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Aesthetics after Autonomy with Grant Kester

Money on the Left is joined by Grant Kester, professor of Art History at University of California, San Diego. We speak with Kester about his multi-decade career, researching and teaching the history of socially engaged art.

Kester’s scholarship underscores the limits and contradictions of the dominant modern Western tradition of aesthetics. Such aesthetics value “autonomy,” insisting that the artist, the artistic medium, or art as an institution ought to stand alone and outside of society and its corrupting influences. Paradoxically, autonomy in this tradition is supposed to secure art’s political dimension by blunting and often deferring any claims to immediate social efficacy. Kester, by contrast, affirms what is variously called dialogical aesthetics or socially engaged art, a collaborative sensuous practice in public space, which aims to transform thought and action by forging complex relationships among artists and publics.

Here, we focus on Kester’s two recent books published by Duke University Press. In The Sovereign Self: Aesthetic Autonomy from the Enlightenment to the Avant-Garde (August 2023), Kester examines the evolving discourse of aesthetic autonomy from its origins in the Enlightenment through avant-garde projects and movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In Beyond the Sovereign Self Aesthetic Autonomy from the Avant-Garde to Socially Engaged Art (December 2023), Kester then shows how socially engaged art provides an alternative aesthetic with greater possibilities for critical practice. Instead of grounding art in its distance from the social, Kester demonstrates how socially engaged art, developed in conjunction with forms of social or political resistance, encourages the creative capacity required for collective political transformation.

Throughout our conversation, we tease out affinities between Kester’s scholarship and heterodox theories of public money and provisioning. Problematizing unquestioned desires to cordon off aesthetics from political economy, we call on artists and activists to contest, reconstruct, and build anew the forms of mediation that heterogeneously shape a shared sensuous life.

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Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com


The following was transcribed by Mike Lewis and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Scott Ferguson:  Grant Kester, welcome to Money on the Left.

Grant Kester:  Why thank you, Scott and Billy, happy to be here.

Scott Ferguson:  So we’ve brought you on the show today to give you an opportunity to talk to us about your two new books from Duke University Press, which as you were telling us before we started recording, were actually part of one larger book project that got split into two. The first one is called The Sovereign Self: Aesthetic Autonomy from the Enlightenment to the Avant-Garde, and the second book is called Beyond the Sovereign Self: Aesthetic Autonomy from the Avant-Garde to Socially Engaged Art. But before we jump into this discussion about the two texts, we want to give you an opportunity to tell our listenership a little bit about your professional and perhaps personal background.

Grant Kester:  Very good. Happy to give you a little brief rundown. I’ll make this brief, because it’s probably not very interesting. But I grew up in Kansas City, and then moved to Washington DC for high school, and went to community college outside of DC, dropped out of community college, moved to Atlanta to work in commercial photography. When I was there, I got interested in photography in general, and I’d go to the galleries and so on. So that kind of drew me into art a little bit, really, for the first time, because I didn’t have much exposure to it before then. My mom used to like to decoupage old master paintings onto wastebaskets and stuff, which is kind of awesome. But nobody I knew that I grew up with was like, I’m gonna go to art school or anything like that. So that got me interested. And then I started to be interested in writing about it at that time. I published my first review probably in 1982 or so for Atlanta Art Papers. All that led to a shift, and I ended up going to art school in Baltimore, at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, which is very old fashioned, but also not old fashioned in terms of conservative but just they’ve been around a long time. So art classes back then you had to sit there and draw from casts from Greek and Roman sculpture, that sort of a thing. But this is the 1980s, I think I was there for ‘84 through ‘86. So it was the height of postmodernism, and a lot of photo appropriation going on. So I did that kind of work. But also at the same time, because of my writing, I got interested in broader issues outside the arts. A lot of my early research is on reform culture, and reform movements in the United States, going back to the progressive era. History as a social documentary and the visual culture of political reform movements, and so on. When I was at the Maryland Institute, I curated an exhibition along with a faculty member named Diane Fessler, on activist forms of photography, basically. It was called “Expanding Commitment: Diverse Approaches to Socially Engaged Photography”. And that was in 1986. I was doing my art practice at the same time, but then I was shifting and finding it more interesting to deal with the kind of historical and theoretical issues. That led me to eventually get a job for an art magazine called The New Art Examiner. That was published in DC, so I ran their DC office. At that time, this was the middle of the “Culture Wars” of the 1980s. So we were in DC, I would talk to people at the endowment (National Endowment for the Arts) and I worked at the Washington Project for the Arts and the Corcoran at the same time, when the Robert Mapplethorpe show was canceled, and there were protests and so on. So I kind of got to see firsthand the turbulence of Culture Wars with Jesse Helms and all the rest of it at that time. That made an impression on me, I think in terms of the politics of culture. After that, I got another job as an editor at a journal called Afterimage in upstate New York, in Rochester. That would have been about 1990 or so. That’s a journal associated with media criticism, photography, video and so on, but it always had a pretty strong political orientation in terms of the editors before me, Catherine Lord or David Trend, who had an interest in the cultural politics of media. I had, at the same time, started a graduate program part time at the University of Rochester because at that point, I was like, Okay, I think I’m going to keep doing this writing research thing. Maybe I better actually get a degree. I was going to school part time and working as an editor full time, at Afterimage. I had a couple of essays at that point where I was, I think, segue-ing from the visual politics of photography and documentary into art more generally. One of them was “Rhetorical Questions,” which is an analysis of the ways in which certain kinds of art practices in the 1980s: appearing in galleries and museums would often be staged as these kinds of provocations and attacks on the viewer. I called the essay “Rhetorical Questions” because my experience was consistently that the people that were going to see the exhibits did not think they were the targets of the attacks. I realized there was a kind of recursive loop going on there where somebody’s being lectured or attacked, but the people that the work is being presented to see that as a hypothetical person. I realized that there’s a rhetorical discourse underneath this work, which has to do with evoking a certain kind of audience, the actual audience that shows up and consumes it. And I was interested in those disconnections in that essay. Then I did another essay, around 1995 called “Aesthetic Evangelists,” which was, on the other side of the coin, a critique of community based art practices at the time.

Scott Ferguson:  You were critiquing community based art practices at the time?

Grant Kester:  I was, yeah. There was a project called “Soul Shadows: Urban Warrior Myths” done by an artist from New Orleans. She’d had the experience of getting mugged in the French Quarter. This is an artist who was white, and she realized she was carrying along a lot of this kind of residual fear of Black men, which is a very positive reflective thing to be self aware of. To deal with that she decided to develop this open ended collaborative project with some young Black men in New Orleans who were…one of them might have been incarcerated, but they were associated with gang activity. And it turned into these large photos, where they dressed up a certain persona and so on and so forth, and became an installation. So the installation then traveled to places like Baltimore, and elsewhere, and it was used in conjunction with what at the time would have been kind of neo-conservative cultural and social policy initiatives to “scared straight”, and “Oh, see what happens with the gang members when they express contrition.” The whole thing felt kind of unseemly to me because it failed to problematize the nature of poverty and racism very clearly. It was being used in conjunction with these public agencies that were pushing a particular argument about Black poverty as being in some ways, there’s a whole series of these conservative arguments that go way back about “culture of poverty”, and it’s “Black poverty is the result of the lack of father in the home”, and Daniel Moynihan, and all of these really pernicious arguments that are what William Ryan called back in the day “blaming the victim”. So I saw this work being employed in that context. That led to a broader reflection on the problematics of middle class reform movements, and community based art practice. I think it was me just exploring the politics of two different domains, so to speak. Yeah. After Afterimage, I finished my dissertation, which was primarily on aesthetic philosophy and the 18th century, because I just got interested through my coursework in issues of the aesthetic and the politics of the aesthetic. I worked in the philosophy area and so the dissertation looks at the concept of possessive individualism, the idea of a certain kind of a self who sees their identity as caught up with their ability to impose their will on the world and appropriate it to their needs. The kind of thing you see in John Locke and early modern philosophers of that nature. I was looking at that in connection to early evangelical Christianity and the concept of harvesting souls, figures like William Wilberforce and a lot of the Methodists and so on. They’re really the pre-history of what we think of as evangelical Christianity in the 18th century and landscape gardens. Landscape gardens are a great example because they’re large gardens in England that were created by wealthy landowners and intended as a kind of Thorstein Veblen expression of their wealth and power, that they could have this much land that they’re not cultivating. There was this obsession with trying to make your landscape garden look larger than it really is. I got fascinated by the aesthetics of that and how the garden designers would try to design the gardens to look both natural and in some ways, completely natural, but were also completely manufactured. All of these were ways, I suppose for myself, that I was working through notions of the aesthetic in my dissertation. After that, I had a series of teaching jobs, Cranbrook Academy of Art, Washington State, Arizona State the usual schlep that one does. Then, I finally ended up at UCSD. So that’s the prehistory, anyway.

Scott Ferguson:  So am I right to see you making a linkage back then between a kind of not just a Lockean sense of self possession and world mastery, but there’s a Lockean version of the labor theory of value. The idea that the pre-social individual mixes their labor with nature and then whatever results is a kind of extension of that sovereign, that autonomous selfhood. Are you saying that the garden, the English Garden, becomes a way for a wealthy bourgeoisie or maybe nobility to project that kind of sense of labor and expression into a cultivated natural scape?

Grant Kester:  Yeah, that’s exactly right. I think it was Stowe, one of the landscape gardens, Stowe or Rousham. Before that was the Dutch style or the French style, which is very geometrical and rigid. It’s as though they get it from Versailles, that the sovereign ruler has to impose his will on nature and bend it to his needs. In England, they wanted it to look like nature naturally conformed to the desire to be possessed, which is very central to Kantian aesthetics, as well. So yes, it’s this idea, I suppose, of the bourgeoisie wanting to see its own worldview, that it’s uniquely equipped to master and tame and organize the natural world, and to extract resources from it, and creating almost like a virtual reality bubble that they can wander. They would have little perambulations around the gardens and so on. I actually link it to the development of early suburbs outside of London like Clapham Common because that landscaped garden as a kind of spatial container migrates into early suburban design in England and the Georgian era in the late 18th century. So yeah, for sure, and that’s so central to figures like Locke because they all want to make the argument that defining the self through the possession of nature is a kind of intrinsic condition of the human self as opposed to prior aristocratic models. This is the true nature of the self and it evolves naturally it is an artificially imposed, so that’s why it’s so important for them to the gardens still look like they’re just natural, even though there were massive amounts of human labor involved to create the gardens, to move Earth and create hills and lakes and stuff. It had to look like…

Scott Ferguson:  Not by the bourgeois themselves.

Grant Kester:  Exactly, yeah. They’d hire unemployed workers to pose as shepherds in hermitages. The whole thing was like a Disneyland of bourgeois perception. And so I think that interested me, and for me, that’s an aesthetic question, because it’s how do you organize the sensory world to confirm your own self image. For me, it ran all the way up to gated communities and so on. In the suburbs of Detroit when I was teaching at Cranbrook were these huge lawns and this isolation of the bourgeoisie from the broader world so that they can kind of indulge in a fantasy that they’re all self made, as opposed to dependent in a sense, yeah.

Billy Saas:  Reminded of an episode we had way back where we talked about the Franciscan monks who were so utterly opposed and disgusted by money that they would pay people to carry the money and sacks behind them, so they wouldn’t have to touch it. Just yeah, that the lengths people will go to, to preserve an image.

Grant Kester:  Yeah, that’s really interesting. Yeah, absolutely.

Scott Ferguson:  Much of your writing, as a professional academic, has been dedicated to and often controversially dedicated to exploring what is variously called socially engaged art, social practice art, a kind of dialogic aesthetic, I think you’ve called it. So I’m wondering if you could tell our listeners a little bit about — for those who are following along and have little sense of what this is, where it comes from, what it means what, what it’s related to what it’s not related to — what’s up with this socially engaged art scene that you’ve been caught up in and theorizing for a long time?

Grant Kester:  Okay, so this is an interesting question. That term “socially engaged art” emerges, I would say, in the 1980s. In conjunction with a body of work that was pretty marginal to the mainstream art world. Remember that during the 1980s the two big trends were Neo-Expressionist painting, which is kind of big, oil painted canvases by people like Julian Schnabel and Sandro Chia, and Francesco Clemente, and lots of oil paints being spread around. They looked a lot like expressionistic canvases from the 1920s, but 20 times as big. They were very much a throwback to earlier art practices. Then, there was this whole body of postmodern, appropriation based off and photo based work: Cindy Sherman, Sherry Levine and Richard Prince, figures like that. There was also, however, this adjacent body of work pretty localized in the US and Europe. But there were some people working that were building on activist art traditions that came out of the 60s and the 70s. Frankly, building on earlier precedents, that came together. There were multiple terms for it, people would say it’s activist art, socially engaged is just one of them. It’s an imperfect term. It’s problematic in many ways, because all artists, social. All are engaged with something or the other. But what differentiated this kind of work for me is that the engagement implied a reciprocal, in a way, responsibility to site or the audience that involved a kind of a feedback loop, if you will, in which the work wasn’t simply imposed onto a site. Think of Richard Serra’s famous Tilted Arc sculpture, which was a big controversy around that time. In a government plaza in New York City, a big corten steel sculpture put in the middle of the GSA (Government Services Administration) Plaza in Manhattan. And that is how conventional art would operate in a public space. You’d say, Okay, I’m going to come up with an idea in my studio, and I’m going to plop it down in the middle of a public space. Serra actually talks about that work as having a behavioral quality. I always found that interesting, because behavioralism is something we associate with well, in a way, like training animals and things like that. So there was the sense that the artist has that their job is to intervene in the public space, and to variously awaken or enlighten the public to alter their consciousness, which is, you know, all well and good. It’s what art does, but there was not a sense that Serra needed to actually consult with the people who would come into contact with the work ahead of time. He kind of knows. In a sense, the assumption is that the artist has already experienced an epiphany or an enlightenment of some kind, and that their job is to communicate that heightened sense of awareness to the viewer who was a priori assumed to have not achieved that level of insight. So if Tilted Arc represented one model for how the artist relates to the broader public outside of a museum or a gallery space, the works that I got interested in at the time tended to not carry forward the same presumption that artists didn’t have something to learn from the site. I guess that’s how I’d phrase it. Serra, and I don’t want to ventriloquize Serra, who just recently passed away, but I don’t think he would have seen his job as learning in detail about the site, at the complex micro political level. He would see the site and be aware of it as a kind of symbolic container in a Federal Plaza, with government workers and so on. But that would be about it. I was interested in practices that involve actually opening yourself up to the unexpected insights, that the artist might in some way learn from, be transformed by, the specific conditions of site, and public and space and community in ways that maybe would problematize all of those terms. That’s, for me, the engagement is an engagement that implies this reciprocal or dialogical, back and forth where the artist learns from, and is transformed by as well as exercising and effect on a particular site, or public. So that socially engaged concept gets carried forward into the 80s and the 90s. Again, along with lots of other terms, it gets confusing. I think the lack of a single terminology is probably fine. It’s a good thing, it suggests just how varied this practice is. The other thing that started to happen was these practices, which is what I’ve suggested, often tended to be collaborative, or collective, or participatory in some way. They often tended to be long in terms of duration, they might extend for quite a long period of time. They often involve the artist, and again, these are artists that are working outside the institutional art world, various forms of interaction with social movements, activist groups, and so on. So that term socially engaged, for me, has that particular resonance. What happened is that by the 80s, and the 90s, this kind of work was going on in lots of places, not just in the US or Europe. More and more networks of communication opened up in the 90s, and the early 2000s. A lot of these groups start to become aware of each other. It becomes more networked. Not coherent, necessarily, but a broader community of practitioners who are learning about each other’s work and so on. That is all proceeding, at the same time, the institutional art world occasionally will draw some of this work in for exhibitions, and biennials and so on. But generally, most of the work that I was looking at was not being produced with any direct connection to the institutional art world, or very little direct connection.

Scott Ferguson:  As a follow up, can you give us a preliminary counter example to the Serra’s work you mentioned? What is, for you, a quintessential exemplar of socially engaged practice?

Grant Kester:  Yeah, that’s a great question. And here’s an example. I mean, there’s lots of examples in that time period. But here’s one that I got to talk about in Conversation Pieces, which is my first book. That’s a project developed by a group called Wochenklausur, which is an Austrian collective whose name means “weeks of closure”. Their approach was to identify a site and over a period of several weeks to develop a project there, and they were invited to do a project in Zurich. They just they ended up wanting to do a project on the condition of sex workers in Zurich. Zurich had a very kind of whatever Calvinist, Puritanical attitude towards sex workers. They existed, there was a whole economy, but there was very little recognition or support. In many cases, they would struggle with housing issues and so on. Their goal was to try to get support from the city government to build basically a boarding house or “pensione” for sex workers in Zurich, which would have seemed impossible because of the political polarization among conservatives and so on in Zurich at that time, to even publicly admit that sex work is going on. And then to have the support or imprimatur of the government, and providing these people with a place to live, would seemed inconceivable. So they developed these “boat talks,” and they would take individual members of the different parties and government agencies and different stakeholders, activists, and so on, and they go out and Lake Zurich on this pleasure boat, and they didn’t record anything. They didn’t allow the media. And so a lot of people whose opinions about this question would have immediately in a more mediated space than politicized, like, I’m not allowed to say this because people will attack me, and so could communicate and reach a consensus to support this boarding house. Of course, this took weeks and it was accompanied by all sorts of complex machinations. But at the end of the day, they had that support, and they were able to actually get the boarding house built. Now, look, there’s all kinds of issues with a project of that nature that you can criticize. But what interested me more than just the other thing actually got done, which seems kind of miraculous. What interested me is the process of doing it, and that speaks to a very different relationship to site. They didn’t go into the site a priori, assuming here’s what needs to happen. They went into the site saying, Oh, this is a problem, that would be great if it could be resolved in some way. And instead of imposing a solution, they literally invited the people that were in the position to create a solution to talk. It’s such a simple and elegant thing. And of course, it won’t always work. We can’t always settle our differences by conversation. But it intrigued me and it was presented as an art practice. That raised questions for me about well, what is it about this that makes it an art practice? It was the antipode to Serra’s sovereign, if you will, consciousness, creating an image in the studio and putting it into the site, that’s all fine. That’s how most art is made. But I wasn’t really attracted to this other approach. And so I’d say Wochenklausur’s Boat Talks project is probably a good example.

Scott Ferguson:  To a lot of our listeners, they’re probably interested in what they’re hearing. They’re thinking, Oh, well, you know, there’s different kinds of ways of making art and, maybe, each their own. As we’ve said, you’ve been rather controversial, because the Serra practice is not just Serra. It is the dominant practice. There is a dominant going back centuries, as you show in your work, and as others have shown, a whole epistemology of art, a whole understanding of what art is, and what our isn’t, what the limits of art are, that are dedicated to this idea of autonomy, or this idea of sovereignty. That’s what you really take up in the first of your two volumes, and I’m wondering if you can tell us a little bit about how that came to be? Why is modern art so invested in sovereignty? And what are the limits and problems with that?

Grant Kester:  Yeah, so you know, I think the books came out of a gradual process because I’ve written Conversation Pieces and then I wrote The One and the Many which picks up on some of those questions. Throughout this, really going back to the 80s and before you know, I’ve lost track of how many times I would have these conversations where I might present the work and somebody saying: Why is this art? That’s not art, because X, Y, and Z. The work would be often criticized by critics associated with conventional approaches, as being un-aesthetic. That was very common “It’s not aesthetic” in some way. It often wasn’t just that this is an art, this isn’t “We don’t like it as art” it’s that it literally can’t be art. I felt that the practice was, I guess, in some ways, threatening some pretty deep ontological questions about what art is. It intrigued me because the projects I’ve looked at are all being produced by artists or not just artists, but artists working on people and being presented by them as art. I felt that it was important to learn and listen to what artists are saying they’re doing, and see if there’s something there that is being missed. Part of that led me to this question of rethinking the nature of the aesthetic, and this is where the two books come from. I couldn’t really come up with an aesthetic analysis of engaged art without settling accounts with the conventional aesthetic paradigm. That’s the one that supports the notion of the Artist as a kind of a sovereign intelligence. Yes, the first part of the book goes back and tries to trace the history of the aesthetic and sovereignty to figure out where that comes from. For me, it was important, a sovereignty, autonomy, because I felt that the aesthetic was often being collapsed into notions of autonomy, or sovereignty, unproblematically. That there was something in the history of the aesthetic that was being lost in that. Oh, it’s just a matter of the artist has to be absolutely free. Their consciousness is a model for the rest of us to follow. I felt there was something important about the aesthetic that was being lost, that had to do with the aesthetic from its original meaning, right. It’s “aisthesis” in Greek, which means sense-based knowledge. Something about the way the knowledge we get through our senses is legitimate, that our sensory experience of the world generates important insight. Of course, in certain versions of the aesthetic, the knowledge of the body is subordinated to the mind, or the intelligence, or sentiment, and emotion, subordinated to reason. That kind of gets baked into certain accounts of the aesthetic, almost unselfconsciously. So I felt like there was something lost in collapsing the aesthetic into notions of autonomy, about the status of somatic or bodily experience. The other thing that interested me about the aesthetic was that the aesthetic and its earliest versions has to do with how consciousness is transformed. The critique of judgment is all about how people learn to experience their selfhood differently. It’s about the relationship between transformations and individual consciousness or self awareness, and broader trends, social, maybe even political transformation. How does having my consciousness transformed relate to broader social and political change, is what I drew out in that. That whole complex set of issues was getting lost. Instead, you so often find this kind of routine invocation of autonomy and sovereignty. You can’t make art that goes outside the art world because it will be collapsed into or appropriated by these impure forces. There’s a whole kind of problematic binary opposition that I wanted to try to work through a little bit and break down some of these things like mind over body, or pure and impure or artworld and impure social and political world and so on.

Billy Saas:  Would ‘individual’ and ‘collective’ be another one of those kinds of divisions that could play into that?

Grant Kester:  Absolutely. That’s why I write about the “washing the flag” or Lava la Bandera performances in Peru in 2000, which were a series of, of actions that were developed by a collective, the CSC or Civil Society Collective, composed of artists and activists and it developed a performance based practice at the moment that Alberto Fujimori was attempting to stay in power by limiting the freedom of the press and stage a kind of…He was already in power, but kind of keep himself in power and elections were kind of soft coup or something along those lines, right? By repressing the election process. This group came together and they started these actions, as a collective, of washing the Peruvian flag in the main plaza outside of the government buildings in Lima. And it fascinated me because it was such an innocuous gesture like they’re just washing…It was just a few of them at first, just a few individuals washing the flag. Okay, who cares? But the government realized that it was dangerous. They weren’t throwing rocks or anything. They were just washing the flag and hanging it up to dry. Like performance art, it looked like something from the 70s. Right, like performance art. But the government reacted really strongly and saw that symbolic gesture as a threat. What happened was, it started to spread. It became collective. It went from a handful of people washing some flags. Well that wouldn’t really pose much of a threat. But all of a sudden, you had 500 or 1000 people in this plaza every weekend. Then you started to see people doing the same gesture in towns and villages across Peru. The effect of that wasn’t simply Oh, well, then that led to the ouster of Fujimori. But it gave people a sense of the strength of solidarity in Peru at the time against Fujimori, because there was a sense of hopelessness. Like he’s going to do it again, he’s going to stay in power, and there’s no hope, there aren’t enough of us. All of a sudden, the viral contagion of that gesture made people feel a sense of agency that they have not felt before or encouraged them to do so. So yes, that’s the key connection to me because conventional art is all about transforming consciousness. Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc was supposed to make the government workers see this huge barrier, and say, Ah, the barriers a symbol or metaphor for the constraint of government bureaucracies. And I see I’m an apparatchik that’s employed by this entire oppressive system, I get it. Right. So conventional art is all about transformation of consciousness, but it always has to be limited to the individual. There’s never an understanding of how that might expand or become scalable. Things like Lava la Bandera and the Escrache in Argentina that I talked about, and Saba Zavarei’s work in Iran, of singing in public, all of these gain their power by their proliferation, as opposed to their constraint and limitation to the individual. That goes back to this idea of the aesthetic which is in Kant the sensus communis, common sense, in the aesthetic is what happens when we as individuals intuit our connection to a larger social whole. But it can only unfold in the individual consciousness. That idea, that linkage, actualized was really interesting to me in these practices. So yeah, Billy, absolutely. From individual to collective. That’s the key movement, I think.

Scott Ferguson:  To develop that a little bit more, you know, one of the things I really appreciate about the genealogy or the genealogies that you lay out of both autonomous art and socially engaged art and thinking about them, is that you’re often de-familiarizing really well known histories and well known figures and bringing out the limits of them, and in doing so, you’re not just critiquing them, you’re also drawing out tension. Forgive me for using such hamfisted terms, but a villain in your first book can turn out to actually have seeds of heroism in your second book. Friedrich Schiller is the beginning of a problem in book one, but in book two, the play drive has this possibility that can outstrip Schiller, and I’m wondering, maybe you can talk a little bit about Schiller, you have also a very complicated relationship to Marx’s significance in this history. Also Leninism and the historical avant-garde. Just get into some of these details that I find absolutely fascinating.

Grant Kester:  Of course. Yeah, I like your point about the complexity of it. I think there’s a tendency, I don’t know how widespread but I have encountered it, to a certain notion of, you’ve encountered this a lot in art criticism, of purity. That is a particular theory and particular practice is either completely, irredeemably corrupt and co-opted, or it can’t be questioned. And I think there’s almost like a theological underpinning to a lot of that in art criticism where we get identified with these positions. You see it in the debates over ethics versus aesthetics and so on and in art criticism going back 10 or 15 years. You see a version of this in, I suppose, certain forms of left political theory, which is that, and I talk about this in the second book, that the only legitimate form of political change is something that effectively reproduces the convulsive overturnings of the Russian Revolution in 1917. If it doesn’t seem like a revolution that completely clears away everything that came before and rebuilt from scratch, anything that is partial or incremental, fails. Which has always struck me as problematic. For one thing, it’s not as though the Bolshevik Revolution was reinvented. Autocracy continued on in Russia quite nicely with a different set of names attached to it than Czarist names. So there is never an absolute overturning like that. It doesn’t exist in human history. I always felt that, in the same way with particular theorists, that there’s almost always with human complexity, and there are resources that are for me, for what I’m interested in doing that are productive and generative, and others that aren’t. Schiller is a good example of that. Schiller’s analysis of the kind of early modernity and the soul destroying effect of modern life. And this is a guy that’s writing in pre-unification Germany. It’s a bunch of duchies and principalities, one of the more backwards parts of Europe, in a way, in terms of what modernity looks like. Yeah, England was different, but Germany, not so much. Yet, he could see how damaging to the human self, certain forms of modernization were. The instrumentalization of other people in the natural world, and so on. So there’s a lot of important stuff. I’ve got on my wall cover of AIZ, workers illustrated newspaper. And that’s this Life magazine for German workers, basically, from the 20s and early 30s. John Heartfield, the photo montage artist, did their covers. And I’ve got a cover that he did that’s basically an Nazi propaganda minister on the occasion of Schiller’s 175th birthday and he’s saying, “who is this guy, I don’t believe anything he says. I’d arrest him if he was alive today.” The Nazis really didn’t like Schiller, because he critiqued modernization, and he critiqued it from a kind of spiritual perspective that it was soul destroying. He said, You need to rise up against authoritarianism. There’s always these mixed…it’s like the Enlightenment in relation to colonial expansion that I talk about in the second book. There’s robust anti imperialist discourse in the enlightenment of all places. So anyway, that’s just a way to say, I think the way I think tends to avoid too many of these binary oppositions of pure and impure and so on. It doesn’t mean you don’t circle back around and say, yeah, there’s problems with Schiller, and so on. But it’s important to think, well, in a more dialogical manner, right? There’s a back and forth that goes on, and you extract those elements that are productive, and then don’t worry about the others. So these ideas also come up in the way that I understand the Marxist tradition. Here I want to focus briefly on the Leninist tradition. In many ways, there’s a tension in modern political history and the Marxist tradition. There’s a tension between revolutionary change, and what I talked about in the book as prefigurative forms of experience of various kinds. Revolutions have always, in the Marxist tradition, in pursuit of a society that would be defined by Liberty, Fraternity and Equality. 1789 in the French Revolution, those are the watchwords. Of course, the Marxist critique of 1789 is that it’s a bourgeois revolution. The promise of liberty, freedom, and equality was never realized fully for everyone, including colonial subjects, including women, including the working class never got there. Every revolution failed in some sense, until we got to 1917. We ended that cycle in the French tradition with the Paris Commune. The Paris Commune is an extremely complicated moment in French history and is a failure yet again. Lenin famously celebrates when the Bolshevik Revolution survives longer than the Paris Commune did before it was destroyed. He does a little dance and so on, like, Yes, we did it where he finally had the right kind of revolution. What he learned, what he takes away from the commune is you cannot prematurely de-sublimate utopian values. What does that mean? It means you look at the commune, you look at Courbet’s work in the commune. There’s all sorts of reinvention of what life could be in a commune: the police force is done away with and schools are open and free and galleries, the Louvre is open to the public. We eliminate a lot of the bureaucratic positions and so on. There’s this euphoric kind of moment. It’s kind of like Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, the Civil War. You find this euphoria of potential. Wow, we had a revolution. Now we get to actually have liberty, equality and fraternity and freedom, real freedom for everyone. That’s a really poignant moment. And so Lenin looks at the commune and says the reason the commune failed is because they celebrated too soon. What they needed to do was be hard-nosed revolutionaries. It shows that we can’t rely on the working class, to have the hard-nosed, disciplined mentality of a bourgeois intellectual, which is what the party is right? He talks about Karl Kautsky, the German Marxist’s famous remark about Communism having to be brought to the masses from outside from bourgeois intellectuals, or alienated bourgeois intellectuals. Lenin’s lesson is that revolution has to be an utterly hard nosed unyieldingly hierarchical process. And yes, the dictatorship of the proletariat, there is no appeal to justice. If the party says you are an enemy, you go to jail or you’re executed. It’s like the elements of the terror all over again. So I was interested in that image of what revolution can be that gets carried forward. Of course, a version of it that migrates into the avant-garde is the idea that art’s role is to attack and assault the viewer. That becomes a symbolic and displaced expression of the role of violent political revolution at the cognitive level, in a sense. But there were other voices in the Bolshevik party, including Alexander Bogdanov, who was an early founder of the Bolsheviks, right, and Bogdanov says, No, the idea that the party should have absolute and unyielding control, and we have to impose this hierarchical discipline on society and set up the Cheka and police state and all the rest, which begins to happen under Lenin, the Cheka is created under Lenin’s watch, says no, if your revolution looks like that, then it’s likely going to reproduce that same level of authoritarianism after it’s over, whenever that comes. So my feeling from just my own reading of history is that revolutions that are predicated on such a complete disavowal of the prefigurative emancipatory and utopian elements of human sociality, are unlikely to end up producing anything more than more inequality and injustice. That puts me athwart of a strong Marxist tradition, which I still find figures like Zizek wanting there to be another Leninist revolution or Badiou who’s like a big fan of the Chinese Cultural Revolution because it got all the nasty bourgeois Chinese people out of the way or, I mean Badiou was celebrating the Khmer Rouge for crying out loud until like a decade ago, still. That is not my experience and understanding of the history of communist revolution. That led to my interest and practices of political social change that incorporate within themselves these prefigurative elements. New social architectures, new forms of being together, new forms of decision making. Now, of course, there has to be a tactical dimension to any change. But that tactical dimension, the instrumental element of change, like we have to do this and produce that effect and attack this agency of government or whatever has to, for me exists in it in a relationship with these other elements, or you end up reproducing the very thing you thought you were fighting against. I know that for many that’s liberal humanist claptrap, and not sufficiently and all the rest. But, it’s just based on my reading of history, in my experience on this planet, that that’s more likely to produce a decent kind of life after the revolution occurs. Frankly, what does revolution even look like? I think of the United States today, where we’ve got these really insane Christian Nationalist ideas being promulgated, at all levels of society. Dramatic restrictions on abortion, and attacks on immigration and so on, that represent the belief systems of a fairly small part of the public. Really, I mean it’s scary how many people believe these things, but still, it’s maybe 30%. The only reason the Supreme Court has six ideologues bought and purchased ideologues on it, is because the Federalist Society has been working for 30 years to do that, like right wing, Neo fascist groups, white supremacists have been working for decades to infiltrate school boards, and they have a very mobilized base. So you have these belief systems, which the vast majority of the American public disagree with, that are being imposed on us. And that’s what a revolution would look like, wow. If Trump gets reelected, that will look like a revolution. But how did it happen? It took three decades, you know, you can go back and look at the history of neoconservatism and Aryan Nations and KKK and trace that genealogy, it was a slow patient work. And on the left, there’s often not a recognition of how important that kind of work is. Can you imagine a parallel version of that, that was actually devoted to progressive, enlightened ideas about how society should operate that had been going on for 30 years, that was supported by, you know, 75% of the American people. But we don’t have that so much. So anyway, that’s all a long winded way of saying that, for me, that prefigurative and the tactical element of the political need to be conjoined. To take it back to engaged art, that’s what I see happening on an experiential level and along with the practices that I write about, it’s just one space. It’s not like the only place this work has been done. I’ve talked about that Black Lives Matter and the Cleveland Convening in the book, because it’s such a great example of this. That wasn’t an engaged art project project. But what occurred is the Cleveland Convening, when they they blocked the arrest of a young Black man, was fascinating, because it was a moment at which there were all of these schisms within the group, the Black Lives Matter group, in the convention center, that were threatening to drive them apart into camps and so on. And they instantly reconnected into a collective that could peacefully prevent the arrest of this young man. So it’s, it’s a passage from one of the books that I described. Anyway, this kind of work is happening in lots of places. It’s obviously not just in the arts or engaged art. I think it’s part of a broader shift in how we are conceptualizing social and political change.

Billy Saas:  I suppose I have the cynical and the optimistic path to pursue. But let’s end with the optimistic and tarry in the cynical for a moment. It seems to me a lot of–even left progressive circles–a lot of this investment in autonomy, and the aesthetic and modern art is about generating and preserving value. It’s about ownership. It’s about persona, it’s about cults of personality, and ultimately a need to have a job and to make a buck. Right. I think that that would be kind of a self defense, I could anticipate coming from somebody who is espousing the views that you’re critical of, and why they might be defensive. Well, at the end, I have a house of kids, I got it, I gotta do this, right. This is the paradigm we’re in. How do we get over that or through that, or do you have some examples or models that you think we can look to or point to share with our comrades and colleagues and say, No. Another way lies this misdirection?

Grant Kester:  Well, let me say a couple of things. One, there’s this tension between a kind of spontaneous all encompassing revolution and gradual. I don’t want to overstate that. But I would say that even in the case of Russia, Lenin didn’t expect the Russian Revolution. He famously said I’d be happy for a bourgeois revolution. We’re like the most backwards in terms of this Hegelian version of capitalism that he would have believed in, was in an unlikely place to have it. So we’re often being surprised even by people that we imagined to have a privileged access to the truth. So things can happen. Entirely possible that it happens all the time, frankly. Rosa Parks sits down in a bus, and certain events, performances happen that trigger not maybe revolutionary change, but pretty big and important change. But I also would say that the precondition for those events like the Russian Revolution, or the civil rights movement was decades of work that is more subterranean. So the subterranean work, the thankless daily work that people do to foment social changes. That’s the ground on which any of those, as Badiou would say, evental changes occurs? They don’t come from the consciousness of the individual theorist or Vanguard leader, they come from human Praxis in a myriad of ways. Yes, people have to survive. I mean, I teach art history for a living. We’re all flawed and imperfect revolutionaries, for sure. But there is, I suppose, at the end of the day, and look, Billy, I’m completely with you. I can be completely cynical about all of this, because you just look at it…Yeah, and so what? Things are actually getting worse. Doesn’t matter how many art collectors do how many things that’s not really moving the needle in any significant way. That’s all true. It’s not hard at all to kind of be a little despondent about that. But I also look around at a world that’s changed dramatically in the last five or 10 years, that’s changed because a whole crap ton of really mean evil people have been working to make it change for a long time. They didn’t give up. Right? They didn’t get despondent. This goes back to Goldwater and before right. It goes back to Father Coughlin in the 1930s. They didn’t give up. So there is a need, I suppose for what Gramsci says, “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” That is, you’re right, and I can completely see…I myself feel like things are hopeless, and why am I writing about these little projects that didn’t really do as much as they might have done, but there also has to be, for me at least, a capacity for hope. I think you mentioned the art world. Part of what drew me to this question of autonomy is this odd disconnect in left circles around what art can be and in some ways, it really unreconstructed notion of avant-garde autonomy. There’s a history of this kind of lack of a kind of awareness of how artistic practice has begun to change. Goes back to like Clement Greenberg writing for partisan review, setting the mold for a kind of a formalist notion of art in the midst of revolution. He famously says in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”, this essay he wrote in 1939 I want to say, that the only hope to preserve revolutionary consciousness lies in these isolated avant-garde experiments that artists are doing in the privacy of their studios.

Scott Ferguson:  Paid for by the bourgeoisie. He says it explicitly, yeah. And Kitsch is when the bourgeoisie stops paying for the autonomist artists.

Grant Kester:  Exactly, he calls it the umbilical cord of gold.

Scott Ferguson:  He does, yes, he did.

Grant Kester:  I wrote for The Nation back in the 90s. I used to write reviews for them, and I can remember that their art critic was Arthur Danto. God bless Arthur Danto. He’s a great philosopher, but the last thing you’d find him writing about would have been activist art practices. There’s an insecurity on the left, that they’ll appear as Zhadnovites or something. They’ll appear like they’re supporters of the most vulgar forms of Stalinist social realism if they don’t go out of their way to embrace so called advanced avant-garde art. It all went to Verso Press as it is sometimes because they have this relationship to October, the journal October. There’s been a failure, from my perspective on left associated cultural platforms, to really come to terms with how art has changed in the last 20 years. Now, if you look at theorists, you’ll look at Rodrigo Nunes “Neither Vertical Nor Horizontal” or Asad Haider or Hamed Hosseini figures like that. You find political theorists going yay, yeah, we need to combine the vertical and the horizontal as Nunes calls it. But the art side, the people that see themselves as invested in art criticism and so on, still remains quite hidebound in my perspective in terms of the kinds of art that are recognized and accepted and constructs quite astoundingly odd arguments to me. There’s a guy Nicholas Brown who wrote a book Autonomy: The Social Ontology of Art under Capitalism. A lot of this is neo-Adornoian, that is Adorno, Theodor Adorno, Frankfurt School critic, famously, very critical, like Greenberg of mass culture, or popular culture, and very supportive of art as having to be opaque, hard to understand, isolated, can’t find an audience because everybody is too benumbed by consumer culture to even be aware enough to understand it, but that’s okay. It’s like a message in a bottle to a future generation that might wake up enough to actually have a revolution. All of these arguments get carried forward and in his book, Brown develops this whole argument about how any art that relates itself in any way to political change immediately becomes what he calls a consumable sign of opposition. Rancière, Jacques Rancière, says something like this. He says once art collapses into political mobilization, it disappears. So the very figures you think you would turn to on the left to write intelligently about art often feel invested in this very conservative model of what art can be. Now, Brown, to his credit, writes about popular culture, but the argument he makes comes out of Frederic Jameson and Adorno, which is that art preserves its radicality, not by getting on the art world and engaging with actual political and social change, but remaining in. It only has meaning in the institutional art world, and its meaning that it only occurs as it pushes off against or critiques certain generic rules and norms and compositional norms, and so on, specific to art media, which is kind of a Greenberg argument. It can’t overtly address the political. As soon as it does that, it’s lost. It disappeared as art. In Brown’s book, he actually makes this argument that based on that argument, that art becomes political by critiquing certain ideas and compositional structures that are unique to particular art media, like painting, or film, or television. He makes this whole argument that progressive political cultural production is associated with the original version of The Office, as opposed to the US version. He has this whole argument about how the original version, the UK version of The Office, was real, critical, because it engaged and subverted the generic conventions of comedy, in a way that the US version did not. Or The Terminator was authentically in a way avant-garde work that carried forward really kind of a prototypical revolutionary awareness, whereas Avatar was not because it did not destabilize the generic conventions of film in the way that The Terminator did. People end up tying themselves in knots to make the argument that this work is political in a meaningful way, and that’s okay, I don’t object to that. Look, I would say maybe you need to work a little harder to come up with the argument because it doesn’t, for me, seem very convincing. But I appreciate that that’s what most art criticism wants to do. The part that bothers me is the parallel argument therefore any artists that don’t work that way, that operate outside the institutional art world, or reduce political resistance to “I’m going to challenge the norms of filmmaking in some formalist manner” have stopped making art. That is not true for me. I think that they are making a different kind of art. It saddens me that it’s so hard to find critics and theorists associated with this arguably on the left side of the spectrum, if you will, that don’t want to accept that. So I do. I guess I’ll say that’s where I come down and say, Yes, it is art, but it’s a kind of an art that requires you to rethink your definition of art and to rethink your definition of autonomy, because autonomy is the basis for a lot of these arguments in Rancière and Nicholas Brown and Walter Benn Michaels and a number of these critics.

Billy Saas:  It seems like one way to put it would be like overtly political art obviates the need for the critic. And so the critics are somehow invested in and preserving their aura and prestige of interpretation from the inimitable genius.

Grant Kester:  One, Adorno literally will say this in aesthetic theory, that is he’s not really convinced there is anybody that looks at Beckett plays or Schoenberg compositions and really grasps them. The only person that does is the critic, and that’s okay. He talks about the artist as a deputy, working on behalf of the kind of revolutionary consciousness the working class should exhibit but does not yet. It’s like Lukacs talks about the “imputed consciousness” of the word proletariat in history, class consciousness, it’s what the working class…the whole argument of Marxism is that they will spontaneously evolve class consciousness through the oppression of the capitalist system and industrialization. But they failed to do so. So somebody else must have to experience it for them. And that somebody else is the Vanguard theorist, it’s going to be the artists for Adorno, and so on. They become a kind of a repository, or a talisman, or something, a vessel, that carries revolutionary consciousness forward in a non-revolutionary period. All of those vessels are basically ending up as commodified elements within bourgeois cultural productions in galleries and museums, and Beckett retrospectives and everything else. For me, it’s like, I get the argument, I just don’t find it very compelling. I do think that the work that is going on, that engages with the political and social, doesn’t, and this is typical, like, “well, this is what Rancière says.” “Well, it’s nothing new. It’s just protest banners and things like that. It’s just making political demands in a very social realist manner.” Part of why I spend so much time in my book talking in detail about things like the “escrache” tradition in Argentina, or Lava la Bandera, or Saba Zavarei and various public performances in Iran, is precisely to challenge this idea that all political art or activist art is crude and simplistic, and relies on crude versions of representation. Like its worker posters from the 1930s. It’s just not true. This work for me is incredibly complex in terms of how it relates to representation, in terms of how it understands the subject position of the artist, and in terms of how it relates, challenges, stands in some relationship of tension with political transformation. It’s a very complicated body of work, if you look at it, and you’re willing to see it. I guess, that’s kind of been my commitment to try to see what’s actually going on in the practice. Then, to bring what I see back through the traditions of the aesthetic and just say, Okay, you want to say this other work is aesthetic, that’s fine. I get that, I can see why. This work also draws on that tradition, but it draws a different set of lessons. That’s all. It’s just a different set of lessons.

Scott Ferguson:  Can you tell us a little bit more about the Escrache experiments? Maybe in a little bit more detail, and maybe work through some of their complexities. And also, I want to say, you know, let’s not knock work or posters in the 30s. You know, they’re probably pretty cool and interesting, too.

Grant Kester:  I would not disagree with that. Yeah, I was reaching. I didn’t want to talk about Zhdanov and Soviet policy. So I was trying to think of something that would be…but yes, absolutely. Socialist Realism can actually be quite interesting, some of it’s quite interesting and complex.

Scott Ferguson:  Yeah, some people argue that Socialist Realism is one breed of modernism.

Grant Kester:  Indeed, there is indeed that argument and I wouldn’t disagree. I have a particular interest in the history of woodcuts, and I’ve been researching woodcuts in the May 4th Movement in China. We usually think of woodcuts is, again, one of these crude folk forms, but they can be in the same manner…One of my interests going forward is to write on realism, because there is such a truncated version of what realism means that comes out of the work that you see going on in the 20s and 30s. It’s far more complex than a lot of traditional histories allow. So yeah, I completely agree with that. The Escraches emerge in around 2000 or so, maybe a little bit earlier, in Argentina, and escrache means to scratch or reveal something. It has the implication of revealing something hidden. So they built out of HIJOS (the sons and daughters of the disappeared), which is a collective of, a lot of it was the mothers of young people who were murdered or imprisoned by the military junta that ruled Argentina that took power in the 1970s. You’re probably familiar with and listeners will be familiar with that kind of awful history of 1000s of people. They’d been taken to these isolated camps and tortured and drugged and then dropped into the Rio de la Plata River, from helicopters and all the rest. After the military leadership of the country lost power, after the Falklands War, this whole history kind of disappeared in Argentinian public life. Early on, there were some laws. Oh, you can’t get a job in the government, again, if you are part of the military regime, and so on, but eventually those kinds of things get suspended. There was never a public accounting for the fact that there were hundreds, if not 1000s, of people walking freely around Argentina who’d been responsible for killing your son, or your cousin, or your brother, or your parents. So there’s a generation of young Argentinians that came of age in the late 90s, early 2000s, that came out of this historical amnesia. HIJOS, this collective of survivors, had begun to do legal research, and so on, to try to identify who some of these people were, that were walking around with complete impunity, because they were, of course, not going to announce their role. But yet they would have lives and get jobs in the government and so on and so forth. They worked with some art collectives; Grupo Etcetera, which is one of them, kind of a performance based collective of artists; Grupo de Arte Callejero, which is the group of street artists, to develop these performances now. Performances would be staged outside their homes once they identified, oh, this is the guy that ran the secret camp at the naval facility outside Buenos Aires. He ran the secret detention center, where they raped women and then gave the babies to members of the Junta and then killed the mothers. He was that guy that ran that center. HIJOS would originally protest outside the houses, but that wasn’t as effective as they wanted it to be. Police would come and so on. They started much more elaborate performances, where this collective would go to the neighborhood where they were going to do an intervention months ahead of time, and they would talk to the people. They’d set up a center and they’d research the history of the neighborhood and let people know oh, by the way, the person that lives in this apartment building right over here is– this is who it is because you didn’t know. They call it the pre-escrache. It’s a research phase. It is an organizational phase. Then the escrache itself was a public performance. They would have what they call Murga bands, which are bands with trombones and drums and accordions or violins that have a particular tradition in Argentina. They’d marched through the street to the home. They would do these performances where they act out the crimes of the person that they’re targeting. But in a very kind of Commedia dell’arte manner. They were very over the top hyperbolic, almost silly. Google them on YouTube, and you’ll find them there. They’re almost meant to be humorous in the way and absurd and over the top. They do the performances, and the police would come and try to prevent them from getting near the house. Because the penultimate gesture was to then throw balloons with red paint that signified the blood of the people they’ve murdered onto the walls to mark the home. So the performances evolved in part to distract the police so that the people with the balloons could have a clear line of fire. There was a tactical dimension to the performances, but it also had the effect of teaching the people in the neighborhood, restaging the crimes because people didn’t always know what the person had done. These would be recorded. So they’d throw the bones at the end of the performance, and then the home would be marked for a significant amount of time, at least, from this blood red paint. These still go on today, the whole escrache tradition, again, has expanded and gone into other realms, You find it taken up in other parts of Latin America, as well. What interested me, there’s a lot of things to be said about the complexity of that work. Oh, I should mention the Grupo de Arte Callejero (GAC) would also put signs up as part of the pre-escrache that look like actual road signs in the vicinity of the home, but they would say things like 200 meters to the home of a genocidal torturer or something like that. So you’d be driving down the street, and it looks like an actual sign. So the whole streetscape would be restaged in a sense to facilitate this performance. But what interested me is that nine times out of 10, from what I can understand from talking to people involved with them, the person was not home when they were staging their performance. It really wasn’t this cathartic assault, they would know because they’d be aware that people were meeting and there was talk going on. They wouldn’t even be home, but they didn’t need to be home because that person was…Yeah, it would have been gratifying to yell and spit in their face or whatever you killed my relative. But what mattered more, I think, was the sense of solidarity and agency that was provided by the people that were involved in the action itself, and the viral proliferation of the recordings. It’s not simply a matter of political art reduced to screaming at somebody to believe something different. And this goes back to the prefigurative, that there was a solidarity enhancement, a pedagogical dimension to this work that had to do with expanding the awareness of the Argentinian public of the nature of these crimes. In fact, eventually, the result was a shift of laws in Argentina that cracked down on the impurity of the elements of people that were associated with the junta. So I thought that reception of the work was really interesting, because for me, and again, it kind of collapses some of these ideas that activists and political art is always this kind of crude, simplistic gesture. That representational repertoire of their performances called on all kinds of theatrical traditions in the kinds of ways that the modes of address were quite complicated. Same thing in the Lava la Bandera. So those are both examples of work that is political and engaged in political and social change, but cannot be reduced to a kind of crude caricature, at least for me. Yeah.

Scott Ferguson:  Yeah, that’s wonderful to hear about, and especially once you start talking about the rich details of the construction, the preparation, the playing out of these events, to speak back to the cynical concerns, the Ah well, but what does it amount to? I guess when I hear about these kinds of movements, I think to myself, Wow, this is incredibly meaningful, and it’s even more meaningful that there were legal results, but I would say that it’s the actions, the activities, the aesthetic experiences themselves are already meaningful. It’s wonderful that those meanings are paying dividends, so to speak, and creating more change. But even if it hadn’t, it still seems like it already created change. If anything, I would say in response to criticisms that this is not enough. It’s not because they’re not autonomous enough, it’s because there aren’t enough of these experiments going on constantly all the time. It’s not, Oh, we should have less because they’re not overturning right wing forces around the world completely. Let’s have more, and the more we have, the better luck we’re gonna have to overturn right wing forces around the world completely.

Grant Kester:  I agree, it kind of seems common sense to me. Guess what, the Fourth International does not exist right now. There is no global, networked, oppositional movement that is poised to take control. How do you get to the point of having more power to change things? It only begins this way locally, and situationally, and to dismiss it all as Oh, it’s just reformist. And all that’s doing is validating the existing system of domination because they can point to these singular gestures and say, See how tolerant we are. I mean, yeah, that’s true, and that can be disabling. Also, I don’t know how else you get to broader forms of systemic change, except through the hard work, the piecemeal work of operating at this level. That’s why in the book I talk about broader projects like Lava la Bandera that contributed to Fujimori’s overthrow or Laurie Jo Reynolds Tamms Year Ten project that led to the closing of a supermax prison in Illinois, but also very localized work like Saba Zavarei’s work. She’s an Iranian artist that left Iran after the Green Revolution, and had come back for a visit and was in quite a well known mosque in Isfahan. She recorded herself singing a love song to Iran, which again, is like, okay, but actually you’re not allowed to do that. It’s not against the law, but it’s against the guidelines of what women can do in public. She posted it on our website, it just says I was moved by this beautiful space, and I sang. She got, like, 1000s of women responding to her, and then doing it themselves, and posting their own public scene performances. There’s this whole body of public dancing, which if your Hijab is not adjusted properly, you can end up dead as we saw not so long ago in Iran. Because of the Basij and the policing of the streets by the morality police and so on. That work was just her in this mosque, her consciousness transformed. But again, it became scalar. And now it was 100 women and 1000 women. I’m not saying Oh, and because of that the protest movements in Iran developed later. But that is one piece of the precondition for broader changes. I talk about the offering of mind in a project in Myanmar, that was done in 2005 in The One and the Many, Chu Yuan. The military regime in Myanmar had driven any Western groups out of the country, the Red Cross, and so on. There are very few artists working there. Chu Yuan and her partner Jay Koh from Singapore. So they were kind of tolerated. She did a project based on this Theravadic Buddhist tradition. And in Theravada Buddhism, you make prayers and give contributions at a temple for the temples that have more gold leaf put on it or what have you. By doing that you buy yourself good will for your next incarnation. You make sacrifices now so that when you’re reborn, you’ll be at a higher level. It’s an argument that’s made in Myanmar society that the political leadership and so on is there because they were so good in their previous lives, they deserve that authority. Chu Yuan came up with this idea where she had young people, just people she knew in Myanmar, come up with their own wishes for what they wanted to change about Myanmar society. Created with them, these little chicken wire stupa head pieces, and they put their wishes on scrolls, because they’d write them on scrolls and the headpiece acting out, again, at a very limited individual level. She did this with a fairly small number of people. She took pictures of them, and she documented them. One was on the cover of that book. They had to be extremely careful just walking down the streets of Rangoon like this, because that could attract attention. That’s why they’re all photographed from behind, so you can’t see their faces, because they could have gotten arrested. Because the assumption is their wishes might have been things like Gosh, I wish our country wasn’t run by a military dictatorship or something along those lines, we don’t know. So again, very small changes in consciousness. I want to argue, I make this argument in the book, that there is a capillarity relationship between those incremental and small. This goes back to the aesthetic. Individual consciousness transformed, how does that become scalable? How does that proliferate and extend and build? And yes, it can feel hopeless. But again, like you’ve all said, I don’t know how else we get to the broader forms of resistance except through this hard work.

Billy Saas:  I guess there’s a pretty clear analogy between, I think, what we’re up to, and why we’re interested in talking to you at Money on the Left. It’s as much for us I think about a project of recovery and discovery of these incremental, sometimes spontaneous practices and experiments over time and across the world, in public provisioning for the public good. There’s also a critique of sovereignty at the center of, I think, what we’re up to. So I guess one last question for me, for you, is if you have any sense about how best to go about the curation or collection, or dare I say, organization, the process of bringing all these things together without finding oneself again, and kind of like that critical priesthood position. It’s like, this is how I see the lay of the land, and here’s the project. This is what it is. And now we’re moving forward with this. And without my particular genius, and assembling these recovered pieces, you wouldn’t be able to see it, so you gotta buy my book. Right? Yeah. How do we do it carefully, respectfully, and in a way, or is it even important to do it?

Grant Kester:  I had looked a little bit and I’m not obviously knowledgeable about economics, but I looked a little bit into modern monetary theory. It looks like, and I’d want to learn from both of you, maybe somewhat connected to David Graeber’s work on debt and so on. So I was like, Oh, what are the commonalities here? I thought, oh, yeah, because Graeber is trying to challenge the notion that the a priori condition of the human self is this possessing an individualistic drive, that then gets normalized in economics in so many different ways, including austerity discourse. Like we’re bad people, and we have to sacrifice, economically, which is kind of antithetical to the reality of the way capitalism has worked in the 20th century and the 21st century. I mean, the thing that led the United States out of the depression was military industrial spending by the government, and debt. So the weird moralizing around debt. It’s become so transparent recently, within the Republican Party, I think how completely and utterly indifferent they are to actual debt. It was always just an excuse. It’s never intended as anything other than a bludgeon to justify dismantling 100 years of social policy and provision that had been hard won going back to the 1880s, 1890s. Honestly, I don’t know how it was not ever obvious to anybody all along, that that was the game, but for sure it is now. So I think, to the extent to which that leaks in with the tendency broadly to normalize, I don’t know what to call them. Bourgeois notions of the self, I see where it comes into my work, I guess one way would be: one, in looking at projects that appeal to this different version of the self. It’s what I call the dialogical model of the self in the second book. It’s more open, permeable, less committed to I’m a self that must master and dominate and instrumentalize. Not the Odyssean self that Adorno and Horkheimer critique in Dialectic of Enlightenment, but a self that actually is open to the shape and influence of the other. That that is important work at the level of the subjectivity of the individual person, and that that’s what’s being worked out, rehearsed, performed in various ways in a lot of these practices. And that there is a tendency for me and I’d be interested to hear what both of you have to say about this, but there has been a tendency to normalize that version of the self on the left as well. This is my criticism of Leninism, which is Gorky’s famous quote about Lenin, he’s like a cold blooded aristocrat. He’s a product of his class background. The proletariat are the “iron ore” that he’s going to hammer into the ideal form. I mean, that is to me so self-evidently an extension of this possessive…Yes, of course it’s on behalf of world revolution, I get all that. But there’s an utter lack of self reflection on how problematic it is to carry that forward sometimes. My sense is that that’s one of the places where there’s a productive alliance or overlap with what you guys are up to as well with this modern monetary theory. I was gonna ask you, How do you understand the relationship between Oh, it’s economic theory, what does that have to do with other things and art and culture? I’d be interested to hear you talk about that. I’d like to learn from you.

Scott Ferguson:  Yeah, we’ll need maybe 10 more podcasts to do that. But I can weigh in a little bit here and talk a little bit about more convergences that I see between our project and yours. So yes, we are aligned with David Graeber’s work in Debt, although we would say that we complicate Graber and that modern monetary theory does too, in the sense that we tend to be more interested in just recasting re-understanding money in the first place is not bound to that private, possessive labor theory of value in the first place. That it is not about private exploitation, private property and private exchange, that money is essentially a kind of public utility that belongs to all of us. And that as much as it works through debt, the other side of debt, which Graber doesn’t really talk about in his giant volume, is credit and credit is a kind of granting, a kind of creativity, a kind of you could say artistic practice. We want to recover that positive dimension, and not just at the individual level, but at the mezzo and macro level and modern monetary theory and certain adjacent heterodox left legal scholarship, that we’re in dialogue with, too, will argue again, and again, that money is a political and legal design. It is a construction that can be constructed in all kinds of ways. So it just so happens that this modern Euro-American bourgeois, now globalized, monetary system is organized around this private, possessive, mastering individual, predicated on the exploitation of others. But in a sense, that’s a lie. And that money doesn’t have to be organized in that way. In fact, it often doesn’t actually work the way that the dominant ideology says it does. So another way in which I think our work really converges, in my own particular publications, I’ve been very critical of what I call the dialectic between money and aesthetics, or art and the market, that has structured this whole dialectic of autonomy and heteronomy that you’ve published on so extensively and so informatively. So I want to claim that this is all predicated on a very big L Liberal, very problematic reduction of money to private labor, private exploitation, private property, that then the bourgeoisie themselves in their philosophy, express an intense ambivalence about, and then they want an escape valve, right? They’ve constructed a world of monetary economy that they assume must be inherently alienating. They need to theorize and practice this sensuous sphere of expansive communion with nature and others. The Marxist tradition to its credit will come along and say, Ah, you hypocritical bourgeoisie, we should be having this aesthetic project realized in our everyday lives. We at Money on the Left would agree, but where we break with the Marxist tradition is because we say, we can do that, and we need to do that through money as a public project that is a democratic, sensuous project. Not throw out the baby with the bathwater, and just take the bourgeoisie’s word for it. That oh, indeed, money is sin, and everything’s gonna be okay, once we stop counting things, once we stop provisioning using numbers.

Grant Kester:  That’s really helpful, Scott. Thank you for that. That makes so much sense. Yeah, what you’re describing in terms of the aesthetic for the bourgeoisie, I mean, this is very much connected, and maybe, almost identical to the idea of the false transcendence that the aesthetic is meant to provide for the bourgeois subject. Schiller talks about this experience that you have, when you have an aesthetic encounter in which you step back from your unselfconscious immersion in the external world and pay attention to– he gets it from Kant in Critique of Judgment. Pay attention to the operations of parts of your mind or consciousness, the kind of the form giving drive and the sensuous drive and so on. That in that moment, you have an intuition of something different than what it is. That something different is a world in which you can conjoin sensuous pleasure and joy, and the form giving drive is the controlling drive and the masking drive that those things can be synthesized and not held apart. But of course, for Schiller, that can only happen in the realm of what he called ‘semblance’ that can only be a representation in art. You can’t try to make it happen in the real world of monetary policy, for example.

Scott Ferguson:  Right, it has to be disinterested, no interest, because interest can only be bourgeois interests, right? It can’t be about collective or democratic interests.

Grant Kester:  Absolutely. You know, and think about the way this interest is structured in the enlightenment. It’s always going to involve this emptying out of the self. To get to the disinterested self, you have to go back to this free, Schiller will talk about this, the self before any external determination. So you empty out the entire contents of what it is to be a subject to become disinterested, because all the rest of it are accumulated experiences. Being human is completely invalid and irrelevant.

Billy Saas:  You pay someone to carry your interests in a sack.

Scott Ferguson:  I mean, I’m pretty preoccupied with the Franciscan roots of modernity, and that kind of kenotic self emptying. They didn’t invent it, but they were very much a part of that. This very zero sum sense that, in order to have a transcendent connection with God, I have to empty myself of all, of interest in any kind of possession, any kind of mediation in institutions, etc, etc.

Grant Kester:  It’s a lot like German Pietism, which is an important influence on quite a number of German aesthetic philosophers who were informed by that same tradition. In the Pietist tradition, it’s the same argument about the emptying of the self and so on to achieve transcendence and everything else. Yeah, because the self here and now is always impure, always contaminated, and incapable of utopian thought, incapable of indulging in joy or sensuality without being corrupted in some manner. Yeah, it’s very interesting.

Scott Ferguson:  Right. So we just would say that, I mean, there are very corrupt monetary designs. There are very, very evil fiscal policies. There are very, very terrible, terrible ways in which money is privatized and used for exploitative purposes. But at the same time, we are obliged to imagine alternatives and alternatives that don’t escape from the problem but embrace it and transform it. I’m interested in all of your wonderful examples and money touches everything, but I’m especially interested in the examples that seem to be more conventional, overtly taking up this role of democratic public provisioning. In my own work I’ve written about Mierle Laderman Ukeles who you touch on too, right? She’s working with the New York Sanitation Department to this very day. She’s not just staging events, calling attention to care work and maintenance work, but she’s using the public purse to provision aesthetic collective practices, and I find that extremely inspiring.

Grant Kester:  Well, you’re probably familiar with this work already, but Helen and Newton Harrison’s work, Newton passed away just recently, but they worked for decades on environmental policy issues that were in some cases, they were in dialogue in their projects in Europe and elsewhere with public agencies to implement solutions, responses to particular environmental situations, that were intensely problematic, or to envision a replanning a form of planning at the regional or broader scale that governments would need to be part of that would be much, much more healthy, productive, less destructive. Their entire life is dedicated to that matrix between their individual practice and public policy. You see the same thing and Suzanne Lacy’s work as well, in her relationship to work in the criminal justice system and working in Oakland in the 90s. Those are really interesting examples. Yeah, I can see now, the connection.

Scott Ferguson:  Well, we’re gonna stop here, but this seems like the beginning of a much longer conversation, Grant. Thanks so much for coming on Money on the Left and speaking with us.Grant Kester:  It was my pleasure. I learned so much from both of you, and I really enjoyed it. I really did. So thank you for the invitation.

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamWilliam Saas (audio editor), Mike Lewis (transcription), & Robert Rusch (graphic art)