by Alan Moore
Paper for “Critical Mass” exhibition, Smart Museum, University of Chicago, April 2002
Art starts from groups. Collectivity is the basis for artistic production. Special forms of social relations are the soil in which artists are rooted. From this soil the flowers of art bloom, are cut, and carried to the vases in arrangements like those in large vases in the lobby of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. There they may be understood as emblems, as a language of flowers, speaking universally, as if to everyone, above and beyond their origins.
The collective in western art is rooted in the workshop structure of art and artisan production, rooted too the teaching routines of the art academy. It is also bred into the artist’s economy of poverty. Time, space, materials, ideas and opportunities make up the conditions within which art can be produced. Not all of this is bought and paid for. Artists receive and give gifts in continuous transactions and exchanges. This network of non-monetized exchange is the social field of the collective.
High art is not usually seen as the outcome of collective processes, but rather as the product of an individual, a “hand.” The work of art organizes the capital investments of great collections, and these investments organize institutions and histories. Collectives like those featured in the exhibition Critical Mass do not usually make such products. They make changes.
Collectivity is certainly present in all intellectual industries. In the mental work of advertising and entertainment, production begins with the "creative team." That’s why the boss wants you to show up. Collective production dominates when what matters is dependability, repeatability, and impressive craftsmanship. In ancient Rome the individual artist was an anonymous worker in a shop. Collective production supported the military egos who maintained the empire. Today collective cultural production reproduces the habits of a society under corporate rule.
The working groups that serve up cultural products for popular taste -- segmented of course by gender, age and income – are the collectivity of workaday cultural production.
The collectivity this exhibition displays is the culture industry's evil twin. It is a mirror image -- a dialectical collectivity that values creativity and critique, and process over product. These collectives don’t serve comfort food. They inspire us as to what is possible, and propagandize for another world. Through this group work, artists are reasserting and reinventing a public social role for art. Industry doesn’t care about that, and it is unfulfilled in the production of objects for decoration and contemplation.
In the history of art, collectives have emerged when they are needed. Artists associate continuously as part of their work, and groups form in response to particular conditions, when something needs to be done. Artists have long used their groups to get some clout in artworlds dominated by managers running institutions and markets for trustees and collectors. Artists organize to better difficult situations, especially around exhibition – to get their art to the public.
In looking for models and modes of artists' collectivity, one must look up and down the history of art – at workshops (the structure of production itself), education, markets, museums and associations.
This spine of historical investigation runs from the French Revolution forward, with the reorganization of the great machinery of the French royal academy under Jacques-Louis David to serve republican rather than monarchical ends. Among these were great civic festivals, grander by far than the simple civic processions staged through city streets in the new American confederation which consisted of floats decorated by the trade groups. David’s students, the “Barbu,” or bearded ones, lived a neo-classical moral ideal, and are credited with publicly beginning that special self-segregated community of creatives which came to be called Bohemia. Although it was named for an actual country which sent its refugees west, this Bohemia was imaginary.
If you feel romantic, it was an Isle of Cythera for the muses and their servants, ever-present and invisible, a state of mind reached by checking out. If you are a realist, Bohemia was the exurbia of an immense apparatus of cultural production. To a cynic it's a shantytown for wastrels. Bohemia saw many spiritual immigrants throughout the 19th century and after. It was the first global nation of artists, and a continual unruly counterpoint to the official academy. Almost from the start bohemian style was bought and sold as an ideal of fun and artistic life. In our time this bourgeois myth has played a key role in motivating young people to gentrify working class urban neighborhoods.
In their heyday, bohemians resisted the changing nature of work under industrial capitalism. Of course life was hard without wages, as Henri Murger's stories of hard-scrabble and heartbreak in Paris recall. But the allure of bohemia was that of a place which recognizes Paul Lafargue’s “right to be lazy.”
Alternative society in the 19th century was not only on Grub Street. In the United States with its cheap land, communes arose, what today are called “intentional communities,” many founded by socialists inspired by the natural philosophy of Rousseau and the psychosocial systems of Fourier. Others were millennial Christians and transcendental religionists. Many of these communities, most famously the Shakers, made furniture and decorative objects, and painted “gifts” from the Holy Spirit. Fourierists at the New Jersey phalanx ate in a cafeteria decorated with murals, maybe something like the anarchist Paul Signac’s “In the Time of Harmony” (Au temps d’harmonie) of 1894.
Factory growth and the labor discipline it demanded broke up the farm and the artisan’s workshop alike, and as they vanished both became idealized. Perhaps the most enduring collectivist response to 19th century capitalism among artists was that of William Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement he inspired. Morris took the words of John Ruskin, anEnglish cleric’s son, to heart. The products of industrial labor reflected a lamentably degraded taste -- an outward sign of the moral infirmity of a people.
Ruskin's preaching moved William Morris to resist industrial capitalism by word and deed. He revised the artisan shop for art and design in a rural workshop complex through which a stream ran. Although Ruskin was a monarchist and Morris a socialist, both idealized the medieval era as the moment of collective social cohesion. For Ruskin, creative individuality shone through in the building of cathedrals where each irregular detail showed the reverent worker's hand. The American historian Henry Adams imagined the divide that plagued Ruskin as a contest for adherents between religion and technology symbolized by the Virgin and the dynamo, the huge new machine he’d seen at the 1876 American centennial exposition.
“Together with bohemia, the Arts & Crafts movement was part of a revolt against the redefinition of work. Most work in the industrial age was not creative; rather it was directed at making ever-cheaper commodities in automated shops where, in Marx’s formulation, the machine runs the worker.
At its height the Arts & Crafts movement was comprised of hundreds of workshops, associations and exhibiting places in the English-speaking world. The movement also had significant influence on U.S. art education. Yet despite Morris’ public political profile as a socialist, its spokesmen and women were very often metaphysical and moralizing, not material and organizing.
The Arts & Crafts movement was quickly turned to luxury production. What many well-off people desired, and continue to desire, were signs that spoke against the material basis of their society. Elegant signs of resistance to the industrial order became very popular, and remain so today. They merge, as may be seen in contemporary ads for Stickley furniture, into the identification with other moments of collective resistance, like the American rising of 1776 against colonial rule. Industrial and political realities are softened within the bourgeois parlor through the displays of products of archaic labor.
Even before Morris’ became famous in England, the revolutionary and the collective were fused in historical and intellectual memory with the rise and fall of the Paris Commune of 1870-71. Emulating David before him, realist painter Gustave Courbet led a short-lived but comprehensive attempt to change the structure of French art institutions through a democratically run, self-administering artists’ association. While Courbet was later put on trial for the destruction of the Vendome Column – the Fédération des artistes did most of their work defending the treasures of Paris from the besieging Prussians and the fleeing Imperial officials.
Subsequently anarchist artists and critics – Pissarro, Signac and Feneon, among others -- broke through the stranglehold of official exhibition in Paris by regularly convening large artist-organized exhibitions to popularize advanced art. These were the kind of shows which had made the names of the Impressionists. The Paris Salon d’Automne in turn became a model for the New Yorkers who started the Society of Independent Artists to mount annual exhibitions, most famously the Armory Show of 1913. The group was headed by the socialist John Sloan, and included among its directors Marcel Duchamp.
Duchamp’s own group of New York Dadas stage managed the infamous affair of the “Fountain” at the SIA’s “big show” of 1917. A urinal fixture submitted by a Philadelphia Dada and signed “R. Mutt” was rejected from this supposedly open show. The Dada journal Blindman energetically defended the work, and other artists’ openness to the avant-garde became an issue. Along the way the incident generated the kind of “ballyhoo” publicity the Dadas so avidly sought.
Dadas were great ones for association. From salons in New York to their
nightclub and gallery in Zurich, and thence to the multi-purpose Club Dada
in Berlin, the movement played scales on the forms of artistic collectivity.
Johannes Baader, Oberdada of Berlin, urged members of the Club to use the “dada
graphological institute; Dada medicinal department; Dada detective agency,
the advertising department, the central bureau for male and female welfare,
and the Dada school for renewing the psycho-therapeutic day to day relationships
between adults and children…” (Richard Huelsenbeck, ed., The
Dada Almanac with essay and added German matter by Malcolm Green ,Atlas Arkhive
of the Avant-Garde, London, 1998)
Dada was not only anti-art but anti-art institutions. Its comprehensive critique of society is normally explained in art history classes as a repertoire of techniques – collage, chance procedure, sound and image unhitched from language. Dadaist "nihilism" then gives way to programmatic Surrealism, which under the strong leadership of Andre Breton, sought to leaven communism with libido and dreams.
In their first project the group founded a kind of institute, the Bureau of Surrealist Research or the Centrale Surréaliste. This office functioned in a collective mode derived from the procedures of scientific institutes, investigating speech under trance. Dutch de Stijl, a movement of artists, designers and architects, worked collectively in a style that appeared anonymous with its author’s works interchangeable.
The most profound instances of modernist collectivism took place in Russia. After the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the avant-garde artists of the futurist movement routed the old tsarist academies, and undertook to reformat the nation’s art institutions as completely as David had in France over a century before. This revolution was noticeable not only for rigorous formal exploration, like that in Malevich’s “year zero” exhibition, but for the strong participation of women, who were scarce in other European vanguards. The Soviet artists, both masters and students, researched and worked in all media, masters and students, then moved into the factories to begin the constructivist phase of work, redesigning all consumer goods.
Although Lenin turned his back on this vanguard in 1928, and Stalin reestablished figural socialist realism and conservative architectural form by repressive commands, purges and imprisonments, the socialist collective model was far from bankrupted by the betrayal of its avant-garde.
It inspired artists in China and the newly decolonized African nations, and remained vital in Europe during the cold war, even marking the network of artists making unsanctioned work under communist regimes.
The Bauhaus, the great interwar model of modernist art education, had roots in Arts & Crafts ideologies through the continental Art Nouveau movement. The school began its instruction with a course designed by the spiritualist mystic Johannes Itten. Mystic though he was, Itten’s Vorkors[was marked by a scientific formalist method and comprehensive material training. Rather than revering the hand, the Bauhaus sought to partner with enlightened factory owners.
While the structure of work at the school was hierarchical, it explicitly reasserted the old order of artistic production in the figure of the master and apprentice. The expectation of the student that apprentice will become master reflects an ordered system of cultural production in its real conditions, that is, in the conditions that insure its reproduction. This unspoken certainty stands in waiting behind all artists’ dreams of fame, the “sweepstakes” nature of publicity and celebrity which leads the public to regard artists as brand names. It is the bedrock social contract among artists, and the basis for the fluid formation of collectives – talent, honed by training and skill, will bring recognition over a lifetime of work.
American art institutions grew up largely from artists’ initiatives since the state was an irregular patron at best. Art academies and schools, like those in New York such as the National Academy of Design in the 19th century and the Art Students League in the early 20th, were founded and guided principally by artists.
The Beaux Art revival of the American Renaissance, and Gilded Age construction encouraged by the City Beautiful movement meant regular work for artists in the execution of decorative schemes along traditional lines. Artists formed professional associations according to these competencies.
During the 1920s teams of artists executing designs by the masters of the Mexican mural movement covered new post-revolutionary public buildings with visions of pre-colonial grandeur and a socialist future for illiterate workers and peasants. Educational programs like the Open Air Studios and new museums throughout Mexico stimulated the creativity of the people in the interests of national construction.
U.S. artists banded together along trade union lines to press the government for advantage in the economic crisis of the 1930s as the Artists Union represented those in the Federal Arts Project. Other groups, like the nationwide network of John Reed Clubs taught and exhibited in preparation for the revolution many thought was inevitable. When the Soviet Russian strategy changed from building Proletkult or Proletarian Culture to building the Popular Front against fascism, the American Artists’ Congress was formed, comprised of artists of “standing.”
Complex and continuous contests over what art should be and do were played out through these groups, in the extreme social situations of economic depression and fascist warmongering, as well as questions around the government’s support for the arts and its foreign policy.
The late 1930s climaxed in trauma for the American cultural left – which as a child I witnessed in the frequent retrospective rages of my mother, a one-time youthful socialist, at the spoiling of progressive democratic opportunities by Stalinists bent on controlling every group as a party front.
The years of fear and hatred which poisoned the left are best evoked for me in the figure of Leon Trotsky. Condemned in absentia at the Moscow show trials and exiled in Mexico, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo entertain him, while the artist David Siqueiros helps the Party by arranging an assassination attemp (it’s not clear whether he arranged the successful attempt, although he’s been accused]
This was a small trauma beside the thousands of people & soldiers killed in the Paris Commune, and merely annoying beside the millions that fascists murdered. (In an obscene inversion of the collectivity we consider, a good number died in Terezin, the Nazi labor camp for artists.) Still, the bitter divisions of the 1930s made the U.S. old left old, paralytic and incapable, in the bipolar world after World War II.
When the popular risings of 1968 arrived it was simultaneously disconcerting
for governments east and west locked in the Cold War. The great and nearly
bloodless uprising in Paris described by Daniel Cohn-Bendit in his book Obsolete
Communism and the Left-Wing Alternative had a counterpart in the Prague Spring
of that same year. The Paris rising was put down by De Gaulle, and the Prague
revolt by Krushchev. In a sense, then, both prewar avant-gardes – one
crushed by communists the other by fascists – were recalled in popular
After the Second World War, there had been a resurgence of collectivity among artists in Europe, as transnational groups formed in various countries to reinvent the avant-garde. These formations included the neo-expressionist painters of CoBrA, concrete poets of the Lettrist International, anarcho-communist theoreticians of the Situationist International, the Imaginist Bauhaus and the Viennese Actionists. These groups of artists, poets, architects, filmmakers and theorists took up the heritage of the Surrealists and executed numerous collaborative projects. Surrealism itself, a movement widely seen as decrepit in its later phases, had nevertheless become very useful to post-colonial artists and women.
In this parade of the collectivized neo-avant-garde, Fluxus followed Dada. Other artists formed collectives which emulated the Constructivist example, like those in Latin America. Some of these groups, like Zero in Europe, moved into technology art – kinetic, electronic, systems-based, and early work with computers. Collectives in the U.S. like USCO and Pulsa made work that paralleled the research and development interests of advanced industry, government and academia.
The May events in Paris '68 were picturesque, and they galvanized public attention in the west. The spectacle of bourgeois life as Situationist theorist Guy Debord described it had been expertly interrupted by a mass event, a rising of multitudes -- students joined by workers, and those kind of jobless young hippies the Dutch called the “Provotariat.”
In Paris artists rushed to the national fine arts school to set up an Atelier Populaire which turned out over 300,000 street posters, and the Situationists’ messages were carried to the street in the form of provocative graffiti by the Enragés – the enraged ones.
But the event that probably galvanized the most collectivity in the Americas was Cuba’s 1959 revolution. The new government moved to reconstruct their society from mafia rat pack stomping ground to people’s paradise of cultural and educational opportunity. The victory of Fidel Castro inspired artists throughout Latin America, and the near-simultaneous arising of the U.S. Civil Rights movement to put an end to southern apartheid galvanized artists across this country.
Oppression is the laboratory of collectivity, and in the ghettoes of U.S. cities, Black Panthers, Young Lords and Brown Berets formed militant revolutionary political collectives that drew many members from youth gangs. Artists of color responded to this broad based nationalist organizing by forming exhibiting societies, mural collectives and centers to carry out cultural education. Mao’s 1968 Cultural Revolution in China buoyed these movements and introduced new techniques into the repertory of collective method, especially consciousness raising in groups, which became a key tool of the feminist movement.
Much of this cultural collectivity came into public view in New York with
the founding of the Art Workers Coalition in 1969. This group began with
a spectacular protest action at the Museum of Modern Art which was closely
covered in the New York Times, Village Voice and the East Village
Other. The AWC was an anti-hierarchical, democratically open organization
of artists. They drew up an agenda to transform the artworld and pressure
museums to change. The demands of the group were grounded in the civil rights
struggle -- equal exhibition opportunities for artists of color and women,
and expanded legal rights for all artists. This reform agenda was summarized,
refined and deranged during “Open Hearings” in which artists
and critics spoke.
The Art Workers Coalition was started by cosmopolitan “tech-artists” and included critics, minimal and conceptual artists, painters and sculptors. ``Destruction artists'' committed to street theater formed the Guerrilla Art Action Group as a fraction within the AWC.
The Art Workers Coalition was a crucible for institutional change within the art world. Like a “great spinning wheel,” as Jon Hendricks called it, the AWC spun off and recirculated other artists’ groups. These included the band of Puerto Rican artists who came to found El Museo del Barrio and the group of feminists called Ad Hoc Women Artists which struck the Whitney Museum. Faith Ringgold recalled the scene at the coalition meeting space Museum: "There was this big sort of loft space and … all the artists sat around in a circle and you brought flyers of whatever your thing was… To find out what was really going on in the art world, you had to go … down there to the AWC [meeting] and see what was happening. Everybody came. I mean, the famous and everybody mixed in.”( Archives of American Art, interview with Faith Ringgold by Cynthia Nadelman, September 6-October 18, 1989.)
The AWC marked the beginning of a long series of collective art groups in New York. These included producing groups, political organizations, innumerable artist-founded exhibition spaces and service organizations, and hybrid combinations of these. Again, although I’ve only studied New York, this movement was national and international, although how it unfolded is still not clear. The Art Workers Coalition itself split in early 1970. One large faction was swallowed up by the anti-war movement and soon ceased to exist, while another group called itself the Art Workers Community. This fraction of the AWC persisted for many years as a service organization, running health insurance, a credit union and the Art Workers News.
The principal collective construction of New York City artists in the 1960s and ‘70s however, was the downtown community of Soho. Soho was carved out of a declining factory district; an area slated for urban renewal – that is, demolition and rebuilding. The cross-town expressway planner Robert Moses had envisioned was strenuously resisted by neighborhood coalitions including many artists. Fluxus artists played a key role in the process of inhabiting and saving Soho through the Lithuanian émigré George Maciunas. Maciunas was the New York Fluxus chef d’ecole, inspired by Lef, the ultra-revolutionary group of Russian Constructivists. He ran a “Fluxshop” to sell the group’s signature artists’ multiples. He also began to organize co-ops for his compatriots to live in the downtown warehouse district of Soho. Between 1966 and 1975 he did 15 of them – without filing prospectuses, which indemnify capital and add hugely to a co-op’s cost. For a time, Maciunas lived in hiding from the state attorney general in the basement of the Anthology Film Archives.
The Anarchitecture group at 112 Greene Street most clearly expressed the collective spirit of that model artists’ space. Anarchitecture included artists (mostly sculptors), musicians and dancers, most active among them the late Gordon Matta-Clark. In his own sculpture, Matta-Clark relied on the collectivity of the construction work crew.
The exhibition spaces opened by artists in the Soho community were quickly institutionalized by state and federal funds. They became today’s demi-institutional alternative spaces for contemporary art exhibition.
The English Art & Language group of conceptual artists began to meet in New York in the mid-1970s. They launched a sustained collaborative critique of formalist art criticism and the structure of art markets and institutions. With the convening of the group Artists Meeting for Cultural Change, Art & Language’s process of discussion and critique was brought to a local public of artists and activists. Journals like The Fox, Red Herring and the Anti-Catalog reflect this moment.
Collaborative Projects, the artists’ organization I was involved with, came together during the Punk music movement, and so its early group shows were perceived by critics, as “punk art – three chord art anyone can play.” More to the point than stylistics were the structures of collectivity that informed the group – the rock and roll ensemble, and the film crew. Many in early Colab were filmmakers, inspired by Warhol who started a Factory to one-up Claes Oldenburg who only had a store. Colab’s “glamor faction” as we called them admired Warhol’s corporate appropriation of the bohemia drag and drug life. Others in the group were more straight arrow. My friends admired Fashion Moda, the South Bronx art space which broke the graffiti art of the emerging hip-hop culture to the downtown avant-garde. We started ABC No Rio on the Lower East Side in emulation of Fashion Moda, then passed the place off to successive managements until today it really is what we so quixotically envisioned in 1980 – an anarchist free space, run by a collective with close ties to the publishing group Autonomedia.
Colab is remembered in art history for the Times Square Show, a groundswell exhibition of popularly accessible socially concerned artworks held in a former erotic massage parlor. But more influential at the time was the exhibitionary reprise with international media flourishes called New York New Wave at P.S. 1. The curator Diego Cortez essentially did to Colab what the music industry did to Punk when Sire Records redubbed it New Wave – he cleaned up the scene so its products would be market ready.
The 1980s was a sort of golden age of artists’ groups. Genuine self-described producing collectives emerged, groups which made of their coherence a point of principle and purpose, and in the process greatly refined the models of artistic collectivity. With the rise of conservative governments under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the left went on the defensive.
Political Art Documentation and Distribution (PADD) in New York quickly became an organizing and archiving resource for a network of groups in the United States which worked under the banner of cultural democracy. Today these archives are in the Museum of Modern Art library. PADD produced work as well, regular lectures and discussions, performances and projects. Among these was Not For Sale, propagandizing on city streets against the gentrification of the Lower East Side, then becoming known as the East Village. They often worked in tandem with Group Material on broad based cultural organizing efforts like the Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America.
Resistance to the New Right agenda became urgent when the AIDS epidemic turned a civil rights crisis for gay people into a struggle for survival. ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) included numerous action cells of artists, collectives which made graphics and video for the AIDS struggle. One of these, Gran Fury, was named for the New York Police Department’s favorite model car for undercover work. These groups used art institutions as a base to bring their message to the public. They worked like advertising agencies for their cause, laying the basis for far more sophisticated collective cultural production in social service.
Also during the early 1990s, RepoHistory evolved from PADD to become a public art collective specifically concerned with the artistic recovery of lost pasts. Their sign project, marking sites of past conflicts like the location of old New York’s slave auctions were important in helping turn public historical representations towards a reflection of this nation’s often uncomforting past.
This outline must sound to some suspiciously like a course syllabus. Such was not my intention. Still it has seemed to go the way of many survey courses, we run out of time without discussing much of the last 30 years, and nothing of the last 10. This is a period of remarkable growth and differentiation of artists’ collectivities – Group Material, Guerrilla Girls, Border Arts Workshop, RTMark, Etoy, Rhizome just to name a few -- is the subject I was signed on to cover here, and I hope you can forgive me for having neglected it. If you still feel I have cheated you, read Lucy Lippard on the 1980s and ‘90s. She has written on the work of these groups, since she was central to many of them.
I’ll say generally about this period that artists build their organizations and collectives in the space between two chairs – the progressive movement and art institutions. Progressives are concerned with peace, social justice and economic democracy, the fate of the powerless and the voiceless oppressed. Art is nice, but you can’t eat roses. Art institutions care about maintaining a consensually validated cultural heritage – that is, mounting blockbuster exhibitions. They are also conscientiously enlarging the civil society of liberal democracy, since elites too need visions of possibility.
The ground between the street and the museum has always been narrow, and it frequently vanishes. Just now this space seems to be enlarging, as a movement of peoples arises worldwide to oppose the excesses of globalizing corporate rule. A very visible part of this movement uses tactics derived from the Situationists, Provos, Diggers and Yippies of the 1960s. And, through the medium of the worldwide web, this movement is visible to itself as never before.
So two of the preconditions of successful activist artistic collectivity are in position – new communications technology favoring group work, and a burgeoning social movement.
Yet the forces of reaction are rising. The enterprise of war is exciting both the poorest and the richest, as unemployed men rush to join armies and industrial-age extractive industries gleefully stir the stinking antique soup made from the bones of Gaia.
And now my aside, for 68er Daniel Cohn-Bendit who today is a Green, and
member of the Gerrman Parliament - It’s a clear matter of survival
to grow down human consumption, and move toward a bioregionally based conservation
economy. What stands against this is precisely global capital –, the
monetization of every resource which presents a distorted template of the
human project. Art as it imagines alternative possibilities, and artists
as they make work and live their lives outside a strictly monetized economy
can provide leads towards this better world.
To return to the lovely arrangements of flowers at the Metropolitan Museum with which I began, artists’ collectives do not so much make the flowers as the soil. And the soil is not usually seen in the museum. Collectives do not supply generous quantities of the things we delight in, the idols through which we express our love of art. Artists’ collectives do not make objects – they make changes. They make situations, opportunities, realizations, understandings. They work with our desires, and these have profound implications for the objects of art. Collectives work on the public relation to art. They work on the problem of the audience. They work to keep the experience of art collective, rather than ceding all territory to solipsistic reverie and the reification of investment capital.