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So you Think you're Political?! Seven notes on the harmlessness of art

Veda Popovici »

So you Think you're Political?!
Seven notes on the harmlessness of art


“...what you are doing (…) remains in the repertoire of a happening”
, said the rector of the University of Bucharest to the people that had occupied the History Department in November 2011. He was insisting in convincing the occupiers that what they were doing was merely a happening, that it could not be more than a symbolical gesture, or in other words, that it was only art. It seemed that contemporary art provided the rector with a concept that could (in his view) efficiently discourage the occupiers and eventually make the whole action fail. How come this figure of authority thought that art was precisely the best way to neutralize the disturbing potential of this political gesture? The rector’s words emphasized a key function of contemporary art: its ability to provide authority with tools (concepts and images) to neutralize and domesticate political acts.

#2 Art and legality

Article 3 of law 60/1991 concerning public gatherings in the Romanian legislation states that “any public manifestation of artistic, religious or sportive character does not need any authorization to be performed.” So art, religion and sports enjoy first-hand the status of “freedom of expression”. Political gatherings must be announced and officially authorized, thus only having a second-hand “freedom of expression” status. This is relevant for the present text as it reflects the clear dichotomy made by the authorities in the allowance of the harmful potential: art, religion and sports supposedly have no politically disturbing character.

Article 3 became very popular among activists in 2011 and 2012, as they realized that as long as they declared their actions had artistic connotations, they would be legally covered. A thin-ice, typical of current subversive practices, emerged: this new tendency seemed both efficient and a failure. On the one hand, the protesters were strategically using art's harmless status to perform radical political discourses. On the other hand, the codification of political messages in art's harmless clothes often neutralized the message itself. Playing out this situation can end up disturbing or confirming authority. The questions to be asked become: for whom is it convenient? And who is tricking whom?

#3 Bucharest, January 2012 and after

In January 2012, spontaneous and initially violent anti-governmental mass protests broke out in University Square in Bucharest. The heterogenous masses that made up the revolts carried various messages that generally affirmed dignity through radical anti-governmental, anti-austerity and anti-Troika [2] slogans, placards and manifestos. Interestingly enough, here too, just like at the history occupation a couple of months earlier, were voices that pushed the mass manifestation in the realm of “this is only art”. This time, however, they were coming from the art scene.

One gallerist and critic wrote an invitation to all of the art scene to be part of a mass performance referring to the protests. Meanwhile, another critic used the opportunity of an art show review to negate the protests as mere “lifestyle performances”, the subjectivity that was emerging in the square was already that of the spectacle, a “zoon aesthetikon”. The laid-back irony of all these reactions is the cynical tone of authority discrediting its challengers. While gallerists and art critics were ironically mollifying the protests by assimilating them into art, mass-media representation was already undertaking its mission of gradually and steadily turning the protests into a mass spectacle. Both tendencies originate from the same locus of consolidating authority and subordination mechanisms by using a very similar mechanism of neutralization: art's harmless status to turn a political action into mere spectacle.

#4 Art and spectacle

If the spectacle is a social relationship between people mediated by images [3] and art is the historical stage of culture in which representation is instituted as a way of knowledge, the relation between art and spectacle lays in their common need of representation. Following Guy Debord's theory, two conflicting tendencies can be discerned in art: one that confirms the institution of the spectacle by staging communication and community; and one that points to the impossibility of communication and community in the contemporary configuration of capitalism. [4] Thus, although it can produce spectacle by reinforcing representation as hegemonic reality, art is fundamentally distinct from it: by emphasizing the artificial character of representation, art creates space for the desire of real communication and it can provide a social context to develop practices towards real community. To do this, art must end before it turns into spectacle that is, “the rigid institution of appearance as truth.” [5]

The art system has, however, went through important changes since the 1960s when The Society of Spectacle was written. The crucial role art now plays in the contemporary configuration of the global capital can be seen as one of the privileged fields of negotiation between agents of authority and agents of subversive change. On this field of negotiation the sole importance of art is not at stake, but its legitimizing/de-legitimizing potential, in other words what we would call its harmlessness vs. its harmfulness.

#5 The harm-full/-less

The tension between the harmlessness and the harmfulness of art can be translated as the tension between the need of authority to institute art as being a fundamentally autonomous field from politics, and thus unable to challenge it in a meaningful way, and the tendency of contestatory politics that propose art as an accessible, socially flexible field from which authority can be efficiently undermined. It is precisely this tension that was very visible in such projects as the Berlin Biennale 7 and later in the Truth is Concrete camp at Graz, Austria in 2012. What both events have in common is their ambition to surpass the harmlessness of art and institute the harmfulness of art. This translates as a dangerous bet where exactly the opposite can be enacted.

The threshold of this tension was reflected at the Berlin Biennale in the relationship with the Occupy movement activists. By caging them in a zoo type of space, the Biennale was employing an overidentification method to show the future of the Occupy movement: that of becoming a spectacle itself. By playing out (one of) its most immediate danger(s), the frame of the Biennale brought a thorough critique of the movement and provoked it to transform itself. At the two-week marathon camp Truth is Concrete, the threshold consisted in the ambiguous staging of radical political practices by appropriating autonomist and anarchist modes of organizing (ex.: the camp, shared responsibilities, open platform for expression). This staging culminated in the organization of a direct action in the city of Graz. The action in itself is interesting because it shows a direct consequence of subsuming radical political practices into art. The spectacular action abuzz with choreography, march, noise, performance, stenciling and vandalism ended up entertaining the locals and posed no real threat to the political status quo.

#6 Art and legality (2)

From a legal point of view, there is an important distinction between radical politics and art. In the contemporary Western legal systems, art is seen as a fundamental right. There is therefore a tendency to tolerate, legalize and defend something considered to be art. Enacted radical politics are always directed towards forms of governmentality, for which the most cohesive expression is the law. Take revolution as the privileged form of enacted radical politics: it is fundamentally illegal. It is this distinction between the tendency of legalizing art and illegalizing radical politics that is at the core of the configuration of the harmlessness of art. A position of authority will try, just as the rector in Bucharest, to show that a certain action is merely art, already legal, already part of “democracy”.

Thus, the importance of a particular moment in any action emerges: the moment in which it stops being art and becomes politics. From the subversive position, this moment is as necessary as it is for the position of authority the inverse moment: the moment in which politics becomes art. In the partial framework of the law, art offers both the possibility of using a citizen's participation in legality and the legitimation of authority this endorses as tactical methods for enacting a radical discourse. However, it is its legalizable status that can be used to tame or domesticate a political act.

#7 Us, the harmless

Back in the University Square in Bucharest, on the 1st December 2012, Romania’s national day, the Other Flags was performed by a group of 10, including myself. The action was part of the project the Other Us [6], a workshop concentrated on developing a critical stance on nationalism, national identity and investigating the revolutionary potential of identity politics, particularly from a feminist and decolonial perspective. Part of the workshop was a process of producing flags (old or new) to be worn in a public protest on the 1st of December, breaking the monopoly of the national flag and reclaiming political presence for the Other, whomever this may be. To investigate the dynamics of legality, we attempted to obtain an authorization for the event. At the hearing, the limit of the harmless was reached when the Public Gatherings Commission realized we will be waving non-national flags in the public space. The manifestation was described as anti-Romanian and I myself was repeatedly warned on the criminal danger of bringing offense to the national flag. This showed an awareness of the authority for the effective use of art's harmlessness to political ends, and thus an awareness of art's potential harmfulness.

If we think of the harmlessness of art as a political tool to neutralize any subversive potential to existing power structures, what lays beyond this? It may very well be that the powerful ones need to institute a definite status of art’s harmlessness that confirms art's harmfulness. Thus, investigating exactly what images and concepts authority uses to institute the formal harmlessness of art may shed some light on the blind spots of the same authority. It seems that one of the most important of these is art's ability to turn a political action into a spectacle, it's mere artificial staging, breaking the urgency, actuality and reality of the message.

On the negotiation field of art's harmlessness, tactical identifications can be efficient. By tactically – that is temporarily – using art's harmless status, agents of radical politics can access social spaces that, otherwise, do not welcome them: public squares, sidewalks, museums, etc. However, there must necessarily be a moment where a certain action stops being art and is proclaimed politics. We must keep in mind that what enables this negotiating field is the flexibility of defining both art and politics, and it is this flexibility that should be used to push the limits and definitions of not only art and politics but most importantly the state, law, citizenship, and implicitly, patriarchy and capitalism.


[1] This text has been published in a longer version in Artleaks Gazette, 2013:
[2] The Troika refers to the three organizations which have the most power within the European Union. The three groups are the European Commission (EC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the European Central Bank (ECB).
[3] Guy Debord, Society of Spectacle, originally published in French, 1967. For all the following notes I used the
translated version by Donald Nicholson Smith, Zone Books, 1994. Thesis 4.
[4] Ibid., thesis 184–185.
[5] Ibid., thesis 186–188, 190.
[6] More resources including a video documentation of the Other Flags action can be found here:

Short bio

Veda Popovici (born 1986, in Romania) works as an artist, theoretician and activist mostly in a dilettante manner. Her interests include collective representations in art, possibilities of creating the common, colonial (and) patriarchal histories and the political harmful-/harmlessness of art. Her work has grown from a need to contest institutional structures and institutionality to affirming feminist and de-colonial politics. It has also grown from an object and installation-based practice to placing the body in various contexts (through performance) and seeking collective frames of knowledge production (with Bezna collective and zine). Currently, she is a PhD Candidate at the University of Arts in Bucharest with a research on nationalism and national identity in Romanian art of the ’70s and ’80s. Her latest long-term project, the “Other Us” seeks to insert in the public sphere a contestatory identity politics discourse that opens the way for a critique of europocentricism, Western hegemony and capitalism as an alternative to oppressive nationalist paradigms. She lives and works in Bucharest.

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