February 10th, 2008


What is "the progressive art institution"? (Part 2)

I want to take the thoughts in yesterday's entry somewhat further today, because I didn't really answer the question I set myself. Today's entry will become something of a defiant manifesto. The defiance will be directed to right-wing populists and the internet spooks who boost them, and to people who think that leftism -- along with bourgeois progressivism -- perished in 1989 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. I'll argue that the leftist agenda is still at the heart of the progressive intelligentsia all over the West, and that it survives not in little guerilla groups hiding in the forest, but in some of our most prestigious institutions: universities, the media, art institutes. Precisely the kind of art institutions, in fact, which would be most likely to celebrate the career of an artist like Liam Gillick.

Because this description of institutions with a progressivist bias can so easily mirror right wing paranoia, it might be instructive to start with exactly that. Have a look at What is the loneliest job in Britain? Being a Tory at the BBC, an article by Tory-at-the-BBC Robin Aitken which accuses the BBC of being hostile to Margaret Thatcher, of championing a progressive agenda, of lamenting the closure of shipyards and fretting about ailing steelworks, of deploring government spending cuts and declaring privatisation doomed, of devoting itself to the European ideal, of questioning the rationale that led Tony Blair to commit British troops to the Iraq War, of sacking anti-Muslim chat show host Robert Kilroy-Silk when he attacked muslims, and of obsessing about the human rights of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. For Aitken, this makes the BBC a bad institution, one where "everything is seen through the distorting prism of the progressive agenda". My reaction -- as someone who thinks the BBC entirely justifies its existence when it makes one Adam Curtis possible -- is that I only wish this picture were more true, and that the BBC were more institutionally biased in the direction of the progressive.

The reason Aitken's "bias" argument rings so hollow is that the few progressive institutions that do exist are more than balanced by the enormous and constant pressure pushing society in the other direction -- pressure coming from turbocapitalism itself, from a political sector in which progressivist parties (like Britain's Labour Party) have rolled over submissively to turbocapitalism, and from a reactionary mainstream media controlled by the likes of Rupert Murdoch. There's also, of course, outright war and covert operations against leftism, from the Vietnam war to the covert operations Liam Gillick mentions in the lecture I linked yesterday: the CIA's manipulation of the 1948 Italian general election to prevent the communists from winning.

Anyone who wonders how something like a publicly-funded art institute could challenge this kind of activity should also wonder why the CIA channeled millions of dollars into cultural struggle in the post-war period, trying to establish American Abstract Expressionism as the dominant artform of the period rather than the work of leftist Europeans.

Where do we see this sort of progressivism in Liam Gillick's work? Freeze frame the Vernissage TV coverage of Gillick's show at the Kunsthalle Zurich and you'll see a big wall panel of gridded text relating the attempts of a factory to self-organize, and how, despite (or precisely because of) the success of this experiment into working non-capitalist modes of production, the workers were shut down. (Gillick talks more about this in the third video on the Palais de Tokyo's video page about his 2005 show there.)

But art also has formal ways of investigating this sort of thing: Gillick's work is fascinated, formally, by the way Apollonian and didactic structures (from the Ulm School to Mondrian) can be used by autonomous groups to discipline their own activity and make it productive. It's a politically progressivist version of Donald Judd's acres of anal shelfage, you might say ("an embracing of formalism plus a critique or rejection of it at the same time" is Gillick's own description). Much of the stuff in the co-ordinated Gillick shows at Kunsthalle Zürich, Witte de With in Rotterdam, Kunstverein Munich and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago looks like empty bookshelves -- a reference not just to Judd but to an intellectual void, perhaps; a need for books and thought and ideas which is then partly answered by the tables of books Gillick supplies later in the show. In all four shows, he's "gifted" 50% of his allotted space back to the museums to fill as they please. And that, perhaps, is an acknowledgment of his common cause with these progressivist institutions.

We've seen before on Click Opera how a British Army brainstorming exercise predicted that rising levels of inequality and injustice would make the return of revolutionary communism likely later this century. "The middle classes could become a revolutionary class", predicted Rear Admiral Chris Parry of the Ministry of Defense's Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre. Again, I think right wing paranoia might contain a chunk of truth about the progressive bourgeois class. The place to look for glimmers of this future right now is in the whisperings of the art exhibited in progressive institutions, the Kunstvereins for whom art is more than a mere commodity on the market, and that sector of the educated bourgeois class for whom being bourgeois is about more than simply being comfortable and advantaged; it's about spearheading progress towards a more just and principled world.