After Credit, Winter – The Progressive Art institution and the Crisis

By Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen, 15 August 2012
Image: Flyer for action at Artists Space, New York

A version of this text was published in Paletten issue 288, 2012


The global economy is collapsing and it seems as if we are heading towards a finale of the present financial regime. Whether it is really a 'terminal crisis' in Giovanni Arrighis sense the end of a cycle of accumulation remains to be seen but the accelerated pace of the crisis from the mortgage default rate tilting sharply upward in 2006 to the financial crash in 2008 and onwards inevitably points in that direction.i This might turn out to be the end of the American empire Arrighi prophesised already in 1994 in his acclaimed The Long Twentieth Century where he showed how capitalism has had four systemic cycles of accumulation since the fourteenth century each with its own imperial leadera Genoese cycle, from the fifteenth to the early seventeenth century, a Dutch cycle, from the late sixteenth through most of the eighteenth century, a British cycle from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth century, and a US cycle, which began in the late nineteenth centuryruling for about 100 years or a little more going through three phrases before collapsing and making space for the next cycle. According to Arrighi each systemic cycle is characterised by the same phases, from an initial one of financial expansion, through a phase of material expansion, followed by another financial expansion. The upward trajectory of each hegemon is based on the expansion of production and trade. At a point in each cycle, however, a crisis occurs as a result of the over-accumulation of capital. As Arrighi describes it, financial expansion announces the Autumn of a particular hegemonic system, and precedes a shift to a new hegemon. Arrighi is thus able to show how the financial expansion of the last decades of the twentieth century was not a new phenomenon but a recurrent historical tendency of capitalism.


With the so-called financial crisis it seems as if Autumn is being replaced by winter.ii Whether this crisis is really the end of a cycle of accumulation no one knows but all the financial expansions that have taken place since the early 1970s are fundamentally unsustainable as they have been drawing more capital into speculation than can be managed and now the bubbles have begun bursting signalling a possible end of a regime of accumulation. Terminal crisis.... time will tell. But we already have a pretty good first impression of the next phase of the end as austerity takes on the characteristics of a global political regime in which governments all over the world in an even more visible and brutal manner than for the last 35 years of neoliberal rule impose austerity in the form of lower wages, lay-offs of public workers, pass legislation weakening organised labour and make cuts in programs benefiting working people.iii


Here we are now. Crisis and breakdown. It is an open question what will happen and what the next cycle of accumulation will look like, it will take some time and the disproportions of the current cycle will most likely have to be resolved by crisis, shakeout and probably also a major war, not unlike the last transition from British hegemony to American. But an exit from the capitalist system altogether and the destruction of value is also becoming a possibility. This is the revolutionary perspective that is being advanced by parts of the revolting masses in North Africa and the Middle East and picked up by the young protesters in Spain, Greece, America and elsewhere. A critique of the capitalist money economy and the present neoliberal world order and its extreme inequality locally as well as globally.


Moving from these large-scale global historical events, the political economic phantasmatic level of world history, to a consideration of developments in contemporary art and in particular the workings of so-called progressive art institutions in Western Europe and the US is not straightforward. There is a question of scale here. Nonetheless it is interesting to consider a couple of recent events in light of the current conjuncture of crash, crisis and austerity, events where art institutions traditionally considered part of the more politically inclined margin of the art world showed themselves to be firmly on the side of the ruling powers. I am thinking of the exhibition Abstract Possible at Tensta Konsthall in Stockholm where Maria Lind collaborated with the auction house Bukowskis, which is owned by Swedish oil and gas exploration company Lundin Petroleum responsible for killings and village burnings in Sudan and I am thinking of the eviction of a group of occupy activists from Artists Space in New York. In both instances we have an allegedly progressive institution revealing previously invisible elite class alliances. It seems as if institutional surfaces are beginning to crack as we enter a period of intense crisis. In the Winter things are stripped bare as the leaves fall and the temperature drops.


Image: Abstract Possible at Tensta Kunsthalle, installation view


Although the booming art market is very much central to the story of contemporary art in the decades since 1989, the 1990s and 00s was also a period where not only institutional critique and different kinds of relational and participatory art but also representations of anti-capitalist politics were exhibited in art institutions around the world. In tension with the escalating use of contemporary art as a haven for newly accumulated capital and a resource for regional or national development, art institutions mounted exhibitions focusing on ongoing political conflicts or, more often, presented historical political art (feeding the historicist impulse visible in much new art). In Europe we had biennials like Catherine Davids Documenta X in 1997 with a heavy dose of late '60s institutional critique coupled with Marxist theory, Okwui Enwezors post-colonial Documenta 11 in 2002 and the Brechtian 11th Istanbul Biennial in 2009 organised by WHW [Why How and For Whom?], and large historical exhibitions like Forms of Resistance at Van Abbe Museum in Holland in 2007 curated by Will Bradley and Charles Esche encompassing art from the Paris Commune to Marco Scotinis Disobedience Archive. In the US we had exhibitions like Nato Thompsons The Interventionist: Art in the Social Sphere in 2004 with the likes of the Yes Men at MASS MoCA and Chris Gilberts notorious Now-Time Venezuela: Media along the Bolivarian Process at Berkeley Art Museum in 2006 which ended in Gilberts resignation and exile in Venezuela.iv


So, while contemporary art was in many respectsa propagandist of neoliberal values, as Julian Stallabrass phrased it in his Art Incorporated showing how contemporary art became tied to post-Fordist speculation with bling, boom and bust, it was also a place where curators and artists were able to show political actualities not necessarily visible elsewhere.v The absence of a critical political public sphere made the art institution a place where it was possible to represent pressing political issues. Although the alter-globalisation movement and other anti-systemic movements tried to oppose the neoliberal dogma, neoliberalism became a kind of second nature after 1989, acting as the most successful ideology in world history, as Perry Anderson wrote with slight hyperbole in At a time when neoliberal ideology managed to present itself as the only game in town, effectively turning any reference to alternatives into a slide towards totalitarianism, the representation of oppositional politics in the art institution was a welcome gesture. It was possible to discuss a wide range of topics in contemporary art excluded from the mass media such as the rise of right wing populism in Europe, communism and neoliberal re-colonisation.


The art institutional representation was a positive antidote to the intellectual blackmail of the 1990s and 2000s with the rhetoric ofthe end of historyanda clash of civilisationsbut it was of course itself limited by the structural difficulty in connecting the inside representation to an outside political context where it could acquire a broader radical perspective. In retrospect the absence of opposition to neoliberalism almost looks as the condition of possibility ofpoliticalart in the '90s and '00s.


The contradictions of contemporary political art are of course structural by nature as the historical avant-garde movements and their contemporary critics like Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse already showed in the 1920s and 1930s when the avant-garde tried to transcend the institution of art and set art free outside the institutional confines of modern art. Marcuses Weberian-Marxist analysis from 'The Affirmative Character of Culture' (1937) in large part still holds true as a description of the double character of art. As Marcuse argues, on the one hand art creates images of another world and possesses a subversive potential thanks to its autonomy. Art is an expression of humanitys preoccupation with its own future happiness, and in that sense it transcends society at a symbolic level. It is a kind of sanctuary where a number of fundamental needs that are suppressed in capitalist society are met virtually. The victims of the rationalisation of bourgeois society are given a voice and awakened to life in art, which in this way functions as a repository for marginalised experiences and excluded modes of expression. But art is at the same time socially affirmative, it is a relative legitimation of the society in which it exists. The freedom and autonomy of art is moderated by that very freedom being enclosed in the institution of art, 'an independent realm of value [] compatible with the bad present, despite and within which it can afford happiness.'vii Art thus stabilises the very condition it criticises, Marcuse writes. It is a place of hibernation for the anarchistic imagination that is rapidly being eradicated by the accelerated rationalisation process of capitalist modernity; but this imagination is also prevented from having any broad social impact, precisely because it is confined to the sphere of art, because of arts autonomy. Marcuse terms this contradiction the dual nature of art, the fact that it is relatively autonomous and both protests against capitalist society and its alienating abstractions, and confirms that society by being a safety valve whereby society can blow off surplus energy and let marginalised desire come to expression as pointless luxury goods with no risk of real change.


The fates of the avant-garde, the neo-avant-garde and institutional critique all confirm Marcuses analysis and stresses arts complex autonomy which is both challenged and confirmed by the inclusion of politics in contemporary art. The management of cultural trends andsubversiveart is one way of maintaining social balance, Herbert Marcuse, Theodore Adorno and Guy Debord all stressed that. Since the late 1950s art institutions have been reflective about this double character of art and have allowed or even welcomed political criticism of themselves in order to keep alive the anti-autonomous or heteronomous side of art, reproducing the distinctness of art as a place of criticality in capitalist society. This development has intensified since the days of pop and conceptual art, making the representation of politics in art a necessary supplement to contemporary arts neoliberal turn where art was one way of defibrillating a slowing economy and entertaining the unproductive FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) population. As Brian Holmes wrote in 2004 in 'Liars Poker: The Representation of Politics / The Politics of Representation': 'The institutionalhousenow seeks its interest in a complex game, which alone can reconcile the economic nexus it provides with the cultural capital it seeks among the more radical factions of the artistic field.'viii


In the 1990s and 2000s several European art institutions were thus open to some kind of politicisation where curators were allowed to critically rework the institution and open it up, not only to more process oriented art projects but also to political concerns. Rooseum in Malmö, directed by Charles Esche, and München Kunstverein led by Maria Lind were among the well known examples of this trend dubbed new institutionalism. Now the art institution was supposed to actively support criticality and deploy institutional critique at the level of institutional administration and programming not just mount exhibitions by political artists. The curator herself now had asubversiveagenda working together with artists enabling structural change of the institution. The exhibition was no longer the privileged medium. Seminars, publications and different kind of archives became new important formats whereby the audience according to the discourse of new institutionalism was transformed from an individual contemplative spectator into an active participant. Curators like Esche and Lind thus worked as in-house curators striving to enable critique and transform the institution into an open and socially inclusive arena for the presentation of oppositional political representations of various kinds. In the words of Brian Holmes, some art professionals were apparently 'playing a transformative game' trying to produce alternative ways of evaluating art and using it to progressive ends.ix In a longer historical perspective this move is to be understood as part of a general move away from direct critique considered to be too totalistic and romantic and unable to challenge the object of critique and towards a loosely Deleuzian-inspired idea of radical pragmatism where you work within institutions making 'modest proposals' instead of rejecting them as was the case in for instance the Situationistscritique of the society of the spectacle in the 1960s.x A rhetoric of the temporary or open-endedness characterised the discourse of new institutionalism where direct confrontation was replaced with implicit critique.


A few years into the crisisas Arrighi writes the crisis actually began already in the early 1970 as the postwar boom exhausted itselfit seems fair to say that the discourse of new institutionalism was really just one more example of depoliticisation in art where art institutions were temporarily transformed into social centres and discussion platforms but nothing really changed. New institutionalism was the art world equivalent to the new managerial discourse analysed by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello that promoted attitudes once associated with the artistic personality such as autonomy, spontaneity, openness to others and rhizomatic capacity.xi Art institutions followed corporate management and adopted rhetorics of social responsibility and sensitivity to differences, internalising the neo-liberal creativity hype and getting everybody to work more for less or for free, consolidating elite power. What took place was a destructuring and hollowing out passed off as critique and politicisation. The modest proposals were not a threat to anyone and took place as yet another attempt to maintain social balance through the management ofradicalart.


Image: Abstract Possible at Tensta Kunsthalle, installation view


The case of Abstract Possible at Tensta Konsthall is an interesting one. The collaboration with Bukowskis, the largest auction house in Sweden owned by the Lundin family who direct the oil company by the same name, a company complicit in civil war in Sudan and under investigation for humanitarian crimes against international law, sheds a revealing light on the position of so-called progressive institutions as we move in to the winter of finance capital.xii That contemporary art has long served as an investment opportunity for the super-rich and a place for money laundry is old news but the direct entanglement of a kunsthalle in Sweden of all places with the weapondollar-petrodollar coalition is pretty remarkable.xiii


The exhibition at Tensta itself is a straightforward group exhibition with works by more than 20 artists .The exhibition focuses on formal abstraction ranging from Barradas close-ups of bus doors with abstract shapes communicating bus routes to illiterates to Matias Faldbakkens sloppily installed overprinted silk screens of the computer game 'Battlefield' developed by Swedish company EA Digital Illusions. All the works in the show somehow mimic the abstract visual language of modernism but rarely with the radical negativity itshistorical precedents were characterised by. At Tensta most works come off as symptoms of the lingering historicist academism in contemporary art where modernist forms and shapes are reworked and commented upon in an almost nostalgic way that only confirms the distance between the original radical gestures and the present empty and weak restaging of modernist abstraction as fascinating forms popular on the art market. The show continues at the auction house Bukowskis in downtown Stockholm where art works by the same artists exhibiting at Tensta are for sale at set prices framed by the contribution of Goldin + Senneby who have made a report about the collecting opportunities of each of the works on sale. The report itself is on offer for 120,000 Swedish Krona and its contents available only to the buyer. The implicit criticism of new institutionalism seems, in this instance, to have fused completely with the perspective of the neoliberal art system. Rather than exposing and highlighting the economic structure of contemporary art it is a blank confirmation of the system as there is no attempt whatsoever to point in alternative directions. We are thus left with a pure affirmation of the existing system, its art market and the owners bloody petroleum politics. The process, through which cultural values are produced, circulated and accumulated, and for and by whom this happens, is left unchallenged. It seems as if the repressive tolerance of the '90s and early '00s is no longer an option, forcing artists to move closer to the ruling powers or abandon art, or at least forsake institutional success.


Image: Graffiti artist arrested in Oscar Niemeyer Pavilion


The eviction of Occupy Wall Street protesters by security personal from Artists Space in New York in October 2011 and the eviction of graffiti artists from the São Paolo Biennales Oscar Niemeyer’s pavilion by the police in 2008 are other cases to consider when trying to come to terms with the development of the cultural institution in the present conjuncture of crisis and ideological breakdown.


As we move into a global economic crisis, fractures and lines of conflict that have been concealed for some time are becoming visible and it seems fair to say that a genuine anti-systemic break was never on the agenda for the new institutionalists and much of what passed as political art in the 1990s and '00s in the institution. It was never an alternative to the ruling order and should in retrospect be understood as neoliberalism with a human face. Now the masks have fallen and the difference between cultural neoliberalisation and new institutionalism is difficult to locate. As Anthony Davies writes, they are not alternatives but 'coexistent forms of neoliberalism, evolving at uneven rates and in different phases perhaps but all moving in the same direction', and now finally in a situation of breakdown they seem to be merging.xiv


The masks have come off and the intricate link between the cultural institution and elite power has been revealed for everybody to see. We are seeing signs of an ideological breakdown whereprogressiveinstitutions find themselves in a new situation where it is difficult to continue the charade of new institutionalisms repressive tolerance. In this situation we are confronted with a number of urgent questions. One has to do with the present past and the differentpoliticisationsof art that took place during the 1990s and '00s. In retrospect it seems as if much of what presented itself as progressive and radical in the 1990s and '00s was just a supplement to the neoliberalisation of art. The ruling class continued amassing wealth while art exhibitions were turned into parties or discussions about post-colonialism and economic inequality. This forces us to ask whether playing a transformative game within the institution is still a viable option? What to do then? Although an exit from the institution looks increasingly desirable as the institution reveals its class character it is perhaps not altogether wise, as we will need all available sources of criticality in the fight to come. But considering the ability to manage radical art and divert it in order to maintain social equilibriumMarcuses affirmative character of artit seems reasonable to say that only art sited at the very margin of the art system can help build a passage beyond capitalism. In the coming insurrection the safe interior of the art world will perhaps become too compromised. Being financed by and collaborating with Lundin was not a problem for Tensta and Lind. As Lind explained during a debate about the exhibition where an accompanying anthology, Contemporary Art and its Commercial Markets: A Report on Current Conditions and Future Scenarios, financed by the auction at Bukowskis was launched: 'The project is not about taking a position, this is what the world looks like.' This is what complicit criticism amounts to these days. Apparently all we are left with is identification with the existing system. Jacques Rancière calls this logic, 'the police'there is what there is.xv Luckily this logic is being contested more and more places all over the world from Athens to Cairo to Oakland Los Indignados in Madrid to Unknown Artists in New York. Winter is here.



Thanks to Brian Holmes, Anthony Iles, Jacob Lund, Gregory Sholette and Morten Visby for critique and comments.



i Giovanni Arrighi: The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times (London & New York: Verso, 1994). A new edition with a new afterword came out in 2009.

ii The notion that financial expansion announces the autumn of a particular hegemonic system and cycle of accumulation was originally developed by Braudel in The Perspective of the World: Civilization and Capitalism Fifteenth to Eighteenth Century [Civilisation Matérielle, Économie et Capitalisme, XV-XVIII: Le temps du monde, 1979], trans. Sian Reynold (Berkeley & London: University of California Press, 1992). Arrighi picks up the notion and puts it to use in The Long Twentieth Century.

iii Cf. Steven Colatrella: “In Our Hands is Placed a Power: A Worldwide Strike Wave, Austerity and the Political Crisis of Global Governance”, in Wildcat, no. 90, 2011,

iv Theres no doubt that the institutional scene in Western Europe and the US are almost incomparable when it comes to the question of political art. In the US political art never acquired thepopularityit did in Europe (as the resignation of Gilbert also shows). This was also due to the much bigger impactthe war on terrorhad in the US effecting both base and superstructure in a much more visible way. The Steve Kurtz case where Kurzt from Critical Art Ensemble was charged with bioterrorism, the case was dismissed in 2008, and were half the artists inThe Interventionistswere subpoenaed was one example of this tightening of the public sphere. Cf. Gregory Sholette:Disciplining the Avant-Garde: The United States versus the Critical Art Ensemble, in Circa, No. 112, pp. 5059.

v Julian Stallabrass: Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p.72.

vi Perry Anderson:Renewals, in New Left Review: New Series, no. 1, 2000, p.14.

vii Herbert Marcuse:The Affirmative Character of Culture[Über den affirmativen Character der Kultur, 1937], trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro, in Negations: Essays in Critical Theory (London: Mayfly Books, 2009), p. 87.

viii Brian Holmes:Liars Poker: Representation of Politics / Politics of Representation, in Springerin, no. 1, 2003,

ix Ibid.

x Charles Esche: Modest Proposals (Istanbul: Baglam, 2005). For a critique of this move towardsmodest proposals, see Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen:Scattered (Western Marxist-Style) Remarks about Contemporary Art, Its Contradictions and Difficulties, in Third Text, nr. 109, 2011, pp. 199-210

xi Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello: The New Spirit of Capitalism [Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme, 1999], trans. Gregory Elliot (London & New York: Verso, 2005).

xii Cf. Kerstin Lundell: Affärer i blod och olja. Lundin Petroleum i Afrika (Stockholm. Ordfront, 2010). See also the 2010-report Unpaid Debt: the Legacy of Lundin, Petronas and OMV in Block 5A, Sudan 1997-2003 by ECOS (European Coalition on Oil in Sudan).The actual perpetrators of the reported crimes were the armed forces of the Government of Sudan and a variety of local armed groups that were either allied to the Government or its main opponent, the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). Nonetheless, the evidence presented in this report calls into question the role played by the oil industry in these events. [] The start of oil exploitation set off a vicious war in the area. Between 1997 and 2003, international crimes were committed on a large scale in what was essentially a military campaign by the Government of Sudan to secure and take control of the oil fields in Block 5A. As documented in this report, they included indiscriminate attacks and intentional targeting of civilians, burning of shelters, pillage, destruction of objects necessary to survival, unlawful killing of civilians, rape of women, abduction of children, torture, and forced displacement. Thousands of people died and almost two hundred thousand were violently displaced.p. 5.

xiii For an analysis of the global political economy of oil and the weapondollar-petrodollar coalition, see Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler: The Global Political Ecomomy of Israel (London: Pluto, , 1999).

xiv Anthony Davies:Take Me Im Yours: Neoliberalising the Cultural Institution, in Mute, vol. 2, no. 5, 2007, p. 107.

xv Jacques Rancière: Disagreement [La mésentente, 1995], trans. Julie Rose (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).