By Gregory Sholette


A tangle of questions from A Blade of Grass sends us deep into the weeds:


Is Socially Engaged Art Inherently Progressive?” 
Most socially engaged art professes to better society in some way. Projects often claim to raise consciousness, and improve lives on individual and communal levels. Frequently, artists target economically challenged communities or under recognized groups. But is this a requirement? What might a project look like that lacked a progressive stance or aim? This panel will explore the question of whether socially engaged art is necessarily tied to progressive politics.


But what if we begin by uncoupling the first and last sentences, which seem to be only slight modifications of the same question? Now they describe two different versions of how art and politics interact.


“Is Socially Engaged Art Inherently Progressive?” and “Is socially engaged art necessarily tied to progressive politics?”


If we answer yes to the first question, “Is Socially Engaged Art Inherently Progressive?”, we assert that progressive politics (however defined) is coexistent with socially engaged art. It’s almost as if the two share the same DNA. Severing one from the other fundamentally deforms both.

If we respond positively to the second question, “Is socially engaged art necessarily tied to progressive politics?” another cultural topography comes into view. Art and progressive politics are connected, and yet each remains somehow autonomous from the other.


The search for certitude begins to resemble a Gordian knot, or more exactly a clever trompe l’oeil painting of a knot rendered by someone like René Magritte. Each set of questions and answers comes with its own implications. Each has its own historical references. Following one takes us towards a broad conception of art as an ameliorative form of free human labor. Following the other opens the door to asymmetrical power relations and the possibility that culture can be reduced to a political instrument. But what precedents might exist for this puzzle? I stare at the painted knot. Its braided coils are simultaneously a convoluted abyss and nothing more than a flat pigmented surface. Into my head comes Kim Novak’s coif in Vertigo. Down we go.



Deep Storage


Standing in the dimly lit basement of André Malraux’s museum without walls, we rifle through an imaginary archive of mental images and documents related to art and politics. The going is slow. It’s deep storage. What do we find? First, a hand-colored photograph showing a group of men standing in front of a pile of rubble.


April 12, 1871. Gustave Courbet is arguing with his fellow communards. He points to the Vendôme Column, insisting it’s nothing but a “mass of melted cannon that perpetuates the tradition of conquest, of looting, and of murder.” [1]  Cables are tied to the Napoleonic spire. “Citizen Courbet expresses the wish that the National Defense government will authorize him to disassemble this column.” The column falls to pieces. The moment is recorded on a photographic glass plate. The Communards are visible standing victorious beside massive cylinders that were once a monument to Napoleonic conquests. Within weeks the revolutionaries are rounded up and tried, shot, or expelled by a decidedly non-progressive military force. The short-lived socialist experiment is over. Charged with destruction of state property Courbet is billed some 323,000 francs to rebuild the demolished memorial. [2] He flees the country never to return. The murderers go unpunished. The image rests in the archive.

Sometime in the year 1984, Eva Cockcroft reads from Artforum’s glossy pages, looking into the lens of a video camera. Produced by Paper Tiger Television, the “Art and language and money” program is focused on what was then, and what remains today, the world’s leading trade magazine for commercial fine art. But artist, muralist and independent scholar Cockcroft focuses on a brief period of time in 1975 when two of Artforum‘s most intrepid editors—John Coplans and Max Kozloff—turned art world renegades. They published what were then daring essays by people who boldly suggested art was not about transcendental truths. What is art? It is the cultural expression of specific economic, social, and political regimes. Carol Duncan, Allan Sekula, Lawrence Alloway, Alan Wallach, Patricia Hills and Eva Cockcroft herself fleetingly became Artforum writers. It was Cockcroft and Kozloff who famously maintained that the CIA had been a secret proponent of 1950s action painting, using it as a “weapon” in the cold war. But when once-influential New York Times art writer Hilton Kramer suggested art dealers should boycott the magazine, the Coplans/Kozloff editorial moment was over. Kramer later co-founded the neoconservative journal The New Criterion. Meanwhile, Cockcroft’s reading of Artforum was recorded on U-matic three-quarter-inch magnetic tape, an outdated format today that is sometimes still used to view archived 1980s videos, and sometimes the equipment appears as cinematic props in the background of 1980s period films.


January 7, 1935, three yellowed, handwritten letters from Walter Benjamin to Theodor W. Adorno turn up. Benjamin was on a short trip to Italy and Adorno was living in England but making regular visits to their native Germany. “I presume you are back and I will proceed to answer your long letter of December 17. Not without trepidation.” [3] Benjamin starts off cautiously and later sheepishly asks if Adorno has read Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Novel (1934) in which the poet and playwright revisits certain characters from his famed opera with Kurt Weill. Adorno’s dislike of Brecht grew increasingly sharper over the years, pivoting on both a rivalry for Benjamin’s friendship and the question of whether artistic form should ever be linked to progressive politics. “It is not the office of art to spotlight alternatives, but to resist by its form alone the course of the world, which permanently puts a pistol to men’s heads.” These are Adorno’s words some twenty-seven years after this correspondence, long after Benjamin had taken his own life while fleeing the Nazis. Again from the 1935 letter: “I am not looking beyond Easter. Brecht again asked me to come to Denmark and, indeed, right away. Now I will probably not leave San Remo before May in any case.” A few months later Adolf Hitler begins to re-arm Germany in violation of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. As it turns out, Georges Bataille saved these brittle sheafs of paper from destruction and they were not rediscovered until 1981. By then Adorno was also gone.

February/March 1982, the cover of a cheaply printed, twelve-page, black and white magazine entitled Upfront raises its own questions about art and politics. “But Is It Art?” the headline reads. Then “A Not-So-Imaginary Dialogue” ensues. Two unnamed artists exchange views. The first insists, “Well, we’re not just doing our thing while Reagan fiddles. The art we make isn’t neutral; it isn’t escapist; and it ain’t necessarily pretty.” This is obviously a socially engaged artist speaking to an imaginary gallery-based interlocutor. The latter responds, “That makes good political sense. But is it good art?” “Damn right it is,” comes the unqualified reply. “If you include the art of pictorial resistance: words, sounds and images that touch and move people by challenging oppression with passion and imagination.” But if you, “define art’s domain as timeless, universal, beyond history, isolated, out-of-touch, then it isn’t our thing!” Written by the editorial staff of Upfront this Platonic dialogue was printed in the newsletter of Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PAD/D), a “left-to-socialist artists’ resource and networking organization” co-founded by Lucy R. Lippard, Jeary Kearns and others including myself. [4] PAD/D emerged out of the remnants of the post-1968 New Left. It echoed, though far less dictatorially, Mao Zedong’s sentiments from 1943 linking art to class struggle: “there is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.” [5] Our mission in the 1980s seemed equally clear. At a time of well-funded and well-organized right wing backlash against the progressive gains of the 1960s, PAD/D sought to provide political leadership to cultural workers whose progressive outlook might otherwise remain disorganized and haphazard. Après PAD/D vient le contre-révolution! Scanned copies of the offset journal are online

Now once more I will say that we well-to-do people, those of us who love Art, not as a toy, but as a thing necessary to the life of man, as a token of his freedom and happiness, have for our best work the raising of the standard of life among the people…

Acknowledging his own class status, artist, socialist, and entrepreneur William Morris called upon his comfortable peers to renounce their class privilege and help “return” Art, or perhaps more accurately artisanal production, to its place within the life and labor of the masses. “One day we shall win back Art, that is to say the pleasure of life; win back Art again to our daily labour.” The roughness of the proletariat is not their natural condition, Morris avowed, it is the result of a degrading process of alienation brought about by the capitalist obsession for profits. If only the working person would be reintroduced to the ennobling balm of artistic production it would rekindle his or her latent desire to live a cultural, full life. Meanwhile the wealthy have captured Art, squandered its transformative power, and reduced it to a mere plaything. For Morris, the task of freeing workers from capitalist wage-slavery ran parallel to the act of freeing art from its upper-class prison. His 1884 lecture on “Art and Socialism” appeared that same year as a thin, inexpensive pamphlet sized so that a worker could slip a copy into a pocket and discreetly read it during his or her lunch break.


Here we pause, because this document is an especially intriguing precedent for our twisted problem. Why? Because for one thing Morris’ idea of cultural and political revolution pivoted as much on art’s emancipatory possibilities as it did on the moral resolve of the well-to-do towards their laboring brothers and sisters. “I offer a means of renouncing their class by supporting a Socialist propaganda in joining the Democratic Federation.” By “re-aestheticizing” work and de-privileging art with a capital “A,” the unimaginative drudgery of the factory would be abolished and an essential first step taken towards spreading socialist freedom amongst the masses. In this sense, Morris distanced himself from contemporaries such as Karl Marx and Frederick Engels who had little to say about art or moral imperatives, and who focused their emancipatory aspirations on the inherent contradictions of capitalism. But where would we locate Morris in our debate? Is socially engaged art inherently progressive, or is it only linked with progressive politics? In modified form Morris seems to answer yes to both questions. He was indeed seeking to forge ties between art and progressive politics, but he did so in the belief that his actions were reuniting art with its atrophied humanist values. Artistic labor, he assured, “is the true pleasure of life.”


The Knot and the Cheese


I stare at the knot.

Clearly to some degree contemporary, socially engaged art practice conforms to Morris’s idea about art and its positive effects on the daily life of the masses. We simply need to substitute underprivileged communities for laborers. Then again, much has changed since his lecture “Art and Socialism.” Most art today is not artisanal or craft-oriented, at least not in the way Morris imagined. In fact, Art is now quite unlike its antecedent in the 19th century, period. But debates covering basically the same ground have come and gone, and erupted anew, and disappeared again ever since.


And although all those cited in my imaginary archive would agree that there is an ever-present link between artistic engagement in society and notions of social progress (regardless if one is for or against the latter point of view), it would seem impossible to truly reconcile the Courbet/Brecht/ Cockcroft/Mao/ PAD/D position that art is a tool of class interests and must therefore be placed at the service of progressive change or considered reactionary, with Morris’ belief that artistic labor is inherently liberating because it allows for human expression. What made him tick? Morris would have been a teenager during the so-called “Springtime of the Peoples” in 1848 in which ad-hoc revolutions spread across France, Germany, Denmark and the Austro-Hungarian Empire among other parts of the continent. Could there really be that much of a gap between the rising expectations of working class unionization in mid-19th century Europe when compared with the numerous revolutionary defeats and instances of state repression that would follow? Besides, most of the progressive changes enacted would vanish in a few years. And so I stare at the knot again and wonder if perhaps the issue is not this thicket of snarled questions, but rather something more like recognition failure? After all you cannot untangle a painting of a knot, you can only observe it, or compare it with other objects, or hang it in a museum. Oh, and yes of course, you can cut it up into smaller pieces.

Today it is all but impossible to only make a painting or a sculpture. No work of art can refuse social meaning now, any more than traces of our actions can escape being endlessly archived in cyberspace. Connectivity to networks of socialized production and communication are inescapable.  It is a relatively new phenomenon. Recall Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, which was installed in front of the General Services Building in downtown Manhattan without any input from the men and women whose offices were adjacent to the sculptor’s curving wall of rusting steel. Serra’s art apparently gave no William Morris-like pleasure to their workday.  Perhaps its austere presence even reminded them of the barren cubicles they spent so much of their lives housed within. Either way, they objected, suing the General Services Administration to have Tilted Arc carted off. It was removed in 1989. The following year an entirely new language appeared in the grant guidelines of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). From then on, artists proposing a public project would have to take into account the “community” their work would impact and seek to address “underserved communities.” Like Kurt Vonnegut’s ice-nine that rapidly crystallizes water at any temperature, the new language of inclusivity and sensitivity and service to community spread to other agencies, foundations, and institutions. Since then the transformation has gained momentum and breadth.


For aspiring artists these days it is virtually de rigueur to attach some external narrative––national, biographical, communal, and on occasion, political–– to even the most autonomous looking abstract image or object. It was not always so. Indeed, the entire artistic paradigm has shifted so quickly and so dramatically that it is no longer impertinent to speak seriously about art as a political or social or collective activity as it was in the early 1980s. For example, in the 1980s PAD/D published a monthly calendar of upcoming radical art events called Red Letter Days. It was as much a way to announce these programs as it was a means of reinforcing the coming-into-being of socially engaged art in New York.  But most Red Letter Days (and evenings) took place in non-mainstream venues such as union halls, school auditoriums or less visible alternative art spaces like Franklin Furnace. By contrast, over the course of the past two months as I have been working on this essay 1. a significant conference focused on artistic collaboration took place at a mainstream academic institution, 2. an exhibition opened at a major museum featuring an artist who invited high school students to cover its normally white walls in graffiti, 3. another prime New York City art institution described its own biannual exhibition as composed of artists working in “interdisciplinary ways, artists working collectively, and artists from a variety of generations,” and 4. a third Manhattan museum was invaded by protesters who sought to call attention to human rights violations in the Middle East where this institution is building a new facility under terrible local labor conditions. The demonstrators dropped handmade dollar bills into its famed atrium, much as Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies did on the Stock Exchange in 1967.


And here are some more examples of this phenomenon to consider. Once denounced by New Criterion neoconservatives such as Hilton Kramer, PAD/D’s archive of socially engaged art is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. The radical approach to social art history that once led to the expulsion of Kozloff and Coplans from Artforum is today central to most academic programs. Brecht is part of the standard theater repertoire everywhere, and an entire industry has sprung up around Walter Benjamin’s writings. Courbet’s work has an entire room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And most of all, despite our polymorphous, de-skilled, post-artisanal contemporary art world, Morris’ belief in culture’s ameliorative properties has been become a central tenet not only of the fast-growing arena of social practice art, but also the art world as a whole.


In other words, what if us “progressives” have already conquered the ideology of the art establishment, from its academic programs to its “serious” cultural institutions, biennials, art fairs, and so forth, but most of all, the way the art world imagines itself within its own international discourse?  Of course there is still plenty of non-committed art, anti-social art, and even a bit of reactionary art. But here in this, our tiny, specialized corner of the culture industry isn’t the lingua franca of global art-speak inherently progressive? (Even if the actual political economy of art is anything but forward looking?) Which means what? That the knot is actually an optical illusion? A distraction? Something akin to Holbein’s infamous anamorphic skull floating impertinently in front of us? Remember this memento mori only appears undecipherable when we stare at it straight on. Once we step to the side of the painting and look at it askew, the distorted image crystalizes. Can we look at this knot of questions on art and politics askew?

As Kerstin Stakemeier puts it, the capitalization of art that started around the 1960s also meant “its factual socialization.” [7] In other words, once “Art” became an arena of ever-intensifying economic trade and investment, any remnant of autonomous production was forced to enter the thoroughly socialized disciplines of modern finance capital. Whatever independence once existed for art apart from the broader economic matrix ended. What remained, I would argue, is a knot of desire for art’s dream of autonomous labor that is kept alive largely within its discourse. That is the good news. Projects like Caroline Woolard’s, W.A.G.E., Art and Labor, and the intensifying critiques of the Guggenheim Museum’s franchise in the United Arab Emirates by groups such as Gulf Labor Coalition and Occupy Museums evince both the vitality of this progressive debate, as well as a renewed recognition regarding 21st century capitalism. That is not to say that artists were never before asserting progressive politics, we need only look at the words and work of Morris or Daumier or even David to counter that notion.  But even with the emergence of “de-skilling” and “de-materialized” art in the 1960s––to cite Ian Burns and Lucy R. Lippard respectively––the artist/cultural worker as a “specialized producer” still always had one foot wedged tightly in the world according to William Morris, because even as conceptual artists outed painting as merely another commodity they refused to embrace the idea that “art”was doomed to be nothing more than a luxury good. “There is our hope: the cause of Art is the cause of the people,” Morris proclaimed. Eighty-five years later, Art Workers’ Coalition demanded: “Art isn’t entertainment. It should be free to anyone who is or might be interested.” It would take another few decades to all but completely disenchant artists from their 19th century ideals. And while I admit now and then, indulging my own willful naïveté in this regard, the emergence of art-based hedge funds and Damien Hirst’s platinum skulls are symptoms of art’s ultimate transition into the cold realm of capital.

“Who will eat the cheese?” Marcel Broodthaers once asked about the machinations of the art world, his rhetoric flavored with more than a pinch of sarcasm. Who indeed? Without losing sight of the knot––for where would we be without it––perhaps we need to learn how to look simultaneously at it and beyond into the darkness of the art world’s undereconomy where the most challenging questions loom into view?  William Morris would no doubt agree.


 [1] Panero, James. “A Monumental Problem.” The Wall Street Journal 24 Sept 2012. Web. 18 April 2014.

[2] Tillier, Bertrand. “La Colonne Vendôme déboulonnée.” L’Histoire par l’image. Web. 18 April 2014.

[3] Benjamin, Walter, Gershom Scholem, and Theodor W. Adorno. The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910-1940. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Google Books. Web. 18 April 2014.

[4] “Lippard Charitable Visits by the AWC to the MoMA and Met.” Originally published by the Ad Hoc Women Artists’ Committee and reprinted in Get The Message, p. 22.

[5] “Mao Zedong Yan’an Forum Talks on Literature and Art, May 1943.” Open Hearing, Art Workers’ Coalition Primary Documents, 1969. p. 51.

[6] Morris, William. “Art and Socialism.” Marxists Internet Archive. Web. 18 April 2014.

[7] “It is the real subsumption of artists under capital which transforms them into producers of contemporary art. And it is this process that in turn gave rise to the independent artist organizations of the 1960s and 1970s, while implicating artists in the dramatic social struggles of their time, including most notably the anti-Vietnam War movement. They participated in these political confrontations as one kind of ‘producer’ amongst many.”  —Kerstin Stakemeier from It’s The Political Economy, Stupid: The Global Financial Crisis in Art and Theory, edited by Sholette and Ressler.  Download a PDF of the chapter HERE. For the full book, see: LINK 1  LINK 2  LINK 3


Gregory Sholette is an artist and writer whose current publications include It’s The Political Economy, Stupid co-edited with Oliver Ressler, (Pluto Press, 2013) and Dark Matter: Art and Politics in an Age of Enterprise Culture (Pluto Press, 2011). His recent art exhibitions include Imaginary Archive Kyiv, Collectibles, Action Figures and Objects, at Station Independent Gallery, Imaginary Archive: Graz, Rotor Art Center, Graz, Austria; NY; Exposed Pipe / ماسورة موسيقية  for the American University Beirut art gallery; Torrent for Printed Matter Books in Chelsea; iDrone for; and Fifteen Islands for Robert Moses at the Queens Museum. Sholette teaches at Queens College, City University of New York, and is a member of the Curriculum Committee for the Home Workspace Program in Beirut, Lebanon, and is an Associate of the Art, Design and the Public Domain program at the Graduate School of Design Harvard University.

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