Conceptual Cluster 02

by asahelenastjerna

    Disagreement and Agonism

Chantal Mouffe poses in her paper ”Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces” one of the most crucial issues on the condition of contemporary art practices of today:

”Can artistic practises play a critical role in a society where the difference between art and advertising have become blurred and where artists and cultural workers have become a necessary part of capitalist production.” (Mouffe 2004 p. 01)

The essence of Mouffe’s issues concerns the possibility and capability of revitalizing the political power of contemporary art closely connected to the realm of public space. Instead of artistic practises as part of a capitalistic system, she emphasizes arts role in terms of actively questioning  the prevailing capitalistic value system that controls the society. Mouffe builds on a political ethos rooted in the idea of agonism closely associated with the French philosopher Jacques Rancière’s ideas on disagreement. Disagreement questions the idea of “the common” in terms of consensus as this is based on a political model of representation of political interests (for instance groups of people) in which the political subjects of representation themselves have been excluded. Dissensus thus questions the idea if ​​a society in which democracy is built around a common consensus to even be democratic in its nature. “Consensus means erasing the contestatory conflictual nature of the very givens of common life” (Rancière 2004 p. 07)

As the society’s political ethos is always mediated and materialised through the construction and notion of public space, a fundamental question regarding contemporary art – related to issues of the public space – is thus how art can reformulate our relationship to public space. While the notion of public space according to consensus, operates in terms of the platform where consensus takes place and is manifested, the agonistic approach of the public space is “always plural and the agonistic confrontation takes place in a multiplicity of discursive surfaces” (Mouffe p. 03) Thus an artistic activism according to Mouffe, rooted in agonism “…makes visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate.” (Mouffe p. 04) Art as an opportunity to undermine the present power system through the production of alternatives.

Translated into practice – after having read Mouffe’s text – it however appears obvious that Mouffes spectrum for what could be labelled artistic activism is not just an issue of politics and space but also time. Or maybe better expressed: duration. The situated art Mouffe refers to in terms of artistic activism, refers to the temporary and often volatile, in which political actions in most of the cases become synonymous with the ephemeral and the instantaneous. From this I draw the conclusion that art, according to Mouffe, can not remain agonistic over time without being deterritorialized and decoded by the prevailing power structure(s). That thus public art in terms of permanent art can not be really political. Mouffe’s proposed artistic activism seems to appropriating the epithets “political”.

This is problematic, as according to my opinion, artistic heterogeneity implies an openness towards the fact that different artistic expressions operate differently in terms of levels of speed, intensities (fast or very slow) and duration (temporarily or permanent). The permanent artwork operates within another realm of duration and speed and intensity then the ephemeral, but this, does according to my opinion, does not make the first mentioned per see incapable of acting political.
The discussion on public art including so called permanent art, does for sure, continuously need to revitalize itself and its relation to power structures. How art continuously could remain producing meaningfulness, as an on-going active negotiation with a specific site in question. The critical art has an important role in this visualization of power structures, but I mean that it must be allowed operating from several realms and levels of speed, duration and intensities.

Reflexion based on

Jaques Rancière ‘Introducing Disagreement’, in Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, Vol. 9, No. 3, 2004, p. 3-9.

Chantal Mouffe ‘Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces’, in Art and Research, vol. 1, no. 2, Summer 2007.

Claire Bishop ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’ in October, vol. 110, Autumn 2004.