Liam Gillick, 2022
First published in Readiness to Protest
Contemporary Activism between Attitude and Style
Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, 2023
An art collector owned a drawing. It was a deceptively simple expression of weakness. A small piece of paper, torn in places, framed so as to hang loosely without a mount. People could not usually remember the details of the drawing, but there were probably a few indecisive marks on the paper, this was part of the point. The marks on the drawing were undoubtably made with a number of drawing implements – oil stick maybe, a bit of pencil. A small piece of paper might have been stuck to the surface. This smaller part was probably a different color to the main drawing and was also torn rather than carefully cut. This art work – with its commitment to non-rational abstraction – sat in some tension to the rest of the collection. It was to be found somewhat isolated, in a private area of the house. Pride of place elsewhere definitely went to rational minimalism, conceptual art and some examples of important monochrome late modernist abstract painting. The art collector had a young son. “What…” the boy wondered “… is the meaning of this art work?” Everything else was clear, in its simplicity or conceptual rigor. One day the artist was passing through the city and came to visit the house. The boy was encouraged to talk to the artist – and teased by his parents to ask the big question. “What…” the boy asked “… is the meaning of your art work?”. The artist was a kind person and liked children – even though he had none of his own. “Why… Can’t you see? It’s a protest against the Vietnam war.”
Protest and art that is recognized and valued as art in its time, begins with an ebb and flow between the deployment and destruction of art in relation to established power. In Europe this documented history starts with internal religious battles within the early Christian church about the representation of icons. Iconoclasm – the destruction of icons – is a permanent feature of religious formations from the beginning of recorded human history and continues to overshadow the development of art and moderate its appearance. John Grammatikos from the early 9th Century is the most cited example of this early desire in the Byzantine Christian world due to the existence of a critical image of him erasing a picture of Christ with a sponge on a stick – while just above we can see a fine drawing of Jesus being offered a sponge drenched in vinegar by a Roman soldier. An act of destruction pitched against a representation intended to prove the necessity of direct visualization. Iconoclasm runs forcefully through European history. Calvin’s iconoclasm lingers in the contemporary aesthetics of of north western Europe and America – in reductive modernism, empty galleries and minimalist interiors. But it also exists everywhere, in all societies influenced by the legacy of organized religions which disciplined and controlled the deployment of images and objects. Art has therefore developed in dialogue with its potential disappearance for all of human history, and in the early modern period in art forms we recognize as functioning as art, it was often disciplined to secrete messages and protests via allegory and symbolism rather than speaking directly. Throughout history art has been the subject of protest and destruction by authority rather than a vehicle for a direct expression of protest against authority. The development of art is not only affected by the legacy of its internal battle over the religious meaning of images and objects but also haunted by the fact that art is a special type of commodity. Uprisings of peasant classes directed against religions, and rulers throughout the same recorded human history led to the destruction of art as a form of protest against its status as a symbol of wealth and power. So we have a double legacy of destruction. A protest against art from within the ruling system. And a protest against art from outside the ruling system. Art was always an object of protest not an agent of protest.
So the idea that art and protest go together is not wrong. The implication, however, that art itself can be a form of protest rather than the object of protest is a contemporary idea. It is an intellectual construction inflected by the legacy of art’s elusiveness. The great art of the ruling elites often carried embedded messages – symbolic, compositional or in terms of narrative allegories. But it was primarily in the service of power and treated appropriately – with reverance and awe or with destruction as a result of uprisings and revolt. Art functions today in forms that reveal the embedded effects of this endless history of deployment and erasure, re-drawing and re-erasure – this is what gives contemporary art its elusiveness, dumbness and hyper-intelligence in equal measure. To achieve this endless elusiveness the corralling of art in the modern and contemporary period has required institutions, critics, curators and theorists to mould and interpret it – effectively to “establish” it within a human centered period of “participatory democracy” and supposedly free it from endless cycles of censorship or empty decadence.
The victory of contemporary art therefore is an escape into a reverse iconoclasm where art and particularly the figure of the contemporary artist – as an idealized contemporary “agent” – finally turns the tables on established power structures. Art now exposes us to the potential of unfettered human creativity and self-conscious displays of industry, intelligence, and resistance in the form of art as protest. If contemporary art is the first form of art in history to free itself from the twin forces of historical destruction, how has its new role and potential as a form of protest been structured? How has it passed from subject to agent. One solution is to look at arts relation to that which is being protested in terms of time.
Contemporary art functions within and without protest in three temporal modes. The first temporal expression operates in advance of conditions to be protested. This is protest that warns and predicts of grim things to come. The second occurs at the moment of the event or within the context of broader protest, specifically or in generally. Here the artist is a citizen amongst all others offering their particular skills of communication and imagination. The third is essentially reactive and expresses forms of protest against a given structure that is already clearly operative and can be defined as operating within a fully established system. In this case the use of art as protest is pitched against grand systems, such as institutions, political structures and the fundamental organization of societies. These different time based expressions of protest in relation to contemporary art can be rethought a little in regard to the differences between exile and dissidence. Exile and dissidence can be cast in terms of time and space. Exile is an exteriority, it is an absence, either voluntary or involuntary from the place of trauma and oppression. It can remain silent – and as an act in itself can be understood on multiple levels of engagement. One form is pure exile via an escape to get on with a new life without comment or agency, the gesture or escape itself being a meaningful action without comment. Exile in this case can be endless. Every waking moment can be consumed by expressions of loss and awareness of exile and this can pass from generation to generation. Dissidence is a different but related state and exists in the recent past, present and near future. An exile may also be a dissident but a dissident is not necessarily an exile. Dissidence also has varied qualities. An “official” form of it can operate with tolerance and encouragement from authority. Alternatively it can be a nagging constant form of aggressive and resistance towards those in power.
The differences between exile and dissidence exist in these three time based relations when considering protest in relation to contemporary art. Contemporary art and protest can be interior and exterior, and expressed in terms that are hard or soft. At one extreme, as with the mildest forms of tolerated dissidence, art and protest find expression within the substructure of politically sanctioned, instrumentalized art. All political systems today that recognize something we might identify as contemporary art, make use of the structures of art, either via direct funding or tacit support, and deploy it towards the expression of some kind of positive protest for or against something. Art in post-industrial economies is instrumentalized against climate change, inequality, poverty and so on. But this instrumentalization is not limited to the richest countries. Every country uses art in some way as a form of official “protest” against general conditions, through the “raising of awareness”. They all assume that art has some power. Particularly that it has the power to express inclusivity, decency, education, creativity and other “positive” human attributes against the climate emergency, poverty, exclusion, and so on. At its lowest level, art as protest as official expressions of sanctioned dissidence can merely involve the simplest addition of a commonly held ethical or moral value to a social media post making reference to any of the above. This is art as sanctioned protest operates in the “simple present tense".
Art as protest as exile is often more nuanced and biographical. Major chunks of modernism and contemporary art are underscored by the exile status of their creators in the story of twentieth and early twenty-first century art. Everything about this work is at some level an expression of exile. Exile finds form in yearning backwards and forwards. A backwards projection upon what is lost and gone and a forward looking rejection of everything that has taken place in the past that continues into the present. As such, exile is a continually disturbed state that produces an excess of memory and a complete rejection of memory in equal measure. At some level all modernist and contemporary art since the First World War has been an expression of exile. A yearning for values that predate industrial killing and a complete rejection of the values in the past that could lead to such a condition. All art of exile is a protest against the failures of the past and a potential reimagining of all the conditions of production and reception of art in the present and future. This is art as protest that operates in the present and points forwards at the same time.
How do we therefore model art as protest after the event? If we accept that dissidence is not necessary from people in exile, it is also true that exiles can remain dissident. These conditions can both exist after the firm establishment of the conditions spoken out against or escaped from. The act of protest is defined and honed by the situation being protested. It reacts strongly against something that has taken place and continues to take place. Art in this case functions with elements of documentary, commentary and tries to unlock the conditions of the present through the construction of new languages and new power formations. In the final temporal stage, art and artists reflect back upon prior conditions and deploy various tools to reshape and re-stage the past. By doing this they build new versions of history and open them up to potential rethinking and reimagining. This is a position that can admit the persona of the exile who has returned. And the dissident who is now recognized as a visionary once decried, overlooked and rejected. It is the most dynamic form and the most tragic form simultaneously. The most powerful forms of contemporary art as protest all attempt to take on embedded power structures that have permanently damaged the collective psyche. At the same time, they are always doing this hampered by the history of iconoclasm and its imposition of indirect speech and elusive forms, often mediated by “administrators of the creative” whose job it is to ally themselves with the inside and the outside simultaneously. Art as protest therefore has to skirt the boundary between art and something that cannot be easily be recognized as art. Permanently changing shape and restating the conditions of its production and reception. It is in exile while remaining within the social structures it speaks out against.
There is a strong strand in the thinking around contemporary art that it should reject forms of direct, didactic and dialectical forms of protest in favor of preserving an elusive subjectivity that offers potential to save the artistic persona and their products from outside discipline. This position exists to protect arts indirect complexity and suggests that many forms of art as protest are simple minded posturing. This specific situation can be reframed by rethinking artistic autonomy via the new forms of exile and dissidence that surround us today. People have arrived all over Europe with specific new histories and new experiences of exile and dissidence that affect them on a daily basis. Colonial traumas also find new expression in an endless matrix of exile and dissidence speaking to the past and recharging the present. We must keep rethinking the protection of the elusive persona of the contemporary artist and find new ways to include these complex new forms of exterior dissidence and internal exile by creating new contexts, structures and critical languages. This work has already begun in earnest biennales and sophisticated art institutions but has barely touched broader society. The invertion of arts relationship to protest, from subject to agent, is a recent one in terms of human history and its potential is always under attack from bounding structures that attempt to moderate and mediate it or co-opt and instrumentalize it. Reverse iconoclasm has the potential to introduce art into social and political spaces from which it has previously desired separation. Retaining relationships as they are today affords too much power to the mercantile, the institutional and the simple mindedly political. Reverse iconoclasm suggests it is time to take control of the distribution of images and objects on a structural level. To leave the designated spaces of art and take over the proliferation of images and contexts that are driven by algorithms, displaced capital flows and the insideous endurance of cultural repression.