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John Roberts:
Home"truths"

Bank, Wish you were hereImage 1
Context
This Text was in reply to Stewart Home's article The Art of Chauvinism in Britain and France [e issue 19]. Apart from correcting the misreadings that Roberts believes are contained within that piece, Roberts also elaborates on some of the ideas he proposed in Mad For It! (particularly the notion of the "philistine" and the engagement by some contemporary artists with "the everyday").

1 John Roberts
Mad For It!
everything 18
and Stewart Home
The Art of Chauvenism in Britain and France
everything 19

2 For and extended discussion of the "philistine" see
Dave Beech and John Roberts
Spectres of the Aesthetic
New Left Review
No 218 1996

3 Stewart Home
Pure Mania
Polygon 1989 p161

4 Roger Taylor
What did I do During Thatcherism? A Story of Redundancy, Unemployment Training and Enterprise
New Left Review
No 190

5 Theodor Adorno
Negative Dialectics
RKP 1973 p27

Image 1:
Bank
Wish You Were Here
1994

Stewart Home has never been known to be bashful. For this we should be thankful. A good sneer from Home at "aesthetics and art lovers" is worth many a thesis on the political economy of art. In fact sneering at the institutions of art is not a bad place to start an analysis of the relationship between art, knowledge and power. But Home is no dialectician, and as such cannot move his distaste for the bourgeois institutions of art out of the realm of ritual denunciation. The analysis of the conjunction of art, knowledge and power needs more than hyperbole and righteousness.

Like many positivists posing as radicals Home prefers to take a short-cut through the problems of art's class exclusions. In his reply to my defence of certain aspects of new British art, "The Art of Chauvinism in Britain and France"1, this takes a familiar form: the neo-populist critique of art as a pernicious act of class dominance. The ruling institutions of art are the cultural expression of the ruling class, hence working-class empowerment rests on a rejection of art as a set of professional (specialist) disputes and the advocacy of "content-led" popular practices and pleasures. Versions of this have been with us since Proletkultism; today, it has to be said, they are a bit thin on the ground on the left, but nonetheless it is safe to say that there are many who still carry a torch for an "art of the people". You only have to go and see the execrable permanent display organised by Julian Spalding for the Museum of Modern Art in Glasgow to realise that ministrations and representations of neo-populism are not dead. No doubt Home would balk at Spalding's view of the popular as much as myself, and no doubt he would object to me tainting him so glibly with the idea of an "art for the people", but even so, so much of his writing points in that direction.

As with populists of all shades of opinion he assumes that the social and cultural exclusions which underwrite the powerlessness and resentment of the non-specialist (working-class) spectator of art can be answered by the adoption of popular themes and contents. However, unpacking who is doing what to whom does not resolve the dilemmas which confront the production and distribution of art, whether you confront them from within the dominant institutions of art or outside of them. This is a basic premise of historical materialism and its defence of the necessity of art's autonomy and, therefore, not something forgotten lightly whether expressed in the name of art as "social critique" or the demythologization of the institutions of art. Thus it is utterly risible to assume, as Home appears to, that the CIA's involvement in the promotion of Abstract Expressionism in the 50s somehow "explains" the success of the art.

Yet for all Home's bluster about "bourgeois formal values" he is being disingenuous. For although he takes pride in announcing "art as an enemy of the people" he, at the same time, trades quite-nicely-thank-you on the anti-aesthetic frisson his sex and politics novels bring to contemporary literature. His novels may have a substantial non-literary readership, but are situated all the same very comfortably within a metropolitan literature of resistance that looks to both exploitation fiction and the bourgeois European novel of Ideas. The blurring of the cognitive boundaries of different forms and genres, and as such the destabilization of certain professional protocols that attach themselves to what passes as "good" or "advanced" art, is exactly what has been occurring in recent art, particularly in Britain. That Home avoids this, not only makes his argument appear completely adventitious, but reveals how little he has actually looked at the new British art. The very fact that he lumps Damien Hirst in with the newer work I discuss is indicative of this. But more of the new art in a moment.

Indeed, what Home produces in his article is the very suppression of the debate about art, power and knowledge in his own work by arrogantly divesting its continuity with some of the themes of the young British art. Take the concept of the "philistine"2, for example, which I discuss in passing in my article and which forms the theoretical basis of my defence of a number of the new British artists. Not only does Home fail to address this concept in any detail, but when he mentions it in passing he completely misunderstands the context in which I am using it. The idea that I am employing the concept of the "philistine" to "theorise yBa as a bulwark against criticisms of art made from a class perspective" is an exact reversal of my arguments. To acknowledge the pleasures of the philistine in the production and interpretation of art is to quite obviously defend the reality of art as a socially divided category. Even the most casual reader of my article would be hard pressed to think otherwise. However, I don't defend the fact of the existence of the philistine as the ideological truth of art. This is the mistake the followers of Bourdieu make. Bourdieu is right to examine cultural division in terms of cultural exclusion (in the terms of the exacting judgments of the philistine), but wrong to naturalise this perspective as if art had nothing to teach the philistine. Defending the pleasures of the philistine is not about giving permission to people to be insensitive and stupid, but about questioning the right of art to exist untouched by the realities of social division. None of this comes across in Home's exegesis, because he seems intent on reading me completely against the grain of my argument. But misreading is perhaps preferable to amnesia. For, if I make much of the notion of the "thinking philistine" in my article, he seems to have forgotten along the way that in his novel Pure Mania (1989), he has one of his characters, the writer Chickenfeed, expostulate on the merits of "cultivated philistinism"3. The context is obviously very different (anarcho-punk shenanigans) but Home's understanding of philistinism seems to be very selective.

But in a fundamental sense all these problems turn on Home's philosophical methodology. From the evidence of "The Art of Chauvinism" and his other writings on art, his materialist understanding of culture is crudely identitary. Art may be a source of social control - you would have to be a pretty insouciant idealist to think otherwise - but there is no straightforward picture of the mechanisms involved in the exercise of that control. That is, the cultural exclusions of art are meaningless unless related to specific practices, discourses, institutions and subject positions. The philistine's critique, therefore, is a highly differentiated one, insofar as the working-class male philistine is very different from the feminist philistine who judges art to devalue the experience of women. Art may exclude, but it excludes in many different ways and in many different circumstances. In Home this is all brushed aside in his rush to denounce young British art as part of an "evolving discourse of totalitarian art". In effect Home produces what all positivists produce: an eradication of the subject as agent. Art is no longer the convergence of practices, theories and audiences in critical constellation, but a subsumptive Hegelian structure-in-dominance. The result is that art is ripped out of the everyday as a realm of living and contested subjectivities.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Home favours Roger Taylor's Art, an Enemy of the People (1978). A book whose only idea about what art is, is that it is nasty and oppressive. Like Home his failure to address the relationship between art's bid for critical autonomy and subjectivity leaves him defending the most conformist of cultural positions in the name of freedom and working-class emancipation. Moreover, this suppression of the question of autonomy as mere "formalism" provides us with an instructive political lesson. Leaving philosophy and aesthetic debate behind in the 80s because of their perceived "impotence", Taylor became a management consultant bringing would-be Marxist notions of "collective responsibility" into the world of commerce4. This is very revealing, because it shows how easy it is for intellectuals to move into management and bureaucratic positions once the "formal" and "political" are separated out. Home's Hegelian concept of "totalitarian art" is bureaucratic in exactly this way.

Adorno of course remains the best guide to such compulsive anti-dialectics. As he puts it: thought has to "immerse itself in the phenomena on which it takes its stand", otherwise thought "extracts from its objects that which is thought already"5. Or, in other words, phenomena which are objectively preset for "totality" by the thinker fail to release the contradictions internal to the object. Thus, in his discussion of the young British art, Home chooses to project the most homogeneous national image of the new art over and above its material and theoretical determinates. Far from being a manifestation of fashionable journalism the new British art is the product of a generation coming to terms with the powerful protocols of the bureaucratization of art's own critique of itself in the 80s. The rise of critical postmodernism (Burgin, Haacke, Kelly, Sherman, Kruger etc.) as the official radical ideology of our period is not a "cardboard opponent", as the most cursory glance at artistic and academic institutions in the USA will reveal. A new generation of artists, then, have had to find new ways of being responsible critically in a world where the anti-institutional critique of art and the critique of identity are now academically predigested and acceptable strategies.

This is why the "dumbing-down" of much of the new art should not be mistaken for an avant-garde outmanoeuvring of what is taken to be advanced. Far from having any intellectual stake in the supercession of 80s critical postmodernism, the new art seeks to adjust the terms of engagement between critical theory and the art of the recent past. Thus, at one level, the new art shares with critical postmodernism by the view that the binary opposition between the avant-garde and popular culture is exhausted. But whereas the critical post modernists established their distance from modernism by incorporating popular representations and signs into art as a set of intellectual questions about the boundaries of art and popular pleasure, today this is no longer a viable concern for artists. This is because the increasing institutional success of the critique of modernism and the technological expansion of art beyond the confines of "painting" and "sculpture" has made the assimilation and transformation of popular representation and signs an academic issue. Thus it is no longer possible to make works that "deconstruct" modernism without recognising the expanded place art now occupies within the transformed technological framework of popular culture. This is what I meant by the increasing popular enculturization of art, its increasing entry into representational spaces of capitalist culture as "entertainment". Yet this does not mean that art is now identifiable with popular culture. But rather, that the claims for art's critical autonomy are now positional within the wider frame of popular culture as such, and not just "outside" in the domain of "fine art". Hence the significance of philistine forms of attention for the new art. For these forms of attention attempt to do justice to that wider world of everyday pleasures in which art moves and breathes. The most interesting of the new art, therefore, does not seek a convergence with "philistinism", but incorporates and reworks such pleasures as a means of drawing out the social divisions which produce "philistinism" in the first place.

Home's failure to register any of this is structured by his method of positive negation. As with the Situationists his distillation of Hegel's abstract universalism into a "totalising critique" of capitalist culture prevents him from looking at the crisis of art immanently. It is one thing to denounce the "bankruptcy of serious culture", it is another to do this and end up liquidating the subject and contradiction in the process.

© John Roberts 1996elogo

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