2012 | The Political Artist

Once upon a time, I, an artist, dreamt I was a politician, creating a marvelous society, fair and beautiful, in which every man was free, yet no man was in need. I was conscious only of my endeavors as a politician, unaware that I was an artist. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then an artist dreaming I was a politician, or whether I am now a politician, dreaming I am an artist.

Freely adapted from Zhuangzi

 

Over the past few years, the cultural climate in The Netherlands has abruptly changed from a climate of (perceived) tolerance and appreciation of the arts and the artists, to a climate in which it is considered normal, if not bon ton, to deride art and artists as much as possible. As always when the pendulum of public indignation nears its high point, a cacophony of condemning voices takes over the public debate. From ‘Average Joe’ to the prime minister, they all attempt to trump the other’s tirades, to see who can come up with the most outrageous statement about the trending topic – in this case art. Upon being  appointed, even the minister for culture quickly joined the chorus of contempt and proclaimed his lack of knowledge of art to be an enormous advantage to his office.

In times of (perceived) crisis it seems standard political instinct to appoint one or more scapegoats, who are then blamed for everything from the bad economy to the decline of ‘decency’ and good morals. The scapegoats include the usual suspects: religious and sexual minorities, foreigners, intellectuals etc., and also ‘freeloading, parasitic’ artists, who only survive by ‘holding up their hands and taking money from the government’.

One of the most surprising, and scary, realizations for the Dutch artists, was that nobody stood up for the arts (or the artists). No politicians, no academics, no intellectuals from outside the art sector seemed to be interested in defending the arts. It may have been deemed too risky from a political standpoint to defend something as abstract as the inherent value of the arts, or perhaps nobody outside the art sector truly understands and appreciates the commercial and cognitive free space, which contemporary art embodies. Whatever the case may be, as a response to the derogatory statements and the public scapegoating, many artists found it necessary to organize themselves in groups in order to try to come up with a response to the assaults on art and culture (and the welfare state in general).

Generally speaking, artists do not have a lot of experience working in organizations, let alone setting them up. Many prefer it that way and consider the only valid political statement open to an artist, is to stay in his studio, devoting himself solely to his art. Others believe that artists can play an important part in the political or social arena, either directly through their work or through cooperating with other social partners. It is my belief, that whatever the nature of their work, all artists are uniquely capable of providing a reflective, critical and inspiring take on some of the most fundamental problems of our democratic system, simply due to the general inquisitive nature and critical as well as creative abilities of artists. Below I will try to explain that point as well as reflect on some of the practical issue involved in setting up an artists’ organization.

Getting organized

Within the last 4 years, I have been actively involved in setting up a number of artists groups. The purposes have varied from cooperation in terms of work, network and career issues between artists within a closed group (Calcite Revolt), artists coming together to manifest themselves politically (Platform Re-set), to setting up an umbrella organization for art professionals, which has as its stated goal to directly influence the public debate on the role of art and art professionals in society (Platform Beeldende Kunst – Platform for Visual Arts). Furthermore, I have been a close witness to the setting up of a number of other groups. Although, the purposes of all of these groups have varied, the road to turn them into viable organizations has in all cases been very similar. Specifically, there have been a number of almost identical hurdles which had to be faced and overcome. These hurdles are worth taking a closer look at, because they reveal underlying issues concerning organization, democratic ideals and the role of the individual in a group.

Almost every group seems to share the same genesis. It starts with one person thinking that ‘the situation’ could be improved (this can be on a personal career level, or a more general societal level) and that it would help to form a group to that end. At some point this is shared (usually at a party) with a few others, who think that ‘that’s a really great idea’. Strengthened, the person starts to seriously think about a form. A few friends and like-minded people are invited to an informal talk. Over a few drinks (or coffee and tea if matters are really serious) the notion of joining forces is discussed. The initiator is very excited about the fact, that other people share his vision and sense of urgency. The participants are equally excited about the fact, that someone actually wants to take the lead in setting up an organization to address these issues – which they consider important, but nonetheless not so important as to take the same steps as the initiator has. A pleasant consensus is quickly reached, ‘yeah, it would be great’, and at the end of the first meeting a semi-formal decision is made to proceed. A loose verbal contract, a gentleman’s agreement, is set up. The energy is there, it is exhilarating. We can do this – it might actually work!

Name

Once the decision has been made to actually try to set up an organization, a number of practical issues  immediately arise. These issues seem trivial at first glance, but as mentioned above, represent much more fundamental problems. They will most likely lead to clashes within the group, while trying to find the right equilibrium between individualism, idealism and pragmatism.

The first issue seems as simple as it is complex and divisive, the naming of the group. This is the first hurdle in establishing a common identity, a necessary and seemingly straightforward task. But naming anything is a highly subjective matter, in which all ones personal idiosyncrasies explode through the thin surface of goodwill towards the common purpose. Should the name be ironic, cheeky, factual, descriptive, abstract, referential etc. Even when a bit of common ground is found, say it should not be too pretentious, personal preferences differ more than most people imagine. What seems to be an apparently simple task (especially for creative people such as artists), is in fact the first test of whether or not the participants are capable of and willing to work together at all. This ignites a discussion of the purpose of the group, which is subsequently discussed in much greater detail than before, and more subtle, but no less important, readings of the original purpose appear. Quickly, it becomes evident, that there are many different readings of the original gentleman’s agreement, and that they may not all be compatible. This in turn leads to more heated discussions because many (deliberately) overlooked misunderstandings cannot be ignored anymore. Non-arguments like ‘we’ve already been through this’ appear and overt displays of frustrations and annoyance soon follow. The first arguments and disappointments present themselves. Alliances begin to form and the first cracks appear. If you have friends in the group, this is when you start to think of them in professional as well as personal terms – in other words, the members start thinking in political relations.

Naming the group usually takes a lot longer than any of the participants would have ever thought possible beforehand, and it is not unlikely that some members decide it is not worth the trouble and quit at this stage. However, once the discussion-fatigue has led to a compromise (or an extremely inspired name) to which everybody can agree, the joy of having made a collective decision is quite tangible. It is a different kind of exhilaration than the initial high, more like the exhausted satisfaction after a long day’s work – the feeling of having accomplished something important, but also realizing you might not want to do it over again.
And at this point the real work has still to begin.

Workload

The second issue, but perhaps the most difficult to overcome – because the continuation of the group depends on this being resolved in a sustainable way – has to do with the distribution of the work load. The work involved will at this point not be a lot, but even the writing of notes, arranging meetings, mailing 3rd-parties etc. can be seen as quite a lot of work to the members. Now that a group has been formalized it seems only fair (at least to the initiator), that the work involved should be shared by all. The initiator will at this point think – somewhat logically – that the other participants are equally fired up about the venture, and will not have a problem spending, say, a day a week, working for the group. The initiator also feels he has put so much work and effort into the group already, that he deserves a little respite from work now. Also, the strain of keeping everything together has made him doubt whether this group was really such a good idea in the first place, and subsequently his initial passion may have dwindled.

However, the initiator does not have the luxury of taking a break at this point. The group has not settled yet. At this stage all that holds the group together, is the energy and will of the initiator, and it will fall apart if the initiator ‘stops’. Tiresome as it may be, he has no choice but to keep up the pressure and the work, constantly trying to make the other members as enthusiastic about the venture as he is (or was). He has to constantly remind and push the members to do their ‘chores’, often straining friendships and sympathies within the group. The importance of the sheer strength of willpower and commitment of the initiator, as well as the amount of work he has to do in order to keep the group together, should not be underestimated.

The initiator is learning some valuable lessons about leadership and group dynamics, which he will need in order to tie the group together and eventually formalize it as a working organization, but other than that it is important to realize, that at this point nobody in the group has gained anything from the whole process. And once more some may begin to lose faith in the group altogether.

This is an issue, which will continue to play a part for a long time, constantly undermining the will and energy of the group. However, even though it may be bumpy from time to time and survival is by no means guaranteed, a member-based organization has been created and formalized – and that is in itself quite an achievement.

Action

The third issue deals with how and what the organization should actually do in order to implement its stated purpose. Now the possible initial naïveté of the members may be revealed. It is quite easy to sit and discuss how to bring about change, it is something completely different to make good on one’s bold words.

Usually, the organization will at this point have at least one idea for concrete action. In all likelihood the initiator started out by presenting a plan, and now is the moment to carry it out. But, by now the dynamics within the organization have changed dramatically, and the members have, through research, become more aware and knowledgeable of similar efforts. Thus, the original plan may not seem as strong or groundbreaking anymore. Also, some members may have developed plans of their own, which they feel would better serve the purpose of the organization. Depending on the size and composition of the organization, factions may have developed, with agendas of their own. This can lead to a renewed discussion of the purpose of the organization, a repetition of the ‘name’ discussion. Although the recurrence of the ‘primal’ discussion is felt as exhausting and seems to stand in the way of action, it does, however, sharpen the level of discourse within the organization and helps define its purpose. At a later stage this will be useful, especially as the organization goes public and needs to explain to others what it is trying to achieve and why.

At this point the discussion will lead to the realization of the practical necessity of having two different documents defining the purpose and goals of the organization. The first is a strategic and ideologically based document, which derives from the original idea. These are the statutes on which a formal and legal organization can be founded. The second is a much more specific, tactical and practical document, which outlines the borders within which the group will operate on a daily basis, the Mission Statement. The Mission Statement will define the organization and its actions to the outside world, and must be very clear in its formulation. It must be distinct enough to set it apart from similar organizations, yet open enough to remain attractive to others and allow for maneuvering-space within the organization.

Once formulated, the Mission Statement will be the base for actions and the invitation to others to join the organization. From here on the organization can present itself in public. Real progress and the actual work can begin. Attracting new members, and delegating assignments and workload, is formalized as a consequence of the clear Mission Statement. Now the fun starts, the obligatory hurdles have all been overcome – except one.

Democratic Guilt

Anyone who has ever been involved in any kind of decision-making, whether in the confines of one’s family or as a member of a national parliament, will recognize that unanimous decisions involving more than three people, are extremely rare. But within a democratic system we take great pride in assuring that everybody is given an opportunity to be heard. This leads to endless debates on both complex and simple matters. It furthers inaction and tends to stall decision-making while the different parties argue on a course to take. The democratic organization will therefore be an organization of compromises and mediation (in most cases), and in part we owe the stability of the western democracies to this. But when faced with issues which need expert knowledge and quick resolve, this median model is more likely to prevent action because of its inherent focus on consensus. This leads to a split between the democratic ideals of direct representation and the ability to implement decisions based on these ideals. To solve this, direct representation is substituted by indirect representation, someone is given a mandate to speak for others, thus reducing the physical amount of people debating by introducing a hierarchical structure.

However, in a newly formed group, it is only natural to strive for the highest ideals (and in an artist’s organization one can usually count on a lot of idealism). For many this will be their first behind-the-scenes experience with an organization, and the possibilities and limitations of an organization may not be known to them. Compromises have to be made in order to reach workable agreements within the group, and although the group will strive to make ‘fair’ and ‘inclusive’ decisions, it is inevitable that some feel they are not being heard. This can lead to new arguments and people walking out, but more likely (depending on the size of the organization and kind of decisions having to be made) the organization will set up a structure of subgroups or committees to take care of specific issues. These will then choose a spokesperson who will represent the subgroup at ‘top level’ meetings. This helps organize the workflow and eases decision-making. It is also a hands-on lesson in the need for indirect representation within an(y) organization.

The realization at this stage, that direct representation – democracy in its truest form – is simply not feasible, leads to a confrontation between idealism and pragmatism. We are brought up to believe that democracy is an absolute good, and is capable of overcoming any obstacle in its path. Let a people choose its leaders freely, and justice will prevail. However, we are also taught by experience, that that is not always true – sometimes it is better to be a bit of a dictator to get things done. In our daily lives this dilemma does not bother us much, but when confronted with it in the context of the organization’s decision-making processes, it is all of a sudden a very real problem to which a solution must be found.

The practical issue for the group is, that it is suddenly up to a handful of people, who have worked hard together to come to this point and consider each other equals, to introduce a hierarchy, i.e. choose a leader. The obvious choice is the initiator, but that usually does not sit well with everybody in the group, often including the initiator. Being in charge also brings responsibility, the need to make unpopular decisions and the stamina to see them carried out. It becomes a question of who has the power to make that kind of decisions and, more importantly, who does not mind making the decision and thereby bluntly confirming the weakness of the democratic ideals.

Like Christianity and Freudianism have their versions of guilt, so too our democratic system. We pride ourselves of lofty ideals and dress our nations up in words like freedom and liberty. We talk of justice for all, when in fact we mean for all our friends and business partners to exploit and steal from other countries. It is a mighty ideal, but in reality it is a hierarchical structure made up of murky compromises and dirty deals. It is no better in any moral sense than any other political system, and once we realize that, it eats away at us.

The Political Artist

A lot of artists’ groups and organizations are set up to promote the artist’s own career, run an exhibition space or otherwise deal with problems specific to the arts sector. As with most other organizations there is a clear goal, and usually there is even a manual on how to set up an organization, which tells the involved about the formal steps they need to take. More often than not, the group is not interested in gaining any political power, nor to investigate the structure of decision-making or organization.

The individual artist within the group, however, is in a unique position to reflect on these issues, because his schooling and practice have given him the tools, which allow critical and reflective distance to an object, whilst simultaneously being intimately connected to the creation of the object. In other words, he can easily switch between being a critical observer to being a passionate participant of a group – it is the same mental switch a painter makes, when moving away from the easel to get a fresh look at his canvas. In fact, this duality is so ingrained into the artist’s inquisitive view of the world, that it seems almost impossible for him not to question the underlying structures of decision-making when confronted with them. This enables him to look beyond the standard structures and search for new ways of dealing with decision-making structures and the issue of democratic guilt.

Furthermore, the artist is accustomed to telling his own story, and trying to convince an audience of its poetic or intellectual value. He is used to exposing himself and his ideas to critique and ridicule. He knows how to deal with this, and understands that the constant questioning of any kind of authority is just as important as developing new long-term political visions. He can play the cliché-role of the jester because he knows he does not have to win every argument – it is enough to inject the subject into the public debate. By doing so he can inspire others to engage in active and critical citizenship, promoting a greater understanding of how decisions are being made in society, and how individuals can reengage and actually influence these.

The Dreamer

Although political systems do at times reflect critically on their own organizational and internal power structures, it is rare that such reflections lead to structural change. Change from within may be the preferred means of change, but is also close to being impossible to achieve. Any real kind of change necessitates a shift in the power structure, meaning that the powers that be will have to give up power voluntarily – a rare occurrence indeed.

The actions and plans carried out by the artists’ organization, may inspire, enlighten and encourage others, and thereby  indirectly influence the decision-making structures in wider society. But the real benefit lies in the constant redefining of what citizenship entails on an individual level. What are the responsibilities we all share as individuals in society, and how can we ensure an ongoing critical stance towards our own position herein. If an individual feels estranged from politics, whose ‘fault’ is that? The individual’s, or the politicians’? No doubt politicians could regain some of the estranged citizens by developing more coherent and appealing visions for the future. To this end it might help if politicians allowed themselves to be inspired by the artists’ dreams of a better world, instead of only looking at economic growth statistics. On the other hand, if instead of allowing himself to be lulled into a consumer coma, every individual were to engage actively the issues he feels is not being addressed by the politicians, we might all become more resistant to the nightmares of society.

 

Published in Proximity Magazine Issue 10 – Mutualisms

Proximity’s Mutualisms issue is an extension of the show as well as a document proposing further models for collaboration. It features writing by: Erik Hagoort, Caroline Picard, Karsten Lund, Jeremiah Day, Anne Elizabeth Moore, and Tricia Van Eck. And it features work by: Adelheid Mers, Saskia Jansssen, George Korsmit, Carol Jackson, Iris Kensmil, Magnus Monfeldt, Harold Mendez, Selina Trepp, Jonas Ohlsson, Carolien Stikker, Philippine Hoegen, Aron Gent, Maurice Bogaert, Trevor Gainer, Kevin Kaempf, Lora Lode, Marjolijn Dijkman, Mark Jeffery, Judd Morrissey, and Rune Peitersen.