The short answer is no, but how can it function beyond commodification?

by Subash Thebe


Leer en español

Figure 1. Ibrahim Mahama’s jute sack installation. Central Exhibition, Arsenale, 56th Venice Biennale 2015. Photography Alex John Beck for Artsy


A few months ago, I sat down with my tutor to discuss the draft for this research paper, and the first thing we discussed was the use of the term ‘political art.’ I could not agree more with the notion that it encompasses a broad subject matter and my paper will probably not benefit from the vagueness this may give rise to. My body of work and research is informed by art that addresses and is engaged with contemporary social issues encompassing commentary, observation, critique or facilitation for a social change, all underpinned by an ability to function as more than a commodity. After a few weeks, to my amusement, I came across this article in e-flux journal by Martha Rosler titled, Take the Money and Run? Can Political and Socio-critical Art “Survive”?1 Throughout this discourse I am borrowing Rosler’s term sociocritical to define artworks that are engaged in socio-political issues and social change. Though the discourse about commodification of art can be discussed in general sense, my reference to art hereafter only refers to sociocritical art.

The debate about art being just another commodity and always prone to recuperation is not a new one and also not to be taken lightly. The art market is clear about its intention of making profit but the role of the artist in this art-market-society dynamic is very significant and complex at the least. Jean Baudrillard, in 1996 essay The Conspiracy of Art, wrote that art “has become involved (not only from the financial point of view of the art market, but in the very management of aesthetic values) in the general process of insider trading.”2 And more recently, Martha Rosler, in her 2015 essay, speculated that “the art world core of cognoscenti who validate work on the basis of criteria that set it apart from a broad audience may favor art with a critical edge, though not perhaps for the very best reasons.”3 Art engaged in social commentary has always highlighted the potential of art to act as a space for facilitating social change. Galleries and dealers also know the potential well, but from a totally different viewpoint—the financial one. The market acquires politically charged works without hesitation for they know how to capitalize and extract immense profit from them. Artists, in turn, are willing to be represented by those galleries, and fairly enough, gain some parts of the capital created by the art market.

The market acquires politically charged works without hesitation for they know how to capitalize and extract immense profit from them

So in the midst of this recuperation by the market and the system, can sociocritical art function as more than just another commodity? As a practicing artist and student —one of those passionate about social change and often categorized as young and naïve, trying to repair the world— I find this question rather important. Unlike theorists like Baudrillard4, I believe art can address real issues of our everyday lives through continuing an exploration of contested spaces and contemporary concerns relevant to us today. This paper will discuss the present scenario; the relation between art and the market and the contradictions faced by sociocritical art that one might find hard to ignore. It will slightly touch upon my own practice in context of the artist’s responsibility, followed by an investigation of modes and approaches an artist could engage in sociocrital art. I will be using two different ways to research the modes and approaches; firstly, the space or location where one works in relation to the system, and secondly with regards to the nature of conveying a message or addressing issues. Although the discourse is not straightforward, this paper will try to come to a conclusion of some sort.

Contradictions and Commodity

Ibrahim Mahama, a Ghanese artist whose work is featured in 56th Venice Biennale, states that his “common theme within the physicality and also the process within his works, deal with the idea of labour and capital.”5 He used worn out jute sacks that once carried coca, rice and coal, knitted together to make a massive installation (Figure 1). The jute sacks undoubtedly bear traces of labour from their original use and his contextualization of the material, in regard to our contemporary issues of labour and capitalism, is rather telling.

He also credits6 the labour of 20 to 25 people he depends on to realize his works and installations unlike many artists who simply do not talk about the manual input of assistants they depend upon on an industrial scale to execute their work. On the other hand, with the rising fame, his works are undoubtedly becoming a valued commodity of the same system he is criticizing. It might be unfair to say that he is contradicting himself by succumbing to the art market for it seems quite hard to detach oneself from the capitalistic grid when you are living on it. The recent lawsuit by Los Angeles dealer and artist agent Stefan Simchowitz and Dublin dealer Jonathan Ellis King against Ibrahim Mahama for allegedly breaching the contract, which might have ‘cost’ the former $4.5 million dollars, speaks volumes about the contradiction the artist treads on and the commoditization of art.7

We live in a world of contradictions and dilemmas. We care about environment and at the same time apply to work on art projects funded by BP with an application explaining how interested we are in the project. It is even worse when we think about the changing nature of democracy in capitalist societies, where the top 1% rules the rest of the population. Chomsky goes even further saying we cannot have a ‘capitalist democracy,’ it is an oxymoron, and the relation between capitalism and democracy is a contradiction.8 This notion has been echoed in the art world quite vocally in recent times; most notably in the recent 56th Venice Biennale titled All The World’s Futures under the curator Okwui Enwezor, who curated Documenta XI with similar undertones of inequality, globalization, and democracy. Enwezor proposes All the World’s Futures as a “project devoted to a fresh appraisal of the relationship of art and artists to the current state of things.”9

We care about environment and at the same time apply to work on art projects funded by BP with an application explaining how interested we are in the project.

While most of the literature has been overwhelmed by the notion of recuperation and how art submits to the laws of capital, Dave Beech’s idea of the economical exceptionalism of art seems quite encouraging and optimistic. In his recent book, Art and Value: Art’s Economic Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical and Marxist Economics, Dave argues that art is different from other forms of material production. He quotes Marx’s analyses10 of commodity and argues that “in standard capitalist production, in which commodities are produced for the market, products are produced as commodities, but art’s is a belated commodification.”11 To paraphrase Beech, art only turns into commodity when sold and is not produced as one. The argument is agreeable, for most artists (including myself) do not make or produce artwork as a commodity to exchange or planning to sell it to a certain client for a certain amount. The purpose of art production is fundamentally different from that of other non-art commodities, and art is thus economically exceptional—but is it exceptional in other ways than the economical? It can be said that sociocritical art or art in general is not a commodity like any other, but how can it function beyond and bypass commodification is a different matter. Though art seems to defy the process of commodity, when you witness events like those Mahama went through, it does not seem that hard to contradict the very reason one might choose to engage in sociocritical art in the first place.

Not practicing what you preach

My own practice in this space and time is no different; I found it contradicting my ideals quite a few times. It was only a couple of years ago that I stopped submitting my work for BP Portrait Award. I care about the environment and my home country Nepal is at the receiving end of climate change. There were only a few recorded glacial lakes in our Himalayas in the 60s, but due to the rise of temperature by one degree Celsius, now there are more than 26 potentially dangerous glacial lakes and a severe impact in ecology and socio-economy has been observed12. But on the other hand, we cannot boycott everything that has a connection with the fossil fuel industry, so there has to be some degree or some area of resistance from where we can work and formulate ideas and ideals. Furthermore, I cannot exclude the very space I am practicing in —which has carried out funding cuts for the arts in recent times that resulted in the #OccupyUAL13 campaign— from the context. Or let’s look at possible future scenarios; maybe a show in high-end gallery, a possible financially strong future in the art world and a possible demise of ideological values that drove me to make sociocritical art in the first place. But the potential of endlessly serving as dark matter (invisible entities like amateur artists, cultural prosumers who feed the art world, as described by Gregory Sholette14) outweighs the possibility of being represented by galleries in the magnitude of thousands.

Figure 2. Still from my performance Kafala 2013, at the gates of Embassy of Qatar, London.

In the meantime I am also shifting my practice in terms of approach and the use of materials and space. I have been using painting as my primary medium for quite a while, which is very traditional medium and has a long history in the visual arts. I still regard painting as one of the important mediums, but I also explore other mediums like multimedia installation and performance such as Kafala15, 2013, (Figure 2). I work with sound, lights, cables and wires collected from a metal scrapyard for my multimedia installation. Apart from its reference to surveillance, data transformation and power distribution, the cables and wires tells stories about the buildings, spaces and houses they once belonged to that now might have been decommissioned, sold, or seized. This also accentuates the dialogue around materiality as the flexibility of materials can act as both drawing and installation devices and unlike other materials it can be reused and re-appropriated to make new work. The sound based component juxtaposes sounds of protests, recorded by myself with others downloaded from the Internet. This approach is driven by what I believe is a necessity to modify our approach and relation to the society we live in rather than to be driven by the market and institutions. In addition, more could be done by not taking part in a project that one thinks is ethically wrong or maybe by changing to materials that resonate more with the public or the community we are focussing on. Recuperation is pervasive but it would only benefit society and art if the artists and academics re-analyse and re-negotiate their roles in the art world and in society. It is understandable that most artists want to have a decent career, but there may be ways and measures to extend sociocritical art beyond commodity at the same time, after all, as Martha Rosler concludes in her essay, “it is not the market alone, after all, with its hordes of hucksters and advisers, and bitter critics, that determines meaning and resonance: there is also the community of artists and the potential counterpublics they implicate.”16 And if this meaning and resonance implicates artists, it is good news in the sense that there are definitely ways for artists to influence the dynamics to facilitate desired conditions.

It is understandable that most artists want to have a decent career, but there may be ways and measures to extend sociocritical art beyond commodity at the same time.

Modes of practice

Before delving into the question of how, it is important that we are clear for whom we are making art. Is it the critics and theorists? Or, is it the collectors or dealers? Well, the term I chose, ‘sociocritical,’ contains the word ‘socio,’ meaning social, sociological or society, which settles the case of who the audience is. Having said that, it will not be beneficial to strip off art’s criticality and replace it with communication design, nor it will be to think that critical art is exclusive to scholars, and that brings us to the question of what we want to achieve. It is quite telling that even movements like #occupy and #arabspring could not crystalize into something tangible, so, to ask or expect of art anything like making direct social change or revolution might be a little too unrealistic. The achievement we aspire to is more about continuing to occupy space as a place to percolate ideas and possibilities, interrogate the status quo, investigate historical process and thus facilitate social change—in other words, to change the way we see and act. Then we arrive at the most debated question of how we might do this.

The history of sociocritical art can be traced back to 19th century Gustave Courbet’s The Stone Breakers, 1849. Later, Dada in the early 20th century laid the foundations for institutional critique followed by the emergence of artists like Marcel Broodthaers, Andrea Fraser, Fred Wilson, and Hans Haacke. The Situationist International, took it further by incorporating ‘Marxist and avant-garde traditions in a critique of the totality of everyday life.’17 At present, apart from well-documented artists like Mel Chin, Martha Rosler and Ai Weiwei, there are many working and exploring in the realm of sociocritical art.

In a 2006 essay, Gene Ray outlined three models for critical practice by artists in respect to their positions ‘vis-à-vis autonomy and the institutions that produce it’—accepting the institution on its ‘own terms and work[ing] within the art system,’ relocating the practice outside of the system, or moving ‘between these two positions.’18 He said the first ‘model is structurally blocked from developing effectively anti-capitalist practices,’ whereas he considered the second model ‘more likely to develop anti-systemic pressure,’ although ‘more vulnerable to social and economic exclusion and more exposed to direct political repression.’ In spite of having the ‘potential to become anti-capitalist’ the third model, he concluded, is also vulnerable for the ‘work outside those institutions will tend to be interpreted as part of an integral artistic oeuvre and, to the same extent, is prepared in advance for reabsorption.’19

Arguably, one might prefer the third model outlined by Ray because the model has a dual nature much like that of light; light can be a particle and wave at the same time, which means we can choose its nature depending on the type of experiment we wish to carry out. Likewise one can work inside or outside the system depending on the nature of effect the artists want to achieve. The debate about the efficacy of these three models, today, is as fresh as it was in 2006 and will likely remain so for many years to come. Martha Rosler observed similar scenario in her 2010 essay and said, “there are always artworks, or art ‘actions,’ that are situated outside the art world or that ‘cross-list’ themselves in and outside the golden ghettos.”20 And although the in-and-out strategy may be preferable, one can agree with Rosler, that we do not need to choose. Moreover, despite the positions we take, the functionality of sociocritical art depends more on the relation it creates with the viewer and less with the position it operates from, as Jean Fischer suggested: “if one can still speak of an ethical or political dimension to art, I would suggest it rests first and foremost not in subject matter but in the way material and syntactical organization articulates its relationship with the viewing subject.”21 Additionally, Sven Lütticken puts it: “it is no longer a matter of choosing between anti-institutional aesthetic practice (1960s neo-avant-garde tendencies) and embedded critical practice within institutions (1970s institutional critique). By now, the complementary nature of both approaches is clear, as artistic and theoretical practice navigate institutional as well as extra-institutional contexts and interstices.”22

Direct (Explicit), ambiguous and subversive practices

Another perspective through which to analyze modes of practice could be the approach the artist chooses to convey the message or address his or her concern. Firstly, there is direct approach, which highlights the situation. Secondly, the ambiguous or indirect works which sometimes point to multiple possibilities, and at other times, they are just ambiguous and nothing more. Finally, there is subversion.

Figure 3. Tim Shaw, Casting a Dark Democracy, 2008 © Steve Bailey

The direct approach, moulded mostly by the responses of status quo or daily experiences, can be shocking, honest and sometimes frightening, like Tim Shaw’s Casting a Dark Democracy, 2008, (Figure 3): a multi sensory installation with a massive sculpture based on the image of Abu Gharib prisoner, made out of metal, barbed wire, polythene and electric cables, standing on a box looking down at oil filled pool. The viewer might find his installation uncomfortable to look at; the dim lighting, smoke and strange sound alleviates the effect of horror and suffering, that victims of the Iraq war once might have felt in real life. Arguably, the audience might think, works like Tim Shaw’s Casting a Dark Democracy do more than just state the facts. One might have heard about the issue he is responding to in the news and media, but with the help of technology (sound and multi-media) he brings the awkwardness closer. Instead of just representing the facts, this work literally immerses the audience in the dreadful ambience and hence starts the ‘why?’ conversation followed by acknowledgement, guilt, responsibility, and possibly activism.

Jean Fischer warns that most political art could end up as third rate journalism, while others ask, if we really need a gallery space to find out something we can read in a newspaper or watch on BBC.

Although, the same cannot be said or argued for all explicit works, their impact cannot be understated and their efficacy is still debatable. Jean Fischer warns that most political art could end up as third rate journalism, while others ask, if we really need a gallery space to find out something we can read in a newspaper or watch on BBC. The answer would be a resounding yes, so as to manifest disagreement, interrogation, perspective and criticism. Besides, when media is controlled by a handful of big corporations that distort the narratives and manufacture consent in favor of the institutions it serves, it becomes even more urgent to create space to facilitate debate that is missing from the mainstream media.

The painting of Hitman Gurung from Nepal, a country that sends thousands of migrant workers to the Middle East, tells another heartbreaking story. Due to poor working conditions and inadequate shelter facilities in the extreme heat of the Middle East, hundreds of migrant workers have died while building the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar23.

After extensive research about the workers who left for Qatar and never came back, he spent months travelling to and meeting their family members and archiving their stories and evidence. Although he presents paintings as the final work, his whole methodology and approach can be regarded as much more significant than the stretched canvases just by themselves. His direct approach in his work (Figure 4) illustrates the reality of the situation very well though it might fall short on pointing towards alternate possibilities and thus opening itself to the Trotsky-ian critique that art is not a mirror to reflect reality but a hammer to shape it.24 However, it can be reasoned that his work superseded the function of being just a mirror when it was recently shown in The Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, in Queensland, Australia, for the site (faraway from locale i.e. Nepal) it was shown at played an important role in mapping geopolitical issues. Thanks to triennials and biennials, in cases like this, it could even function as a work of educational and historical value, as Rosler suggested.25

Figure 4. Hitman Gurung, Yellow Helmet & Grey House, 2015 ©The Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA)

Most direct approaches are practiced within the realms of the established capitalist system, acknowledging the location of practice and choosing the space and institution as a place for struggle. Institutional critique, which started in the 60s, was quite unambiguous (like Hans Haacke’s explicit works), and although the works may be openly critical, Ray asserts that it “must end by affirming the status quo that, for good reasons of its own, indulges this realm of relative freedom. In other words, the first model is structurally blocked from developing effectively anticapitalist practices.”26 Although there has been an extensive analysis of Institutional Critique, it is still hard to categorize many works within specific parameters for they tend to defy the defined borders of the institutions. For example, Rosler’s 1989 If You Lived Here... is an institutional critique but it also bleeds into intervention and activism. When Rosler was invited by Dia Arts Foundation to do a solo show, she decided to work on homelessness in urban places (New York in her case). She not only examined the role of art institutions like Dia Art Foundation —that gentrify neighborhoods forcing longtime residents to shift— but also organized discussions and reading rooms, took part in protest, and invited number of artists to collaborate.27

The second approach, ambiguity, by definition opens up possibilities, which in a sense one could argue is a very diplomatic position but also has the vulnerability of being so abstract that it may not mean anything. Nevertheless, ambiguous works has been argued to have capacity to open up the debate about possibilities. Nooshin Farhid in her essay Art and Textuality writes, that for the artist to be politically effective the approach has to be indirect and obtuse to avoid the routes that historically political art as a defined practice has taken.28 Ambiguity, can be powerful and calm at the same time, it can be violent but still leave ample amounts of gateways for peace, for example, Imran Qureshi’s Roof Garden Commission, 2013, (Figure 5) on the Metropolitan Museum’s roof seemed like a bloody scene from his country Pakistan. The dried blood-red patches could have been a connection to the suicide—bombing sites. However, after close inspection one could see leaves, feathers and angel’s wings and this is where, as Imran says, “a dialogue with life, with new beginnings and fresh hope starts.”29

Figure 5. The Roof Garden Commission (detail), Imran Qureshi on the Metropolitan Museum’s roof. Credit Chang W. Lee / The New York Times

Ambiguity could be a preferred field for both galleries and artists for it would seldom provoke anger from the sponsors and the collectors. The artist too can get away with presenting subject matter he or she would have had difficulty addressing in an explicit manner. Unlike explicit work, it invites the viewer to dig deeper and contemplate about different aspects of artwork, rather than jumping to conclusions and moving on to the next work. It offers the viewers the chance to interpret in various ways how they could relate to the work and this in turn also opens up dialogue, which at some point could intersect and form a common ground of understanding that we may not have necessarily thought possible before. Benjamin writes,

“Actually, it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it... The most extraordinary things, marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the event is not forced on the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves amplitude that information lacks.”30

But then if that art were too hard to consume for the masses, it would not serve a political purpose.

Adorno believed that an authentic art could actually escape the net of capitalism. He gives example of Kafka and Schoenberg in literature and music respectively; who created complex forms of art that could not be commodified. But then if that art were too hard to consume for the masses, it would not serve a political purpose. Delueze and Guattari offer a similar approach and share the praise for non-representational art, but unlike Adorno, shift away from culture. They posit a rhizome where there is no finite hierarchy in distribution of communication, where any data could be transferred to and from any point in the system, where location and identity are blurred and possibilities multiplied. They talk about a schizophrenic process that subverts capitalism by liberating desire; it makes a way for new thinking and possibly a social transformation to take place—and they believe that postmodern art might be able to deliver just that. Most recently art critics like Jean Fischer have suggested something along the same lines that art should be oblique to work as an efficacious political art.31

The third approach, Detournement or subversion, on the other hand, seems to work very differently; it can be explicit, anti-capitalist and sometimes risky. Subversion could be analyzed in two ways —firstly, in terms of its position within the system and secondly, in relation to the use of humor and satire. Categorically, the former could fall both in the second and third modes of practice as outlined above by Ray— not accepting and working inside the system, or Ranciere’s ‘becoming life of art’ (le devenir vie de l’art). Situationist International (SI), with whom the term detournement is usually associated, is believed to have played an important role in the student uprising and general strike in France in 1968.

Ray argues that, “SI is a troublesome counterexample for skeptics who doubt that groupings of determined artists can develop effective forms of intervention and political agency outside the art institutions.”32 The ideas of founding member of SI, Guy Debord, about commodity fetishism and the ‘spectacle’ of society (published in the book The Society of The Spectacle, 1967) are still widely being debated. Furthermore, It can be argued that the present day ‘culture jammers,’ ‘hackitivist’ and other anti-consumerist social movements owe their tactics to SI’s detournement. Many artists, while still accepting relative freedom offered by institutions or the system, now have incorporated this approach. It has become increasingly normal to cross boundaries and inhabit both grounds or to practice a ‘nomadic’ model in Ray’s words.33 Ray talks about Mel Chin as a pioneer of this double game34 and I found his work to be the most interesting while doing this research.

Figure 6. Mel Chin, Revival Field, 1991-ongoing. Plants, industrial fencing on a hazardous waste landfill an ongoing project in conjunction with Dr. Rufus Chaney, senior research agronomist, USDA ©

He used the funding from the National Endowment for Arts (NEA) to realize an ecological art project called Revival Field, 1993, (Figure 6) in Minnesota. With the help of scientists, he developed a process to transform a hazardous site into a revitalized landscape by using plants called ‘hyperaccumulators’ that would suck toxic heavy metals from the soil. The plants are then harvested to yield metal purer than high-grade ore, which can be resold, thus cleaning the soil at the same time.35 The project continued for a decade to various locations and his website states that the project is still ongoing.36 Arguably, one can regard his practice as of great importance in the domain of sociocritical art, and a guide for other artists toward the possible use of art to create situations for the common good of society.

Compared to the serious and solemn nature of SI and Mel Chin, subversion through humor and satire works on different level. Robert Garnett states that “Art can’t shock and traumatize us in the same way anymore; art’s affectivity and effectivity is today of a different and more ‘pre-posterously’ humorous order.”37 Thinkers like Deleuze have written extensively about humor and irony but it is George Orwell, who seems to be spot on about the underlying cause and significance of the social conditions we live in. He writes,

“Whatever is funny is subversive, every joke is ultimately a custard pie... A dirty joke is not, of course, a serious attack upon morality, but it is a sort of mental rebellion, a momentary wish that things were otherwise. So also with all other jokes, which always centre round cowardice, laziness, dishonesty or some other quality which society cannot afford to encourage.”38

This mental rebellion, a momentary wish that things were otherwise, Orwell talks about, could be the key to opening up alternate possibilities. It can be argued that humor evoked by this momentary wish or mental rebellion in turn induces the same effect on the viewers more easily than explicit and ambiguous works. It questions our understanding of everyday reality, the reality that should not have been a reality; it takes us to our uncomfortable times and helps us to see things differently. Sigmar Polke mocked the art world he was in; his works like Higher Powers Demand: Paint the Upper Right Corner Black! 1969 or Modern Art (Moderne Kunst) 1968 may not be like the sociocritical art we are discussing here, but since he was concerned about social issues and history, one can speculate that he may have been critical of the abstraction that seem to have little to say about prevalent social issues. Other artists like Chapman Brothers and Maurizio Cattelan are very successful in terms of social commentary, but Yes Men took their art to next level, creating situations and possibilities through humor. Yes Men are practitioners of culture jamming (influenced by the Situationist International) and they use and exploit various technological tactics to subvert the media and mainstream culture. Like Fisher says, ‘rather than see globalization’ and capitalism as disempowering we have to ask whether ‘art is capable of imaginatively taking advantage of certain of its effects.’39 There are effects that we can benefit from; technological advances exponentially speeded up growth along with inequality, and at the same time this very technology is at our disposal to be exploited. The most significant work of Yes Men, when they appeared on BBC as Dow Chemical spokesman, was only possible because of this subversion of web technology. BBC contacted their fake Dow Chemical website, arranged an interview and Yes Men took full advantage by apologizing and promising to compensate the Bhopal disaster victims who had been waiting for justice for 20 years. CNN reported Dow stock loss of 2 billion dollars in German exchange within minutes.40


Recently, I went to an event entitled “CSM Public–Art, Design and the Common Good”41, at my college at Central Saint Martins that aimed to explore how art and design can be an agent for positive societal change. Jeremy Till, the head of Central Saint Martins, opened the debate by admitting the complexity of the question and that we are still struggling to find the answers. Though the panel was diverse in their practices, they all seem to agree that art can facilitate change and work for the common good; there is no definitive answer as to how, but the tone was nevertheless optimistic.

Writers and academics think the same; Dave Beech in his 2009 essay writes, “in the last few years, art has become more engaged, more directly political and more critical... Politics has not taken centre stage in the contemporary art world but the intellectual conditions under which engaged and critical art is practiced today has improved.”42 And Rosler points out that “artists have the capacity to condense, anatomize, and represent symbolically complex social and historical processes.”43 We are in a privileged position to ask and interrogate, to keep feeding the system with ideas antithetical to its values until it gets saturated enough to modify itself to our values, the values of the masses. It may not be a good analogy but if we could permeate our ideals and values like a virus in a body or entity we live in, outside which if we cannot survive but can do enough changes from the inside so the entity itself is changed. Or, if we imagine ourselves as the invisible dark matter, theoretically it is possible to shape society (stars), for it is our gravity that determines its future.

Andy Bichlbaum, a member of the Yes Men, appears on BBC World 2004 as Dow Chemical spokesman to take full responsibility for the Bhopal disaster

There are indeed many contradictions and dilemmas but the situation is not as bleak as one would imagine. Even though #OccupyUAL could not achieve its goal, one can see hope when art students are standing against the institution they belong to because it decided to cut funding. It points to a thirst for change when artists are expressing their concerns about climate change and demanding to review the relation between art and corporate giants. Nina Power wrote in an e-flux conversation that contemporary art, or at least its institutions, offers a space for radical political reflection and action.44 Also, It seems that one can relocate their practice outside the system or work in both spheres; may it be by occupying space like the students of Central Saint Martins did or by leaving the space like Ai Weiwei when he shut down his show in Denmark in the wake of the ‘Danish parliament’s approval of the law proposal that allows seizing valuables and delaying family reunions for asylum seekers.’45 May it be explicit, ambiguous, or subversive; may it be from inside the system or outside the system; all the modes and approaches work in various conditions. No mode of practice is perfect and none should be rejected until it helps to facilitate social change. It seems clear that there is no absolute answer as to how one can successfully engage in sociocritical art, but then again this engagement in sociocritical art is like an ongoing project, and the possibilities are immeasurable, like the changes we make and aspire to make. This research has also reminded me that despite the power and influence of art, public engagements and voices on the streets should also be on the agenda, in addition to nurturing the idea of sociocritical art as alive and ongoing.

Quotes and endnotes

  1. Martha Rosler, “Take the Money and Run? Can Political and Socio-Critical Art “Survive”? | E-Flux,” 2015.

  2. Jean Baudrillard and Sylvere Lotringer, “The Conspiracy of Art” (New York: Semiotext(e), 2005), 26.

  3. Martha Rosler, “Take the Money and Run? Can Political and Socio-Critical Art “Survive”? | E-Flux,” 2015.

  4. Jean Baudrillard and Sylvere Lotringer, “The Conspiracy of Art” (New York: Semiotext(e), 2005), 26.

  5. la Biennale di Venezia Channel “Bienale Arte 2015—Ibrahim Mahama” Interview with Ibrahim Mahama (Ghana). Accessed 7 May 2015.

  6. AADAT Art, “INTERVIEW: Ghanaian Artist Ibrahim Mahama on Art, Labor, and Capital,” 2014.

  7. According to the article published on artnews, the two dealers (Stefan Simchowitz and Jonathan Ellis King) in 2013 made an oral agreement with Mahama to each give him £45,000 in return for ‘large amount’ of jute sack material. The duo says Mahama signed 294 pieces of jute sacks in December 2014 and sold they sold 27 of the stretched pieces at an average of $16,700 (£11,693 approx.) During the show at Ellis King gallery, Mahama allegedly breached the oral agreement and sold 20 new pieces to other collecters and citing his disappointment in the works stretched by Ellis King, he asked his name to be removed from the gallery webpage for he no longer wanted to be represented by them. The artist is also indicated sending letter that he denied the authorship of the materials apart from two installations shown at the gallery. So that is why, King and Simchowitz say, they had file the lawsuit because of potentially costing them $4.5m (£3.14m approx.) in work they own by him. See more at the article by S. Douglas, and Andrew Russeth, A., “Jute Sack Artworks Are at the Center of Simchowitz Lawsuit Against Venice Biennale Artist,” ArtNews.

  8. Chomsky lecture at 1199 SEIU Union Hall located in Dorchester, MA on September 30, 2014.

  9. Okwui Enwezor, “All the World’s Futures—Statement of the Curator of the 56th Intl. Art Exhibition.”

  10. ‘A thing can be useful, and the product of human labour, without being a commodity. Whoever directly satisfies his wants with the produce of his own labour, creates, indeed, use values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use values, but use values for others, social use values.’ Marx 1954 as quoted by Beech on p.184 “Art and Value: Art’s Economic Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical and Marxist Economics” (Boston: Brill, 2015).

  11. Dave Beech, “Art and Value: Art’s Economic Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical and Marxist Economics” (Boston: Brill, 2015), 270.

  12. Bikram Tamang and Deepak Parajuli, “A Compendium for the Course—Climate Change and Society.” (Pokhara: Pokhara University, 2015).

  13. OccupyUAL—the students of Central Saint Martins UAL occupied the administration offices in King’s Cross on 19 March 2015 protesting against the funding cuts on Foundation Art and Design places. Later the University took legal action and won injunction against 15 of its protesting students banning them from occupational protest on campus indefinitely. The occupation lasted for four weeks.

  14. Gregory Sholette, “Dark Matter,” (London: Pluto Press, 2011).

  15. I performed Kafala outside the embassy of Qatar in London 2013. The word kafala means ‘sponsorship’ in Arabic, and kafala system that binds all migrant workers, is believed to be one of the most inhumane legislation in Gulf countries that gives citizens and private companies oversight and legal power to control workers; like the worker cannot quit and change jobs or even leave the country without the employer’s permission. The performance coincided with the protest organized by Nepalese youth and British unions members and social activist association in London. Video.

  16. Martha Rosler, “Take the Money and Run? Can Political and Socio-Critical Art “Survive”? | E-Flux”, 2015.

  17. Sadie Plant, “The Situationist International: A Case of Spectacular Neglect,” Radical Philosophy 55, Summer 1990.

  18. Gene Ray, “On the Conditions of Anti-Capitalist Art: Radical Cultural Practices and the Capitalist Art System,” Transversal, November 2006.

  19. Ray.

  20. Martha Rosler, “Take the Money and Run? Can Political and Socio-Critical Art “Survive”? | E-Flux”, 2015.

  21. Jean Fisher, “Towards a Metaphysics of Shit,” in Documenta11 Platform5: exhibition: catalogue, Kassel, 2002, 63–70.

  22. Sven Lütticken, “Neither Autocracy nor Automatism: Notes on Autonomy and the Aesthetic,” E-Flux, January 2016.

  23. See more at this article by Robert Booth, “Qatar World Cup Construction ‘Will Leave 4,000 Migrant Workers Dead,’” The Guardian, 2013.

  24. Usually attributed to Brecht, I found it interesting that it was first recorded in Leon Trotsky’s “Literature and Revolution” instead in 1924. So here I cite the edition published in 2005. Leon Trotsky, “Literature and Revolution,” 1924. ed. William Keach (Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books, 2005), 121.

  25. Martha Rosler, “Take the Money and Run? Can Political and Socio-Critical Art “Survive”? | E-Flux”, 2015.

  26. Gene Ray, “On the Conditions of Anti-Capitalist Art: Radical Cultural Practices and the Capitalist Art System,” Transversal, November 2006.

  27. Nina Möntmann, “(Under)Privileged Spaces: On Martha Rosler’s “If You Lived Here...” E-Flux journal 2009.

  28. Nooshin Farhid, “Art and Textuality; Uncertain Words,” 2011.

  29. Ken Johnson, “The Roof Garden Commission: Imran Qureshi,” At The Met’, 2013.

  30. Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller” Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zorn. (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970).

  31. Jean Fisher, “Towards a Metaphysics of Shit,” in Documenta11 Platform5: exhibition: catalogue, Kassel, 2002, 63–70.

  32. Gene Ray, “On the Conditions of Anti-Capitalist Art: Radical Cultural Practices and the Capitalist Art System,” Transversal, November 2006.

  33. Ray.

  34. Ray.

  35. See the animation posted by Mel Chin studio at

  36. Link to his website

  37. Stephen Zepke and Simon O’Sullivan, “Deleuze And Contemporary Art,” (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 183.

  38. G. Orwell, “The Art of Donald McGiIl,” in: Collected Essays (London: Secker & Warburg, 1961), 176.

  39. Jean Fisher, “Towards a Metaphysics of Shit,” in Documenta11 Platform5: exhibition: catalogue, Kassel, 2002, 63–70.

  40., “Dow Does The Right Thing | The Yes Men,” 2015.

  41. Go to

  42. Dave Beech, “Recovering Radicalism: Dave Beech on Critical Art After Postmodernism,” (Art Monthly, Issue: 323 February 2009), 7–10.

  43. Martha Rosler, “Take the Money and Run? Can Political and Socio-Critical Art “Survive”? | E-Flux”, 2015.

  44. Nina Power, “On Claims of Radicality in Contemporary Art,” 2015.

  45. Ai Weiwei on Instagram.


  • Adorno, Theodor. “The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture.” London: Routledge, 1991.

  • Baudrillard, Jean and Lotringer, Sylvere. “The Conspiracy of Art.” New York: Semiotext(e), 2005. Print.

  • Beech, Dave. “Art and Value: Art’s Economic Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical and Marxist Economics.” Boston: Brill, 2015.

  • Beech, Dave. “Recovering Radicalism: Dave Beech on Critical Art After Postmodernism.” Art Monthly, Issue: 323 February 2009.

  • Benjamin, Walter. “Illuminations.” ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zorn. London: Jonathan Cape, 1970.

  • Brecht, Bertolt. “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny,

  • 1930),” trans. Steve Giles. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007.

  • Chomsky, Noam and S. Herman, Edward. “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.” New York: Pantheon Books, 2002.

  • Chomsky, Noam. “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance.” London: Hamish Hamilton, 2003.

  • Fontaine, Claire (artist collective). “Claire Fontaine: Foreigners Everywhere.” Köln: Walther König, c2012.

  • Fisher, Jean. “Towards a Metaphysics of Shit,” in Documenta11 Platform5: exhibition catalogue. Kassel: Hatje Cantz, 2002.

  • Guattari, Félix and Deleuze, Gilles. “A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.” Trans: Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987.

  • Halbreich, Kathy with Mark Godfrey, Lanka Tattersall and Magnus Schaefer, eds. “Alibis: Sigmar Polke, 1963-2010.” London: Tate Publishing, 2014.

  • Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

  • Marcuse, Herbert. “One Dimensional Man.” London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964.

  • Mesch, Claudia. “Art and Politics: A Small History of Art for Social Change Since 1945.” London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2013.

  • Tamang, Bikram and Parajuli, Deepak. “A Compendium for the Course—Climate Change and Society.” Pokhara: Pokhara University, 2015.



Pg 4/27




Monterrey, Nuevo León, México. CP 64920