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Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers

Sunday, 21. October 2012 | 14:15 (tz: Europe/Amsterdam)
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The defining characteristic of the art-historical present is, arguably, art's impulse to escape from itself. This escapological drive has nothing to do with some flight of fancy from unpleasant realities. Quite the contrary it is motivated by the will or even need to directly confront, on the 1:1 scale, those realities -- something art has by and large proven unable, or unwilling, to do. This drive is not characterized exclusively by the desire to escape ideological capture, though that is surely part of the motivation; nor even to escape institutional capture, with its debilitating prescriptions of visibility, though that too is a key factor. As art seeks to self-extract from art itself, sundering itself from being art per se, art seems to be trying to operate without being performed as such -- escaping performative capture, giving itself space to take action without being performed as just art. One might go a step further: the current escapological moment appears to be driven by art's far more profound concern to escape ontological capture. In other words, to escape having its being in the world immediately cordoned off, and hence written off, as mere art.

This is not something entirely new in art history, but it has become widespread of late. Even amongst practitioners who would be reluctant to describe their work as staking out an offensive retreat from art itself, one senses a growing inclination to acknowledge this "deontologizing" moment, and to embed exit strategies within the immanence of the work itself. This broad resonance across the board, extending even to those who are ostensibly hostile to the idea, might be thought of in terms of the "spontaneous ideology of artists" (to paraphrase Althusser), a kind of pre-reflexive knowledge of the historical present. Obviously, escaping an ontological assignment is no mean feat. Nor is it something to be taken lightly -- after all, it means breaking with what one is. And though there may not be any one-size-fits-all explanation, it is certainly useful to look at some historical antecedents in order to gain a better purchase on what the escapological thrust comprises, and what it doesn't.

One of the key components of ontological and performative capture is, of course, naming. That is because naming is a kind of framing. Something, anything, when captured nominally within the performative framework of art, is art. Naming it as art performs it, ontologically, as such. Such is the tragic irony, and ontological bent, of institutional theory. Happily, however, the corollary is that what is not named, not framed, is not subject to ontological and performative capture. And what cannot be named, escapes the frame. Concept art -- in all its formats -- has always sought to escape certain modes of capture: commodification, reification, and so on, not entirely successfully, to be sure, but not entirely unsuccessfully either. But what if... What if concept art, instead of beginning with names like Lewitt and Kosuth, began not only unnamed, but literally unnameable? How would the shadows of art history shift if concept art began anonymously, outside the frame, in the streets? What if, for argument's sake, we say that concept art's escapological impulse began back in Lower East Side, in the mid 1960s, with that "street gang with analysis," known as Up Against the Wall / Motherfuckers?

From this perspective, the most striking thing about the group is definitely the fact that, at least at the time, its name was unpronounceable in the media. Abbie Hoffman characterized them as "the middle-class nightmare... an anti-media media phenomenon simply because their name could not be printed." The gang existed all right, but couldn't be publicly named. The unnameable name was lifted from a poem by Leroi Jones and was adopted by a group of quickly radicalizing, soon-to-be-disaffected artists, following the anti-war protests of "Angry Arts Week" in early 1967, which they felt were excessively timid, and above all excessively art oriented (they liked the "angry" part, which they wanted to see protracted, but could do without the art). As founding member Osha Neumann points out in his recent chronicle of the movement, Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers. A Memoir of the 60s with Notes for Next Time, "our name had the advantage that it could not be spoken in polite company. That which could not be spoken, could not be co-opted."

The Motherfuckers, as they abbreviated themselves, coalesced around Ben Morea, a self-taught artist (something he picked up in prison...) and co-editor, with Roy Hahne, of a four-page magazine called Black Mask, an anthology of which has recently been published by PM Press. The magazine's objective, which would become The Motherfuckers', as Neumann writes, was to find "a way to turn art into an instrument of revolution, which meant to turn art against itself. (Morea) wanted to destroy art in the name of art -- and life." A venerable project, if ever there were, and one entirely consistent with the underpinnings of concept art, albeit of a corrosively politicized variety.

"On October 10, 1966 (The Black Mask group), travelled uptown from the Lower East Side, with the intention of shutting down the Museum of Modern Art. They had handed out fliers announcing their action in advance. At the entrance to the Museum, they were met by barricades and a line of cops. Art, which refused engagement, now required police protection. It was a victory."

This is of course historically interesting for any number of reasons -- underscoring differences between then and now -- but perhaps above all for the course that subsequent developments in institutional critique would take. Because for Up Against the Wall / Motherfuckers, this was not institutional critique, but an assault on "The System -- not the capitalist system, or the racist system, but simply 'The System'. All of it. The whole kit and caboodle."

"The production of art for consumption by a leisured audience is a bankrupt activity. That had been a premise of Angry Arts Week. But the Motherfuckers, under Ben's leadership. quickly developed a vision in which the emphasis shifted from war on cultural institutions to total war on The System. By 'The System,' we meant more than the economic and political institutions by which the rich wage unequal war against the poor, stealing the fruits of their labors, and despoiling the earth in the process We meant the totality of reality as shaped by, dependent upon, and supportive of those institutions. We meant presidents and penises, the Pentagon and our parents, desires and disaffections, torturers and toothpaste."

Certainly the angry, anarchistic, counter-cultural, take-no-prisoners motherfuckerism was politically fuzzy: the actions associated with The Motherfuckers unspeakable name -- their attacks on Bill Graham's Fillmore Theater, participating in the takeover and trashing of Columbia University, protesting the Democratic Convention in Chicago -- essentially involved starting riots, getting arrested, starting further riots to protest their arrest, and getting arrested again. Neumann goes so far as to suggest: "The System was our mother and in the revolution we fucked her." But the point was that none of it could be named as art, or indeed associated with a name at all. It was to get out and stay out. "But where," asks Neumann, "was 'out'? (...) The Motherfuckers set out to fill the empty space of 'out' with countercultural institutions."

The very probable reaction of the wardens of art's ontology -- and this includes both subsequent generations of institutional critique and institutional theory -- is to say that whatever one may make of such actions, it surely isn't art. It may be jack-assed politics, but art it is not, they would contend. Yet not only is its self-understanding anchored in art; historically speaking, the movement itself stemmed from art. It is obviously significant that the Up Against the Wall / Motherfuckers emerged from a group called Black Mask -- so-named for the balaclavas the members wore to conceal their identities. As an artistic strategy, it flies in the face of the reputational economy, premised on name recognition, following on the groups ties to Dada, the Durruti Column from the Spanish Revolution, as well as Situationnism and the Provos.

What's amazing is how fast the artistic consciousness informing it went from art as a form of contemplative politics to a tool in the political struggle, and then to art doing away with art itself in the desire to wage war on The System. One day Neumann was painting; the next, he "began writing an extend essay about the end of avant-garde art. I wrote that painting was lost in a meaningless play with limits that on one cared about any longer. The libratory promise of art was now to be achieved outside the frame of the canvas but the total imaginative transformation of reality." A page later, even that theoretical bias is cast off: "I was done with thought that interfered with action. If art could not join in the struggle, I was prepared to jettison the art." The celerity with which this deframing process took place has parallels in other politically radicalized concept art movements -- including Argentina's Tucuman Arde collective, which in a matter of months in 1967-68 went from abstraction to dematerialization to the renunciation of art production altogether in the name of revolutionary (and for many, armed) struggle. As the Motherfuckers put it in a recruitment slogan juxtaposed with the image of a pistol: "We're looking for people who like to draw."

What happens when art is jettisoned "in the name of art," as it were? In the case of the Motherfuckers, an unstable coefficient of art remains undeniably active in the shadows, but like the name, remains necessarily unspoken. From our contemporary perspective, this is exceedingly important. Because if the "art function" (following Foucault's concept of the "author function") is not named, if indeed the author cannot be named, as with the subterfuge of the Motherfuckers' unnameability, nor by the same token can it be page-ranked or even indexed at all by search engines as art. We might find it under the aegis of rioting, or trouble-making, or motherfucking for that matter. But not ontologized as art. And this would, of course, also be the case for any unnamed, and hence art-unframed practice. It remains simply what it is, retaining its coefficient of art, its artistic self-understanding, but escapes performative and ontological capture altogether.

From this perspective, current discussions about creating an art-specific domain name on the internet -- .art -- for all things art-related, cannot be reduced to finding "practical solutions" and questions about who is best equipped to manage such a domain. For it would amount to extending the detection and enforcement apparatus of institutional theory, capturing under the ontology of art even those practices most dead-set on escape. Could anything be more incongruous than, say, motherfuckers.art?

Stephen Wright

 

 

Re: Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers

Dear Stephen

Thanks for your piece.  You grapple with issues that have been much on my mind. After giving up art as a Motherfucker, I took it up again, spent years painting murals, and more recently have been making large sculptures of found materials on an overgrown landfill that juts out into the San Francisco Bay. Recently I returned to the essay on art that I abandoned when I plunged into Motherfuckerism.  It has now become a book, tentatively titled Doodling on the Titanic: the Making of Art in a World on the Brink. Now all I need is a publisher.  I'm not entirely happy with the title. It implies too dismissive an attitude towards art. It does, however, correctly reflect my belief that the crisis of our age, will not leave art unscathed. The question of the viability of art as we have known it has no easy answer.

You correctly point out art's unease with itself. You locate this unease in art’s desire to, as you say, "directly confront on the 1:1 scale" unpleasant realities. If by that you mean that art now aspires to have the same ontological status as reality, then it aspires towards its own death. The boundaries on which its survival depends would disappear. There would be no "other," to reality. Art would cease to be a liberated zone within that reality and would succumb to it. I do not see this as a progressive development. As a Motherfucker I gave up art, because I believed that a struggle had been joined, which had as its goal the total imaginative transformation of reality. We did not come close to achieving that goal. Reality is far too tenacious to yield to our puny efforts, and is likely to be so for a very long time. If anything it is easier today to imagine apocalypse than utopia. In such a situation I do not believe that the elimination of the boundary between art and life serves liberation.

You locate art’s unease in its inability to escape its boundaries and confront the real on its own turf; to be as real as reality itself.  I think, however, that unease has another source. Art has been too successful in its confrontation with reality and as a result the real is less so. We live in an environment that has been aesthetically transformed so as to serve the forces of domination, which hide behind an aesthetically constructed scrim of images. Experience is mediated, comes with a soundtrack, is photoshoped, comprehensively modeled and interpreted. Art, in the form of media and advertising has been drafted  into the service of repression. There are simply too many images; they're too powerful and compelling. All that “art” serves to drown out the scream of reality. It does not succeed in suppressing it entirely, but the aesthetic transformation of that scream into a work of art, risks incorporating the truth it represents into a world of pretty lies.

I would respectfully decline to accept the nomination of the Motherfuckers as pioneers of conceptual art. Though a number of us started as artists, I did not  think of what we did as Motherfuckers as a continuation of our artistic endeavors. Quite the contrary. We did not fight the police in order to create a work of conceptual art, or anti-art, or any kind of art. The struggle was for a better world awaiting in the dimension of the real.

Conceptual art, which at the same time wants to be art and to deny that it is art is caught in a unprofitable and undialectical contradiction. Art that is uncomfortable with being art remains art, that is, something which is not reality, something bounded, something in which the demands of form prevail over, morality, or logic, or the causality that dominates reality. Art may incorporate elements that are not aesthetically transformed, that are disruptive and dissonant, but in the end form triumphs. The price of that triumph is that art remains "only art;" its aspiration for an unmediated engagement with life is thwarted.

Art’s discontent with itself is well-founded. Any engagement with art these days must face the possibility that art as we have known it is in its death throes. The attempt to resuscitate art by rebranding it as anti-art only prolongs the agony. The abyss yawns before us. We sing and dance and make images at its edge.

Take care,

Osha

 

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