Art after ideology
In one of his well known essays, , Art After Philosophy, Joseph Kosuth presents several propositions regarding the function of art, arguing that it only has obligations to itself. He declares that, after Duchamp, the value of certain artists should “be weighed according to how much they questioned the nature of art; which is another way of saying ‘what they added to the conception of art’”. Let us recall that Duchamp refrained from ascribing “that sort of social role” to the artist, one through which the artist would feel “obligated to make something, where he owes himself to the public.” He confesses to “have a horror of such considerations.” Kosuth also quotes Ad Reinhardt: “The one thing to say about art is that it is one thing. Art is art-as-art and everything else is everything else. Art as art is nothing but art. Art is not what is not art.”
In contemporary art, which encompasses a variety of pratices, the topic of art’s autonomy was globally side-lined and/or instrumentalised by a certain segment of the art world — not always with the same reasons and according to the same purposes. Identity, multiculturalism, ethnicity, the body, self-representation, or nature are all topics that have progressively become hyper-visible being endorsed by many artists and curators as a sort of agenda. Such debates, which were fomented by the media and took on various theoretical and practical configurations, have become mostly prevalent since the second half of the 20th century. Since Baudelaire, who defined the modern artist in the following way, we know that artists belong to their time and live in their own time. We also know that art’s intervention is more or less mediated. Art has that ability to transform, or, rather, to bring about certain consequences — not only in its own realm but also in the social spheres that interact with it in varying degrees of intensity and complexity.
Can art emerge as a means for a critical take on multiculturalism, racism, identity, or the sexual body? Yes, it can. Can an artist who lives his own time and has a particular worldview — let us add one’s own life experience to the poet’s statement — turn his art practice into a mere linguistic and ideological message? Yes, he can.
Indeed, concepts derived from philosophy, politics, anthropology, and history, for instance, are presented in several artistic programmes as being unquestionably solid in terms of form and content. Their internal and constitutional pseudo validity seems irrefutable. “Freedom”, “equality”, “ethnicity”, “racism”, “justice”, “gender”, “sex”, “body”, and other similar words, convert their intrinsic multiplicity of meaning into a conceptual univocity. The pretense indisputability of ideology is thus expressed in a simplified statement subject to no prior examination, evading the mediation of a critical and theoretical analysis.
The instrumentalisation of the afore-mentioned signifiers is common in the art world. This reduction of the worldview into one that inconspicuously determines and enforces a certain meaning into circulation can lead to the formal and conceptual impoverishment of the so-called artistic project. Apropos of his father’s death in Auschwitz, Tadeusz Kantor wrote that he was never interested in a naturalistic depiction of death, but rather in its theatricalisation or, in other words, in the possibility of rendering an autobiographical fact through art.
In his sharp criticism of the efficacy of neoliberal language, Pierre Bourdieu states that concepts such as flexibility,mondialization, exclusion, new economy, ethnicity, minority, identity, and fragmentation have become a sort of official model of symbolic imperialism on a global scale:
Like ethnic or gender domination, cultural imperialism is a form of symbolic violence that relies on a relationship of constrained communication to extort submission. In the case at hand, its particularity consists in universalizing the particularisms bound up with a singular historical experience by making them misrecognized as such and recognized as universal.
Situating many of these debates, and their significance, in the locus of prestige where they are placed, Bourdieu radically criticises the international circulation of such a “vulgate” or “lingua franca”, as the sociologist calls it. While concealing the historical origins of a set of topics, their meanings, and the conditions under which they emerged, the efficacy of the free market celebrates the acknowledgement of identities by endowing them with a sociological, political, or philosophical form, depending on the context and audience. Bourdieu remarks that, by subtracting the variety of topics from geographical specificity and historical singularity, the post-Fordist and post-Keynesian American society is strategically turned into a model. The same can be said about the debate on multiculturalism, a term that, according to the author, was adopted in Europe in order to designate the cultural pluralism in the civic sphere. In the United States, such a concept simultaneously includes and conceals the constant exclusion of Black people and the crisis of the myth of the “American dream” — which intensifies as the public education system and the struggles for cultural capital aggravate class inequality:
The locution “multicultural” conceals this crisis by artificially restricting it to the university microcosm and by expressing it on an ostensibly “ethnic” register, when what is really at stake is not the incorporation of marginalized cultures in the academic canon but access to the instruments of (re)production of the middle and upper classes, chief among them the university, in the context of active and massive disengagement by the state.
Art and ideology are not far-removed categories. This “symbolic maîtrise”, as Bourdieu called ideology, is a social practice with inclusive and cohesive functions. When art becomes an ideological apparatus and materialises the dominant culture, it also turns into a tool at the service of symbolic reproduction. With art being a social practice, it often acquires an ideological superiority disguised as an objective truth.
As Theodor Adorno stated:
The more brazenly society is transformed into a totality in which it assigns everything, including art, to its place, the more completely does art polarize into ideology and protest; and this polarization is hardly to art’s advantage. Absolute protest constrains it and carries over to its own raison d'être; ideology thins out to an impoverished and authoritarian copy of reality.
Just as Gilles Deleuze believed that the intellectual, the party, or the union no longer embodied a consciousness representing all active agents, we find no reasons for the artist to reclaim the right to becoming some enlightened higher entity for the masses. We have long discarded the figure of the intellectual taking the task of emancipating others:
In the most recent upheaval, the intellectual discovered that the masses no longer need him to gain knowledge: they know perfectly well … and they are certainly capable of expressing themselves. But there is a system of power which blocks, prohibits, and invalidates this discourse and this knowledge, a power not only found in the manifest authority of censorship... Intellectuals are themselves agents of this system of power — the idea of their responsibility for “consciousness” and discourse forms part of the system. The intellectual’s role is no longer to place himself “somewhat ahead and to the side” in order to express the stifled truth of the collectivity; rather, it is to struggle against the forms of power that transform him into its object and instrument in the sphere of “knowledge”, “truth”, “consciousness”, and “discourse”. In this sense theory does not express, translate, or serve to apply practice: it is practice. But it is local and regional … and not totalizing. This is a struggle against power, a struggle aimed at revealing and undermining power where it is most invisible and insidious. It is not to “awaken consciousness” that we struggle (the masses have been aware for some time that consciousness is a form of knowledge…), but to sap power, to take power; it is an activity conducted alongside those who struggle for power, and not their illumination from a safe distance. A “theory” is the regional system of this struggle.
If agents are manifold, no place of speech can authoritatively take The place of truth or become an agent of consciousnesswithout running the risk of turning into a totalitarian entity. “Thought itself is sometimes closer to an animal that dies than to a living, even democratic, human being“,  cautioned Deleuze..
We cannot overlook some artists’ use of that same place of speech as a tool that allows them to reproduce the dominant values of the sphere — the art market specifically — at a given moment in its history in order to acquire in it symbolic capital. Well, those who are supposed to be spoken to end up being magnificently erased, as the place of speech is transferred to big biennials, museums, and art fairs, thus drawing closer to the struggles for the monopoly of ideological power. Let’s take Harald Szeemann’s visit to Porto in the context of the European Capital of Culture in 2001 as an example. After a visit to the First Story exhibition, curated by Ute Meta Bauer and held at Galeria do Palácio, Szeemann stated in an interview for the newspaper Público that: “the most important thing is the artwork, no matter who made it. There are, of course, special topics: the map of the right to abortion … is important, it is something to fight for, but it is mostly a social issue. An exhibition of this nature should be held at the city council, not in a museum”. Art, like certain discourses, does not simply expresses the struggles and the systems of domination, but rather what we fight for and what we fight with — the power we want to acquire. Each one of us carries the catastrophe.
Art for art’s sake, as defined in the 19th century — in contrast to a social conception of art that is not to be confused with an ideologic practice of art — seems an outdated and conceptually unproductive categorization that has been put into question by the complexity of the artworks produced over the last few decades. Their critical plurality brings them closer to an aporetic role, in the Derridean sense of the term. Aporos, without exit or passageway, derives from pre-Socratic philosophers, but it acquires a different meaning in Derrida  it means an experience of the impossible, a non-passageway, a necessary condition for the possibility of thought, rejecting a prior law that justifies a priori a subsequent law or truth. If, on the one hand, only what is impossible happens, on the other it is that very impossibility of recognition that constitutes the condition for recognition and possibility of aporia. It is not a matter of paralysis, but rather of preventing thought from becoming tied to a compromise and a sovereignty of truth. To conceive of experience itself as an experience of aporia — that is the adventure formulated by Derrida.
It is in such a traversal journey without indivisible border, as Derrida wrote, that we believe art after ideology being possible. To place art inextricably as both a practice and an object of thought, in a continuous and endless post scriptum; to unsettle; to be able to continue. To still be able to think beyond itself, as Heidegger argued. Is that not the condition of art and thought?
— This essay was prompted by two events: the controversy surrounding the selection made by the jury (who was elected by the Ministry of Culture/Directorate General for the Arts) to officially represent Portugal at the 59th International Art Exhibition — La Biennale di Venezia 2022; and the Post Scriptum conference, presented as part of the Doctorate course in Contemporary Art from Colégio das Artes, University of Coimbra, on 17 December 2021.
Translation: Diogo Montenegro.
Image: Hans Haacke, All Connected, 2019-2020. Exhibition view at New Museum, New York. © Hans Haacke. Artists Rights Society (ARS). New York. Photo: Dario Lasagni.
 Joseph Kosuth — “Art After Philosophy”, in https://theoria.art-zoo.com/art-after-philosophy-joseph-kosuth/ (accessed 14/01/2022).
 Pierre Cabanne — Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp. Boston: Da Capo Press, 2009, p.81.
 Pierre Bourdieu — “The New Planetary Vulgate”, in (accessed 14/01/2022). See also Pierre Bourdieu — Seis artículos de Pierre Bourdieu publicados en le Monde Diplomatique (Cuatro inéditos en Chile). Santiago-Chile: Editorial Aún Creemos en los Suenos, 2002, p. 42.
 “…they are everywhere powerfully relayed by supposedly neutral agencies ranging from major international organizations (the World Bank, … European Commission and OECD), conservative think-tanks (the Manhattan Institute in New York City, the Adam Smith Institute in London … and the Deutsche Bank Foundation in Frankfurt) and philanthropic foundations, to the schools of power (Science-Po in France, the London School of Economics in England, Harvardʼs Kennedy School of Government in America, etc.).”
 Theodor Adorno — Aesthetic Theory. New York: Continuum, 1997, p. 234.
 Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze — “Intellectuals and Power”, in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977, pp. 207-208.
 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari — What is Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, p. 108.
 Harald Szeemann — “Quando as atitudes se tornam histórias”. Interview led by Óscar Faria. Jornal Público, 27 October, 2001.