Journal of Aesthetics & Protest: Democracy is a good idea

Sep 16, 2010

Democracy is a good idea
On politics, art and activism, idealism and pragmatism
By Morten Goll & Jesper Goll
November 2003
Volume 1, Issue 2

Pragma’tik –ken [pray-] (From Greek Pragmati’kos skilled, experienced, active, political, from ’pragma - that which has been done, active, of state affairs) expertise; in semiology a discipline that studies communicative media, the sign systems and their relation to man, and which regards the linguistic act in its concrete context in the widest definition (The concrete situation, the particular circumstances of the speakers, their intentions, their social origin, their mutual relations etc.); in political relations: factually grounded, practical and realistic politics. [Source: Gyldendals Fremmedordbog, [The Danish Gyldendal’s Dictionary of Foreign Terms] 11th edition, 3rd printing, Nordisk Forlag, Copenhagen, 1993. Tr. by Morten Goll]

How do we know what contemporary art looks like? We don’t. We know that it can be defined as cultural critique, that it seeks to eliminate its own inherent confinement as well as the limits produced by the current explanatory model. Which is to say the philosophical discourse and the identity models we deploy to describe the world and ourselves, both globally and on the local political plane as well as at the individual level.

For want of something better, we rely on our experience when we have to determine whether something is art, critique or skilled craftwork. In other words, we judge the artwork with reference to historical models that relate to how art used to look. But what qualified as art fifty years ago is not necessarily art today since its form and content no longer propose a critical alternative to the prevailing explanatory model. Stripped of its critical dimension, art reduces to skilled craftwork.

How do we know what critique looks like? We don’t. Logic allows us to deduce that the form and burden of a critique should be a function of the object of critique. At best, the critique takes a form that constitutes a constructive demonstration of an alternative to the object of criticism. But more often than not, the form amounts to a recycling of approaches that have proved successful in the past, but may not be successful in the present.

Political activists and progressive artists inhabit parallel universes. When the activist decides to protest against an undemocratic, compliant and anti-social government, she does precisely what the artist does in seeking to create an artwork: she takes a retrospective look at the protests of earlier times and repeats the pattern. But how do we know what resistance looks like today? How do we know how a demonstrator behaves?

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