IN his section of the Art Into Society/Society Into Art catalogue (ICA, London 1974), Gustav Metzger issued a call for a three-year strike by artists. Metzger believed that if artists acted in solidarity, they could destroy those institutions (such as Cork Street) which had a negative effect on artistic production. Metzger's strike failed because he was unable to mobilise support from other artists.
During martial law in Poland, artists refused to exhibit their work in state galleries, leaving the ruling elite without an official culture. For months the art galleries were empty. Eventually some mediocre artists were discovered who were prepared to take advantage of this situation and their work was shown. The Polish intelligentsia immediately organised an effective boycott of openings, denying the art an audience and the bureaucracy any credibility.
In 1985 the PRAXIS group proposed an Art Strike for the three years between 1990 and 1993. In 1986 this proposal was extended to a more generalised 'refusal of creativity'. The idea was not to destroy the art world: PRAXIS doubted that enough solidarity existed between artists for such a strategy to work. PRAXIS were interested in how they, and many other 'activists' had created identities based on the supposed 'superiority' of their 'creativity' and/or political actions to the leisure and work pursuits of the social majority. This belief in individual superiority was seen as impeding a rigorous critique of the reigning society. Put bluntly, those whose identity is based on 'their opposition' to the world as it is, have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. To change the world it is necessary to abandon those character traits which aid survival in capitalist society.
Stewart Home (first published in Edinburgh Review 80-1, Summer '88).
ART STRIKE 1977-1980
ARTISTS engaged in political struggle act in two key areas: the use of their art for direct social change; and actions to change the structures of the art world. lt needs to be understood that this activity is necessarily of a reformist, rather than revolutionary, character. Indeed this political activity often serves to consolidate the existing order, in the West, as well as in the East.
The use of art for social change is bedevilled by the close integration of art and society. The state supports art, it needs art as a cosmetic cloak to its horrifying reality, and uses art to confuse, divert and entertain large numbers of people. Even when deployed against the interests of the state, art cannot cut loose from the umbilical cord of the state. Art in the service of revolution is unsatisfactory and mistrusted because of the numerous links of art with the state and capitalism. Despite these problems, artists will go on using art to change society.
Throughout the century, artists have attacked the prevailing methods of production, distribution and consumption of art. These attacks on the organisation of the art world have gained momentum in recent years. This struggle, aimed at the destruction of existing commercial and public marketing and patronage systems, can be brought to a successful conclusion in the course of the present decade.
The refusal to labour is the chief weapon of workers fighting the system; artists can use the same weapon. To bring down the art system it is necessary to call for years without art, a period of three years - 1977 to 1980 - when artists will not produce work, sell work, permit work to go on exhibition, and refuse collaboration with any part of the publicity machinery of the art world. This total withdrawal of labour is the most extreme collective challenge that artists can make to the state.
The years without art will see the collapse of many private galleries. Museums and cultural institutions handling contemporary art will be severely hit, suffer loss of funds, and will have to reduce their staff. National and local government institutions will be in serious trouble. Art magazines will fold. The international ramifications of the dealer/museum/publicity complex make for vulnerability; it is a system that is keyed to a continuous juggling of artists, finance, works and information - damage one part, and the effect is felt world-wide.
Three years is the minimum period required to cripple the system, whilst a longer period of time would create difficulties for artists. The very small number of artists who live from the practice of art are sufficiently wealthy to live on their capital for three years. The vast majority of people who produce art have to subsidise this work by other means; they will, in fact, be saving money and time. Most people who practice art never sell their work at a profit, do not get the chance to exhibit their work under proper conditions, and are unmentioned by the publicity organs. Some artists may find it difficult to restrain themselves from producing art. These artists will be invited to enter camps, where the making of art works is forbidden, and where any work produced is destroyed at regular intervals.
In place of the practice of art, people can spend time on the numerous historical, aesthetic and social issues facing art. lt will be necessary to construct more equitable forms for marketing, exhibiting and publicising art in the future. As the twentieth century has progressed, capitalism has smothered art - the deep surgery of the years without art will give art a new chance.
Gustav Metzger (included in Art Into Society/Society Into Art" catalogue, ICA, London 1974).
ART STRIKE 1990 - 1993
WHEN the PRAXIS group declared their intention to organise an Art Strike for the three year period 1990 - 1993, they fully intended that this proposed (in)action should create at least as many problems as it resolved.
The importance of the Art Strike lies not in its feasibility but in the possibilities it opens up for intensifying the class war. The Art Strike addresses a series of issues; most important amongst these is the fact that the socially imposed hierarchy of the arts can be actively and aggressively challenged. Simply making this challenge goes a considerable way towards dismantling the mental set 'art' and undermining its hegemonic position within contemporary culture, since the success of art as a supposedly 'superior form of knowledge' is largely dependant upon its status remaining unquestioned.
Other issues with which the Art Strike is concerned include that series of 'problems' centred on the question of 'identity'. By focusing attention on the identity of the artist and the social and administrative practices an individual must pass through before such an identity becomes generally recognised, the organisers of the Art Strike intend to demonstrate that within this society there is a general drift away from the pleasures of play and simulation; a drift which leads, via codification, on into the prison of the 'real'. So, for example, the role-playing games of 'children' come to serve as preparation for the limited roles 'children' are forced to 'live' out upon reaching 'maturity'. Similarly, before an individual can become an artist (or nurse, toilet cleaner, banker &c.), they must first simulate the role; even those who attempt to maintain a variety of possible identities, all too quickly find their playful simulations transformed (via the mechanics of law, medical practice, received belief &c.) into a fixed role within the prison of the 'real' (quite often literally in the case of those who are branded schizophrenic).
The organisers of the Art Strike have quite consciously exploited the fact that within this society what is simulated tends to become real. In the economic sphere, the strike is an everyday action; by simulating this classic tactic of proletarian struggle within the realm of culture we can bring the everyday reality of the class war to the attention of the 'avant-garde' fraction within the bourgeoisie (and thus force academics, intellectuals, artists &c., to demonstrate whose side they are really on). At present the class struggle is more readily apparent in the consumption of culture (cf. Bourdieu) than in its production; the Art Strike is in part an attempt to redress this imbalance.
While strikes themselves have traditionally been viewed as a means of combating economic exploitation, the Art Strike is principally concerned with the issue of political and cultural domination. By extending and redefining traditional conceptions of the strike, the organisers of the Art Strike intend to increase its value both as a weapon of struggle and a means of disseminating proletarian propaganda. Obviously,
the educative value of the strike remains of primary importance; its violence helps divide the classes and leads to a direct confrontation between antagonists. The deep feelings aroused by the strike bring out the most noble qualities of the Proletariat. Thus both the General Strike and the Art Strike should be understood in terms of social psychology, as intuitive mental pictures rather than actions which have been rationally theorised.
In 1985, when the PRAXIS group declared their intention to organise an Art Strike for the period 1990 - 1993, it resolved the question of what members of this group should do with their time for the five year period leading up to the strike. This period has been characterised by an on-going struggle against the received culture of the reigning society (and has been physically manifested in the adoption of multiple identities such as Karen Eliot and the organisation of events such as the Festival Of Plagiarism). What the organisation of the Art Strike left unresolved was how members of PRAXIS and their supporters should use their time over the period of the strike. Thus the strike has been positioned in clear opposition to closure - for every 'problem' it has 'resolved', at least one new 'problem' has been 'created'.
ART STRIKE: KAREN ELIOT
INTERVIEWED BY SCOTT MACLEOD
KAREN Eliot is not a specific, or identifiable, human being. It is a name adopted by a variety cultural workers at various times in order to carry through tasks related to building up a body of work ascribed to 'Karen Eliot'. One of the purposes of many different individuals using the same name is to highlight the problems thrown up by the various mental sets pertaining to identity, individuality, originality, value and truth. 'Anybody' can use the name Karen Eliot but the extent to which it is used is limited by the fact that 'multiple name concepts' are neither widely known nor understood. Since the Karen Eliot project was launched in 1985 (at the same time as the proposal for the 1990 to 1993 Art Strike), around one hundred individuals have operated within the parameters of this 'identity/context'. Considering the difficulties involved in persuading anyone to 'invest' their time in something which is unlikely to bring them much 'personal reward' (in terms of cultural recognition &c.), this number is not without significance.
Scott MacLeod: Tell me about Art Strike.
Karen Eliot: The premise is that an Art Strike should be held from January 1st 1990 to January lst 1993. The strike will force the closure of galleries, 'modern' art museums, agencies, 'alternative' art spaces, periodicals, theatres, art schools, &c. All the educational, distributional and critical mechanisms by which art both as an ideology and as a commodity is propagated.
SM: How do artists respond to this proposal?
KE: Their reactions are a mirror image of the response we got to an earlier project - the Festival Of Plagiarism. With the Festival, everyone was initially confused about the relationship between plagiarism and what they were doing. Then they got very excited by the idea and saw lots of possibilities in it. With the Art Strike, most people's initial response is favourable, it's only a bit later that fundamental disagreements arise.
SM: Do you think the use of the word 'strike' could be responsible for the initial enthusiasm?
KE: Yes I do. The term has certain connotations in England which I don't think it has here (i.e. in the United States); there's a very different experience and perception of labour movements in Europe.
SM: Was there a conscious decision to use the term 'strike' which was based on those connotations?
KE: A conscious decision? Gustav Metzger used the term 'Art Strike' in 1974. He called for a strike between 1977 and 1980, so there's a historical precedent. However there are significant differences between that earlier Art Strike and our own; Metzger's activity was primarily directed towards destroying those institutions, commercial galleries and so on, which appeared to him to have an adverse effect on artistic production. lt was set up in the classic hero/villain model. Which might account for the difficulties Metzger had attracting support for the strike. In fact, no one joined him!
SM: It must have been, must be, hard to convince artists or anyone else that going on strike is a good idea.
KE: Well, the Art Strike is not a good idea. It's a bad idea from the point of view of anyone trying to make a career out of art. It's a bad idea from many perspectives, and that does make things a bit more difficult; even though our aims in organising an Art Strike are completely different to Metzger's. We're addressing a far broader range of issues than Metzger and unlike him we don't necessarily expect the mechanics of a strike to operate in the same way within the realm of culture as they would in the economic sphere. Rather than attempting to disrupt and destroy those institutions which effect the production and distribution of art products, the 1990 Art Strike is principally focused on the role of the artist. On how the artist defines his or her identity, on how that identity affects the artist's ability to engage with the surrounding culture.
SM: So, Art Strike is a bad idea and it's not really what it says it is, it's not really a strike against the gallery system or the commodity system.
KE: We've had endless discussions about the appropriateness of the term 'strike', about its efficacy in this situation. At one time we tried to change the name to 'Refusal Of Creativity' but this phrase just didn't catch on. We found that people responded to the term 'Art Strike' because it's confrontational and brings together ideas from what are traditionally considered to be two autonomous realms - the economic and the cultural. In the syndicalist tradition, which has had an influence on our thinking, the strike is ultimately the means of revolution - far more is at issue than a simple hourly-wage increase.
As far as we're concerned, the Art Strike is a strike. It's a denial of product and a denial of labour. Like the syndicalist general strike, the issues being discussed range from the economic to those of revolution and self-determination. We're trying to effect large-scale change in our relationships with what the bourgeois art establishment alleges are 'aesthetic' objects and relationships. We decided to describe our activities as a strike in order to make our political, economic and moral motivations explicit. And we hope the use of this term will encourage active engagement with the issues raised.
SM: And yet you've said the Art Strike is a bad idea.
KE: It probably is a bad idea if one conceives of it as taking the shape of the classic proletarian strike within the economic sphere, and for several reasons. If one were naive enough to attempt to disable certain institutionalised forms of commodity culture through the organisation of artists along trade union lines, then one would be bound to fail because the vast majority of artists would scab. Artists typically view themselves as isolated producers who are in competition with each other; they lack any sense of the solidarity and mutual self-interest upon which successful strikes are built. And even if all the artists in the world did withhold labour for three years, or even ten or twenty years, such a strike might still fail to have much impact within the economic, or even cultural, sphere. The denial of product will not change the fact that there are those who have excess money and want to invest it in something which will realise a profit and simultaneously enhance their status. As long as capitalism survives, there will always be entrepreneurial middlemen and hangers-on who seek to increase their own status and/or wealth by playing the appropriate roles within a culture of acquisition. Art is a product which, if withheld, can easily be replaced by classic cars, artificial sex partners and the like.However, I'm not trying to suggest that art is a mere appendage of economics. Anyone with half a brain can see that there is a dynamic interaction between culture, economics and politics. All I'm saying is that there are an almost infinite variety of substitutes for the ideological and economic functions with which art services capitalist society. The whole point about the 1990 Art Strike is that it is a means of intensifying the class struggle within the cultural, economic and political spheres. If the Art Strike manages to demoralise a cross section of the bourgeois class then it will have succeeded.
SM: Are you suggesting that artists form a fraction within the bourgeois class and that you're hoping to demoralise them?
KE: Yes, artists are one group our activities are intended to demoralise. There's an attitude among artists that they're in touch with a higher discourse, a meta-ethics if you will, which frames their activities within different ethical standards than those of other people. The National Socialist Party in Germany became successful partly as a result of encouraging this kind of attitude. So what we're trying to do with the Art Strike is call into question this notion which artists hold, that they are somehow exempt from the responsibility of engagement with the issues of their own culture. The attitude that artists are engaged in a pursuit which is somehow separate from other human activities. This attitude creates an ideological justification for hierarchical divisions between human beings. lt will be difficult to convince art 'producers' to take an objective look at their own attitudes and activities but this is no reason to be pessimistic about our chances of significant success; black Propaganda might well prove sufficient to demoralise a sizeable proportion of artists to the extent that they will abandon their present cultural pursuits.
ART STRIKE HANDBOOK
THE YEARS WITHOUT ART 1990 - 1993
EDITED BY STEWART HOME
NO COPYRIGHT 1989
Sabotage Editions, London