Sunday, 15 January 2012

Chantal Mouffe: Agonistic Politics and Artistic Practices

In this talk given to the European The New Patrons Project for art commissioning, Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe examines the function of critical artistic practice in terms of her politics of 'agonistic pluralism'.

Mouffe develops her understanding of 'the Political' through the concepts of 'antagonism' and 'hegemony'. The key to Mouffe's position is to understand that antagonism or conflict is considered to be 'ontologically', meaning necessarily, irreducible. What Mouffe refers to as 'the Political' is distinguished from 'politics' which refers to the hegemonic practices and institutions through which society is ordered and conflict controlled. However, because antagonism is necessarily irreducible, the social circumstances in which we live are inherently 'contingent' meaning that they could always be otherwise. It is this fundamental contingency that explains why social change is possible. It also implies that hegemonic projects are always insufficient with regard to their own stated ends e.g. new laws being continually required to patch up the insufficiencies of their precursors.

Rather than seek the elimination of antagonism through the completion of hegemonic projects which is both totalitarian and impossible, Mouffe advocates a politics of agonism which acknowledges the contingency of all hegemonic practices. Hegemonic practices would not disappear. Instead they would be democratically regulated through the creation of institutions and practices that support the formation of dissensus. What Mouffe refers to as 'critical art' would be one such means:
According to the agonistic approach that I am defending critical art is art that forms a dissensus. It is constituted by a manifold of artistic practices aiming at giving a voice to what is silent within the framework of the existing hegemony. But of course in order to put this question in a fruitful way one needs to understand in each moment what is the conjuncture in which one should intervene. And this is I think where a hegemonic approach is important because it allows us to grasp, for instance, that the current neoliberal hegemony is the result of a set of political interventions in a complex field of economic, legal and ideological forces.
Where hegemonic institutions and practices seek to legitimate or naturalise themselves by concealing their contingent foundations, agonistic critical art would be any aesthetic practice that uncovers and exposes the specific combination of circumstances that enabled them to form. In order to achieve this critical art would necessarily be public art. This in turn has implications for our understanding of public space:
Such a view challenges the widespread conception that, albeit in different ways, informs most visions of public space, conceived as the space where consensus could emerge. For the agonistic model on the contrary, the public space is the battleground where different hegemonic project are confronted without any possibility of final reconciliation.
In these agonistic spaces the hegemonic struggle for the exclusion or elimination of 'enemies' is replaced with mutual competition between a plurality of 'adversaries'. Here I think we are at the threshold between something like Graffiti Wars and radical politics. In order to make the leap from one to the other Mouffe suggests there are several myths of modernist avant-garde art that need to be relinquished:
  • That to be political or radical requires a total break with the existing state of affairs;
  • Critical art must create something absolutely new in order to achieve that radical break;
  • The more transgressive a practice is, the more radical it will be and the less susceptible to recuperation by the status quo;
  • That a total break with the existing state of affairs is possible.
Finally, Mouffe argues that critical artists must avoid trading on moral condemnation in the place of aesthetic judgement otherwise they risk missing the specificity of the agonistic political struggle inherent in the process of revealing the complex contingent structure of the hegemonic institutions and practices their art seeks to undermine.

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