Gregory Sholette. Delirium and Resistance: Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism. London: Pluto Press, 2017. 224 pp.
Review by Eric Triantafillou
Now that artistic production has been entirely subsumed by giddy capitalism, any promise (illusion?) of art’s autonomy is stripped away. The starkness of art’s naked figure is revealed—the banality of exchange value. The dark matter of the art world—that obscure mass of pre-failed debt-laden BFAs and MFAs—who feed, bathe, and antagonize this delirious figure would do well to reflect on the “many past failures and a few temporary successes” of oppositional art in this new terrain. Delirium and Resistance: Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism, a recent collection of essays by artist, activist, critic, theorist, curator, and teacher Gregory Sholette, offers some helpful tools to this end. Written between 1996 and 2016, the essays are organized into three sections—“Art World,” “Cities Without Souls,” and “Resistance”—that present a dizzying picture of artistic, collectivist, and counterinstitutional resistance to an increasingly crisis-ridden and undemocratic post-Fordist enterprise culture. Each section is introduced by an excellent overview that sketches the broader theoretical concerns of what follows and contextualizes these concerns in relation to the present. Sholette allows his past writing to speak to the present as it will or will not. This is a central motif of Delirium and Resistance. Sholette makes a strong case that any “partisan art praxis” equal to the challenges of the present must pass through historical consciousness. For a “truly oppositional art” to emerge from near-totalizing capitalist hegemony, “a critical understanding of how, when and why oppositional movements repeatedly rise and fall, each time as if anew,” is indispensable.
Sholette has been involved in oppositional art and social movement politics since the 1980s, and his writing both constitutes and reflects the archive “from below,” those art activist processes and products that established institutions can only digest after they have been commoditized—ethically cleansed and rendered ironic enough for disinterested contemplation. Across Delirium and Resistance, Sholette is writing a genealogy of oppositional art into the historical record, including his own history working with groups such as PAD/D (Political Art Documentation/Distribution), active in NYC from 1980–1986. That the PAD/D archive is now stored in MoMA, “the mother of all establishment art institutions,” and that Sholette himself teaches in CUNY’s recently launched Social Practice Queens MFA program underscores the deeply codependent and ambivalent relationship between art activists and the art world’s “integrated system of production.” From this vantage, Sholette develops his concept bare art, a retooling of Agamben’s “bare life,” to characterize an art world that has been stripped bare by decades of institutional critique and the “myth-melting processes of capital.” On this new bare art terrain there is no need for ideological cover. The “secret” of artistic production, surplus value, has gradually been revealed through a series of successive socioeconomic crises—from the oil crisis and stagflation of the early 1970s to the Great Recession of 2007–08. Like the transition from craft to industrial labor before it, artistic labor itself has moved from formal to real subsumption in the capitalist mode of production. Culture’s “internal aesthetic character is now manifest as so many flagrant, unconcealed and so many ordinary attributes, so many points of data, so that the desire by the 1960s of artists to transform their elite social position into that of a ‘cultural worker’ has finally been fulfilled. Today artists are simply another worker, no more or less” (p. 23). Art, Sholette concludes, has merged with the “appalling” life of spectacularized culture. But crises that are endemic to capital are just as destabilizing for its cultural institutions, and the highly educated, tuition-indebted flexible artist laborers they employ are positioned to exploit, however temporarily, exposed choke points. Such resistance can be neutralized—but not entirely, because these institutions remain beholden to liberal notions of public space and democratic culture.
Sholette’s situatedness as an art activist, critic, and theorist helps him bridge the epistemological (scalar) gaps between macro-level theoretical-historical analyses of the post-Fordist economization of culture (such as David Harvey’s Condition of Postmodernity or Luc Boltanski and Éve Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism) and firsthand accounts of how these processes play out on the ground. This situatedness also has its drawbacks. At times Delirium and Resistance reads like a text written by and for insiders. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, especially when there is a need, as in the present, to circle the wagons. Sholette implicitly acknowledges that art activism must imagine itself as a “counter-public sphere of resistant culture” whose “contrary, democratic goals” place it outside established institutional norms. When read together, these essays trace the edges of a different kind of establishment. Throughout the book, bits of debates and discourse commingle with lists of individuals and collectives, many of them from NYC. The city looms large as both figure and ground (zero), a place where historical forces uniquely converge—the global finance and art worlds, race- and class-inflected space wars, Occupy Wall Street and the vanguard of creative resistance. There are essays about other histories—Theaster Gates in Chicago, the Maidan uprising in Kiev—but NYC casts a specter across the book’s historical arc, effectively provincializing what needs to be deprovincialized. This is one of the problems when self-historicizing. History tends to collapse in on itself. As I read Delirium and Resistance, I wondered how inviting these essays would be for a burgeoning nonacademic art activist, the book’s ostensible heir, the future’s historical consciousness. Has Sholette unwittingly betrayed the very ethos of the activist culture he champions, the open accessibility and democratizing potential of the archive “from below”? Not quite. A lot of self-identified activist academics struggle with some version of the choir question. Versed in the violent vicissitudes of political economy, Sholette is certainly better equipped than most who write about art and politics to analyze how the constraints on contingency exerted by capital can generate inescapable contradictions.