8 Oct 2020
Activists and Artists
Let us begin by proposing that “the Left”, since its inception, has been divided into two main camps: a) the “bread and butter” up-the-workers Left of the trade union movement and various activist organisations, and b) the progressive counterculture or avant-garde located around the spheres of art, music, film, poetry and so on1. While both of these aggregates are united in adhering to some kind of anti-capitalist critique, each approach and enact their critique of capitalism in strikingly different ways and languages, varyingly leading to either 1) productive mutually reinforcing collaboration or 2) bitter hatred and resentment between the two camps. For shorthand, let us conceive of this as a split between the activists and the artists. (With all the usual caveats that such a shorthand is necessarily reductive - of course activists can also be artists, and artists can be activists, and many people actually are both those things.)
What is the nature of this split?
To start with the artists, we can first note that they primarily enact their critique aesthetically: their aim is oriented around the production of a singular Work or Event that ruptures common sense and forces us to drastically rethink our place in the universe, sometimes to such an extent that it initially offends all our pre-existing tastes and sensibilities. As indicated, this approach is driven by a logic of singularity, seeking to strike that uncanny moment that is simultaneously both absolutely unique and yet absolutely universal, a kind of return of the repressed that both horrifies and captivates us.
Consequently, while the artist is (usually) highly sympathetic to the critique of capitalism, they try and integrate such a critique into a broader, more universal frame. This often makes such a critique more muffled or abstract than, say, the activist would like: a film director may decide to critique capitalism’s ecological destruction by directing and writing a film that is heavily laden with ecological themes, without mentioning the words “capitalism” or “working class”, for example, at all in it. Nonetheless, in that the film presents us with a particular vision of Nature that capitalism works to obstruct, the artwork can be said to function as a critique of capitalism.
This is because the artist seeks to conjure and use a language that is poetic rather than direct and literal. The intention is not really to use language as a tool whose only function is to “point to” things in the exterior “real” world, but to treat language as a medium to be explored, stretched, cut up, etc, as a raw material with its own Truth. To borrow a point from Badiou, the artist seeks a Truth that is not propositional (i.e. does not take the form of a proposition which we then “prove”) but poetic. Or to put it in a Deleuzian register, artistic language follows a logic of expression rather than representation2. The artistic “language” of (a) painting, for instance, is not one that ultimately seeks to refer to an exterior ground – though it may, by happenstance, do that – but rather seeks to be a ground itself, to be a new Truth of its own.
In contrast to this aesthetic approach, the activists approach their critique politically, attempting to organise the working class into some kind of collective organisation (party, union, guerrilla, etc.) held together by a common vision. Unlike artistic production, this organising is driven not by a logic of singularity but commonality: the activist does not seek to “stand out” among fellow members of the working class, like a singular artwork, but rather endeavours to be a mediator between such workers3, helping them to see past their particular differences and become conscious of their shared subjugation. The activist is a far more deferential figure than the artist as a result: they become skilled in the arts of conversation and persuasion, learning to tease the worker out of themselves and into dialogue with their fellow workers. The activist is always keenly aware of this: it is not their voice that ultimately matters, but the subjugated members of the working class that they organise with.
Alongside this organising activity, a political programme emerges, which seeks to give concrete expression to this commonality, acting as a faithful cross-section of its members’ situations and interests. What quickly becomes clear when drafting this document, answering the questions “Who are we and what do we want?”, is that what the workers hold in common is not so much a set of positive qualities or attributes, but lacks: lack of control over their work from their boss, lack of ownership over their home, lack of money, lack of respect from the police, and so on. Dark, spectral and vaporous, it is these lacks that form the truly generic set that, initially, forms the basis for the activist political organisation.
Translated at the level of the programme, such lacks dialectically become the basis for demands: open antagonisms rather than simple negations. The activists name their enemy and hold them responsible for their oppression and exploitation: the boss, the landlord, the police, the media. Through such a translation, it becomes evident that the logic of commonality that structures the political organisation necessarily leads to it being openly particular in its membership and approach4. Deferential to its members and openly antagonistic, the organisation never claims to speak, or be for, everyone, and nor could it function this way. Consequently, unlike the artwork, the political organisation is particular and pragmatic, grounded in specific concrete situations that they seek to intervene in. And it cannot be otherwise: for, as the “frame” of a situation is widened outwards and outwards, both in space and in time so as to become less and less particular, it becomes increasingly difficult to make and sustain political judgements. After all, from the point of view of deep cosmic time, does it really matter all that much if you organise your fellow workers at the job you hate and want to quit? Is going to another miserable protest worth your time? The activist can never really answer these questions, which anyway do not concern them: they care about the here and now, the blood boiling in their veins. Seeking to distance oneself from the immediacies of the present is scorned, either as lazy or aloof – a bourgeois privilege.
The artists, however, famously thrive on such distanced territory. Artistic genres and aesthetics such as the Gothic, sci-fi, and cyberpunk (to give just a few limited examples) have much to say about such cosmological, theological, ecological, technological, and philosophical concerns: the relation of man and machine, evolution, science, consciousness, aliens, God, the natural vs. the artificial… The activists? Not so much. Such distanced, abstract topics appear to have little immediate use in building the organisation.
Now, it is worth stressing that neither of these modes are better or worse: they are simply different ways of responding to a shared situation, and both can (and indeed often do) work together very productively. Today, most musicians, artists, and writers are broadly left-wing and have great sympathy and admiration for the work of organisers, particularly in unions like UVW and IWGB (the former of which now has a branch for creative and design workers). Furthermore, some of the most visible union struggles in the UK and US recently have also been in the creative sector, such as workers at the Tate, National Theatre and Southbank Centre striking over job losses two months ago, or staff at both Pitchfork and Vice forming unions which have won recognition and new contracts, as well as doing work stoppages.
Simultaneously, however, such growing class consciousness among artists and creative workers does not seem to have been met with a growing “artistic” consciousness among activists on the Left. Indeed, for much of the contemporary “bread and butter” Left, the avant-garde is still something to be treated with suspicion: a pretentious, bourgeois plaything that is unnecessarily esoteric and detached from the everyday person’s life and concerns. And this is where the carrots come in.
The Useless Carrot
Last Tuesday, a big pile of carrots were dumped outside the Centre for Contemporary Art at Goldsmiths. 29 tonnes of them, to be precise, including the odd potato and parsnip. Baffled and confused, for a few hours after the event people scrambled to work out why – social media, as you can expect, was ablaze with videos, tweets of confusion and astonishment, and all the usual outrage.
It was soon revealed to have been an exhibition piece called “Grounding” by Spanish-Welsh artist and Goldsmiths graduate Rafael Perez Evans, as part of the Goldsmiths 2020 MFA exhibition. Evans, who grew up in a family of farmers in Spain, had drawn inspiration for the work from a protest tactic often employed by European farmers called “dumping”, which involves dumping huge quantities of harvested crops in the street in protest at the state devaluing produce prices, and thereby the value of the farmers’ labour. As Evans told Artnet News:
On one occasion when I was quite young, I remember people being very angry and upset as the cost of lemons had been devalued to such an extreme that it was costing the farmers money to sell their stock… This issue made many farmers dump, in protest, tons of lemons, creating a sort of sea of yellow. This I guess was the first moment in which I became aware of the power of how governmental devaluation and international trade affected farmers.
What “Grounding” does is take that protest tactic and remix it for contemporary urban space, dumping tonnes of carrots in the heart of grey, polluted New Cross that were supposedly rejected by the food industry and will be turned into animal feed afterwards. The urban, so strictly defined by its rigid utilitarianism – its effacement of geotrauma – meets its own repressed rural/ecological content.
As one expects, this has been divisive and controversial. While not all of the reception has been negative – I thought this was a very thoughtful reflection on it, and seeing it in person does remind you of the playfulness of the piece; when I went on Saturday children were chasing themselves around the pile, people were throwing carrots and sitting in them, etc – certainly the loudest response to the carrots has been red-in-the-face outrage. This has primarily been led by a group calling themselves @goldsmithscarrots, who have been using the carrots to make and sell carrot cake and soup, the proceeds of which (£1,700 so far) are going to local food banks.
Let us try and outline the reasoning behind this anger. The main contention from groups such as this seems to be that it is “tone deaf” when considering the existence of food poverty in local Lewisham. By parading such a vast quantity of food in such a blatantly useless way, the piece is seen to be tantamount to a cruel mockery of the poor and homeless, quite literally dangling the carrot of food and satiation in front of them. Food, after all, is necessary for human life and reproduction; consequently, what is seen to be offensive in “Grounding” is that it openly treats food in a non-nutritional way: rather than use the carrots to nourish the human organism, the artwork uses them to make an abstract artistic and aesthetic statement. And this is something, of course, that only a person who was not suffering from hunger and food poverty could do – the insinuation from groups like @goldsmithscarrots being that they thus shouldn’t do it at all.
Instead, aware of the fact that these were surplus carrots, part of the extraordinary ~3.6million tonnes of food surplus or waste that is produced by UK farms every year, one imagines the group would argue that rather than parading such wasted carrots, the artist should have sent them directly to food banks, for example. Indeed, this is what @goldsmithscarrots has been doing; they have been protesting the artwork by putting the carrots to use. The re-appropriation of the carrots has not been framed as a playful engagement with the artwork, but an explicit protest against the offensive wastefulness of it, complete with angry Instagram captions and middle fingers directed towards it. Against a laissez-faire notion of art that, through a pretentious excess, distances itself from external responsibilities or justifications (at its most extreme typified by the statement “art for art’s sake”), then, the carrot activists advocate for an art that is sensitive to its surrounding environment.
What we see, then, is that it is these oppositions of use vs. waste, usefulness vs. uselessness, necessary vs. surplus that the activist critique of “Grounding” hinges around. Indeed, it is such a set of oppositions that seem to be at the heart of the artist vs. activist split in the Left more broadly: the activist hates the artist for spending (wasting?) their time on producing art, choosing such a luxury over the immediate need to help people, and the artist hates the activist for being a joyless, ascetic puritan, the inverted mirror-image of the capitalist who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. All distilled in the dumping of some carrots at a British arts university.
Breaking the Logjam
Let’s call it an Event, and at the same time note that all Events have a dimension of the uncanny. If something is too alien, it will fail to register; if it is too easily recognized, too easily cognizable, it will never be more than a reiteration of the already known.
The question now is: is there any way beyond this set of oppositions? Are the artists and the activists doomed to hate each other for eternity? Are the avant-garde and radical left politics ultimately so incompatible that they should each be left to their own business?
The answer, obviously, is no. As I mentioned in the prior section, “artists” and “activists” are not to be conceived of as two mutually exclusive sets, nor are they to be conceived as sets of people. (After all, many of the activists involved in @goldsmithscarrots are art students!) Instead, they are distinct sensibilities which, despite (or because of?) the fact they have very different approaches and logics, can form two distinct but complementary moments within a broader Left ecology.
Nonetheless, if we are going to break the logjam in the case of the Goldsmiths Carrots Fiasco, then we are going to have to question and unpick the activist position moreso than the artist one. It is, after all, they who have folded their arms and taken themselves to Twitter to vent their outrage; it is they who are supposedly refusing any kind of collaboration with the artistic sensibility around “Grounding”, rather than the reverse. And, consequently, it is they who need to loosen their tense, outraged posture and gently expose themselves to the cold waters of critique.
Primarily, this critique of the activist position hinges around its conceptions of “waste”, “surplus”, “useful”, “necessary”, and so on. For the activists can only conceive of the surplus that “Grounding” exhibits negatively: it is waste, a thing with no use, lacking a pre-defined function. And, crucially, this was a bad thing: in order to make it less bad, the activists had to create a new function for the pile of carrots (turning it into cake/soup) in a furious attempt to expunge the nauseous stench of the lack, to plug its gaping void. (A transformation of the Carrot from Mother Nature into (Father) Phallus.)
But – and this is the very curious thing – despite declaring “Grounding” to be such a pungent waste, @goldsmithscarrots’ very actions have instead proved it to be precisely the opposite. Their actions have not only raised significant money for local foodbanks, but also brought new people together (creating a new community in a time where such a feat is very difficult) and drawn attention to “Grounding” itself and the thinking behind it. And this was all thanks to that big pile of carrots. Rather than think of the activists as giving form and use to the wasteful negative void of The Carrots like a revived Platonist (who’s not exactly trendy amongst the Goldsmiths lot), we therefore need to reconceive the surplus of The Carrots as a condition, not a lack – the big pile of carrots represented a kind of “use before use”, a general/abstract requirement in order for new concrete uses to come into existence. In short, The Carrots were not the negation of “use”, then, but instead its precondition.
In other words, @goldsmithscarrots’ protest did not work against the piece but instead acted as its very consummation as an artistic Event. Rather than demonstrate the insensitive wastefulness of “Grounding”, so as to put future artists off doing a similar thing, the activists have instead confirmed the very value and public function of such a “wasteful” artistic excess.
Building off this, we can tentatively claim that art itself is founded on such a principle of excess (or, to borrow a Fisherian term, egress): it is the ambivalent surplus that constitutes the artistic Event qua Event5. The artistic moment in any work (album, painting, poem, film, exhibition, etc.) is resolutely “useless” or non-functional, and has to be if it is to motor our desires and stand out against the grey inert background of everyday life. If a song or a film is too recognisable, too predictable, we soon enough cease to care about it; there needs to be that element of mystery, that elusive something extra, in any artistic object in order for us to desire it and, by the same process, be transformed by it. Without this, we cannot call such cultural objects “art”: yet another animated Dreamworks film with all the usual tropes, for instance, is not art – it is instead simply advertising, another moment in the vast circulation of commodities.
By the same token, “Grounding” would not have worked were it a smaller pile of carrots; the sheer surplus of food involved was, ironically, necessary for the work to be an artistic Event and thereby allow the carrots to become the basis for a whole new set of uses.
To clarify here, I am not saying that art and everything around it has absolutely nothing to do with notions of “use”. There are, of course, relations of necessity and functionality at work in any artistic experience: the mixing work of a DJ, for example, might perform the functional role of helping people dance, as well as creating a fan community around the music, through which people make friends and find meaning in their lives. But such uses cannot really be said to belong to the music as such, but a set of practices around it. The music itself must be to some extent ambivalent, a surplus that is always in excess of any of our attempts to master, control or understand it. For it is only through such an artistic egress that we escape the dull, coded routines of our everyday life, riding a mysterious line of desire, only to return with us and the world completely transformed. Indeed, it is only through such an egress that new communities and subjects are born.
Now, as a character primarily oriented around the question of organisation, of building consistent codes and programmes that can hold a collective together, the activist finds this principle of excess either confusing or offensive. It all appears to lack discipline and structure, and, furthermore, is it not just a justification for pretentious, aloof art purely because it’s “excessive”? Indeed, it could appear to be a justification for “art for art’s sake” – am I merely saying that artists can do whatever they like, because art is just being excessive, and thus justified?
Again, no, but it is an important critique to raise, which we should credit the activists for. Art is not unaccountable, and it is not its own basis or justification. Furthermore, not all surpluses are alike: they pertain to specific continuums of degree and quantity; they vary in size and quality. While we can never finally reduce the artistic moment to a political judgement or position, then (for the accomplishment of such a thing makes the object propaganda, rather than art), we can acknowledge that the artistic egress or surplus inherently favours certain uses over others. Which is a long-winded way of saying a rather redundant thing: different works of art do different things – music makes us dance, films can entertain us, a poem moves us and makes us reflect on life.
Consequently, the excesses of art need not be aristocratic, obtuse or aloof – something I think “Grounding” demonstrates very well. Having visited it on Saturday, I can confirm that there are, indeed, a lot of carrots in the work: quite literally hundreds of thousands. But the fragrant, orange surplus of the work does not feel pretentious, wasteful or cruel for it. Quite contrarily, there is a remarkably humble, rural serenity that hangs in the damp, aromatic air around the piece that is subtly moving. When put in contrast with the urban backdrop of New Cross, it genuinely evokes the feeling of observing a grand natural landscape: for what is a towering mountain range, a canyon, an ocean, but a sublime waste of energy? Wastes of energy that, by consequence, are open and ambivalent, inviting exploration and a promiscuous playfulness. “Grounding’s” artistic excess, therefore, is not an overwhelming or inaccessible obelisk that cruelly belittles and mocks its disparaged observers, painfully craning their neck, but rather more like an open expansive field marked by a certain democratic, egalitarian impulse.
What “Grounding” perhaps highlights, then, is potential fruitful collaboration between the artists and the activists; a hyperstitional confluence of radical left politics and the avant-garde. For if the Left is to raise consciousness, to truly take people out of the bourgeois dreamworlds that they stalk, enchained, it needs to take a leaf or two from the artistic sensibility of the avant-garde. It needs to treat artistic egresses not as wastes, but as psychedelic potentials necessary for the production of new (communist? revolutionary?) uses, subjects, and communities. Rather than condemn art for being “useless” or “wasteful” – which is literally to condemn art as such – it needs to recognise that such a state of “uselessness” is not a wasteful lack, but instead something that can enable art to produce the new, as well as new uses around it to psychedelically emerge.
Of course, there’s no doubt that organisation-building remains a crucial activity (and something the artists could probably learn from). But we must be careful in how we conceive of organisation, keeping in mind the rethinking of waste/excess/surplus from above. For, against the neurotic bureaucratic-Stalinist vision of society as a fully integrated Whole where every element is accounted for and put to use, which is what an unthinking activism is always inclined to pursue, the Left needs to learn from the artists that the universe is always radically incomplete6. The ultimate goal is not so much the filling in of the gaps in pre-existing society through the densification of the organisation, but the building of organisations that can, in Felix Guattari’s words, “face the problem of [their] own death”7. In other words, the organisation cannot take the perpetuation and extension of its own existence as an a priori principle that cannot be questioned; instead it must be able to think like the piece of art, that singular and finite work that self-consciously, through its finitude and death, seeks express a (universal?) poetic truth.
What this looks like more concretely is an important question and one that is, in my eyes, quintessentially acid communist. I don’t have an answer to it now, but nonetheless am sure that it can only be reached in practice if both the activists and the artists step back from and sublimate their social media-primed instincts for outrage, and accordingly try to open-mindedly establish how they can work together.
Remember who the enemy is.
The term “expression” may sound like vague nothing-speak, but Deleuze very rigorously theorises it, and its differences from signification/representation, in Expression in Philosophy: Spinoza. ↩
Clearly such organisations are not just made as workers – replace “workers” with “tenants”, “people of colour”, “queer people”, “women”, where appropriate, etc. ↩
The terminology is used precisely here: singular is not the same as particular. Whereas “singular” directs our attention to a certain absolute uniqueness, “particular” points us to the Whole that this particular thing is part of. When we talk about a “particular apple”, for instance, we are identifying this round, green object through the Whole (Apple-ness) that it is a part of. ↩
It is on the basis of this principle of excess that we can critique the activist’s outrage at “Grounding’s” wastefulness. For does their critique not logically extend to all artistic production? Is not all art in some sense “tone deaf” to poverty, in that it does not – and cannot – seek to immediately redress it? Is not the endpoint of the activists’ vision that all artistic expression stop, and that all artists become depressed and burnt-out activists instead, until the mythic point of After the Revolution? And yet do these same activists not find themselves yearning for the moment after work when they can watch a good film, go to a gig and meet fellow music fans, or find stimulation and meaning from the book they’re reading? So while activists are right to insist on the punk focus of the Here and Now, they cannot help but bodge it: for the Here and Now is not simply an actual state of affairs characterised by, among other things, poverty and capitalism, but also a virtual one laden with potentials. Being true to the Here and Now, and being a true punk, then, is not about seeking to accurately “represent” the Here and Now (for it cannot be), but transforming it into something else. Indeed, the true punk in the case of “Grounding” is its creator Rafael Evans himself – for it is he who has cut open the present, while the outraged activists wag their fingers and write official complaints to university managers as dutiful Ofcom complainers-to-be. ↩
Guattari, Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics, 1984, p41. The whole quote is remarkably pertinent, and in my mind proto-acid communist: “The fundamental problem in institutional analysis can be expressed like this: is it absurd to think that social groups can overcome the contradiction between a process of production that reinforces the mechanisms of group alienation, and a process of bringing to light the conscious subject that knows and the unconscious subject this latter being a process that gradually dispels more and more of the phantasies that cause people to turn to God, to science or to any other supposed source of knowledge? In other words, can the group at once pursue its economic and social objectives while allowing individuals to maintain their own access to desire and some understanding of their own destiny? Or, better still: can the group face the problem of its own death? Can a group with a historic mission envisage the end of that mission – can the State envisage the withering away of the State? Can revolutionary parties envisage the end of their so-called mission to lead the masses?” ↩