What Do We Actually Do When We … Make Art?

Ana Vujanović (2009)

If the death of art is its inability to attain the concrete dimension of the work,
the crisis of art in our time is, in reality, a crisis of poetry, of ποίησις.
Ποίηις [… is] the very name of man’s doing, of that productive action
of which artistic doing is only a privileged example,
and which appears, today, to be unfolding its power on a planetary scale
in the operation of technology and industrial production.
(Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content)

This essay is conceived as a critical overview of the concepts supporting the principles and procedures of work in art, and their numerous and non-linear transformations throughout the history of Western culture. It is, accordingly, established as a kind of introductory assessment of the ways of work and cooperation in contemporary performing arts, without dwelling on their particularities and elaboration of the resulting collaborative modes. Indeed, my intention is not to come up with a universal ‘glossary’, but to critically focus on the concepts much too often taken for granted in the contemporary performing arts world. The central problem is, consequently, outlined from a macro-social perspective: I start from the economic/political contexts, since the 18th century’s Industrial Revolution to the current frameworks of post-Fordism and cognitive capitalism. Against this backdrop I am looking at a number of artistic paradigms which have considerably contributed to the changes in perception of artistic work throughout the 20th century: Benjamin’s concept of art in the age of mechanical reproduction (photography and film); Duchamp’s ready-made; Warhol’s pop art; digital art and (Bourriaud’s) post-production. The anticipated result from thus conceived piece of writing is sharpening of concepts frequently employed within the contemporary art scene – like immaterial work, creativity, practice, cooperation, process, reproduction, intervention etc. – in reference to their origins in Western philosophy, political theory and, particularly, material social circumstances.

POIESIS AND PRAXIS, definition of terms and their historical convergence    

According to the traditional division of human activities into ‘labour’, ‘work/production’ and ‘action/practice’, in the Western civilization art belongs to the ‘higher order’ of activities. This predominantly applies to the history of Western art from ancient Greece onwards, later (fairly recently, for that matter) to be granted with a status of autonomy and exception(ality) from social realities and respective practices. While labour responds to the general human cyclic metabolism with nature (a necessary result of the biological situation shared with other living creatures on Earth), production and practice distinguish the human being as specific and unique on the planet. In the contemporary society, it is often difficult to make a distinction between the two[1]: namely, the Western epistemological tradition, from classical Rome onwards, prominently features a tendency of their convergence. Moreover, in certain philosophical-political systems (e.g. Marx’s) the boundary of human’s social activities shifts to encompass labour as such. Nevertheless, this blur of boundaries in the contemporary context should be assessed. Not for the sake of disinterested scientific ‘puritanism’, but of articulation (in the actual social-historical, political and economic contexts) of the causes, means and consequences of the transformation and shifts of this basic terms describing and situating human activity. With a view to critical reflection of work and collaboration in art, in the contexts pertaining to the post-Fordist neo-liberal world, I shall return to Hannah Arendt’s old question: what do we actually do when we are active (Was wir eigentlich tun, wenn wir tätig werden)? What follows is an attempt at raising this question as a challenge to the dominant concepts of artistic activity: as production and as practice.

According to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, the distinction between work/production and action/practice was fairly sharp in the classical world.[2] Both, along with theory, according to Aristotle’s Metaphysics, comprise human ‘rational activities’.[3] In terms of his Nicomachean Ethics, production (poiesis) is shaping, human conception of ‘form’, ‘coming into being’ in a particular shape. On the other hand, practice (praxis) implies a performed act, straightforward intervention – a voluntary human activity in terms of vita activa. Poiesis claims a value, a goal beside an end in itself: it results in a product, a solid piece of work. Its limits and its ends reside in the object created in the process of production. Unlike poiesis, praxis results in nothing or, if anything, than in the act itself. It resumes its own limits and ends. Praxis, accordingly, focuses on structuring of the actual social, inter-human relations (public life, legislation, administration). Paradigmatic instances of production are craftsmanship and artistic creation, and of practice – political activity.

At this point, the central concept concerning art is poiesis, ποίησις. In classical Greece, from Plato to Aristotle, its status had considerably changed. For Plato (Symposium), poiesis terms each cause for creation of something previously not in existence. It may relate to nature or man (Plato does not make a distinction) and he conceives the poiesis as the unique activity pertaining to nature, society, and man. The difference came with Aristotle. He distinguished (Physics) what exists by nature (claims a cause and origin in itself), from what exists from other causes (the principle of its creation being the productive activity of man). Art was, consequently, related to the latter form of poiesis and distinguished from natural creation.

Accordingly, in the classical world, labour, production, and practice were hierarchically ordered. Dedicated to meeting the basic demands of man’s biological survival, labour assumes the lowest ranks; production, in turn, helps us make our way in the world; and ultimately, only a liberal man (man relieved from necessity) can be engaged in practice and focused on managing the human affairs. Later in Western culture, especially art history, these activities were no longer so clearly demarcated; indeed, the dominant understanding went along the lines of their convergence. As for art, for a long time it was predominantly related to poiesis. In classical Greece, such understanding was very explicit. It was confirmed in Poetics, Aristotle’s major treatise on art. Poetics here refers to poiesis, and designates art as a paradigmatic form of man’s capacity to create, produce… Issue of the character of artistic creation had gained in complexity throughout the history with subsequent distinctions between aesthetical and technical, and indeed manual and intellectual production; with changes and redefinitions of the notion of practice, and with affirmation of labour as the supreme human activity.


Giorgio Agamben discussed the changes of the status and relations between human activities in his book The Man Without Content.[4] I shall dwell on two aspects straightforwardly addressing art – important for my initial question: historization of the relations between poiesis and praxis after the classical age of Greece in the chapter Poiesis and Praxis, and the modern distinctions of poiesis in the chapter Privation Is Like a Face.

Artistic work – from poiesis to (depoliticized) praxis

In his essay Poiesis and Praxis[5] Agamben demonstrated how, throughout the history of Western culture after the classical age of Greece, the borders between poiesis and praxis gradually disappeared: in the contemporary world every human (productive) activity – be it the efforts of a craftsman, artist, worker, or politician – is perceived as practice. Note that understanding of practice had considerably changed, beginning to signify – a manifestation of human will, with concrete effects.

This process of convergence may be traced since the Roman era: it is already manifest in the translation of the Greek term poesis into the Latin form agere – voluntary production of an effect. Later the Christian theological thought, which conceived the supreme Being as an actus purus, tied to Western metaphysics the interpretation of being as actuality and act. Along with this shift, from John Locke, via Adam Smith, and finally with Marx, the status of labour had changed: it was basically associated with human biological living conditions, later to be additionally recognized as the source of private property, and raised to the highest ranks in the hierarchy of human activities.[6] In his essay, Agamben made another important point: in the modern world, every human activity began to be perceived as practice – conceived as a concrete productive activity, opposed to abstract theory. In this process, the meaning of praxis was not only broadened to such an extent that it became a general term for all human activities but, as I have already mentioned, it went through a complete transformation. Consequently, since Marx, praxis has no longer been attached to human freedom, but to labour as the necessary living condition.

In this epistemological and social macro-process, the conception of art changed accordingly. In Agamben’s words: „Artistic pro-duction, which has now become creative activity, also enters into the dimension of praxis, albeit a very peculiar praxis, aesthetic creation of superstructure“.[7]

Numerous later redefinitions of the status of the artistic production basically commenced from this basic erasure of the traditional distinction between poiesis and praxis, affirming the ‘metaphysics of the will’. During the 19th (and even the 20th) century, it is dominantly held that art is practice; however, practice is now conceived as an expression of human will and creative forces. As instances of this reinterpretation Agamben cites Novalis’ definition of poetry as a ‘willful, active, and productive use of our organs’, Nietzsche’s identification of art with the will to power, Artaud’s aspiration to a theatrical liberation of the will, and situationist strives toward crossing the borders of art, based on human creative impulses. Agamben underlines: „The metaphysics of will has penetrated our conception of art to such an extent that even the most radical critiques of aesthetics have not questioned its founding principle, that is, the idea that art is the expression of the artist’s creative will.“[8]

However, practice is, if we return to the stated classical Greek conception, basically something more specific and, indeed, quite different – public action, free human act propelled by will and reason, accomplished in a social situation. Political implications of the rejection of such conception of practice, or its radical interpretations, were obviously far-reaching. First of all, this rejection redirects practice from public action for (and with) the community, to the individual’s public action against the communal background, his/her personal accomplishment in the public domain. In that sense, a lateral question for my concern here would be: how can today practice in art be rehabilitated, relieved from metaphysics and artistic doxa’s jargon use, and conceived as the political potential of art?

I shall not dwell on this question in more depth: I will merely set the coordinates for a possible course of thinking. Accordingly, what we encounter in the 20th century art as common sense is a perplexed relation between praxis and poiesis, sustained by the consensus of creative will. Agamben’s list of examples for such a conception of art might receive some modern – after-situationist – input, e.g.: the major part of neo-avantgarde theatre, theatre anthropology, abstract expressionism, expressionist dance, numerous contemporary open and processual formats of artistic work (especially research and creative laboratories) – including the expanded notions of energy, spontaneity, liberation, impulses, creativity, expression, improvisation etc. Only the contemporary critical leftist theoreticians of society, media and art, ‘biopoliticians’ and (post)operaists[9] repeatedly raised the question of fundamental relations between poiesis and praxis and, often taking their cue from Hannah Arendt, addressed the importance of distinction between human activities present in the artworld, concerning their different material/social consequences. From such a critical standpoint – regardless of the fact that they shift from the domain of production into the domain of practice – the abovementioned emancipatory artistic forms and concepts may be claimed to have featured a kind of atrophy of the political potential of art. This statement/criticism rests upon the notion that, in those cases, the aspect of voluntary and rational intervention of art in the social realm was, in principle, replaced with the metaphysics of creative will striving towards the humanist emancipation of the artist-individual (his/her personal realization, transformation, liberation, affirmation of his/her ludistic nature etc.) Concerning this depoliticization of practice in contemporary art, it comes as no surprise that many forms of behavior and action evolved since the times of the disobedient 1960s’ neo-avantgarde (as noted by Paolo Virno[10]), found their place in a post-Fordist company of the late 20th and early 21st century. They granted an aura of ‘creativity’ to the most profane productive activities, even the labour as such, giving them momentum without the risk of contamination with the political. Nowadays, it is sufficient and satisfactory to wear a T-shirt inside out or work sprawled in a deckchair.

Art and division of poiesis: aesthetical and technical production

The second important aspect of the character of artistic activity and its historical change is division of the poiesis. In his essay Privation is Like a Face[11], Agamben addressed the extreme artistic forms of the 20th century, readymade and pop art, situating them on the ultimate borders of art conceived as poiesis. The central problem of Agamben’s essay is a reductive distinction between manual and intellectual production in Western history and, preliminary and more pronounced, division of human products into aesthetical objects (artworks) and products in the narrow sense (industrial, technical). The distinction between aesthetical and technical products corresponds with the development of modern technology – more precisely, with the first industrial revolution and division of work in the second half of the 18th century, when the following characterization was introduced: the former, aesthetical products feature authenticity, and the latter, technical – reproducibility. The very notion of authenticity (originality), widely embraced by Western art from the 19th century onwards, has many interpretations: unrepeatable, credible, unique, novel, inventive etc. It is important to stress that, according to Agamben, this notion basically implies individual proximity to the origin, source, ‘image-model’, lost in technical products due to their (mass) reproduction: „Reproducibility (indeed, in this sense, as paradigmatic relationship of non-proximity with the origin) is, then, the essential status of the product of technics, while originality (or authenticity) is the essential status of the work of art“.[12]

Consequently, unrepeatable, credible, unique etc. artwork is but a probable result – those features derive from the principle of originality, based on proximity of the (artistic) product to its source and origin (in the artist). Once introduced, the principle of authenticity in the long run distinguished art from the other forms of human poiesis, e.g. industrial production, technique, digital technology, design, mass media etc. but, in turn, provoked many disputes.


In addressing the 20th century art as a form of aesthetical poiesis, we may start from Miško Šuvaković’s suggestion:

… the problem with interpretation of the ‘poiesis’ emerges when we reach the present – when art is no longer mythically perceived as pro-ductiveness of spontaneous informing, setting up things from nature in the world here and now, but as production (making), production (application, denomination, arrangement), or postproduction or conceiving art in the mass media system by means of display, promotion, exchange, reproduction etc.[13]

By the middle of the 20th century, in the context of the still valid division of poiesis into asthetical and technical, the hybrid and borderline artistic forms like ready-made or pop art began critically to undermine the tenability of that distinction, bringing to the fore reproductivity in artistic creation and originality in its technical production. They pursued a unity in the poiesis, at the time already paradoxically divided into ‘pro-duction’ and ‘production’, in effect disclosing this very distinction inherent to the human poietical agency in the modern age.

According to Šuvaković, in art, this „shift from pro-duction to production came about at the expense of discarding authenticity or originality of the human work based on manual skills“.[14] Discarding, however, did not come about that soon – although, from this perspective, it might be claimed that it had already been announced by photography and other systems of mechanical reproduction, which in the first decades of the 20th century (according to Benjamin) posed a threat of destroying the aura of authenticity of the (traditional) work of art. Authenticity, for that matter, was neither discarded with ready made and pop art, precisely because the technique and conditions of production in art in the age of industrial production dominated by Taylorism and Fordism did not provide adequate conditions for that, in the way they did (or indeed imposed them) in the last few decades, in the contexts pertaining to cognitive capitalism, immaterial work and development of the digital media. Nevertheless, what ready made and pop art did accomplish was a critical challenge of the ways of creating (in) art in the contemporary context of industrial and technology-driven production. In absence of sufficiently ‘adequate’ conditions of production, this matter was conceived as artists’ act – practice in its basic meaning: conscious and voluntary intervention of the artist with a view to rearranging the existing order of art.[15] The distinction went along the lines of manufacturing and reception of the artwork: the ready-made marked a shift from technical production to art, granting the observer with an industrial product claiming aesthetic potential (pissoire transformed into the artwork Fountain), while pop art went into the opposite direction and put forward an artwork with no aesthetic potential whatsoever, assuming the status of an industrial product (artwork Brillo Box for instant soup). In this way – and having in mind that both attempts, in the strict sense and in the long run, failed – they brought the division of production to the extreme, pro-ducing the very lack, void, privation of the potentiality of poiesis. „‘Ready-made’ and pop art“, suggests Agamben, „then, constitute the most alienated (and thus the most extreme) form of ποίησις, the form in which privation itself comes into presence“.[16] Privation coming into presence results from the intervention of ready-made and pop art, escaping both aesthetical pleasure (in the artwork) and usefulness (of a technical device) and re-directing the instrumentality of poiesis not towards the products of human creation supporting the civilization, but towards the void, the null.

However, although they failed to effect an overall restructuring of the prevailing principles of art, ready made and pop art raised a deep-seated suspicion in plausibility of the distinction between the aesthetical and technical products in our age. On the one hand, it may be claimed that both attempts were unsuccessful, because neither the ready-made endowed industrial products with an aura of originality and, consequently, with a status of an artwork, nor the artistic products obtained the use value of industrial products by freeing themselves from the notion of authenticity. However, on the other hand, they succeeded in this obliquely and after the fact, more so than expected. It can hardly be claimed that the subsequent ‘normal’ musealization of the ready made and equally ‘normal’ aesthetization of ordinary life ‘settled the things down’. To the contrary, they rendered in more radical terms in the current social context what ready made and pop art had already implicated – the material impossibility of distinction between the aesthetical and technical production. It is through muzealization and academization of the ready made that certain industrial objects (pissoires, for example) indeed permanently acquired authenticity and became objects of aesthetical pleasure and knowledge. An instance of this was the ‘fetishist’ manner of display of the pissoire called Fountain, as part of the 2005 exhibition Dada in Beaubourg (in a special room, on a large black podium discouraging the observer to touch the piece), or its declaration as the master piece of the 20th century art. This instance becomes paradigmatic mostly in light of the fact that the ‘original’ Fountain from 1917 soon vanished, and that Duchamp created several replicas throughout the 1960s, certainly using some other pissoires – afterwards exhibited in museums and endowed with a status of the original and authentic artwork, the Fountain. On the other, although no longer opposite side, in the ongoing process of aesthetization of ordinary life and its innumerable utensils, each mass-produced disposable industrial product struggles for its tiny piece of the aura of authenticity. There is a multitude of instances of this, from the design of cell phones, packaging of fruit juices containing ‘life maxims’ or unique-item Lush soaps, to Apple computers, and one of my favorites being Orbit gums with a ‘limited edition’ label. From this perspective, not only that these procedures failed to put things (objects) back in (the old) order – ready made and pop art included – but they completely reorganized and inextricably intertwined the aesthetical and industrial products against the traditional divide. However, not in a display of resistance or critique, but quite opportunistically, as a consequence of the new social and economic macro-principles of the neo-liberal post-industrial capitalism, where the division into aesthetical and technical production no longer holds.


The techniques of mass mechanical reproduction, developed in the early 20th century (in the domains of photography and film) became a potential peril to the traditional artistic principles of authenticity. The beginning of the 21st century sees a different situation. The development of digital technologies and their implementation distinctively marked art of the last few decades, in all aspects of production, distribution/exchange, and reception/consumption.[17] Introducing a possibility of endless replication of identical copies, obfuscating the sense of the original in art, digital technologies facilitate wider distribution and easier access to artworks – implanting technological procedures into the very artistic process and production, digital art manifestly refutes the earlier notions of poiesis. For digital art – as an ‘art of reproduction’[18] – to be possible at all, it must embrace the principles of both aesthetical and technical production, including the attributes of originality and reproductiveness. Consequently, with its inherent paradoxes, it becomes a symptom of wider issues and contradictions for conceiving human activities in the current social-economic context.

Postproduction (in) art

The term ‘postproduction’ comes from a technical vocabulary used in television, radio, film and video, and relates to processing of image and sound. Basically, it is a set of procedures, techniques, and processes of work with recorded audio and visual material, comprising editing, subtitling, sound effects, color corrections, special effects etc. The term was introduced into art theory by Nicolas Bourriaud, in his book Postproduction.[19] In brief, he claims that nowadays art belongs in the tertiary sector, service industry: its purpose is to operate with objects produced elsewhere (outside art) – to recycle culture and not to produce (art) objects. According to Bourriaud, the dominant figures of contemporary culture are programmer and DJ, both working with objects already produced. Thus conceiving the wider notion of ‘cultural recycling’, he outlines the ways in which the technical procedures used, for instance, by DJs in music production (playlists, crossfading, looping, sampling, MCjing etc.) are being adopted in contemporary art. However, these integrations disclose not only the artistic practices of postproduction (already existing and well-established), but also the new practices in production of art. Thus Bourriaud, on the one hand, as the co-director of the Palais de Tokyo, fashions the state of a notable segment of contemporary (mostly French[20]) art and, on the other, puts forward a claim for a new paradigm in art in the age of high-tech representation. Nevertheless, a critical social dimension of art in this context may be traced in the following statement:

Today there is a quarrel over representation that sets art and the official image of reality against each other; it is propagated by advertising discourse, relayed by the media, organized by an ultralight ideology of consumption and social competition. In our daily lives, we come across fictions, representations and forms that sustain this collective imaginary whose contents are dictated by power. Art puts us in the presence of counterimages, forms that question social forms.[21]

Instances of postproduction in contemporary art abound. Some of the typical may be, e.g.: the multi-channel, 12-screen video installation Deep Play (2007) by Harun Farocki, dwelling on the media, televised representation of reality – a soccer match (FIFA World Cup final in 2006, France: Italy); the video 24-Hour Psycho (1993) by Douglas Gordon, comprising exclusively the Hitchcock’s movie (Psycho), but screened mute and in slow motion at duration of 24 hours; the film Les Incivils / The uncivilized (1995) by Pierre Huyghe, a specific remake of Pasolini’s Uccelacci e Uccelini / The Hawks and the Sparrows; Philippe Parreno’s multimedia project No More Reality (1991-93) comprising his video lectures with featured segments or just freeze frames from various films and TV serials (Alf, Twin Peaks, Batman) etc. An extreme example of postproduction in contemporary art is the new form of performance labeled ‘cyberformance’[22], challenging all definitions of theatre and performing arts in general, grounded in phenomenology. In terms of protocols and procedures, at this point all distinctions between creation and action, or aesthetics and technical production, are disrupted by the sheer technology of work – even when this agrees with the authors’ manifest poetics and politics.

Digital (post)production and ‘right to authorship’

In considering artistic work today and specifically pertaining to the status of poiesis (in arts, but also at large) Bourriaud’s book is important and, at the same time, problematic for several reasons.

Postproduction demonstrates how contemporary art in a process of cultural recycling in fact ‘produces, creates’ new meanings; indeed, how procedures of recycling, displacing and redistribution of the existing (produced) bring about the new (the post-produced). Looking at the notion of postproduction in art, Bojana Cvejić suggests that „the prefix ‘post’ […] relates to the zone of activity that no longer asks the question: ‘is there something new that we could make?’, but: ‘how can we do it with what we already have’?“[23] Bourriaud himself is quite specific on this matter: „They [Artists] don’t really ‘create’ anymore, they reorganize.“[24]

On the other hand, this paradigm of artictic production brings us back to Virno’s remark on the possibilities and consequences of moving certain forms of labour, production and action from one social sphere into another (in his case, from neo-avantgarde art into a post-Fordist corporation). Namely, the establishment of art as postproduction infuses the whole creative class, even the consumers – users of digital technologies – with optimistic convictions that everyone can easily become an ‘author’. Enormous quantities of easily available software, web 2.0 and various forms of social networking, as it were, proclaim: we are all already authors, creators – there is no more (technology- i.e. production-bound) distinction between composing music (creation) and compiling and sharing the playlists (re-organization). The issue is, however, that the distinction has never been merely technology-bound. Accordingly, even when the technological element/obstacle is largely (but never totally) overcome, due to use of the digital media, the social (epistemological, economic, political, and ideological) nature of human activities and their stratification – which has been and has remained a symptom of the social distribution of power – comes fully into view. Numerous material aspects of this immaterial ease confirm this. In addition to the facts that not everyone has access to digital technologies and all this seems like a utopian ‘apparition’ to the Western theorists / activists (like Florida, Wark, Holmes etc.) surrounded on daily basis by Western artists, cognitariat and creative people, there are rigorous copyright laws still in effect, a war against the piracy, ‘immaterial civil war’[25] and omnipresent ‘material doubles (hardware) of immaterial products (software)’ – including the very structure of the contemporary institution of art, fully ‘uncontaminated’ by the democratic digital paradigm. We may claim that the technology of work in (Western) art of the early 21st century has been radically changed by this paradigm; however, the societal status of such work has largely remained unchanged, even in the most advanced Western societies.

CONCLUSION: Art as practice and politicality of the working methods

In this essay, I have attempted to reconstruct the ways and changes of the ways of making art in the 20th and early 21st century. As the key points in those transformations, I have underlined the concepts of art as poiesis, art as aesthetical poiesis, art as practice, and art as both aesthetical and technical poiesis identified with practice. I have searched for the causes and characteristics of those changes merely initially and obliquely throughout philosophy and art theory, primarily in the conditions of production of the society bringing about a particular form of art, as well as conditions of production of art itself in the specific society. I consider these causes as the most relevant, not because they are more consequent(ial) than the others, but because they are the only ones ‘extorting’ a paradigm shift, however we – in philosophical or theoretical terms – may approach it or may be prepared for it.

I will, therefore, conclude with a (famous) quote on art, with a peculiar and, I would suggest, exemplary fate in terms of the mentioned above. It reads as follows:

Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.

Whose words are these? How can we position and contextualize them? …I came across this quote in the already cited Robert Luxemburg’s 2004 text, The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction.[26] The quote is signed as: Steve Jobs, ‘Keynote’, MacWorld, San Francisco, 2004. …The story, however, does not end there. Luxemburg, in fact, merely ‘displaced’ Benjamin and ‘forged’ the authorship of the quote. It ‘originally’ appeared in Benjamin’s 1935 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Nevertheless, those were not Benjamin’s words, but Paul Valéry’s, from his essay La conquête de l’ubiquité from 1928. Those displacements result in completely different connotations of a single conception of work and creation in art, disclosing their – until recently and even today neglected – ultimate and pronounced social-political dimensions.

At the very end, therefore, it makes sense to note that the conception of politicality of artistic work, and work as such, considerably changed throughout the 20th century. It may be suggested that its beginning saw a continuation in the traditional perception of politicality in artwork’s ‘content’. Accordingly, even in the context of the historical avantgardes (with their significant intervention and reflection concerning ‘form’), art’s political engagement predominantly implied introduction of socially relevant issues into the artistic work – thus conceived as an exceptional and autonomous realm of critical social discourse. The 1960s and 1970s saw a turn in such conception, with an additional shift from structuralism to poststructuralism and respective foundations of the contemporary neo-Marxist and theory of text, refocusing on the social practices of signification and acknowledgement of the material interventions of signifiers into the idealistically conceived realm of signifieds. For art, all this brought a new focus on the medium, form, i.e. materiality of the artwork conceived in intertextual relations with the surrounding texts pertaining to the society, politics, ideology, culture etc., introducing a new facet of politicality in art – art which may no longer engage with ‘particular topics’, but must engage in ‘particular ways’ with any potential topic. This change was acknowledged by many art theorists: in the theatre camp it was made explicit e.g. in Hans-Thies Lehmann’s Postdramatic Theatre. However, the contemporary state-of-the-art conception of politicality in art opens a third perspective (which is our primary concern here) coming from the current development of digital technologies – primarily Internet, but featuring numerous new-Left and cyber-Marxist practices and concepts, from free and open-source software, hacker activism, piracy, Copyleft and Creative Commons, to Web 2.0 – which powerfully shake the realm of art. Under their impact, art today conceives the politicality in terms of conditions of production, work, and collaboration, its key aspects becoming: technologies of authorship, principles of sharing and exchange, means of organization and decision making, access to knowledge, license of works, open codes etc. – which fall into the ideological-economic categories constitutional both to contemporary politics and political economy on a macro-social level. Instances of works and authors focusing on those issues in the (performing) arts are growing in number, especially on the so-called independent scenes. To mention only a few: PAF – PerformingArtsForum, project Collect-if by Emil Hrvatin and collaborators, platform everybodys, group Chto delat?, artists and programmers assembled around the software and cyberformance festival UpStage, or Belgrade’s independent cultural-artistic initiative Other Scene and the art-theory platform TkH (Teorija koja Hoda) – my personal concerns… Their political orientations, arising from specific methods of work and collaboration, differ. Instead of summing them up with a common denominator, at this point, I believe, the text should remain open for a multitude of individual answers to Hanna Arendt’s initial question. To borrow from Benjamin, this is a question of struggle for dirty material things because, without them, there are no subtle and spiritual ones, so easily and eagerly identified as art.


CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 Srbija //http://www.creativecommons.org.rs//

Translation from Serbian: Irena Šentevska
  First published in Amfiteatar no. 2 & Maska nos. 127-130, 2010

[1] For background and elaborations of this statement, see: Hannah Arendt, Vita activa. Zagreb: August Cesarec 1991, and Paolo Virno, Gramatika mnoštva (A Grammar of the Multitude). Zagreb: Jesenski i Turk 2004.
[2] Bearing in mind that Aristotle’s premises were often based on the attitudes of the Hellenic population – consensus gentium. See: Aristotel, Nikomahova etika. Belgrade: Kultura 1970.
[3] Man’s rational activity – thought can be distinguished as practical, productive, and theoretical; Aristotel, Metafizika. Zagreb: FPN – Liber 1985, VI, 1, 1025b 25.
[4] Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content. Stanford Ca.: Stanford University Press 1999
[5] ‘Poiesis and Praxis’, ibid. pp. 68-94
[6] In such terms, labour was perceived as universally available ‘capital’. Later celebration of labour in the socialist and communist societies in the second half of the 20th century (‘Rad, rad i samo rad!’, ‘Da nam živi, živi rad…’) and the terms like ‘cultural worker’ have followed along the same lines.
[7] ‘Poiesis and Praxis’, p. 71
[8]Ibid., p. 72
[9] In addition to Agamben, important insights and critical dimensions were introduced by Jacques Rancière, critical new media theorists like Matteo Pasquinelli and Robert Luxemburg, and post-Operaist theoreticians and sociologists: Paolo Virno, Antonio Negri, Mario Tronti, Enzo Rullani etc.
[10] Cf. A Grammar of the Multitude.
[11] ‘Privation Is Like a Face’, in The Man Without Content, pp. 59-68
[12] ‘Privation Is Like a Face’, p. 61
[13] Miško Šuvaković, ‘Kontradikcije: Marcel Duchamp, Arthur Cravan, Glenn Gould, Joseph Beuys i Jérôme Bel: Bitne karakterizacije unutar ljudskog rada i umetnosti (jedno pažljivo čitanje eseja Giorgia Agambena Privation is Like a Face sa znatnim odstupanjima tokom interpretacije rada u umetnosti)’, TkH: ‘Boks meč – ready made teatar’, no. 12, (2006/7), p. 101
[14]Ibid., p. 101; See also pp. 101-102
[15] More on the ready made as the shift from poiesis to praxis in art, in: Ana Vujanović, ‘Limbo Limbo Art: ready-made teatar’, TkH: ‘Boks meč – ready made teatar’, no. 12 (2006/7), pp. 107-113
[16] ‘Privation Is Like a Face’, p. 64
[17] For an actual ‘response’ to Benjamin, see: Robert Luxemburg, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction’, makeworlds paper #4 (2004), http://makeworlds.org/node/77
[18] Luxemburg underlines two manifestations of the digital paradigm in art: reproduction of artworks (through digital media) and the art of reproduction (digital art). Ibid.
[19] Nicolas Bourriaud, Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay, New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2005
[20] He considers the practices of postproduction in art as an indication of the specificities of artistic procedures, relating them primarily to French artists like Pierre Huyghe, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Philippe Parreno etc, including their contemporaries outside France – for instance, Douglas Gordon.
[21] Nicolas Bourriaud, ‘Eclecticism and postproduction’, Postproduction, 2005
[22] Featuring authors and groups like the Desktop Theater, Avatar Body Collision, 0100101110101101 with Synthetic Performances, Karla Ptacek with the project Artificial Stage, Igor Štromajer, and the UpStage festival (http://upstage.org.nz/blog/)… More on the cyberformance in: Ana Vujanović, ‘Internet teatar: kritički uvod’, Teatron 124-125, 2003; and ‘Cyberformance: između Kapitala i Umetnosti’, in Aleksandra Jovićević and Ana Vujanović, Uvod u studije performansa. Belgrade: Fabrika knjiga, 2006
[23] Bojana Cvejić, ‘Aproprijacije: Kratak pojmovnik za različite procedure aproprijacije, razvijene u skorašnjim koreografskim i performans praksama’, TkH: ‘Boks meč – ready made teatar’ no. 12 (2006/7), pp. 93-94
[24] Bennett Simpson, ‘Public Relations: Nicolas Bourriaud’ – Interview, ArtForum (April 2001), http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0268/is_8_39/ai_75830815/pg_2
[25] Matteo Pasquinelli, ‘Immaterial Civil War; Prototypes of Conflict within Cognitive Capitalism’, http://eipcp.net/policies/cci/pasquinelli/en (2006)
[26] See http://makeworlds.org/node/77