Putting the urinal back in the restroom. The symbolic and the direct power of art and activism

von Florian Malzacher

In: Truth is Concrete. A Handbook for Artistic Strategies in Real Politics. Hg. Florian Malzacher & steirischer herbst. Sternberg Press, 2014. 12-25.

Art is not a mirror to hold up to reality,
but a hammer with which to shape it.
Attributed to Marx, Brecht, Mayakovsky…

When mathematician and philosopher Antanas Mockus became mayor of Bogotá in 1995, the city was considered one of the most dangerous in the world, a community destroyed by drugs, crime, corruption, and machismo. Mockus, not a professional politician at all, had run his campaign with no party support and virtually no budget but with the strong belief in the possibility of convincing people that a different world was possible. He believed that the most important thing to do as a mayor was to encourage people to trust themselves, to take their lives in their own hands and to strengthen their feeling of responsibility for the society they were part of. And he invented the concept of citizen culture, cultura ciudadana, as he describes in this book: a kind of civic selfeducation method based on play, symbolic actions, and staged situations.

But most significantly he claimed: “When I am trapped, I do what an artist would do.” Borrowing strategies from contemporary art meant for him decontextualizing everyday situations, framing them, making them graspable. And, at the same time, it meant a feeling of internal freedom, the ability to see things in their complexity from a distance, and thereby making change possible. He called his strategy subart: a modest art without symbolic pretentions, a way of borrowing from high art whatever could be useful and introduced into direct political action. His measures as mayor became world famous. He exchanged weapons for toys (counting on kids to put pressure on their parents), he publicly wore a “super citizen” costume to make fun of his own presumed power, as well as to illustrate that everybody in democracy has the ability to govern, that power should always be shared. He cut the form of a heart out of his bulletproof vest to demonstrate his commitment to nonviolence—and actually risked his life. He founded libraries in the most neglected parts of the city, running completely on trust, with no need to show ID to borrow a book. He organized performances at open graves to talk about violence and homicide, and he fired the corrupt traffic police and replaced them with more than 400 mimes in the belief that being ridiculed would be more of a deterrent for Columbians than any fine. And… he succeeded. Within three years water usage dropped forty percent, traffic fatalities over fifty percent, and the homicide rate fell seventy percent. 63,000 Bogotá citizens voluntarily agreed to pay ten percent higher taxes.

Mimes, cutout hearts, performances at open gravesides—all this might not exactly be considered good art by the standards of our esthetic discourses. But how often does art have such a direct impact?

Art and politics have always had an intense love-hate relationship. Artists positioned—or sometimes just found—themselves between servile obedience to the powers-that-be and critical distance, between constructive cooperation and outright antagonism. There is no way to place oneself outside the empire, even as an artist, hard as some might have tried. Even inner exile exists only in relation to the outer world.

But, despite repeated claims, this does not mean all art is political. Engaged art is more than mere relational reflection or esthetics. It takes a stand, or provokes others to take a stand. It does not only want change; it wants to be an active part of this change, or even to initiate it. It is not by chance that the artistic tools used in this struggle are often developed, or at least radicalized, at moments of social turmoil, at moments when the relationship between art and society is at a turning point in general: right before and after WWI (Dada, futurism, constructivism…), the 1960s, and the early 1970s (performance, concept, installation art…)—these were times of artistic and philosophical but also political avantgardes.

So it is not surprising that politically and socially engaged art gained fresh momentum after 1989, with the fall of the eastern bloc, the end of the cold war, the acceleration of capitalism and the corresponding rise of anti or alterglobalization movements. But only with the manifold political and economic crises all over the world in the last couple of years has the idea of activist art become more pointed and recently even a main topic even within the more mainstream contemporary art world. Whether in Tahrir, Zuccotti, Syntagma, Taksim, or Majdan Squares, in front of the Kremlin, in Japan after Fukushima, or in the midst of the iconic architecture of Brasilia, artists are always among the first to get involved. But one question constantly reoccurs: what role should art play in this?

It looks like we are witnessing another paradigm shift in the relationship of art and politics. A generation of philosophers who derived their theoretical concepts from their very own concrete political experiences and engagements (Michel Foucault fighting for human rights in prisons with the “Groupe d’information sur les prisons,” Alain Badiou being engaged in migration and asylum policies in the “Organization politique,” Jacques Rancière as a short term member in a Maoist group, Antonio Negri even sentenced to prison for his engagement in “Autonomia Organizzata,” to name but a few) was followed by new generations of philosophers (and artists, curators, etc.) who built on these thoughts and abstracted them further—but too often without binding them back to their own contemporary reality. So we got used to calling philosophical theories and art works “political,” even if they are only very distantly based on thoughts that themselves were already abstracted from the concrete political impulses that sparked them. A homeopathic, secondhand idea of political philosophy and art has become the main line of contemporary cultural discourse.

That classic leftist idea of the 1970s—“the personal is political”—was meant to politicize the private. But by now it seems rather to have privatized the political. The idea of “the esthetic is the political” was meant to politicize the esthetic. But it seems that over the years the political has been estheticized instead.

The constant awareness of the complexity of the notions of truth, reality, or even politics seem to have maneuvered us into a blind alley: either we are too simple or we are too complex, too populist or too stuck in hermetic eremitism. Either we include too much or we exclude too many. We have reached a point where the necessary awareness that everything is contingent has often become an excuse for intellectual relativism.