Can artistic and cultural practices play a critical role in societies in which criticisms are reflexively absorbed and immobilised by the prevailing hegemony? And, if yes, what kind of political order can they aspire to, given the ‘post-utopian’ nature of the human condition? How do we approach the tortuous question of the destiny of both the project of modern democracy and that of aesthetic modernity? There is no agreement on this issue. We are told that there is no alternative to the existing liberal democracy and capitalist pluralism without risking yet another dystopia – the dilemma that in the artistic realm is sometimes articulated as the opposition between modernism and postmodernism. What might progressive art look like in such times when the ideas of progress and modernity are viewed with great suspicion?
The most popular positions concerning artistic and cultural practices’ critical dimension revolve around the idea that with the post-Fordist transformation and the bankruptcy of the Left, the paradigm of power has really changed. This is reflected in the radical character of contemporary artistic practices, which desperately struggle to constitute subject at the expense of themselves. However, the question is: can these practices be both radical and democratic? This depends on our understanding of emancipatory politics, the nature of aesthetics and post-Fordist transformation.
We will examine the different approaches to these subjects influenced by the Frankfurt school and post-Operaist theories to argue that neither Theodor Adorno’s and Max Horkeimer’s analyses based on the Fordist model, nor Antonio Negri’s and Paolo Virno’s post-Fordist appropriation of the significance of art in the new forms of production provide a useful framework with which to grasp the nature of the changes and challenges that face our society. Such novel ideas as ‘immaterial labour’ and ‘spontaneous communism’ or exodus and ‘communism of capital’, despite their new vocabulary, are a dangerous inversion of the Frankfurt school’s idealism and inability to grasp that social reality is hegemonically constructed through the practices of articulation that temporarily and incompletely ‘fix’ the meaning of social institutions.
Neither politics nor post-Fordism should be considered through the matrix of culture, but in terms of hegemony. What is at issue is to grasp the nature of the democratic and aesthetical paradoxes and envisage how the two could be applied to contribute to progressive changes in power relations. Judgements must be made – we have to be able to distinguish between who belongs to demos and who does not; however, how we judge, which is the subject of aesthetic critique, is at the core of democratic artistic-political practice.
One way in which artistic practices can be critical is a counter-hegemonic intervention that acts against the position of supremacy of any hegemonic order and shows that any fullness exists because there are gaps, but judges this lack in a way that resists the totalisation of the sensible. However, perhaps the way to weaken the centre is not just to expose its flaws, but to pluralise hegemonies. In this way, the idea to pluralise modernism in the era of globalisation could help us to redefine modern democracy in the post-political era and outline the positive vision of the ‘hegemonic trap’. Could the evolution of artistic-political practice be envisaged as the radicalisation of ‘oppositional identities’, which undermine the hegemonic forms of subject
articulation into compository or shimmering identities, making such supremacy impossible? Can art become a symbol of emptying ‘democracy’ and thus construct many ‘democracies’, answering our tortuous question by producing plural answers?