Disobedient Cultures: Art, Politics, and Resurgent Hope

Malcolm Miles


When political change is remote the only prospect for change is in the realm of imagination. Herbert Marcuse responds to this in his last book, The Aesthetic Dimension (1978) after the failure of revolt in Paris in 1968. He argues that although art cannot change the world as such it can change how the world is apprehended. Thus art’s imaginative potential is part of a wider pursuit of freedom. The paper argues that the situation is bleaker today than in the 1970s. Neoliberalism enforces a regime of consumerism even more now than then, and operates globally. Still, hope reappears in direct action from the anti-roads campaigns of the 1990s to anti-capitalism in the 2000s and Occupy in 2011-12 (after a much longer history of direct action). Today’s direct action and campaigning is specific, however, in addressing the trajectory of global capital. It also accepts its own ephemerality—leading Occupy to reject the processes of representation and issue no programme, instead inviting people to be present among others of like mind in the effective creation of a new society within the old. The paper asks to what extent art remains part of this picture of radical alterity, and whether Marcuse’s critical aesthetics remain helpful. Among issues raised are Marcuse’s Enlightenment view of art as autonomous creativity (rather than contingent on production within an art-world); a blurring of the divide between art institutions and the cultures of protest, as in the exhibition Disobedient Objects in London in 2014; and that appropriation may be art’s perpetual burden.


contemporary art; critical theory; cultural institutions; protest; radical politics

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.13185/2831