Why Artists?

“What use are poets in times of need? But you'll say they're like holy priests of the wine god, Moving from land to land in the holy night.” (Holderlin: Bread and Wine)

Commenting on this Holderlin’s poem in Off the Beaten Track, Martin Heidegger says that “times of need” are times when the presence of God has been forgotten. I want to ask the same question (why poets? why artists?) within a different context. Not in the absence of God, but when the absence of social solidarity is the cause and the origin of our present condition of need, loneliness and misery.

So my question is: why artists, why poets when misery and precariousness and gloom are marking our time? What can artists do when the majority of society seems stunned, depressed and unable to act? And finally: who are the artists? What does this word mean?

Beirut, Cairo

At the beginning of the year 2012 I spent two months in Beirut, teaching at the school Ashkal Alwan, a Master program for artists, architects and film makers. My students were coming from Egypt, Palestine, Qatar, Iraq, and most of them were engaged in the movement hurriedly identified as the Arab Spring. With their words, their art projects and works they gave me a vivid perception of what was happening in the Arab world in that period; before the full disclosure of the tragedy of the Syrian war, before the deception of the Egyptian elections. They were the expression of a culture that was simultaneously cosmopolitan, libertarian, secularist and socially oriented – and I saw them as the heirs of the global justice movement that spread at the beginning of the new Century.

Thanks to their creative use of the Internet, news of their forms of action quickly circulated in Europe and in the United States. During my stay in Beirut I felt that artists are creating the new Internationalism of our time, the internationalism of the general intellect. Only one year later, beginning 2013, I went to the Middle East again, and I spent a week in Cairo meeting friends who are still active in the art scene of the city, and I felt their sentiment of disillusionment and defeat vis-à-vis the mounting aggressiveness of fundamentalism, and of the growing power of the Muslim Brothers who did not take part in the revolution and are occupying the space opened by the revolution.

The city was chocked by pollution, frustration and destitution and the energy of the artists that I met in the small streets of the city was the only sign of persistence of a spirit of autonomy and revolt. In the crowded rooms of the art-space Townhouse, I could see My Nineties: A Panorama of Collective Memory Televised by Hassan Elhalwagy, the audiovisual performance presented by Mohammad Allam and Rami Abadir, and the works of the American artist Warren Neidich.

Who in those days was exposing his works in that place. In another art space of the city I could see Ultimate Substance by Anja Kirschner and David Panos, a video installation that speaks of geometry and life, financial violence and slavery, European crisis and ancient Greek mines.

Milano, Macao

On May 5th 2012, in the city of Milano, thousands of architects, visual artists, teachers students and precarious workers occupied a building called Torre Galfa renaming it Macao. The building, a 34 floor skyscraper in the centre of Milano, has been abandoned for 15 years by the financial group Ligresti, whose CEO is accused of corruption. The occupiers organized activities of collective creation; lecturing, performance and communication, and the building became a meeting point for the wide array of precarious cognitive workers of the city. Ten days after the occupation, on May 15th, the police dislodged the occupiers and in so doing reclaimed emptiness and waste, an action against life and activity.

It is the special mark of financial capitalism nowadays: emptying the living world in order to increase financial profits. But the occupiers did not renounce to work together, and occupied a new space in this city where Berlusconi has built the media empire financed by the money of his mafia accomplices.

Why are thousands of architects and visual artists occupying and bringing back to life abandoned theaters and buildings? Why are artists are so interested in activism and social theory, while the market invades the space of art, reducing the activity of artists to abstract work, and emptying Art of any meaning? Why has the Berlin Biennale of 2012 been largely dedicated to art-ivism and to the occupy movement? Why has dOCUMENTA(13) been conceived and assembled as a laboratory of research and experimentation in the political art of Retreating from the collapsing capitalism? Why has the Biennale of Limerick been dedicated to the social effects of the financial crisis?

New York, Sandy

In November 2012 I went to New York city, in the aftermath of the catastrophic Hurricane Sandy. I went to visit my friends of 16 Beaver, an apartment which is a sort of art gallery and a meeting point where artists and activists in 2011 placed the headquarters of Occupy Wall Street. One year after, in the gloomy days after the hurricane and floods invaded the city and jeopardized daily life of poor neighborhoods of the Lower East Side, 16 Beavers were engaged in a new experience, named Occupy Sandy. I grasped the meaning of their decision to shift from Occupy Wall Street to Occupy Sandy as a sign of the changing spirit of the movement, of the changing awareness and of a new intention. They were saying: preventing the catastrophe is impossible; the catastrophe is here.

So the task of the movement is not to fight against a coming dangerous possibility, the task of the movement is staying human in the midst of the inhuman conditions that financial capitalism is producing in our social life and in the environment. “Let’s stay human” is the sentence that can best explain the attitude of our present resistance, whilst financial capitalism is destroying the signs of humanity from the surrounding environment of metropolitan life.

Stay human

“Stay human” is the title of a book collecting reportages from Gaza whose author is the Italian Vittorio Arrigoni. Arrigoni was one of the many activists who revivedthe International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a pro-Palestinian group that works inthe Palestinian territories. In August 2008, he participated in the Free Gaza mission that aimed to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. While volunteering to act as a human shield for a Palestinian fisherman off Gaza's coast in September 2008, Arrigoni was injured when the Israeli Navy used a water cannon to deter the vessel.

The next month he was arrested by the Israeli authorities after acting again as a human shield for fishermen off Gaza's coast. During the military Operation Cast Lead that lasted from December 2008 to January 2009, Arrigoni was one of the few foreign journalists covering the war. Having criticized Muslim extremists for trying to impose an intolerant fundamentalist conception of Islam in Gaza, Arrigoni was kidnapped on 14 April 2011 by suspected members of a Salafi militant group operating in Gaza known as Tawhid and Jihad. Before killing him, the captors accused Vittorio Arrigoni of "spreading corruption" and accused him of being citizen of Italy, an infidel state.

I don’t know what art is and I also think that there is no such thing as the true essence of Art. But I think that the life and death of Vittorio Arrigoni, marked by his words “Stay human” can be seen as the most consistent and moving of art works. Strictly speaking Art does not exist. Artists do. Who are they? I define artists, beyond all their differences, and particularities and idiosyncratic features, as those people who stay human in times of de-humanization.


Once upon a time the relation between art and society was based on engagement. Intellectuals came out from their sphere of golden isolation, opened the windows to the world and decided to get engaged in the social fight, They started talking about those people who live in the real world; in the farms, in the factories and so on. Now the problem of engagement has dissolved. In the sphere of semiocapitalism artists are directly involved in the process of semioproduction. They are the producers of symbolic prototypes that semiocapitalism transforms into mass-production objects, they are exploited by the industry of info-production and subjected to precarious conditions of work and salary.

The present situation is marked by the financial aggression against state schools, public health and public cultural life. The effect of the cuts is increasing ignorance, brutality and insensibility. Saudi princes, Russian killers and financial predators invest billions on Munch and Matisse and the art market is awash with money, but simultaneously the living world of artists is impoverished, starving and precarious.

Precariousness is the condition of labor in the sphere of networked and globalized value production, but it is also the prevailing perception of future when the general process of deterritorialization destroys the old forms of belonging. Artists have been the harbingers and the bearers of precariousness, as they bring precariousness in their lifestyle, in their daily struggle for survival and in the continuous dissolution and recomposition of their identity. Art has been the space where the experiment of precarious life, labor and language has been developed.

The history of the Vanguard in the 20th Century was an exercise in life and creation in a time of precariousness. The loss of the center, the uncertainty principle, the random relation between meaning and enunciation – these are the traces of precarization of the late modern soul, prophesized and transformed by aesthetic perception. Furthermore the subsumption (or inscription) of mental work into the cycle of capitalist valorization has given a new dimension to the activity of artists in the social sphere: artists are cognitive workers whose activity is subjected to the rules of market exploitation, but simultaneously they are expressing a permanent refusal of the capitalist rule, as their job is creation of meaning, while semiocapitalism provokes a separation of semiotic production from meaning, whilst at the same time the information overload provokes a cancellation of meaning.

This is why artists do not need anymore to open the windows when they want to connect with the workers, with the real world of production, exploitation and revolt: they are precarious workers, and they try to revolt.


In the sphere of precariousness and deterritorialization identity turns aggressive. The relation between the time work takes and the value of work has become uncertain, and the relation between belonging and language is shaken: a huge deterritorialization is underway and people are desperately trying to grasp at some kind of identity: national identity, religious identity, ethnic identity, all the old shit of belonging is coming back and fueling new forms of Fascism everywhere. Fascism is when a war machine is hidden in every niche and the Neoliberal cult of competition is the present incubator of Fascism.

Artists are those people who experiment in disidentification. They travel in uncanny territories of cultural contamination; they exercise the suspension of the need to belong. As the process of deterritorialization impacts on the relations between territory, community and the social sphere, artists are trying to heal the suffering that comes from this continuous and painful eradication. Those who call themselves artists are actually creating the Ultimate Internationale: the international unarmed army of non-identifiable people, of those people who are escaping identification.


The most interesting artists of the past decade – the first decade of this precarious Century - have been in my opinion those who have tried to deal with mental suffering and relational distress.Lisa Athila in video art, Jonathan Franzen in writing, Miranda July, Gus Van Sant, Kim Ki Duk, Jia Zhang Ke in cinema, have been able to express the fragmented social body and the frantic perception of time induced by precariousness. Now art is melting with the therapeutic act of re-activation of sensibility.

The main effect of Semiocapitalism – and the constant exploitation of nervous energies that semiocapitalism implies – is a sort of epidemic that is affecting the mind of society. Competition and precariousness are provoking a wave of suffering and psychopathology, jeopardizing the very premises of social solidarity. The acceleration of the rhythms of the mind and attention stress are eroding the thin film of sensibility and empathy.

Artists are creating spaces of slow communication, spaces of desertion from the daily economic war, spaces for sensuous pleasure and the re-set of the mental conditions for social solidarity. Expectations Invited by a group of artists and activists, in April 2012 I spent some days in Bucharest and delivered a speech at the Museum of Contemporary Art. When I entered the space where a small crowd of listeners were gathering I saw two words written on the wall: No hope.

According to a recent survey it seems that 58% of Rumanians declare they are nostalgic for Ceausescu. Can you imagine someone longing for Ceausescu? My hosts told me: we have been the victims of two opposing nightmares: the communist nightmare of the past and the capitalist nightmare we are suffering now.

Hope is over, for us, but the same can be said for our fellow humans all over the planet. “Give up hope, therefore, is our contribution to the emergence of a new consciousness” told me Florin Flueras, a dancer and activist who practices dystopic irony.

Hope and growth are traps and our life is taken in these traps.

Dystopic irony (dyst-irony) is the language of those who understand without cynicism that the modern promise has been trashed because of the identification of Modernity and the capitalist dogma. Dystopia is the current imagination of future and irony is the rhetorical distance from the hypocritical discourse of power based on fake concepts such as competition, austerity, recovery and growth.

“Give up hope” is a dyst-ironic provocation meaning: don’t trust the promises of power, don’t expect growth, capitalism is agonizing, if we don’t change the expectations that capitalism has produced we’ll fall into depression and fascism.

March, April 2013