The rhetoric of exigency
Hammam takes on Trump and the question of how–or, indeed, if–to respond by means of art. – Artblog Editor

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Detail of painting picturing a naked Donald Trump by artist Illma Gore. Image source: Huffington Post.
Detail of painting picturing a naked Donald Trump by artist Illma Gore. Image source: Huffington Post.

As was expected, the art world exploded with reflections and opinion pieces after Donald Trump won the election race on November 8, 2016. “Art After Trump” or “Art in the Age of Trump” will, no doubt, begin to circulate as slogans that anchor an intensified interest in the conjunction of art and politics.

One of the more predominant elements of the focus on Trump in the art world has been a rhetorical use of exigency. The cry for urgent artistic involvement has almost unanimously taken the form of “we need art more now more than ever” (especially on the internet, consider articles from, amongst others, The Huffington Post, Vo, Patheos, The Talk House, The Villager, Mic, Hyperallergic, The Stranger.com, Time, and Vanity Fair).

There are three things that I find problematic about the reactionary rhetoric of exigency.

First, the declaration that art is needed now more than ever is problematic as it immediately politicizes a form of cultural production—art—whose political core is extremely difficult to properly reveal, isolate, and ascertain.

Second, it also pushes aside any questioning of the extent to which art is needed now. Against the immediate reaction to respond artistically to the Trump presidency, one ought to pose the following simple, yet difficult to answer, question—is art needed at all? If it is needed, is it to react to a single election cycle or is it required for different reasons?

Third, it hides within it a call for increased cultural production, thus an intensification of the expansion of the circulation of capital in an art world constantly looking for new ways of accumulating wealth. In other words, the rhetoric of exigency operates as the dissimulation of an intensified call to produce art and, thus, to speculatively expand the circulation of capitalistic economic value.

In this article, I want to expand these three points so as to offer a series of critical reflections on the reactionary nature of the cultural call of urgent artistic intervention.

The novelty of the now

A defining aspect of the call to artistic arms in the days after the Trump election was that any artistic intervention is to be located in the spatio-temporal specificity of now, that is, within the moment of an absolute present. The problem with this identification is that it strips the emergence of an historical event—such as Trump’s election victory—of its processual historical character. That is, it strips the ‘moment’ (the point that punctuates the currency of the now) of its interconnection with a more complex historical dynamics.

By disconnecting the historical event of Trump’s victory from its historical formation in the recent past, the call to artistic intervention in the absolute present is, in some ways, transformed problematically into a call for pure artistic novelty. The now is converted into the new. The category of the new, however, is a remarkably complex phenomenon, one that reaches deep into the logic of capitalist production and its connection with the logic of avant-garde artistic practices.

The capitalistic notion of the ‘new’ is that of a pure event, one that is experienced as if it were the source of its own creation and its own power to declare its necessity within the fabric of social existence. The capitalistic new appears as an absolute break from a past it renders auxiliary. And because of this break, it declares a whole new set of social needs. Smart phones were not simply presented as a novelty within the telecommunications market, but manufacturers presented them in the form of social need.

Within the form of the cry for artistic intervention, there is an element of this function of novelty. Art is needed now because the ‘now’ defines a new set of social problems. Thus, what is needed is not simply art as such, but a ‘new politicized’ art that responds to supposedly new sociopolitical needs. What these new needs are, however, is extremely difficult to comprehend in relation to artistic interventions. This has, in part, to do with the difficulty of grasping what the political character of art is in a specific moment, and what its political character is in relation to the more general dimensions of a historical juncture.

Mistrusting the reaction

To understand the political character of art one needs to free oneself from the reactionary call of ‘artistic intervention’ that circulates in a state of hysteria after a moment that is increasingly defined as ‘historic’ (read: unprecedented), without any detailed analysis of the extent of which the moment is indeed ‘historic.’ The call to act artistically now is misleading in so far as it capitalizes on a false historicity of a moment and, more importantly, it reproduces the false historicity of an event.

The question in response to this is clear—to what extent is Trump’s presidency unprecedented? Does it articulate a historical break in the fabric of American politics, one that requires thousands of artists to rise up? I do not think so. Trump’s victory is a result of a process that has been forming since the end of the Cold War. It is, in a way, the inverted consequence of the conjunction of globalized financial capital with Western democracy.

Thus, to treat Trump as if his presidency is a new, unprecedented phenomenon is to strip its connection to the very politics that gave birth to Trump’s campaign. The exigency about art’s intervention is, accordingly, slightly misleading as it takes aim at a false target. Why was there no call to artistic production during Obama’s administration? Where was the urgency for artistic intervention when Hilary Clinton’s campaign went from weakness to weakness? Why wasn’t art called forth when the DNC privileged Clinton over Sanders during the primaries?

I think it is important to sustain a level of critical skepticism against the cultural call to be become artistically active in light of an historical moment that still needs to be unfolded and reflected upon. Critical skepticism, however, does not mean doing nothing. It is a standpoint from which a more careful, critical mode of production can emerge, one that sets into question the call to be in a constant state of production and activity. The call for artistic intervention in a Trump age is yet another call for artistic activity. It asks us to fall into the dominant logic of absolutized activity, that is, a general state of being subsumed and subjected by uncontrolled systematic pressures to act, engage, and repeat.

The critique of absolute activity

There is something slightly ridiculous about a cry for art as an immediate reaction to a historical phenomenon. Art pales in significance when it comes to the forces of social and political change that affect the existence of society. It has little power when compared to politico-economic structures that determine wealth distribution, the legal battle over minimum wages, the problems of an expanded self-employed sector, increasingly aggressive trans-national trade deals, the constant pressure of legislative deregulation, the cost of health care, military interventions, etc.

What art can do, however, is offer modes of practice that articulate a critique of mechanisms that demand our activity. If there is a politics to art, it is a rather modest one—it concerns the way in which art, as a part of the culture of society, is produced, discussed, circulated, and distributed. Behind this critical concern is the question of its own status, its own function, meaning and right to exist. As I have mentioned elsewhere, there is nothing at all obvious about art’s character. This gives it a certain unresolved and open quality, one that, crucially, offers resistance to any quick, positivistic resolution.

To dive headlong into forms of art making that take up the call for artistic action in light of a Trump presidency is a misdirected way of imbuing art with a content that satisfies the desire to provide a positive articulation of art’s function and meaning. It also ushers in, as if from the backdoor, a re-intensification of art as an activity defined more by production and less by thought. The call to artistically act in the wake of Trump’s victory could be said to function as a call to suspend thinking and simply get involved in the hard work of counter-Trump resistance.

Art and politics, again

This reactionary call to politicize art in response to a single historical moment fails to set into sharp relief the broader sociopolitical problems of artistic production under the conditions of advanced, monopolistic capitalism. When considered thus, Trump is hardly the problem. Rather, he is a mere signifier of a globalized problem that far exceeds his presidency and his existence.

To politicize art in reaction to Trump is to summarily discard the long-standing problem of the conjunctural relation between art and politics, and the conjunctural problem of form and content. To choose one over the other is to forget that the two are interconnected in complicated, contradictory ways in certain cultural forms; it is to forget that there is a politics of forms of artistic and non-artistic production, representation, reproduction, circulation, etc.

Behind so many artistic interventions–and this is no different from those being called for in the coming Trump presidency–are the institutional networks of grant applications, residency competitions, MFA programs, museum exhibitions, etc. Art and politics has become formalized as a way of acting artistically and a way of reducing reflection on the conjunction to the limits of a specific genre of artistic production.

Of course, we need to come to terms with the transformations and transitions of American politics in the present. This, however, should not come at the cost of a wholesale amnesia of the underlining problems of politics on the larger scale. That is, it should not come at the cost of suspending the preexisting problems of art’s status within the capitalistic present—what defines its social function, for example.

If there is a historical meaning to Trump in relation to art, it is perhaps that what we need is a critique of the urgency to intervene artistically. What an artistic opposition to Trump needs is a rigorous and careful self-criticism, a reshaping of how it thinks about the conjunction of art and politics.

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