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The Anti-Spectator


Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology of art aims to analyse the way the field of art functions, as a whole, and the ways in which the various participants within the field inhabit it: what artists, curators, dealers, spectators, etc. do and what they say about what they do. As such, he is a debunker of the self-mythologising of art, uncovering the motivations and rewards of both economic gain and the accumulation of prestige. The redescription of how agents in the field of art account for their actions aims to bring to the fore that about which they remain silent. Within this analysis he gives very little time or weight to the avant-garde or what he perceives, in general, to be positions, practices or actions originating within art but which themselves oppose arts dominant understanding of itself and its dominant institutions. Indeed, Bourdieu is dismissive of anti-art’s opposition to art, interpreting anti-art as a logical strategy for trying to gain entry into the field of art; the disregard for taking art at face value applies to anti-art, too.

In The Field of Cultural Production, Bourdieu describes cultural production in terms of a number of oppositions. Within the field, he describes agent’s commitments in terms of ‘position taking’.(Bourdieu 1983: 30) Gail Day, in her excellent article on the state of the ideas of heteronomy and autonomy today, mentions Bourdieu in passing, ascribing the position to him “that the field of cultural production’ should be understood as a site of struggle shaped by the double hierarchy of heteronomous and autonomous principles.”(Day 2009: 394/5) This is, indeed, one of his oppositions; they are incompatible: heteronomous principles are those orientated towards economic gain, whilst autonomous ones apparently eschew financial rewards in order to gain ‘cultural capital’. As Day points out, for Bourdieu “those orientated towards the autonomous principle include not only the more conservative advocates of l’art pour l’art but also an emergent avant-garde.”(Day 2009: 395) Here, the avant-garde is one position taken – one strategy – amongst others. In general, in this scheme of things, wildly different positions are united in terms of position-taking: “It could be said that the agents involved in the literary or artistic field may, in extreme cases, have nothing in common except the fact of taking part in the struggle to impose the legitimate definition of literary or artistic production.” (Bourdieu 1983: 46) What should be noted here is the a priori assumption that all agents are seeking recognition and legitimation within the existing coordinates of art.

It is my contention that this way of totalising art, of absorbing the opposition of anti-art into an expanded sense of art, misrepresents anti-art and, in so doing, misrepresents art. Despite the desire to generate a critical analysis of art, the failure to take anti-art seriously is a sign of the failure to analyse art’s internal divisions. The sociological critique of art presupposes the absence of art’s critique of art, cancelling the difference between art and anti-art as a matter of methodological principle. 

Bourdieu’s critical sociology seems to side with art’s redescription of anti-art rather than anti-art’s redescriptions of the dominant processes and meanings of art. For example, conceptual art pursued a philosophical and political interrogation of art, with little concern as to whether their conversations counted as art or not. This involved redescribing the dominant discourses of art in terms of their misrepresentations of the production of art and the absences and silences at the heart of their explanations of art. For conceptual art, the conflict in art is not in terms of ‘position taking’ between factions, in order to gain access to institutional rewards, but follows from challenging the real contradictions and misrepresentations in the production of art. The challenge to the dominant reception of art was in terms of truth not taste. It goes without saying that for the contemporaneous dominant discourses of art, conceptual art was simply not art (not bad art). If conceptual art’s anti-art was soon reinscribed into art – the violent attack on art of concept art’s theory became language as style, media or process – then not only was this not unexpected but it also was not without its consequences for art.

Anti-art’s fate is to be subtended to a conventional conceptual framework for understanding art. And it is a feature of today’s artistic conjuncture that whilst the avant-garde is largely perceived as historical remaindered – although there is a growing interest in re-theorising the avant garde – contemporary art has incorporated the objects and methods of anti-art into art. In particular, contemporary art gives a very special and prominent place to the figure of Marcel Duchamp as the instigator of various techniques of nomination and appropriation. However, what is frequently missing here is the connection with the destructive and negating aims and actions of Dada. So if Duchamp is central to contemporary art, the broader ideas and actions of anti-art are generally neglected. 

One of Bourdieu’s key points about the field of art is that the conceptual framework, interpretative discourses and institutional practices of art can be brought to bear on anything at all; the field functions in the same way – in terms of the taste, distinction and cultural capital of the participants – regardless of the properties of any art which might circulate within the field. So Bourdieu’s critical sociology of art is an account of the appreciation of art: the workings of the reception and distribution of art. Anti-art, in its various forms, offers a critical perspective on the reception of art which is very different from Bourdieu’s sociology. For anti-art the trouble with the reception of art is not simply that it is a masquerade for personal gain but that it misrepresents the material production of art and obfuscates art as a site of conflict.

It is in this context that I would like to introduce the idea of the anti-spectator: an idea intended to emphasise the location of anti-art and its adherents in an artistic conjuncture of conflict and division. Instead of the demand for spectatorship we might think of anti-art as processes which interpellate (or counter-interpellate against art’s dominant institutions) collaborators, adherents or interlocutors of some kind. The ‘anti-spectator’ is not a spectator who can appreciate negative qualities: irony instead of authenticity, ugliness instead of beauty, etc.. Nor is the anti-spectator a spectator who engages with art differently. Contemporary art is replete with various attempts to supersede spectatorship with some other form of engagement in the name of collapsing the perceived distance implied by spectatorship; spectators become ‘performers’, ‘participants’, ‘the public’ etc.. I shall return to this below. For now, suffice to say that whilst much social practice is orientated to overcoming social division in the present, the anti-spectator, as an adherent of anti-art, is orientated to the future and, to this end, a manifestation of the necessity of putting an end to consensus in the present.

The sociological analysis of art’s external goods

Bourdieu often deploys the metaphor of a game and its participants to describe the actions of those involved in the field of art. The point of the comparison is that a game has established codes or rules and that consequently the success of players is dependent upon playing within the rules, hence the title of his book The Rules of Art. However, for Bourdieu, within the game of art nothing is as it seems. The fundamental, perverse rule of the game is that winning cannot be pursued directly. It is against the rules to be overt in the pursuit of money, influence and power. Rather, it is only by behaving as though the pursuit of artistic goals is one’s only concern – not the more materialistic rewards that can be had in the field – that one can gain status, reputation and influence. Money and power follow from this apparent indifference to money and power. It is here that some of Bourdieu’s key terms – such as ‘taste’, ‘distinction’ and ‘cultural capital’ – are used to try to name the means by which those with status within the field get to gain and maintain that status. These terms are not without their problems, especially the idea of ‘cultural capital’. From a Marxist perspective, the capitalist doesn’t simply accrue capital but throws it into circulation in order to extract surplus value from the labour of others. In order to do this, the capitalist’s capital must go through a series of transformations and exchanges. ‘Cultural capital’ seems more akin to gaining influence in a feudal hierarchy than the capitalist’s production of commodities, but this need not detain us.

It is in this context that Bourdieu sees the avant-garde’s transgression of cultural norms simply as an attempt to muscle into the institution.

As for the opposition which is made within the latter group [cultural entrepreneurs; in opposition to economic ones] between consecrated art and avant-garde art, or between orthodoxy and heresy, it distinguishes between, on the one hand, those who dominate the field of production and the market through the economic and symbolic capital they have been able to accumulate in earlier struggles by virtue of a particularly successful combination of the contradictory capacities specifically demanded by the law of the field, and. on the other hand, the newcomers, who have and want no other audience than their competitors – established producers whom their practice tends to discredit by imposing new products – or other newcomers with whom they vie in novelty.(Bourdieu 1986: 83)

Bourdieu does not draw any distinctions between different types of opposition amongst the opponents of those who dominate the cultural field. Here ‘the avant-garde’, ‘heresy’ and ‘newcomers’ are used synonymously to name this undifferentiated group of discontents, all of whom are assumed to be would-be players. Anti-art, as a faction within the avant-garde, is just part of this conglomerate of infidels engaged in heresy and profanity – institutional religion being the other habitual place to which Bourdieu turns for metaphors to describe the functioning of the field of art.

To interpret the actions of the avant-garde as cynical, or opportunist, can make it seem as though all production of art is nothing but an alibi for the pursuit of other things. Here we might think of Alasdair MacIntyre’s distinction between internal and external goods of a practice.(MacIntyre 1981). Internal goods are those skills necessary to participate in a practice well: being able to control a football by kicking it is an internal good of football, for example. External goods, for MacIntyre, are those things which come from being good at a practice but are not part of it. A premier league footballer’s wage, for example. This distinction between the internal and the external may not be as clear cut as MacIntyre makes it appear, especially given the tendency to associate internality with a kind of purity and externality with a kind of corruption. MacIntyre does, however, acknowledge the necessity of institutions: practices cannot exist without institutions: football needs teams, leagues, officials, administrators, rules and so on, not only in order to flourish but to exist at all. Here we might complicate the picture by acknowledging that institutions do not stand alone. Different institutions, of differing types, interact in differing ways; we could say that an institution is always a part of a greater infrastructure The point of introducing the idea of an infrastructure, as a collection of interconnecting institutions, is that all the institutions which make up an infrastructure do not share the same immediate goals as the infrastructure. To take the example of what Alan Sears calls ‘an infrastructure of dissent”(Sears 2014), the institutions which make up such an infrastructure will not all necessarily be dissenting themselves but might include institutions of mutual support, education, sociality and so on. This adds to how we might think about institutions, against MacIntyre’s rigid separation of practice and institution. We might also note that MacIntyre’s ‘binary’ of internal and external goods does not address the constitutive divisions and antagonisms within a practice. However, my point here is simply that Bourdieu’s conceptual framework does not allow for any of these considerations: for all the structural complexity he builds up, his analysis is firmly focused upon agent’s pursuit of external goods within extant institutions: the productive practices of art are presented as a kind of fiction necessary for the pursuit of other rewards (prestige and wealth).

What is at stake here is the way that the totality of art is theorised. Bourdieu’s critical analysis of art offers a sociological account of an institutionalised art in general. We might call this an account of art’s external goods because it totalises art in terms of the institutional rewards on offer to the agents of the field. The point to be emphasised here is that although overtly critical of art, this account remains within and reproduces the basic coordinates of art perpetuated by art’s dominant institutions. Inasmuch as art is analysed as a totality, it is homogenised: the same mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion; the same goals and rewards; and the same conceptions of art are projected across the entire field. In this account, conflict arises between agents competing for the same, limited rewards offered by the field as it exists. Thus, for the sociological account of art’s external goods, what the spectator thinks she is doing or claims she is doing is of little account; if she is to be a successful player she must reproduce established kinds of responses to art. In other words, the structures of art’s economies and its habitus are set up in such a way as to reproduce these responses in general and induce them in the individual in particular. 

This conception of art’s totality is ill equipped to deal with the avant-garde. The conceptual framework it brings to the analysis of art approaches art’s institutions in terms of competition between individuals within an institutional hierarchy. Bourdieu’s repeated comparison of the field of art to institutional religion constructs art as a community of believers. The production of art itself is subtended to the reproduction of the community and its institutions. This simplifies the complex and contradictory set of practices involved in the production and consumption of art (with their different objectives, histories and so on). The sociological account of art’s external goods is interested in what keeps this community going; it is only interested in art for the role it plays in reproducing this community.

But the social totality of art can be theorised in a different way, in terms of competing conceptions of art and antagonistic social relations. In this account of historical processes of reproduction and revolution, conflict is endemic between competing conceptions of art and what it might become.

If the sociological account of art’s external goods dismisses anti-art partly on the basis that the avant-garde is simply a gambit to gain acceptance within art’s established institutions, it is accompanied by the idea that all attempts to negate art and its discourses are doomed to failure and recuperation. This is what Bourdieu says about attempts to ‘break the circle of belief’:

But it is all too obvious that these ritual acts of sacrilege, profanations which only ever scandalise the believers, are bound to become sacred in their turn and provide the basis for a new belief. One thinks of Manzoni, with his tins of ‘artist’s shit’, his magic pedestals which could turn any object placed on them into a work of art, or his signatures on living people which made them obits d’art; or Ben, with his many ‘gestures’ of provocation or derision such as exhibiting a piece of cardboard labelled ‘unique copy’ or a canvas bearing the words ‘canvas 45 cm long’. Paradoxically, nothing more clearly reveals the logic of the functioning of the artistic field than the fate of these apparently radical attempts at subversion. Because they expose the act of artistic creation to a mockery already annexed to the artistic tradition by Duchamp, they are immediately converted into artistic “acts,” recorded as such and thus consecrated and celebrated by the makers of taste. Art cannot reveal the truth about art without snatching it away again by turning the revelation into an artistic event.(Bourdieu 1986: 80)

We should note the language used here, which presents the argument as a foregone conclusion. Particularly telling is the labelling of all attempts at subversion as ‘apparently radical’. Indeed, the duplicity projected onto the avant-garde is predetermined by the use of a language of appearance rather than substance: the appearance of radicality – in contrast to actual radicality – implies that the avant-garde is motivated by appearances rather than real opposition. So is it really ‘obvious’ that any attempt to break the circle of belief is bound to fail? Are these really only ‘ritual acts’? Is it true that their only effect is to scandalise believers? These statements are underpinned by the belief that the field of art is untransformable. Inasmuch as Bourdieu is interested in the institutional reception of art, the limits he chooses for his field of study rule out the possibility of perceiving effects outside the said institutional reception. Within it, any particular objects, ideas or tendencies can be assimilated because the particular properties of these things are beside the point as regards the structural functioning of the field; the functioning of the field can perpetuate and legitimate the distinction of its participants regardless of the properties of the artworks used to generate this distinction. In other words, Bourdieu only perceives ritual transgression and scandal because this is all his conceptual framework allows him to detect. Two related points need to be noted. First, Bourdieu adopts what we might call art’s attitude towards anti-art, thereby dismissing anti-art’s attitude towards art. Second, Bourdieu considers anti-art in retrospect: from the point of view of its subsequent alleged institutional recuperation. 

In relation to the first point, we could say that despite his critical distance from art, Bourdieu broadly agrees with the traditional art-historical view of anti-art, when he describes it in terms of profanation and scandal: it is tasteless, irrational, nihilistic and provocative. Dawn Ades, for example, writes that Dada’s “great outburst of activity … was aimed at provoking the public, destroying traditional notions of good taste, and liberation from the constrictions of rationality and materialism.”(Ades 1983 [1974]: 115) If, for Bourdieu, the positive content of art is not what it seems – the pursuit of beauty and culture is but a mask for the pursuit of financial gain and power – he broadly reproduces this account of anti-art as transgression: the negativity of anti-art as an provocative, profane attack on accepted cultural values.

To move on to the second point – the assumption of anti-art’s inevitable recuperation – Bourdieu describes anti-art as annexed to the artistic tradition. Here Bourdieu concurs with contemporary, revisionist art-history, in dealing with anti-art as something thoroughly rehabilitated and integrated into the history of art (many art-historians of the last two or three generations were heavily influenced by Bourdieu, so this may not be an accidental coming together). Nowhere is the rehabilitation of rebellious art clearer than with Dada. Largely marginalised within modernist art history as an infantile precursor to Surrealism, Dada has subsequently become addressed and lauded in its own right as a prescient and sophisticated forerunner of contemporary art practice. The Foreword to the catalogue of a substantial Dada exhibition in 2005 begins by asserting: 

Its embrace of new materials and methods created an abiding legacy for the century to come, with strategies that include collage, montage, assemblage, readymades, chance, performance and media pranks. Radical then, they are foundational today—so much so that Dada may have had the greatest influence on contemporary art of any avant-garde movement.(Powell III et al 2005: IX)

This is a reconsideration of Dada which can be taken as evidence that anti-art is successfully recuperated. Within this context, Duchamp is given a central place as the originator of an alternative history of art in the twentieth century, which culminates in today’s contemporary practice. This positioning of Duchamp, Bourdieu reproduces too. 

Thus the sociological account of art’s external goods is able to accommodate apparently contradictory positions within art history, with regard to anti-art, by addressing them as representing successive moments of institutional transgression and institutional recuperation. It judges anti-art by its fate: from the point of its subsequent recuperation and veneration. It is not only as though this recuperation was the inevitable destiny of anti-art but also as though this was its secret aim all along. Not only is this methodology blind to any changes that take place as part of the recuperation process: for example, chance is transposed from a technique for the negation of the aesthetic into a technique for producing aesthetic effects; it also, by concentrating on anti-art’s institutional destination, extracts it from the multiple, overlapping and contradictory circuits within which it originally circulated. Thus, the sociological account of art’s external goods has little concern for how the particular qualities of anti-art might act within and upon the artistic conjuncture out of which it came. To continue the example, not only is this methodology blind to what chance was used for, it is blind to why it was used.

This is manifest in Bourdieu’s mention of Manzoni and Ben. Bourdieu is right in asserting that Manzoni’s tinned shit, for example, immediately becomes celebrated as art. But by labelling Manzoni’s works as ‘apparently radical attempts at subversion’ Bourdieu implies that they are not really attempts at subversion at all. Rather, Bourdieu asserts, firstly, that they mock artistic creation and, secondly, that such mockery has been established as a conventional artistic method since Duchamp. In other words, pretending to be scandalous is seen as a conventional artistic move aimed at those who have the power to consecrate art. This position rests on the twin assumptions that, firstly, that the real negation of art is not possible (Duchamp was mocking art) and, secondly, that neither art nor Duchamp’s work and methods are changed by Duchamp’s assimilation into art. Neither assertion is either supported nor tenable.

Manzoni’s work might well not have been possible without Duchamp but this in no way implies that Manzoni was out to reproduce Duchamp’s alleged mockery. To interpret Manzoni’s work as sacrilege implies an aesthetic orthodoxy and an intention to offend that orthodoxy. But the production of non-aesthetic art is well established by the 1960s, with many, competing conceptions of what art could be. Inasmuch as Manzoni was exploring the mythology of the modern artist, qua incontinent expressive agent, the capturing and symbolising of excrement is a playful, critical and literal demonstration of the usually metaphorical idea of turning shit into gold. It is worth remembering that the shit in question is concealed behind the commodity form of tinned goods; it is not as though it is smeared on the gallery walls. Indeed, all we have is the assertion that the shit is there; it is not directly perceptible. In a field of art which has absorbed anti-art and, in the process, both transformed it and been transformed by it, Manzoni’s work is not so much provocative or scandalous as humorous and critical. The manipulation of symbolic codes and the critical examination of the agency of the artist are unexceptional artistic pursuits in the nineteen sixties, notwithstanding the conflict between Greenbergian ideas of expression and a conceptual understanding of art. In this context, Manzoni was indisputably an artist with unexceptional pursuits as an artist.

Return to Trobiand Island

In 1982, Art & Language compared the relationship of artists with art-critics and art-historians to that of Trobiand Islanders with visiting anthropologists.

Imagine an anthropologist – a structuralist if you like – studying a community of Trobriand Islanders. According to Winch’s view of the aims and practices of social science, the anthropologist studies this community by joining it. It is only by doing so, he asserts, by learning its language, internalising its customs and rules, living its life, that he can explain it. His aim is to represent the world of the Trobriand Islander by being one himself. The Islander’s behaviour is shown to be motivated by what the Islander himself believes. To quote Maclntyre, ‘Their rules, not his, define the objects of [the anthropologist’s] study’. Inquiry into the independent causes and mechanisms of the Islander’s behaviour is not this anthropologist’s aim; indeed, the very process of going native prohibits such inquiry, since the consequent forms of self- consciousness are ruled out for the members of the community itself, by definition. To understand the causes of belief in the supernatural, for instance, is to suspend such belief and thus to rule oneself out of the congregation.(Art & Language 1982: unpaginated)

They soon go on:

What if such a characterisation were applied to the community of art, art history and art criticism? Suppose that this community were to be seen as a kind of Trobriand Island, composed of natives and anthropologists, with the latter doing their best to turn themselves into the former?(Art & Language 1982: unpaginated)

In other words, Winchian-minded art-historian, critics and the like, in giving their accounts of artists’ actions, will reproduce the artists’ explanations of their work. What will be reproduced are accounts of beliefs, not causal explanations. The point is that accounts which limit themselves to reproducing artists’ accounts of their actions, however accurately, will misrepresent the real conditions out of which art is made:

The activities whereby members of the art world produce and manage ‘settings’ for themselves within that world are identical with their procedures for making those activities accountable. Such practices may be widespread, but their effect is to facilitate mystification.(Art & Language 1982: unpaginated)

For Art & Language, the point of the comparison is to show how causal explanations in art are ruled out by the collusion between the makers and interpreters of art in the ways in which art is talked about: 

the prevailing discourses of art enshrine arbitrary closures on substantive and open enquiry. The suppression of enquiry by analogous means is the mark of the age, misrepresenting its mechanisms to itself as a necessary condition of its persistence.(Art & Language 1982: unpaginated)

Art & Language, as artists, perceive the belief system of the art world as a mystification just as much as Bourdieu. However, for them this is not simply a case of disguising the pursuit of money and power. On the contrary, the dominant discourses of art misrepresent the real production of art. For Art & Language, art is a site of conflict not least because it is a site of production.

So whilst Bourdieu and Art & Language are in agreement that division, contradiction, conflict, exploitation and violence are conditions of social reality, for the sociological account of art’s external goods, art is annexed to the bourgeoisie’s pursuit of cultural hegemony and the power struggles therein: art is a weapon used in conflicts which are located elsewhere in society. For Art & Language, on the contrary, social division is directly present in art, in its material production, regardless of how many artists empirically collaborate with art’s institutional powers. So however much the discourses of taste and distinction effect art, they misrepresent its conditions of existence.

From a very different background from Art & Language, Alain Badiou also considers art from the point of view of its conditions of production. For Badiou, ‘art’ is one of four broad areas of human endeavour in which truth is possible, the others being science, love and politics. But for Badiou truth is not about the representation of what already exists or the correspondence with facts, but rather about the emergence of new, liberating possibilities in the world. Truth is about process, emancipation and the future. Thus although the emergence of a new truth must be true for everyone, it must happen against what already exists:

For what every emancipatory project does, what every emergence of hitherto unknown possibilities does, is to put an end to consensus. […] Precisely because a truth, in its invention, is the only thing that is for all, so it can actually be achieved only against dominant opinions, since these always work for the benefit of some rather than all.(Badiou 2002 [1993]: 32)

For Badiou, dominant opinion is the circulation of what is already known. Whilst we cannot live without opinions, which form a substrate of everyday life, they are antithetical to truth. The point of contact with Art & Language is the contrast between dominant opinions, or the art-world inhabitants of Trobiand Island, and that which breaks with consensus in the name of truth. In relation to their work as artists, Art & Language claim that they do not make the work they do “with the specific objective of assisting the enfranchisement of the artistically disenfranchised. We produce them in order to live with the hiatus and the project of work it encounters.”(Art & Language 1982: unpaginated)

So although Bourdieu may well be an anti-Winchian in his desire to re-interpret all beliefs in the field of art as being about something other than they appear to be, he nevertheless takes the field of art to be an homogenous, if structured, whole. It is here that there are no terms within Bourdieu’s applied metaphors to deal with the constitutive divisions and contradictions of art practice. Characterising the institutional machinations of art as a game, for example, leaves no way to get to art practice as material production. And whilst institutional religion may well have been a cover, at various times, for exploitative land ownership and political power, for example, whatever else it is religion is not a discourse on a particular practice of material production.

Art without audience

The anti-spectator is not a spectator with an expansive idea of ‘attention’ – not only looking but listening, touching, moving around, participating and so on. Such a spectator is thoroughly embedded in contemporary art discourse and practise. Part of the complexity here is that the contemporary ‘expanded spectator’ is, precisely, a recuperative response to the actions of anti-art: a result of its incorporation into mainstream art. This is a concession to anti-art which avoids the confrontation between anti-art and art: an appropriation which turns the force of anti-art’s attempted negation of the spectator into new possibilities for the spectator. So before expanding upon the idea of anti-spectator, it needs to be distinguished from critical takes on spectatorship, which seek to reconfigure it.

Jean-Jacque Lecercle, in his book on the interpretation of literary texts, starts off by considering what he calls the ‘tin-opener’ theory.(Lecercle 1999) Such a theory takes the literary text to be the holder of meaning and the task for the reader is to understand – to get this meaning out of the text. Whilst Lecercle uses this as a naive and inadequate model of interpretation, it is a succinct summary of an underlying structure which haunts not only conventional interpretation in both literature and art but also attempts to escape it. In terms of the latter, we might think of Roland Barthes, for example, and his assertion of the death of the author and concomitant birth of the reader. Barthes was writing against the tendency to ascribe meaning to a text in terms of the biography, intentions and being of the Author. Such pursuits, for Barthes, produced a monolithic account of meaning, tied to the proper and expert uncovering of what lies behind the text. For Barthes, in contrast, the text is a weave of different strands: 

a text is made of a multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, … (Barthes 1968: 148)

And it is the reader who gathers the strands of a text together. 

… a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is only that someone who holds gathered into a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted.(Barthes 1968: 148)

The Reader is thus to be contrasted with the Critic, or expert: as a ‘someone’ without qualities, the reader is an egalitarian agent. Barthes presents us with a kind of inside-out version of the literary tin: the author makes the tin but meaning, far from being contained within, is read out of the surface, so to speak. 

Jacques Rancière’s emancipated spectator is the direct descendant of Barthes’ new born reader. One difference is that Rancière takes theatre as his primary art form. Nevertheless, when Rancière says that “an emancipated community is a community of narrators and translators”(Rancière 2009 [2008]: 22) it is hard not to think of narrating and translating as the activities of Barthes’ reader free of history, biography and psychology. But in terms of theatre, Rancière’s criticism is aimed at the dominant presupposition that theatre is divided between performers, who are thought of as active, and spectators, who are thought of as passive. Moreover, he argues that critical theatre habitually attempts to invert these presuppositions by making spectators active and abolishing the gap between event and audience. For Rancière, this is misguided because it accepts the initial idea of the spectator as separate and passive and then tries to overcome it. But Rancière suggests that “Being a spectator is not some passive condition that we should transform into activity. It is our normal condition.”(Rancière 2009 [2008]: 17) So the problem, as far as Rancière is concerned, is not spectatorship itself but the distribution of roles which assign limiting expectations to the spectator: presuppositions which curtail her natural propensity for narration and interpretation. As with Barthes, here the artwork is not a tin which conceals its pleasures but a cornucopia of possibilities which give the spectator interesting things to do:

Like researchers, artists construct the stages where the manifestation and effect of their skills are exhibited, rendered uncertain in the terms of the new idiom that conveys a new intellectual adventure. The effect of the idiom cannot be anticipated. It requires spectators who play the role of active interpreters, who develop their own translation in order to appropriate the ‘story’ and make it their own story.(Rancière 2009 [2008]: 22) 

Thus the ‘emancipated spectator’, as the name suggests, is not the negation of the spectator as such but rather the negation of the spectator’s assigned place in the cultural distribution of roles and expectations. It is a negation which operates within the existing coordinates of art: it seeks to liberate the internal goods of art from the imposition of falsifying external constraints.

It is, then, perhaps no surprise that Rancière has become a common reference in theoretical debates in contemporary art. On the one hand, his argument against critical attempts to activate a passive spectator can be applied to many forms of social practice. From this perspective, art which elicits participation, interaction or collaboration from its audience is attempting to solve a problem which does not exist. Instead, the idea of the emancipated spectator reconfigures the interpretation of traditional art forms as a multiple and unconfined process. On the other hand, for some advocates of social practice, such as Stephen Wright, it is Rancière who is trying to solve the wrong problem. From this perspective, Rancière’s defence of spectatorship is unconvincing: the insistence that spectatorship is our normal condition simply blocks us from entertaining other ideas about what art might be and do. In Wright’s case, this means reconsidering what we might use art for:

When art appears outside of the authorised performative framework, there is no reason that it should occur to those engaging with it to constitute themselves as spectators. Such practices seem to break with spectatorship altogether, to which they increasingly prefer the more extensive and inclusive notion of usership.(Wright 2013: 60)

And for Nato Thompson, the boundary which needs to be blurred is not that between ‘those who act and those look’(Rancière 2009 [2008]: 19), as Rancière suggests, but between art and life. The point for Thompson is not to make the inactive active but to extract art from its rarified institutions and embed it in social processes where it might make a difference:

The call for art into life at this particular moment in history implies both an urgency to matter as well as a privileging of lived experience. These are two different things, but within much of this work, they are blended together.(Thompson 2012: 21)

However, from a different perspective, what unites these two broad (and apparently opposing) positions is that neither conceptualises the transformation of art. In their own ways, each position sides with a radical potential perceived within what is normal, or usual, against expertise and exclusion. For Rancière spectatorship, freed from its assigned place of passive reception, is in and of itself egalitarian and emancipatory. And for Wright, usership ‘repurposes’ art, freeing it from its aesthetic functions: this process is egalitarian and emancipatory in that it enables the user to use art for her own ends. For both Rancière and Wright what needs to be done is already possible; what is needed is a shift in understanding.

In contrast, for Badiou, emancipation is always tied to a break with what exists:

Let us say that a subject, which goes beyond the animal (although the animal remains its sole foundation) needs something to have happened, something that cannot be reduced to its ordinary inscription in ‘what there is’. Let us call this supplement an event.(Badiou 2002 [1993]: 41. Emphasis in original)

Here, the artistic subject is not an Author: biography, psychology and history, – what already exists – is what is left behind when the individual is seized by a truth. The subject, as opposed to the individual, comes into being by virtue of recognising that something has happened and being faithful to it. Elsewhere Badiou says:

I think it is more accurate to say that the individual – with all his/her receptivity, with his/her body, his/her thought, what s/he does, his/her social being, the language s/he speaks – is incorporated into the subjective process.(Badiou 2013: 18)

The artist is ‘incorporated’ into a process which follows from a rupture: the artist’s work is not the event itself but rather a fidelity to something else. For instance, Mel Ramsden has said of conceptual art: “It had seemed necessary, finally, that the “talk” went up on the wall.”(Harrison 2006: 20-21) The point to be emphasised here is the impersonal necessity of putting the talk on the wall: even though it was the conceptual artists themselves who put their own talk up on the walls, it was something dictated by the artistic conjuncture in which they found themselves.

Badiou’s position implicitly reconfigures art in terms of rupture and process rather than works and their reception. Whilst not necessarily championing the destructive passion for the real, with which he characterised the avant-garde of the short twentieth century in his book Century,Badiou repeats the idea that truth and emancipation require the break with current attachments, with what already exists. It is precisely this conception of the radically new, of the break with the logic of what already exists, which falls outside of Bourdieu’s research into the established community of art’s reception.

For anti-art, the radical transformation of art and the radical transformation of the world are mutually dependent. In both art and life, a new subject is needed, not simply new conditions. For the twentieth century, this took the form of the discourse of the New Man; a discourse shared by the historical avant-garde and the radical political thought of the century. But what transcends this particular formulation is the idea of a transformation which falls outside the realm of that which can be known or predicted: emancipation is not a programme with guarantees. This idea of transformation without guarantees applies to the spectator, too. The transformed spectator will not be a spectator because the future is radically open and unknowable. 

So in relation to the idea of the anti-spectator, what is interesting here is that Badiou’s account of subjectivity seems appropriate to those encountering art as readily as those making it. This is to say that it is possible to think of the anti-spectator as a a subject in Badiou’s terms: one which, in order to be brought into being, needs something to have happened to her: she, too, needs to be ‘incorporated’ into a ‘truth procedure’. This is to be captivated by something radically new, against the circulation of what is already established, what one already knows. This is where the force of the : “anti” in anti-spectator is felt: the anti-spectator does not have positive characteristics because it is not a goal, or possibility, amongst what already exists. Rather, the anti-spectator is the name in the present which relies and insists upon the promise that a different settlement for art is possible. 


There’s a fabulous episode of The Simpsons where the family move into a haunted house. The haunted house is, of course, an anti-house; it is not simply a non-house but a place which has all the predicates of a house without being one. The haunted house has walls, rooms and so on but they are fundamentally unreliable, which negates the function of the house as a place of peace, security and comfort. However, here the Simpsons, each in their own way, resolutely refuse to be traumatised by the house. When a vortex to another dimension opens up in the kitchen, Homer pragmatically uses it as a waste disposal chute. Marge treats the house as a naughty child, berating it in an attempt to get it to behave itself. Lisa talks to the house, attempting a therapeutic understanding of the trauma which she assumes must have befallen it, in order for it to behave so badly. Bart’s reaction is, perhaps, most interesting; he enjoys the strange goings-on and demands more. All of these actions could demonstrate, in one way or another, the qualities of the anti-spectator. Whilst part of the humour here is, of course, the fact that each of the characters carries on as usual, despite the exceptional circumstances, there is also a sense in which they are each able to embrace the new situation: to treat it as an opportunity rather than as a loss. Bart’s enthusiasm for the new situation is, perhaps, most exemplary for the anti-spectator. However, the diversity of responses is, in itself, instructive. Inasmuch as anti-art is the negation of what exists (as art : it opens up the space for subjective fidelity rather than demanding a particular type of engagement. In other words, fidelity is not a constraint on possibility but, on the contrary, a condition of freedom.


Ades, D.  “Dada and Surrealism” in Concepts of Modern Art, Ed. Nikos Stangos London: Thames and Hudson, 110-137, 1983), 115. Originally published in 1974.

Art & Language. (1982). “Painted by Mouth”, first published in the exhibition catalogue Index: The Studio at 3 Wesley Place Painted by Mouth. Middelburg: De Vleeshal. Available here:

Badiou, A. (2002). Ethics. London: Verso. trans Peter Hallward. First published in French in 1993.

Badiou, A. (2007). The Century. Cambridge: Polity Press. Trans. Alberto Toscano. First published in 2005.

Badiou, A. and Engelmann, P. (2013). Philosophy and the Idea of Communism. London: Polity Press.

Barthes, R. (1968). “The Death of the Author”, reproduced in Barthes, R. (1993). Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana Press. First published 1977.

Bourdieu, P. (1983). “The Field of Cultural Production”, in Bourdieu, P (2009) [1993]. The Field of Cultural Production. Cambridge: Polity.

Bourdieu, P. (1986) “The Production of Belief: Contribution to an Economy of Cultural Goods”, in Bourdieu, P. (2009) [1993]. The Field of Cultural Production. Cambridge: Polity.

Bourdieu, P. (1996). The Rules of Art. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Trans. Susan Emanuel. First published in French in 1992.

Day G. (2009). ‘The Fear of Heteronomy’, Third Text, 23: 4, 393—406

Lecercle, J-J. (1999). Interpretation as Pragmatics.New York: St. Martin’s Press.

MacIntyre, A. (1981). After Virtue. London: Duckworth.

Marx, K. (1974). Capital Volumes 1-3. London: Lawrence and Wishart. First published 1887.

Powell III, E. A., Lowry, Glen, Racine, Bruno and Pacquement, Alfred. (2005). “Foreword” in Dickerman L. (ed). (2005). Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris. Washington: National Gallery of Art.

Ramsden, M. Quoted in Harrison, C. (2006). Essays on Art & Language. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Rancière, J. (2009) [2008]. The Emancipated Spectator. London: Verso.

Sears, A. (2014). The Next New Left: A History of the Future. Black Point: Fenwood.

The Simpsons, Treehouse of Horror (Season 2, Episode 3, 25 Oct. 1990). See:

Thompson, N. (2012). Living as Form. New York: Creative Time Books.

Wright, S. (2013). Towards a Lexicon of Usership.

For Kristen Ross

Text of talk for the Royal College of Art by way of an introduction to Kristen Ross

What makes Kristin’s work so compelling and useful is that throughout her writing the cultural aspects of  emancipatory events are given their due weight. And in particular, her writing is sensitive to the fact that just as emancipatory events involve the destruction or breakdown of erstwhile social habits and structures, something very similar happens to art. Or perhaps we should say that art is not immune from the transformations set in motion by the emancipatory event.

The following comments – which, I hope, will give a framework for reading Kristin’s work as a contemporary artist – are gathered under four slogans – which, I hope, is appropriate.

Slogan 1

the difficult task is not simply learning something new but unlearning what we already know (or think we know).

Slavoj Žižek made this comment about reading Kafka:

Reading Kafka demands a great effort of abstraction—not of learning more (the proper interpretive horizon for understanding his work), but of unlearning the standard interpretive references, so that we become able to open up to the raw force of Kafka’s writing.

Reading Žižek’s comment reminded me of something Jonathan Franzen wrote about The Trial: he says:

I thought I’d read every word of the first chapter of The Trial twice, in German and in English, but when I went back now I realized I’d never read the chapter even once. What was actually on the page, as opposed to what I’d expected to find there, was so unsettling that I’d shut my mind down and simply made believe that I was reading. I’d been so convinced of the hero’s innocence that I’d missed what the author was saying, clearly and unmistakably, in every sentence. I’d been blind the way K. himself is blind.

This blindness, I think, shows that it is not as easy as it might sound to see what is there, rather than what one expects to find. Unlearning can be traumatic – involving letting go of one’s erstwhile attachments. This is why, I think, Žižek frames it in terms of abstraction – of removing oneself from what is familiar.

One of Kristin’s most fundamental tasks, in all her work, has been to release our understanding of events from their subsequent containment in various narratives – of unlearning what we think we know. In terms of the Paris Commune, for example, the two dominant narratives which corrupt our understanding are those of 20th century soviet communism, on the one hand, and the republicanism of the French State, on the other. For May ’68, it is the individual accounts of a few participants who have become media celebrities, on the one hand, and the platitudes of sociology about a revolt of youth, on the other.

For us contemporary artists, there is a particular point and a general point about the need to unlearn things. 

The particular point is that Kristin’s work allows us to see what really happened to art and culture during the events she writes about. In writing about the Commune, for example, she gets away from the obsession with Courbet’s role, to highlight the Commune’s own perception of the importance of culture and art and the extraordinary existence and manifesto of the Artists’ Federation. 

The general point is that art-history operates with the same kinds of narrative closure in relation to art as those describes by Kristin in relation to radical events in history. As artists, we must unlearn what we know about art-history – about Dada, Surrealism, Conceptualism, Malevich, etc., etc… 

Slogan 2

The Revolution Must Strike Twice

In order to bring about a new society the values of the old society must be destroyed, not simply its power structures. And these values reside in the everyday habits and customs of society: in its culture.

In the heat of the moment, the combatants of revolution are often keenly aware of the importance of the cultural and symbolic. Kristin demonstrates this with her account of workings of the Paris Commune.

A central example is the destruction of the Vendôme Column, built by Napoleon. Kristin notes that most commentators routinely contrast the certainty of this act with the hesitancy with which the Communards approached taking the National Bank. In The Emergence of Social Space, she quotes Engels:

The hardest thing to understand is certainly the holy awe with which they remained outside the gates of the Bank of France. This was also a serious political mistake. The Bank in the hands of the Commune—this would have been worth more than 10,000 hostages.

From the point of view of political economy, the Communards wasted time in destroying cultural artefacts when they could have been taking concrete political and economic action. But the Communards did not see the political and cultural spheres as necessarily opposed in this way. Kristin writes:

To view the Commune from the perspective of the transformation of everyday life would demand, then, that we juxtapose the Communards’ political failure or mistake […] with one of their more “monumental” achievements: the demolition of the Vendome Column. […] On the one hand, a reticence, a refusal to act; on the other, violence and destruction as complete reappropriation: the creation, through destruction, of a positive social void, the refusal of the dominant organisation of social space and supposed neutrality of monuments.(38-39)

The most striking example of the transformation of art – as part and parcel of the transformation of everyday life – was the formation of the Artists’ Federation and the publication of its manifesto. Undoing the finely tuned hierarchies of established art, the Federation was open to everyone, encouraging anyone who wanted to, to call what they did art without any concerns about quality, skill, appropriateness, and so on. In the words of one Communard,

“The results of the manifesto’s propositions were enormous, not because they elevated the artistic level … but because they spread art everywhere.” 

This spreading of art everywhere is not the old art in new locations but a different conception of art arising when everywhere had been transformed.

In other words, a different conception of social space emerges in the events Kristin writes about. This is worth remembering that social space is not all the same, at a time when contemporary art is dominated by myriad forms of ‘social practice’ – which seek to inhabit the public sphere or engage the public in various ways.

The radical openness of the Artists’s Federation is also instructive. Any artist who has been part of a contemporary artists’ group is surely aware of the enormous effort that goes into patrolling boundaries – certifying quality, confirming membership, authorising behaviour and so on. For example, the Precarious Workers’ Brigade have a code of ethics. I imagine few people would want to be part of an unethical group – but there is a kind of ideological trap here. Not only is a code of ethics the kind of thing we might expect from a large corporation but drawing up codes of behaviour in the present is limited by what is thinkable in the present.

Slogan 3

Art Must Be Transformed

In May ’68 and Its Afterlifes, Kristin writes:

May ’68 was not itself an artistic movement. It was an event which transpired amid very few images […] Only the most “immediate” of artistic techniques, it seems, could keep up with the speed of events. But to say this is already to point out how much politics was exerting a magnetic pull on culture, yanking it out of its specific and specialised realm. (15)

She soon goes on:

The incommensurability or asymmetry that seems to govern the relation between culture and politics holds true for the ’68 period in France. In fact, that incommensurability is what the event is about: the failure of cultural solutions to provide an answer, the invention and deployment of political forms in direct contestation with existing cultural forms.(15)

Here, I think, we need to make a careful distinction: the contrast set up is between radical, emancipatory politics, on the one hand, and conservative, instituted culture, on the other. If May ’68 was no place for art as it was established and instituted, this is not the only possibility for art.

Just as Kristin describes how the working existence of the Commune produced its thought – rather than simply being the putting-into-practice of  pre-existing thought – the unfolding event enables the invention of new things to do, as an artist. As Kristin writes, one of the new things artists started doing in May ’68 was making posters:

The “message” of the majority of the posters, stark and direct, was the certification, and at times the imperative, that whatever it was that was happening—the interruption, the strike, the “moving train”—that it simply continue […] Nothing, that is, in the message aspires to a level of “representing” what was occurring; the goal, rather, is to be one with—at the same time with, contemporary with—whatever was occurring.(15)

This, to me, sounds like a particular form of the general avant-garde desire to merge art and life. This desire must be understood as the merging of a new art with a new life: it is only in a radically transformed social space that art can become something else.

So I think it is not so much that art is pulled out of its place by the politics of the event but that those elements within art which wish to overthrow the hierarchies, divisions and absences of art are given the possibility of doing something else in the moment of the event.

But this “doing something else” must be collective action. The Commune, for example, was only able to spread art everywhere because this spreading was part and parcel of a transformed public sphere.

Slogan 4

Art is a site of conflict and division

The recovery of moments of true equality and freedom are vital in showing what is absent in the present: the division and exploitation which flourish in the absence of true equality and freedom. The present is a site of conflict.

It is my contention that something similar holds for art: that the divisions of a divided society are present in art –  as elsewhere – and that the recovery of moments when these divisions are overcome is vital in showing us that art, as it is established and instituted, could be transformed into something else.

Unlike 19th century France, today art is not directly controlled by the State. Nor is art directly commodified by the capitalist mode of production – the artist is rarely a wage labourer. Yet the values of our current society penetrate and reside in art’s everyday habits and the pragmatic action artists must undertake. They are present in art’s dominant institutions and discourses – which is to say art is underpinned by assumptions which often go unquestioned. 

Today, we should note, working in the public sphere is a normal thing to do. ‘Social practice’ is part of the dominant culture of art – accepted and unremarkable. This is to say that the contemporary spreading of art everywhere happens in a very different conjuncture to that of the Commune; social practice with its various forms of participation and action is what is expected of contemporary art, over and above forms of representation. This is art as entertainment, decoration and social emollient.

But any dominant conception of art, however insidious, does not go uncontested. There are always alternative institutions, different discourses and other practices. Which is not to say that it is possible to transform art in our present conjuncture simply by doing something else – but rather that art itself is always a site of conflict. And today, this means that social practice is a site of conflict in art – not a solution to something.

One of Kristin’s strategies when reconsidering the historical events she does, is to extend the received temporalities of an event: on the one hand, to trace its beginnings back before the start of the action, so to speak, to the conditions of antagonism, the discourses of conflict and the life of precedents in the culture of the present. And, on the other hand, to trace the afterlife of the event, the way it lives on in memory and in theory. And this is useful for us, as artists: if we can not pass straight to the transformation of art, we do live both in the afterlife of past artistic events and in anticipation of the future. We can, on the one hand, keep alive the transformative moments of the past and, on the other, agitate the repressed divisions and contradictions of the art of the present.

From the point of view of those wishing the revolutionary change to art – for which I use the name avant-garde – those few, precious moments when art becomes transformed are of the utmost value. They are confirmation that a different art is possible – or, better, that art can be transformed into something else. The point is, the idea of something can precede its actuality, even if what will come from the idea remains unknown. In Communal Luxury, Kristin says, “it was the reunions and the clubs that created and installed the idea—well before the fact— of a social commune.” Needless to say, this idea must contain the refusal or negation of the present social settlement.

The lesson for contemporary art is that it must contain its own moment of refusal or negation.  If art is co-opted by its everyday habits and discourse, rather than the commodification of what it produces, then we need to question the most basic assumptions about art. This means seeing art as limited by what is absent from it. And this might seem a strange idea at a time when ‘anything goes’ in art – but the point is, the one thing which cannot be questioned in art is the social role of art as the discipline where anything goes. In other words, art maintains its speciality to absorb and reproduce anything and everything else.

Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

You’re going to publish a post today. Don’t worry about how your blog looks. Don’t worry if you haven’t given it a name yet, or you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just click the “New Post” button, and tell us why you’re here.

Why do this?

  • Because it gives new readers context. What are you about? Why should they read your blog?
  • Because it will help you focus you own ideas about your blog and what you’d like to do with it.

The post can be short or long, a personal intro to your life or a bloggy mission statement, a manifesto for the future or a simple outline of your the types of things you hope to publish.

To help you get started, here are a few questions:

  • Why are you blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal?
  • What topics do you think you’ll write about?
  • Who would you love to connect with via your blog?
  • If you blog successfully throughout the next year, what would you hope to have accomplished?

You’re not locked into any of this; one of the wonderful things about blogs is how they constantly evolve as we learn, grow, and interact with one another — but it’s good to know where and why you started, and articulating your goals may just give you a few other post ideas.

Can’t think how to get started? Just write the first thing that pops into your head. Anne Lamott, author of a book on writing we love, says that you need to give yourself permission to write a “crappy first draft”. Anne makes a great point — just start writing, and worry about editing it later.

When you’re ready to publish, give your post three to five tags that describe your blog’s focus — writing, photography, fiction, parenting, food, cars, movies, sports, whatever. These tags will help others who care about your topics find you in the Reader. Make sure one of the tags is “zerotohero,” so other new bloggers can find you, too.