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Ian Delairre

11.5.15

Maliks Aesthetic Politics: On The Necessity of Arts Exit from Contemporary Art and
The Wrong of Contemporary Art

Suhail Maliks lecture series On the Necessity of Arts Exit from Contemporary Art is
a forceful response to the recent intellectual surrender to contemporary arts unintelligibility and
frustrating lack of political commitments. But what of arts politics? How can art or
contemporary art as a whole be endowed with any specific politics separately from political art?
Malik provides many compelling answers. However, before tackling this question, we would like
to note Bruno Latours comments on science and politics to characterize the position and
expository style this essay strives to take: If I have no authority of my own, writes Latour in
The Politics of Nature, I nevertheless benefit from a particular advantage, and this alone is what
authorizes me to address my readers: I am interested in political production no more and no less
than I am interested in scientific production. Think about it: this twofold respect is not so
common. My absence of authority offers precisely the guarantee that I will not use science to
subjugate politics, or politics to subjugate science.1 This position performs well when translated
into the situation of contemporary art, since the traditional complaint about political art is that it
always subordinates art to politics.2 Further, it erodes any sort of theoretical authority which

Latour, Bruno. Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP,
2004, p. 6.
2
The reverse scenario, that of art subjugating politics, is less heard of but for our purposes is that situation where
art, by its aloofness, appears to decadently casts aside politics and is therefore all the more political. De Duve speaks
to this in Kant After Duchamp where art becomes an uncritical reflection of a classs tastes and habits.

would prioritize the politics of the writer over the readers.3 In sum, the appeal of Latours
position, which is embodied by the role of the outsider, is that it attempts to learn from artists
and art what art is.
We juxtapose Latour's naive positionwhich we eventually want to extract and
transform into an aesthetic politicsto Suhail Malik's heroic attempt to steer art towards a
certain end, namely, its exit from the contemporary. Our wager here is that Latour's position
is a necessary foil to Maliks Athusserianism since it engages rather than directs artists. This is
not meant to undermine the validity of Maliks work; in fact, the two theorists and their
approaches share notable similarities in terms of their anti-postmodernism and materialist
commitments (i.e., their analyses both entail confronting the actually existing versions of their
subject matter).4 Maliks work has a profoundly democratic inclination, indicated by his desire to
rediscover art's latent political imagination beyond its touted anarchic and irreverent play (which
is justly decried as the sole privilege of the elite artist): it is artists themselves who want freer,
less exclusive, and realer art. The difference lies in their ultimate claim to know in a
profoundly moral and epistemological sense: Maliks political-philosophical hubris that he can
conceptually encompass and surpass contemporary art coupled with his pretense of knowing
what is good for artists are problematic aspects of his theory to say the least. Comparing this to
Latours pluralist program which concerns the formation of a democratic collective, i.e., a body

The theorization of artpolitical or otherwiseoften aims purely at (certain) arts potentiation or the
reduplication of its (mis)intepreted or (mis)understood effects by way of description (that is, when it isnt critical
and derogating of its object); here the theorist is both grasping for something or trying to direct public opinion while
using art as a talking piece. What we want to avoid is making art an occasion for politics.
4
Artists want to create art that is more responsible to others. [They want] to be sincere, political, just, etc. The
dream of art is to be less private, narcissistic, inauthentic, socially detached, less abstracted from real, concrete
conditions, life, etc. [] [They want art] that is effectively political, a genuinely public art. [] It explains why art
is so unsatisfactory. The negative formulations tell us the problems about actually existing art. See also Maliks
excellent essay Critique As Alibi: Moral Differentiation In The Art Market. Journal Of Visual Art Practice 7.3
(2008): 283-295. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), which undertakes a political economy of the art market.

capable of generating its own spontaneous politics, Malik appears to delegate a ready-made
political program to artists in the style of a Leninist What is to be Done? speech.
That being said, Malik would not be worth considering if he did not offer a salient and
incisive critique of the art-world and stage his own up-ending of the actors and elements which
rob artists of theoretical authority over their own work. Malik identifies the primary causes of
this crime as the indeterminacy of contemporary art (its anarcho-realist maxim), de Duves
notion of pictorial nominalism (where aesthetic judgments of taste simply distinguish art from
non-art), and arts meta-generic limitation which reduces all aesthetic judgment to dissensus
(i.e., the situation of a sandbox democracy where the exercising of opinion is the limit of
contemporary arts critical power). However, Maliks discourse is inaugurated by what he calls
arts utopian maxim: the subversive kernel of all art and that which is consistently failed by
contemporary art.5 This idealistic notion of the artists universal desire to have a more socially
engaged practice is raised in opposition to contemporary arts epistemological indeterminacy.
This notion of contemporary arts indeterminacyan idea Malik attributes to its assertion of the
undecidability of the real (what he refers to as its anarcho-realist maxim)is given the status
of a fetish and a result its mistaken characterization of the present:

Contemporary art substitutes the identitylessness of the present with its own indeterminacy and
posits its own meta-generic commonality for the non-unity of the present. It mistakes itself for
contemporary art. Contemporary art is a fetish for the present. It replaces the present with an
idealization of its unity as indeterminate. Contemporary art is thus not adequate to the present.

Maliks construction of arts utopian maxim draws from a long list of artists and critics expressing an apparently
ubiquitous frustration with contemporary art in the fall 2009 edition of October. See
http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1162/octo.2009.130.1.3.

Contemporary art is contemporary to itself. It configures its own horizon as indeterminate


mistakes the particularity of a specific mode of the now (art) for the non-totality of the now.6

Contemporary art, therefore is contemporary to nothing but itself, i.e., it exists in a selfreinforcing ontological closure, which denies the present a basic intelligibility or coherency
(what Malik characterizes as a meta-generic convention of contemporary art). Because of this
inability to award the present condition any sort of determinacy it loses sight of the basic facts of
globalization and capitalism or treats them as incomprehensible. Contemporary art fetishizes
and models itself on the now, thereby appearing to have no definitive identity, i.e., no subject,
no audience, no determinate mode of production, etc. However, Malik asserts, contemporary art
does have definitive characteristics or conventions, which are, ironically, symptomatic of its lack
of definitiveness: 1. It asks probing questions without resolution; 2. Its addressees are nondeterminate and anonymous; 3. it has no criteria or universal standards (there can be no appeal to
external authorities); 4. it is singular, i.e. it operates per artwork; 5. It has a generic commonality
in its determinacy; 6. It is a meta-genre without identity.
The unofficial theoretical scaffolding behind this fetishized notion of contemporary art is
an art-history of negations. Malik uses de Duves theory of pictorial nominalism and the
ready-made assisted by Rancieres notion of dissensus (which Malik takes as the diffusion and
multiplication opinions rather than Rancieres gesture of disagreement or refusal) to describe the
logic that undergirds the movement of this arbitrary history.7 Briefly summarizing de Duves

Malik, Suhail. On the Necessity of Arts Exit from Contemporary Art. 1. Exit not escape - On The Necessity of
Art's Exit from Contemporary Art. YouTube, 13 June, 2013.
7
De Duve states in Kant After Duchamp: You [the historian of the avant-garde] are the historian of the becomingart, of the very movement through which art is produced and progresses in its historical unfolding. You are not
dealing with a given corpus but with a problematized consensus. [... ] [You] espouse a philosophy of history for
which there is no definition of art except the historical process through which art negates itself and comes to terms
with its own negation. This process does not have an essence for its ground; rather it has struggle for its motor. []

terms, pictorial nominalism refers to the judgement this is art or this isnt art and the
cultural-philosophical impact of these judgements which lend art the power to produce a specific
signification and effectuate a negation of what art is. The ready-made, of course, refers
Duchamps infamous contribution, The Fountain, to the 1913 Armory Show, which allowed
found objects to be classified as objets dart. For de Duve, the introduction of the ready-made
caused art to lose any identity founded on formalized aesthetics. This, in turn, subordinates a
things status as a work of art to the judgment or nomination of the observer. This non-art/art
distinction causes a heterogeneous inflation of art via the proliferation of differing opinions
about arta deprecation of Rancieres notion of dissensus (see below) that operates in favor of
contemporary art, its proliferation, and its fetishized notion of the present. A kind of false
dialectics of negations proposed by artists of confidence and art-historians unfolds upon an
idealized terrain where the effects of artworks are decided by and arrogated to a proprietary
interpretive scheme (often with little concern for artists or artistic production). This false
dialectics is described by Malik as post-negational and inflationary since it dotes on the
original art/non-art negation effectuated by the ready-made and stylizes the criterialessness of
post-negational art. Post-negational art, can only invite the judgement this is art and thus
makes very little in the way of prescriptive demands besides its treatment as art. This is implied
to be the case even for socially and culturally concerned works of art. Malik asserts that the
negation art/not-art is insufficient since the readymade already overcomes this distinction. All
discourse on contemporary art manages to effectuate is a transmission of art which is divested of
any critical power by its meta-generic limitation (i.e., the dissensus caused by the proliferation of

When you call this process art, you mean that we, humans, dont agree about what art is. On the contrary, we need to
struggle for what art should be (Kant After Duchamp, p. 19, p. 21).

differences). Finally, the most glaring weakness of negational/post-negational art is that it is


incapable of rectifying an injustice:

Contemporary art is a proliferation of differences via the judgment of dissensus . Contemporary


art is a post-negational art. This is why contemporary art cannot contest an injustice. If you contest
the injustice you negate the injustice. When it confronts an injustice it produces another dissensus.
Thus, it clings to greater indeterminacy.

Thus, it is not merely that art is inadequate to the present via its misidentification as a kind of
nonsensical chora but, in a world that is wracked by economic and political injustice,
contemporary art finds itself utterly incapable of identifying or meaningfully engaging an
injustice since any and all theoretical discourse on art tends to explode on the runway and
inevitably trends towards an inflationary discussion of which constitutes art or non-art.
Maliks analysis culminates with the conclusion that we must stage an exit from
contemporary art. The specificity of which is a refusal of contemporary arts anarcho-realist
maxim (that the present or reality is indeterminate) and an upholding of arts utopian maxim
(that art must be made more democratic). Not much more is said on the matter of how this exit is
to be accomplished; however, much is implied in the way of future theoretical work. However,
taking as true that the indeterminacy of contemporary art is a problem and that the desire of
artists is to engage in art that is less private, narcissistic, inauthentic, socially detached, less
abstracted from real, concrete conditions, life, etc. what model do we have for artwork that
accomplishes this? Maliks lecture does not provide us with any description of a specific art
praxis that would allow us to make this exit nor any examples of artwork or artists that approach
or satisfy his criteria (which we will elaborate shortly). Our procedure going forward will be

perilously pseudo-deconstructionist: we will identify what we believe to be positive examples


of artists and art that might satisfy Malik's notion of art's utopian maxim by way of incriminating
Malik in theoretical favoritism. In other words, the theorists, artists and art that he takes up and
speaks well of will be inscribed in an index of elements that assist his program.
In an earlier work, Suhail Malik and Andreas Phillips confront the same problem of the
dissatisfying indeterminacy of contemporary art in an essay called The Wrong of Contemporary
Art. Notably, the authors mention by name several artists, journals and institutions that seem to
be working towards or against the ideal of art's utopian maxim that Malik outlines in his later
lecture. The essay's purpose is to address Ranciere's notion of a generalized meta-political
quality of art, however, much of the same line of argumentation is taken up in terms of arts
indeterminacy qua its anarcho-realist maxim:

[] much present practice [of contemporary art] seems to float free of historical determination,
conceptual definition, and critical judgment. While such a recognition of contemporary art
regularly leads to a dismissal of its capacity to engage in effective forms of political critique, it is
exactly the condition of heterogeneity more precisely, arts indefiniteness and identifiablythat,
in sharp contrast, Jacques Rancire establishes to be arts political specificity. (RR 111) 8

This conclusion that arts indeterminateness = its political specificity makes theoretical solidarity
with Ranciere difficult since much of the piece dotes on contemporary art's frustrating lack of
specificity. However, as an insight into our tentative method, it is Malik and Phillipss
relationship to Rancire that allows us to divine a positive position from their grumblings via the
use of Rancire in their analysis of Thomas Hirschhorns piece Monuments since it is taken as

Bowman, Paul, and Richard Stamp. Reading Ranciere. London: Continuum, 2011. Cited parenthetically as RR
followed by the page number.

exemplary of Ranciere's notion of dissensus (art's meta-political nature) mobilized towards a


potentially subversive end. Malik and Phillips enthusiasm for Monuments may indicate a
positive example of artwork that, despite its shortcomings, indicates the possibility of an exit
from contemporary art and confronting an injustice. 9 Meanwhile, their initial reproach of the art
journal e-flux for their rather flabby definition of contemporary art indicates that, on their
political terrain, e-flux is at least a problematic actor.10 It would not be a stretch to assert that
these moments of exaltation and denigration might indicate points populating the grid of real
positions in the political field that concerns Maliks project.
Looking more closely at Hirschhorns piece Monuments, Malik and Phillips classify it as
aesthetics-art in the theoretical framework outlined by Ranciere in Aesthetics and its
Discontents:

The schema of aesthetics-art is concisely presented in Rancires formula that art is art insofar as
it is also non-art, or something other than art (2009a: 36). Here, Rancire distinguishes what we
call aesthetics-art from forms of art that through their content and form (location, use of signifying
materials, etc.) propose a deliberative social and/or political agenda typical of a historical notion of
critical art; that Rancire deftly characterizes as set[ting] out to build awareness of the
mechanisms of domination to turn the spectator into a conscious agent of world transformation
(2009a: 45). (RR 112)

We should take the opportunity to note that Malik asserts in his later lecture that Dissesensus appears to be the
last word in contemporary critical art. However, it is unclear if the act of indicating a wrong which is essential
for dissensus is impotent by being simply another critical gesture or if dissensus itself is impotent since it is reduced
to mere disagreement. Maliks maneuver of conjoining de Duves notion of artistic nomination to Rancieres notion
dissensus might obscure the status of this wrong which is not a mere indication of distaste but is a moral judgment.
10
Note: In 2009, after attempting to settle upon an organizing principle for an online participatory archive of
contemporary art, the editors of e-flux web journal concluded 'that no objective structure or criterion exists with
which to organize artistic activity from the past twenty years or so' (Arando et al. 2009) (RR 111).

Aesthetics-art is art that attenuates one to the police order and bids them to reflect upon it. The
police order is defined here as the most general notion of the organization of power, places,
ways of being, and doing; the system of distribution and legitimization, however formally or
informally implemented, that is a governing of th[e] appearance of bodies which Rancire
famously calls the partition of the sensible (RR 115). In an aesthetics-art situation such as
Hirschhorns Monuments, the participant is re-subjectivized in such a way that their new
identity undoes the naturalized or conventional logic of the police order:

[P]olitical subjectification is the undoing of the conventionalized or naturalized relation between


who the individual is and what she or he is or does (role, place, activity, expectations, etc.) []
Since subjectification is the transformation of the given roles and places of the police order into
instances of experience of a dispute (1999: 36), it effects not a social bond (1999: 34) but a
political bond: not the assigning of places in the social order but a disidentification with
established social categories, which is what politics is in fact and not just in principle for Rancire.
(RR 120)

This inversion of the police order qua aesthetics-art not only re-signifies and challenges the
difference between art and non-art, it allows otherwise excluded identities or bodies to enter into
space with a greater range and availability of political discourse thereby producing a site where a
more authentic and imaginative politics is actualized and a greater variety political possibilities
can unfold. More precisely, the re-subjectification of these subjects as dissensual political
agents opens up the possibility of confronting, disclosing and reversing the established police
order.11
11

The critical divide that constitutes a thing as political, for Rancire, is whatever manifests the gap between
consensus and dissensus. Consensus is defined by the idea of the proper and the distribution of places of the
proper and improper it implies. This logic is the spontaneous logic underlying every hierarchy [] [it] defines

The short explosion of freedom in the arts-aesthetic moment exposes that the police order
as effectively non-political: Politics consists in reconfiguring the distribution of the sensible
which defines the common of a community, to introduce into it new subjects and objects, to
render visible what had not been, and to make heard as speakers those who had been perceived
as mere noisy animals (AD 25).12 When the non-political and coercive nature of the police order
is revealed it is spontaneously signified as wrong, simply. Wrong here seems to indicate
anything which seeks to undo dissensuswhich for Rancire is the fabric of politics and the
community and where the newly re-subjectified participant in art/politics now grounds their
freedom and identity.
As we noted, Rancires meta-political formulation of aesthetic-art causes Malik and
Phillips to conclude, with some suspicion, that contemporary artdespite its nonspecific politics
and indeterminate definitions of communityfits the criteria of aesthetics-art and is thereby
political due to aesthetics-art's capacity to effect the distribution of the sensible. The reason for
this is that there are two competing logics at work in Rancieres theory:

The torsion in Rancires aesthetic-political logic of art is that political subjectification, tied to the
particularities of the police order whose repartitioning it is, is enabled by aesthetics in general
while what is here called the aesthetic subjectification of art is tied to politics in general and is
restricted to a particular aestheticsthat of art in its singularity. Summarily put: aesthetic
generality enables political particularity (Rancires logic of politics), and political generality is

[the] hierarchical distributions where everyones speech is determined in terms of their proper place and their
activity in terms of its proper function, without remainder (AD 2). In other words, it is the function and structure of
the police order itself. Dissensus, conversely is not a confrontation between interests or opinions. It is the
demonstration (manifestation) of a gap in the sensible itself (AD 38). It is a moment of difference or disagreement
in the police order that emerges specifically when the subject expresses a lack of agreement with some thing (a
claim that challenges the ontological status of a thing or another subject, an action, or event). Thus Monuments is
properly political by Rancires definition of the term.
12
Rancire, Jacques. Aesthetics and Its Discontents. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2009. Cited parenthetically as AD
followed by the page number.

enabled by aesthetic particularity (Rancires logic of art). It is the latter generality that destroys
any pragmatic criteria for isolation the singularity of art. And it is this generality that marks
aesthetics-art as what Rancire calls metapolitics. (RR 121)

The easy route towards politics that contemporary art takes is this ability to effect the
distribution of the sensible without addressing a specific wrong or incurring the subjects
disidentification with a ubiquitous police order (since its status would also be subject to
disagreement). From here on out, Rancieres dissensus starts to take a weak form, simply
indicating meta-politics, which is strongly indicated to be mere disagreement or the
multiplication of political positions and opinions. Here we can see why this innate ability of
aesthetic-art to redistribute the sensible can be awarded to politically unambitious or uninterested
works of art: dissensus short circuits itself by disabling any specific politics while autoproducing disagreement (Rancieres minimal criteria for politics).13 Thus, we are left with the
notion of the indeterminacy of community, while the high goal of aesthetics-art is to reduced
to repartition[ing] [the] sensible as the assertion of a common world (RR 124). So while the
specific politics of e-flux and contemporary art certainly earn Maliks ire, the authors are forced
to put the topic aside and regard e-flux as effectively or actually a political institution by
these criteria.

13

For example. Maria Linds analysis of Philippe Parrenos collectively made films, particularly Vicinato (1995)
and the piece Snow Dancing (1995) demonstrate the obverse side of Rancires conception of arts politics. Namely
that it equalizes or levels, in the Kierkegaardian or Nietzschean sense, all art by rewarding it with the capacity to
redistribute the sensible. They quote Lind: deeply imbedded in current social, political and economic situations
Parrenos work needs to be considered a part of that foil. Contrary to popular belief that community is vanishing
today, it can be claimed that coming together, bonding and caring are more vital than in a long time. In fact, if
we resist the temptation to understand community as the foundation of the formation of society, we make possible
something that is non-essential and non-absolute. Community as relational if you wish, which emerges in the wake
of society rather than the other way round and which is resistant to immanent power (qtd. in RR 123-4). For
someone like Malik, this is the precise wishy-washy statement that characterizes the frustrating indeterminacy, false
modesty, and domesticated subversiveness of contemporary art. They respond, This is not any politics in particular
but a phrasing of an indeterminate politics of community as a repartition of the sensible, and this is right for the
politics of aesthetics-art (RR 124).

Against Malik, who, as we said, later affirms that contemporary art is nihilistically devoid
of politics, Rancire makes it clear that all art cannot escape its political nature.

It is important to stress that in Rancires conception of politics such an indeterminacy of political


particularity is not a shortcoming of art. The declaration of a wrong is an inceptive act; the origin
of politics is for Rancire not the principle of equality itself but its encounter with the police order
since it has no place or objects of its own (1999: 29). It cannot, as a matter of logic: if it did, it
would have exactly the differentiation and hierarchy, be the kind of organizational principle, that it
undoes. (RR 123)

At this point it is clear that even Hirschhorn is highly limited insofar as his artwork is merely
dissensual. However, as one of the only positive references of an artist that Malik provides for a
somewhat subversive artist, situating Hirschhorn and his work as indicators of a potential exit
from contemporary art would not be imprudent. We can make this assertion on the basis of its
identification of a wrong in a much more profound way than the other works he mentions in
the essay (see footnote above). This wrong, of course, must still be agreed upon by some sort of
politically unified or at least interested collective in order for any positive politics to emerge.
This may be an oversight for both the authors and Ranciere since the practical work of consensus
building, persuading, and mobilizing similarly interested peoples is not present in their work and
is even antithetical to their notion of politics. Between the necessity and possibility of an exit
from contemporary art is a large gap. However, it is quite possible that artwork recalls
Rancieres original sense of dissensus which decries the wrong of contemporary art can
furnish us with the political imagination to imagine an order beyond it.
Malik can certainly be criticized for his logicization of art and its reduction to a kind of
sign: works of art are indeed intelligible but they are not machines that produce this or that

specific gesture, effectuation or negation. He can also be criticized for many other classical
philosophical missteps, the foremost being his heroism and desire to decide that reality is an
intelligible and comprehensive whole and his nostalgia for formal (yet non-scientific) criteria for
judgment. Suhail Maliks analysis is objectivating, or to use one of Franois Laruelles turn of
phrase, it hallucinates objectivity by its performance. It seems appropriate that a properly
democratic philosophy must reconcile with the indeterminacy of the present and undecidability
of the real but, to Maliks point, it should not use this indeterminacy as permission for antiintellectualism, hedonism, or the uncritical promulgation of a socially or morally uninterested
art.
Stepping back, one is obliged to raise the question of whether or not Malik is waging his
battles on the right terrain: it seems that what it stake is not the universal struggle of artists but a
particular and properly contemporary political struggle. It is a valid struggle, the
disenfranchisement of artists both theoretically and economically is no doubt worth fighting
against, but this raises questions about the basic efficiency of Maliks theory. All this theoretical
and philosophical scaffolding is unnecessary if one means to say that artists must be awarded the
proper economic and social means to determine the direction of art and that institutional figures
such as critics, curators, collectors, theorists, and so forth are reducing art to a form of
commercial enterprise. As we implied at the beginning, it is intolerable to subjugate art to
politics and vice-versa, however, it may also be ineffective since, if artwork is a reflection of a
epoche, art might not be the appropriate weapon or means for effectuating Maliks exit. Thus,
barring the chance of a significant change in the worlds ideological, political or economic
situation, the alliance of art and science in the style of Latours collective may provide a better
way out of contemporary arts political indeterminacy.