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Revenge of the Surplus

Marc James Léger (leger.mj [at] is an artist, writer, and educator living in Montreal. He is editor of Culture and Contestation in the New Century and author of the forthcoming Brave New Avant Garde: Essays on Contemporary Art and Politics.

Gregory Sholette, Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture (London: Pluto Press, 2011), 240 pages, $30.00, paperback.

There is no question that the most interesting development in contemporary art is the shift toward politicized art practice in the form of activist art, interventionist art, critical community art, radical collectives, tactical media, and various other forms of extra-institutional practices that do not seek legitimation in either the commercial art market or in establishment galleries and museums. What is important for the artists and art collectives involved in such practices is what happens socially and politically, rather than the forms of ratification and consecration that are normally associated with successful art careers. A related and equally interesting development is the corresponding shift in cultural theory and art criticism. Short of merely documenting and chronicling the countless instances of cultural dissent, the growth of engaged art practice requires theoretical analysis, evaluation, and critical orientation. A new publication that seeks to influence today’s post-institutional phase change through a reconfiguring of the relationship between art and politics is Gregory Sholette’s Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture. Following his co-edited catalogue for the exhibition The Interventionists (2004) and his co-edited anthology Collectivism After Modernism (2007), Sholette has produced yet another important theoretical intervention in the field of critical art practice. Known also for his work in the radical art collectives Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PAD/D) and REPOhistory, Sholette provides an experienced view of cultural subversion from below. His new book is interesting not only for its sympathetic treatment of a wide array of practices, but particularly for the way that it attempts to make sense of them with the concept of dark matter.

The overall argument of Dark Matter is that “a shadowy social productivity” haunts the high art world. The great many excluded practices and failed artists who keep the art galleries, museums, and magazines going are now threatening this pyramidal system as their dark energy becomes increasingly visible. Dark Matter thus presents itself as a “lumpenography” of this invisible mass of makeshift, amateur, informal, unofficial, autonomous, activist, non-institutional, and self-organized practices. While engaged art practice is a minefield of contending leftist tendencies, the core concept of dark matter is that these are increasingly gaining momentum as they make common cause within and against neoliberal enterprise culture.

The theoretical gambit of Sholette’s book is the opinion that art critics, historians, administrators, collectors, and dealers have little interest in creative dark matter. While they may conceive of ways to mine the productive value of critical artists’ work, for instance by marketing aesthetic trends, this cannot be allowed to subvert the basic managerial task of serving moneyed interests. There is no question that the art world is made up of not only what is known about art, but involves a complex division of labor that works to keep a multi-billion-dollar industry operating for the benefit of a minority of high- profile artists and for the benefit of corporations. This system keeps the vast majority of professionally trained artists in a state of subservience and underdevelopment. The first and most general question that is asked by Sholette is—what would happen if this superfluous majority went on permanent strike and gave up on the art system’s exclusifying methods of legitimation?

This first question is only one of many in the book that bring to mind Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of the field of cultural production. Whereas Bourdieu understood that art’s challenge to the profit motive makes the cultural economy into an inverted version of the political economy, Sholette suspends this understanding by first getting rid of the assumption that today’s high art actually operates in this way. Rather, it is thoroughly connected to what Julian Stallabrass calls “Art Incorporated” and, Sholette argues, does not hide its quest for economic reward. It is only those dark practices at the margins of the art world that still hold on to the task of art to challenge commercial goals and capitalist ideology. While he clearly appreciates the labor theory of value, Sholette suspends the understanding that most forms of culture are non-productive and dependent in complex ways on profits collected elsewhere in the proletarianized global marketplace. He seeks instead to reorient the class analysis of culture in such a way as to make the best case for what he and Gene Ray defined in a 2008 essay as both the limits and possibilities of politically engaged art. The epistemological crisis in the arts that is mentioned in the introduction of Dark Matter should therefore not be thought directly to reflect the crisis in global capital, though the connections between the spheres of art and the political economy do indeed need to be drawn. Much to his credit, Sholette does not propose a new aesthetic model nor does he consider dark matter to conform to a particular genre category. Those who make art, he writes, can define it on their own terms.

As he sets out to articulate the politics of dark matter, Sholette reiterates Marx’s view that labor processes generate their own immanent resistance forces, and that neoliberal capitalism looks for ways to harness this excess productivity. He gives as examples the contrasting working situations that confronted PAD/D in the late 1970s and early ‘80s to that of the networked productivity that marks the work of a contemporary collective like Paper Rad. The contemporary desire for collective cultural autonomy, Sholette says, is overshadowed by surplus productivity. Social networking sites, file sharing, open-source programs, role-playing games, and so on exude qualities that are anathema to serious art and also to serious criticism. While critics try to keep up with ambiguous art collectives and media activists, everything solid eventually melts into air, especially within a risk society in which precariousness and indeterminacy are the material living conditions of so many cultural phantoms, incapable of much more than occasional upheavals. The working conditions for the majority involve increased productivity, expropriation, lower pay, and greater economic insecurity. All of this has become possible in part due to the accessibility of new technologies and the drive to accelerate the speed at which goods and information are exchanged.

The background for the proliferation of dark matter is the shift from the Fordist mode of industrial manufacturing to post-Fordist economic restructuring, with its financialization of markets and flexibilization of labor. The result of the assault on working-class jobs and the disappearance of middle-class incomes is a “zombie culture” that is characterized by an increased productivity and the lack of a distinct political culture. All of this is not necessarily for the worse, however, as constituent forms of association, much like Marx’s proletarian “gravediggers,” are simultaneously produced. These new social formations are largely indifferent to the radical concern with ideology, dialectics, and alienation, and replace older forms of union and political party organization with all that was previously exiled and all that disrupts the usual forms of aesthetic valorization. Dark matter thus “coagulates” as a feature of enterprise culture, defined by Yochai Benkler and described by Sholette as “the rising visibility of intangible social production.” Dark culture is therefore of great interest to today’s neoliberals because of its capacity to mobilize redundant productivity. The work of radical collectives, for instance, is sought after insofar as it can help to stabilize the economy of the art world. Sholette says that not all dark matter is inherently progressive. Whatever its modus operandi, whether reactionary anger or progressive resistance, dark matter collectives, mock institutions, and tactical media offer a common means of visualizing social relations. Either way, he insists, it is necessary to engage with them politically.

With these premises established, Dark Matter sets off on a series of chapters that look at artistic practices in more detail and as part of a trajectory that moves from the 1970s to the present. Sholette provides a valuable description of the contents of the PAD/D archive, which was included in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in the late 1980s after the group folded. He describes this period as the political context in which the right not only took control of the history of the radical left, but also began to appropriate its protest strategies. PAD/D members and activities challenged sexism, racism, ecological damage, and all other forms of oppression. Their work lasted for roughly ten years and ended just around the time, Sholette says, when the intellectual legacy of the New Left had come to a close. This was the context in which neoliberal structural adjustment had wiped away much of what was left of New York City’s welfare economy and created a “global citadel culture,” with its attendant demand for “fresh artistic products,” the fruit of a new entrepreneurial bohemia. Once the threat to institutional authority had passed, the museum went on to archive and document the art of post-1960s radical groups.

The book then shifts to the general terrain that was occupied by REPOhistory and the broader context of critical art in the 1980s and ‘90s. It recalls the culture wars of the period and the efforts of interventionists and site-specific artists to provide an alternative view of time and place. Various projects by REPOhistory, such as Queer Spaces and Civil Disturbances, worked with public strategies of address to reclaim suppressed histories and access to urban space. These projects were set against the ruinous conditions of economic privatization and deregulation, constituent elements of what Neil Smith defined as the “revanchist city.” Such interventions in public places contrasted with the dominant postmodernism and instead examined the lives of the disenfranchised and superfluous: the homeless, immigrants, radicals and trade unionists, sexual and racial minorities. From the artist as ethnographer to the anti-globalization activist, the 1990s gave rise to a model of cultural democratization that was not built on class consciousness but on the re-appropriation of signs, generating what Sholette calls an “outlaw archive,” the dark matter of social production as it exists within social consciousness.

The fourth chapter of the book finds Sholette at his most interesting. The work of Temporary Services and many other contemporary interventionist collectives are referred to in the context of gift-giving economies and new social practices of generosity. The familiar bugbear that the avant gardes sought to dissolve the distinction between art and life is used, in this case, to breath legitimacy into culture jamming and Situationist détournement. Rather than prefiguring a world of justice and social equality, the avant gardes are mentioned here as avatars of non-hierarchical fun. Much of this “playbor” is archived and produced in the electronic commons of the Internet, with its websites, videos, blogs, and social-networking platforms. What this commons requires of people is essentially participation and self-expression, a deregulated aesthetic that finds ways to give value to surplus time. Such “counter-institutionality,” “networked resentment,” “ignorance effects,” and creative free for alls, provide a space of imagination for those wounded by deterritorialized global capitalism.

Dark Matter then examines the question of glut, overproduction, redundancy, and the topic of precarity. It includes an interesting critique of the work of Olav Velthius and his description of the contemporary art world as a messy field of social antagonisms. The basis of aesthetic judgment for Velthius is the global art market and he considers that artistic value is nothing more than a series of language games. The figure of Velthius allows Sholette to distinguish his theory of enterprise culture, which is based on the problem of an inherent asymmetry between the chosen few and the exploited many. This leads Sholette to a very useful and interesting discussion of various historical efforts to organize artists into workers’ unions as an alternative to the market model. If the restless flexibility of artists makes them the model workers of enterprise culture, there is no reason why artists should not develop an awareness of artistic class consciousness and of the demands that are made on them constantly to produce just-in-time entertainments for a disciplinary regime that is unable to organize their virtuosity on anything other than an economic basis. What then happens to those who refuse to make art on demand and who instead choose to challenge the disciplinary forces of neoliberalism? How does one understand the interpassive relations that confront art activists when they are brought into the disciplinary orbit of ideological and repressive state apparatuses? The case of Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) member Steve Kurtz and his collaborator Robert Ferrell is addressed in the context of a detailed discussion of tactical media. At its best, contemporary tactical media practitioners, such as Electronic Disturbance Theater, Reclaim the Streets, and subRosa, believe that art should be oriented toward social and political dissent. Although today’s activist tactics may not involve the same forms of political resistance that we associate with the Old and New Lefts, Sholette insists that we see in them more than just a failure to return to strategic thinking. The fact that the FBI and the Department of Justice considered CAE’s genetically engineered food experiments to be potentially dangerous gives credence to the social, cultural, and political potential of tactical media.

Dark Matter captures with great aplomb the tenor of a generation that possesses abundant academic qualifications but few expectations and even less desire for rewards that are consonant with corporate culture and neoliberal administration. On the shores of a new collective imagination, Sholette wonders how it would be possible for the dispersed practices of the present to be mobilized into a new revolutionary politics. A chapter on mockstitutions provides examples of this imaginary of organization: “ersatz institutions,” “bureaus,” and “bogus corporations” like those of the Yes Men, the Center for Tactical Magic, Neue Slowenische Kunst, Infernal Noise Brigade, the Carbon Defense League, and the Institute for Applied Autonomy. By wearing the masks of authority, the kinds of second-order social reality that these artists’ groups generate allow for temporary interventions. Their forms of radicalism amount to fractured resistance, for sure, but who knows what lies on the other side of enterprise culture. Following the tumultuous events of the Arab Spring, the culture jamming magazine Adbusters and the hacktivist network Anonymous helped organize the rebellion that has gone by the name #occupywallstreet. Those who first camped out in Zuccotti Park and renamed it Liberty Square are indeed a dark matter whose resistance various institutionalized forces have attempted to recuperate. If the pretexts of artistic dark matter are anything like those of this movement, then for good and bad, it is likely that both will continue to avoid being absorbed into the channels of a constituted politics.

2012, Volume 63, Issue 08 (January)
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