Redistributing the sensible: The culture industry under the sign of post-fordism.

Sybren Renema

Post-fordism and the ‘distribution of the sensible’

‘The Ford model and the model hit song are all of a piece’ –Th. W. Adorno[1]

This quote might very well be both the ultimate warning Adorno ever gave us and the best way to assess what damage intellectual standardization can do. What Adorno called the ‘culture industry’ has gained such a momentum that what is nowadays considered culture is inalienably linked to this mode of production, even when trying to resist its grasp. He concluded that the oppression that the culture industry creates is based on the schemes it proposes and affirms: “The schema of mass culture now prevails as a canon of synthetically produced models of behavior”[2]. Sixty years after this diagnosis, it would be foolish for anyone to claim not to be complicit in this system, because it has so thoroughly permeated all layers of society and has shown great flexible qualities. It might even be said it has irrevocably succeeded.

An example: When one thinks of all the drop-outs and counter-cultures the world has known, it is impossible not to ponder the appropriation by the culture industry of their outward sign of resistance. Just think, for instance, of multinationals selling flower-power t-shirts or of multi-million movies depicting life over the edge? If anything, these blockbusters and hip clothes function to keep us all in place. Those who dare to stray from the flock, who truly live a different life, irrevocable become vilified as the ‘other’: mad, eccentric, a junky or a criminal.

If anything, the culture industry creates a society that is conservative and self-referential, accepting only the schemes of behavior, but not the intellectual freedom to choose from these schemes and to reject its ideology. According to Adorno it “misuses its concern for the masses in order to duplicate, reinforce and strengthen their mentality, which it presumes is given and unchangeable. How this mentality might be changed is given and unchangeable. The masses are not the measure but the ideology of the culture industry, even though the culture industry itself could scarcely exist without adapting the masses.”[3]

A further analysis of this hypothesis is made in Baudrillard’s ‘In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities’, roughly three decades later. The author argues that social sciences, the social and the masses have to be radically reexamined, as McLuhan’s statement that the medium is the message leads to a situation in which talking about the social is the only way to maintain and continue its existence. What results from this is a simulation of the social that is only maintained by politics. The political silence of the masses, in spite of the fact that they are being “surveyed to death”, “topples the social and the political into the hyperreality that we associate it with”. So in fact, there is, according to Baudrillard, no longer a clear social but only a simulation of the social in a society in which politics has become a simulacrum of itself.[4]

What freedom such a society does grant its inhabitants is minimal and focused on details, insignificances and the superfluous. Baudrillard, in his System of Objects (1968), claimed that what he calls ‘man as interior designer’ is tricked into believing that he doesn’t need the objects he gathers, but can in an original way construct his life. The ‘technical society’ “implies practical computation and conceptualization on the basis of a total abstraction: the notion of a world no longer given but instead produced – mastered, manipulated, inventoried, controlled: a world, in short, which has to be constructed.”[5] Man as an interior designer can own all the luxuries society has given, knows they are not vital, but takes pride in the consumption of these materials because they grant him success and the simulacrum of freedom, or at least of free time.

Yet this freedom to construct is very relative. Its boundaries lie at the point where the private space meets the public space, where individual becomes multitude. Here man as interior designer is subject to all the conventions and tastes and the group mentality that the culture industry proposes.  The systems beyond these boundaries are modeled by a collective history, society and the conventions those imply. It is virtually impossible to tinker with anything fundamental in these and that impossibility is masked by the apparent freedom we have to design, but not change, our surroundings.

Jacques Rancière, a thinker heavily indebted to both the Marxist and the post-structuralist traditions of Adorno and Baudrillard, calls the root of this situation the ‘distribution of the sensible’[6] (sometimes translated as the ‘partition of the sensible’), which he describes as the “system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it.”[7] (The sensible here is to be understood as that which we are capable of apprehending via the senses, not as a moral sort of sensibility.) This leads to an apportionment of parts that “is based on a distribution of spaces, times, and forms of activity that determines the very manner in which something common lends itself to participation and in that way various individuals have a part in this distribution”. In other words: the distribution of the sensible is the bracketing and dividing of the social and political order and a mechanism that ultimately works as a way of handing power and influence to those who need it to maintain that order.

A divide Ranciere is particularly interested in, is that between art and politics. This divide is shaped by the manner in which both feed off each other. This border causes both to more and more resemble one another. He argues that the arts as we practice them today are a result of a phase in the history of art that he calls the aesthetic regime of the arts, a regime that “strictly identifies art in the singular and frees it from any specific rule, from any hierarchy of the arts, subject matter, and genres.” This it does by “destroying the mimetic barrier that distinguished ways of doing and making affiliated with art from other ways of doing and making, a barrier that separated its rules from the order of social occupations.” In other words: as art becomes more free to interfere with other social activities, such as politics, the divide becomes more blurred and in return, those orders can take on artistic functions. As such, it can be claimed, according to Ranciere, that ‘the aesthetic regime asserts the absolute singularity of art and, at the same time, destroys any pragmatic criterion for isolating this singularity’. It might be said art is dissolving into politics and politics into art.[8]

In a recent (2009) response to Ranciere’s analysis, Michael Hardt provides a critical reappraisal of Ranciere’s ideas.[9] Here, Hardt introduces several things that the art world should take to heart. First of all, he insists that the ‘common’, those who are both subject and object in the distribution of the sensible, are not “quasi-natural or given”.[10] It is instead something artificial, that can be “produced through a wide variety of social circuits and encounters.” If this is the case, Hardt argues, we must also discuss the economical realm when discussing this distribution of the sensible, because it is the third element in the equation of how art and the rest of society, or ‘the sensible’ interact.

This third element in the equation leads us to one of the most important problems when thinking about an art of resistance: the (economical) modes of production. In his book Empire, co-written by Antonio Negri, Hardt argues that “industry is gradually being replaced in the dominant position by what we call immaterial or biopolitical production.”[11] This form of production deals with “information, ideas, knowledge, languages, communication, images, codes and affects.”

The influence of economy on the distribution of the sensible does affect the artist in two ways. The first is the least interesting, but most clearly described by Hardt: the arts have become a prestige-project for the corporate world. Through the use of Biennales, art fairs and the self-created ‘creative industry’, the business world tries to capitalize on art, without having any investment in the subject matter, apart from a financial one. The artist is tolerated as a business model, but not as a representative of the humanities, because the humanities in themselves have no commercial use. This can be seen in many of the formerly ‘progressive’ countries in Europe, such as the UK, Sweden and the Netherlands, where massive cuts are being made to budgets for healthy art scenes, on the base that they should operate in a more successful manner, or simply because they are ‘leftist hobbies’[12]. Success here is often defined as being profitable, as the appearance of professionalism and as being as little ‘elitist’ as possible, though how neoconservative governments and the supporters of free enterprise seem to interpret the last two notions, notions seems to be excluded throughout.[13] [14]

The second challenge caused by the inclusion of economics into the distribution of the sensible that Hardt mentions, though only in passing, is even more severe when perceived from the position of the artist. It could be simply defined as the artistic practice losing its exclusiveness, not only as the aura of the work has faded, but also because what Hardt calls biopolitical production, seems to annex the exclusive position the artist had in society as the creator of works of art under special conditions that were the exclusive domain of the artist. As the post-fordist model, which champions creativity, uniqueness, flexibility and own initiative in its workers in order to make more money, becomes the dominant mode of production, these values become largely void. After all, true creativity, flexibility, uniqueness and so on can often only take place when conventions are broken and boundaries transgressed, which is exactly what the representative of any power structure would like to prevent. ‘Thinking outside the box’ still requires the framework of a box. A simulacrum of creativity is what the workers in post-fordist society are left with. This has its repercussions on the art world: what once was its main domain, creativity, seems to have been sucked dry by the vampire bat of capitalism. Not only has art lost this power over creativity, it has also lost its dominant position as the creator of culture, with the culture industry appropriating what it can use and rendering everything else ‘useless’. These two factors make the position of art potentially bleaker than ever.

If Ranciere is right, and the aesthetic regime of the arts makes the line between art and politics ever more transparent, we need to assess what the art world can do in order to maintain a political and cultural relevance and a believable alternative to the status quo of neoconservative power and the dominion of the culture industry. A solution should be found that acknowledges these matters and at the same time appropriates and subverts the all-absorbing potential of capitalism. It is in the best interest of the art world to ponder these questions as Hardt points them out, even more so because he shies from providing any answers:  “my brief analysis of the parallel relations among aesthetics, the political and the economical allows me to pose these questions but does not yet arrive at any responses. I suspect that artists are more qualified than I to respond and I imagine that in their work they are already discovering answers to these questions.” In the rest of this essay, we shall focus on such answers, mainly by looking at two forms of institutional critique.

Punk jeans and folklore

But before we do so, we must first define if it is still possible to resist. This is of course mostly a matter of political stand-point. How we perceive the culture industry under the sign of post-fordism is at the core of how feasible resistance seems. It is here that the views of Hardt and Negri on one side and Baudrillard on the other side collide. For Baudrillard, and indeed many of the more pessimistic thinkers, we have reached a point of no return. If we take the position of ‘man as interior designer’ to the most extreme, we end up in a situation in which exchange value and use value approach one another, only to be eclipsed by a third form of value that is even more remote from the ‘origin’ of the object and thus of reality. This third value is what Baudrillard called sign value and can be understood as a symptom of capitalism as we experience it. We could use the example of a pre-made pair of punk jeans, complete with holes and stains, to clarify this. These jeans might look like they are soon-to-be waste products, but are actually designed that way. The person who purchases these is more interested in what they signify than in how well they function as jeans and is prepared to spend considerable money on them. Their true value is their sign value: what they signify to others as signs of ‘punkness’, or whatever identity. How well they hold up as pieces of clothing is secondary to this.[15]

It is this sign value that the culture industry maintains over its subjects. It leads to a mass of people that signifies a lot, but is representing nothing. Useful forms of counter-culture become assimilated through this mechanism and with it their critiques on the social status quo. What we are left with is their hollow image, their simulacrum. For Baudrillard, our identities are mostly assigned to us and we are no longer in a position to fight this.

For Hardt and Negri, such a view on things excludes the possibility of resistance. Their main object of study, the multitude, can only exist in its most diverse and heterogeneous way. The multitude is different from this compared to what they call the people, which is the homogeneous people of the nation state. For them, ‘the concept of multitude introduces us to a completely new world, inside a revolution in process.’[16] This process is based on the idea that the exact process that Baudrillard describes is actually inverse. The multitude is not a homogeneous thing, held in place by the culture industry, but has a potential for great uprising that takes place at the base and needs little guidance from the superstructure of the powers that be. Negri contrasts the multitude with the people, understood here as the homogeneous ‘the people’ as they often appear in the politicians’ speeches:

Once we define the name of the multitude against the concept of the people, bearing in mind that the multitude is a whole of singularities, we must translate that name in the perspective of the body and clarify the dispositif of a multitude of bodies. When we consider bodies, we not only perceive that we are faced with a multitude of bodies, but we also understand that each body is a multitude. Intersecting the multitude, crossing multitude with multitude, bodies become blended, mongrel, hybrid, transformed; they are like sea waves, in perennial movement and reciprocal transformation.[17]

In other words: the constituent parts of the multitude are always in motion and can’t be pinned down. The above quote seems to suggest that what the multitude needs to do is re-appropriate the outward and inward signs of the revolutionary project. They have to buy those pre-made punk jeans and turn them against the people that made them and the culture industry as a whole. There is still the possibility for uprising.

The results of these uprisings, however, are not always as we would hope, as the next example proves. In 2008, Netherlands-based artists Annette Krauss and Petra Bauer were working on a piece that was to be part of a two-year series of events, lectures and presentations around Dutch identity held at the Van Abbe Museum, called Be(com)ing Dutch. Many of the artists invited were foreigners. Some, like Krauss, had settled in the Netherlands years ago, but others, like Bauer, were complete outsiders. Be(com)ing Dutch was intended to spark debate over the national identity of the Netherlands. Since the early 2000’s the Netherlands have undergone a dramatic shift in political vision, partially due to two political murders. In this light, many of the country’s most well-known ‘characteristics’, such as tolerance, multiculturalism and freedom of speech have had to be questioned quite a bit. Be(com)ing Dutch intended to do just that.

For their particular work, Bauer and Krauss decided to investigate the country’s most well-known celebration, Sinterklaas, which includes white people in blackface as servants of St Nicolas. Though they are said to be Italian chimney sweepers, pagan devils or simply not negroid, the Surinamese, African and Antillean immigrants in the Netherlands take offense. In their performance ‘Read the masks. Tradition is not given’, Krauss and Bauer wanted to give these multicultural, post-colonial dissidents the platform of the museum and the artistic act in order to question national conventions. They wanted, so to say, to mobilize the multitude against the oppression of a tradition that they felt was racist and functioned to endorse antiquated patterns of behavior without questioning their origins.

The work Krauss and Bauer supposed would consist of a protest march through Eindhoven, where the Van Abbe is based. The protesters would hold signs that  paraphrased Dutch protest slogans from the eighties, when more than a million people protested against the positioning of nuclear weapons in the Netherlands, an event that is still fondly remembered as the most successful protest in the country. Their whole performance would have been dressed in a rather cheerful style. However, the idea of two foreigners touching on one of the most taboo subjects in the Netherlands caused such an outcry that both artists and the museum received (death)threats and the march had to be canceled. In a way, the media coverage seemed like a great result, because it lead to exposure for the black people who felt misrepresented. However, the debate deflected from this and soon the backlash was enormous.

Particularly aggressive was the response by the same politicians and press who claim art to be a ‘left-wing hobby’, mainly representatives of the crypto-fascist Freedom Party (PVV)[18] and right-wing populist weblog GeenStijl. The arguments these people gave did not go far beyond the banal observation that previous ‘Teutonic’ interference in the Netherlands had not been very beneficial.[19] In this very cramped debate, the artists had lost before they started. Their national identity, political activism and artistic methods were all ammunition for their critics, who managed to lure the debate further and further away from Zwarte Piet and into the more vague terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

In an essay dealing with the strained cultural relations in the Netherlands, Sven Lütticken sharply observes that these populists were the true winners in this debate because of this. They managed to create an ‘other’ to agitate against, ‘sustaining the myth of a monolithic national culture under attack from a sinister coalition of outsiders.’[20] This coalition of course existed of ‘the elite’, ‘intellectuals’, ‘the left’ and ‘the sponges of subsidy’[21] that are the artists, museums and their supporters.

This social turmoil should not surprise us. With the rise of the concept of avant-gardes, the art world has long had to validate itself against the conservative forces in society. The biggest difference between now and seventy years ago is that with the sheer amount of interference from the mass media, the availability of the internet and the success of the culture industry, the overlap between art and politics is increasingly difficult to map. As politics become more aesthetic, as we saw Ranciere claim, the political understanding of what constitutes culture has to change as well. This is particularly true for those forces that do not find any intrinsic value in the progressive potential of art. As  Lütticken says when explaining the mechanism populism uses in order to manifest itself against the ‘dangers’ of art:

In a reversal of Carl Andre’s dictum that “art is what we do” and “culture is what is done to us,” the contemporary populist imagination regards art as what is done to us while culture is what we do, or rather: what we simply are. Strictly speaking, this means that culture would need to be defined without having recourse to art at all. In fact, it is usually not that art as such is opposed to culture, only contemporary art: the good art lies in the safe and idealized past, in the golden age.[22]

When we examine this statement in relation to the performance, we find that ‘Read the masks. Tradition is not given’ touched exactly on an ossified idea of the national identity upheld by the conservative elements in society. This national identity is the result of an even more solid national culture that the arts should, according to right-wing populists and conservatives, not tamper with. The ‘we’ in the above quote of course excludes the artists, because they are cast as the ‘other’ against which the ‘culture’ of ‘society’ maintains itself.

The walls of the museum

Even when the critical artist aims his arrows at forces within the art world, as institutional critique does, instead of a large-scale cultural phenomenon like Sinterklaas, there is often only a limited space to maneuver before he or she finds a wall of resistance that seems to be there to mask what should stay hidden. As we saw Hardt point out earlier, corporate interest in the art world is more often than not based on how the art world can be profitable or beneficial for a particular enterprise. Interest in the arts in that case is little more than a form of public relations. This means that the pretense of any truly moral reason for supporting the arts, such as the fact that art is good for social cohesion, is often only there as a facade to hide the ugliness of the company that supports the Biennale or museum.[23]

On the other side of the deal, the compromised institute loses quite a bit of freedom and credibility. Any political engagement from the museum, or engaged art shown in the museum, seems to function as very little more than a mask, or at most the joke of a court jester, which might be slightly stingy to the powers that be, but is ultimately harmless because we all know the jester is only there to hide the total power of its ruler. Given that it is only the officially appointed fool who criticizes, and not someone that needs to be feared, all can be ignored and nothing really has to change. It is exactly this mechanism that makes critical art within the official institutional art world a very difficult thing.

A second problem when thinking about the museum as a space of resistance, is that the idea of institutional critique has been thoroughly internalized. One might say that even when an institute is completely clear of social wrongs, the act of institutional critique has been institutionalized itself and has thus been petrified. However, there are some instances when this sort of work can still be very tumultuous and effective. A recent example took place at the Tate Modern in 2010. The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination (Lab of ii) was invited to set up a workshop on art activism inside the museum. Just before the workshop was to take place, the limits of its scope were strictly set by the museum:

Ultimately, it is also important to be aware that we cannot host any activism directed against Tate and its sponsors, however we very much welcome and encourage a debate and reflection on the relationship between art and activism.[24]


True to the spirit of activism, this refusal worked as an invitation and as material to work with. Much as the Tate tried, the participants in the project targeted the museum and its main sponsor, the much discredited BP. The result, a text made by the participants in the Lab ii workshop saying ‘art not oil’, seemed to sum up quite well the impasse this wrongly motivated form of corporate interest has lead to: a group of companies that claim a moral imperative through manipulating the art world on one side and a vast majority of artists, audiences and institutions that become implied in what they wanted to oppose.

The Lab ii workshop was one of those rare instances, just like the project of Krauss and Bauer, where the stirrings in the art world were felt until far outside the normal reaches of this art world. That the Lab ii project was successful (there is talk of trying to get BP out of sponsoring Tate Modern all together[25]), is mainly thanks to the fact that the process of creating this project was too embarrassing for all the parties involved in the initial censoring to oppose. Also, by directly handing over power to the participants in the workshop and telling them to create what they want, the Lab ii could not be directly held responsible for the artistic results. As such, any sort of response from the corporate world could not be targeted at the art world as a conspiracy of outsiders, but would have been directed at the participants, who are exactly the sort of ‘common man’ that BP needs in order to maintain its power. As such, this project was a very good way of shuffling the deck and redistributing the sensible, as Ranciere would have it, away from the corporation and towards the people.

As a matter of fact, Lab ii’s success lay exactly in the fact that the people involved were representatives of the world outside the two poles of art and politics that define this conflict of interests: they were the real people, the audience, the subjects and the multitude of Hardt and Negri. Whereas Krauss and Bauer were directly affiliated with political pressure groups and activists, Lab ii took the ‘real’ people as their collaborators. This is an important lesson for those that are looking for an art of resistance. Perhaps we need to hear them more and not forget that empowering the people can be a very useful and valid way of creating an art that tries to resist and redefine what society is and should be.

This process of empowering needn’t necessarily be a direct political empowering. It is also possible to make works of art that simply function as agents of a more subversive thought and less as direct political statements. We should not forget, however, that it is important that this empowering should be an act of free will and not something imposed by the powers that be. The moment it becomes that, an art of resistance becomes exactly what it aims to oppose.

Rejection and acknowledgement


One way of doing this is by simply bypassing the power of the institutionalized art world. Whether it is through busking, self-released music or home-based galleries, the individual can definitely oppose those forces that are infinitely larger than him- or herself. As the smallest possible social unit the individual is by far the most difficult one for the reactionary forces of the culture industry or conservatism to compromise, because the individual is (as the term suggests) indivisible, yet at the same time an amorphous, intangible, free-floating constellation of influences (the mongrel in Negri’s understanding the multitude). If the culture industry provides us with pre-made models of behavior, these models only work when they are models for group conformity. As we saw earlier, those who do not follow the rules of conformity are rendered ‘other’, the ‘them’ that the ‘us’ of mass culture needs in order to maintain itself. The protagonist of such cultural defiance, according to Baudrillard, “is always in a suicidal position, but it is a triumphant suicide: it is by the destruction of value, the destruction of meaning (one’s own, their own) that the other is forced into a never equivalent, ever-escalating response”[26] By accepting and embracing this, those who do not confirm find incredible freedom, something akin to life after mass-cultural death.

What those dissidents need to remember is that they are no homogeneous group or avant-garde movement, as the culture industry would like them to be. Any avant-garde movement, inevitably turns what the Germans call salonfähig. In order for this not to happen, it is important to acknowledge that any effective action should be just as hyperventilative as the political status quo of the culture industry: always fleeting, always moving, always imploding. This can be achieved by moving close to the borders of the distribution of the sensible between art and politics and, like the culture industry, try to suck what is beyond the border in like a vampire bat. Whether it is the direct production of the social (relational art) or a redistributing of social power (institutional critique or guerrila gardening)[27], these works are just on the other side of the divide and think of ways invading the hostile territories of the culture industry.

But there is a fundamental difference between these works and what they mirror. Because the culture industry tries to sell elements of prefabricated identities to the people it subjects, it needs to understand the world in compartments, such as ‘music’, ‘internet’, ‘film’, ‘fashion’ and ‘politics’, that can be distributed to these subjects. Such easy brackets are exactly what a socially relevant art tries to evade. Lyotard, in his postscript to ‘What is postmodernism?’, states that “eclecticism is the degree zero of contemporary general culture”[28] and that to him, this condition extends to all forms of human interest, including science and technology, because “to believe otherwise would be to entertain an excessively humanistic notion of the mephistophelian functionalism of sciences and technologies”[29]. We generally mix and match what capitalism offers us, but do not really leave it’s boundaries, because we understand the world by them. Art seems to function in a similar way, but with one important difference, being that the artists designs the rules of his practice post modo. Such a practise undermines all the prefabricated categories that the culture industry thrives on. This in turn makes it possible to make those compartments implode into a singularity that is ours to occupy.

Taking pride in being the mongrels Negri mentions when discussing the multitude is an important second prerequisite for conquering the void of these brackets, not only in culture, but also in science and other fields of human interest and knowledge[30]. Purposely transgressing them is an important way to reclaim power from a system that speculates on the very particular specialisms of its subjects, as postfordism does. The amateur, the dilettante and the fanatic are sometimes just as interesting as the professional, because they fuel the discourse with things that are difficult to assimilate for their inability to be neatly packed away in a pre-made social category and thus call for curiosity and bewilderment. Their compliance in creating a culture for ourselves should not be understood as the ‘fifteen minutes of fame’, or the ‘freak show’ that the culture industry forces upon us through tv shows as Big Brother or the X-factor, but rather as a more subversive and less spectacular attempt at personal, unauthorized discovery through immediate action. Above all, their share in the project should be regarded with sincerity.

I disagree with Baudrillard when he wrote that “beyond meaning, there is fascination, which results from the neutralization and implosion of meaning.”[31] It seems as if the causality should be reversed. Fascination, if anything, leads to the implosion of socially accepted meaning, because it transposes our minds to places and situations we have not been. Working with a highly subjective and speculative fascination should thus always be at the core of opposing a postfordist culture industry that benefits from its subjects being highly specialized in its own, very well-monitored ways, because the speculative can’t be monitored. It just appears.

This omnipresence of the passive in postfordism is one of the true reasons why art struggles so much to validate itself.  In a society in which real poverty is a virtual unknown, the first and most important objective of socialism, creating good labor conditions for the masses, has been achieved. Second is fighting the complacency of the working class. The simulacrae of flexibility and creativity can’t hide that the real divide in modern society is not that between the haves and the have-nots, but between those who are chronically bored and those who aren’t. Postfordist labor conditions do not hide the fact that most (post-)mechanized labor is still incredibly tedious, repetative and mentally unfulfilling. However, it generates the wealth we need to see after all financial needs, which is of course a source of comfort and thus a reason not to rebel against all that is wrong.

In this respect postfordist labour is very different from all human activity that is born out of fascination, such as the creation of art or the pursuing of science. This involvement through fascination is why often the arts are being portrayed as awkward, decadent or useless. It seems that by the mechanizations of capitalism, the working class is alienated from the idea that human activity should be born out of that which fascinates the individual in order to be fulfilling. For those who need the thumbs-up of the mass in order to maintain their power base, it is easy to vent such frustrations, because it creates the division between an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ that power thrives on. However, with politics and art getting closer and closer and the boundaries between them blurring ever more, it is also the extermination of a rival system that might hold an alternative key to improvement.

All art can do to withstand this twisted logic is to activate the multitude and directly engage in projects that redistribute the sensible, for better or worse. If it wishes to oppose the culture industry in a relevant way, art needs to understand itself not as a homogeneous system, but as a constellation of incongruous elements that can’t be forced into a whole and instead thrives on chaos, free fall and insecurity.

[1] Th. Adorno, The Culture Industry, page 79, Routledge Classics, New York 2010 edition

[2] Idem, page 91

[3] Idem, page 99

[4] Jean Baudrillard, In the Shadows of the Silent Majorities, page 54., Semiotexte, 2007 edition.

[5] the System of Objects, page 28

[6] J. Rancière: The Politics of Aesthetics, Continuum, London, 2010 edition

[7] The Politics of Aesthetics, page 12

[8] However, this aesthetization of politics has nothing in common with that envisaged by Walther Benjamin, Ranciere claims, as it does not come from an urge to a ‘perverse commandeering of politics by a will to art’ but from an understanding of the aesthetic as ‘a system of a priori forms determining what presents itself to sense experience.’
The Politics of Aesthetics, page 13. See also page 32-34

[9] Being an artist in Post-Fordist Times, NAI Press, Rotterdam, 2009

[10] Same, page 47

[11] Same, page 48

[12] The Dutch populist, cryptofascist Freedom Party (PVV) claims this.

[13] For the debate on the Dutch culture cuts, see the NRC Handelsblad archive, for instance. A very disturbing interview with Culture Secretary Halbe Zijlstra , entitled ‘Van Gogh did not get any subsidy either’ can be read in the edition of Vrij Nederland, 15th of January 2011. Here, in a dazzling sweep of arrogance, Zijlstra first claims to be an expert on culture and then claims not to go to openings, theater productions and concerts much, as he does not want to be too    invested in the subject of his office, because he wants to make effective cuts on culture. These things are mutually exclusive and even more awkward than having a vegetarian preside over the production of steaks.

[14] For an thought-provoking, analysis of the state of contemporary art as a form of ‘insider trading’, I suggest Jean Baudrillard, ‘The Conspiracy of Art’, Semiotexte, London, 2005

[15] For more on sign value (here written as sing/value), see for instance: In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, page 64

[16] Tony Negri, Towards an Ontological Definition of the Multitude, from:

[17] same

[18] Rob Riemen: de eeuwige terugkeer van het fascisme, 2010


[20] Sven Lütticken: A Heteronomous Hobby: Report from the Netherlands. E-flux Journal 22. 01/2011, from


[22] A Heteronomous Hobby

[23] Much of the early institutional critique of people like, Hans Haacke is based around this, such as his seminal work Social Grease. However, we shall look into more contemporary examples of similar practices.

[24] John Jordan, On refusing to pretend to do politics in a museum, 2010.Art Monthly 334: March 2010.

[25] same

[26] In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, page 82.

[27] How far this is still possible in contemporary society depends on whether one follows those akin to Baudrillard or those in line with Hardt and Negri.

[28] Art in Theory, 1900-1990, page 1008-1015, Harrison & Wood (ed.), Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1996 edition. Original essay by Lyotard published in 1984.

[29] same

[30] (cf. Lyotard)

[31] In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, page 105