The art of critical art

These times call for opposition. At least, that’s what political theorist Chantal Mouffe has been saying for years, and she is the living proof. While consensus politics rules, the renowned philosopher defends the importance of disagreement and explicit ideological conflict. She asserts also artists have a role to fulfil: ‘Critical art makes us realize that there are alternatives.’

(lees het interview hier in het Nederlands)

Chantal Mouffe is staying in Brussels for the whole month of May, as a guest of Het beschrijf/Passa Porta and Kunstenfestivaldesarts. She will follow the art festival intensively and give a lecture on its closing day. Odds are that she will be met by a big crowd. After publishing On the Political (2005), Mouffe is considered to be one of the key leftist European thinkers who are well-respected in cultural circles. Not surprisingly she offers a lucid and coherent view on our era, which can only be called ‘splintered times’ by most of us, for lack of a better alternative.

52_Hillaert_Hendrickx_Mouffe380.jpgThe focus in Mouffe’s vision is consensual thinking, which has dominated world politics since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Along with capitalism came the widespread conviction that society was on the brink of a single, conflict-free world order. As a result, ‘left’ and ‘right’ are now seen as outdated models, because ideological opposition is just an obstacle for progress. In this ‘post-political’ era the vision of one political party has become interchangeable with the other, and free market laws are considered self-evident, even by socialists. Whoever disagrees, such as the occasional trade union, is soon dubbed ‘conservative’.

According to Mouffe, consensus democracy – closely related to liberalism – denies an elementary law of nature: people tend to think in terms of ‘we’ and ‘they’. But when our democracy is all about reconciliation and seeks the absorption of political confrontation within consensus, this ‘antagonistic’ thinking eventually takes on a much more dangerous form: ‘they’ become enemies ‘we’ need to eradicate. In 2005, both Bush in the United States, and the rise of far-right political parties in Europe were proof of Mouffe’s theory. And also today, the growth of nationalism, the anti-trade union trend, and even the technocratic approach to the financial crisis, all fit well into her model.

What to do? Mouffe’s alternative is ‘agonism’: a we/they-relationship in which struggling parties, even if they know there’s no rational outcome for their confrontation, recognize the rights of their opponent. This is also her own definition of ‘true’ democracy: a political system that succeeds in turning antagonism into agonism, enemies into adversaries. ‘The task for democratic theorists and politicians’, Mouffe states in On the Political, ‘should be to envisage the creation of a vibrant ‘agonistic’ public sphere of contestation where different hegemonic political projects can be confronted.’

Writing this, how would Mouffe define ‘the task’ for artists? It’s this question which brings us to ring the bell of her house in London, where she teaches political theory at the Universityof Westminster. Our admission tickets: the Kunstenfestivaldesarts program and a French translation of Hoe durven ze? (How dare they?), the bestseller of Flemish left-wing politician Peter Mertens. Mouffe had asked us to bring them with us. Although she’s Belgian, born in 1943 near Charleroi, today she follows Belgian politics only from a distance. Her accelerated international career has brought her to universities in Europe, Latin- and North-America: ‘I left Belgium a long time ago and I’ve never lived there anymore.’

Is that why you accepted the invitation by Het beschrijf/Passa Porta and Kunstenfestivaldesarts to reside in Brussels for the month of May? Or should we understand your visit as some gesture towards the arts?

52_Hillaert_Hendrickx_Mouffe3_380.jpg‘I’ve got a lot of sympathy for the initiative of Passa Porta, it’s very multicultural. And I have got the feeling there’s a vibrant art scene in Flanders. I’m very interested in modern dance and of course the best dance companies are Flemish. So the idea of spending a month in Brussels, to be involved in this cultural scene, began to appeal to me. The possibility of doing this in May, during the Kunstenfestivaldesarts, was an extra motivation, because to me this festival is the most interesting of its kind in Europe, the most cutting-edge. When I was a teacher at the Akademie der Bildenden Künstein Vienna, I often attended the Wiener Festwochen. And in Paris I’ve been to Festival d’Automne. Both are very interesting festivals, but basically what you see there, you can see elsewhere too. In order to discover things, you have to be at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts.

I’ve always been interested in the whole of cultural and artistic practices, you see, even if I haven’t been writing about it. Since the mid-1990s, part of my activities as a theorist are contextualized by art festivals. So I’ve always been in contact with the art world, mainly visual arts. In the beginning, when I was invited, I found it really strange and I remember saying: “You do know I’m not an art critic, and I’m not going to talk about art.” They said: “We know, just come to talk about your theory." I began to understand that the particular idea of an agonistic public sphere was something appealing to the imagination of visual artists. Slowly, through the discussions and the contact with the art world, I became interested in their questions. I was confronted with questions I had never asked myself.’

‘Art and politics are not two separate fields’, you’ve written. How do you see this link?

‘If you accept that the reality is always discursively constructed, and that discourses are always constructed around power relations, then of course culture and the cultural field are very important elements in this construction. What Gramsci calls “the common sense”, an idea which I very much love, is something we are taught through culture: through the films and theatre we see, the novels we read… The cultural aspect is absolutely central in the way we perceive reality, construct our world and define our identities. So, that’s why I don’t think art and politics are two separate things that we need to bring together. Based on the theory of hegemony, cultural practices contribute either to the creation, reproduction or challenging of the hegemony. They have a necessary political dimension. On the other side, politics itself is – and here I use an expression of Claude Lefort – “la mise en scène, la mise en forme“ of the reality. There’s always an aesthetic dimension in politics.

“Critical art” doesn’t reproduce the common sense, but tries to undermine it

So, it doesn’t make sense to distinguish between political and non-political art. What we usually consider as “political art”, should be called “critical art”. This is an art that doesn’t reproduce the common sense, but tries to undermine it. It’s an art form that challenges the existing hegemony and tries to disarticulate it. Critical art tries to create an agonistic situation, a situation in which alternatives are made possible. Today we live in a post-political situation, in which alternatives to the ruling order seem to be non-existent. For most left-wing political parties there is no alternative for neoliberal globalization. They are no longer putting into question the basic framework, they’re just making small adjustments here and there. So to envisage political art is to create an agonistic public sphere, to undermine the common sense. Off course, this art can take many different forms. I am definitely a pluralist.’

Some critics say that critical art has become impossible. It’s immediately recuperated by neoliberalism.

‘It is true that many artistic forms today are used by capitalism in order to sell, develop and create new needs. The last twenty years we also witnessed big transformations in the cultural field itself. There are forms, in the cultural industry, that have become pure entertainment. It’s the nightmare of Adorno and Horkheimer coming true: we are developing towards a total commodification of culture, away from its emancipatory dimension. But I don’t agree that there’s no more space for critical art. Followers of Adorno are too negative. Of course things have, in a sense, become more difficult. And it’s true that there’s always the danger of things being recuperated, neutralized, utilized. But on the other side there’s always the possibility to strike back. I see this as a little guerrilla: you turn over what capitalism recuperates.

A good example in the field of publicity are the commercials of Benetton. A lot of artistic forms were used here in order to sell clothing. In the time of the big AIDS-campaign in the US, a group of artists, the Gran Fury Collective, made a very clever move. They copied the visual style of a Benetton advert, but their photographs show heterosexual, gay, lesbian and mixed-race couples, all of them kissing. These campaign images were placed on busses with the slogan “Kissing doesn’t kill, greed and exploitation do”. What this collective did, was really a situationistic “détournement”. I think this kind of ‘détournement’ is always possible. The strategies need to be adapted to the situation.’

Art as activism - is that your conclusion?

‘Not necessarily. We need to make a distinction between art and artistic activism. ‘Artivism’ is fairly new in a sense. I’m not saying it never existed before, but we are seeing more and more of this. The most obvious difference is that artivism has an activist goal. It’s an activism that is using artistic means. In a sense it is the answer to the way in which neoliberalism is also making use of artistic means in order to trick people into buying more. So I think this artivism has definitively an important role to play in the creation of an agonistic public sphere. But of course not every form of art should be like this. Many of my friends believe artivism is the only possible form of critical art. In a way they accept the idea that there’s no space anymore for criticism. They are convinced that art practices taking place in museums are taboo: “In a museum your work is immediately recuperated. Art can only be critical if it occurs outside the institutions. Visual art and theatre should move to the public space, to the streets.” I don’t agree with that. Personally, I’m really interested in the role of the museum and how it can become an agonistic space. In fact, I know some: MACBA in Barcelona, Van Abbe in Eindhoven, Moderna Galerija in Ljublijana, and as I’ve been told also M HKA in Antwerp.’

What do these museums have in common? What is agonistic about them?

52_Hillaert_Hendrickx_Mouffe2_380.jpg‘Take MACBA as an example. It’s a new building designed by Richard Meier and constructed in a part of Barcelona with a bad reputation, some kind of red light district. They’ve evacuated the people there and now it has become a very trendy place. The CCB, the Centro Cultural de Barcelona, was also constructed in this area. It’s an obvious example of gentrification. When Manuel J. Borja-Villel became director of MACBA, he was very aware of this situation, so he tried to establish contact with the original population, he invited them… Sometimes, that was fairly complicated. On the one hand he had his collection. On the other hand he introduces side-activities, organized politically challenging exhibitions, etc. It became a fantastic place, with real interaction.

Moderna Galerija is different: they’re trying to revalorize the avant-garde of post-communistic countries. They want to present a different art historical narrative. They’ve discovered that all of these countries have known very important forms of avant-garde, but these were not recognized because of their divergence in relation to the western canon. So what Moderna Galerija is trying to do is to create a type of agonism which focuses on the internal kitchen of art. This form of politics is very important. And it takes place inside the museum! The same is true for theatres.’

But you can’t neglect that critical art often is perceived as rather highbrow, without much impact on the public sphere.

La Promesse transforms your subjectivity, it makes you see things in a totally different way. I think that’s very important

‘I don’t know. Some people would argue that even entertainment can be subversive. Myself, I’m very sceptical about that. I want to distinguish between art, the higher form of creation, and cultural forms accessible for a larger audience, but still different from entertainment. I think these cultural forms are very important. Cinema is one of the best examples, take the brothers Dardenne. Their film I still like best is La Promesse. You can’t see that film and then go on having the same ideas about sans-papiers. It transforms your subjectivity, it makes you see things in a totally different way. I think that’s very important. I’m not saying that other forms of art, which are sometimes considered elitist, are less important. I think there should be place for what I call “pure creation” too. We are often confronted with dichotomies. Some people tend to say: “If it’s not pure creative art, then it’s not relevant.” Other people say: “That’s elitist, that’s not accessible…” No, I’m a true pluralist, there should be space for all these conceptions. It’s important to recognize that they all have their role to play.’

Meanwhile, art financed by the state is losing support in Europe. Artists are often called elitist or lazy profiteers. They are increasingly framed as a ‘they’.

‘It’s true that today art subsidies are under pressure in Britain and Holland, but it’s dangerous to generalize this. The situation in France or Germany is completely different. Or take Poland. In Wroclaw I was in a panel at the European Cultural Congress, organized within the framework of the Polish presidency of the EU. It was interesting to see that the Polish and most people of the ex-communist countries were in fact very much against public subsidies, and in favour of private money. For them public subsidies meant state control and loss of freedom. They were really surprised to hear that I – and others – was defending public subsidies. See, it all depends on your interpretation of the notion ‘public’. For us it means not state control, but freedom. It implies the state giving you money and the people deciding what to do with it. But even in Austria, when the coalition between Haider and the conservatives was formed, a lot of left-wing artists and collectives were wondering if they still could accept money from this government. I don’t see a problem here, at least if you could use the money as you would like. Culture is too important! It’s not just a thing for the elite. That’s why it’s important to keep fighting for public subsidies.’

Do you see that fight? In Holland and Belgium, art institutions simply accept the consensus: ‘cuts are necessary’. Isn’t that contradictory to the idea of critical art? Nobody is considering alternatives. We all shut up.

In this post-political time, the synergy of political parties and artistic practices is crucial

‘In a post-political situation, that’s not really surprising. More generally, this is also what is happening in Great Britain. The population accepts the austerity politics of the government. How are we going to fight this post-political situation? How can we show that alternatives do exist? In any case not by giving up on politics, as some intellectuals and artiststend to do. People influenced by Hardt and Negri, or by Deleuze, don’t believe in any possibility of acting politically within the existing structures, and still they believe that their actions can change society. That is totally wrong. They use the strategy of “exodus”: we need to abandon the institutions, and we will create something outside. “The self-organization of the multitude?” No, I don’t believe that. The state is important and it needs to be changed. Instead of the exodus I always stress a “politics of engagement”: we need to work with existing institutions, with political parties and trade unions, in order to transform the hegemonic structures from the inside out. It’s a strategy that Gramsci called “war of position”: you need to engage with state institutions. So, in this post-political time, the synergy of political parties and artistic practices is crucial.’

Are we still living in a post-political time? Have the conditions not changed since the financial crisis of 2008?

‘In a sense, yes. The post-political condition still exists, but things are beginning to change. I’m a bit more optimistic now. Still, I think a big opportunity was missed in 2008, the first real crack in the neoliberal hegemony. If, at that time, we would have had left-wing parties that said: “Look, we’ve always knew there was an alternative for capitalism and neoliberalism, and now we propose…” That was the moment! But because of the post-political situation there was no left. In fact in many countries the so-called “left” had been partly responsible for the crisis. In Britain it was the Blair and Brown government. They could not pretend to bring a solution, that would have been like setting a house on fire and then pretending to be the rescuing fireman. In France something similar happened: most of the privatization had been done under Jospin. But the main reason why this opportunity was missed is that the state intervened to save the banks. Until then, the state was the enemy of the private sector, and suddenly the banks collectively cry for help. The demon was now called to the rescue. We could have taken advantage of this state intervention in order to set things straight. That didn’t happen.’

But outside the political party system, wasn’t there was a lot of protest? Time Magazine even elected the activist as ‘person of the year’.

‘I’m a bit sceptical about the power of those protest movements. Occupation should take place, but look at the Indignados in Spain: they want a real democracy, but without a leader, without structure, without co-operation between political parties! So what have they managed to do so far? The situation in Spain is now much worse than it was before. I’m not saying that the Indignados are completely responsible for this, but last summer they discouraged the people to vote for the socialists in the regional elections in Spain. The socialists lost all except one of the local governments. Later, in the national election, the Partido Popular won an absolute majority. So, I think this kind of anti-political movement is really dangerous. It’s good to have party-neutral movements that suddenly say: “enough!” But if they do not manage to institutionalize or establish some kind of synergy with political parties, I’m not very optimistic about their impact.’

Would you not even acknowledge their influence on the public discourse? In the mass media, former taboo words such as ‘capitalism’ are now being reused. Doesn’t that prove the significance of this kind of protest?

‘Well, I don’t know. I haven’t noticed that in Britain. Maybe in Belgium you see that, because of people like Peter Mertens. But that’s different, he represents a political party. We have to avoid homogenizing all protests like the Arab Spring, Greece, the Occupy movement… People tend to tar it all with the same brush. But the Chilean student movement, for example, is completely different. Firstly, they’ve got a leader, Camila Vallejo, who’s a member of the Communist Party. The movement has very clear objectives and demands to the government concerning education. It’s nothing like the Indignados, it’s a very structured party. Even the Occupy Wall Street movement is different, and more interesting, because at some point the AFL-CIO – the main American trade union – started to support them, and they didn’t have any objections. It’s only the Indignados who don’t want the support of any political party.’

How would it be possible for art institutions or artists to connect with political parties or trade unions? It contradicts their ideals of artistic autonomy and political neutrality.

‘Right, it’s not easy, I wish I had some kind of formula. First it is important to acknowledge that this is a necessary step to take. Now, that’s far from the accepted view. Of course, the political parties have to respond positively to this invitation, too. I don’t know about Belgium or Flanders, but in Germany you have Die Linke, a bit of a heterogeneous party, which really has this need to connect to social movements and the art sector. So, on the left of the traditional socialist parties I see opportunities for co-operation, also with Le Parti de Gauche of Mélenchon in France. Usually these parties are much more aware of the importance of social movements, artistic practices, etc. With them I see the possibility of working together. But again, it depends on the specific situation in each country. Here in Britain I don’t see that possibility, and that’s not very hopeful.’

Do you sometimes see critical art that irritates you?

‘I think of the debate in the visual arts, some years ago: “Beauty is necessarily conservative and we should now talk about the sublime.” Even today there are still many artists who seem to believe that critical art cannot be beautiful, because this category is inherently “bourgeois”. That’s absurd. Beauty can be very subversive. Some people also say that critical art should be transgressive, because that’s more radical. They should realize that transgression is very easily recuperated. Neoliberalism loves transgression!

And still another form or “critical” art which is not critical at all, is art that shows how dreadful and miserable things are. These artists are fighting some kind of false consciousness, by revealing certain conditions. I’m completely against this idea of false consciousness, because I think that consciousness is a constructed result of a certain process of identification. This vision is a reformulation of the traditional Marxist view of the veil of ideology. People are not aware of their real interests, and if only you were able to lift this false idea of ideology, then suddenly you would see how things work. That’s completely wrong.

Another form or “critical” art which is not critical at all, is art that shows how dreadful things are

It’s important that our critical practices are not just practices of denunciation. Some years ago, we saw in art a lot of very politically correct denunciation of the Iraq War. Basically it was just asserting the belief of the people addressed. That’s not bad of course, but it isn’t subversive either. It doesn’t really change the way you see things. That’s also the reason why I’m very suspicious of commemorative art. For me that’s not a form of agonistic art. It doesn’t make you ask questions. It just provides answers, it already tells you what to think, for instance, “this was a terrible event”. To create an agonistic public sphere is to create other forms of consciousness, not simply lift false consciousness by denunciation.’

Does this 'denunciation art' fit in with the general tendency you have pointed out as ‘an evolution from political to moral judgement’?

‘Yes, in our post-political situation, with its consensual thinking, people tend to see problems in moral terms. If you can no longer think in terms of “left” and “right” – a very important distinction for democratic politics – you start to think in terms of “right” and “wrong”. So the political discourse becomes a moralistic discourse: “we, the good democrats” and “them, the evil”. In such a situation, agonistic politics become impossible: if you construct your enemy out of moral grounds, you can only have an “antagonistic” relation. Today our culture in general is completely dominated by moral categories. Think of the increasing role of apologies: everybody constantly wants to apologize for this and that… People construct themselves as victims, so they need apologies. This is no longer a political but a moral vocabulary. For instance, the Greek people demand an apology from their political class: all politicians should apologize for creating the terrible situation in Greece. But what will it mean? If it’s a case of corruption, they should be brought to court. An apology doesn’t fix things.

52_Hillaert_Hendrickx_TheBomb_Tricycle_Theater_London.jpgAlso most art of denunciation is a moral, not a political act. A political discourse is one that offers an explanation, that makes you understand the cause of a problem, based on an economical analysis. Is the bank crisis simply about the “greedy bankers who wanted more and more money”? No, it’s the system behind. Also art that simply shows “the bad things”, suggests that it’s only an individual matter. If you present the Iraq War as just “the bad Bush”, with no explanation, you conceal the real interests behind it. You need to keep digging, until you find something other than a moralistic explanation, in order to give a political judgment.’

Isn’t that the job of historians and political analysts, and not of artists?

‘Of course, but why shouldn’t artists do it as well? Artists will do it differently. A good example is the French collective Bureau d’Etudes, that’s establishing a form of institutional critique. They are, for example, showing the links between big corporations and arms trade. Visual forms are used to make an argument. That is not what a historian would do.’

Do you see other artists who can change our consciousness in a political way?

‘I’m thinking of the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar, who lives in New York. His interventions are an excellent example of what I consider critical art. In the Italy of Berlusconi he once asked questions to people, very simple. Is culture important? What is the role of the intellectual? He didn’t say: “Berlusconi is the bad guy.” He tried to make people question themselves. Also in his earlier life, when he was still in Chile, under Pinochet, he did a big intervention entitled Estás tu feliz? or Are you happy?. He made people vote on this subject, an action which is by its very nature already a statement in a dictatorship. It’s introducing a practice people are not acquainted with. But also, imagine this question all over Santiago: “Are you happy?” For sure, people will start to reflect on their situation. That’s the type of art I consider important. No denunciation, no answers, no showing of horrible things.’

Are the contemporary arts as a whole agonistic enough, for your tastes? How happily do you leave the average art festival?

‘Well, I think that art is one of the few places where I see agonism. I see it more in the arts than anywhere else. Of course agonistic art is not the representative art, especially not in Britain. London used to have a very interesting theatre scene with young dramatists, but not anymore. Theatres don’t want to take any risks any more. They make shows to attract a large audience. Luckily there’s a small theatre nearby, The Tricycle, which programs intriguing, political pieces. Recently they presented The Bomb, on the political history of nuclear weapons. But with the cuts in subsidies, these theatres have become an exception. People have become afraid of doing something adventurous, a dangerous moment for the arts. Still, I believe possibilities will always exist, and I think it’s important to see how they can be appropriated and used. It’s very dangerous to determine what critical art should be and attach norms and values to it. We have to realize that there are many ways in which consciousness can be transformed. Suggesting utopian possibilities can be just as important as criticising existing situations. There should be much more plurality and freedom in the arts.’

Do you have a final message for artists today?

‘It’s important to have a tangible situation as a starting point. Everything I’ve said is linked to our situation in Europe. Things become completely different if you ask the same questions in Egypt or Tunisia. They don’t live in a post-political situation, so the role of critical art will be completely different. Their task is to build some kind of agonistic community in order to create some form of consensus. Here, we’ve got too much consensus and we need to disrupt it. So, if you want to develop a form of critical art, it’s important to always start from an analysis of your own situation. Of course, artists have the right to choose whether they make this form of art or not. No moral judgment can be made. But if you intend to make critical art, this is all I know. It’s not a prescription.’

Chantal Mouffe gives a lecture the 26th of May as part of Kunstenfestivaldesarts, in La Monnaie, Brussels. See

Wouter Hillaert is a freelance theatre critic. Sébastien Hendrickx is a dramaturg.

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