PROPOSAL OR PROPOSITION? CRITICAL ART AND THE INSTRUMENTALIZATION OF THE NON-INSTRUMENTAL
Suhail Malik & Judith Raum


Reflecting the artist’s organization of time and the conditions for this organisation as a political issue formed the core of Suhail Malik’s workshop during the summer academy at Paul-Klee-Center Bern 2009. In the following talk from winter 2009 we reflect on a shift of emphasis in thinking about art in its non-instrumental uses, considering to what extent they are even the conditions for reflective engagement. Suhail Malik teaches in the Department of Art, Goldsmiths, London, and is currently working on a philosophy of American power and (with Andrea Phillips) a book on transnational aesthetics.


Judith Raum: I would like to talk with you about the specificity of artistic practice when it comes to the issue of instrumentality and non-instrumentality. On which different levels are instrumentality and non-instrumentality located in art? I propose that we consider the relationship to time and to material. Thinking of the specific use that the artist can make of her time and material, which role do non-efficiency or the performance of breaks and withdrawal from production play? Do they entail a critical potential?

Another way I’d like to think of non-instrumentality is to refer to Jacques Rancière’s  “Emancipated Spectator” text in which he sketches out the possibility of an equality of intelligences between master and student, a non-hierarchical relationship in the mediation and exchange of knowledge. How can we describe the specifics of the relationship between artwork and spectator and the mediation of political-critical attitude?

My notion of instrumentality comes out of artistic production, of dealing with real objects and material, whereas you sometimes talk about the issue of instrumentality in a way that detaches from the site of artistic production. You refer to it in the way that Adorno uses it: social relations get instrumentalized, and you locate it in the political field, knowledge production, the aesthetic in general. . .

Suhail Malik: And art, we can talk about art as well.

JR: And art, quite a lot of things. Are you looking for a positive perspective on instrumentality?

SM: It is more a scepticism about an assumed positivity of the non-instrumental in artistic, cultural or social acts. The non-instrumental is affirmed in standard critical accounts as a non-operationizable moment. Critique discovers and declares what escapes a social and economic rationality that subjugates people so as to declare a moment of unconventional or counter-normative liberty, autonomy, emancipation or equality.

To give two examples that we were talking about in the session I did in Berne.

First, Pierre Bourdieu’s identification of the skholé as the leisure time free from the demands of working life and ensuring basic sustenance, which is a kind of non-instrumental time. Bourdieu’s point is that skholé is in fact a socio-economic condition since it is only those who have the privilege of being liberated from the world of necessity through wealth or institutional protection (schools, especially universities), professions such as art, and so on that get to produce such thinking and the multiplication of possibilities that comes with them. It is a socio-economic privilege that is encoded within the reflections generated in skholé no matter how far their explicit concerns may be from identifying with that privilege.

Second, Jacques Rancière identifies an emancipatory and equalizing principle in the way that some workers in the nineteenth century used their evenings and weekends away from manual work (again, a kind of non-instrumental time) to educate themselves. In this self-defined time, they gain what would now be called the cultural knowledge otherwise restricted to the world of managers and owners. This self-education is for Rancière a political action because it enacts an equality of intelligences formed through aesthetic production (they read a certain literature).

The main point through these two examples is that though Rancière and Bourdieu are otherwise at odds with regard to the political possibility of aesthetic autonomy, both find the condition for reflective engagement – which is also, to refer back to a characterization of what critical art wishes to be, the condition for opening up possibilities for considered change – this condition is a non-instrumentalized time. Put somewhat crudely, the non-instrumental is a primary category for critique. This is one of the core assumptions of the Frankfurt school and its American counterparts, like Marcuse.

What interests me in the fate of this standard account is that this idea of emancipation is shared in other terms by many liberal democracies as a policy around the arts, as a sort of growth or socially therapeutic device, through culturally-led urban regeneration, employing artists in social reorganization schemes, generating international cultural tourism (biennials), enabling communities to generate new proposals for how to change their environment, and so on. Even as it is welcomed by some of the more overtly political aspects of the art system, which look to ‘real’ sites for their interventions, a quick reaction to is to say that, even as they look to art to help them achieve certain socially responsible goals, state authorities don’t understand that the condition for art production is something like the autonomy of the artist and the freedom of production. And the instrumentalization of the autonomy of the artist fundamentally misapprehends what art is and what artists are about as cultural agents who determine their own ends.

Now, put crudely but I’d say accurately and effectively, I think that reaction is formulated according to a straightforward opposition between instrumentality and non-instrumentality which preserves a safe and self-serving idea of what art is as a (usually benevolent) socio-political agent, of what the politics of art are, whether the art is as obviously socially engaged and ‚in the street’ or more formally concerned and ‚white-cube’ art.
This makes sense for the artists making such claims to the integrity of their art or themselves in the face of state or corporate power – both now inextricably capitalistic – and those who support this stance. It must be supported as a get-out clause to save art as a critical, free activity from being captured and subordinated or diminished.

But what I think tends to get missed (or avoided) in this reaction or position is that when power is using or is interested in critical art, it is precisely relying on or wanting the non-instrumental art and/or artist —whether it capitalizes on them for regeneration or re-profiling culturally dense areas in a city. Partly because this shows that, yes, there is a liberty and autonomy within such social orders and it is affirmed, and partly because of a real commitment to communities developing their own no-standard or ‚bottom-up’ solutions to their particular situation, which the artist can help them realise, figures of non-authority and sideways thinking that they are supposed to embody.

Art and artists, then, help confirm the assumption of autonomy, as liberal subjects. This is of great political credit to state authorities in liberal democracies not least since it confirms the condition of political diversity: I think that is what non-instrumentality serves. It’s too quick to say that this is an instrumentalization since it is non-instrumentality that is somehow validated by this affirmation by dominant power in liberal democracies, but from the perspective of those who demand a ‘pure’ non-instrumentalization of culture and art that is how it must seem. In this, such defendants are wrong.

Put more quickly, it is not that critique based on non-instrumentality is to be eradicated by corporate or political power. Rather, it is now capitalized upon. All this of course depends on a non-cynical view of what government and corporations are up to when they address social policy.

JR: I agree with your description of the capitalization on autonomy. As far as I understand, this is in large parts in accordance with arguments from “The New Spirit of Capitalism” by Boltanski and Chiapello, who show how capitalism successfully incorporates paradigms such as autonomy which originally derive from “artist critique” on society. Now, I am an artist and I still ask myself which kind of art I want to produce. You were talking about the state using art and you are looking at ‘critical art practices’ as the ones that carry out the critical reflection on instrumentalization by the state or market. I wonder if you are looking at those practices in a more unified (homogenous) way than me, claiming that the non-instrumental is something that can be attributed to so-called critical art in general. Which kind of art practices do you subsume here and which do you exclude? Can criticality and a reflection about non-instrumentality not happen on very different levels?

SM: You are right to identify it as a sort of political generalization of art production. The problem that you rightly identified with the descriptions that I gave is that they look very much like broad conceptualizations or generalizations of specific productions. It is a characterization at what you could call a meta-art level since it lies behind or underneath any given art that makes critical claims. So I’d invert the question to the way you ask it. Rather than identify or subsume particular artworks in terms of the categories, I’d use the categories to differentiate art, which also means to internally differentiate any given art as in some aspects instrumental and in other aspects not.

That said, I’m hard-pressed to think of any contemporary art that makes claims to be ‘critical’ in one way or another that doesn’t at some point call upon these claims. It’s not that an artist thinks “I am making non-instrumental art.” You just do your art practice. But the notion of the art being a proposal without a fixed destination or without a specific addressee is a prevailing assumption or convention of contemporary art and/or its discourses.

JR: I actually disagree, I think that the non-instrumental is a quality that one can indeed have in mind while working on and presenting a piece of work. Consider the difference between artworks that – concept-wise or in the way the material is treated – convey some kind of perfection or mastery or a fluid narrative that does not show possible chasms of sense and, on the other hand, works that offer hints or an openness about the process of questioning, recognizing, decision-taking that went into the work. Works that appear generous or even humble in some way.

Alice Creischer’s work for me is an example – where in the way in which things are being treated, a spectator or the audience is not told a content or a solution, it is rather conveyed an attitude to the work and, in larger terms, to the world in general, that lies in a specific sensibility. And through the specific traces which the objects show or the setup of an inherent relation between its parts, the audience gets a feeling for the actual activity of research, of analysis, of production itself, an activity that appears as something that suggests itself to be shared in, that appears close, participatory. So at the bottom of a non-instrumental relationship to material would be a non-instrumental way of dealing with social relationships, a corresponding political stance.

Rancière in his text mentions the book that is between the master and his student. Between the performer and the audience there is the spectacle. They need something between each other to create a distance, so that it is not just a question of transmission of knowledge but a mediation of knowledge, which is the condition for what he calls “equal intelligence”. In this there is a point about a distance created in a communication process with the help of a material object. The proposition is of a more respectful activating inclusive mode of knowledge transfer. You have to be very specific when discussing and confronting this mediating object. You have to actually look at things. Where do you locate such results, specifically at the moment where something happens on the spectator’s side?

SM: There is a series of assumptions in what you say that I would like to address. But to do so, let me crudely capture the attributes you mention of a non-affirmative art as those of a proposal, which has a degree of indeterminateness to it. There’s no saying what can happen to a proposal, it requires the recipient to follow through on it, as contrasted to a proposition, which is more instructive, directing and self-contained. It is not a solution but a mediation that leaves the addressee open. That sense of the open encounter as the ambivalence which may never get resolved speaks to the plurality of encounters.

While these are again formulations at a meta-art level and not to do with the specifics of Alice Creischer’s art, it seems to me the reason that we can agree that her work is of interest is that it meets the criteria of being a proposal. This meta-art condition of art qua proposal is sometimes explicitly articulated (Liam Gillick comes to mind), but even if it is not made explicit I think it is common enough in one form or another. I understand that such is the wish for art as a critical undertaking.

I have two questions about the proposal. First: why do we have this wish for art to be a proposal and perhaps only a proposal, never anything as basic as a proposition? To what does this criterion attest, as a question of success or failure of certain art works in these terms? Second: isn’t this logic (and I think it is a logic, a fairly fixed one) of the primacy of the viewer/audience as sense-making, individuating, completing the proposal in her or his own way also the very thing that is of interest to policy makers in liberal democracies as they try to find ways of promoting a condition of softly sovereign subjects, each making their own way?

This returns to the beginning of our conversation when I was interested in the success of art in relation to social policy of those with greater power, governments or corporations.

JR: With what I was saying I did not mean to make an automatic connection between non-instrumentality and criticality. But who is acting out the instrumentalization? The artist?

SM: Everyone.

JR: You would position it on every level.

SM: Yes, but it is done deliberately and non-deliberately.

JR: Ok. So for me as a producer, I am still one step before that when I think about which relationship will occur between the products I make and the people who will encounter them at a first level.

SM: You seem to propose a division of interests. One way you can figure out this separation of interests is to say that the artists are generating an art qua proposal, and then it gets marketized (not necessarily commercially but also through public institutions) and then does the instrumental stuff. But if you look at the rhetoric of the instrumental side as to how and why it is interested in art at all, it uses exactly the rhetoric of the artists’ side: a confirmation of individual, active, participatory subjectivity of the addressee (the viewer, the audience) who, by virtue of this participation realizes something of themselves as quasi-public agents.

JR: Do you really think that there is a shared intuition against what critique should be pointed against? Are we not talking about a rather small group of people taking part in the same discourses?

SM: Yes, it is practically a very small group of people because the art world in its totality is minuscule. But it’s no less or more influential for that and it doesn’t dispense with the question of what commitments or that group shares in terms of justifications, ideologies or conventions.

Perhaps we can work the issue here out through a specific example. I am interested into your Kosovo project. What was the wish with the art library? How do you retain the status of artist rather than NGO activist?

JR: About the Contemporary Arts Library Pristina/Berlin… The moment when I took the project over from two artist colleagues was when both of them were about giving up on it and the different reasons for the partial failure of the project made me curious. Ten thousand books on contemporary art, theory and history had been collected and brought to Kosovo. There were very few available in the Pristina Art Academy at the time. In this first installment at the National Library, it involved bringing mostly Western European and North American books to Kosovo without asking any local actors what they actually wanted, without taking care to really involve local partners. We weren’t sure our partners would keep being engaged with the project or that it could go on for a longer period of time. It progressed without really taking care of the structural and institutional surrounding that would actually enable a library to run long-term.

 These lapses led to a moment where nothing worked: the doors were closed, nobody could access the library, not all of the books were in English, many of them in German; so there were many structural deficiencies. Initially, I got interested exactly because of the political and organisational questions – how to deal with these circumstances, how to make it work? And I was curious what kind of cultural production I would encounter there. Nowadays the project in its biggest parts is supported by local artists who developed a close relationship with it, identify with it and feel responsible. We have a fixed place in the National Library of Kosovo. There have been hours of negotiation. I went through a lot of political experience.

SM: It sounds like a heavily instrumentalized project to me because it had definite ends, a specific purpose to do with the situation in Pristina, the war, the situation of the art school, an idea of art, and so on. Given what you were saying earlier about art’s indefiniteness do you still consider it as part of your art? What happens to that notion of what I called the “proposal of art” that we had as a defining feature of contemporary art?

JR: I worked on the library project over a few years parallely to my studio practice, and it ment a constant negotiation and transfer of the experiences made in individual working processes and a collaborative mode of working that is built on discourse and exchange.
About the propositional moment: For quite a while the responsibility for the Contemporary Arts Library was on my side, and people who worked with me there showed me that they waited for me to make decisions and tell them how to do things. So how do you then deal with this, how do you start a real collaboration, exchange organizational structures on the same level? What do you develop out of a bunch of books that mirror the Western canon of contemporary art history? These were the problems I set myself to knowing that it was in itself a potentially problematic position to take as a Western European going to a country like Kosovo. But there was a need and we set ourselves, slowly, as a group to that need disregarding the obvious pitfalls.

In the seminars that we organized as part of founding the library we reflected nothing else but these very issues together. Discussing topics such as the conditions of artists’ collaboration, of European Union’s cultural policies and the implementation of cultural values, (all aspects of what you call instrumentalization). But also we worked together on the categorization of the books in the library and finding a new order, if you will, in the shelves, by appropriating and re-distributing knowledge. To develop different modes of behavior and moderation, a new distribution of responsibility was established in these group situations that were for me moments where non-instrumentality could be at least tested. You can say that this all happens on the level of micro-politics. There are obviously differences in how to handle things, which actually have an impact on the relationships that the project is built on. When I presented the library in exhibition contexts, the selected materials and lecture programs accompanying the presentation reflected exactly these issues.

SM: Why do you characterize that sort of equalizing as a non-instrumental moment?

JR: Because I was confronted with power, I had never been confronted with that before. And it became an issue how to deconstruct this power, distribute it, and re-utilize it for what we wanted to achieve. People in the (local) institutions, like the national library that hosts us, or the embassies, or the German Ministry for Foreign Affairs, they confront you with formalities, institutional-structural obediences that essentially pull you back into a instrumental position. You are being attributed this kind of instrumental role that they create within the bureaucracy.

SM: You say “attributed”, but maybe you had that power, and people and institutions were interested in you because you did. Maybe you were already what various authorities supposed you to be. There is something about your formulation of “the power attributed to you” that seems like a double consciousness. On the one hand of being the political actor, the one who has to deal with power, engaged in the machinations of institutions, officials, authorities and populations. On the other hand, being the artist when you are saying “I am just an artist. I have no real power. Power is not something I fit in to or that I will take on or that is given to me because of these series of operations, and when I leave them, I do not have them anymore.” I mean, you are not a politician; you are not being political in that sense; you are still an artist who is taking on a role. But I think separating these aspects or roles, though there is no reason to do so in terms of what you do, serves to distinguish and preserve a distinction between art and politics on the basis of a distinction between the instrumental (a purposeful project which co-incides very well with the interests of various state and non-state authorities to rebuild something like civil society in Pristina) and the non-instrumental.

JR: …the purposefulness of the project is connected with the part of it that is the actual library, the institutional component, which needed to be connected with an existing local institution in order to make it function on the long run. But this was only the first step to give us the structures at hand that we needed in order to work on certain projects, seminars, exchanges which develop their shape from internal dynamics.

SM: I wanted to return to the point we discussed earlier where it is an assumed wish or necessity for art to desist from instrumentality. This determination is not to do with what you did but with how you are identified, not least by yourself, and the wish to be identified in terms of what it is an artist can or should do. This indicates in turn a moral or ethical task for art that is based on a commitment to non-instrumentality that requires you qua artist to be at the least suspicious about the power you are involved in and, to some extent, must seize in order to carry out the project (even if you don’t know what the ends are, as in you don’t know what the library will do). So this is why I think there is a kind of double consciousness going on here: on the one hand, an understanding you are caught up in power mechanisms, networks and ambitions and that the project serves them well (they back it with finances and other support), which is a kind of politician’s role or mind-set that works in instrumental terms which you must accept to complete the project. On the other hand, the sense that you are an artist and so in fact don’t belong to that realm, and perhaps shouldn’t if you are to continue with it as an artist’s endeavour in which your concerns is how to bring the library to the art school as a proposal. That is, with indeterminate ends to be decided by those who participate in it.

However, my sense is not to more sharply demarcate these aspects as kinds of practice, throwing them into contradiction and negation of one another. Rather, it is worth maintaining the duality of the action as both artist and political agent. The word ‘actor’ might be a good phrase at that point to cover both aspects. Because you are an artist who is acting the role of someone involved with power without really having it since you are an artist, and because you are undertaking political actions. ‘Actor’ covers both senses which are distinct from one another and perhaps even incompatible since the role-playing actor (artist) is differentiated in its irreality, or fictionalizing and distancing from the reality of political actions (NGO worker). Here, you are acting as NGO-like agent in Pristina that would cut through the distinction between the instrumental and the non-instrumental or overlap them in a way that seems to me very exciting for a reconsideration of what a critical art could be. As a proposal, perhaps this is a good place to stop for now?

 

 

 

(Thanks to Matthew Schum for the editing)