Collective Freedom in the Age of Advanced Cultural Industrialization
In an era epitomised by material accumulation and systemic destitution of cultural values, the contradiction that is faced by black collective self-determination today is a challenging one. There is both the dire need for dignifying and safe material conditions of existence coupled with the lure of monetary wealth. The belief is that if materialistic desire and wealth are placed in the hands of the right people they could potentially be used to change the structures of white supremacy once and for all. However, today we find that this is not the case. And in fact, these ingredients are far removed from providing the spiritual sustenance required to produce and actualise conditions of freedom. Instead what we find is that the formation of emancipatory assemblages and collective efforts towards self-determination are tightly constrained by the rules of capitalism. Capitalism imposes an ethic of material accumulation on the people by disguising itself as a vector of emancipation. Furthermore, the infliction of harmful technologies by the global capitalist system is a deliberate move to ensure that artistic and cultural freedoms remain dormant. It is an outright tactic to reduce collective human agency. These destructive technologies are manifold and act through a range of pernicious modalities to deter any acts of emancipatory cultural agency from taking root. Consequently, these technologies ensure that a radicalized collective uprising is not released into the world, and act efficiently to exhaust the energies of the repressed masses by freezing them in a socio-cryonic capsule of estrangement.
Alienation, being the potent force that it is, snuffs out sparks that ignite images of a profound cultural revolt from the minds of people, in effect curbing the efforts of a cultural resistance against the systematic annihilation of independent expression of human life. Alienation, in other words, unsettles lived ontologies of being and any other currents that could bring about collective emancipation. This phenomenon can be seen clearly in the sustained erosion of human freedoms and black collective self-determination in particular. The life of the contemporary artist-producer presents itself as an apt representation of this reality of the decline of liberties. Capitalism is targeting the psychic and spiritual faculties of the artist-producer in various ways. One way that it does this is to pull artist-producers into a binding paradox. In this dilemma, the autonomy and positionality of the artist-producer as a self-determining person and member of the collective human body are troubled. This conflict raises the important point of how maintaining authority over one's own artistic and cultural labour is indeed a lived practice, and one in which artist-producers have to be prepared to constantly fight for. In this age of advanced industrialized capitalism, the artist-producer is torn between the increased instrumentalization of their labour and maintaining their artistic freedom. And yet, it is through their agency that they will be able to transcend mere servitude to the system. This Janus-faced reality certainly opens up a line of questioning into the constitution of artistic and cultural freedoms and what happens when these are at stake.
If the life of the artist-producer is meant to be the harbinger of freedom, or at least bring us closer to an ideal state of it, what do we make of what the artist produces in this era of material reproduction? And, what else do we make of transcendent artistic and cultural practices when their material and commercial values are the main factors determining their artistic power? In our contemporary world, what we see at play is class opportunism and materialism rather than collective aspirations towards freedom. The symbolic structures of black cultural production are being dismantled and recreated anew by the logic of the neoliberal cultural marketplace. This process occurs when black artist-producers are encouraged to aspire primarily towards the upliftment of the solitary individual. The damage that this ethic has on common imaginaries forming in the periphery is currently unknown. In the midst of this devastation of black art and cultural production, there lies the possibility for a reconstruction of blackness to be imagined. Certainly if black culture is being co-opted by the system, the people who advocate for its sovereignty, should fight for it. There is a huge need for the images and discourses of black culture fed to us through the racist logic of the capitalo-centric contemporary art and cultural market to be deconstructed. It seems to be serving the market to portray blackness as this essentialised category of being, and this is the case despite the variations of blackness that are portrayed to us in the visual cultures produced by black cultural and artistic practitioners. Market forces are still hard at work to ensure that black culture is still seen to be homogenous, notwithstanding the various multiplicities in which it manifests itself in and around the world. The creation of an elite black upper class and its uncritical acceptance of its role is a problematic aspect maintaining the already racist structure of capitalism. This is one channel introduced by the capitalist system in an effort to preserve itself by yet again pitting black bodies against each other. We are left with a scenario where we have an elite black upper class addicted to a materialist ethic, who are then made the custodians of black cultural production. It begs the question, how do the people who determine the value of black culture benefit from its current articulation in the domains of the media and visual culture in general?
Thinking through the predatory strategy of the cultural sphere today, it is important to re-center the body of the artist-producer that is usually used as the primary locus of marketing expropriation. In the contemporary art world, a trend has quietly imposed its pervasive strategy: the rush to be the first to discover artists. Just as colonizers “discovered” lands and people that they estimated free to rule and conquer, the art collector, valuator, investor is rushing to art fairs to discover the untouched and virgin land of “new” artists. The dominant strategy of the often wealthy (heterosexual white male) person is to speculate on the artwork by advertising the “new” body of the artist, through attaching and building a narrative that is going to offer the most martketabke value to the work. What is usually “discovered” is the artist, who then quickly becomes a financial investment opportunity in the eye of the buyer. The capitalist performing such an act of discovery and acquisition mimics the ways of settler colonialism and its various forms of assault on indigenous bodies and native lands. It is such a procedure of predatory discovery that reaffirms the cultural supremacy of the ones in charge of betting on the next artist, that determines who receives the next resources to gain the financial upper hand. In this game of capital, these marketing strategies are the scars of European conquest and supremacy that stretch over centuries, and are still visible in the expression of black culture today. This is no surprise, since capital still dictates who gets to frame discourse around black culture.
The technologies of capital accumulation still rest in the hands of the same groups of people who have historically harboured extraordinary biases about black people in the world. The people who get to legitimate what gets converted into commodifiable black culture are oftentimes the same ones standing in the way of its fullest expression. This makes sense in understanding how the prowess of their cultural and economic capital keeps them addicted to an image of an impoverished and suffering black culture. In these times, every aspect of human life is in one way or another entangled in the modes of capitalist accumulation. This reality poses a very solemn threat to the vital expression of the singularity of the human being, and the artist-producer’s life is the very last frontier of this war on human agency. In this way, the autonomy of the artist is taken from them, leaving no hope for the rest of cultural emancipation, as it will no longer be found in the reservoirs of imagination that give breath to the life of the artist-producer. The encounter between the investor and the artist-producer is not an equal one, and it implies that one can exchange money for the labor of a body, its soul, its spirit, and its imaginary power to transform the real. However, financial and material domination maintain such unequal and unidirectional currents of exchange that it prevents mutual understanding and promotion of the work. It is oftentimes the dehumanizing institutions of the art-world that need to be fought against, if the violence is not to be perpetuated any further.
“Since their inception in the nineteenth century, museums have literalized the theatricality of colonialism” (Taylor, 66). This is true to the world of art at large, where a specific performance of cultural difference is required from the artist-producer, so as to be seen, valued, and ultimately made into a commodity. Along these lines, another question arises: what happens to the cultural and aesthetic labor of artistic production when it gets absorbed and inserted into cultural institutions that generate and reproduce alienation? The assaultive nature of capitalist supremacy hasn’t stopped at the doors of the institutions of the art-world. In the museum setting, a very specific scopic regime is deployed that promotes the uncritical consumption of a particular form of aesthetics. The generally white and privileged museum-goer is invited to enter a realm constructed for soothing cultural experiences. Within the safety of the institution, culture is given to him or her as a service that he or she has paid for in order to gain some form of cultural capital that can then be invested in social settings. Through money, a form of cultural capital is safely gained that has replaced the lived experience of an aesthetic temporality, which might have challenged the very singular position of the viewer entering the space. The viewer's experience of sensory stimuli depends largely on whether the viewer experiences them inside or outside the walls of the institution. Performance within the museum can sometimes offer critical insights and often stands as a powerful tool to interrogate and confront the reproduction of a certain form of alienation. One thinks of Fred Wilson’s My Life as a Dog (Whitney Museum of Contemporary Art, 1991), which denounced the invisibility of black bodies and black labour within the institution. Invited as part of the Whitney’s program for visiting artists to give tours of its exhibitions, African American artist Fred Wilson changed into the uniform of a museum guard and was completely ignored by his audience until he started to address them. Through Wilson’s performance, the viewer is forced to investigate their own privileged position. Most often, very little is done to provide a sense of history and genealogy that could unsettle the viewer’s positionality. Institutions such as the District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in the State of Alabama in the United States have encouraged the self-reflexivity of their viewer’s own positionality. This kind of reflexive invitation, encouraged by the curatorial choices of the museum, is one that continues beyond the walls of the institution. The museum should become a transformative as opposed to a consumerist space.
The body of the artist-producer is not a scripted one belonging to a discourse shaped by fashion trends and marketing strategies. Nor should this body be the target of viewers seeking to gain cultural capital in exchange for money. The body belongs to its own cultural genealogy and the myriad of complex and ambivalent impulses that create its singular modes of existence. The life of the artist-producer is not a commodity whose destiny is to be bought and sold. We must remain vigilant against the system of neo-liberal cultural production and its tendency to devour collective solidarities and their cultural symbols. This tendency destroys these symbols’ meanings and disrupts the organism of culture until there is no more life for it to grow. The value of black artistic and cultural reproduction and the aesthetic traditions that they engender have to be protected and ethically promoted. We should return our focus to cultural genealogy, which links together a society with its history. More importantly, perhaps, cultural genealogy is what allows people to belong to the collective power of change. This common strength grounded in culture is what people share, care about, and are empowered by in the long legacy of knowledge built and reinvented in active togetherness. Without access to such cultural genealogy, the spine of a society will no longer hold and its members will be too weak to come together. In the realm of arts and culture, to realise the dream of a strong ethos of black self-determination should not be so much about individual pursuits and separate successes. On the contrary, collective self-determination should be about empowering first and foremost the social and the commons. It is only through collective access to a cultural genealogy and history that the individual can thrive in the present and persevere in the future. It is for this reason that we claim that collective black emancipation should come first.
Authors: Anaïs Nony & Phokeng Setai
bell hooks, “Marketing blackness: class and commodification” in Killing Rage. Ending Racism. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 1995, pp. 172-183
Diana Taylor, “Scenarios of Discovery: Reflections on Performance and Ethnography” in The Archive and the Repertoire. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003, pp. 53-78
Anton Vidokle, “Art and Sovereignty ” e-flux journal #106, February 2020, 01/08
Malcox X, “The ballot or the bullet” in Malcom X Speaks. Selected speeches and statements. Edited by George Breiman. New York: Grove Press, 1965, pp. 23-44.
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