Par Caroline Levine & Stéphane Baele
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Dans cet entretien, Prof. Caroline Levine (University Wisconsin , Madison) répond à nos questions sur les rapports entre art et politique. Partant des idées les plus intuitives sur la collusion entre ces deux champs, des questions plus précises sont abordées sur la subversion, la propagande, la censure, les limites de l’action politique, ou encore la technique. De multiples collusions et contaminations entre art et politique apparaissent alors, faisant de la thématique centrale de ce numéro d’Émulations un questionnement crucial d’aujourd’hui. Mots-clefs : Art, politique, censure, subversion, avant-garde.
In this interview, Prof. Caroline Levine (University of Michigan at Madison) answers to our questions on the interconnections between art and politics. Developing from common-sense ideas on the topic, the discussion then examines more specific issues of art-politics intermingling, such as censorship, propaganda, the control of the subversive function of the avant-garde, the limits of political action, or the role of technique. The subsequent picture of the interplay between art and politics appears contrasted and wide-ranging, illustrating the importance of the topic hereby addressed by Émulations. Key words: Art, politics, censorship, subversion, avant-garde.Provoking democracy: Why we need the arts? (Blackwell, 2007)
Caroline Levine: I don’t think that’s naïve. Many people would say that art is that which transcends immediate experience, timeless and universal, and has little or nothing to do with the dirty world of politics. I come out of an intellectual tradition that is skeptical of this assumption. Claims to universal human experience have historically been used to cast some groups as non-human, so even what seems to be a neutral, apolitical assertion about art does have political implications. (That is, universalizing claims about art usually imply the following logic: a great work of art appeals to all humans; if it does not appeal to you, then you must not be fully human.) I’m also persuaded by those scholars who have observed that human experience has been deeply and crucially different at different moments in time and across different cultures, and thus there can be no art that speaks to all people at all times. So I’m not convinced that art is ever timeless or universal. But that still doesn’t quite get at why we should think specifically about links between art and politics. For me, this question started to seem urgently important when I began to notice that modern societies have made all kinds of competing and contradictory claims for what art does (or is supposed to do). For instance, when I started to pay attention to what people were saying about art, I heard some say that it was uplifting and ennobling, where for others it was potentially dangerous or subversive; some argued that art knitted people together, while others claimed that it could or should cause disruptions; many complained that the arts reached only an elite few, whereas others said that it was for everyone. For my own part, I wasn’t sure who or what to believe, or on what grounds. I started out undecided—and curious. It just seemed crucial to investigate the links between art and politics to find out if any of these claims were true. Answers to these questions could lead us to some practical political conclusions about public funding, about censorship, and about arts education. And they could also lead us to make strong arguments for or against the value of arts in particular social contexts.
What surprised me most while doing my research was how strangely inextricable these three different positions have turned out to be in practice. Liberal governments don’t like to be associated with authoritarianism and so try to stay away from producing obvious propaganda, but they like to broadcast an image of themselves as free societies to the rest of the world, especially when they’re at war. And what better way to display that you’re a free society than to show how actively you welcome critical, subversive artists? In the past century, both Britain and the United States secretly promoted leftist artistic critiques as propaganda, using them as markers of the kind of freedom that’s possible in democracies. So subversive artists ended up working for the ends of the liberal state, often unknowingly. My book argues more broadly that liberal states actually need artists who test the boundaries of what can be said and thought. Since democracies can always tend toward the tyranny of the majority, critical artists help us to gauge how much room there is for marginal and minority points of view. Thus where we expect to find clear boundaries—artists are outsiders, while the state neither knows about art nor cares for it—we find instead all kinds of odd alliances and collisions.
I’m not sure the state always gets it wrong, actually. I was fascinated to see how both the courts in obscenity and copyright cases and government strategists in wartime (the CIA, the Ministry of Information in Britain) often had a more nuanced and sophisticated sense of art’s social role than artists did. But it’s true, I think, that those in politics shouldn’t try to shape the arts or dictate their style or contents. Artists do their best work for the rest of us in democratic societies when they ask us to think unfamiliar, uncomfortable thoughts or to face challenging perspectives or combinations. It’s precisely the experience of discomfort that characterizes art in the tradition of the avant-garde and makes it important: this is what marks art as a challenger to mainstream tastes and majority values and compels us to recognize alternatives and therefore a plurality of views. No one could dictate that in advance or know what the limits would be beforehand.
There's no way for art to exist outside of institutions, so there are always systems of preference and definition at work. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. How would we know what art was without museums, theatres, publishers, blogs, lawsuits, and universities? There’s no category of art at all without institutionalizing decisions. What's crucial is that the institutions that define art be supple and open and changing. So, for example, Brancusi's abstract Bird in Space was stopped by US customs officials in the 1920s because it did not qualify as art under the legal definition (officials classified it instead with "kitchen utensils and hospital supplies"). Customs law at the time defined art as representational, but during the trial the court was able to recognize the changing character of modern art and so expanded its definition to include abstraction. Anglo-American common law, which is based on a cumulative history of precedents, was and is pretty good at addressing changes like these. Conversely, any system that decides beforehand and a priori what art is will probably get stuck in a particular historical moment and continue to give us, for example, statues of men on horses when we're ready for Richard Serra, or classical quartets when we could use some jazz. As for the quality question, it's absolutely clear to me from my research that tastes change, and that there is no such thing as "second-rate" outside of a historical context where some groups are making these designations and others are not. Does that mean that we should never make judgments or that we should leave decision-making about art to the market? I don’t think so. The marketplace is very good at giving us what we already know we like, and so tends to shy away from challenging us and making us uncomfortable. But we need challenges in order to grow and think new thoughts, both individually and collectively. It is dissenting and unpopular perspectives that make us aware of the limits of conventional wisdom and mainstream taste. If history is anything to go by, we probably won’t seek these out en masse if left to ourselves. So we need mechanisms that provoke us to explore the limits of what’s comfortable, and art since the beginning of the avant-garde has taken on this role. What we should do, then, is to support critical, exploratory, difficult new artists. The art that emerges may not always be good from the perspective of all observers, but we can be pretty confident that it won’t keep recycling familiar ideas and values, and that that will benefit all of us, including those who don’t like it, by continuing to keep pressure on the dominance of majority tastes and values.
Stories of decline are themselves so old and familiar that they’re the worst “mere imitations” out there! I do think that the moment of radical experimentation associated with the avant-garde in its strictest sense may be over, and I share a nostalgia for that excitement. The avant-gardes explored the very grounds of representation, and that was exciting, but it was a gesture that had a necessary end point: there was only so much work that could be done in that vein. But I would contend that the avant-garde has left a valuable mark on the art world: artists continue to see it as their role to question and experiment and innovate, and continue to see value in work that is neither widely recognized nor well remunerated. This is what I call the “logic of the avant-garde,” an enduring social force even long after the death of the historical avant-garde. It’s my understanding that this logic is both alive and well and crucial to democratic collectives, which are always in danger of capitulating to the tyranny of the majority. As for Houellebecq, I’m skeptical that the cynical relation to the art market is anything new—or interesting. It used to be that art was in the hands of a few wealthy patrons; then a rising mass culture democratized its production, leading to floods of mediocre and lowbrow works, from cheap fiction to photography to television. So at what historical moment can we find art really integrated into the life of people? Maybe when it was part of religion and other larger cultural formations and not “art” at all. There’s no golden age for art, in my view, and I’m skeptical of stories of both decline and progress. I’d also say that there are tremendous artistic riches out there today, but that they don’t necessarily take the most canonical kinds of forms: television has produced some extraordinary works in recent years (I believe that HBO’s The Wire, for example, is one of the great art works of the past century), and digital and media artists are using new media in exceptionally interesting ways. Bill Viola and Andreas Gursky are using new technologies in brilliant, gorgeous, and thought-provoking ways. So for my own part, I wouldn’t turn the clock back if I could.
I find Heidegger’s critique of the enframing of the world very powerful and significant. I think we live at a moment when every part of our lives is instrumentalized—when our bodies, our labor, our creativity, our connection to others—are put to use, and when we conceive of ourselves as dominating and exploiting the materials of the world. This means that poesis has an urgent place in our world. I think artists do conduct these acts of creation, and when they do it’s exhilarating. I once wrote about a haunting video work by Karin Campbell called Looped Tear, which shows a tear falling down from a person’s eye, along her cheek, and down to her chin. It loops endlessly, tracing the same route over and over again. To me this work captures a certain unthinkability in human emotion. While we imagine tears to be individual and expressive, coming from within, we also affirm the universality of sadness and grief. But Campbell gets beyond both of these positions, showing tears as paths that can be traced and retraced, abstracted but also literalized. To me this is ontological and not simply ontic. Yet more generally, when it comes to instrumentalizing and optimizing, I think I would argue for a more Kantian than a Heideggerian position. I see a paradox: that in an age of instrumentalization, we need that which meets no need, and that the arts are useful to us precisely because they resist instrumentalization. By insisting on a certain freedom from ends, the arts allow us to think about what freedom could be, and so serve us by refusing to serve us.
The limits on what can be said—and even thought—are a crucial problem across different parts of our lives, from the most intimate (sexuality, creativity) to the most global (international trade agreements, nuclear arms pacts), and I think these limits do have an impact on absolutely every one of us. The thing about art that I value is that artists are among the only group in our society who take it as a central task to expose, consider, and resist all of those limits.
Art, participation et démocratie
Émulations n° 9 - 2011
Coordonné par Delphine Masset (132 p.)
Article publié en version papier aux Presses universitaires de Louvain dans le n° 9 de la revue Émulations Été 2011 :
"Art, participation et démocratie"
Volume édité avec le soutien du Fonds Wernaers (FNRS)
Cette création par Émulations - RJCSS est mise à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Paternité - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 2.0 Belgique.
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