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#special issue: When Artists Struggle Together

Redas Dirzys /// Art Strike Ideas and Their Application Today: A Report on the Art Strike Conference

The Art Strike Conference was held in the southern Lithuanian town of Alytus on June 27-29, 2008. The group did not adopt any concrete resolution either during the meeting or after it. Therefore I take it upon myself to make a very personal overview of the ideas proposed at the conference with some even more personal commentaries that could lead to a better understanding of our controversial approach to the topic. Many of the ideas presented at the conference I find of crucial importance as I try to start a real campaign against the real construction of cultural capitalism—in this particular case, a boycott of the EU Capitals of Culture initiative, which intends to turn the Lithuanian capital city of Vilnius into a “capital of culture” next year. Since critical thought in contemporary capitalist Lithuania is very weak, we invited an international group of people experienced in this work and/or willing to contemplate the subject.

The Art Strike Conference was held in the southern Lithuanian town of Alytus on June 27-29, 2008. The group did not adopt any concrete resolution either during the meeting or after it. Therefore I take it upon myself to make a very personal overview of the ideas proposed at the conference with some even more personal commentaries that could lead to a better understanding of our controversial approach to the topic. Many of the ideas presented at the conference I find of crucial importance as I try to start a real campaign against the real construction of cultural capitalism—in this particular case, a boycott of the EU Capitals of Culture initiative, which intends to turn the Lithuanian capital city of Vilnius into a “capital of culture” next year. Since critical thought in contemporary capitalist Lithuania is very weak, we invited an international group of people experienced in this work and/or willing to contemplate the subject.

The earliest use of the term “art strike” and its short history

The revolution no longer has any frontiers; it must be thought out, it must be prepared everywhere—in all the sectors where man expends passion and energy to do what he does, else it will never triumph anywhere. –Alain Jouffroy, “What’s To Be Done About Art?” (Art and Confrontation, New York Graphic Society, 1968).

Gustav Metzger in 1974 called for the first known art strike—to cease doing any production of art in the period 1977-1980 and thus to smash the international gallery system—but nobody joined him and probably nobody would have known too much about the fact if not for the second art strike, held in 1990-1993. The latter strike was called by Stewart Home. Besides propagating Metzger’s ideas, it was also intended as propaganda against artists and the arts as a social institution. It was broadly supported and spread worldwide by the international Neoists network. Some of them took on the real social responsibilities of being on strike for the whole period of the action.

“Serious culture” and life issues

A juxtaposition of art and life was taken as the starting point of British performance artist Roddy Hunter in his joint lecture-performance with Judit Bodor Hunter: “If life in the Bakhtinian sense is the world ‘experienced in actions’ then ‘culture’ is the world represented in discourse.” And so they raised an essential question: what consequence or impact in the world of life (the world experienced in actions) will Art Strike create as a parallel critique of Vilnius ’09: European Capital of Culture? To be sure, by arranging the strike as a straightforward critique of the ideological construct, we would produce one more “cultural object” instead of damaging already existing structures. The perfect illustration of theoretical hopelessness in describing life was provided by Vassya Vasiljeva (Bulgaria), who gave an example from YouTube where Jacques Derrida was trying to answer the simple question—what is love?—and looked very stupid and got angry as a result. Vassya pointed to the notion of love as essential uniting element against the structures of “serious culture.” “Love but not culture is the main factor why I am joining you here,” concluded Vassya. It echoed the conclusion made by Roddy and Judit: “Whatever we do, we must promote the gap between ‘universalized and localized life’ and ‘culture,’ between ‘sensibility’ and ‘reason,’ between ‘ethics’ and ‘aesthetics.’” I believe that this last notion is as reactionary as the positions of so-called serious culture in the capitalist society: it promotes the same alienation that already exists; it is just that the matter is viewed from the opposite angle. Emotion cannot be separated from reason—this would look as artificial as reason without emotion. But as for other gaps—those already created, and there are even more gaps around—the main thing is somehow to return from all that fragmentation to the wholeness of the life, which I really agree should be not separated from culture, but rather cleansed of its superficiality. Here, I would like to move forward by quoting the position taken by Saulius Užpelkis (London): “We should start again talking about the supersession of art. Also, how does art become subversive of the social order? What are the possibilities for transformations of everyday life? Other people have to be brought into play, people who are or had been oppressed, people who are interested in social equality, but have no time for the art world’s elite games of prestige and posing. Unpaid cooperation, a kind of gift economy. Instead of the refusal of art, I say the art of refusal. The art of refusal is the art of living.”

Critique of the artistic role in the capitalist society

During the conference, Kasparas Pocius presented what is probably a mostly exceptional case of artistic activism in Lithuania based on the protest of and struggle against the processes of privatizing social spaces. This struggle was partly reflected in the national representative art project presented by the established artist couple Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas at the Venice Biennale. The author was one of the most active activists in the movement initiated by the above-mentioned artists. His critique took aim against the empty performativity of so-called political art, which now acquires new forms of quasi-activism and is just as manipulative in its essence. This statement was opposed by Dmitry Vilensky, who suggested that the complex nature of contemporary capitalism and the public sphere is not totally homogeneous and reactionary, and that it is urgent that we take over the means of production and use different venues as spaces for struggle, agitation, and propaganda. He also noted that today the most effective way to influence and change the system is to combine different strategies of exodus and autonomous participation. To follow the publications of Stewart Home, it should be clear that one of the essential points for today’s struggles is for artists “to destroy their own privileged role as specialized non-specialists, and the Art Strike Biennial is one way of drawing them towards a place where they can live out the death of art.” Definitely, the Art Strike Biennial should become a place where, instead of artists being ashamed of doing bad art, they should be ashamed of doing any art show and simply use their own creativity to experience everyday life instead.
The question of who is an artist and who an activist was also raised (Johannes Paul Raether). A possible answer could be found in Stewart Home’s description of the relationship between the artistic and the political:
Since the aim of revolutionary struggle is to regain our humanity by overcoming all the separations between the physical, intellectual and emotional aspects of our lives, then obviously we cannot combat alienation through politics or culture alone—but rather we should aim to overflow all capitalist canalisations, including the separation of culture and politics. After 1962 the Debordists privileged politics over culture, and after 1966 Fluxus fell into the opposite error of prioritising culture over politics; it is the correct but ever changing balance between these two poles that we must continually seek out. (Introduction to the Lithuanian edition of Assault on Culture, 2008).
So if we follow this path, we would find the main position somewhere between artistic work and activism. The biggest problem of contemporary artists lies in their true bourgeois consciousness. Besides their inherited wish to mock capitalist society in general, they usually do not recognize that their artistic production creates and strengthens that same capitalist society. Usually, they barely make a living from their professional activities, but they still do not want to lose their illusion of getting to the promised land of prosperity. As Dmitry Vilensky sincerely confessed, his colleagues tried to dissuade him from taking part in such an ambivalent conference that “brings neither money nor fame.”
Martin Zet tried to find more sophisticated reasons for rejecting an active position: ageing (it is much nicer to be revolutionary when you are young, but it’s better to act like a reactionary when you get older), a noncommittal stance (it is better to hire some professional revolutionaries to fight instead of us), and retaining the privileges accrued from one’s social duty as an artist. But the logic of the capitalist structure is such that those who follow the rules are usually bargained away, while it supports upstarts so as to recuperate them later on. So there is nothing to lose so far as art has no other role in capitalist society other than to perform reality, and if reality turns to be undesirable it is easiest just to pretend that it is also illusory.

Strikes and fashion

Here, it would be appropriate to close with the historical example provided by Stephanie Benzaquen: “According to Malcolm Barnard (‘Fashion as Communication’), clothing is ‘used not only to constitute and communicate a position in (the) social order, but also to challenge and contest positions of relative power within it.’ Two strike movements exemplify this statement: first, the 1909 shirtwaist strike in New York City; second, the wave of strikes in the southern textile mills in the late twenties and early thirties. In both cases, the press covering the strikes was often more interested in what the women were wearing than in the goals they hoped to attain. It goes without saying that female strikers were hardly accorded respect as workers. In 1909, the women overdid their attempts to be in vogue. They donned hats adorned with multiple feathers, faux flowers, oversized bows, jewellery, lace blouses, fur accessories, french heels. Their colorful ensembles became a bone of contention and enraged the middle- and upper-class suffragettes who thought the gaudy colors distracted from the women’s cause. Male strike leaders did not appreciate this, either, because they wanted to play on society’s pity and portray the workers as frail and downtrodden. Twenty years later, there was a dramatic change of style, as fashion design had become a cultural phenomenon. The women strikers were dressed in red, white and blue regalia. They eclectically mixed overalls—a typically male work outfit—and men’s caps with barrettes, necklaces, blouses, silk stockings, and fire-engine red lipstick. These two styles might be seen as stark contrasts. Yet each group had created a ‘hybridized’ style that served as a visual representation of their cultural status as both women and workers.”
So, we are calling for Art Strike 2009 as a real pre/anti/post-cultural figuration! Join us in Alytus on August 18-24, 2009!

Redas Diržys, Second Temporary Art Strike Action Committee (Alytus), November 2008.
Redas Diržys (b. 1967) lives and works in Alytus (Lithuania) and is known for his social interventions, performances, and socially engaged practices (teaching, lecturing, writing, and exhibiting). Since 1993, he has run unofficial initiatives of various locally based international art events, which eventually took the shape of the Alytus Biennial. Since 1995, Diržys has been the head of the Alytus Art School. He is also associated with such international artistic structures as ZCCA-Libušin, IAPAO, and SPART Action Group.

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