The theme of “social beings” presents us with a key question for modern artistic production. What is the relationship between being, or the ontology of the self, and the surrounding social world within which the self is imbedded? In the early modern concept of the aesthetic this relationship was defined through a principle of individual autonomy that was seen to possess emancipatory power. For Schiller the fragmenting effects of modern life have rendered us incapable of working towards the practical achievement of a more just and equitable political system. Actual societal progress will only be possible once we have undergone a privatized experience of “aesthetic education,” which will return us to a pre-social state of being, prior to all “external determination,” from whence we will glimpse the possibility of a utopic social harmony in the individual experience of beauty. In order to preserve its transformative power this experience must be restricted to the realm of semblance alone, and entirely sequestered from any practical engagement with the world. Thus, the aesthetic helps us to intuit our underlying connectedness to others, but only by detaching us from any direct interaction with the world as we withdraw into a contemplative apperception of our own cognitive powers.
We might say that aesthetic experience teaches us to be social precisely by facilitating our isolation from social interaction.
We might say that aesthetic experience teaches us to be social precisely by facilitating our isolation from social interaction. We encounter a striking continuity between early modern concepts of aesthetic autonomy and the new modes of autonomy that emerged in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through the rapprochement between vanguard politics and avant-garde art. These are organized around the central value assigned to art, and the artistic persona, as the vessels for an entirely unique form of critical and prefigurative insight. Now the anticipatory reconciliation of self and other evoked by the experience of beauty is replaced by a deliberate undermining of transcendence, in the avant-garde assault on the viewer’s consciousness, even as the sovereignty of art and the artistic persona remains paramount. Thus, we find the artist serving as a “deputy,” in Adorno’s description, for a form of revolutionary consciousness that the working class itself has failed to exhibit. Moreover, this deputizing function can only be performed so long as the artist remains entirely detached from the contaminating influence of actual social engagement or political praxis, which can only ever take the form of a naïve “actionism.”
Autonomy, or the capacity for autonomous critical thought, is not something that is simply possessed, like a mental faculty, by certain preternaturally gifted individuals.
This paradigm of avant-garde aesthetic autonomy has been challenged by the emergence of new forms of socially engaged art over the past three decades. This challenge is constituted through the dialogical opening up of the artists’ relationship to other selves, and the transversal interaction between artistic practice and other forms of cultural and political production. Here I think of projects such as the Lava la Bandera actions in Peru, which contributed to the overthrow of Alberto Fujimori's regime in 2000, the work of Park Fiction, which protected a large public space in Hamburg’s waterfront from gentrification, and Chu Yuan’s Offering of Mind project in Myanmar, which offered a prefigurative expression of life beyond the quotidian constraints of a police state. In all of these projects there are moments of discontinuity and distanciation (the ability to stand outside of an existing system of political domination and survey it critically). But this form of cognitive autonomy can’t be understood through the paradigm of an absolute transcendence that is entirely independent from “external” material reality. Autonomy, or the capacity for autonomous critical thought, is not something that is simply possessed, like a mental faculty, by certain preternaturally gifted individuals. Rather, it is better understood as a contingent effect produced within a given field of social relationships and institutional tensions, and in conjunction with unique forms of practice. While it is possible to accumulate a body of theoretical knowledge based on the insights gained through individual practices, each context, each situation, also imposes new challenges and opportunities, and calls forth new responses.
We can identify three discrete, but contiguous, forms of insight generated by socially engaged art practice. In each case these insights are derived from the new modes of agency and speculative understanding that are opened up by a practical engagement with specific institutional, discursive, and spatial articulations of power. Drawing on the conventions of music theory we might describe the forms of knowledge generated by socially engaged art practices in these contexts as “praxial,” entailing both performance-based learning and new mental or cognitive orientations that emerge in response to the situational matrix of the performance. The first form of praxial insight involves tactical knowledge, which emerges as participants observe the effects produced on an existing apparatus of power by particular symbolic gestures and physical interventions (the washing of a flag in Lava la Bandera, the escraches of Argentina, alternative planning processes in Park Fiction, etc.). These may include changes in public policy, the blockage of certain economic logics, temporary or more lasting shifts in the distribution of power, or transformations in specific ideological fields or value systems. This knowledge is highly situational, and includes the capacity to adapt and modify a given ensemble of actions or gestures as they elicit a counter-response from the particular governmental or regulatory structure they are targeting. It should also be noted that this form of knowledge is both creative and pragmatic, and carries along with it the capacity to transform the consciousness of the participants or collaborators, as the initial success of a specific set of gestures can produce an enhanced sense of agency, and a greater willingness to project the practice into new contexts or settings in the future.
Domination is not a fixed or static thing, to be analyzed in abstraction. It is a living culture that evolves and modifies itself over time and through the exigencies of historical development and ongoing opposition.
The second form of insight is associated with new modes of critique and structural analysis, directed at a given system of domination. Here critique is linked to the principle of negation, as a process which seeks to destabilize the normative perceptions of existing political or economic institutions and ideological systems. In the case of the escraches this involved a conscious effort to denormalize a culture in which the perpetrators of past violence (during the Processo period) were simply absorbed unquestioningly back into the fabric of Argentine civil society. Here, as in the avant-garde tradition, the artist adopts a position external to the surrounding, hegemonic culture. But in socially engaged practice the artist does not claim this exteriority as a singular and unique capacity. Nor do they assume that their critical awareness can only be preserved by abjuring any practical resistance to the culture it critiques. Rather, the forms of critical consciousness mobilized by engaged art practices are produced out of a process of collective exchange. At the same time, critique is drawn along with action (rather than isolated from it), which has the effect of providing critical intelligence with a far more nuanced understanding of the material nature of domination itself. Domination is not a fixed or static thing, to be analyzed in abstraction. It is a living culture that evolves and modifies itself over time and through the exigencies of historical development and ongoing opposition.
The third form of knowledge production entails a prefigurative awareness associated with the modes of consensual decision making and speculative creativity that unfold in a specific project. These require highly complex negotiations across the differing epistemological orientations, forms of identity, and political belief systems held by individual participants. We might describe the process of reflectively working through these intersubjective tensions as a kind of social labor that partially suspends normative modes of being driven by autonomous self-interest. At their optimal level, these interactions elicit a form of intersubjective experience that resonates quite clearly with the ethos of the early modern aesthetic. In particular, they evoke the key moment, long deferred, when a given socius is able to generate its own norms and values, rather than having them imposed by an external and arbitrary authority. But now, this moment of intersubjective exchange is no longer simply represented metonymically within the self-reflective consciousness of the individual artist, it is actualized through the experiential reality of collective interaction among concrete interlocutors. For Adorno, and for many others in the long history of the avant-garde, this is the dreaded moment of premature desublimation, as we naively try to call the aesthetic sensus communis into practical existence. But the goal of these interactions is not to affect some final, utopic reconciliation of self and other, or subject and object. That scenario is seen, properly enough, as a quasi-metaphysical artifact of the Enlightenment, as surely as is Lenin’s eschatological image of life after the revolution. Rather, these projects seek to preserve the fundamental irreconcilability of these two terms (as they are conventionally understood), while at the same time facilitating forms of action that are both visionary and pragmatic. Here the tensions and discontinuities that exist between self and other are not dissolved but openly thematized, as part of the very material of artistic practice itself.
Rather than two fixed selves, each seeking to defend its a priori autonomy, a space is opened here for a concept of the self, of social being, that no longer conforms to the ethos of bourgeois sovereignty. It is a space that is defined by modes of self-transformation that are reciprocal, rather than unilateral (the artist repairing the viewer’s damaged consciousness). The goal is not a finished or finalized version of the self, like Schiller’s idealized aesthetic subject or the communist “new man,” which will render all subsequent forms of intersubjective negotiation unnecessary. The goal is precisely to understand more deeply and more thoroughly the process by which the self is transformed, and made more open, with the understanding that this process will never be fully complete. This is a process that no longer depends on a fixed notion of identity, which can only ever view external determination as marking the expansion of one self at the expense of another. Instead, socially engaged art practices call into question the very concepts of externality and interiority on which the schema of conventional aesthetic autonomy is based. What these projects embody, then, is not some ultimate resolution between self and other, but rather, an ongoing experimentation with the parameters of identity itself. They ask if it is possible to produce a social space that exists apart from both the repressive universality of the community, party or state, on the one hand, and the sovereignty of the monadic self (epitomized by conventional artistic identity as much as bourgeois subjectivity) on the other, through a series of experiential encounters that are both practical and reflective.