Alain Badiou, Does the Notion of Activist Art Still Have Meaning?

Does the Notion of Activist Art Still Have Meaning? Alain Badiou [Is it still possible to propose a general definition of a militant vision of artistic creation? Alain Badiou proposes a work of art which is in relationship to local transformations and experiences, which is intellectually ambitious and which is formally avant-garde in the classical sense of the substitution of presentation for an ornamental vision of representation. A Lecture presented at the Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York City, October 13, 2010, in collaboration with Lacanian Ink.] My question this evening will be: Is it still possible to propose a general definition of a militant vision of artistic creation? The first and simple possibility is to say that a militant vision of artistic creation is when an art – a work of art – is a part of something which is not reducible to an artistic determination; for example, stained glass windows in churches. Stained glass is a symbol of the light of God and it is also part of artistic creation. Greek temples are also something for a collective cult. Military music is something inside the creation of patriotic courage. Egyptian pyramids are works of art certainly but also the whole symbolic question of the temple, and so on. In all of these cases we have the phenomenon of an artistic creation which is included in something else, which is something that is outside of the artistic determination. We can speak of an official artistic activity much more than a militant one. Finally, it's the artistic creation in the space of the state, of power. In this situation, the space of the state, we can have some magnificent works of art – it's not an objection to the existence of creativity. The cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach, the castles of aristocracy, and so on. The point is that artistic novelty is inscribed in the continuity of the state, including the Church, etc. In fact, the goal is to find a use of artistic creation for the glory of conservative institutions. We have for example in France the case of king Louis XIV. Certainly it's a purely despotic power, but it is also the personal protection of such great artists as Molière, or Racine. The price that we must pay is that the artists must sing the praise of the king. And they do. In fact, it has been the same thing from some great artists of the power of Stalin. OFFICIAL ART AND MILITANT ART In all these cases, we have a determination of artistic creation by the space of power which creates, on the one hand, a new possibility for artistic creation, with the protection of the power and the means of the power, and on the other hand, a limit which is a necessity to be inscribed inside the pure political necessity of the power itself. And so, I propose to distinguish an art which is protected by state power, and a properly militant art. This distinction is very important and sometimes unclear. Concerning the first – artistic creation inside the space of state power, an official art – we must say that to mistake an official art for a militant art has been the great problem during the last century. Some artists, sometimes some geniuses, have been at the centre of that sort of confusion. We can quote Bertolt Brecht or Heiner Müller for the theatre, Eisenstein for the cinema, Pasternak for the novel, Aragon or Eluard for French poetry, and even, in some circumstances, Picasso for painting. In all of these cases, it is very difficult to clearly distinguish between the pulsion of official art and the freedom of militant art. And so, during the last century, we have had some difficulty concerning the clear definition of militant art. What do official art and militant art have in common? What is the point of possible confusion between the two? We can say that what official art and militant art have in common is ideology. By ideology I understand a subjective conviction which is exposed in a language with a universal destination. We can have, for example, democratic ideology, communist ideology, human rights ideology, and also religious ideology, or a conservative one, or a monarchic ideology – in this case, the great artistic creations under Louis XIV. It's very important to understand that ideology is common in some sense to official art and militant art. However, that ideology is not at the same place in the two cases. And so the difference between official art, ideological art in the space of power of the state, and militant art, which is not enclosed in the power of the state, is not an ideological difference but much more a difference of the place of the ideological conviction in the work of art itself. In official art the point is that ideology is realized as power. The subjective function of ideology is inscribed into an objective apparatus – the Party, the state, the Party-state – like in the Soviet Union or in communist China. So, in official art, ideology is realized in an objective form: the inscription of the work of art in the space of that sort of objectivity. In a militant art, ideology is a subjective determination, not of an artist, but of a process, or struggle, of resistance. Official art describes the glory of what exists. It's an art of victory. I think that is the most important point. An official art with an ideological determination is an art not of weakness but of strength. A militant art is the subjective expression, not of what exists, but of what becomes. It's an art of the choice and not an art of victory. An official art is an art of affirmative certainty. A militant art is an art of contradiction, an art of the contradiction between the affirmative nature of principles and the dubious result of struggles. The point where ideology is inscribed in the work of art is not at all the same. In official art, the place of ideology is the glory of the work of art itself. In a militant art the place of ideology is the place of the contradiction and of the dubious results of the struggle. And so we have, in some sense, an art of the glorious victory, and an art of the dubious struggle. There is inside of each art, official art and militant art, an ontological and formal difference between the two. Ontologically, in its proper being, the official art is an art of the result, of what has been victoriously decided. In my jargon, it is the side not of the situation, but of the state of the situation – not on the side of presentation, but on the side of re-presentation. In fact, very often, official art must be a re-presentation of the result of the ideological potency of the victory of the historical potency. Militant art is the reverse. It's an art of what has not yet been completely decided. It's an art of the situation, and not an art of the state of the situation. Most importantly, it's an art of the presentation and not an art of the re-presentation. And so, militant art cannot be the image of something which exists, but must be the pure existence of what is becoming. And the difference is not only an ontological difference, but also a formal difference. Formally, that is the second point, official art uses all established means to glorify the new result. This is why there is always something conservative in official art. What is new is the political result – the new power. To glorify this result, this novelty, official art uses all means. This is why, generally speaking, official art and a new ideology is conservative in the sense of a sort of neo-classicism, which we can see not only in socialist realism, but also in fact in all the sequences in which the new result of political struggle is glorified by the mobilization of all the means established in the field of artistic creation. In the case of true militant art, we must create a new means to formalize the novelty. We do not have the means to mobilize all means of creativity, to glorify the result because the result is not here. We have the process and not the result. Since we cannot glorify the result by the mobilization of all means, we must create new means to formalize the process itself, to glorify what does not exist because the result is not here. This is why militant art is always in some sense an art of something presented in its proper non-existence and in its weakness, and not in the glorification of its existence as a result. And in fact, not only do you have to formalize the process but you must also formalize the uncertainty of the novelty itself. In official art we have always the affirmative glorification of the result, but in a militant art we have something which is much closer to the process, closer to something that does not exist, near something that is a real witness and so something uncertain. And so, that sort of hesitation, which is inside the process, is also a formal necessity. This is why in militant art we cannot have the glorification of the form. We must have the form itself. It is a translation of the uncertainty of the process. THE WEAK IDEOLOGICAL BACKGROUND OF ART TODAY All art may in some sense exist against the same ideological background. I insist on this point. Maybe, in some cases, we have an artistic creation with a subjective determination which is in some sense the same. However, the formal activity is completely different because in one case we have glorification of the result and in the other case we have the attempt to be inside the uncertainty of the process. In a more aesthetic language we can say that we have official art, under the idea of "great art," monumental art of the glorification of the result, and militant art, under the idea of experimental art, or avant-garde art. We can clearly distinguish between the two and recognize that from the same subjective conviction, two completely different formal orientations can be defined. But, there is also a sort of dialectic between the two. We cannot stop the point of their difference, of their opposition, with official art on one side and militant art on the other. Militant art can be and is very often a critique of official art. And, we know, official art is very often a critique of militant art, because the glorification of the result is not the love of the glorification of the uncertainty of the process. However, official art uses some of the new means of militant art because militant art is very often of the same ideology. And militant art is also stimulated by the potency of official art when the official art is of the same ideology. The fact that the same ideology is realized in the artistic field in two different forms creates, by necessity, an historical dialectic between the two. There is a sort of exchange between the two. In some great common moments, official art and militant art have something in common. We can quote for example the congress of antifascist intellectuals in Paris or Moscow in the 1930s, or even, as a small example, the portrait of Stalin by Picasso. Is this portrait official art? Certainly. But it is also a militant creation as well. And even the Mao of Andy Warhol, which is finally something ironic, but ironic in the shadow of the existence of official art. We can quote many situations concerning great artists like Brecht or Pasternak or Prokofiev in which we cannot distinguish clearly between the potency of official art, the means of official art, and the experimentation and the pure presentation of militant art. We have something which is in common, a tension between the two, a contradiction between the two, but also, they are in the same ideological space and so there exists a historical exchange between the two. The difference between the two and the point of exchange between the two is the condition of all art. The condition of art is the existence of a strong ideology. What I mean by strong ideology is an ideology which presents or proposes a completely different vision of the history of human beings as such. A strong ideology is something which creates the global idea of an other possibility. Ideology is not a simple concept. There exists also soft ideology. In the case of the historical existence of the strong ideology, we can have the clear vision of what is the existence of an official revolutionary art – what is a true militant art, and what are the differences between them and also what are the common points between them. We can say that the situation today is in my opinion very different. When we have to expose today the position of the possibility of a militant art, we cannot immediately expose our thinking in the parameters of the distinction between official art and a true militant art. Why? First, there is today no common strong ideology. There is no global vision of an other possibility for the world as such, for the historical world as such. Naturally, there exists opposition; there exist revolutionary movements; there exist struggles and so on. It's not true that there exists nothing at all. I am not at all in the space of a nihilist vision of the history of humanity. It's clear, however, that we cannot affirm, purely and simply, the existence of an other possibility as such, which was clearly affirmative in the second part of the last century. So, there is no common ideology and we must observe that democracy is the clear example of a weak ideology, and not a strong ideology. It is too consensual; it is too much in complete equivocation between the reactionary camp and the revolutionary camp, between progressives and conservatives, and so on. In fact, everybody is a democrat today. But when everybody is a democrat, we can see that the ideology is certainly weak. It was impossible fifty years ago to affirm that everybody was a communist. I'm not saying that communism was something exciting and democracy something very sad. I am just saying that communism was a difference and not a consensual concept. So, the ideological situation is not the same; it's different. We are today, maybe only for a moment, not for ever, in the context of the existence of a weak ideological constitution. When there does not exist a strong ideology, it is much more difficult to explain what is precisely, first, a militant art, because the subjective conviction is unclear, and second, to explain what is different between official art and militant art, against the same ideological background. This is the first point of difference. The second is that today, as a result of history, there is no charismatic power. And so there is no possibility for a strong official art, because there is no space of power, space of the state, where something like an official revolutionary art can be revealed. So, the two major conditions of militant and official art and the distinction between the two are not realized today. We are in a completely different situation. So the question today is the question of an isolated militant art, a militant art which is not in a dialectical relationship with an official art, on the same ideological background. But what is an isolated militant art? What is the condition of existence of that sort of art? The difficulty, I think, is not without a content, in relationship with a strong ideology. Militant art cannot be clearly distinguished from purely experimental art. It's practically impossible to distinguish between the formal level of experimentation and the political level of militant art as such. Why? Because the formal novelty, in the conditions of today, cannot be inscribed in clear reference to a progressive context, because this inscription, in the progressive context, was in fact always in a relationship with a strong ideology. Direct, mediate, explicit, inexplicit and finally we can always find, in the sequence of the past, the formal novelty – which in the case of militant art is in relation to a strong ideology by successive mediations. In the absence of strong ideology, in the absence of a space of power, it's very difficult to create a relationship between formal novelty and the progressive in the political field. So the temptation today is to say that artistic creation and formal novelty are by themselves sufficient to define the political destiny of art. Much more, sometimes, the temptation is to say that in the contemporary weakness of political novelty, artistic creation as such has a political content, a political determination. Finally, the temptation is to say that art, as novelty, as creativity, is by itself political. It's a temptation. But, we must understand that this temptation is today a necessity. It's a necessity in the context in which there does not exist a clear mediation between the field of artistic creation and the field of political activity. This mediation was in fact a part of the existence of a strong ideological context and a space of power that could define an official art. This temptation is the temptation of the avant garde as such, or maybe the temptation to identify, purely and simply, artistic avant gardes and political avant gardes. We know that the last century has been the century of very complex relationships between artistic avant gardes and political avant gardes. It has been the century of difficult relationships between, for example, Surrealists and communists, between formalism in art and realism in politics, and so on. Certainly, this history has not been simple at all, with many conflicts, tensions and difficulties. But it was a real history; it was the history of real mediation between the two separate fields of artistic creativity in the form of different avant gardes and the current revolutionary politics, with its organizations and state power. This history is finished, it's clear, because the components of this history do not exist today. There is no strong ideology. There is no real power with a reference to a strong ideology. And there is no clear definition of an artistic avant garde. All of the components have disappeared. So the temptation is that in every field in which we create something, we decide that the field is by itself also a political one. Our problem today is to refuse this temptation and to say that art can certainly be a subjective anticipation of some political events. Art is not separate from politics. Art can be a subjective preparation for the reception of a political event because art is really an effective subjective process. All forms of contemporary artistic experience are also subjective mobilizations in the direction of acceptation of the possibility of a political event. But art cannot be the creation of the political event as such, because the political event itself follows its proper laws. FOUR RULES FOR MILITANT ART TODAY So, the political consequences of an event are not of an artistic nature. We can accept that the situation today, of militant art, is a complex and unclear situation because there is something like an autonomy of artistic creation without the possibility of saying that this autonomy is by itself of a political nature. So we can only give some rules, an indication of the direction of what is today a militant art, which assumes that there is a real weakness of the relationship between art and politics today. This weakness is precisely our problem. We cannot substitute for this problem the weakness of the relationship between the two by an affirmation of a pure identity between art and politics. It's a temptation but a temptation which cannot have good results. To conclude I propose four provisionary rules concerning the question of a weak militant art. First, I think that it's a necessity to be in concrete relationship with local political experiences. It's a necessity to create a common space. The first common space was, precisely, the existence of strong ideology and strong organizations. In the absence of all that, the common space must be a practical common space, a real proximity. And so I think that artists must search and find the form of concrete relationships with some local political experiences which exist today. It could be the Palestinian situation, the mobilization of minorities, it could be whatever you want. But it's not possible to be distant from all that. We have a new imperative for artists, for the possibility of militant art, which is to be in an effective relationship to political life. In fact my proposition for this first point is to substitute an ideological proximity by a concrete or real proximity. In absence of a strong ideology, we must be really near the local experiences in the field of politics. We can find new formal means in the proximity itself. Second, we must know and assume, in the contrary sense, the attempts to organize progressively the return to a strong ideology. So, the first point is to accept the weakness, but the second point is to accept also the possibility to go beyond the weakness and so to know and participate in those different attempts to return to a strong idea concerning the global destiny of human beings. Is it possible today to propose once more a global idea of the transformation of our destiny? I don't known if it's possible, but if we want the creation of a new form of militant activity in the field of artistic creation, we must know and participate in the attempts to go in that sort of direction. And so there is a necessity for contemporary art to have a strong intellectuality, to know and to practice the intellectual disposition of today – not only concerning the formal means of creativity itself, but also to have as great an intellectual space as possible. The third point is to participate in the invention of new forms in the direction which substitutes presentation for re-presentation, and so, in the formal militant direction of a purely presentative function of artistic vision. So the first is a concrete relationship to political activities, in their local forms, because globally there is no strong vision, but there are intense local experiences – to go in the direction of what is intense locally much more than in the direction of what is powerful globally. Weak intensity but intensity all the same. The second is to assume really all of the attempts which are of a philosophical nature in some sense, in the direction of a return to a strong idea, forward from inside the weakness itself, to find the new way for the possibility of a strong idea. The third is to appropriate the new formal means in the clear direction of presentation and not the representative glorification of the results, because, as we know, there are no results at the moment. Glorification of the results is consequently something completely boring. After these, the fourth point – and it's a point which is of a really artistic nature – is to propose the possibility of a synthesis of the three first points. Synthesis between relationships to local experiences, knowledge of the attempt of something much more strong and global, and new formalizations in the direction of pure presentation. Doing something that is like a concrete synthesis of these three determinations. So, to propose a work of art which is really in relationship to action – the first point – local transformation, which is intellectually ambitious and which is formally avant-garde in the classical sense of the substitution of presentation for an ornamental vision of representation. If something can be done in this direction – and I think it's possible – we can have a militant art in a strong sense, a militant art which is really inside the contemporary possibility of actions, but which is also at the level of intellectual activity and in the direction of a strong idea and which is in the descendancy of the new formal invention of the last century and of today. I think that a militant art today is possible, not as a direct illustration or realization of a strong ideology, but as a sort of composition, a sort of montage of these three determinations. And so I hope that what exists today concerning artistic creation will progressively constitute a sort of reference for the passage of the first stage of our history, which is closed today, to an other stage, which is the opening of a new potency of the idea. Transcribed and edited by Marc James Léger from vimeo videos available at: