try another world



The new acts make music as if they’re on a Youth Opportunities Programme, keen to show how well they can adapt to career discipline. 1

The giant Sculpture Show in London last summer seemed obsessed with proper manners; its works finally aligned themselves with the native culture from which they very decorously purported to stand apart. 2

What’s at issue here is not music (there are no more and no fewer good records around now than there ever are) but ideology … In the 1960s, for example, when the rock/pop distinction was first established, authenticity was the key critical term – the question was whether there could be a politically or emotionally authentic commercial music. This debate was stalled by punk, which was so overdeterminedly authentic in rock terms that it threw the very concept into confusion.
By the end of the 1970s the most interesting debates revolved instead, around artifice. Avant-garde questions about form – how is meaning constructed? how can it be deconstructed? – had a particular resonance for pop theorists: first because pop works so publicly – making hits means thinking about the meaning of ‘popular’; second, because the pleasure of pop can’t be separated from the pleasure of its packaging – the most ‘authentic’ star works with elaborate conventions of personality and truth. 3

It is painting itself, that last refuge of the mythology of individuality, which can be seized to deconstruct the illusions of the present … The appropriation of painting as a subversive method allows one to place critical aesthetic activity at the centre of the marketplace, where it can cause the most trouble. 4

That moment is over. Artifice is once more a matter of the rules applied by record company straights, not those broken by record company subversives …
It’s difficult to pin down clearly when cultural meanings shift … but my sense is that the ‘new pop’ ceased to be the central site of struggle over musical meaning the night that Haircut 100 first appeared on Top of the Pops and it turned out that Nick Heyward ‘s goofiness, far from inflecting the teeny-bop mode with irony, was real. 5

Salle follows a strategy of infiltration and sabotage, using established conventions against themselves in the hope of exposing cultural repression … Only now there seems to be a danger that the infiltration has become too complete; the seducer finds himself in love with his intended victim. 6

‘Where the seventies were devoted to making sculpture that couldn’t be bought, work now is more accessible and artists are unashamed to make money.’ 7

Just as Punk could now seem to have done nothing more than re-invent the music business. it may also seem that the huge success of the ‘punks of the palette’ is due merely to a ‘hunger for pictures’ which has resulted only in the market displacing the museum as authority.’ (italics added) 8

Surprisingly, instead of effectively challenging the parameters of the repression, the artist has been unwittingly circumvented by it, ending up legitimising the institutions he set out to chaIlenge.’ 9

What matters here is not whether the resulting music is good or bad (though watch for the marginalisation of black music, women, issues of sex and body). but how it is going to be judged good or bad …
In recent years (the Malcolm McLaren era) it’s become the custom to celebrate the pop process, with the result that information about who owns what and whom and why is less available now than it was even in the 1950s … skip the cultural theory, it’s investigative journalism time again! 10

Such ‘investigative journalism’ would be required to expose, of course, the particularly complex nature of the political and cultural moment.

‘There is now a situation where, for the artist, the success of the market, along with the historicizing role of the museum have combined with the traditionally adversary alternative ‘political’ stance (reduced to an issue or ‘correct’ politics) to pressurize the artist into being a representative of specialised knowledge and professional, that is correct, behaviour … the ‘radical’ artist now has no choice but to side with, to see himself as, a member of the dispossessed.’ 11

Dispossessed consumers of culture. having ‘no heroes’ and ‘no future’ and holding nothing sacred (a disturbing absence of ‘permanently sacred signifiers’) … engaged in semiotic guerilla warfare. 12

Such resentment was a major source of Modernism, which distrusted art’s ‘representation’ of itself as well as all conventions of representation … We need more bad faith in art and more art that is in bad faith – that toys with our belief systems, our social and psychological as well as artistic expectations. 13

… Gramsci understood that if nothing in the social world is natural, not even nature, then it must also be true that things exist not only because they come into being and are created by human agency but also because by coming into being they displace something else that is already there: this is the combative and emergent aspect or social change as it applies to the world of culture linked to social history.
To adapt from a statement Gramsci makes in The Modern Prince, ‘reality (and hence cultural reality) is a product of the application of human will to the society of things’, and since also ‘everything is political, even philosophy and philosophies’, we are to understand that in the realm of culture and of thought each production exists not only to earn a place for itself but to displace, win out over, others. All ideas, philosophies, views and texts aspire to the consent of their consumers … Thus ideas aspire to the condition of acceptance; which is to say that one can interpret the meaning of a text by virtue of what in its mode of social presence enables its consent by either a small or a wide group of people. (italics added) 14

Of course it has become normal practice for both ‘radical’ and ‘conservative’ artists alike to define themselves as dispossessed members of society and it is perhaps how this dispossession then, is defined; that is, how artists define their relationship to their concept of their audience. It is in the siting of the artist’s resentful ‘bad faith’ and its relationship to ‘a whole way of life’ which defines the role of culture as a critical and oppositional activity.

This means reintroducing or rather once again testing the notion of false consciousness, of the real as a palpable world of ideological conflict. (italics added) 15

As Theodor W. Adorno has said in the introduction to his Aesthetic Theory:

It is now taken for granted that nothing which concerns art can be taken for granted any more: neither art itself, nor art in its relationship to the whole, nor even the right of art to exist. It may, perhaps, also be added that nothing which concerns reality may be taken for granted any more.

Mass media has fragmented the nature of society and culture and forced a realisation that we are all part of one minority or other. The problem today is not that there is a loss of shared symbolic order or a lack of creativity, but that there are too many shared symbolic orders and too much creativity and we are all only too aware of it. And this is where a nostalgia for authority and standards comes in. 16

The repressive, academic concept of the ‘divorce of Art from Life’ seems to be maintained by ‘specialised opinion’ to allow for the continued production of artifacts, the success of which as commodities prove their relevance as culture.
The work of many artists (and critics) today seems to depend on an ‘anthropology of the real’ where Art is defined negatively as theatrical and Life asserted positively as pure (simple or complex) presence.

Not by chance anthropology is a science which affirms itself at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries and is the effect of the ‘bad conscience’ of Western Man.’ 17

Liberation (from the museum – the idea of History and Tradition as repressive) is promised through consumption (of the representations of the ‘contradictions of real life’). This project today appears nostalgic for the lost authority and centrality of the ‘museum’ as a frame for meaning in society. Rather than the ‘museum’ being rendered ‘transparent’ the real world is rendered as by Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet merely material for the museum:

‘Onward! Enough speculation! Keep on copying! The page must be filled. Everything is equal, the good and the evil. The farcical and the sublime – the beautiful and the ugly – the insignificant and the typical, they all become an exaltation of the statistical. There are nothing but facts – and phenomena.’ 18

Neither is the art in life revealed (the creativity of all those ‘other voices’) nor is the life in art appropriated into the world for any function other than its death in the museum and its place in history.
The failure of this ‘anthropology of the real’ demands that we (artists and critics) think and act differently.

Our political discourse is now choked with enormous, thought-stopping abstractions, from terrorism, Communism, Islamic fundamentalism, and instability, to moderation, freedom, stability and strategic alliances, all of them as unclear as they are both potent and unrefined in their appeal. It is next to impossible to think about human society either in a global way or at the level of everyday life …
The challenge posed by these perspectives is not how to cultivate one’s garden despite them but how to understand cultural work occurring within them. (italics added) 19

But what would happen if one no longer believed in the existence of normal language, of ordinary speech, of the linguistic norm (the kind of clarity and communicative power celebrated by Orwell in his famous essay, say)? One could think of it in this way: perhaps the immense fragmentation and privatisation of modern literature – its explosion into a host of distinct private styles and mannerisms – foreshadows deeper and more general tendencies in social life as a whole. Supposing that modern art and modernism – far from being a kind of specialised aesthetic curiosity – actually anticipated social developments along these lines; supposing that in the decades since the emergence of the great modern styles society has itself begun to fragment in this way, each group coming to speak a curious private language of its own, each profession developing its private code or ideolect, and finally each individual coming to be a kind of linguistic island separated from everyone else? … we would have nothing but stylistic diversity and heterogeneity. 20

In this sense the meanings of gestures, and even words, are becoming increasingly uncertain, and intentions are more frequently apt to be misunderstood. 21

The great modernisms were, as we have said, predicated on the invention of a personal, private style, as unmistakable as your finger print, as incomparable as your own body. But this means that the modernist aesthetic is in some way organically linked to the conception of a unique self and private identity, a unique personality and individuality, which can be expected to generate its own unique vision of the world and to forge its own unique, unmistakable style.
Yet today, from any number of distinct perspectives, the social theorists, the psychoanalysts, even the linguists, not to speak of those of us who work in the area of culture and cultural and formal change, are all exploring the notion that that kind of individualism and personal identity is a thing of the past; that the old individual or individualist subject is ‘dead’; and that one might even describe the concept of the unique individual and the theoretical basis of individualism as ideological …
It (the poststructuralist position) adds: not only is the bourgeois individual subject a thing of the past, it is also a myth; it never really existed in the first place; there have never been autonomous subjects of that type. Rather, this construct is merely a philosophical and cultural mystification which sought to persuade people that they ‘had’ individual subjects and possessed this unique personal identity. 22

The ‘grand illusions’ of the ‘theatre of art’ and ‘ the spectacle of real life’ have ‘imploded’. The nature of reality is shown to be inherently theatrical (ideological) and any ‘investigative journalism’ into the real reveals the degree to which history, tradition, myth, fantasy and illusion pervade the reality of any given moment.

Flea Market Amsterdam 1985
Photo: Glyn

I am fully aware that any effort to characterize the present cultural moment is very likely to seem quixotic at best, unprofessional at worst. But that, I submit, is an aspect of the present cultural moment, in which the social and historical setting of critical activity is a totality felt to be benign (free, apolitical, serious) uncharacterizable as a whole (it is too complex to be described in general and tendentious terms) and somehow outside history … It is my conviction that culture works very effectively to make invisible and even ‘impossible’ the actual affiliations that exist between the world of ideas and scholarship, on the one hand, and the world of brute politics, corporate and state power, and military force, on the other. The cult of expertise and professionalism, for example, has so restricted our scope of vision that a positive (as opposed to an implicit or passive) doctrine of non-interference among fields has set in. This doctrine has it that the general public is best left ignorant, and the most crucial policy questions affecting human existence are best left to ‘experts’, specialists who talk about their specialty only, and … ‘insiders’, people (usually men) who are endowed with the special privilege of knowing how things really work and, more important, of being close to power …
You cannot simply choose to be a sociologist or a psychoanalyst; you cannot simply make statements that have the status of knowledge in anthropology; you cannot merely suppose that what you say as a historian (however well it may have been researched) enters historical discourse. You have to pass through certain rules of accreditation, you must learn the rules, you must speak the language, you must master the idioms and you must accept the authorities of the field – determined in many of the same ways – to which you want to contribute …
If a community is based principally on keeping people out and on defending a tiny fiefdom (in perfect complicity with the defenders of other fiefdoms) on the basis of a mysteriously pure subject’s inviolable integrity, then it is a religious community. The secular realm I have presupposed requires a more open sense of community as something to be won and of audiences as human beings to be addressed. How, then, can we understand the present setting in such a way as to see in it the possibility of change? How can interpretation be interpreted as having a secular, political force in an age determined to deny interpretation anything but a role as mystification? 23

The success of the market combined with the growth of the ‘consciousness industry’ means that, as with the myths of the ‘divorce of art from life’, the separation of theory and practice, the integrity of specialised ‘fields’ and the purity of the language of critical discourse; the myth of the marginalisation of the role of the artist cannot be taken for granted anymore.

These critics eagerly lap up ideas of subversion in art and are willing to offer endless dissertations on the self-consciousness of any given individual’s practice, but they never stop to consider their own practice as one ripe for a similar treatment …
The situation that most professional criticism has degenerated into an absurd exercise, an exchange of bland, “balanced” opinion whose sole purpose often seems to be descriptive – the validation of the exchange value of the work it pretends to discuss … To these writers their medium is apparently pure, unencumbered with various kinds of ideological baggage so easily perceived in, say, painting. 24

15 John Roberts: Principles of Motion Art Monthly. No. 73. February 1984

16 The authors: Aesthetics after Modernism – Book Review. Studio International, No. 1005. June 1984

17 Achille Bonito Oliva: Contribution to Symposium What is the use of Intellectuals? Art & Text. Melbourne Australia. Summer 1982

18 Gustave Flaubert: Bouvard and Pécuchet quoted by Douglas Crimp: On the Museum’s Ruins in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Post-Modern Culture – ibid.

19 Edward W. Said: ibid.

20 Frederic Jameson: Postmodernism and Consumer Society in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Post-Modern Culture – ibid.

21 The authors: Taking Liberties – Four Rooms Comment. Studio International. No. 1005. June 1984

22 Frederic Jameson: ibid.

23 Edward W. Said: ibid.

24 Thomas Lawson: The Dark Side of the Bright Light Art Forum, November 1982

If what I have been saying has any validity, then the politics of interpretation demand a dialectical response from a critical consciousness worthy of its name. Instead of non-interference and specialization, there must be interference, crossing of borders and obstacles, a determined attempt to generalise exactly at those points where generalisations seem impossible to make. One of the first interferences ventured, then, is a crossing from literature, which is supposed to be subjective and powerless, into those exactly parallel realms, now covered by journalism and the production of information, that employ representation but are supposed to be objective and powerful. 25

Barthes explained that the modernist poets, beginning at least with Mallarmé, had demonstrated already the unification of poetry and criticism – that literature was itself a critique of language, and that criticism had no “meta”-language capable of describing or accounting for literature. Barthes concluded that the categories of literature and criticism could no longer be kept apart, that now there were only writers.
… Jacques Derrida recently restated this criterion of critical vanguardism: ‘The deconstruction of a pedagogical institution and all that it implies. What this institution cannot bear, is for anyone to tamper with language … It can bear more readily the most apparently revolutionary ideological sorts of ‘content’, if only that content does not touch the borders of language and of all the juridico-political contracts that it guarantees.’ (italics added) 26

Using ‘investigative journalism’ to discover the theatrical nature of the real, the artist (and critic) must use bad language to intervene – to prevent discourses from becoming professional and undemocratic and to illuminate how meaning is formed within society as a whole.

It is precisely a principle of contamination, a law of impurity, a parasitical economy. In the code of set theories, if I may use it at least figuratively, I would speak of a sort of participation without belonging – a taking part in without being part of, without having membership in a set. (italics added) 27

‘But a lot of people, particularly young people, are disillusioned by elections and Parliamentary politics. The levels of apathy are growing as more and more people become frustrated and feel the only way to change things is through direct action.’
‘Well you can’t blame people for not voting at the last election; that doesn’t mean to say they’re not political. A lot of very political people didn’t vote.’ 28

The ‘creation of culture’ becomes a strategy of intervention based on unoriginality.

Every sign, linguistic or non-linguistic, spoken or written, in a small or large unit, can be cited, put between quotation marks; in so doing it can break with every given context, engendering an infinity of new contexts in a manner which is absolutely illimitable. 29

Its (collage’s) heterogeneity, even if it is reduced by every operation of composition, imposes itself on the reading as stimulation to produce a signification which could be neither univocal nor stable. Each cited element breaks the continuity or linearity of the discourse and leads necessarily to a double reading: that of the fragment perceived in relation to its text of origin; that of the same fragment as incorporated into a new whole, a different totality. The trick of collage consists also of never entirely suppressing the alterity of these elements reunited in a temporary composition. Thus the art of collage proves to be one of the most effective strategies in the putting into question of all the illusions of representation. (italics added) 30

The fiction of the creating subject gives way to the frank confiscation, quotation, excerptation, accumulation and repetition of already existing images. Notions of originality. authenticity and presence … are undermined. 31

‘I have no creative ability whatsoever. I have never had an original thought, I’m tone deaf and I’ve never played or painted anything . The problem is I wanted to change the world – you can’t do that from one classroom.’ (italics added) 32

And just as there are no simple dynastic answers, there are no simple discrete historical formations or social processes. A heterogeneity of human involvement is therefore equivalent to a heterogeneity of result, as well as of interpretive skills and techniques. There is no centre, no inertly given and accepted authority, no fixed barriers ordering human history, even though authority, order and distinction exist. The secular intellectual works to show the absence of divine originality and, on the other side, the complex presence of historical actuality. The conversion of the absence of religion into the presence of actuality is secular interpretation. 33

It is clearly time for direct action, practical demonstrations of the politics of positive interference; for artists and critics to decide that siding with the dispossessed means more than wishing you could exchange your place in the country for a place in history. Interventions like this one then, which do what they say.







A failed attempt to write a polemic made entirely from quotes

First published in Art Monthly. London Nos 80/81 Oct/Nov 1984
Also published in catalogue to Lies in Ruins Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1986. Includes essay by Gray Watson and text ” … all blows over” by Ed Baxter.

Also published in Real Life Magazine, New York. No 13 Winter 1984