Rethinking art’s radicalism: The marathon debate goes on

When in the early 1970s Joseph Beuys talked of how art, when revolutionized to the full, can turn into a politically productive force capable of shaping history, he was expressing one of the many strands of political activism alive at the time. His views were published in the catalog of an exhibition held at the London Institute of Contemporary Art and whose very title, Art into Society, Society into Art, directly addressed the entanglement of art and politics. Though Beuys’s views are now just a faint echo of a nearly forgÔtten social and artistic utopia, they do touch upon one of our most fundamental notions of art, that of art as counter-conventional, and for that reason capable of challenging and effecting societal changes. Within this context, what constitutes radical and socially minded, democratic art by definition, comes into conflict with power structures both political and artistic. This longtime tension, however, nowadays seems rather problematic, particularly as even the most progressive and alternative art tends eventually to become integrated in the predominant art system. Even in the midst of the politically activist 1970s, some artists anticipated such a development. Hans Haacke, known for producing works that attack cultural institutions, discussed (in the same exhibition catalog that included Beuys’s views) how avant-garde art and artists are influenced by the cultural and political environment in which they operate. So if today’s social system is such that it can absorb even the most radical of art, where does that leave our stereotype of unconventional, democratic art? What does it mean for art to be democratic and political in our time? For it to be democratic, must it be accessible and adjusted to mass appeal? And if so, how does that bear on our traditionally held notion of art as inherently radical? These are the kinds of questions addressed in Open Plan P3 – the marathon, an exhibit held jointly at Alpha Delta and Artio galleries. Suhail Malik, curator of the exhibit and professor at London’s Goldsmith College, has here grouped some of the trendiest names of the contemporary British art scene to address whether a democratic, flexible political and social system compromises or advances art’s radicalism. He argues that societies operating on democratic principles push the limits of art to justify their open-mindedness and underline their tolerance, but at the same time constrict art’s limits by either simplifying its content to effect accessibility for a broad audience or by neutralizing its potential for change by fitting it into society’s own interests. With contemporary art framed in an overall system of subsidies, museum policies and marketing strategies, one needs perhaps to rethink what critical and radical art amounts to in our days. Malik seems rather optimistic regarding art’s capacity to be critical, as long as one does not think along the conventional lines of radical and democratic art. If art is to extend its potential, he argues, this must be done not by deliberately disturbing common taste and inviting censorship (like the young British Artists generation of the 1990s did by using sensationalism and aggression) but by opting for diversity, difference, fluidity and, as the title itself suggests, openness. It is a more subtle and sophisticated but more incisive way of effecting change. This is perhaps too vague to indicate something concrete in respect to strategies and artistic expression. But such a position can be beneficial, in the sense that it helps us free ourselves from the stereotype of art as being necessarily in conflict with societal conventions. It guides us to look for nuances rather than overt statements and to avoid standard classifications and fixed oppositions. Art is not about winners and losers but as the title suggests, an open- plan marathon. It is political in the sense that it invites us to think and to notice the complexities and ambiguities of reality, rather than openly claiming itself to be radical and critical. It is not a unified protest that Malik seeks to construct here, but an exhibit based on variety, choice and nuances. Steering away from old-time certainties, it is perhaps for this reason that he has chosen works that use a play on ambiguities as a way of challenging preconceived notions. Emma Kay, for example, draws on her memory to print her own version of some of the world’s great books (Shakespeare, the Bible) and by doing so shows how subjectivity shapes our understanding of history and civilization. Gerard Hemsworth draws innocent-looking figures with the precision of computer aesthetics and in a certain way questions the ambiguous role of technology in both life and art. In one of the exhibit’s most playful works, Richard Woods turns the staircase leading from one gallery to the next (Alpha Delta and Artio galleries occupy two different storeys of the same building off Athinas Street) into a spilling, comic-like image that challenges our conventional notions of popular and high art. Taken as a whole, the exhibit displays works that are both visually and intellectually interesting. But somehow, the issue initially raised, that of what it means for art to be democratic and critical in our times, is left unanswered. This open-ended outcome is probably intentional, but somehow it constitutes one of the exhibit’s weakest points. Open Plan P3 – the marathon, is currently on at Alpha Delta and Artio galleries, 3 Pallados Street, Psyrri, until Friday.

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