Art, between Technology and Rebellion

Artistic Culture Sentenced to Death

[…] We attempt to consider art under the following assumptions: first, art is outside of what has traditionally been its place; and second, artistic-literary culture (as the most obvious and traditional expression of elite culture) is sentenced to death.

The subject has been clearly defined—though not analyzed—by people who are quite different from one another. I present below a collection of some quotes as a way of thinking about the matter at hand, and in an attempt to provide the widest range of opinion possible:

Marshall McLuhan: “The medium, or process, of our time—electric technology—is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life. It is forcing us to reconsider and reevaluate practically every thought, every action, and every institution formerly taken for granted

Herbert Marcuse: “The development of technological reality does not only undermine the traditional ways but also the very foundations of artistic alignment. That is to say, it tends to invalidate not only certain styles but the very essence of art.”

Octavio Paz: “Aesthetic contemplation is over because aesthetics has dissolved in social life.”

Julio Le Parc: “Today’s interest does not rest in the work of art (with its qualities of expression, content, etc), but in the challenge of the cultural system. What counts is not art anymore, but the attitude of the artist.

Avant-garde Painters of the Artistic Action Committee, part of the Argentine Federation of Labor Unions: “Art is everything that moves and stirs. Art is what emphatically contradicts this lifestyle and says: “Let’s do something to change it’.”

Marshall McLuhan: “We have now become aware of the possibility of arranging the entire human environment as a work of art, as a teaching machine designed to maximize perception and to make everyday learning a process of discovery.”

Abbie Hoffman (“yippie” leader, that is to say: a hippie with political awareness): “I am connected to rebellion as if it was a work of art.’

French graffiti during the May 1968 protests: “Art is dead: let’s free our daily life.” “Culture is the inversion of life.” “Art is shit.” “Poetry is in the streets.” “Imagination to power.”

Herbert Marcuse: “In the society of abundance art is an interesting phenomenon. On the one hand, it rejects established society, on the other, it is offered and sold in the market. There isn’t a single art style, even the most avant-garde, that is not for sale. This means that art’s function is, at least, problematic. There has been talk of the end of art, and among artists there is the feeling that art, currently, has no function. There’s plenty of museums, of concerts, of paintings in the halls of the rich, but art lacks a function. That said, it endeavors to become an essential part of reality, to change reality: look at graffiti, for instance. Maybe they are for me the most interesting aspect of the May protests: the merger of Marx and André Breton. Imagination to power: that is indeed revolutionary. It is new and revolutionary to attempt to translate to reality the most advanced ideas and values of imagination. This proves that we have learned something important: Truth is not only in rationality, but also (and maybe better) in imagination.”

Of all these phrases, we can initially point out four aspects:

1. They all agree in what is most important, though not in the use of the word “art.” Definitions range from “shit” to “everything that moves and stirs.” Change or rebellion, on the other hand, are put at the same level of a work of art.

There is no inconsistency here. The differences only appear in the use of the word “art,” depending if it is associated to its old function or a new one which, even if not new, is exercised in a new way: the way of revealing a new situation at the very core of society.

The issue ranges from having art for minorities (even if those who benefit from it may be majorities who consume an art which does not challenge the establishment, or which does but in a rhetorical and marginalized way) and an art which endeavors to become a dynamic of changing reality. This is the definition on which every author of the quotes agrees.

2. They all start from the assumption that society has undergone a fundamental change, which has made the very idea of art be redefined. On the other hand, they envisage some change (open or hidden) that needs to happen. This would be a change in which art would have a participatory function. The alleged change is technological. The change that needs to happen is political. They are both social. Art, between technology and rebellion

3. They all have in common the absence of a distinction, so far very common but which is starting to disappear. In none of them we can see the difference between artistic production and political activism, not even to point out that the first one should be a reflection of the second one. Plainly and simply they regard art as the awareness of creative activism in social change. Art is set apart from realization and is dissolved in social life. Which does not mean to say that objects cannot be interpreted as signs of that direct action on reality.

4. The awareness of change comes before the artist’s work itself. This is tangible in the impossibility of using Octavio Paz’s and Julio Le Parc’s work as examples of their quotes. This is more an indicator of the fluidity of the current change we live than a contradiction between artistic awareness and finished work. This contradiction does not rest in the authors but in the reality to which they belong. It is within this reality that the artist finds himself confined to a specific function, and it is his creative consciousness that leads him to other conclusions.

All the spirit of 1968, which lasted several years, and which is now over (not only in Europe and the United States, or anyway there at a small scale) in our continent, at a very high price, was defined as an adventure novel. Thus, in another text I had written, “The Art of Latin America is revolution.” The underlying idea was: Is art not revelation? How can a subjected culture be revealed? Revealed or rebelled? In this case, it was the same.

In the meantime, the next chapter was not art within rebellion, but art without rebellion. And here, talk started of postmodern art. Many things had happened: many dead (most of them called disappeared) around these parts, and the fall of the Berlin wall, which was the fall of the second world. Everything was then about a first world, and a neoliberalism which was code for the old capitalism becoming the owner of the whole world: that is, globalized capitalism. The global village that McLuhan talked of is nothing other than the imperial city imposing its law even in the smallest African or Latin American village. This is what we call globalization. It is true that a starving man can paradoxically watch a TV screen with messages from the first world. And McLuhan talked of “fixing the human environment as a work of art.” But, back then, didn’t even Octavio Paz say that “aesthetic contemplation is over because aesthetics has dissolved in social life”? Weren’t these times in which we talked of “free time” and “play time” as results of the technological revolution, and not of unemployment?

The skepticism of postmodernism isn’t really skepticism about modernity, or about the spirit of change (as was always the concept of modernity from its first inception in the Renaissance), but disillusionment about the spirit of 1968, that is to say: the embodiment of criticism to 20th-century modernity. Thus, we saw the emergence of an alleged a-critical postmodernism, which was always skeptical of everything. Wasn’t the spirit of 1968 correct in its criticism? Yes, but that didn’t give it the right to have false illusions, let alone to believe that critical conscience will triumph just because it reveals itself, a common assumption among intellectuals and artists. They are used to their plane of reality being the plane of conscience. They often believe that being right means that conscience has already shaped, or is about to shape, a new reality.