Garrett — Okwui Enwezor: The Artist as Producer in Times of Crisis

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Okwui Enwezor: The Artist as Producer in Times of Crisis
On April 27, 1934 Walter Benjamin delivered a lecture
at the Institute for the Study of Fascism in Paris. In
the lecture, “The Author as Producer”, Benjamin
addressed an important question that, since, has not
ceased to pose itself, namely to what degree does
political awareness in a work of art becomes a tool
for the deracination of the autonomy of the work and
that of the author? Benjamin’s second point was to
locate what a radical critical spirit in art could be
in a time of such momentous, yet undecided direction
in the political consciousness of Europe: between the
Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the productivist
model of artistic practice it instantiated and the
storms of repression unleashed by fascism and Nazism
in Western Europe. In a sense, Benjamin’s lecture
addressed the question of the artist’s or writer’s
commitment under certain social conditions. This would
lead him to ask “What is the attitude of a work to the
relations of production of its time?” Georg Lukács
posed a similar question in his 1932 essay “Tendency
or Partisanship?”. The conditions of production of the
time was the struggle between capitalism and socialism
as the driving force behind modern subjectivity.
It is my intention in this lecture to extend the
questions raised by these two thinkers and apply them
to the critical context of contemporary culture today.
Ever more so, Benjamin and Lukács are not only
relevant, but crucial to understanding a visible turn
that has become increasingly evident in the field of
culture at large, that is the extent to which a
certain critical activism in contemporary art has
become a way to pose the questions raised seventy
years ago anew through collective practices. My focus
is not on activism per se, but on work driven by the
spirit of activism that bear direct relationship to
Benjamin’s and Lukács’s essays.
To that end, recent confrontations within the field of
contemporary art have precipitated an awareness that
there have emerged in increasing numbers, within the
last decade, new critical, artistic formations that
foreground and privilege the mode of collective and
collaborative production. Is this return an
acknowledgment of the repressed memory of a social
unconscious? Is the collectivization of artistic
production not a critique of the poverty of the
language of contemporary art in the face of large
scale commodifications of culture which have merged
the identity of the artist with the corporate logo of
global capitalism? These questions shadow the return
of collectivity in contemporary artistic practice and
in so insistent a manner, across a broad geographic
area that to ignore the consequences is to miss the
vital power of dissonance that is part of its appeal
to the contemporary thinkers and artists who propose
collectivity as a course artistic work. Of course, we
need not to be reminded that there is nothing novel
about collectivity in art as such. It’s been a crucial
strategy of the avant-garde throughout the 20th
century. Therefore, a proper understanding of
collectivity today would have to be traced through its
affinities with past examples. This story belongs to
the history of modernism proper.
The position of the artist working within collective
and collaborative processes subtend earlier
manifestations of this type of activity throughout the
20th century. Collectivity performs an operation of
irruption and transformation on traditional mechanisms
and activities of artistic production which locates
the sole figure of the individual artist at the center
of authorship. Under the historical conditions of
modernist reification, collective or collaborative
practices (that is the making of an artwork by
multiple authors across porous disciplinary lines)
generate a radical critique of artistic ontology qua
the artist and as such also questions the enduring
legacy of the artist as an autonomous, individual
within modernist art. This concerns the question of
the authenticity of the work of art and its link to a
specific author. However, there is a level at which
the immanence of this discourse is also evidenced in
the critique of the author in postmodernism. On both
levels, I would argue that the anxieties that
circumscribe questions concerning the authenticity of
either the work of art or the supremacy of the artist
as author are symptomatic of a cyclical crisis in
modernity about the status of art to its social
context and the artist as more than an actor within
the economic sphere. This crisis has been
exceptionally visible since the last decade of the
twentieth century. The political climate of the
current global imperium adumbrates it further.
If we look back historically collectives tend to
emerge during periods of crisis; in moments of social
upheaval and political uncertainty within society.
Such crisis often forces reappraisals of conditions of
production, reevaluation of the nature of artistic
work, and reconfiguration of the position of the
artist in relation to economic, social, and
political institutions. There are two types of
collective formations and collaborative practices,
that are important for this discussion. The first type
can be summarized as possessing a structured modus
vivendi based on permanent, fixed groupings of
practitioners working over a sustained period. In such
collectives, authorship represents the expression of
the group rather than that of the individual artist.
The second type of collectives tend to emphasize a
flexible, non-permanent course of affiliation,
privileging collaboration on project basis than on a
permanent alliance. This type of collective formation
can be designated as networked collectives. Such
networks are far more prevalent today due to radical
advances in communication technologies and
However, we shall trace the emergence of the artist as
producer in times of crisis by first linking up with
modernism. In collective work we witness how such
work complicates modernism’s idealization of the
artwork as the unique object of individual creativity.
In collective work we also witness the simultaneous
aporia of artwork and artist. This tends to lend
collective work a social rather than artistic
Consequently, the collective imaginary has often been
understood as essentially political in orientation
with minimal artistic instrumentality. In other
instances shared labor; collaborative practice; the
collective conceptualization of artistic work have
been understood as the critique of the reification of
art and the commodification of the artist. Though
collaborative or collective work has long been
accepted as normal in the kind of artistic production
that requires ensemble work such as in music, in the
context of visual art under which the individual
artistic talent reigns such loss of singularity of the
artist is much less the norm, particularly under the
operative conditions of capitalism.
© Okwui