Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: On the Political Present and the Recovery of Lost Ideas

by Evan Neely*

All statements made in the following are my own and do not reflect the opinions of the Occupy movement as a whole, including the opinions that Occupy is a movement and that it is a whole.[1]

“We must get rid of the conception of artistic ownership. … We try to secure a livelihood for our artists (and God knows they need it) by copyright laws protecting them against plagiarism; but the reason why our artists are in such a poor way is because of that very individualism which these laws enforce.”

“The promiscuous dissemination of books and paintings by the press and public exhibition creates a shapeless and anonymous audience whose collaborative function is impossible to exploit.”

-R.G. Collingwood,1937[2]

“The hostility to association of fine art with normal processes of living is a pathetic, even a tragic, commentary on life as it is ordinarily lived. Only because that life is usually so stunted, aborted, slack, or heavy laden, is the idea entertained that there is some inherent antagonism between the process of normal living and creation and enjoyment of works of esthetic art.”

John Dewey, 1934[3]

“The person who holds the doctrine of ‘individualism’ or ‘collectivism’ has his program determined for him in advance.”

John Dewey, 1927[4]

Occupiers on the Brooklyn Bridge, October 2, 2011

1. We are unstoppable…

The term “expression” has had something of a bad reputation since the interests of art critics shifted away from what they now call “modernist objects” to “postmodernist performances.” This shift in interest is often explained by reference to a supposed epistemic rupture that occurred at some point in the later 1950s, and it has led us to some misunderstandings about the potential functions of art before and after the moment of the supposed rupture. But several things may be said in favor of a reconsideration of the theory of expression at this particular moment. The roots of this theory in pragmatist philosophy allow it to be read primarily as a theory of art’s sociotelic efficacy, by which I mean art’s involvement as an instrument in the process of forming communities (whether by allowing us to map the interconnections among a set of existing institutions governing interaction, by allowing us as a group to frame specific ends for immediate action, or by allowing us to prefigure the kind of world in which we would like to live as a group). More than any other political phenomenon, Occupy has awoken us to the difficulty of making any absolute separation of expression from other forms of intellection, and understanding this movement requires a theory of art that explains both its aforementioned sociotelic efficacy and the radically contingent nature of prefigurative political action. Recovering the now-forgotten tenets of the theory of expression, and treating them in light of the challenges Occupy has posed to the set of institutions that govern our social interactions, will allow us to frame a more comprehensive idea of what kind of action the exhibition of works of art actually is.

A few notes about method and terminology before I proceed: I am taking earlier definitions of expression as a point of departure, a set of options for how one might regard the forms of interactivity Occupy has taken, and what it might prefigure. Moreover, I am treating Occupy’s prefigurative status as indicating the centrality of expression to its activities, in a way that is different from the role it played within other social movements.[5] The common terms found in early theorists of expression like R.G. Collingwood and John Dewey have the benefit of allowing us to forego a normative and prefabricated expectation of what legitimate interaction should look like, and of reformulating the ways we conceive of the boundaries that limit our actions – both of these things are goals commensurate with what most Occupiers have expressed. The particular point of my departure from these theories is the sense I have that expressions are productive of the knowledge on which we base our courses of action, including the knowledge of who we are as agents. This is a greater instrumentality than either Collingwood or Dewey accorded to expression, although I do not think I contradict the greater philosophic claims of either writer. As for terminology, I regularly use the words “material,” “process,” “purpose,” “formal,” and “substantive” throughout this essay; some of my terminology derives from Alfred North Whitehead, but is used in a manner I think is commensurate with both Dewey and Collingwood.[6] I define material below. By “process,” I mean the fact that the reality in which we are involved is continually transforming, and that as agents situated in the sequence of its change we influence it in a conscious way – any influential event is a singular process, but one that is rendered continuous with other events by the influences achieved. By “purposes,” I mean controlled achievements – events of which we are a constituent agent, in cooperation with other (often human) agents, that continue to operate even when we relinquish conscious and direct control; the purposes of expressions are accomplished when they conduce to a furthering of the process indicated by them. I use “formal” in contrast to “substantive,” where formal means any analysis that ignores the continuity between ideation and material concretion in any purposive process, and, thus, by substantive I mean recognizing that continuity.

To resume: in the early twentieth century there were two main streams of thought about expression. The key difference between the two rests on their different answers to the question of where expressions come from – do they come from prefabricated subjects and simply denote their mental states, or do they come from an inchoate state that exists prior to their organization and which can then only be defined after that organization? If the answer is the latter, then the notion of subjective agency gets repositioned in the answer to the question of what expression is. In this line of thinking, the act of expression itself becomes something akin to a phase shift, where a given configuration of intellectual material once rearranged produces a fundamentally new entity. In this case, subjectivity is a secondary factor, and only determined after an expression’s formation, since it is itself reformed via the reconfiguration of its own materials.

Collingwood and Dewey defined expression in this latter sense concomitantly defining subjectivity as a derivative phenomenon.[7] That they undertook their inquiries during the greatest crisis modern capitalism had faced for several decades was not incidental. Their need to define art with reference to the term “expression” developed from a problematic similar to the one that capitalist postmodernity sets to contemporary theorists.[8] Both Collingwood and Dewey showed grave concern for the ways in which expressive activities had been removed by both mental and legal institutions from a place in more ordinary communal life. The excision of art from other forms of social activity also emerged from a changing understanding of subjectivity and human agency held by people living under capitalistic conditions. Agents came to understand themselves as individuals fundamentally detached from any social commitments, entering them only voluntarily. Both Collingwood and Dewey in their respective ways claimed that this altogether misrepresented the nature of subjectivity, sociality, and commitment – it deranged conscious life, leading persons to ignore the fact that they defined themselves only in specific situations, and that the outcome of those attempts at a definition were acts that produced a consciousness of the self and its environment, rather than being acts that were consequences of those things. Both figures understood human beings as locally-situated beings first, and only contingently as individuals, and thought that only expressive activity could make us conscious of the situations within which we define ourselves. The other side of their equation was that social life is equally knowable only through expressive agency. It is now a prevailing doctrine that institutions (whether conceptual, cognitive, legal, or otherwise) and the individuals enfranchised by them determine what does and does not count as art, and that specific works of art have only a derivative role. But expression is fundamentally necessary to the construction of that reality as well, since both social and individual “realities” (to the extent that they are separable) are objects with a subjective ontology – not only is expression necessary to any consideration of the form of social institutions, but it positively intervenes by constructing that form.[9]

The main grounds on which critics resist the theory of expression – that it is overly subjectivist, and based on the idea that there is a preconstituted subject that translates its inner thoughts into outer objects – simply do not apply.[10] Collingwood is at least partially guilty of suggesting that expression should be understood as a working of the inner mind, since he used the terms “inner” and “outer” frequently and tagged expression to an initial stage of consciousness which he described both by the terms “self-expression” and “self-assertion,” clarifying only several chapters later that this self-consciousness always included cognizance of others. I would defend him by noting that the language of the time (and of today) made it very hard not to use these terms, and that by the end of his Principles of Art it should be quite clear that he thought expression to be as much a social as an individual phenomenon.[11] Dewey is less guilty, and never held to any individualist notion of subjectivity.[12] Most importantly, expression is the primary phenomenon, meaning that the very concept of subjectivity and concomitant terms like “inner” and “outer” experience are contingent on primary social phenomenon. They need to be defined before they can be applied to our self-definitions, and therefore they are negotiable.

Thus, expressions work to formulate our subjectivities, such that the latter are a function of the interaction between whatever set of abilities we possess and the environment in which they are activated. To the extent that it grants works of art this capacity, the theory of expression is an unrecognized forebear of Jacques Rancière’s claim that art distributes the sensible, and that such distributions affect the ways in which we order material reality.[13] Both Dewey and Collingwood have attended to the issue in their own ways. Collingwood claimed that expressions are a primary stage in the development of conscious life that, if dependent on stale or outmoded forms, would result in the “corruption of consciousness.”[14] I will return to this below; Dewey’s pragmatism in general seems more appropriate to the immediate issue.

While there have been serious differences of opinion among pragmatists, all share the belief that there is no ontological difference between thought and action. Distinctions drawn between the two are made only for the purposes of considering the direction of impulses. “Thought” is simply a pause in the movement of an action, when the agent needs to reflect on the factors involved in achieving the desired outcome; “action” is the movement of bringing something into reality; and the “agent” functions to make the outcome happen. Agents may thus be defined only in terms of the specific situation of any action, and not as ontologically prior entities, let alone unchanging realities. This is not to say that they are purely present entities, since the situation of any action is in large part the residue of past interactions, the memories of which aid in the formulation of the action’s end. Any form of activity is structured by the set of instruments that brings about an end in view, and the agent is the locus of these instruments. Expressions are one among many possible instruments, and have priority only to the extent that they allow us to develop an understanding of what outcomes are desirable and how to achieve them.

Pragmatist philosophy is often misrepresented as something banal and utilitarian, and when its suppositions are described in the way above, there is some potential for confusion. But there is no reason that less mundane ends cannot become objects of inquiry, and so pragmatist theory fully accommodates investigations into oneself and one’s intellectual situation (there is also no reason to assume any inquiry whatsoever requires self-knowledge – as a subsidiary function of specific interactions, an individual self need not always be a matter of consideration). This is particularly important for political action, especially in political situations like the present one where “individuality” and “self” are central terms of debate.[15] Envisioning a world where truly free expression is possible, and not derogated by simplistic, ideological, and often blatantly propagandistic ideas of individuality would almost tautologically require expressive action.

The pragmatist claims that human beings are always already involved in the situations wherein they may define themselves and that, correlatively, thought and action are simply functions in a single equation have great implication for the definition of an artistic “material.” This, in turn, should require us to rethink how we conceive the “object” status of any work of art – including the object status of performances, as well as how we conceive the relations between artistic agency and political action. Both Dewey and Collingwood have been called “idealists,” but this claim is always based on the begged question of what “material” actually is. Neither Dewey nor Collingwood conceived of a material reality outside of thought, or a thoughtful reality outside of material. To make such a distinction already assumes an unsituated thinker who imposes her or himself on some extrinsic reality. But, as I have noted, both individual and environment are treated by these figures as elements of situations and series thereof. We may decide for the purposes of the analysis of some specific situation that we want to say there is a difference between something called “material” and something called “thought,” but we cannot (afford to) hypostatize that distinction. For art, it makes very little sense. The paint in the tube is not (despite Duchamp) the same thing as the paint on the canvas, and the canvas transported to the gallery and sold to the collector is not the work of art if the curator and the owner make no attempt to understand the work. And the body that lived in the series of situations prior to the performance is not the same body that intertwines itself with others before (or among) an audience in the performance – from one perspective, it is the same material (a set of cells), from another it is not (it is a mobile body, a viewed body, a gendered body, a hesitant body, a violated body…).

The relation between an artistic material and the final expression is temporal: what we call the material support of the expressive object is left behind every time someone comes to engage with it, since it ceases being the raw materials that existed before their specific configuration in our experience of them as an expression.[16] The difference between a painting and a performance is mainly a matter of duration – paintings are expressions that stay configured longer. But this duration says very little about their potential for commodification since, as I will explain below, most of the properties we find in a painting that make it salable (it is of a certain size, it can be hidden from view, it will last long enough to be resold or inherited) have very little to do with it as a work of art, defined properly (in their heart of hearts, art dealers know this; they know that they cannot price their goods according to the “laws” of supply and demand because their goods are not comparable objects, and that they have to find other means altogether outside of the nature of the objects they aim to sell if they want to convince collectors that what they sell is a potential commodity.) If there is a political implication of this at the moment, it is not solely that what properly counts as art ontologically resists commodification, it is also that it may be used actively to awaken a consciousness of a possible life beyond the commodification of everything around us.[17]


The Occupy Wall Street Puppet Guild’s Statue of Liberty puppet shows up Mark Di Suvero at Liberty Plaza during the Occupation

2. Show me what democracy looks like!

The more immediate question is whether art, if it is properly defined as expression, was ever confined within the set of frameworks provided by institutions like art markets or museums. While these institutions govern where the physical objects of ‘art’ may be housed, we should ask seriously whether this housing is constitutive or merely contingent.[18] We may be led to assume, when entering a gallery, that should expect to find art there. (Nowadays we often have trouble recognizing something potentially expressive as art without this, and sometimes the art is directly linked to its immediate institutional circumstance such that it would not be art without the link – both of these questions are something I will consider later.) Nevertheless, we are also capable of finding it in places that are not devoted explicitly to its display. These types of spaces have increased exponentially in recent decades, alongside more official institutions that distribute individual expressions. They have developed as a concomitant to the re-emerging idea that art is endemic to social interaction, and that its separation from other special forms of interaction is the result of those official institutions – an idea the expression theorists asked us to recognize as far back as the 1930s.[19] The recovery of the idea of art as a social practice has underwritten both the development of new institutions and the sense that older ones are malfunctioning.

Occupy has given us a chance to rethink the concept of expression as it was once understood, not simply because certain working groups provide a place for its revaluation but because the movement as a whole challenges the problems created by conditions that are inimical to expressive interactivity and require it for the solutions to these. Many artists see as a coalescence of something they have been demanding for decades. On a more direct level, working groups like Arts & Labor have gone to great lengths to fight for the rights of workers exploited by the economic organization of the art world,[20] and Occupy Museums has staged interventions against “the devaluation of art to the level of bare commodity”[21] at most major art world events over the past several months. These have demonstrated the interventional capacities of artists. But on a greater level, the Occupy movement as a whole has stood as an expressive response to repressive social conditions. This is not to equate Occupy with a work of art (although I do believe that Occupy is, among other things, part of a long American tradition of the aesthetic embodiment of political and ethical ideals stretching back at least to Henry David Thoreau). It is simply to suggest that its various and divergent activities have forced us to reconsider fundamental notions about art’s efficacy, and that a reconsideration of an unfashionable theory of art may help us more than many current theories do.

While I am not sure they would formulate their interest in this way, the large number of artists who have Occupied would seem to be drawn to the movement because it grants their forms of action a special place in its overall aims. Persons dedicated to the act of developing a vision of a possible new world would seem to me to find a natural affinity with a movement that has consistently refused to demand.[22] Moreover, the horizontal structure of the movement has, however unwittingly, granted people who would not think of themselves as “artists” an essentially similar place in the activity of formulating that world’s image. While there is certainly a broader tradition of thought that grants everyone the ability to act artistically (from Kant’s facultative definition of genius to Joseph Beuys’ belief that everyone is at heart an artist), expression theory makes a particularly apt claim as to why this is the case.

The organization of the Occupy movement as a whole is haphazard and changes constantly. The basic structures are fairly well known – each Occupation is local and organized around a local General Assembly (GA) wherein each participant can express her or his concerns and define her or his ideas of what constitutes political activity; most Occupations are further subdivided into various working groups whose purposes are generated by the sets of individuals comprising them. Some Occupations, like Occupy Wall Street (OWS), also developed Spokes Councils to facilitate interconnections among working groups, although these have met some resistance by radical horizontalists who think they resemble representative structures.[23] OWS is the largest and most famous Occupy, but it is only one of ten GAs in New York City, and its participants frequently attend more than one GA. Connections among the groups are fostered by expressive acts, often facilitated by social media.

The People’s Think Tank is one of the working groups operating within OWS, but its model has since been exported to other GAs, in Queens, the Bronx, Boston, and Washington, DC, with functionally equivalent working groups in many other Occupy sites. Like the movement as a whole, its structure and purpose have shifted dramatically since its institution. While the Think Tank can be described generally as a pedagogical tool for all participants, it can be defined more fully as a set of three overlapping functions. First and foremost, it “is a space in which all people have an equal voice to be heard on the issues that matter to them.”[24] This function has shifted dramatically since the November 15 eviction from Liberty Plaza (formerly Zuccotti Park), which spurred a series of “mobile Think Tanks” around the city, including actions at local museums. More recently, with the occupation of Union Square, SleepOnWallStreet, and Occupy Town Squares that pop up throughout the city, it has resettled to some extent. Although there is a fixed facilitator for each discussion, and although there is a shifting core of organizers, anyone who is participating in any given Think Tank is, according to the horizontal structure of Occupy, an equal participant regardless of how often they join Occupy actions or their level of knowledge on the topic. Second, Think Tank, in cooperation with the Labor Archive of the Tamiment Library at NYU, records and archives its discussions for future scholarly use and to provide a continuity to the working group despite regularly shifting membership.[25] Last, through its blog, the Think Tank makes the content of many of its discussions available to the public at large and provides links to scholarly research so that individual thoughts expressed within the discussion may be connected to a broader base of scholarly knowledge.[26]

The descriptions of Occupy as a whole and of the Think Tank in particular should suggest that they are infused with a common spirit, but I would also note the constituent difference that the GA requires consensus decisions to be made on issues that arise, whereas Think Tank aims at no final decisions on any of its topics of discussion. This determines some of their most basic organizational differences, especially the ways disputes are managed. I think the difference is in some ways analogous to the difference Collingwood makes between expressive and logical thought.  With expressive thought, the need for judgment (“between options X and Y, I take X to be the case”) is foregone, with logical thought it is definitive. Since Think Tank demands no final conclusions within its space on the matters at hand, it may be conceived as a correlate to expression. However, I would not take the comparison too far, as it is overly formal and may cause problems if read strictly. With more proper artistic expressions, there is some expectation of resolution (artists tend to say otherwise nowadays, but they still seem always to know when a piece is completed or not, even if it corresponds to no a priori notion of finish). This resolution implies a certain consistency among the parts.

With Think Tank, the discussion of any topic is comprised of a set of fairly discrepant positions and occasional tentative agreements, of which no consensus is demanded. Thus, the foregoing of judgment is imposed by its official structure, though not the natural property of the entity itself, as it would be with expressions. Despite these differences, there is at least a certain affinity between the two types of activities, and this has allowed Think Tank to engender certain expressive conclusions that have been made outside of its institutional borders. One of the most significant similarities is that the nature of the initiating topic is almost always changed over the course of the discussion, and rendered in a more concrete form. I will return to this issue below, when I consider the commensurability of art institutions and the activities they frame.

The more serious issue is the political problem that may arise if we take Think Tank, or Occupy as a whole, as in and of themselves artistic expressions. One might worry about my potentially aestheticizing politics. There are two main ways this contentious issue has been diagnosed as a problem. First and most famously, there is Walter Benjamin’s equation of it with fascism – to treat the destructiveness of war as a means of artistic gratification of sense perception, or, in other words, to expect from annihilation a supreme aesthetic pleasure.[27] A second major line of thinking, is that of George Kateb, who worries that by treating the whole of society as if it can pictured as one can picture the entirety of a work of art, one circumscribes legitimate political activity, thereby ostracizing any problematic alternatives.[28] Neither line of thought has much to worry from expression theory, and both Occupy’s prefigurative aim and the open-ended organization of Occupy’s practices – or, rather, Occupy’s prefiguration of a world where human interactivity is not circumscribed in advance – may be enlisted as proof of this. While expression may be called “configurative” (in the sense that it is what it is only when the materials that enable it are seen to have some level of consistency with each other), it is not exclusive of other expressions.[29] In fact, the very possibility of configuration implies a difference from other configurations.[30] So long as the accepted framework of institutions refuses to be known as a total configuration, and it is the core of Occupy to refuse this, then there is no threat from aesthetics, and expression will find its right place.

In claiming that Occupy allows us to reconsider the role that expressive interactivity, properly defined, can play in the constitution of the polity, I am suggesting that we can come to an understanding of how expressive action allows us to circumvent the problems that the attempted commodification of all forms of behavior poses to genuinely free interactivity. This is not to say that the amorphous set of institutions we call ‘“capitalism’” has no effect on expression – it is simply to say two things: first, that the sum of any given expression is not reducible to any given socioeconomic structure, and second, that a properly coordinated artistic practice feeds back into the more properly socioeconomic factors informing our world. As for the first, an extended argument may be warranted, but I hardly have space. I will ask only that we consider the ramifications of any reductionist conclusions by thinking about how the proponents of “capitalism” often eulogize it by tracing all goods in the contemporary world to capitalism itself (when Occupy first irrupted it was standard to ridicule its members for using computers to attack egregious wealth inequalities, as if the existence of computers was attributable only to the price of a share in Apple and therefore ultimately to capitalism). For the same reason they cannot honestly say that capitalism is an institution that is synoptic in its vision and omnipotent in its efficacy, responsible for any good thing in the world regardless of attributability, while at the same time claiming that capitalism is somehow not responsible for any ills even when they are directly attributable to it. Better to treat a diversity of social phenomena as a diversity of social phenomena, and from that standpoint of overt diversity, look for specific and attributable linkages. For the second, we may proceed from the first – if expression is not attributable solely to socioeconomic factors, if (dare I say it) there is some of the novelty in expressions that the enthusiasts of genius rested on when they said that art was its product, then it is not merely an epiphenomenal consequence of those factors.[31] And if expression is not merely epiphenomenal, then it is effective on them. But for what effects?

Members of the Occupy Wall Street People’s Think Tank on May Day 2012

3. Lost my job, found an Occupation

The question of art’s effect is answerable in a large number of ways. One of the most prevalent answers, and the one directly relevant to the issue at hand, starts with the supposition that the efficacy of art is limited a priori by the institutions that situate it and the individuals they enfranchise to make decisions about what constitutes it. This is a claim I would like to reverse – it is my contention that it is in the nature of expressions to underwrite our claims about the structure of individual institutions and their interrelations, and that this is even the case with institutions dedicated to the distribution of art. I do, however, acknowledge that institutions enable it to be seen and that, since expressions are made largely of other expressions,this is a significant factor in what kinds of art are likely to be made at a given time. My claim is drawn from the theory of expression as it has been described above.[32] The theory has often been mistaken as a foundationalist claim, and its accusers have some reason to think this, especially as Benedetto Croce, someone whom Collingwood idolized, put aesthetics at the beginning of his philosophy, in a position analogous to that of logic in the system of his own intellectual hero, G.W.F. Hegel.[33] I think interpreting this model of expression as foundationalist oversimplifies even Croce’s claims a bit, but Collingwood and Dewey’s claims are certainly only treatable this way if we conflate expression with raw sensation, something neither of them seemed to be sure could exist,and assume that raw sensation has been put at the bottom of all knowledge.[34] To say that thoughts and their concomitant actions rests on an initial expression of aims, when expressions are recognized as the purely differential events that they are, is to recognize the radical contingency of all thought and action. Any understanding of the institutions distributing expressions, even if it recognizes the material resistance of those institutions to any radical destabilization, itself rests on expression.[35]

My basic claim about the exhibition space is that it is wherever artistic expression happens. How do we know when it is happening? If we do not know, it is not happening. Certain cues tell us it might be happening, but an expression never fully happens until we come to an understanding of how its configuration of materials indicates some purpose. The fact that we have placed much of our art in white cubes for the last 60-odd years is largely contingent on artists’ having accepted this as a reasonable space for exhibition (and on their “accepting” it by making art that fit it in some or other way). Yet even this occurrence, which would seem to many people a paradigm case of acknowledging something as art, is a complex phenomenon, since the occurrence of expression is partially contingent on a work of art’s being accepted as expressive – not solely by being regarded as art but by being correctly interpreted (there is a difference between saying “that is art” and really knowing why it is so; the second seems to me to require a serious knowledge of the specific function of any work in question).

Arthur Danto has been the best articulator of the institutional theory of art. His account of expression theory, however, makes a fundamental mistake in assuming that its proponents thought of it as a translation from inner to outer experience, and that they thought a work of art somehow referred only to the (prefabricated) mind of its maker.[36] This misunderstanding is directly related to what I see as his mistaken understanding of how institutions function in the definition of art. The pluralistic concept of art acknowledges an indisputable fact about contemporary art that is also commensurate with one of the basic postulates of expression theory: that we no longer can say in advance of seeing any given work what a work of art should look like. Danto is unfairly criticized when his pluralistic theory of art is taken as a mirror of capitalist postmodernity; this type of claim rests on the vague formalism for which, below, I will also fault Danto’s model. Danto’s critics misrepresent him because what he claims about our concept of art is not equivalent to saying that all practices are equally good, a claim that would be formally similar to the free marketeer’s claim that no hierarchies may be made among individuals’ values so long as all values submit to the rules of law and free exchange. Danto has simply separated the problem of judging value from the problem of recognizing something as a work of art. But what some of his critics want from him does seem to me to be substantial – they presume that some forms are simply more valuable than others, and tie this valuation to their political efficacy. Danto errs by giving us an idea of how we recognize art that I think needs correction, not because it accepts all art as equally good, which it does not, but because it is too formal, and therefore as a definition offers no means of determining a canon of criticism. As Collingwood noted, the definition of a kind of thing ought to tell us how to recognize a good thing of that kind, and Danto’s model falls far short of this, with political consequences.

Before I turn to those consequences, I will focus on the question of how expressions constitute their context, and what that means for their political efficacy. We cannot say categorically whether the existence of any given work of art is linked to its exhibition site. In many cases, it is certainly true that it is inextricably linked to it, but those cases are determined entirely by the indexical relationship the given work has to its location – not all works are so indexical. Consider some examples: Hans Haacke’s MoMA Poll has no meaning outside the site of its exhibition, Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece has its full implications reduced by being moved from the Hospital of St. Anthony, the experience of Pablo Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon might be completely different if exhibited in a real brothel, and Jackson Pollock’s Number 1, 1948 would be different if displayed on the floor, but would not be seen as significantly different if shown in someone’s house as opposed to MoMA. This welter of examples serves to prove one thing: the very notion of the exhibition site is contingent on the structure of the work, and that what we commonly think of as institutional factors are only one part of anyone’s idea of that site.

Few people would deny this if pressed on it, but for some reason when we examine art institutions it is forgotten, and the institutional theory of art routinely ignores it. I would argue that the fact speaks to something greatly significant: our ability to construct an idea of art institutions requires that we at least consider in advance the possibility that the expressive objects they house may be understood in some form without them (or at least without an a priori idea of what they are). If we are going to continue to use the term “institution” as a vital part of any definition of expression, it is worth either reframing its meaning so that we acknowledge its only partial role in our interpretation of an expression, or redefining it so that we acknowledge that all institutions are primarily intellectual phenomena, even if they enable the distribution of those intellections’ material substrates. This counts doubly for anyone who conflates institutions, qua mental apparatuses allowing us to confer the status of “art” on some material (physical or otherwise), with institutions, qua legal and architectural apparatuses that allow us to house and move those objects.[37] Simply put, there is no reason to think that the legal institutions that house art are more fundamental to our explanation of the set of phenomena we think constitutes the art world than the set of objects we call works of art. Many things with art-status never reach these institutions, so any comprehensive attempt to explain that status should not put those institutions in a foundational place within the definition. Legal institutions like museums and galleries are not definable without reference to the things they house, but expressions are often discoverable far outside of such places. This should be taken all the more seriously when dealing with overtly interventional expressions, such as we find in Occupy – if agents aim to change their institutional circumstances, and if art is an instrument in this larger process, then it is necessary to reconceive the sites of art’s agency instead of relying on them as part of its definition. As institutions are (hopefully) being changed by art, it would not do to assume that they are static entities that could act as principles of a definition of art.

Danto assumes this to a great extent; he grants three periods to the history of the concept of art, but within each period,he seems not to be able to explain institutional change. In part, Danto could make his claim about philosophy and works of art because there was a model of artistic creation that confirmed much of what he had been saying.[38] He tends to focus on Warhol when arguing for the pluralistic conception, but this is really just a story told about the moment in his life when this idea occurred to him. After 1964, when he first wrote the essay “The Artworld,” Joseph Kosuth developed his conceptualist model, and this is an irruption that appeared to confirm the possibility of a model of art that had been gestating for a while and was partially evident in the Brillo Boxes.[39] Kosuth’s claims about conceptualism are implicit in many of the countermodels constructed to explain conceptualism, and have had a lasting resonance in artistic practices that have developed long after Conceptual Art was a dominant model.[40] Kosuth’s theory was simply expressed: “a work of art is a kind of proposition presented within the context of art as a comment on art… a tautology in that it is a presentation of the artist’s intention, that is, he is saying that that particular work of art is art, which means, is a definition of art… art’s ‘art condition’ is a conceptual state.”[41]

Despite its simplicity, Kosuth’s definition is either a misrepresentation based on a fallacy of composition or a complete fallacy altogether. Both Danto’s claims about contemporary art and Kosuth’s claims about the status of a conceptual work of art betray an excess of formalism, in the sense that they both ignore the active role material (physical or otherwise) concretion plays in expression – an ignorance born of an artificial separation of interior mental states and exterior physical reality[42] – thus Kosuth’s ability to speak of works of art as presentations of their artists’ intentions.[43] They inadvertently transcendentalize the agent who names a set of materials “art,” since the act of denomination as they describe it would circumscribe its materials, thereby rendering them ineffective for any sociotelic purposes.

The expressivist conception attends more seriously to the facts Danto and Kosuth wish to explain by treating what we might think of as moments of pure thought as moments in the act of bringing an idea to fruition, an act that is altogether prior to the possibility of intention understood in any meaningful sense.[44] Saying there is an idea “behind” the work and that the work is merely a delivery vehicle rests on the assumption that one creates a work of art before its physical execution. This is like asking whether someone who wrote a sentence wrote the sentence before it was written. One might fumble for words before completing the sentence, but it is not written until the words are put in order. Prior to that we do not have the sentence at all, and after that everything else is repetition.[45] To extend the metaphor,  if context changes meaning, it is to say that each sentence is a new sentence: even if the sounds comprising it are exactly the same, semantic application transforms it (it is actually to say even less, since “context” is not obvious and needs expressive formulation to be understood). So it goes with any work of art.

But elements of Danto’s explanation are almost certainly correct. So what to do with those? Previously I begged the question of semantics, but any expressivist account of it, even with   multiple volumes, would still leave problems unresolved.  Since the supposition is that each work has its own meaning, a full account of the diversity of semantic applications would have to take in every expression that ever irrupted. However, a few things may be said, if their insufficiency is taken under advisement. When I say “the semantic value” of a work, I am making a statement about the way a work purposively drives forth toward other factors indicated by its syntactical arrangement. In other words (and without the pseudo-Heideggerian phrasing), a certain arrangement of materials indicates a direction for our attention, whether this be a direction to follow out certain plans of action that would result in a concretion of physical materials (as in works by e.g. Sol LeWitt); to consider how arrangements of prepackaged data might form an image of a course of history into a possible future (as in works by e.g. Walid Raad); or to move mentally beyond a sensory material altogether (as in works by e.g. Wasily Kandinsky), etc. These directive materials make context by focusing attention on certain factors and away from others. This means that, in a sense, the purpose of any expression is to promise.

Rather than saying, “the semantic value of an expression is dependent on its context,” it is better to say, “the context of an expression is dependent on its semantic value.” As I said, context is not obvious, ever – it is a very ambiguous and unformed idea whose formation in and of itself constitutes an expression. A recursive sentence like “this sentence only refers to itself” is both text and context – it can be said at any time and place and neither time nor place will change, or change it. Some works aim to be more directly interventional, which is to say that some works include direct semantic reference to properties far beyond the immediate physical scope of the work, even beyond the legal limits of what they have title to. The difference between an overtly interventional expression and one that could be called context-independent (under a commonplace definition of context) is not determinable a priori. For example, compared to a work by Andrea Fraser, a work by Robert Motherwell may not seem concerned with reformulating the institutional conditions of artistic practice, but compared to a work by John Currin the case may seem different.[46] Nevertheless, for heuristic purposes it is reasonable to make the distinction – the art produced for Occupy has certainly aimed at a conscious revaluation of a whole set of institutions aiding in the distribution of expression.

The Semi-official Think Tank Symbol, Designed by Courtney Burke

4. …another world is possible

Often expressly interventional works become threats to their own ideal. The fervent desire to transform an institution, born of a sense of its injustice, leads to the simplification of thought and its concomitant action – all we do is cry “no” without proposing anything better. There are two threats that Occupy faces, and that working groups like the Think Tank may work to mitigate: on the one hand, an excess of formalism much like I criticized in the conceptualist model, and on the other, the potential to descend into the repeated platitudes we find coming from the Right.[47] These two threats are concomitants – the occasionally stated belief that all forms of interactivity should fit the molds of “horizontality” and “consensus process” turns an action with substantive aims (whatever the demands might be) into a purely formal procedure, into which any oversimplified, under-expressed demand might be placed. Were we successful in our aims, we might end up with a better distribution of wealth, but we would only replicate the structures that lead to its maldistribution in the first place – structures that imply an idea of a society composed only of atomized individuals seeking whatever their own personal aims might be without anything more than a passing regard for whether their neighbors obeyed the same procedures they did to achieve those aims.[48] We cannot afford to believe that we are prepackaged individuals who simply arrive at Occupy and participate in its neutral frameworks. We are an integral part of those frameworks, and they change with us as we become more conscious of our social purposes.

Occupy has made us deeply aware of the limits of the legal institutions we consider fundamental to our society and to the art world, and it has done so simply by showing that a powerful movement dedicated to reframing these things can arise in postmillennial America.[49] Occupy assaults the notion that “There Is No Alternative” with the notion that “We Are Unstoppable, Another World Is Possible.” This resonates most directly with artists, and I would contend that it is because they, more than any other kind of social regarded agent, are engaged in creating visions of possible worlds. As I have said throughout, Occupy is largely prefigurative, and many of the great works and movements of the modern art world, from Thoreau’s Walden to the present, are largely aimed at prefiguration. Occupy has mapped out the territory between more contemplative and more directly instrumental expression. It has put art in the service of theoretical reflection and group organization. The uses of art for May Day, organized through the “Call to Create,” have done both – they have coordinated action and prefigured potential futures for expressive labor.[50] The transformation of Zuccotti Park into Liberty Plaza by the organization of a community that enabled both directly interpersonal democratic interaction and medial connections to the larger polity itself constitutes something not unlike an interventional expression. The organization of its working groups, especially the Think Tank, mitigates the tendency of slogans used in these actions to turn into propaganda, because those groups reinvest the promises simplified in those statements in a living community planning for action – they open a space to figure out their meaning.

The Think Tank, then, is an institution (in a quite loose sense of the word) that permits expression to function. An unfortunate side effect of accepting the institutional theory elaborated by Danto is that it prevents us from acknowledging communicativity between expressions, effectively neutering their semantic capacity. The idea that there is a preexistent concept waiting to be applied to some set of data, especially if this is grounded on the supposition that we should do so because the artist “intended” for us to do so (which is to beg a major question), is a way of saying that when we view a work of art what we do is single it out from among a diversity of phenomena, cutting it off from communication with other phenomena. It is a way of saying that we are not involved in an interaction, but rather that we wholly and single-handedly impose an idea on dead matter,and at most hope to do so in a manner that accords with the concepts that made someone else put the matter in the order we found it.

This idea corresponds to Kant’s claims about how experience is formed by the application of a category to a set of phenomena.  Connecting it briefly to his moral theory may bring some of the problems of Danto’s (and Kosuth’s) formalism to light. One of Kosuth’s claims in the quote above is that any work of art implies a concept of what art is as such – a way of saying that any agent who makes art of a certain kind is implicitly stating that anything else that we want to count as a work of art would have to fit that concept. This is very similar to Kant’s categorical imperative, the claim that any maxim that accords with the moral law would have to be grantable to all rational entities whatsoever.  He thought this because he was trying to formulate a moral concomitant to the set of epistemological principles governing the appearance of phenomenal entities.  Much like his Critique of Pure Reason aimed to explain how we can know individual experienced objects, his Practical Reason aimed to explain how we can undertake individual moral acts, as any maxim was a claim to some specified and individual act. But the need to explain the individuality of moral acts led to theoretical difficulties. Kant was far more aware of the problems this posed to subsequent action: he recognized that, in certain conditions, the moral maxim might bring about a worse situation, however good the maxim might be. Take the hypothetical case of a banker who has acquired a large amount of money unjustly but legally from a charitable foundation. Because his actions were legal, we have no means of redressing the situation except stealing his money and giving it back to the people from whom he unjustly acquired it. But we cannot morally will under any circumstances the action of stealing, and, because we are directed to undertake this action of not-stealing, we cannot consider the future consequence that our act of stealing would allow the foundation’s future charitable acts to be achievable. Kant circumvented these kinds of problems by hypothesizing the “kingdom of ends,” in which all rational beings would be treated as ends in themselves, and where all moral acts would be achievable without interfering with other moral acts (that this was impossible in any real reality was not his concern).

Kant’s thinking has an analogue in the art theories of Danto and Kosuth. Their problematic inclination to treat “the art object” as an illustration of an idea (and the widely-held supposition that there is an ontological or epistemic difference between works of art with persistent substrates like paintings and those with ephemeral substrates like performances), leads to a problem that is (formally) similar to Kant’s, but they do not provide an answer like Kant’s. I would argue that they cannot. The idea of art as expression, exhibited however unconsciously in the actions taken by Occupiers, does not lead to problems like theirs. The reality in which expressions exist, and to which they give a form sufficient for conscious and deliberate action, is continuous, by way of leading through the initial impulse to formulate, through the set of acts of formulation, to the end reached by the formulation. The reality of conceptualists, and of artists who think “material” is more than a matter of duration, is not. Were it that we live in a reality in which a pile of dead matter could be brought to life simply by being denoted “art object,” or in a reality in which actions denoted “performances” were undertaken without enduring in any way, then those objects and performances would have no effect on subsequent experiences. And if they had no effect, then they would have no reason to be at all, political or otherwise.

If we have our way, Occupy will prove that we are capable of affecting the workings of institutions by way of expressing alternatives. All of the ideas I have used to exemplify the alternatives to the way art functions for Occupy unduly separate the content of the work from its embodiment. To argue against them is not to attempt a retrenchment of the “presentness” argument of Michael Fried – it is a much more simple claim that art is where it is, and that we are capable of experiencing it because we are already involved in its situation. Practitioners claiming that the concept “behind” a work can find multiple instantiations are retreating into a form of illustration, wherein an “inner” thought exists prior to its immanent embodiment in some specific and exigent “outer” material. Immediately relevant to the special practice of art, Occupy has promulgated the idea that effective ideas can only be embodied ideas,[51] yet embodiment may happen at physically disconnected times and places and still constitute a single acting body.[52] Most of the debates Fried’s work elicited, especially those over the difference between an object and a performance, have very little to do with Occupy, and taking one or the other side of the endless (and endlessly boring) debates about painting versus performance or conceptual art will just continue the problems it has meant to address. Repurposing materials is a long established method of creation, and theoretical reflection plays an inherent role in any well-planned action.  However, when artistic expression relies too heavily on the form of the found materials to stand in for a presupposed idea and the conceptual apparatus forms only in reference to a pre-expressed idea (both of these things happen in Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs, and in so much other post-conceptualist art), it runs the risk of retrenching modes of rather than destablizing them. Artistic action becomes a matter of the relocation of physical materials or mechanical illustration of prefabricated ideas, and makes no inroads toward reformulating the institutions it aims to critique. To the extent that the conceptual theory of art finds a correlate in the institutional theory of art, actively questioning the ideals holding together the various institutions that have organized our lives on the grounds of an excessive formalism threatens the notion that art is the illustration of a concept, in addition to threatening the institutions themselves.

As I said before, the People’s Think Tank functions as a correlate to expression, as an institution that enables its occurrence. If we allow the theory of expression to be instrumentalized in the way I have suggested – if we allow that a work of art’s syntactical structure enables its semantic direction such that it may bring about a new situation, and thereby constitute a new understanding of its agents’ self and their social environment – then we can see how expressions interact and what political effects that interaction may have. Any expression does have ramifications for materials beyond its immediate bounds (whether these be physical or otherwise); the conceptualists are right about this much. However, these are not categorical claims, in the sense I just described – they are not claims as to the ontological status of other objects, according to whether or not they fit the mold of the category appropriate for the claimant’s object. They are evaluative claims, in the sense that what we would ordinarily call the “content” of a work of art is a direction in which we move, based on our having accepted the terms set to us by the expression when we have a full understanding of what those terms mean. There is a tendency to think of evaluation as a claim to something’s being either good or bad, and this is true, but over-simple. Evaluation is a claim that we will act to bring into effect what we have valued. This could be anything – from the generation of a simple object (like building a chair), to the acknowledgment of another person’s autonomy, to the constitution of a new form of polity. We may be directed to these acts by any set of means. Expressions direct by simply drawing our attention to properties we may otherwise have overlooked, or to a better configuration of certain properties than we might find elsewhere in a similar form. Interventional expressions direct us to further action within the parameters made clear for us by the expression. And prefigurative interventional expressions like those that take place within Occupy direct us to present action that exemplifies what other, possible, better courses of action might be. To know a work of art as an expression is to know what it values, differentiating it from all other entities of its kind. In all cases, expressions constitute a claim on reality without actually imposing themselves on reality. Confronting one expression with another proposing an alternative does not exclude the first from continuing consideration – the semantics of expressions simply do not allow for one to “disprove” or in some other way demonstrate the possibility of another. They suggest, rather than demand, and to have provided a framework for such suggestions is, in a world where demands laid on us crush our capacity to act freely, a valuable thing.

To finish I will note that Occupy allows us to revive another, fairly forgotten concept that testifies to the political agency of expression, and to its ability to ground the reorganization of political institutions, including those that organize the art world. I think the most significant idea in Collingwood’s Principles of Art is his claim about the corruption of consciousness, and it is all the more significant in a world governed by mass media and its apotheosis, Fox News. Nothing testifies to the corruption of consciousness more than the popularity of Fox News – no other contemporary social phenomenon. We may argue that the number of its viewers is not as great as the left makes it out to be, or that Rupert Murdoch is only in it for the money; however, these are irrelevant. In a just society (in a just world) this kind of propaganda should not be acceptable to anyone. The problem as it applies to expression is this: expressions must be well-formed even to count as such. One may be forgiven for the failure fully to express any notion, but not for the unwillingness to work toward doing so, and certainly not for actively producing that unwillingness simply for financial gain or political power. Propaganda is exactly that: falsifying reality by simplifying it in order to frame easy answers for other people’s digestion. Art has the instrumental function of fighting against propaganda simply by being what it is. By claiming that expression has an instrumental function, I am not trying to retreat to the “technical theory of expression” that Collingwood disavowed.[53] I am suggesting that, qua activity, expression is on a par with political action under certain circumstances. It may be even more than an aid to it – it may be a constituent of it. That this may be read as a practical means of redressing a dire situation is simply the result of our own situation, in which the corruption of consciousness calls for the expressive annihilation of a regressive, cliché-ridden ideology.[54] It may purge “a civilization rotten with amusement,”that considers people’s life worth preserving only when they subject themselves to a constrained normativity based on a totally uninformed reading of the history of the United States. The preeminent practical problem that Occupy must solve, as I see it, is the development of a moral language to fit our new circumstances, and the concomitant dissolution of the immoral language of selfish individualism. That language has grown stale, if it was ever even legitimate in the first place, and its staleness stifles our ability, as Collingwood put it, to “create language as we go along.”[55] The expressive contribution of the People’s Think Tank and of Occupy as a whole is to create a model of what a community dedicated to full expression should look like. That this has taken place outside of official institutions says a lot about those institutions.

[1]  I would like to thank my fellow Occupiers, especially my fellow Think Tankers: Brittany Anderson, Hannah Chadeayne Appel, Aaron Bornstein, Courtney Burke, Ingrid Burrington, Lily Defriend, Fred Derilus, Stephanie Johnstone, Nina Mehta, Christian Mejia, Richard Muhammed, Ying Que, Marie Sevy, Emily Sogn, Tim Weldon, and Stan Williams. I apologize in advance if my listing your names here gets you into trouble with the authorities once they begin the clampdown.

[2]  R.G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art (first published 1938, reprinted by Oxford University Press, 1958), 325 and 330. Hereafter cited as “Collingwood, PA #”

[3] Dewey, Art as Experience (1934), reprinted in John Dewey, The Later Works 1925-1953, vol. 10, ed. Boydston (Southern Illinois University Press, 1989), 34. All references to Dewey’s works are taken from the aforementioned series John Dewey, The Later Works 1925-1953 and are hereafter cited by their titles followed by “LW, Vol. #, p. #”

[4] Dewey, The Public and Its Problems, LW, Vol. 2, 361

[5] It is a matter of debate whether Occupy is a “social movement” at all, at least in any traditional sense. The four chief indicators of a social movement outlined by the political scientist Charles Tilly – worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment – do not all equally apply to Occupy in the way that they did to e.g. the Labor Movement or the Civil Rights Movement; see Tilly, Social Movements, 1768-2004 (Paradigm, 2004). As for the role of artistic expression in other social movements, it seems to me that the only other major radical agents of the twentieth century that gave it a role equal to that given by Occupy are the soixant-huitards, and Tilly’s WUNC categories do not strictly apply to them either. As for Occupy’s prefigurative status, it seems significant that one of the main arguments for the prefigurative status of the earlier movements that have fed Occupy was included in a discussion of the phenomenology of the street puppets that have always been found at demonstrations; see David Graeber, “On the Phenomenology of Giant Puppets,” in Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire (AK Press, 2007).

[6] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (eds. Griffin and Sherburne (The Free Press, 1978); Whitehead expressed infinite respect for Dewey. I am often struck by how central a modified version of Whitehead’s concept of the “actual entity” might be for a theory of art.

[7] Both Collingwood and Dewey, for different reasons, regard consciousness in the way I have described; see Collingwood, PA 195-254; for Dewey we find proof in his basic philosophical claim that all interaction institutes a shift in consciousness. Despite being a subtle interpreter of other philosophers, Arthur Danto represents their work in this way, and uses his claims to set up his own interpretation of art, which I will address below. This misinterpretation is somewhat reasonable, given the alternative interpretation of expression given by figures like Wassily Kandinsky at the roughly the same time as Collingwood and Dewey, but it is insensitive to their meaning. It also, to some extent, betrays an ignorance of the deep concern many figures in the period showed for the ways the structure of ordinary language, whose sentences are structured around the relation between a subject and a predicate, prevents us from expressing a more complex understanding of subjectivity as something fully involved in the situations of its own expression. This concern was a centerpiece of Whitehead’s Process and Reality (30 et passim), but is also found in various forms throughout Dewey’s work (see e.g. the discussion of “situations” and “interactions” Experience and Education, LW, Vol. 13, 24-27), and is discussed by Collingwood at PA 259.

[8] Dewey began Art as Experience with an analysis of the effects of prevailing economic conditions on the institutions exhibiting art. His earlier and later works The Public and Its Problems, LW, Vol. 2 (1927) and Freedom and Culture, LW, Vol. 13 (1938) were both concerned with the practical value of art in defining communal needs and aspirations, especially in light of the debilitating effects of mass media (The Public and Its Problems was a direct response to Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion (1922), which coined the term “the manufacture of consent”).

[9] Some of the more recent philosophers whose work has derived from pragmatism, like Nelson Goodman, have put this kind of idea at the center of their philosophies; see e.g. Ways of Worldmaking (Hackett Publishing, 1978). Goodman’s claims might strike some as too idealist and possibly too individualist, but if he is read through the work of his teacher C.I. Lewis, who placed a quasi-Kantian idealism on pragmatist grounds (see Mind and the World Order (Dover Publications, 1956), esp. chs. IV and IX), he may look different.

[10] Modern theories of selfhood have been far more diverse than their detractors have conceded, and most major philosophers have not subscribed to the idea that the self is static, prefabricated, or transcends its social circumstances – Dewey certainly denied this (see e.g. both versions of the Ethics and Freedom and Culture), as did F.H. Bradley, Henri Bergson, William James, A.N. Whitehead, Martin Heidegger, and Gilbert Ryle. Collingwood explicitly states that expression is the act of making oneself, and not an act of denoting a prefabricated self, at 292, and counters the claim of “individualism” by arguing that expression is a thoroughgoingly collective act at 316-318. Richard Rorty seems to have finally drawn the conclusion that, on pragmatist grounds, we should scrap the distinction between “inner” and “outer” altogether; see Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton University Press, 1979), passim.

[11] See e.g. 248-251 and 314-320. His encomium to plagiarism at 320 is especially good. Lest there be any confusion, he states directly at 324 “The aesthetic activity… is a corporate activity belonging not to any one human being but to a community.” Collingwood’s claims about painting at 302-305 to the effect that the painting itself (meaning the canvas with paint on it) is not the work of art should be read in terms of 290-293, where he states that any expression simultaneously creates both the self and the world in generating the consciousness of both from raw material. Given the philosophical vocabulary we have available to us since Whitehead and Gilles Deleuze, I agree with Rorty that we should simply drop the terms “inner” and “external,” or at least move them from the center of debate (Charles Taylor has made a forceful case for their maintenance in Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992)). This would naturally bring up new theoretical problems, e.g. the question of where to mark any individual expression off from other ways of interacting with the world, but we would at least eliminate the rhetorical problems involved in justifying expression theory to skeptics of selfhood.

[12] See especially Experience and Nature, LW, Vol. 1, 174: “…the intervening insertion of a transcendental ego remains a plague. It isolates the community of selves from natural existence and in order to get nature again in connection with mind, is compelled to reduce it to a system of volitions, feelings, and thoughts.”

[13] Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics (Continuum, 2004), 12-17 and Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (Continuum, 2010), ch. 10 et passim.

[14] Collingwood recognized the relations between his claims and the psychoanalysts’, and also stated at many points in PA that his idea of active consciousness was related to Spinoza’s.

[15] I think it is important to note that individuality is a subject of debate – while its virtues are taken for granted in much of popular life, and certainly presumed by libertarians, there is a large body of thought even outside of radical circles that sees it as an excess and a misrepresentation of human agency. There are many centrist thinkers that have much to say to radicals on this issue, such as Seyla Benhabib (in The Claims of Culture, Princeton University Press, 2002), Michael Sandel (in Democracy’s Discontent, Belknap, 1996), and Charles Taylor (in “Language and Human Nature,” in Philosophical Papers, Vol. 1, Cambridge University Press, 1985) and The Ethics of Authenticity (Harvard University Press, 1992).

[16] I believe this is the case even when we deal with the ostensibly unformed materials we find in the series of works that stems from Robert Morris through Jason Rhoades, since the choice to locate materials in any way constitutes a human intervention in their supposedly natural process – these works may not have taken a form that an Abstract Expressionist would have regarded as being formed, but neither did the Abstract Expressionist make works that an Impressionist would have regarded as being formed.

[17] Of course this was something that was said about “dematerialized” conceptual art in the 1970s; I will have more to say on certain conceptualist models below. For now, I would like to qualify. Lucy Lippard suggested that conceptual art tried to resist commodification by dematerializing its object status, and to some extent I think she is mistaken – all art whatsoever does this. That is not to say that the physical objects that we regard as the material supports for art cannot be sold. Any “object,” qua spatially or temporally circumscribed occurrence, is capable of having a price put on it, as Lippard and others discovered (see Alexander Alberro, Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity, MIT Press, 2004 for the drama of this discovery). The question is what kind of events resist such circumscription, which, for art and other entities, entails the question of whether two kinds of event can occur in the same circumscribed space and time. Obviously I cannot answer this in full. I will simply suggest that, if “object” means “the end I have in view” rather than “this dead, circumscribed thing in front of me,” and if I share a common world with a variety of agents vying to accomplish their ends within it, then I may see a work of art precisely where another person sees a potential piece of property.

[18]  Occupy Museums’ “About” page on their site suggests that they would have us ask the same question: “Art and culture are part of the commons. Art is not a luxury item. However, many art and cultural museums are currently run by and for the 1%. Economic interests dictate what art is accessible, successful, and desirable. …” (accessed 4/23/2012). To have said that art is something separate from the dictates determining its accessibility is effectively to say that it is not constituted by the spaces that make it accessible.

[19] Dewey, Art as Experience, LW Vol. 10, pp. 12-17 et passim Collingwood, PA, 300-324.

[20] In addition to its own interventions, Arts & Labor has staged teach-ins with longer-established arts activist groups like Gran Fury.

[21] To quote the press release for their intervention at Frieze: (accessed 4/23/2012). This was brought home to me at Frieze, where I saw works by artists like Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger that directly assaulted the institutions and practices that undergird the accumulation of the attendees’ wealth and no one seemed to mind – only if they weren’t concerned with the actual expression would these works be acceptable to many of them.

[22] Where this is understood in the sense Judith Butler aptly defined it, as something included in a longer list of demands that gives no explanation for the concrete connections among them and as something given to an opposing party whose existence is legitimized by their being appealed to.  Judith Butler, “So, What Are the Demands? And Where Do They Go from Here?,” Tidal: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy, Issue 2 (March 2012), pp. 8-11. The claims made by Johann Kaspar in “We Demand Nothing” (Fire in the Prisons, Issue 7, Autumn 2009) are related – the demand gives the sign of an end to the activities of the persons making it. Again, our activities are ongoing, and our expressions are indications of the world we would bring into effect, not the satisfaction of limited aims in the world as it is given to us.

[23] The proposal for the OWS Spokes Council can still be found on the NYCGA’s website:

[24] To quote its promotional flyer.

[25] The materials have not yet been collated, but presumably they will be found on the archive’s website eventually: . Some recorded discussions are currently available on the Think Tank’s website:

[27] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility (second version),” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol. 3, 1935-1938, eds. Eiland and Jennings (Belknap, 2002), 122.

[28] Kateb’s claim is somewhat similar to Benjamin’s, except that he argues that the real problem of the aestheticization of politics is the harm it does to the individual autonomy undergirding liberal democratic theory, since any individual who does not fit the profile drawn by the pictured nation is at best marginalized, and at worst murdered. George Kateb, Patriotism and Other Mistakes (Yale University Press, 2006), xvi-xxi et passim. I have included Kateb because he does more than Benjamin did to get to one of the roots of the problem. While the treatment of societies as a totality is far more prevalent on the right, the left is occasionally guilty as well – for example. the Invisible Committee’s pamphlet The Coming Insurrection is replete with images of this kind of imagery.

[29] As I will argue below, this is not to say that expressions do not indicate directions we might take to change the structure of the polity.

[30] We usually go to Saussure through Derrida for a confirmation of this, but it is also the most basic implication of pragmatist theory – experience as a whole is not framable, and thus it is only intelligible when certain consistencies that we call experiences are selected from out of it by agents undertaking actions. Richard Rorty once said (I am paraphrasing) that everything we want out of poststructuralism we can get from Dewey, but without the baggage. I think this is true. We seem to want a world consisting of “difference,” and Derrida et al have provided it by drawing a synoptic picture of a subject who knows itself as difference. Dewey, and I think also Collingwood, in saying that organisms and environments were functions of situations whose totality was unknowable if it exists at all, simply gave us difference, without a subject to know it unless difference wants a subject! At bottom, the demand for perpetual difference ends up homogenizing our procedures when operating in the world.

[31] In coming to this conclusion, I am begging the question of whether the world is escapable, but I could not possibly prove that it is not. I simply assume that all activities whose ineffable and uncountable sum comprises the world affect the world by definition.

[32] This is an adaptation of Goodman’s claim in Ways of Worldmaking, and it is sanctioned by the concluding section to Collingwood’s PA.

[33] See Benedetto Croce, Aesthetic: As Science of Expression and General Linguistic, trans. Ainslie (Noonday Press, 1922), esp. pp. 22-31 and G.W.F. Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, Part I: Logic, trans. Wallace (Oxford University Press, 1975). That Hegel considered the Phenomenology of Spirit to be an induction into philosophic thinking seems to have encouraged Croce.

[34] Collingwood, PA 160-168 and Dewey, Experience and Nature, LW Vol. 1, 246.

[35] Implied in the previous statements on configuration.

[36] See Danto, “The End of Art,” in The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (Columbia University Press, 1986). Collingwood explicitly addresses the innate interfusion of mind and body throughout PA, e.g. 246. Dewey’s basic pragmatic supposition that thought and action cannot be separated implies their interconnection.

[37] Philosophers who are proponents of the institutional theory are not quite this unsubtle – see e.g. George Dickie, “Defining Art,” American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 3 (July 1969), p. 254 – but they still treat the expressive status of the work as if it is a single-handed conferral of a name on some external set of material, and assume the authority to confer is granted by legal institutions, something I am disputing here.

[38] See Danto, After the End of Art (Princeton University Press, 1997); he presumes it must have happened in order for us to have the new concept of art, but does not explain why it does other than by reference to a vague completion of the concept of art modeled on a dialectic.

[39] Danto says as much in After the End of Art, 13ff.

[40] E.g. in Sol LeWitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art, which otherwise presents a model of conceptual art that is much more commensurate with expression theories (e.g. in sentences 7 or 22), says “ideas can be works of art; they are a chain of development that may eventually find some form” (as if there were anything worth calling an idea that had yet to be formed) and “once the idea of the piece is established in the artist’s mind and the final form is decided, the process is carried out blindly” (as if the establishment of an idea and its information are different things, and as if form is something “decided” in a manner similar to the way we decide what to wear in the morning). Both of these beliefs allow him also to say “the work of art may be understood as a conductor from the artist’s mind to the viewer’s” (as if the mind were a purely internal state with no materials, but to which materials could be appended and somehow transport the mental state).

[41] Joseph Kosuth, “Art After Philosophy,” first printed in Studio International (October, 1969). Danto finds common ground with Kosuth on the issue of a work of art’s also being a definition of art as such in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (Harvard University Press, 1981), 148-149.

[42] This formalism is sometimes carried to absurd ends, like when it is said, based on the ostensibly “critical” ambitions of conceptual art and their contemporaneity with radical movements in the 60s, that they are somehow engaged in the same project as these – this pays no attention to the specific aims of the radicals, let alone the dire threats to their lives that were always posed and often realized.

[43] I am not sure why Danto rejects the idea of intention in “The End of Art” (op cit) but allows the rest of Kosuth’s suppositions to stand.

[44] Even if I were to concede that an artist sat down and said “I intend to make a work of art,” I would find it difficult to believe that her or his “intention” to do so was not spurred by an already-begun process of expression. Very few artists have successfully attempted to sit down and produce art without any idea of what they planned to do whatsoever.

[45] From here it is not far to the idea that the act of “creation” (which I presume would in these terms mean some sort of dead material phenomenon that transports what is the real work of art) has no feedback effect on subsequent stages of working.

[46] David Craven went a long way toward saving Motherwell’s good name in the wake of Serge Guilbaut’s onslaught. See Craven, Abstract Expressionism as Cultural Critique: Dissent During the McCarthy Period (Cambridge University Press, 1999).

[47] Who have literally (and shockingly) been repeating the same stupid platitudes for fifty, even eighty, years (see Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion, Basic Books, 1995, esp. chs. 9 and 10 and Thurman Arnold, The Folklore of Capitalism (Transaction Publishers, 2010), introduction to the 1962 edition et passim).

[48] Robert Nozick demonstrated how even a purely proceduralist society that fulfilled the minimal conditions of Pareto efficiency when it was first instituted would naturally end up with a distribution of wealth that the more socially-minded would decry. See Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Basic Books, 1974), esp. 162-164.

[49] We should be aware that Occupy is not simply an American movement, and has responded to movements in other countries, especially during the Arab Spring. But we should also be aware that one of the great benefits of Occupy is that it has shown a large portion of the American populace, who are not usually prone to think their institutions can change or even need changing, that this is indeed the case.

[51] Dewey’s warning in 1938 is incredibly prescient: “No matter how uniform and constant human nature appears in the abstract, the conditions within which and upon which it operates have changed so greatly since political democracy was established among us, that democracy cannot now depend upon or be expressed in political institutions alone. We cannot even be certain that they and their legal accompaniments are actually democratic at the present time—for democracy is expressed in the attitudes of human beings and is measured by the consequences produced in their lives. (Freedom and Culture, LW vol. 13, 151, emphasis added)” In the wake of feminism there has grown a much greater body of literature on the affectations appropriate to free interaction – see esp. Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Indiana University Press, 1994) and Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter (Routledge, 1993). However, recent explicit attention to the issue should not make us overlook the long tradition of philosophic and sociological thought that has considered the quasi-material sociogenesis of intellectual institutions, from Marx through Thorstein Veblen to Norbert Elias.

[52] Much of today’s archival art would obviously fit this description.

[53] Collingwood, 262-263.

[54] Ibid., 278.

[55] Ibid., 275.

*Evan Neely is a Core Lecturer/Lecturer in the Discipline of Art History at Columbia University.