The Margins From Within
‘L’art d’aujourd’hui n’a pas lieu au musée.’ This is the legend on a poster from 1975, when people still believed in the fusion of art and life, and a series of artistic practices (or, we should say, attitudes) minimised the disjunction between the painting and the street. What is curious is that the slogan was used to advertise an exhibition in the Musée d’Ixelles in Brussels. Today neither art nor the museum nor the society around them are what they were thirty years ago. And yet the MACBA Study Centre exhibition, On the Margins of Art. Creation and Political Engagement, which brings together artist’s books, magazines, pamphlets, placards, postcards and other material printed between 1933 and 2008, posits the same paradox. That of announcing the margins of art right in the middle of the MACBA, that of enclosing pamphlets in display cases and exhibiting originally anonymous placards with details of their author, title and date.
Because this is an exhibition ‘about’, not ‘in’ the margins. Margins that took from the visual arts the impact of the image and from visual poetry the play of language. The reading on two levels, visual and semantic, thus became the message for a medium, printing, which allowed engaged art to create and spread in a quick, cheap and unlimited form. The selection of this show, determined by this relation between art, political engagement and print distribution, gains in richness by mixing spatially and temporally disparate contexts. The two sheets signed by André Breton and Diego Rivera in 1938, Pour un art révolutionnaire independent, which come with the Frenchman’s instructions on where to ‘direct the pasting up’, are a long way from the anonymous Guerrilla Girls of the eighties and their frontal attacks on gender inequality: Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get into the Met. Museum? On the other hand, even in the sixties the posters of the Black Panthers and the European intellectualism of the magazine Internationale Situationniste had little in common.
Time and place say what this ‘culture’ is ‘against’. The blood painted on the posters in favour of the Occitan language and for Rabascall against television acquires real texture in issue number 4 of Biopsia, in 1997, with which Juan Carlos Romero included a stained nail in memory of the disappeared during the military dictatorship in Argentina. This magazine in the form of a box, edited by Edgardo Vigo, is an example of how Latin American activism replaced the subliminal softness with which it had flouted the censors with an openly accusatory stance. Something not often seen in Spain even now.
The paradox that, as we have said, pervades this small bibliophile show can be frustrating for those looking for direct contact with material created with a public spirit. But fetishism aside, this is a contradiction that adds rather than detracts, if only because it obliges us to be critical of what we see, rethinking the significance of this industry of objects that is art. Because here is what is least ‘pleasing’, basically, old paper, faded texts in small print and cheap photocopies – many of them unsigned – which lie outside of restrictive view of art that sees its value in authorship (the signature) and originality (the unique work).
At least until the eighties. Since then, making engaged art has been fashionale: it’s cool and it sells. The signature is back (and with it, personal gain), as Alfredo Jaar demonstrates with his Questions for Arts Santa Mònica; while critique and the critiqued merge in a tricky and uncertain game of advertisements. Loved for its enormous power of attraction and hated for its power to annul, advertising today is a double-edged sword: Minnerva Cuevas turns the bottled water brand Evian into Égalité in allusion to the unjust distribution of access to the world’s water; Barbara Kruger critiques consumerism by printing her famous I shop therefore I am onto Vinçon carrier bags. The best defence against this is conceptual abstraction: choosing to make reading difficult, like Martha Dermisache’s illegible newspaper; exhibiting the naked idea, without illustrations, like Jorge Carballo’s ‘Liberty’ running out of ink; or placing us in front of a mirror that shows us at our most disagreeable, as in Adrian Piper’s discomfiting visiting card.
The curator of the show, Guy Schraenen, insists that ‘today everything is immediately assimilated by the system’. When squatters can end up depending on public funding, when young artists spend a large part of their time at art school making dossiers to apply for grants, and when graffiti artists not only command high prices on the market and present their ‘street works’ in the museum but even produce them specifically for the museum, the question is: Does the counterculture still exist? And, if we believe it does, most importantly: Does it mean anything?
A few months ago, a filmmaker was explaining to me how pointless it is to sign a manifesto in this day and age. ‘It used to be a way of subverting the system, but now no one cares if you signed a piece of paper with a bunch of declarations. The only thing the system is unable to digest is terrorism. If you want to go against the system, you have to be a terrorist.’ And he added: ‘To be a terrorist you have to be a real bastard: throw the stone and hide your hand behind your back.’ Far from the collective and idealistic anonymity of the sixties, nowadays the engaged artist has to be able to make a system that devours everything choke on it.