Nicholas Gamso, “Art After Liberalism”

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams is an artist, critic and poet, based in the UK. He writes art criticism for The Critic, Standpoint, Apollo, Burlington Magazine, Print Quarterly, Printmaking Today, The Jackdaw and other publications. He publishes articles on censorship and free speech, as well as book reviews, on Spiked-Online.

“It is increasingly clear that these common-place liberal conceptions have failed to improve life in any lasting way. In fact, they conceal fundamental connections to enslavement, conscription, colonization, moral debt, and ecological devastation. Now we must decide what comes after.”

So announces author and academic Nicholas Gamso, on the back cover of his book Art after Liberalism. From the outset, it is clear that Gamso takes a far-left position, namely that liberalist democracies are playgrounds for capitalists. This position is not too dissimilar to that of the reactionary right, namely that liberalist democracies are playgrounds for corporatists – but that corporatists owe their success not to capitalism but to cronyism and the state-corporatist complex. As James Burnham explains, capitalism is actually a system that decentralises, diffuses and undermines central direction; corporatism relies on lawmakers and civil servants forming stable networks of power and money, with service providers (acting on behalf of the state) exerting control over society at multiple levels.

Gamso suggests that artivism is one route to social justice. “How to wrest control of institutions, to redistribute their resources, or to leave them behind? How to decolonize museums, repatriating their fortunes and recovering the land beneath them? By marshaling the transformative capacities of art and aesthetics, by refusing neoliberal professionalization, by joining with social movements, by creating political community – by living in the world, in short, and not outside of it.” As I explain in my forthcoming book Artivism, social activists are already aided by institutions and already have allies high up in organisations, ones who are rapidly converting art-historical bodies into political centres. Now, whether these allies intend to follow through with activist talk or whether they are simply co-opting activists remains to be seen. However, Gamso takes the usual line that institutions are opposed to radical change, contrary to what I see as the truth – that the elite caste which runs these institutions uses radicals as a vanguard for its progressivist values, which the elite holds in opposition to the majority population.  

Gamso cites examples of curators proposing ways of undermining tradition. “In laying bare the colonial origins of modern museums, and thus framing culture and creativity as historical ideas grounded in European supremacism, such recursive curatorial practices highlight and challenge the frames of complicity (genocide, colonialism, and patriarchy) that subsequent modes of collective cultural work can more fully dismantle.” We might frame this argument as, “You only got what you have because you used unfair methods, so we deserve to take it back.” This sounds a variant of political arguments used to justify appropriation of property in socialist and nationalist revolutions. Rather than a rational argument, this seems to be a backward justification: we resent your power and ownership of resources and wish to deprive you of both; we legitimise our position retrospectively by an appeal to fairness. It is exactly the advances that activists have made that demonstrate how institutions agree with activists’ principles.

Gramscian tactics of occupying all fields and refusing to allow exceptions is invoked. “No image shown in a museum, no pursuit of representation, can exist irrespective of these origins. A politics is always at play.” Gamso notes that institutions are part of the political landscape, not separate from it. Museums are complicit in producing “harrowing” conditions, through their share portfolios; therefore they are legitimate targets. By extension, anyone existing in the world today – who consumes fossil fuels, has a bank account, eats farmed meat, uses electronics made in China, has a pension fund – is also a target. Gamso’s logic applies to himself and his fellow activists. Every ethical individual is enmeshed in a system that is unfair, but then every system is unfair in its own ways. No society, however primitive, does not assign superior and inferior roles within its structures; each has its outcasts. Likewise, no society does not take advantage of the deficiencies of neighbouring trading partners or weaknesses of vulnerable occupiers of nearby territory.  

Gamso takes artivism made on behalf of migrants – he does not distinguish between economic migrants and refugees, strategically one must assume – and details different projects. #NotABugSplat (2014), organised by Pakistani artists, displayed a giant photograph of a girl who had apparently lost family members to an American drone strike. Less benign interventions were undertaken during the height of the European migration crisis of 2015 onwards. “[…] other artists have turned to satellite technologies in order to lend practical and legal support to migrating populations. Targeted projects like the cell phone app Transborder Immigrant Tool, conceived by the cyber-activist-artist collective Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT), combine GPS with performance interventions to contest sovereign border regimes.”

Gamso writes of indigenous European populations resisting mass migration in unsupportive terms; yet, when he writes of Western intervention in Asian and African countries, he is scathing about colonialist interference. What distinguishes the values and right of self-determination of a Western nation from those of a non-Western nation? The social cost to, and suffering of, native Europeans caused by the process of mass migration is downplayed.

There is a chapter on Forensic Architecture’s activities documenting the action by Israeli security forces against Palestinian protestors. Triple-Chaser (2021) is a film about the use of crowd-dispersal material manufactured by American company Safariland, which was deployed against on protestors. This is cited as an example of documentary social practice. One is left with information that does indicate clearly what happened in political terms. “The act of “reporters, activists, inhabitants of Palestine and Ferguson [Missouri, 2014] picking up empty tear gas cannisters with their hands and looking for a corporate logo” was a collaborative form of reconstructive world-making at a global scale with a large number of participants.” And what about same tear gas used against the gilets jaunes in Paris and the anti-lockdown protestors in Victoria, Australia? Do social documentarians treat all protestors even-handedly or do they display implicit support for corporation-aided state violence against acceptable targets?

German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans (b. 1968) is given as an example of artist-as-citizen-of-the-world. “For three decades, the photographer Wolfgang Tillmans has personified a prevailing liberal ideal: free movement across national boundaries at the pace of creative innovation. He describes himself as a “product of the European post-war history of reconciliation, peace, and exchange,” having lived and worked between Germany and the UK for his entire career. Tillmans’s early work documents the casual social observances that sustained his own life and the lives of his friends and romantic companions as they shuttled between Berlin, London, Barcelona, and the Canary Islands. His photographs and curatorial projects  visualized public culture, not in cafés and town squares but in postmodern spaces like clubs, alpine cabins, and gay bars.” Tillmans is the archetypal cosmopolitan globalist, unrooted from nation and people, flitting between nodes of universal world culture, surrounded by likeminded “anywheres”. Unsurprisingly, Tillmans was strongly against Brexit and produced posters urging British people to vote to remain in the EU.

Gamos blithely writes of Tillmans’s allegiance to a global civil society. Can’t Gamos see disadvantages to this set of values? So critical of American neo-liberal intervention abroad, can Gamos not recognise that a creed of a global civil society being applied across all peoples might be considered colonisation? What about the unrooted globalist elite not being held responsible for the cultural erosion it not only produces but imposes on poorer people? All of which leaves us to wonder, why is Tillmans – white Western capitalist that he is – not an international exploiter? Why is his share portfolio blameless and his jet-setting carbon footprint insignificant?

Paul Chan (b. 1973) is cited as another artivist who has addressed social issues through animation and performance on geo-political issues. One of his sculptures (Pentasophia (2006)) consists of simple nylon-sheet-forms, which act as animated personages by fluttering over fans. This seems like a creative piece with potentially aesthetic qualities and merit, which makes it stand out in this book. In another chapter, dissident Chinese contemporary art is discussed. Tania Bruguera and others are considered in relation to oppositional activism in Cuba. It is better to pass over without comment a chapter discussing Basquiat, which makes claims of disproportionate suffering of black Americans, except to note that Gamos does not provide a single statistical source for claims of systemic injustice. Gamos does not expect to be called to account by reviewers, just as few will question the motives of Black Lives Matter, the activities of which Gamos seems to regard as incontestably beneficial. Likewise, Gamos does not appear to consider that artivism may have potentially disastrous consequences for public fine-art funding, which relies on consensus.

Art after Liberalism concludes with a transcription of a discussion between Gamso and Nitasha Dhillon and Amin Husain, two activists who have disrupted museums in New York for political purposes. Art after Liberalism does not present a united thesis or plan of action, which might have been inferred from the rousing introduction and cover text. Instead, the author assesses different strategies and figures within the artivism movement, with some of the texts having appeared previously elsewhere. In that role, the book does a good job of summarising trends and describing intentions of social documentarians working in the art field, with a useful range of photographs. Overall, this book would of use to students and academics researching artivism and politically driven art in the current century.  

Nicholas Gamso, Art after Liberalism, Columbia Books on Architecture and the City/Columbia University Press, March 2022, paperback, 232pp, col./mono illus., ISBN 978 1 941 33 2689, $20/£14.99  

© 2022 Alexander Adams

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