Retreat is a concept behind a series of works from 2006-ongoing, engaging the site of the political in art through ideas of both withdrawal and the micro-institution.

Retreat: the political in the politics of art was written as a catalogue essay for an exhibition "The Politics of Art" (Linden, Melbourne 2010) that located politics as a necessary interface of art's socialisation. My essay was concerned with questioning the politics of art through an engagement with the political as an act of retreat.

Retreat: the political in the politics of art

In a 1984 essay for the exhibition Australia: Nine Contemporary Artists, Paul Taylor described Australia as “a culture of temporary culture”. (“A Culture of Temporary Culture,” Art & Text #16, Summer, 1984/85, pp.95-106. The essay was originally commissioned for the exhibition Australia: Nine Contemporary Artists, as part of the Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival, sponsored by the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival.)

Taylor was writing of the cultural condition of Australia, a condition that he argued was purely the representation of cultural production—the representation of an “avant-garde” progressive culture, the popular imaginary of distance as the representational form of self-determination. This narrative representation of cultural production, supported by these alternatively modernist or tragic tropes, was a configuration open for re-presentation as either “conformism” or “occasional opposition” demanded. The engendering force of this culture of temporary culture was due to its “enormous and all-pervasive skills in setting up and dismantling its own cultural programs and its metaphors of cultural progress and aspiration according to their momentary efficacy.”

If Taylor’s argument was defining as to the relation of Australian art practice to its cultural conditions, it also proposed that these conditions were now shared by the rest of the western world in their post-structuralist loss of centre and their post-modern artificiality. The rest of the world had caught up to Australia in their apprehension of the void of difference and their embrace of the commerce of self-image. The essay concludes: “Cynicism about our stocks-in-trade is unqualifiably a major contributor to the best of this exhibition, as it is to Australian culture at large.”

Taylor was writing a catalogue essay—a task of bringing together certain terms of cultural practice. And, not only were these terms, as he described, open to a set of meaningless generalisations of Australian cultural identity(s) each canceling the other out, but the task of writing itself was subject to those same conditions of production: “Perspectives on our present and immediate future, in art, as in almost every other endeavour, are groundless, impermanent and self-consciously relative to a point of cultural paranoia.”

As a text, Taylor’s essay is a demonstration of the impossibility of speaking of a “bringing together” within those terms of discourse, not simply due to the “politics” of the engagement, its patriotism and its patronage, but because any project of framing practice against the horizon of “a world” is always a representation. And that was his point. Ambivalence is the only viable mode in addressing a rubric.

How to speak of politics?

The difficulty of speaking of politics—of assigning meaning to the term “politics”—is due to the obviousness with which it forms the horizon of every practice. Politics is “obviousness itself.”

To speak of politics, when politics regulates (by force or alliance) the time I am given to speak, or to look for the words to speak, my own or others, is to speak the obviousness of this regulation.

In which case it is preferable not to speak.

How to speak of Art?

To speak of Art, when politics and its obviousness is the horizon of all practice, is to say that, as a system of knowledge that is also an ontology, Art is politics. This is to speak the obvious. But should I speak it? Or should I simply exchange Art and politics as a tautology?

Art is a structure for perceptual and cognitive progress; Art is a regulatory framework of inclusion and exclusion; Art is the aesthetic passage of judgement; Art is reception; Art is an engendering schema of proper names—personal or generic—subtending the proper name of Art; Art is the socio-political ground for the figure of art.

This self-perpetuating representation of (representational) production is not just a structure/framework/passage of (cultural) representation, it is constituted through representative acts—speaking for some thing, or an other; or the production of a field and a position on the field. If I abandon ambivalence and declare an interest in the location of meaning—!—not just of politics itself in its omnipresence, but its citation in the art-work, what gesture does that require from me? Does locating a meaning within this rubric of Art, and the obviousness of its horizon demand an empirical gesture? To examine the art-work on the basis of its position in this socio-political field would locate its interests (which is already to say, my interests), and would decide (judge) a meaning as politics. Meaning could be assigned as a localising of interest, as a production of representation, as a politics of production. This much is obvious. This is the art-world. Or, is the gesture cultural, a meaning decided in the measurement of the artwork as accumulation, interest located to a tradition (conventional-oppositional)? If the tradition is truly the temporary then this accumulation-meaning and its interest is in the negative. And this culture of temporary culture is also a progress called the art-world.

But whose art-world?

I have not seen any of the work in this exhibition, nor have I spoken with the artists, nor interviewed them on the subject and intention of their work (or their politics). The artists are given the space in this catalogue to make their own statements. What relation of art to world they will describe is the real significance of this project and its search for the art-world. How that relation is deployed, as the operation of the political is what the activity of the work will mark.

An allegorical tale:

Once upon a time art was still a plurality. This was before it took its capital letter and became a proper name. Everyone was happy then, there were arts and there were artists, and the artists were not separated from their arts but lived in proximity to them as to an origin. These origins were not mythic, or evolutionary, or historical, but were fundamentally contemporary to the artists as experience, as events by which they could apprehend the world they inhabited.

And then one day a man came along and he took the arts and made them all into one ideal, an ideal that he then gave over to ideology. And this ideology wanted art to become a law, so it instituted distance into the event of the artwork, producing representation and reception at its poles. Art was born. After that the work and the world became the art-work and the art-world, only apprehendable through the mediation of Art.

Since that day no one has been happy. The artist is now singular, separated from the art-work, not only by the mediation of Art but also by the alienation of Capital. Capital, which arrived along with Art, turned the time of experience into a continuum of instants, a time of events minus experience. And everybody internalised this empty homogenous time. They did this so they could produce it as a symptom of their mediation as events without experience. And they are still waiting for the world (and the revolution) to be delivered.

In acknowledging both progress and catastrophe as continuums, not a thing approaching or a thing to happen, but the continuation of what is, I acknowledge that the true catastrophe is that “things just go on.” The catastrophe can only be exhausted. The self-same—art-world and art-work each producing the other—follows the aesthetic thinking of the representational model and also demonstrates it. The art that escapes the limits of the art-world-as-representation by exhausting its knowability and relevance does so by activating the exhaustion of its own imago or material production. If I wish to differentiate my practice from over-determination by the horizon of obviousness that is politics, then I must also exhaust the magnetism of its desire as practical realisation. The exhaustion of material thinking is not only an exhaustion of the commodity; it is an exhaustion of production and the fetish of a productive politics that replaces the commodity.

The exhaustion of aesthetic thinking then, is the end of the demonstration.

Giorgio Agamben writes that those who are most truly engaged with their time, in the sense of their contemporaneity, are those who are the most truly “untimely.” For these contemporaries, their time of now is not the time of the present, for the present is always a time known to be present, a time that is therefore already historical. This untimeliness of the contemporary is due to the unknowability of its now, its what is not yet known. Because of this, those who activate this untimeliness are therefore always irrelevant to the present.

What remains as a question, is what is the political?

The political is always a question.

And the question must remain a question.

To ask the question of the political for art: I can think of this as a limit-question, a question of what can continue as “art” and for whom and by what means; or, I can understand the question as “a retreat” from the possibility of its solution, in which case the question remains a question, and a question that becomes the activity of art. For if I understand the retreat as a deferral from the production of the political, then the question for art becomes the maintenance of the question. This retreat is not an aesthetic move to the failure of politics as an aesthetic trope of the political. Nor is it a matter of “turning away” from the political and “moving on” to something else, assuming there is anything else. To retreat from the question is to differentiate the political from the politics of its production. For art, the retreat premises a differentiation between activity and production, activity being the correspondence with the question of the political through the deferral of the terms of its production.

Can I think of this retreat as a conjunction which the practice of art and the practice of the political enact in the contemporary site? Or is this too close to a term of production? Will not producing this conjunction allow, in some unknowable untimeliness, for an effective alteration in the terms that constitute practice?

How can I know?

Fiona Macdonald
May 2010