Allan Kaprow - Refusal/Un-Artist - Keith Tilford

Keith Tilford, in a brilliant guest essay whose first portion is hosted at Long Sunday, asks How No Can You Go? We lost a good portion of our Saturday morning reading through it and its second part hosted on Tilford's blog Metastable Equilibrium. It's well worth taking the time to read.

We'd like to use Tilford's essay as "a point of departure more than anything else" as he describes his treatment of Mario Tronti's essay "The Strategy of Refusal." In his "departure," Tilford thinks through practices of refusal and their generative possibilities. Regular readers of this blog (to our astonishment, such creatures exist) will immediately recognize how germane this is to LeisureArts. What follows is our incomplete and possibly incoherent attempt to ask, "How no can you go?"

Against Tronti, Tilford seeks to dispense with a class based analysis of refusal. "To say this does not mean denying that there are classes, or that there is a ruling class; only that refusal, resistance – what composes and calls for them - are not reducible to the antagonisms of a class division." This enables us to think in terms of what we have called elsewhere - political proximities. We developed politics of proximity as a way to create a place/space based configuration of Donna Haraway's "affinity politics" - which itself was seen as an escape from identity politics. These impulses to moved beyond sedimentary, or essentialist subject formations are the sort of thing Tilford wants to take into account in his update of Tronti.

While laying out the overlapping histories and aspirations of his reading of worker's movements (mostly those in Italy) and conceptual art, Tilford delves into the problematics of these sedimentarities, or what he describes as "institutional nomination" when these antagonistic identities are recognized and named as such. Via a perspective indebted to Deleuze and Guattari, he argues that, "A minority may create a model for itself in order to survive, but it is a model which it does not depend on..." This is a treatment of antagonistic identities as a process rather than discrete, (permanently) stable products, he notes " would appear as necessary to proceed from the knowledge that such solidifications are also the mark of a very real production of social subjects who continue to resist such solidification."

This leads us to a central concern of ours regarding Tilford's analysis and the field of invisibility and refusal. How much do the artists (especially Rirkrit Tiravanija, Aleksandra Mir, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres) cited by Tilford really "resist" institutional nomination? Do their operations and procedures of refusal actually square with this astute statement offered in Tilford's essay? We remain somewhat suspicious:

"Whatever name is given to such procedures, refusal then becomes synonymous with invention...It might also be asked how new and complex strategies of refusal can potentially count as an art not merely for those who might designate it as being such within the field of art, but for anyone who, engaged in struggle, seizes hold of opportunities within the empty unrepresentable spaces covered over in capitalism, so as to channel their own desire toward something and somewhere other than here."

The most fruitful line of thinking here rests on the distinction between art and an art. LeisureArts exists at the interstice of this fine distinction and aims to proliferate practices that might be described as an art over those that are described as art proper. We see this as placing these practices in the realm of affinity, and proximity, as mentioned earlier, rather than identity. It follows that this is itself an act of refusing institutional inscription, a desire to remain "empty."

We believe Tilford is correct in citing Duchamp as being an important model of refusal, but he problematically characterizes Duchamp's intellectual inheritors as finding " was relevant to take an anti-art stance and perform a constant restaging of the matter and means of artistic practice." The appropriate legacy of refusal is not "anti-art," which ends up enacting the State/worker problematic he finds in Tronti's work: "...the categories of ‘worker’ and ‘party’ seem to end up installing themselves within the very representations that the workers would have intended to overthrow..." A better model, we believe, is Allan Kaprow's "un-artist." Writing about anti-art, Kaprow notes: "You cannot be against art when art invites its own destruction..." He offers us the "un-artist" asking that we "give up all references to being artists of any kind whatever." This un-artist reconfigures the subjective formation of an artist identity, echoing the "resistance as effect" and "antagonism as consequence" operations mentioned by Tilford.

Another concern of ours is Tilford's treatment of "institutional critique." It's a bit confusing because he describes "the exodus from the studio and exhibition space" represented by the work of Mir and Tiravanija as an example of a refinement of institutional critique. We think this works against his succinct employment of Adrian Piper's "meta-art" which in many ways resonates with Kaprow. To our mind Mir (whose work we enjoy) and Tiravanija (whose work is completely undeserving of being propped up by the cadre of critics that champion him), refuses only the institution of art in the most facile way - bring art to life and life to art in a didactic sense only. Challenging the physical apparatus of art institutions and leaving the ideological frame unchallenged (Piper calls for examining the ideological genesis of work) seems like a minor refusal, not the sort of radical refusal Tilford is writing about.

Skipping ahead to Tilford's exploration of "anorectic subjectivities" as theorized by Maurizio Lazzarato (for a feminist take on the refusal of the anorectic see Susan Bordo's essay "Anorexia Nervosa: Psychopathology as the Crystallisation of Culture" and Elizabaeth Grosz's "Psychoanalysis and Psychical Topographies") we find this question:

"And what of ‘artistic practices’ within the new situations generated through globalization and the proliferation of institutions? What, if anything, is art supposed to do under such circumstances and how might it benefit from refusal – from its own ‘anorexia’?"

This question brings us back to Kaprow's conceptualization of the un-artist. One of the keys here, of course is being specific about the difference between refusal and opposition. Refusal is a kind of escape, shifting the terms of discussion, leaving the scene, and not a direct engagement. It is not possible to dispense with art completely, but Kaprow, is aware of this, noting:

"...the idea of art cannot easily be gotten rid of (even if one wisely never utter the word). But it is possible to slyly shift the whole un-artistic operation away from where the arts customarily congregate, to become, for instance, an account executive, an ecologist, a stunt rider, a politician, a beach bum. In these different capacities...[art] would operate indirectly as a stored code that, instead of programming a specific course of behavior, would facilitate an attitude of deliberate playfulness toward all professionalizing activities well beyond art [emphasis mine]."

It is this broader aim of un-artistic activity and the steadfast refusal of a professional art identity that many "relational" artists and their variants have yet to sufficiently explore. The call by Kaprow is clear "Artists of the world, drop out! You have nothing to lose but your professions!" Clearly the champions of relational aesthetics and its practitioners have no intention of answering that call.

In this vein, Tilford quotes Andrea Fraser, who in a recent Artforum essay arrives at the position Kaprow explored some forty years earlier saying that institutional escape is "only what, at any given moment, does not exist as an object of artistic discourses and practices" and "It is artists – as much as museums or the market – who, in their very efforts to escape the institution of art, have driven its expansion." The difference here is that the sort of escape Fraser is mentioning in the latter statement, is the kind Rirkrit Tiravanija and other "relational" artists engage in. They merely import art discourse into the social field and vice versa without a wholesale re-working of the conceptual schema, of "saying no" as Tilford puts it:

"Saying no – or more appropriately, just refusing in general (however it might be decided to do so) - becomes the means to invest new forms of affirmation, new ways in which to grab hold of the gaps and run with them."

How no can you go? Few have come closer than Kaprow in their direct exploration of this question. He cut to the heart of things: "Once the task of the artist was to make good art; now it is to avoid making art of any kind." That's about as no as you can go.