The 2013 winning essay for the Hannah Arendt Prize by Stéphanie Bertrand.

The Hannah Arendt Prize in Critical Theory and Creative Research is an annual prize competition for those interested in the juncture of art and creative research and in the principles at the heart of the arts and humanities, including sense-based intelligence; the reality of singular, nonrepeatable phenomena; ethical vision; and consilience between inner and outer, nature and reason, thought and experience, subject and object, self and world.


Above, photograph of Hannah Arendt, NYC, 1944. Courtesy of the Estate of Fred Stein.


by Stéphanie Bertrand

To examine artistic interventions through Gaston Bachelard’s notion of Promethean disobedience is to question the political puissance of these forms of transgression as well as their contribution to public emancipation. As both a real and symbolic space, the art world creates an opening where transgressive artistic interventions register publically as acts of disobedience while eschewing, for the most part, the threat of lawful punishment. For instance, Hervé Paraponaris’ work Tout ce que je vous ai volé [1] (1996) at the MAC in Marseille, where the artist displayed a collection of stolen objects from local households and individuals; or Marc Wallinger’s State Britain (2008), which recreated peace activist Brian Haw’s protest material in the Tate Britain, thus breaching the one-mile perimeter surrounding the Houses of Parliament, where demonstration is prohibited by law. These works attest to a system that by actualizing and legitimizing such interventions as critical acts through public presentation affords them a certain degree of immunity. Though clearly unlawful, these acts of disobedience benefit from an exceptional state of permissibility, which leads one to presume that their critique is essentially sanctioned by the system that makes them visible.

In terms of public contribution, such works cannot be said to be exemplary, for their authors clearly benefit from a privileged protection not afforded to ordinary citizens despite the claim that anyone can be an artist. Viewers are not in a position to emulate such forms of disobedience, for their actions would not register with equal critical force. Instead, they would most likely be perceived as isolated nuisances and dealt with accordingly. Were an ordinary citizen to exhibit stolen items, he would surely be arrested for theft, while peace campaigner Brian Haw’s protest material, which inspired Wallinger’s installation, was destroyed by police. It is telling that a certain viewer of Paraponaris’ work recognized one of the stolen goods as his property but was forbidden from reclaiming it. [2] Of course, transgressive gestures by ordinary citizens might be perceived as acts of civil disobedience, but they are never guaranteed the same a priori cover of immunity. Ultimately, while transgressive artistic interventions contribute a certain knowledge regarding the state of things, they do very little in terms of conferring agency, and on the contrary, often unwittingly demonstrate the privilege of those who have the capacity to draw attention to and criticize without fear of retribution.

With regards to the question of public contribution, one might consider social or relational practices. For transgressive social interventions temporarily extend privilege to the public by including viewers within the work. However, in reality, artworks that involve public participation more often than not entail a form of catharsis as opposed to emancipation as they unfold under the artist’s law, which temporarily replaces official regulations. As Boris Groys states, “[T]he space of an artistic installation is the symbolic private property of the artist. By entering this space, the visitor leaves the public territory of democratic legitimacy and enters the space of sovereign, authoritarian control.” [3] In this way, permissibility is only granted for a certain time within a certain space under the rule of the artist. By temporarily swapping one law for another, such works can only grant ephemeral release rather than actual autonomy.

In “Fragments of a Poetics of Fire,” Bachelard states that Promethean disobedience entails autonomy. So how can this statement be interpreted in relation to artistic interventions when the art world already confers almost endless freedom but only to a privileged few? If one refers to the myth of Prometheus, which details how the Titan stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind, it appears that the only artistic interventions that might be considered disobedient in this respect are those that both attest to a form of personal emancipation from the gods’ law, and enter into a contractual agreement with the public. These works are not those that intervene so much as involve a withdrawal or a Leary-like form of “dropping out.” [4] In other words, they are interventions that articulate a refusal to accept and participate within a certain world order via a nonpassive form of inaction.

Given the visibly sanctioned space of the art world, such forms of withdrawal can only take place via a contract with the public, which engages the artist’s personal responsibility and commitment toward an idea through an enduring moral or political resolve. This contract might be as playful as John Baldessari’s I will not make any more boring art (1971), which takes several forms, including a video of the artist endlessly copying the title line; or as far-reaching as Lee Lozano’s Boycott Piece (1971-1982), for which the artist avoided all contact with women. It can be permanent or last for a limited amount of time—for instance, the Greek collective Under Construction’s untitled intervention in reaction to the December 2008 riots, which involved the artists locking themselves in their studio and severing all contact with the outside world for 24 hours. Regardless of their particularities, such willful artistic undertakings—which must be fulfilled as an engagement toward the public—are characterized by the fact that they differ from common strategies of rehearsal and play. They bare the power of speech acts, i.e., irrevocably transform the protagonist’s real-life circumstances through awareness and enduring responsibility. While such forms of individual emancipation are not collective, they are exemplary because they use shared strategies of protest—refusal (nonacceptance), withdrawal (nonengagement) and standstill (nonaction), which in other contexts might take the form of strikes, annulled voting ballots, hostile witnesses, and so forth. In this way, these model interventions are reproducible in an infinite number of personal variations that can be enacted under Bachelard’s cover of subtlety outside the visibly sanctioned space of the art world.

In true Promethean form and in contrast with other artistic interventions, these works entail a degree of punishment—albeit not as dire as the hero’s fate—which arises from a refusal to partake in the status quo. Though these interventions are exemplary, there is nothing heroic about them. Their authors do not possess the capacity to share the fire of knowledge with men, in other words, to offer up emancipation. Accordingly, the works entail no saving of souls, no glorious reward. Instead, they involve a bothersome, socially illicit secession from the status quo, a Bartleby-like [5] refusal to take part in a community or common-minded approach. It follows that these interventions might appear at times as misanthropic or miserly acts of cowardliness on account of their disavowal of others’ sincere, well-meaning efforts toward change, toward a greater good. In effect, they are private withdrawals, acts of personal awareness and emancipation from a schizophrenic condition characterized by false ritual and the acceptance of one’s disenfranchised condition. These individual secessions do not represent the mere inconsequential and ephemeral play of a trickster turned temporary catalyzing agent. They are punishing acts of withdrawal from a world of faiths where one’s paradoxical thoughts and actions are not of one’s own making but a consequence of a shared belief in inherent powerlessness within a world governed by an inescapable system.

What these disobedient interventions articulate is a lucid consistency of thought and action that utilizes the symbolic dimension of the art world to enunciate a contract with the public, which entails personal responsibility. When Guido van der Werve stands at the North Pole and slowly turns counter to the Earth’s rotation for 24 hours as part of Nummer negen (#9), The day I didn’t turn with the world (2007), he exemplifies a commitment to a symbolic idea as opposed to allowing the art system to transform a transgressive gesture into a symbolic critique. As futile as it may appear in terms of concrete political action, van der Werve’s literal interpretation of a symbolic withdrawal attests to a patient and enduring commitment to an idea—a punishing (standing in the freezing cold for 24 hours) secession from a worldview characterized by a disconnect between thought and action that inevitably leads to disenfranchisement and lack of agency. Instead of concrete action being transformed into universal ideal, thus framing disobedience as symbolic critique, here symbolic idea dictates concrete action, enacted as a withdrawal from a schizophrenic disjunction. While artists may not have the capacity to deliver the key to humanity’s salvation, their actions bare witness to knowledge via a personal commitment and a responsibility in deed and thought that might inspire others to become Promethean figures in their own right, however quietly and discretely.

* * *

Although not heroically defiant in the classical sense, such artistic acts of disobedience are not devoid of mythmaking. Three famous acts of withdrawal have conferred symbolic immortality on their authors—Lee Lozano’s Dropout Piece (1972-1982), which culminated in the artist’s burial in an unmarked grave, the ultimate disappearance act; Marcel Duchamp’s tombstone inscription “D’ailleurs c’est toujours les autres qui meurent,” [6] which suggests that the artist escaped death and speaks from beyond the grave; and Bas Jan Ader’s unexplained disappearance as part of the work In search of the miraculous (1975).

Works Cited:

1. Translation, “Everything I have stolen from you.”

2. For a more detailed account of Paraponaris’ work and its reception, see Jérôme Glicenstein, L’art: une histoire d’exposition (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2009), 135-136.

3. Boris Groys, “Politics of Installation,” e-flux journal, no. 2 (2009):

4. In reference to Timothy Leary’s famous catch phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”

5. Herman Melville, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Billy Budd & Other Stories (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1853).

6. Translation, “From elsewhere and/or moreover, it is always the others that die.”

About the MA in Critical Theory and Creative Research

The MA in Critical Theory and Creative Research (CT+CR), the first of its kind in the U.S., is an accelerated, 45-credit, seminar-based program (one year + summer intensive) that prepares students for opportunities at the intersection of art, theory, and research. Located in the metropolitan heart of the Pacific Northwest, a center of creative risk-taking and social experimentation, the program combines the study of critical theory as a mode of socio-political critique and creative research as a process-driven form of inquiry, pushing both theory and research in new directions within the context of a 21st-century art school. The program is devoted to people and ideas and to a rethinking of the present and future of cultural production; of arts-based research and research-based arts; of curatorial practice, documentary, and the Archive; and of social and political reconfiguration in relation to major sites of contemporary contestation. See additional information on the MA CT+CR Program page. Founding Co-chairs: Anne Marie Oliver and Barry Sanders.

— Posted on 09/06 at 03:54 PM

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