Grift: Art Historical Resistance

July 28, 2019

-Material, Work, and Resistance
-New Media as Resistance: Colombia
-Placing Resistance: A Critique of Critical Regionalism
-Reverence and Resistance in Lithuanian Wayside Shrines
-On the Outside: Exteriority as Condition for Resistance
-Masculine Resistance: Expressions and Experiences of Gender in the Work of Asger Jorn
-Cyborg Pedagogy: Performing Resistance in the Digital Age
-Toward an Empathic Resistance: Boris Mikhailov's Embodied Documents
-Imperfect Pitch: Pop Culture, Consensus, and Resistance during the 2010 World Cup
-Utopia or Euphoria? Six Sites of Resistance in Disneyland and Singapore
-Reclaim Resi[lience]stance//......R²
-Vernacular Architecture and the Park Removals: Traditionalization as Justification and Resistance
-Art History and the Nineteenth Century: Realism and Resistance
-Anti-Lobotomy: The Visible Evidence of Resistance in 1990s Belgrade
-Cities, Cultures, and Resistance: Beyond Leon Krier and the Postmodern Condition

Perhaps no word is as primed for use in the contemporary art history article title as “resistance.” Conjuring a vague sense of heroism in the face of contradirectional powers, the word has been applied to everything from the act of painting miniatures to the ways kitchens are arranged, from origami to pastoralism. As opposed to its scientific uses—in electrical engineering and physics—or its overtly political uses—striking or blowing up Nazi supply trains—when used in an art historical context, “resistance” is irksome; it feels overblown, hyperbolic, too hype, in short...annoying.

With as many contexts as the term is applied to, it has become more difficult to find the threshold between resistance and merely existing. If existing does indeed qualify as a political act and even one of resistance, then resistance is so commonplace as to not deserve a mention. The resistance of reupholstery.

If, however, the mode of existence is extraordinary enough to be worthy of doctoral study with attention to its aesthetic dimension, the target of the resistance is usually agentless. Squatters, mural painters, and more practice ‘resistance to capitalism’ or ‘to gentrification’ or ‘to globalization’ but no one ever seems to be doing the gentrifying or the globalizing. Sure, there are some favorite art world villains: Warren Kanders, Turkey, the Guggenheim. But these are small actors on the scene and incapable of orchestrating all the world’s ills. As Hito Steyerl writes in Duty Free Art, “The main official rule for standard English art writing is, in my own unsystematic analysis: never offend anyone more powerful than yourself.”

But more than that, this question of agency is avoided because we are usually all complicit, and the deployment of “resistance” in an art historical context is usually a signal as to the author’s purity. If one sees something problematic and calls it out, one can be assumed to be virtuous or at least so observant as to be unable to be taken advantage of by nefarious actors. But this disregards one of the primary axioms of human life: whoever smelt it dealt it. To posit “resistance” in a subject is to position oneself worthy of deciding what is good and what is evil, to position oneself in a way as to observe all the complexity of our deterministic universe and know what results an action will obtain, it is to elevate some acts and not others; in short, it distances the art historian from the wreckage of history in order that they might throw laurel crowns to those swimming in blood below. Often survival requires impurity and complicity; the only ones who are pure enough for “resistance” are those who can afford to be. And many victims of oppression long for the day when they can become the oppressor. Which acts are good and which acts are evil?

This arbitrage of good and evil through the valorization of resistance is also a dereliction of duty by the scholar. Tell us what’s happening, describe the scene, add to our knowledge; but do not judge what you see! Give us enough information each to do so.

Another difficulty of valorizing resistance, even beyond the realm of scholarship, is that it often serves as a libidinous excess arching its back in beautiful aesthetic catharsis before vanishing without changing power structures. What did the Gezi Park protests achieve? Yet the images of oppression and humorous memes will echo through generations of art historical discourse as paragons of resistance. Someone will look for meeting minutes, excavate a landfill for aesthetic garbage, and construct heroism for people who simply put their bodies into place. Art historians are chasing after that libidinous spark, something animate to capture and exhale in turn. “Resistance” is like a Mapplethorpe photograph: it conjures thrills.

Resistance is hype. It turns the art historian into a medium for the counterculture. In that position, the art historian can tell us whose actions ended up mattering, whose life caused things to happen, who actually mattered. Name checking resistance allows us to feel a closeness to where the action is happening; it allows us to feel almost as if we could stop history, as if we could shoot the clocks, as if something we do or say could matter and echo down through eternity, rather than being buffeted by its turbulence and flow.


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