Hammer of Truth: What Artivism is and how Dissidents can subvert it
Artivism, which I have elsewhere described as the dominant art movement of the 21st century (so far), can be defined as political action presented through (or as) art.
Emerging in response to the retraction of US federal arts funding by the Reagan administration in the 1980s, it uses concepts from Gramsci and the Frankfurt School to establish its intellectual credibility, the example of Situationism as a model of application, and the genre and boundary-negationism of Postmodernism to legitimize activism as art. It inverts and redoubles the Fascist spectacle of politics (as critiqued by Walter Benjamin) by transforming spectacle into art and aestheticizing action to advance leftist/progressivist values.
Artivism means setting up press conferences to embarrass corporations and governments, or using public displays of nudity to challenge patriarchal structures. It enables drop-in centers for illegal migrants to be reviewed by the contemporary art press. It sets up a soup kitchen in a gallery – or transforms a restaurant into a gallery – to demonstrate social solidarity. It uses the funds, status and venues of contemporary art to advance social consciousness, expose power imbalances, question social norms and challenge and problematize more traditional and conservative understandings.
Artivism entered the museum by the front door. It is funded by charities and lobbying groups; it is hosted by prestigious venues; it is tailored to the art-journal review, newspaper think-piece, and television documentary. It wins prizes and sells coffee-table books. Artivism is also taught to art students as a form of radical, cutting-edge ideological praxis and social-justice activism which nonetheless strangely espouses establishment virtues perfectly. Artivism pushes for authoritarian globalist liberalism, agitates for climate-emergency action, welcomes mass migration, excoriates nationalism and tradition, and all the time appropriates street culture as a narcoleptic.
No artivist position contradicts establishment values. Why not? In the first place because sponsors and promoters are left-inclined, so the artivism that you see is sanctioned by establishment-aligned mediators, but also because traditionalists and conservatives don’t accept that artivism is art. They accordingly refuse to consider that artivism could be legitimate cultural activity. If your ideal is to preserve fine art from the depredation of avant-gardism, which erodes respect for institutions and undermines clear boundaries, you cannot embrace artivism as a viable path. Reactionaries cede the field to those who believe artivism is art or are (at least) cynically realistic enough to understand that artivism is an effective tool for achieving political goals. This leaves the potential for counter-establishment action-as-art largely untried (except for one area that we will get to soon).
Reactionaries generally fall into two groups: the Postmodern traditionalist attempting to use avant-garde forms to re-establish essential timeless virtues and unchanging truths and ultra-conservative, retvrn-to-tradition anti-modernists. Both see the other as fundamentally misguided and waste energy squabbling. Postmodern traditionalists see ultra-conservatives as led astray by a superficial preoccupation with form and claim they are attempting to resuscitate styles that have long been exhausted, as well as being locked into anachronistic nostalgia. Ultra-conservatives see Postmodern traditionalists as lacking real seriousness, overly pleased with novelty and insufficiently critical of methods that undermine traditions that Postmodern traditionalists claim to want re-established.
As a dissident facing the stark binary of the edgy flippancy of the Postmodernists and creaky archaisms of the ultra-conservatives, one sometimes despairs, not least because the critiques from both sides are valid.
Yet if we set aside aesthetic questions, reactionary attitudes and artivism should be a perfect fit. A rejection of the legitimacy of the extant status quo has always been fertile ground for dissident avant-garde art. Artivists you will have heard of (Banksy, Tania Bruguera, Ai Weiwei, Marina Abramovich, Guerilla Girls) claim to be rebellious but are not. What if there were artivists who actually overturned assumptions and questioned the politically convenient pablum we are fed?
One area where Postmodern traditionalists have adopted a powerfully effective form of artivism is in memes. The meme is the quintessential reactionary form. It allows pithy expression of known truths in a manner that is punchy, mordant, memorable, and subversive of establishment bromides. A well-crafted reactionary meme delights the same way a lampoon does, by pricking the pompous bombast of egalitarians and sly disingenuousness of nudge-policy authoritarians. The meme works when it rings true and uses few words – sometimes no words at all – and that rests on what the maker and consumer instinctively know. The meme can use a shorthand of established vocabulary (verbal and visual) and adopt the opponent’s cultural imagery.
In the 1960s, Situationists practiced détournements (diversions, rerouting) by graffitiing or otherwise altering billboards to reverse their meanings, thereby exposing the power of corporations and the coercion of governments. A Marlboro poster was diverted into declaring “it’s a bore.” Memes are Situationism in the internet age. Taking a health-department slogan or a woke-police photo-op and adding new text can reveal hidden messages, forcing truth into the mouths of liars. The meme can be shared in a second; it has no original; it costs nothing; it needs no accreditation. It lacks Benjamin’s hated aura of originality and brilliantly undermines the aesthetic spectacle. Humor bonds people by sharing values and mocking opponents. No wonder the EU recently produced a report on the deployment of memes as a form of hate speech. Being forced to face the truth can hurt.
The artistic field is open to reactionary artivism that encourages resistance to the cashless economy, questions the wisdom of mass migration, savages the politico-pharma complex, confounds the cult of equality, exposes NPC conformity and shocks us out of materialist complacency. Imagine the effectiveness of posters, stickers and light projections that attack the commonplace lies that people instinctively understand to be false. The trick is to see artivism as it was originally developed: propaganda, lobbying, public relations, sloganeering. Progressives comprehend power politics. They understand that occupation of official and street spaces, winning grants and taking arts-administration jobs deprive opponents of limited resources. While libertarians and conservatives debate the ethics of state-funded art, progressive curators and artivists are securing resources, developing a monoculture, funding allies and purging the few reactionaries left within the system.
Why not resort to street action in reactionary artivism? What is there to lose? Should dissidents set up an alternative network of arts patronage? The BBC and Guardian will write hit pieces, to be picked up by low-information centrist-conservatives acting as retardataire progressives. Perhaps developing a throwaway alternative to traditional physical culture – a repertoire of performance, intervention, posters and street art – is timely and compatible with the Right’s limited access to resources. It would reflect the Right’s status as actual dissidents, deploying guerrilla tactics.
Ultra-conservatives should step out of the way in this field and concede that artivism is effective propagandizing through art channels. At the same time, accepting artivism could be a useful tool against the status quo does not grant artivism the status of fine art. Artivism is the natural field of the dissident who has the truth on his side, which makes his arguments more powerful and his task easier. Ultra-conservatives should allow Postmodern traditionalists a free hand (or even co-operate) to weaponize the art scene while progressives hold the cards. Clearly, there will be a clash of values should progressivism ever be toppled – when postmodernists and ultra-conservatives face off – but to bring about that eventuality, dissidents will have to use the weapons of the regime.
Dissidents, turn the meme into artistic reality. Go beyond that by using meme thinking – sly shrewdness, ruthless candor, ironic detachment, gleeful abandon – to undo the arguments of the establishment and their licensed artivists. Think of yourself as that ‘90s cliché: the art terrorist, but this time actually subvert rather than acting as the mouthpiece of the establishment. Nietzsche argued for philosophizing with the hammer; that is, attacking idols in order to test their integrity and resilience. One can become the hammer of truth by reinventing oneself as an art terrorist who doesn’t care about art, is never reviewed in Art Monthly or other dreary administrative state mouthpieces receives no grants, and is prepared to work anonymously (without acknowledgment) for a lifetime.
Dissident artists, become artivists and go forth as a hammer in the hand of truth!