other, for through this analysis of its properties — namely its artistic affect, its participative and immersive nature, its inherent connection and contribution to social and political realms of life — it is clear that protest exists within both art and non-art, not within one or the other. Perhaps the best way to consider art and protest is a symbiotic relationship: borrowing from Anatoly Lunacharsky’s discussion of revolution, we can consider art defined as “a means of revolution,” exceptionally because of its function as an agitator of the masses and as “the appropriate form of the expression of revolutionary policies” (qtd. in Raunig 4). In his words, if revolution can give art its soul, then art can give revolution its mouthpiece.
This slow but steady rise in our care and attention to affect in art, as well as our efforts to break down definitions (unmaking and reinventing) to make them anew, has only redefined our understanding of the value of art. In the neo-anarchist decentralization of today, art outside the system gains more value and prestige, surpassing whatever is inside the museum. To be invisible is to be famous — just look at Banksy and his street works. In the turmoil of our sociopolitical environment, our health systems — especially in this pandemic — and our ever-present conflicts of hate whether it is race, gender, sexuality, or religion, art for the people has found a new home that seems here to stay, expelling ‘art for the system’ from its capitalist throne. As we come close to erasing the boundary between art and non-art, the systemic and capitalist understanding of value too dissipates and has to try and conform to this new world order: if you are creating art that is ephemeral, moved away from objecthood, and definitively, purposefully expelled from the museum, how do you define the value of art as art protests against post-Fordist, economic valuation? It seems from our discussion until now that the most attractive feature of this new era of art is its potential for action. So it may not be farfetched to consider that the value of art is slowly but surely being measured by its potential, for what we can call its corporeal affect.
Having outlined both the evolution of art into action and the affect and value of what we deem art, the parallels between protest such as Gezi and art in their affects and value are delineated. Thus, I choose to confidently declare that Occupy Gezi is art. Getting gassed by the police, inherently, is art. In all aspects, it unmakes and reinvents what the meaning of art is, borrowing from art-historical participative and social practices and furthering them with a clear, completely humanitarian and political goal in mind that rightly pushes the professional titles of art and artist to the secondary. In the forefront we find as core intentions the creation of affect, voice, and echo from the environment (the audience and beyond) in return, and most fundamentally a new “criteria of co-existence” in which to persist and continue the work of protest (Bourriaud, RA 109). Similar to Althusser’s idea that culture as an “ideological state apparatus” which does not reflect society, but produces it, protest produces society, art, and thought, thus able to have such mobilizing and reframing effect on society as a whole by allowing a more nuanced expression of the political in art (Althusser, Ecrits 557; Bishop, “Antagonism” 63).
We do not have to paint protest to turn it into artwork. It is already inherently part art, part non-art. However, this does not mean painting, photographing, filming protest do not create new, intriguing work that is closer to the definitions of traditional art than social practice, for painting protest can bring about a new perspective more binding and universal than the locally focused power of protest as art itself. For an example, I will humbly pull from my own practice to consider the case of Gezi and painting Gezi. In an effort to prove this possibility of a more universal bond, the digital painting series HeavyHeart (fig. 6) borrows from news and media photographs and videos of Gezi, bringing them into a collage — the already once-removed images are twice-removed from the original event and rupture, reinvented and reframed as novel images that speak not of a single event but carry vestiges of protest that can apply to protest as a concept and ideology. Erasing the colours of the flags and the emblems of the police forces, the image’s hints for who, when, and where it depicts are blurred enough that the painting could belong anywhere: to OWS, to the Arab Spring, to May Day in France or the election riots in Zimbabwe. Thus the image is both unmade and reinvented, protest is universalized, and from protest as art a new artwork is created to address protest as a meta-critique. To answer the question this section posed, “Do I have to paint it?”, no, yet if we do paint it, its creation is divergently valuable to protest beyond the value of protest itself as art. At any rate, in all honesty the answer to asking if one should make art or not should always be yes.
Not “what is art?” but “why art?”
Let us consider that we added protest with any and all of its definitions to the list of things that are considered art. We have understood how art has been “de-disciplined,” the boundaries between art and non-art, between art and life have been blurred close to nonexistence. Let us say that we have come to accept art in its contemporaneity, rupture, and reinvention. We do not need to look for an object that fits inside the laws of traditional art or inside the museum. We no longer have to ask “what is art,” for we see that the question in this form “reveals nothing more about the present day than a critical appraisal linked to a theory of art or to a definition of art that permits a reformulation of its nature in opposition to (and dramatic rupture with) the recent past and the latest vanguard of art” (Zahm). Let us assume we do not need this age-old question anymore — for an impossible quest, it is only possible to move forth with such assumptions. What thus lies beyond “what is art?”
Once we understand what and how — which we have thoroughly discussed above, I would hope — the only way out is through: by asking why. The ultimate and ever-present hope for the soul-searching that comes with questioning art, I would claim, is to understand why we do it, what it delivers us, why it is worth it — namely, an understanding of artistic emancipation in its contemporary form. I say contemporary form, for emancipatory projects have existed since the beginning of humanity trying to achieve something and to load meaning to any and all action. As a social project, artistic emancipation — that is to say, an objective or desire, though nebulous, which can be deemed semi-collective and active in the current generation of artists and otherwise concerned with the art system — is ever-evolving per decade, per political movement, per national crisis, even. Consider the example of the Arab Spring, and its effect on the perspectives of the artists across North Africa and the Middle East subjected to the entropy in their environment: that rupture and its affect touched that side of the world much, much more than it touched South Korea, who itself is busy with issues of identity and its division in the face of the Korean conflict and the DMZ border. With this lens in mind, artistic emancipation must of course be accepted as a force that is inherently tied to the realpolitik yet likely to evolve according to place, time, and rupture. We must also keep in mind the realistic claim by Žižek that one cannot be free from a system or ideology, and apply this to the art system as one that upholds all the -isms that we need emancipation from. Even as an emancipatory project we must reside inside the ever-present system, and approach it with a power that comes from the -isms that we are hoping emancipation from (Žižek; De Duve 427-53). Thus, if we are to speculate, even naively, some form of artistic emancipation that is remotely universal in character, we must first declare the near-impossibility of this notion and its limits of so-called freedom, and only then must we consider the commonalities that lie within our contemporary insurgent multiplicities that each within themselves are collective artistic efforts.
In line with this thought, a consideration of commonality first and foremost recalls an entropy of the political kind. There is no need to list the worrying amount of crises that is ongoing, taking the world by storm — not to indicate that before these last few centuries, the world was quiet; it never was so. But it is true that the rate of increase in political plight and war zones across the globe is frightful: according to the UN, “globally, [even though] the absolute number of war deaths has been declining since 1946… conflict and violence are currently on the rise, with many conflicts today waged between non-state actors such as political militias, criminal, and international terrorist groups…unresolved regional tensions, a breakdown in the rule of law, absent or co-opted state institutions, illicit economic gain, and the scarcity of resources exacerbated by climate change, have become dominant drivers of conflict… and in 2016 and onwards, more countries experienced violent conflict than at any point in almost 30 years” (“A New Era”). It is almost too reminiscent of “world-tension levels” we see in the corner of the screen in political-strategy video games — in such episodes, the globe icon usually quite quickly catches fire as the world is swept by war and conflict. Consider the current national psychology of the Mediterranean where every move around the borders is treated as a possible imminent war alert, or the number of countries currently ‘at war,’ from Afghanistan to Somalia, and how many times we hear of yet more troops sent, more weapons being sold to the wrong sides. Consider Palestine, and the amount of protests we witness daily across the globe — still, we need to be told “what is going on in [insert country]?” on Instagram even when we think we are hyperaware, because there are always more places hidden from the popular gaze and far from the denizens of the great powers and therefore pushed aside as we all discuss one president, or one army sent to Afghanistan. With this updated picture-book of the world in mind, emancipation, particularly artistic emancipation, for its previously outlined relationship to the realpolitik running deep within the art- and politico-historical realm, demands to be politically charged.
Thus, it is only logical to once again assume that the contemporary artistic emancipation must be a force for the realpolitik, and have an active relationship to political contestation. If art is meant to emancipate us in our contemporary political tension and climate, what emancipates anyone in any system including the art system itself must be much larger than what is housed in a museum, and much bolder than anything that can be sold. Protest and action, in this sense, fit the bill.
The hopeful tones of an emancipatory goal has in the history of artistic movements undeniably brought with it both an underestimation and overestimation of abilities. We cannot paint Vietnam away, though that has been one optimistic expectation of art production; in turn, the cynicism that took over art after WWI can be seen as the reverse of that coin. As we grapple with what art can truly and realistically achieve, instead of what we dream it could achieve, an accepting of the limitations of art’s capacity to create change by itself and in concrete, physical forms is important. Rather, we must realize art’s capacity to influence, educate, and amplify the community it affects and in turn create change through the community. Art’s true goal, in this sense, must be to amplify action through action, to bring about through its ripple effect larger non-art movements, whether economic, social, judicial, or political change that is pushed forth with what art can provide: visibility, awareness, protest, and action binding communities together. In this sense, protest and action become one of the strongest emancipatory tools for all the characteristics we outlined before: affect, value, ability for outreach, creation of collective action and new avenues for grouping and for new perspectives.
By employing art as a collective tool instead of assuming a singular brush’s emancipatory capacities, we also get away from the inherent issues that can arise with an emancipatory ideology — namely the possible evolution of it into an extended savior complex which can even lead to a neocolonialist project. The urge of an artist — historically this is a western actor — to use art to paint away Vietnam is in all accounts an extended savior complex, not unlike Chakravorty Spivak’s white men saving brown women from brown men. One’s declaration that they are launching an emancipatory artistic project as a mission to save or free people only points to their homogenizing vision: in Homi Bhabha’s words, “the global perspective… is a purview of power” (240). Speaking of global terms is a position of privilege — historically, it was once a position of privilege of empire, now we find it reinvented and re-purposed as a position of neo-colonialist hegemonies. This purview assumes essentialism in the localities and identities that it purports to emancipate, that it can take a party from a homogenized state of oppression and insert them into an equally essentialized state of freedom. Being artists, participants, or otherwise involved in art as action in one way or the other does not grant a right to “declare themselves as agents who can [emancipate] the world in its entirety” (Bhabha 240). Thus, a collective effort in artistic emancipation as artistic action in all hopes moves us away from that route of privilege and hierarchy across the globe.
In line with this word of warning, I also want to acknowledge art as action as a multifaceted, nebulous being that all forms of ideology can activate. This paper does not mean to preach for art as action and its emancipatory potential as a tool for non-art, for our acceptance of protest as art and action has its own latent ideological baggage that trickles along with discussing art as a liberalist, positive form of protest. If Gezi is art, a gaggle of nationalists occupying the Capital has to be art as well. Art as action, solely due to its historical roots in liberal, leftist action, does not and cannot automatically be made into an art form to be revered. Instead, we must again accept the many pitfalls and shortcomings that it harbors as do any and all artistic and social ideologies and movements — art as action and protest comes with its own dual definition of light and dark, for art is made for better or worse, on all sides of all equations. David Joselit brings up the discussion of ISIS’ iconoclastic actions towards the ancient artifacts in the Mosul Museum, Iraq, and “without justifying their heinous attacks on heritage” — and in no way [condoning] them — he acknowledges their action as an ideological project against the maintenance of the western division between ‘curated’ and ‘curating’ cultures (196). Similar to Joselit’s acceptance that, though heinous, the actions of ISIS must be seen as the action against western ideology it is, the capacity for art as action to be instrumentalized by all sides of the political board must be accepted. We cannot be caught up in the dream that art only serves one side of the political or social sphere but act with an understanding that it can be a weapon, good and bad, for any and all.
Through these realistic discussions of the manifold facets of protest, we can finally grasp at the bigger image for what it might achieve for an emancipation maxim. We see clearly in this case of art as action that the contemporary idea of artistic emancipation must be turned on its head and aimed not at a breaking of chains from the system nor at an operation to “save” anyone from their present turmoils, but instead at a novel understanding of art’s use as action and protest to push away from preconceived definitions and valuations of art that serve the post-Fordist -isms. And though we are within the Žižekian ideological system and never to leave it, we can find that voice is created within action all around, and in its echoes something larger may just be brewing, at bay. Every year when May comes at Istanbul, Taksim’s streets and the green of Gezi are overrun by signs, by people coming together to stand for something, and that may be enough of a beginning.
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