Divagation on “activism” in aesthetics and politics

From a forthcoming review

Image: Cover to Lajos Kassák’s
Ma: Aktivista folyóirat (1924)


Excerpted and partially excised from a generally much more favorable review of Ben Davis’ Art and Class, a very worthwhile read. Some of this material strayed a little too far off course to be included.

The one glaring weakness of Ben Davis’ recent collection 9.5 Theses on Art and Class is its conflation of activism and politics. Of course, Davis is not alone in considering them more or less identical. For many who joined the antiwar movement of the mid-2000s, protest marches were the default mode of political participation. Much of Davis’ frustration with the self-important posturing of “radical” artists stems from this formative experience.

Early on in Art and Class, he recalls an exchange he had with an artist during this period. After conversing for a while about their shared opposition to the Iraq invasion, they each agreed to attend the next chapter meeting of the ANSWER coalition in New York. When the artist failed to show, Davis followed up only to find out that he’d spent his evening in front of an easel instead. The artist apparently informed him that “his painting…was his contribution to making the world a safer place.”[1] Needless to say, Davis was nonplussed by this explanation. Wondering what might lead someone to supply such a dubious alibi, he decided to submit the very idea (or, more accurately, the ideology) of “aesthetic politics” to further scrutiny. Upon closer inspection, he concludes that “[a]s a critical trope, ‘aesthetic politics’ is more of an excuse not to be engaged in the difficult, ugly business of nonartistic political activism than it is a way of contributing to it.”[2] Repeatedly Davis expresses his consternation at this state of affairs, finding most answers to the problem of art and politics wanting. Worse yet, he alleges, the question is no longer even asked: “The question of what, if any, relation artists might have to activism has receded into the background.”[3]

Vietnam War protesters in Wichita, Kansas (1967)

Vietnam War protesters in Wichita, Kansas (1967)

Painting pictures, it may well be conceded, will never abolish capital or bring war to an end. No matter how poignant, captivating, or well-crafted a particular work of art might be, it is unlikely to produce such an effect. The question that must be posed to Davis, however, is whether “activism” is capable of achieving what art cannot. Why did the occupations of Vietnam and Iraq come to an end, after all? Was it due to the continued activism of domestic antiwar movements? Perhaps. But the troop withdrawals could just as easily have been motivated by simple economic exhaustion — immediately exacerbated by the respective crises of 1973 and 2008, for example — as the wars’ unpopularity. Davis points out that “the 2003 invasion of Iraq was preceded by the largest coordinated demonstrations in human history.”[4] Nevertheless, the civilian administrations leading the US and British forces went ahead with their planned aggression anyway. What measurable impact did these demonstrations actually have?

Ironically, the concept of “activism” goes back farther in the history of aesthetics than in the history of politics. Aktivismus was originally associated with the Berlin literary magazine Die Aktion, first published in 1911 to promote Expressionism in the arts and loosely Social Democratic politics. Franz Pfemfert and Kurt Hiller, its main editors, parted ways after 1913. The former was later briefly Bolshevized, while the latter remained a left-liberal pacifist and founded his own activist current around the journal Das Ziel [The Goal]. Lajos Kassák started a parallel project in Budapest with the periodicals A Tett [Action] in 1915 and Ma [subtitled Aktivista folyóirat, or “activist feuilleton”] 1916, adding Futurist and Dadaist elements to the mix. Kassák and the Activists of the Hungarian avant-garde aligned themselves for a season with Béla Kun’s short-lived Soviet government in 1919 before breaking decisively with Bolshevism thereafter.

Cover to an early issue of Die Aktion (1913)

Cover to an early issue of Die Aktion (1913)

Politically speaking, the significance of such “activism” was thus largely indeterminate. Walter Benjamin famously castigated Hiller, “the theoretician of Activism,” for epitomizing the German bourgeois Left. Benjamin argued in a 1934 speech that “Activism attempted to replace materialist dialectics by the notion of ‘common sense,’ a notion that in class terms is unquantifiable…In other words, the very principle on which this collective [the Activists] is formed is reactionary.”[5] Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky — whose work Davis regards as canonical — would have found the word [Aktivismus, активизм] unintelligible, especially with respect to their own politics. Nowhere does it appear in the writings of the founders. Lenin only mentions “activists” [активисты] after 1918, and mostly then in connection with certain Menshevik factions that were “actively” opposed to Soviet power. Even when he’d use roughly equivalent terms like деятели [often translated as “activists,” more literally “doers”], Lenin’s usual attitude was derisive. He referred, to give just one example, to “some local ‘activists’ (so called because they are inactive).” These figures understood themselves as revolutionaries, not “activists.”


[1] Davis, Ben. “How Political are ‘Political Aesthetics’?” 9.5 Theses on Art and Class and Other Writings. (Haymarket Press. Chicago, IL: 2013). Pg. 63.
[2] Ibid., pg. 72.
[3] Davis, Ben. “What Good is Political Art in Times Like These?” 9.5 Theses on Art and Class and Other Writings. (Haymarket Press. Chicago, IL: 2013). Pg. 46.
[4] Davis, “How Political are ‘Political Aesthetics’?” Pg. 65.
[5] Benjamin, Walter. “The Author as Producer.” Translated by Michael W. Jennings. Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927-1934. (Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA: 2003). Pg. 773.

4 thoughts on “Divagation on “activism” in aesthetics and politics

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