The third-place essay for the 2013 Hannah Arendt Prize.

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 Arnaud Gerspacher

Intervention, in its broadest sense, means to come between someone or something. Keeping in mind the concept’s theological origins in prayer, it is a moment of grace, which involves various degrees of violence in the service of an idea. The last-second sacrificial ram between Abraham’s knife and Isaac’s throat on Mount Moriah comes to mind—and when speaking of interventions, we should recall Jacques Derrida’s allegorical analysis of this biblical gift of death as a common everyday occurrence, both seen and unseen, both holy and evil. For the most part, contemporary art has done a poor job coming to terms with its theological residues—or, as Jean-Luc Nancy puts it, of understanding how it remains religious without being pious. We are more than willing to displace our lost connection with transcendental meaning on those cultural practices most critical of the godless materialisms of modernity, especially when so many contently displace their own latent theological desires on these very materialisms. We should analyze these displacements and the ways in which artistic interventions supply us with compensatory grace in a dissatisfying world. Yet care should be taken in inspecting these displacements, for this much is clear: The fervor for artistic intervention can easily be corrupted and incorporated within career building as personal-institutional states of grace and exemption from the crass necessities of our glomus. Artistic interventions can equally be found whiling away at the cultural margins of ressentiment, mired in self-reflexive anxieties for credibility and importance. In other words, there is clergy on one side, and ascetic sects on the other—but in both cases, there remains a debilitating insularity. Interventions can simply become lifestyle accouterments, which at best serve as palliative gestures for guilt and gloom all around.

To begin a discussion of intervention without this theological residue would be in bad faith, especially since so many cultural interventions remain stuck within these impoverished sui generis forms of self-preserving grace. This is not to say that we should give up on intervention. On the contrary (and in all likelihood), it is our only hope. We should recognize, however, that whether in the name of god, art, humanism—or, hopefully by now, something approaching the ecological and posthumanist—our interventions are never completely clear, calculable, or even secular, if by secular we mean the ability to ground our knowledge on a finite set of truths within a stable network of transparent recognition. Even science itself, in the diffractive wake of theoretical physics, can no longer safely assume a secular position between observer and observed. How, then, can artists, curators, and theorists position their interventions in a responsible way, without collapsing them into institutional indulgences in curatorial offices and biennials, fetishistic self-flagellation in chic neighborhoods of post-industrial ruin, or sealed within the by-and-large irrelevance of academia, from lowly adjuncts to tenured professors?

What is missing here, and what, in fact, represents the intervention needed above all others, is the emergence of an intervening audience within this gloomy scenario. On the one hand, for the clergy and the grand inquisitors who serve its boards, there is a happy, dumb, and disingenuously participatory audience who is content to rake in the socio-cultural cred of artistic intervention without fully realizing the political and ethical demands that should trouble it (but rarely do). On the other, for the sects and theorists who can safely make bold claims behind their relative irrelevance (present company included), there is no audience whatsoever, aside from the choir. Without this intervening audience, which above all else is predicated on means of education and political involvement at a level yet to be seen, everything we say or will say about artistic intervention remains meaningless.

Artistic interventions alone could never bring about this audience. The varied failures of avant-gardism amply attest to this fact, as the collapse of art, politics, and life always seems to lead to the betrayal of one or the other. Artistic interventions are either subsumed by the state, or dispersed in liberal discreteness, and in both instances, the massification of art blunts any true capacity to intervene in politics and everyday life. This is where Nancy’s inoperative community remains interesting: What would an inoperative audience look like, which is neither an immanent demographic that is spoon-fed cultural capital within the safely regularized programs of official museums and foundations, nor atomized in feeble cliques on the intellectual and artistic periphery of culture? It would be an organism of multiple moving parts that can finally cure its autoimmune diseases through thinking and empathy.

Should such an intervening audience arise with the help of artistic intervention—a reception theory for the masses—it would be through a multi-pronged approach. From the vantage point of the past 30 years (which are part of a much older history), I offer a legacy of differing registers for intervention. They are as follows—critical, cynical, and joyous.

The critical intervention unmasks ideology, violence, and seeks to educate in all earnestness. This is the canonical Left, where one would place the Marxes, the Courbets, the Eisensteins, the Habermases, and so on. They have faith that an intervening audience already exists, or that one will soon come into existence with the proper dose of enlightenment. Contemporary strains continue to be found everywhere. The cynical intervention embodies and virally overidentifies with its host wrong, and is equally interested in overcoming violence by performing and making light of its absurdities and contradictions. Where it departs from critical intervention is in having much less faith in earnestness, in its disbelief that we can find a position outside ideology in order to critique it, or that people can still be educated directly and without irony. These are the cheeky characters—the Duchamps, the Broodthaerses, the Sloterdijks, the von Triers, and so on. These, too, are now well represented, especially since the legacy of feminist and deconstructive interventions beginning in the seventies. (Derrida, I would claim, is the twentieth-century’s Diogenes, relentlessly inhabiting the inherent contradictions and contaminations of text and culture). The joyous intervention, much less well represented and theorized (Nietzsche aside), is a respite, a strategic retreat, and a catharsis. It is the much-maligned moment of beauty, serenity, and calm. It is true that uncompromised examples of the joyous are hard to come by, but this mode of intervention may well be the key one if we expect the critical and cynical to engender a wider intervening audience.

The problem is that each mode of intervention is constantly in danger of reaching a terminal state. The good critical becomes the bad critical mired in ressentiment and resigned futility when it loses sight of the necessities of healthy cynicism and joyous forms of intervention. Peter Sloterdijk’s critique of cynical reason, which pegs the critical intervener as an enlightened false consciousness in a world no longer interested in revealing its wrongs, continues to be of central importance. Yet even Sloterdijk understood that the critical interventionist’s unhinged cousin has its own problems. The good cynical (for Sloterdijk, the kynical) becomes the bad cynical when it loses the crucial gap and separation that keeps it from completely becoming the wrong with which it overidentifies. Certain forms of violence, not to mention death itself, are sites where good cynicism can no longer be differentiated from bad cynicism. This is its terminal state, and any number of contemporary artistic interventions fall prey to it, especially when dealing with the biopolitical. Last, the good joyous becomes the bad joyous when, quite simply, aesthetic pleasure is found to be not only far from disinterested, but downright complicit with violence—or, paraphrasing Alain Badiou, who is safely in the critical category, when pleasure devolves into atrocity.

Avoiding bad critical interventions needs the good cynical; avoiding bad cynical interventions needs the good critical; and remaining vigilant against bad joyous interventions needs both the good critical and the good cynical. If only this equation could be as clean in reality. Not only are the boundaries between one and the other decidedly porous, but often we are unclear when we inhabit one or the other. What is clear, however, is that if artistic intervention has a future within culture, politics, and life, it not only has to entangle itself within these three modalities and remain vigilant of their terminal states, but also pray that an intervening audience will appear as its only real energy and end.

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 09/22 at 11:44 PM

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