Recent art criticism has registered an increasing interest in politics, ushered in partly by Jacques Rancière’s provocative The Politics of Aesthetics. Such an interest has inflected Walter Benn Michaels’s approach to Jeff Wall’s photography and Darby English’s intervention at Our Literal Speed, as well as the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Disruptions: The Political in Art Now (at which Rancière, unsurprisingly, was the keynote lecturer)—to name just a few examples within Chicago. This trend stands in contrast to a long tradition of art criticism that had enforced a rigid separation between art and politics. From Plato’s banishment of poetic mimesis from the ideal republic and Rousseau’s diatribe against the theater, to Georg Lukács’ condemnation of Expressionism and even Michael Fried’s recent work on absorption and theatricality—critics have long been suspicious of the relationship between the two.
Walter Benjamin’s now famous distinction between “aestheticizing politics” and “politicizing art” sediments a particular version of this concern. While it might be tempting to imagine a conflict of images—one between, for instance, Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Eisenstein’s October—the distinction does not present a choice between two kinds of art. It represents instead two different ways to conceptualize the relation between art and politics: in the first case, the aesthetic intertwines with the political sphere, subordinating political life to art’s original use, religious ritual; in the second case, art does not simply turn its attention to focus on the working class; it becomes transportable, reproducible and consequently visible to the “public” (think of photography and film). One problem with Benjamin’s formulation, which has hardened into a kind of dogmatic certainty, is the ambiguity of what it would even mean to “politicize art”: Does this mean representing the working classes, confining art to a particular genre such as realism, or simply relying on the reproducibility of a specific medium? More important, to my mind, is the other term in Benjamin’s formula: “aestheticizing politics.” This now-common term of abuse— synonymous with the accusation of fascistic propaganda and demagogic imagery— implies that one must always guard against the aesthetic contagion of the political sphere. The result of this counsel has been to perpetuate the fiction that a solid boundary could ever separate the spheres of politics and aesthetics.
Perhaps a well-known, contemporary example can help bring out the limitations of approaching art and politics as if they were necessarily distinct. Immediately following the televised announcement of the invasion of Iraq, a great deal of attention was directed at the blue curtain covering the tapestry reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica hanging outside the United Nations Security Council. Indicating the need for a “neutral” backdrop, the chief U.N. media officer, Abdellatif Kabbaj, dismissed criticism of the curtain by saying, “It’s only temporary. We’re only doing this until the cameras leave.” Clearly, declaring an illegal war in front of the Guernica reproduction, which treats the Fascists’ devastation of the Basque town and its civilian population, smacks of the criminal incompetence that came to define the war and its preposterous justifications. The backlash, however, did nothing more than point out the obvious. Covering the artwork, so the anti-war argument went, willfully repressed the lessons of history in view of another mass killing in Iraq. In this formulation, art functions simply as a cipher for a political (albeit tragic) event. It reads Picasso’s work as if it were mere political art, mere commemoration, as if art’s function were simply to encode historical information. But this media event remains compelling not because of the tapestry that could not be seen, but because of the curtain that was. More important than the naïve mishandling of the set design was the reminder that all political gestures, even much more neutral instances, are fundamentally staged. It is the curtain, not the painting, which reveals the link between politics and aesthetics; ironically, the curtain discloses what it was meant to hide: the staging itself.
Geof Oppenheimer’s The Objects of Civil Society is about the meaning of this curtain. It is an artwork in pursuit of the often imperceptible aesthetic dimensions of the political, rejecting the separation of these domains and refusing to succumb to the myth that such a division is universal, unconditioned or natural.
Indeed, well before Benjamin, the separation between politics and aesthetics had been a significant feature of modern liberalism. By casting a backward glance at the crucible of our modern democracy, we can recognize Rousseau, Thomas Paine and a host of other democratic founders expressing an explicit hostility toward art. Plato had already exiled the poets in favor of an anti- democratic, “ideal” regime; the Christian tradition—most notably Tertullian, Augustine and the Reformation theologians— were suspicious of art, especially the theater, on theological grounds. But with the advent of liberal democracy in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, art became anathema for new, explicitly democratic reasons. Against the theatrical pomp, palaces and punishment associated with monarchy, our modern conceptions of democracy took shape around the myth of immediacy or transparency; art, as mediation, representation or mimesis— so this new ideology insisted— simply stands in the way of a people’s transparency to itself.
It is against this horizon that The Objects of Civil Society really begins to take on its fullest significance. While initially it is easy to see the work as a series of seemingly hermetic gestures, it nonetheless works very explicitly to exhume, within the context of our modern liberal democracy, the aesthetic underpinning of our political world, a discussion that has, for us, gone underground.
Despite the overt political resonances throughout Objects, it is not “political art” in the sense of art instrumentalized in the service of some political agenda. To the contrary, Objects is an art of the intersection of art and politics, but in such a way that neither term is reducible to the other. It is, in short, an art about political aesthetics. Not ideological in its own right, it plumbs the mechanisms of aesthetic ideology, while designating it as the new field of political antagonism. The overarching stakes of this work can be seen by way of a comparison with an earlier Oppenheimer project, The Washington Color Field School. For this work, the artist hired and directed a cast of actors to reenact a rather banal, randomly chosen congressional debate televised on C-SPAN. The sequence is reproduced frame for frame, word for word, gesture for gesture, modified only by a slight slowing and subdued gestural exaggeration. As in Objects, Oppenheimer appropriates and redeploys preexisting images, similar to the Situationist process of détournement, the “anti-aesthetic” appropriation of preexisting media images. Détournement, or “hijacking,” involves tearing images from our mass-produced collective perceptions of the world— and thereby, the Situationist Guy Debord contended, changing the world itself in the process. For Debord, the world had become completely theatrical, un spectacle (which in French means both the theater as well as any theatricality beyond the walls of the theater), and social change required “decomposing” the mass-produced images of le spectacle. But while Debord’s films rearranged well-known film, news and advertising footage in an attempt to undermine this pervasive yet hidden theatricality, Oppenheimer draws attention to the theatricality by confronting us with images that reveal their own staging. Instead of a process of decomposition, Washington Color Field School highlights the images’ recomposition. The title, which concretely situates the abstraction of the Washington Color School in its geographical setting, Washington, D.C., also explicitly undermines the aesthetic/political dichotomy.
Oppenheimer critiques the illusion that what we see of politics is, or ought to be, all that constitutes politics. Politics cannot be reduced to an idealized discussion of differing positions and values—staging matters. The Objects of Civil Society makes us recognize this fact by distilling and presenting the manifold aesthetic registers supporting our collective political imaginary. In the first of many ironies of the work, the title announces itself as a series of objects. We are presented, however, with apparently miscellaneous images, accompanied either by text—excerpts from various interviews with political figures such as Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Jesse Jackson and Albert Speer—or by the typographical frame, repeated from the title page, itself lifted from the gymnasium floor in the image of the Wesley Clark press conference, in which we see an American flag employed as a theatrical backdrop.
What then exactly are the objects of The Objects of Civil Society? Are these objects simply, in a very literal fashion, the objects represented in the images— limousines, sculptures, flags, etc.—that we are asked to reconsider as shared objects composing the fabric of our civic lives? Perhaps. More important, however, is the object-like treatment of many images themselves, which are often imperfectly cropped and re-photographed as if they were concrete objects in the world. In fact, Objects insists that these images are, in their own right, objects. That is to say, they are not simply images of objects, but themselves things to be cut, rearranged, photographed.
The point is that shared political objects are not located outside the terrain of the images. The objects in Objects are not simply hijacked images as in Guy Debord’s films. Instead these objects function to simultaneously mark out and distort the line between the objects of civil society and their imagistic reproductions: an abstract sculpture appropriated by commercial interests; an ostentatious symbol of luxury for rent; a modest, personal monument of a maker of oversized, national monuments; a Russian cult leader whose Leviathan-like scepter and sword have been replaced by a pistol and a microphone; the socio- economic shadow zone lying just outside the theatrical center of U.S. politics. Objects are seen as constituted by images, and images as constituted by objects. Furthermore, these object-images call attention to their own production by virtue of their unfamiliar perspective: we are looking behind the staging, where no one is (or should be) looking, seeing a location once everyone is gone, the seats empty—even if not we do not see the cameras themselves. Objects thus presents us not only with the quotidian images that constitute our world, but also with the pressing question of how these objects are transformed into images.
The first image entails a signature Oppenheimer gesture: tracing the situatedness—perhaps, even more precisely, the “fallenness”—of aesthetic abstraction, alluded to in the title of The Washington Color Field School and central to another work, Mason Dixon Lines. But this image goes further, synthesizing image and text, as Crovello’s Curved Cube, originally publicly commissioned, now bears a corporate inscription; the falleness of this abstraction results from its status as public art descending into the clutches of a commercial logo. The following image, however, of police escorting children away from a besieged Jewish Center, the first instance of text/image juxtaposition properly speaking, reverses this process. While the two quotes from two different interviews present reflections on abstract “systems” of political organization, the image presents a spontaneous and almost playful social organization that, unforeseeably, results from a politico-theologically motivated attack. Each juxtaposition of image and text reveals the unacknowledged suppositions concerning politics and its theatricality: the fantasy of social “crystallization” opposed to the limousine’s promise of individualist fragmentation (in turn ironized by the fact that it is a rental); the “enveloping environment” set against the catastrophic mishandling and racism surrounding the post-Katrina Superdome; the death drive of the “mesmerizingly” beautiful image belied by the prosaic U.N. prefabricated housing; the absent “feminine” masses; and most significantly, the fact that the political theater’s curtain is “not an earthquake-proof structure.” The final image, like the first, finds the text superimposed on the image. This time, however, it results from the image’s object quality, the spectral text of the verso headlines, marking another kind of material substrate underlying the image.
In the final instance, Objects poses the question not only of the material conditions for producing object-images, but also of the manner in which staged images function to construct the res publica or, quite literally, the shared political “thing.” Oppenheimer’s artwork thereby collapses Benjamin’s distinction between political art and aesthetic politics, proposing instead a politically inflected art of political aesthetics. We are all inheritors of the political theater and there is— or never was— any going back. But whereas we are tempted most of the time to forget about the theatricality of our politics, here we are challenged to forge a new political vision— one adequate to the politics of theatricality.