Until fairly recently it was widely accepted that art practices could exist only in an attenuated relation with politics at large. It is only because of the door (inadvertently) opened by Minimalism that we can speak of “relational aesthetics,” or immediately political work. The high point of constructivism has regressed into “dialogical art,” to use Grant Kester’s term. This is the art historical trajectory of our time: art becomes embedded within that which it aims to critique and therefore devolves into liberalism, politically castrating itself and relinquishing all possibility for radical positioning.
The core of this issue is that of the difference between an art that provides answers (liberal art) and an art that provokes questioning (radical art). Whereas El Lissitzky’s work, for example, perpetually poses problematics (What does it mean to create a purely abstract picture in a revolutionary moment? How can abstraction motor political emancipation? What are the plastic means by which theory can become practice?)—Liberal art, as it is manifest in dialogical practice, provides only simple solutions to complex questions. Problems that are therefore effects (not causes) of a particular political circumstance are consequently treated as more significant than they actually are. Specific symptoms are treated, and band-aids are applied to small wounds which constitute a larger trauma. Local questions get local answers. Radical art does not preoccupy itself with such simplicities. A politically (and aesthetically) radical art, rather, is interested in the broader context in which these problems manifest. This broader context is invariably capital.
It is only through confrontation that art can engage capital. Dialogical art will have none of that; it is set on providing a space outside of capital in which a temporary freedom from alienation can be achieved. This simplistic answer to the historical problems of our time is pure farce. In fact, relational practice brings to bear ever more fully the unavoidability of capital. Escapism is by no means radical.
If dialogical art is content to provide one-off solutions, supposedly solving a problem in such a way that it does not have to be revisited, radical art will be returned to again and again. It is an art that poses engaging questions that cannot be solved through action. It asks, fundamentally, what are the plastic (not political) means by which art can engage its context of creation? There is never a one-to-one correspondence between these two poles; art is not an illustration of a particular reality. It does not comment on it directly. This is the failure of dialogical art: it attempts to directly intervene, to create a space in the midst of capital that is exterior to its alienating affects. But, the reality of capital is its omnipotence. That dialogical art believes in the possibility of this fictive space is its most serious failure and symptom itself.
Rather, challenging art (an art that opens up questions) will direct its focus on itself first and foremost. Its problems will be the problems of art and art alone. These problems are and always will be situated within a particular political context. But the relations between the context and the object can only be mediated through the questions raised by the formal makeup of the work itself.
This is in fact one of the key differences between the radical art of a modern period theoretically and historically undigested and the moment we currently inhabit. While the latter’s cultural production strives for direct action, collapsing into the politics of what it aims to critique, the former recognized and maintained its relative autonomy, thereby recognizing art as the “absolute commodity,” as having only pure exchange value. Here, art is the plastic illusion that critiques a central fantasy of capital: the fetishization of the commodity.
That art can be critical only through a relative distance is now a lost point, consumed by a fog of post-everything theoreticism. A relevant aesthetic theory can only be recovered (or reformulated) through a critical reappraisal of history. Much of the rejection of modernist “autonomy” (which was always only a relative autonomy) lacks a true historical and formal critique of what it takes aim at. An inability to work through the lessons and history of modernism catalyzes our schizophrenic contemporary cultural moment. That relational aesthetics as “progressive” political practice has been adopted uncritically into many art school syllabi points to this reality. This amounts to a wholesale rejection of abstraction in favor of the conservative political and aesthetic naturalism that is ultimately what relational aesthetics engenders. It is an attempt to dismantle the grand narrative in favor of a more narrow program of historical naturalism. It is not mere coincidence that Stalinist politics rejected the abstraction of Constructivism in favor of a more local socialist realism. The failures of art mirror the failures of the emancipatory potential of the political left.
Yve-Alain Bois is accurate in his diagnosis that we need to be cured as much of the melancholic romanticization of a period now lost as we do of the manic declaration that painting (artmaking) is dead. To do so means to take up the task of understanding modernism’s legacy, “working through the end again, rather than evading it through increasingly elaborate mechanisms of defense.”
The only way to engage this process is to take seriously the idea that modernism’s history is one of specifically situated and constructed objects. As a result, art history requires expertise of a particular kind. Understanding modernist art’s emphasis on the mediated relation between art and culture requires that one understand how art objects of the period question society in specific ways. It requires close reading and patience.
This is why it’s important to always discuss works of art within their particular art historical contexts. For the present purpose, any number of modern painters or sculptors situated within their political and historical period—David and the French Revolution, Courbet and the Paris Commune, Tatlin and Bolsehvism—could serve as fine vehicles to prove the criticality of art practices now entombed beneath social practice. But Piet Mondrian would be a more curious case. Unlike the aforementioned artists, he himself was never interested in immediate politics. He held membership in no political party. He voiced no distinct political opinion. And this is precisely the point—he was a painter, not a political philosopher. He understood that his role was to take up the tasks and problems of art and art alone. As an avant-gardist, he was intuitively aware that art’s critique of the world in which it existed could only be upheld while it remained relatively separate from that world, questioning it only through the formal means of the picture plane. The relations between his painting and culture and politics in the larger field are thus particularly complex and revealing of the kind of shrewdness that was once possible yet is no more.
And despite the formalism of his canvases, he does betray—indeed through the very works themselves—an interest in culture at large. Much of his work, beginning as early at 1912, was engaged in a dialogue with contemporaneous developments in music. He was a fan of the compositions of Jakob von Domselaer and Daniel Ruyneman, as well as the futurist noise music of Luigi Russolo, although he would soon discover the aesthetic limitations of their work. Ruyneman was unable to successfully integrate dialectical rhythm into his work, while Domselaer and Russolo were developing music whose aesthetic principles had already been discovered in neo-plastic painting. Flatly, all of these composers had trouble developing “the new.” No wonder Mondrian felt that painting was to lead aesthetic evolution, teaching the other arts all of its lessons so that they would also fully develop. It’s a curious thing that 28 years later Clement Greenberg would argue that music was the “paragon” of art making—that it was music’s method that avant-garde painting would follow on its path to abstraction. For all his insight, Greenberg wasn’t always adept at understanding the relations between art and culture. No puzzlement, then, about his opinion that jazz was simply a diversion for our Dutch painter.
But Mondrian soon realized that painting could not develop if it did not look outside of itself. Indeed, painting was becoming too self contained. A picture like 1921’a Lozenge Composition with Yellow, Black, Blue, Red, and Grey points to this. The dialectically engaged vertical and horizontal lines of the canvas are placed in such a manner so that they do not reach the edge of the canvas. This picture is decidedly not a section of a pre-existing map whose grid extended beyond the pre-defined size of the canvas into the rest of the world. It is entirely self-determined.
Mondrian locates this problem in music before he locates it in his own canvases. Avant-garde music’s limitation—specifically in reference to Russolo, who Mondrian considered the most advanced composer of the later 1910s—was that the compositions were, in Mondrian’s terms, “too pre-occupied with art.” They were unable to engage the rest of culture in a meaningful way. They were too autonomous. They therefore failed to allow for a type of spontaneity of dialogue that Mondrian realized would propel art to new discoveries. The ultimate failure of Russolo’s noise machines was that they “merely show[ed] the old…in a new guise.”
For Mondrian, “the old” was always tied to a type of conservative naturalism. Radicality was to free itself from a direct association with the outside world. Issues exterior to the specifics of painting would have to be brought into the fold only indirectly, only through a posing of particular problematics. If the question prior to 1921—how is painting to lead music?—became exhausted, then neo-plasticism’s impasse stemmed from the inability to formulate its next relevant inquiry. The solution, that is, the means to pose the next relevant question, was to be found in a reversal of terms. If painting had become too insulated, then perhaps it was time for it to learn something of its own. If self-reflectivity didn’t help, then perhaps a glance at the world outside of painting would help. The seeds, happily enough for Mondrian, were sown in a 1921 essay on Russolo’s noise machines: the answer was a turn to jazz.
It didn’t hurt that Mondrian lived in the cultural center of 1920s Paris, Montparnasse, where people “celebrated, rather than lamented cosmopolitanism and exoticism in all its forms, especially in jazz bands.” It exposed him to Paul Whiteman (who only briefly held the painter’s interest) but more importantly to Louis Armstrong, in whose work Mondrian found the proper dialectical relation between structure and improvisation that he had been seeking in painting. As Mondrian proudly observed, jazz allowed spontaneity to reveal itself. The next question became wholly clear to Mondrian: How could a dialectical tension be pushed to its absolute plastic limit? How could it be led to the brink of collapse? What did jazz have to show painting in this regard? What did this mean for neo-plasticism’s relation to the rest of culture?
But only the pictures can tell the whole story. Two states of his Lozenge Composition from 1924 and 1925 reveal how much Mondrian was able to engage these tantalizing new questions. If the 1924 state, wherein the vertical line farthest to the right does not reach the bottom edge of the canvas, betrays reservation about neo-plasticism reaching beyond itself, the 1925 state boldly declares autonomous painting as a motor that propels, along with jazz, the development of history. The stretcher and the frame are replaced and all the lines are thickened, but most importantly, that reluctant line has met the edge of the canvas. The picture was worth (re)completing in such a way as to allow it grab hold of the adjacent wall. This process of becoming only became possible through mediation, through jazz, through painting, through a questioning of the role of art within culture. Neo-plasticism was finally fully a part of the world, ready to engage its next set of problematics.
What do jazz and painting have to do with politics? More specifically, what did Mondrian’s assimilation of jazz into his neo-plasticism mean about the contemporaneous political reality? Nothing direct. “Art must make its own way and by its own means.” The point is that Mondrian never painted jazz as politics, which would have indeed been a much simpler task. Rather, he was able to adopt jazz forms as a model, as Harry Cooper puts it, for his abstraction. He was able to perceive in the forms of jazz an advance in aesthetic development and to develop an approach to integrating and transforming those in such a way as to make them useful for the questions of painting. There is no use of jazz or painting to direct political ends, for, as Mondrian the radical utopian was keenly aware, this would mean obscuring the questions of these specific practices.
Needless to say, Mondrian’s moment is at a far remove from contemporary practice. When in 1994 the Austrian art collective WochenKlausur staged “floating dialogues” on Lake Zurich to bring together members of the community in order to discuss the issue of drug addicts who turned to prostitution to support their habits, they collapsed art into a sphere in which it has little purpose: social work. The issue isn’t that nothing was done—in fact, the discussions led to the creation of safe houses for the sex workers—but that the goals of art become lost in liberal political endeavor. If radical art poses questions and provokes a discussion regarding the role of art within a cultural and political landscape through an indirect critique (as Adorno makes clear), liberal art is content to provide band-aid solutions that treat symptoms but not causes. It is satisfied to address the local through a regressive naturalism. Bad art (such as that of WochenKlausur, which has no real interest in the questions of art) is simply a mask for bad politics.
But all is never lost. Even in the most dismal of times, there has been a beacon of light: the hope for a conscious reappraisal of history. Only through an active and engaged recognition of the triumphs and failures of past actors can we complete the difficult task of mourning and move on to new plateaus. If art was once energetically and purposefully critical, once innovative, and once progressive, we must learn its lessons in order to overcome its loss. But a gap now separates that time and our current one. The space is that between between art pour l’art and art as soft social practice. To historically locate and actively bridge the divide is the burden we carry. •