Rethinking “critical art”: reflecting on Renzo Martens’ Institute for Human Activities

RM_Emery Muhamba working on Self Portrait 2

Guest writer Aleid de Jong is a Dutch art historian and wrote a smart piece about Renzo Marten’s project Institute for Human Activities. Martens is an artist to follow. With his background in political science and various art schools he creates engaging projects. Institute for Human Activities is a project attached to the University of Yale and carried out in Congo, talking about poverty and the role of art in this. But is the artist totally unbiased about it? Nope, says Aleid. Find out why in this in depth article, and you’ll be up-to-date about critical art, autonomous art, and Tony Chocolonely.

Recently, Dutch artist Renzo Martens won the ‘Best accomplishment’ category in the Amsterdamprijs voor de Kunst (the Amsterdam Prize for the Arts). The jury lauded him for realizing “the most contradictory things in a charismatic and intelligent way”. Some say the sense of unease and annoyance that one experiences when confronted with Martens’ projects, is not only fully intentional, but commendable. This claim of deliberate obnoxiousness automatically disqualifies any questions or comments regarding the work; if you think it is problematic or lacking in certain respects, you just “missed the point” of what he is doing, or you are accused of misrepresenting the goals that an individual project aims for. This is a shame, because Martens’ opinions on critical or socially engaged art combined with the paradoxical nature of his own practice provide us with an interesting motivation to continue the debate on the potential of artistic critique. A closer look at the discrepancies within and around the project Institute for Human Activities might clarify this position.

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Some months ago, on May 26, Renzo Martens sat down with Ellen Blumenstein, curator of KW Institute of Contemporary Art, to discuss his project Institute for Human Activities (IHA) in which he addresses the so-called ‘gentrification process’, which is the emergence of fancy coffee shops, cafés and yuppie families as a side effect of the settlement of galleries and art institutions. He transposes the process from the prosperous West to a former Unilever plantation in Congo. He does this by setting up an art center in Congo where Congolese artists create cacao sculptures that are intended to get sold in the West. Martens’ goal is to shift the enormous money flows accompanied by the infrastructure of the art world towards a place where they are actually needed.

Critique at “critical art”

The project The Matter of Critique, a collaboration between Renzo Martens and KW, shows the cacao sculptures made by Congolese artists as part of the IHA. According to Martens, the title Matter of Critique refers to the fact that most critical art in the West has poverty, exploitation and global inequality as its subjects, but does not undertake real action to solve these problems. People discuss these issues every day at conferences, in articles and during “participatory” and “interdisciplinary” art projects, but no one ever visits the places themselves in order to change the situation. Martens tries to breach the passivity of the art world, by putting theory into practice; by actually traveling to Congo himself to set up a project which could change the lives of the local population and thereby to increase the merit of “critical art”. In this case, Matter of Critique is more than just a reference; it literally embodies that which triggers critique itself.

Getting art out of its shell

Although it is hard to criticize the fact that Martens is trying to help people from suffering every day, there seems to be a contradiction in his work. During the artist talk Martens mentioned that art has to “get out of its shell”. He himself is allowing art to do this by replacing intellectualism with action, by using the realm of art as a haven, not only for critical reflection but for critical action as well. Martens compared this free zone of art with the more or less traditional conception of autonomous art – a viewpoint that has been refuted numerous times by artists and theoreticians, especially from the sixties onward. Mostly because of its tendency to approach art merely as an aesthetic object, without bounds with the real world. An aesthetic object suitable for purchase by museums and art institutions in order to fill up the sterile white walls of their exhibition spaces. Martens criticizes exactly this way of dealing with art; the passiveness of an art world which, although it attempts to critique current economic systems, still holds on to the idea of art as a way to generate money, jobs and opportunity and which still, as he phrased it during the artist talk, “shows the art works on clean white walls” – just like it has been done in the last five decades of the twentieth century.

The notion of “autonomous art” was often associated with the modern Western museum setting for looking at art, based on the aesthetic distancing and formal and stylistic appreciation. Especially in the sixties and seventies many critics and artists criticized this approach towards art, such a Peter Bürger with his text Theory of the Avant-Garde, writers of the art journal October and artists like Yoko Ono.

Institute for Human Activities: autonomous art from Congo

It seems contradictory to apply the notion of “autonomous art” together with the call for art to get out of its shell, out of its entrenched position within galleries, art collections and intellectual ravel. Isn’t the perceived autonomy of art an introverted “shell” in and of itself? How could art for the sake of art, ‘pure art’ so to say, stimulate the restructuring of the essence of art as something with the power to change social-political structures as well? The explanation is to be found here: Martens actually uses the economic system that 1.) forms the basis out of which global inequality emerged in the first place and 2.) accommodates art objects with a profoundly monetary approach and valuation. Although this allows him to skip ineffective proven intellectual reflection in order to go into immediate action, he sticks to a very capitalist idea of ‘art’, namely that it is an aesthetic money bringing object mostly exhibited in the white cubes of our time. The sculpture models the Congolese artists designed and created as part of the IHA project are being executed as cacao sculptures in Europe, exhibited in white exhibition spaces and intended to get sold – pretty much similar to the idea of “autonomous art”. Martens thus uses the notion of autonomous art to make his project possible, while the verbal presentation of his project actually criticizes its paraphernalia. This points out a discrepancy in the way Martens presents and explains his work.

Inequality that art can’t solve?

It seems to me that Martens uses the term autonomy of art to explain the influential position he has as an artist to realize his project and to make it work: to cash some money for the inhabitants of the former Unilever plantation. But in this way nothing, except for the fact that the sculptures are designed by Congolese citizens living on a former Unilever plantation, confronts the European audience with the fact that their nations actually contribute to the global inequality which makes this project necessary. It even allows them to buy off their sense of guilt by buying one of the sculptures the Congolese population made without giving it further thinking about the exploitative economic system we are all part of.

The project deconstructs, but only to an extent. By using existing structures, reversing their power and thereby making the ‘victims’ of capitalism for once benefit from it, Martens exposes economic structures but doesn’t give an insight in how they exist. In this way the issue of global inequality is shown, but might be a bit more difficult to solve than is presented by IHA. For example, while gentrification here is treated as a phenomenon which directly improves the financial situation of local inhabitants of the gentrified places, in reality most of the original inhabitants of places where gentrification occurs are forced to move out of their neighbourhoods due to increasing rents and expensive living costs. The development of New York and Berlin neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Prenzlauer Berg for example, force low income families to move to other outskirts of the city due to increasing rents. The parties that actually benefit from gentrification remain the municipal or national authorities. The issue Martens is dealing with, global inequalities, thus not only has to do with unequal money flows but also with the power relations which function as vectors of these flows.

(Sources: Observer & The Guardian)

Ways to tap into non-Western societies

For someone who pleas for an activated, emancipated role of art in society, Renzo Martens seems to have quite a limited view of art’s political agency. While blasting current economic systems, Martens is stuck on cynicism; by displacing existing economic structures he merely shows people that the structures are there. Compared to other artists that contribute to the discourse of art as a critical entity, he does little to change the status quo from inside art. Jonas Staal for example – another Dutch politically engaged artist – shows us the possibilities for art’s potential to change. In an interview with Joost de Bloois and Ernst van den Hemel about the influence of philosopher Alain Badiou on his work, Staal explains that at the beginning of his career his artistic practice was mostly focused on deconstructing and disrobing socio-political assumptions. However, after reading Badiou he realised that after deconstruction only construction can make art have an effect on society.  This incited him to look for art’s potential to construct new political spaces and alternatives to the democratic system as it is currently executed. Furthermore, in her manifest ‘Political Art Statement’ the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera states that political art should be “intervening in the process that is created after people think the art experience is over.”By which her art enters the daily nature of her spectators. Staal and Bruguera thus try to think of an alternative to the socio-political and economical parameters in which issues like global inequality exist – in which art exists. Whereas Martens actually imposes Western values to Congolese citizens.

(sources: Joost de Bloois en Ernst van den Hemel, ‘’De Wereld is de eis die we aan de wereld stellen’. Een interview met Jonas Staal’ in: Joost de Bloois and Ernst van den Hemel, Alain Badiou. Inesthetiek: filosofie, kunst, politiek, Amsterdam 2012, p. 314-16 & Tania Bruguera, Political Art Statement, 2010.)

Tony Chocolonely & does Martens do “critical art”?

It would be hardly sensible to dispute Martens’ good intentions in trying to better the lives of other people; it would be nit-picking to dwell on semantics and (anachronistic) terminology. However, the fact that all of this takes place under the moniker of “critical art” just doesn’t do justice to that field. While explaining his work, Martens claimed that the only purpose of his project is to improve the lives of the former plantation workers financially. Someone who attended the artist talk then noted that this project could have been about making shoes as well. And indeed, Teun van der Keuken, a Dutch journalist, started Tony Chocolonely: a company which sells slave-free produced bars of chocolate and in which an honest and direct trade relationship with the cacao farmers is central. He actually does the same thing, but without the pretension of making “critical art”. So, then what is the actual reason for Martens to execute his project in the name of art? It is in explaining IHA as a way to increase the merit of “critical art” that Martens inextricably connects his work to the discourse of critical art. But one can ask oneself whether Martens is truly contributing to this discourse if he holds on to the status of art as a commercial object. For decades now, the art world critiques the effect of current economic systems on art – through anti-object art and critical theory. But nothing  actually changed; anti-object art eventually ended up being sold as well, promoting the conditions required by the current mode of capitalist regulation. Thus, if art really is to “get out of its shell” it would perhaps be more fruitful to dive into the paraphernalia of its current ontology.

(Source: Tonys Chocolonely )

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© Renzo Martens / Institute for Human Activities
Courtesy of KOW, Berlin, CATPC, IHA and Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam
Featured photo: Emery Muhamba working on Self Portrait, Institute of Human Activities, undisclosed location, DR Congo, 2014
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