Postsocialist Art against Democracy
352 pp., 7 x 9 in, 58 color illus., 32 b&w illus.
- Published: March 13, 2015
Mapping contemporary artists who reject the aesthetics of democratization (and its neoliberal associations) in order to explore alternative politics and practices.
From biennials and installations to participatory practices, contemporary art has come to embrace an aesthetic of democratization. Art's capacity for democracy building now defines its contemporary relevance, part of a broader, global glorification of democracy as, it seems, the only legitimate model of politics. Yet numerous artists reject the alignment of art and democracy—in part because democracy has been associated not only with utopian political visions but also with neoliberal incursions and military interventions. It is just this paradox of democracy that Anthony Gardner explores in Politically Unbecoming, examining work from the 1980s to the 2000s by artists who have challenged democracy as the defining political, critical, and aesthetic frame for their work. In doing so, these artists also develop alternative artistic politics and practices that can remap the transformations in art and its politics since the end of the Cold War.
The artists whose work Gardner examines all spent their formative years in Eastern or Western Europe, developing “postsocialist” practices in the wake of socialism's eclipse by neoliberalism (and inspired by nonconformist art from socialist-era Europe). All of these artists—who include Ilya Kabakov, the art collective NSK, and Thomas Hirschhorn—depend on participation between audience and artwork; yet for them, participation does not exemplify democratization but rather offers critical engagement with certain tropes of democracy.
These artists, Gardner argues, enact an aesthetic that is “politically unbecoming” in two senses: in its withdrawal from overdetermined political categories of contemporary art; and in its perceived indecency in defying the “propriety” of democracy.
Life under conditions of real socialism was a great school of distrust. In his book Politically Unbecoming, Anthony Gardner describes how postcommunist artists have tried to infect their Western audiences with this general distrust—this time directed against liberalism and democracy. Gardner's book is a good introduction into the rarely told story of the postsocialist disillusionment not only in the former East but also in the 'democratic' West.
Boris Groys, Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies, New York University
Anthony Gardner has accomplished through art history and criticism a feat that few political theorists have even attempted: describing, contesting, and charting a way through the totalizing presumption that there is no alternative to democracy. Documenting the ways postsocialist artists resist art's implication in the production of democracy's 'excuse value,' he pinpoints the paradox of a democracy rendered as both conviviality and disruption. This is a gorgeous, important book.
Jodi Dean, Donald R. Harter '39 Professor of the Humanities and Social Sciences, Hobart and William Smith Colleges; author of The Communist Horizon
Since the mid-twentieth century, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, the 'aestheticization of politics' and 'politicization of art' have been critical problems for artists. They first became acute in relation to the authoritarian mass politics of fascism and Stalinist communism. Anthony Gardner's Politically Unbecoming, however, explores their persistence in a new, surprising context: following the late-twentieth-century collapse of mass utopias and the putative triumph of democratic ideals worldwide. Gardner has given us a thought-provoking, unsettling, and richly suggestive book spanning art criticism and new political thought.
Tyrus Miller, Professor of Literature, University of California, Santa Cruz
This is an extremely provocative book dealing with a very strange situation where (in East-Central Europe) and when (at the beginning of the new century) artists, critics, and curators seem to have given up their belief in democracy as well as their interest in political and ideological power.
László Beke, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Art History, Research Centre for the Humanities, Hungarian Academy of Sciences
Anthony Gardner in his impressive new book … shows how 'democracy' emerged in the years following the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union as a universalising term around which politics of both radical and conservative hues coalesced and found succour.… The strength of Gardner's work lies in his ability to chart the empirical actualities of history along with the co-determining movements of theory and the effects of both on artistic production.