A Proposal For Art Today: Art as a Site of Contemporary Political Resistance

It may seem odd to argue that art – bought by the super rich and traded as commodity- should have the potential to resist the ideological interests of capitalism. However, from a vantage point of the early 21st century, a potential revision of traditional art history narratives can be articulated, or indeed created afresh, to create a narrative where we see a potential legitimate role for art as a site of resistance against dominant capitalist ideology.  

 To begin, I would like to argue that contemporary activism in the form of the ‘Multitude’ is ever increasingly taking on the characteristics of performance and avant-garde art. That the Multitude’s creative resistance can be seen as a continuation of the direct line running from the Impressionists’ break from the academy, the early twentieth century avant-garde, Constructivism, Dadaism, Situationism and Fluxus. Very simply, the Multitude are those – in Negri and Hardt’s formulation of the term- who comprise the politically active, those who see themselves as part of a resistance to capitalism, those who actively demonstrate against the workings of Empire. In their theory, a straight forward binary opposition between Empire and the Multitude is created. However, is this terribly accurate? Can we all be split directly between the ‘masters’ of Empire and the ‘enslaved’ ‘Multitude’? It is with an attempt to break the dichotomous thinking inherent in the theory that I propose a third term: the ‘Many’[1]. The Many are simply those who may not feel part of this politicised struggle against Empire for whatever reason. The distinction, put simply, between the Multitude and the Many is one of active resistance to Empire.

A potential role of the artist today, then, is to work outside of traditional romantic modes of artistic production, which in turn opens up the possibility of a greater political engagement with the Many. This engagement, in turn, would create debate, change attitudes and lead to a more ‘democratic’ form of art rather than the adopted market model, predominant in the west today. The end goal of politically resistant art here, therefore, is to engage the Many in a process of re-politicisation after the so called ‘end of History’[2] and its coming ‘post-ideological’ political disources.

The blurring of art and politics that happened throughout the 20th century creates a legacy where political resistance such as the activism of the Multitude has more in common with radical performance art, and therefore alternative political thought, than what can be witnessed as mainstream political discourse through the ‘post-ideological’- in effect, neo-liberal- administration of the state. The relationship between art and politics in the 20th century seems to have ended in defeat for the leftist political aspirations of the artists- with both the failure of Communism and the market utopianism of neo-liberalism crushing all in its wake. However, the relationship between art and politics had another benefit; that political resistance itself can now become a site of accepted artistic engagement. This mutual relationship has the potential to be the site where the language to articulate a critique of capitalism- and develop a new alternative to it- can potentially emerge from within the Multitudes ‘creative faculties’[3]. Art and politics seem inseparable in art history textbooks- especially when we talk of the early twentieth century avant-garde- so now do we have a moment where art and politics can re-engage with each other for mutual benefit?

The legacy of such groups such as the Situationists lead us to a conclusion where we can see that art’s gradual exodus from the gallery to find new pastures of creative endeavour has created a point of rupture with romantic notions of art, where art can now be seen as an engagement that can be taken forward, and potentially developed for political ends by the Multitude. The Multitude seems to be the natural and obvious heirs to the challenge of combining art and politics laid down by both Dada and Situationism. The individual artist is not of course redundant now; on the contrary, the role of the artist is to keep opening up new avenues and potential spaces where creativity can operate outwith given mainstream artistic logic. These alternative activities create a vision out of a rupture with the given ideology. If the mainstream ideological presuppositions with respect to art – studio, to gallery, to market, to buyer- are ruptured, a place outwith the logic of capitalism could therefore easily be formulated through art. If we take a Deleuzian idea that creation and resistance go hand[4], we see that culture itself can take on an affirmative political role, and formulate itself at the heart of the Multitude’s resistance to Empire. This in turn provokes a further question: if a political revolution is all that which must be done rather than merely ought to be done, can we say this goes for culture too? Art must be kept at arm’s length from the logic of capitalism, which normalises and tames the political potential inherent within art itself. It is in culture where a positive vision of how things could be can be formulated; this is where art’s potential in strategies of resistance becomes clear- to open up and articulate new ways to think about the political.


[1]  The idea of the ‘Many’ is chosen over a term such as the ‘Masses’, which has obvious connotations to it, most notably Benjamin’s thesis ‘The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, which implies an artwork’s  loss of aura can lead to the politicisation of the masses. The ‘Many’ seems, therefore, a less loaded term.

[2]  Quote Attributed to Fukayama, Francis, excellent description and evaluation found in ‘Capitalist Realism’ by Fisher, Mark, Zer0 books, 1st edition, London, P6/7

[3] Negri, Antonio and Hardt, Michael, ‘Empire’, Harvard University Press, 2000, xv

[4] Deleuze and Guattari, found in ‘What is Philosophy?’, trans by Burchell, Graham and Tomlinson, Hugh, Published by Verso, 1994, 5th Edition, p183

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