Depths and Possibilities — Activist Art (a review)

Review of Gregory Sholette’s Delirium and Resistance: Art and the Crisis of Capitalism. Forward by Lucy R. Lippard. Ed. by Kim Charnley. London: Pluto Press, 2017.

Delirium and Resistance is an abstract title, inscribed on an abstract book cover. The restless reader might hastily judge it as just one more theoretical tome in the vast sea of perspectives on crises in art today. But appearances are deceiving. Gregory Sholette’s new book intends to splash cold water in the face of aesthetic narcosis. It’s like Alice came upon a mushroom marked “Eat Me” that, when consumed, eradicated Wonderland, or at least made it into a house of cards observable from the outside. Some of us might not want to awaken from our opioid aesthetics (our neoliberal delirium) or embrace the possibility of change, hobbled as we are by our addictedness and fear. The author aims to open our eyes, and, when we do, it is remarkable how invigorating our new acuity turns out to be.

Delirium and Resistance (henceforth D&R) is a book of essays Sholette wrote over about twenty years (from 1997 to 2016), but covering movements going back to the 1980s, with references to the 1960s. The book is divided into three sections: “Art World,” “Cities Without Souls,” and “Resistance”—respectively, these deal with art today as a supreme capitalist enterprise, the paradox of artists vs. gentrification in cities, and, finally, the efflorescence of social practice amid a bare art world. D&R builds on the author’s signature concept of artistic dark matter: the ninety-nine percent who support the art industry with tuition, fees, dues, purchases of art materials, and debt, and through their own unremunerated artistic efforts—all amounting to a “missing mass,” while a tiny number of artists and artworks meet with material success.

In making itself known through multitudes of extra-institutional activities, this dark matter ironically illuminates the fully financial phenomenon that is art today—a system of bare art, to use a term borrowed from Giorgio Agamben’s “bare life,” the reduction of life to mere subsistence devoid of agency. With bare art, art is stripped of its rhetorical high ground, its secrets about ineffability, and its charmed lifestyle. It materializes as pure capital. In Sholette’s eyes, we are currently witnessing a fermentation of dark matter activity, a critical moment in which dark matter is becoming visible, even chic, as museums and other art institutions scramble to embrace social practice of all stripes, from performance art to community advocacy and even commonplace activities like cooking.

So, resistance is endangered by the hallucinatory bounties of capitalism, but the bloated system might be reaching a tipping point. Sholette believes that it is, and, if anything is to be gained, we must engage with the efforts of the past, an archive of mostly un- or under-theorized activity, as a resource.

What makes the book significant is not only Sholette’s theoretical acumen, but also his authenticity. Like an emancipated Alice, his perspective draws from both within and without. As an activist and professor of art, Sholette has taken part in a number of key activist art groups since the 1980s, (PAD/D, REPOHistory, Gulf Labor Coalition, and, with Olga Kopenkina, the Ukrainian Imaginary Archive, IA). He witnessed first-hand the disruptions of the streets with Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, events that involved artists self-exiled from the art world. D&R’s essays were written at different moments in the past decades of activist art in “an attempt at formulating a broader thesis about art as resistance.” (151) That resistance, though atomized in thousands of particular contexts, relentlessly moves its aggregate mass towards liberation from anaesthetizing aesthetics, and eventually, perhaps optimistically, to cracking the code of capitalism itself.