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5/5/2017 / Issue #012 / Text: Stijn Verhoeff

Together, with imaginative alternatives

These days, in a changing world, I often wonder what artists can do, or should do. Many practitioners in the field of the arts have the same thought and wonder how their work can contribute to or even influence current affairs. The relationship between art and society is an old and widely discussed subject, it remains relevant. Maybe especially so today, because are we, cultural workers in a broad sense, currently standing on the sidelines of history? Are we losing touch with the course of the world while other people, often on the opposite side of the political spectrum and with less cultural and historical awareness but bigger mouths, demand differently? How should we respond to this? Should we start shouting as well or are there other ways to deal with the world and its future?

In an interview on the website Artspace, filmmaker Adam Curtis boldly blames the individualism of artists in the 60’s and 70’s for today’s society and our current problems. In his view artists took self-expression as their personal ideology, freeing themselves from authoritative structures such as the state and the church, but fuelling another ideology: the capitalist market. They went in front being original and unique, and were soon followed by the masses, who in their turn started expressing their individuality by buying stuff. 

According to Curtis this productive marriage of self-expression and consumerism continued for 50 years and we can speak nowadays of the selfie-culture and Facebook as our global home. Many people keep using Facebook even though they know that this company (1) makes profit on their accounts, (2) knows what they do, (3) directs their thinking and (4) influences their political and therefore personal landscape. 

Curtis’ analysis is provocative and might seem pessimistic about the arts. He himself wouldn’t agree though. Artists shaped the world in the past, he says, and can do so again. Curtis wants artists to show people which power structures are at work. This is basically what he does in his films himself. It isn’t my way of making art, but he is right about the fact that individualism (which goes hand in hand with neo-liberalism) is a problem, also in the arts. 

Many of us want to be part of the club, hence the Facebooking. Not just to share our work with a wider audience, but also to secure, as far as possible, our careers. The art business – and this is not cynical – is a rat race. Competition is supposed to further the arts, but in my opinion it divides the field. Individual artists are too busy keeping their heads above the water and trying not to drown to create the space to come together to discuss the situation and, most importantly, to think forward. Critical discourse is occupied by critics, curators and program makers such as directors of institutions, but few artists raise their voices. Artists can only speak of us when cultural budget cuts are looming. Unfortunately the romantic heritage of the highly-gifted individual still shapes the field. Actually, the meritocratic, egoistic world at large is. In art schools, collaborative work is hardly stimulated. 

If there is one thing artists can do, in my opinion, it is to break with this tradition. We need examples, not just for young artists but for people in general, also for ourselves. The content of our work isn’t all that counts, the way in which we work might be just as important: ‘the medium is the message’, as Marshall McLuhan stated. We need to collaborate. Less, as the minimalist conceptualists tried to tell us, is not always more. Yes, minimalism shaped our world, Apple computer aesthetics being a clear example, so new forms of art practices can shape our future too.   

What kind of future do I imagine? McLuhan’s famous phrase is important here, because one has to imagine a better world before it can become one. In other words, imagination is, at this point in time, quintessential. We are flooded with images and stories on our phones, we literally can see what is happening at the other side of the world in a split second, but we are leaving our imagination behind. Some people (I don’t want to generalise) no longer make an effort to read, to listen, to empathise with others. 

Others say the Occupy-movement failed because it didn’t know what it wanted. I do not believe so. The Bernie Sanders movement, which is still growing, was an indirect result of Occupy. President Trump will get his country into further trouble, here in the Netherlands something similar might happen [this was written before the elections]. In the end, hopefully without physical and emotional destruction, counter-movements will give rise to alternatives. Slavoj Žižek was convinced Trump’s election would lead to productive changes. I hope he is right. It is clear though that they don’t happen overnight, change needs time. But I believe the time has come for artists to reclaim their position in society. Together, with imaginative alternatives.

Feel free to respond to svff(at)