Zero-Level Alienation, or: What Can Art Accomplish without a Conflict?

Posted on Listopad 16, 2012


As with any neurotic ritual, the repetition of the participative litany bears the hallmarks of an unresolved trauma – an inner crack. In this instance, it is called the institutionalisation of art and – if we are to take at their face value the words of intellectuals of such diverse pedigree as Hans Georg Gadamer and Jürgen Habermas, but also many others – it was supposed to have appeared in the area of Western European culture in the 19th century. At that time, institutionalisation, related to the process of autonomisation of the fields of art, legislation, knowledge and everyday life, is said to have fragmented art’s perfect unity. Such a picture of culture is akin to the myths of El Dorado – a far away land which all it takes to conquer is just a small effort. And although we can treat this fable with the same credulity as the tales of the Spanish conquistadors, it does remain an important point of reference. It has been so profoundly internalised that, having become part of folk knowledge and artists’ ideas about themselves, it legitimises the never-ending efforts to make culture whole. It feeds the longing to fill the abyss which separates art from the audience; it fuels the dream of improving the channels of distribution and regaining the audience lost; in a nutshell – of becoming effective.

Participation is perceived as the key that will open the gate to the past, allowing one to follow, anew, the well-trodden path to the mythical, lost land. However, the more frequent the exhortations voicing the need for such a project – finally and absolutely becoming one with the audience – the more one becomes suspicious that the very repetition of the keywords is a condition of the functioning of contemporary art.

One, two, left (really?)


The rhythm of the participatory mantra is being set by the marching step. It is at demonstrations, support rallies and get-together events of new social movements that the sense of representative democracy is being questioned. Of course, together with the benefit of the inventory, at the same time the system of capitalist exchange is being negated; the very system which called such democracy into existence and was meant to ground it. Participatory democracy is taken to be the remedy. In such a politicised context it is hardly surprising that artists looking for direct interaction with the viewer often employ means which blur the difference between art and non-art, between political and aesthetic activity. The same is true about the intellectuals who support them with their writings. For instance, Nicolas Bourriaud and Jacques Rancière, while passionately polemising with each other in other matters, claim univocally that the borderline between art and politics is no longer of interest to anybody and that, really, it never did exist.

Declaring their agreement to become a real factor in the play of social forces and give up institutional autonomy, artists cry, ‘Let us go back to the sources!’ They imply that they will become effective not when addressing society en masse, but, rather, small, local communities. With them, they want to implement scenarios for social life which provide alternatives to the strategies proposed by the global forces of capitalism. In this manner they evoke the models of communal life present both in the works of the classical anarchists and in the texts of the ethnographers and cultural anthropologists. After all, participation was something that was supposed to be a given, acquired naturally in post-industrial communities, where no-one would be left by the wayside, and life would go on smoothly like a dance performed to the rhythm of primaeval principles. The thread of zero-level alienation is significant here. It drives movement towards the restoration of a community – in step with post-industrial societies – which includes the voice of all its members and in which, additionally, all exchange always results in equilibrium, not permitting any accumulation of capital, whether economic, cultural, political or any other, to the privileged individuals. This idea, while being the corner stone of participation strategies in all their manifestations, simultaneously reveals their weak point. Regardless of whether the idea of such types of communities is only a legend produced by Western political thought and anthropology or whether it really has manifested itself in post-industrial communities, it makes it difficult to think in terms of social agonistics.

‘There is no doubt that a hegemonist struggle is presently taking place around the subject of participation. On it depends which meaning [of participation – Ł.B.] will prevail and be accepted. Some understandings of participation can be subversive, while others are in reality totally congruous with capitalism, since they lead to the participation of people in their own exploitation. This is why we must be very cautious in this discussion and be aware that participation may be exploited in various, contradictory ways. We cannot give up on it, because it can be expressed in a radical way, but it can become the means of expression of a passive revolution.’[1] This is what Chantal Mouffe, one of the more influential intellectuals of the last two decades, stated in an interview with Markus Missen. As we know, Mouffe bases her political theory on the idea of conflict, which she considers the most significant element of political strategy, one which makes it possible to go beyond the model of social relationships sanctioned by neo-liberalism. The neo-liberal logic tends to play down conflicts or makes them appear apparent or theatrical; this serves to maintain the status quo. (…)

Translated by: Anda MacBride

Excerpts from a text pubilshed in the catalogue for the 4th ArtBoom Festival in Kraków.

[1] Nowe spojrzenie na demokrację,  Markus Miessen talking to Chantal Mouffe, trans. Michał Choptiany, Autoportret. Pismo o dobrej przestrzeni, no. 2 [37] 2012.