The Game Has Changed

This column was originally published in the January/February 2011 issue of the Visual Artists’ News Sheet.

In my column for this publication a few months ago, I called for a new negativity, in the spirit of Herbert Marcuse’s claim that the proper function of art was to be a “Great Refusal”. What better answer could I get than the massive ‘NO’ painted on the grass of Parliament Square in London during one of the recent series of protests against government cuts in the UK? Only four weeks ago, this kind of negativity still seemed to be only a distant possibility in a place like the UK. When, at a conference on public art and civility organised by SKOR in Amsterdam at the end of October, I suggested that there would soon be expressions of massive public anger in the UK, some of the UK-based delegates were sceptical, accusing me of “revolutionary nostalgia”. I was confident that they were being unduly dismissive – but I still didn’t anticipate the scale of the recent protests.

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Just Say No

The artist Michael Wilkinson’s show ‘Lions After Slumber’, which was exhibited last May at the Modern Institute in Glasgow, was a repository of artefacts from past militant moments. The show was dominated by images and objects referring to the May ‘68 events in Paris and the punk and post-punk cultural sequences that happened in the UK in the late 70s and early 80s. The largest item in ‘Lions After Slumber’ was a massive photograph of Piccadilly Circus – the same image that had hung, upside down, in Malcolm McLaren’s shop Seditionaries in the 70s. But, tellingly, Wilkinson exhibited the photograph the right way up, a sign of the ways in which – in the thirty subsequent years – power has been restored. Wilkinson’s show was in many ways about the same malaise that I described in my book Capitalist Realism. [1] The book is about the retreat of the militancy, which ‘Lions After Slumber’ invokes. The surrender of any utopian impulse to a ‘capitalist realism’ which expects business to dominate all areas of culture has elicited a range of responses – a mordant sense of resignation, a cheerily compliant cynicism, an impotent protest, the quiet yet implacable plague of youth depression. All of which is manifested in a culture given over to (a largely unacknowledged) retrospection and pastiche. But even as pessimism totally pervades today’s culture at an unconscious level, negativity is officially abjured.

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