“Reading and Representation in Political Art,” Parachute, no. 16 (Autumn 1979), pp. 49-50.


Artists who work with politics in their art confront an unprecedented problem: the (re)incorporation of content within an art and a culture controlled and coded by formalism and media. Neither formalism in art nor media ever have accommodated themselves to content, although they seem to carry the message of content. This situation perhaps developed because content demands a public, and both content and public (rather than a spectator or audience) are located within the space of politics. There is a history of this loss of content in relation to a public inversely proportional to the progressive control of the individual spectator in art or the “free” labourer in the market. The critique of the formalist loss of content, however, is already beyond necessity since formalism in art may be an outmoded form of production related to industrialization. Presently, we are ruled by the simulation of the code whose indetermination co-ordinates and distributes all the sign systems of society of which formalist art is a small and outmoded part (therefore, decorative?) and media a pervasive model.

Within the indeterminacy of the code itself “inheres” the problems or limits of an art of content in a society hostile or indifferent through coding to any sort of content, that is to say, politics. (The recent Federal election in Canada revealed how thoroughly our present politics is stimulus/response, question/response controlled: the politics of referendum where we are already coded for our responses—mere form and not content.)

In raising the question of a political art of content we perhaps should ask whether there is a distinction between political art and political content. This is necessary for two reasons. Firstly, “political art” is in danger of being recuperated as a stylistic category. At the present time we console ourselves with the knowledge that in many cases of political art what is a style has not yet become a genre. Although within a more desired political society—a desiring political society—politics in art may be reduced to a genre as the common sphere of understanding within the matrix of daily life. Secondly, political content must be examined in light of the whole question of content. There was reason for the overthrow of the substantive by the relational in every discipline of the twentieth century. We must understand, however, the historical motivations of the structural revolution of value (I use Jean Baudrillard’s terms) while maintaining the possibility of content separated from the substantive. This is where content must confront rather than be absorbed within representation. Content, as I wish to use it, is not an intention, a representation, or a reading. It is not substantive, but a process, a process that is productive in relation to a public—and that relation is one of desire. And it is exactly on this question of reading and representation that the content of Conde and Beveridge’s political art fails to make connection with a public. In this, Conde and Beveridge show themselves to be traditional leftists who wish to represent (in the dual sense in art and politics of the represented and the representative) the desires of the masses.
Carole Conde and Karl Beveridge, previously associated with the art politics magazines The Fox and Red Herring, have already produced two political art shows: “It’s Still Privileged Art” at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1976 and one last year at the Carmen Lamanna Gallery, Toronto. The recent exhibition at Carmen Lamanna Gallery, entitled “Maybe Wendy’s Right,” is their most coherent presentation yet. In a series of fifteen tableau colour photographs, the artists “narrate” the crises of a working class family against the implied social crisis of a strike. The dual structure of the narration— individual/family against the social—as implied in the captions, begins to break down as the social and political enter the family. The social and political enter the family through the strike, but politics has always been implicated there, for instance, in the role of women within the family.

Each tableau within the narrative series is not just a juxtaposition of photographic image and imposed text which directs and explains. Each image is a composition of signs. It is a type of semiotics in reverse (like propaganda)—thus, a tableau—yet, it does not have the density of a sign system of representations in the “real” world, of capitalism, for instance, which could be deconstructed for a release of energy. Nor does it have the force of rhetoric of what Brecht called the social gest (“the critical demonstration of the gesture, its inscription—to whatever period it may belong—in a text of social machination of which is clearly visible.” Roland Barthes, “Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein”). Failure to find the appropriate gestures for our situation, gestures that inscribe their making within them, is part of the defensiveness of this work. Its failure to relate the gesture to public desire is what keeps the work within the limits of representation. While there is no social gest within the work, there is also no ambiguity within the images. The composition of signs point to one meaning only: representation as one meaning.

Conde and Beveridge’s work remains contained within the frame of representation. And representation, it should be said, need not solely be reproductive of visual reality, that is, imitative. Representation occurs when the subject (artist or spectator) cuts out a space of vision in each photograph where a unified action is depicted or meaning signified. Everything has its place in the “correct” designation/control of meaning, like depicted objects in the perspectival space of Renaissance painting, itself the model for representation. Where everything has its place, where meaning is ordered, nothing emerges, nothing breaks. Moreover, nothing connects because our identity in this representation—which creates us as subjects and creates meaning—is a self-projection of perspectival reading. Although on another symbolic level, the work functions like a traditional representational painting contained within the ideal viewing space of the art gallery. With no ambiguity, with no breaks that signify contradictions, there are no connections with the “spectator” except through control (of meaning) and identity (through perspectival constitution of the self). Only through a break, through ambiguity, can the individual as part of the social inscribe the contradictions of the social on his or her body, following a line of issue that carries away the self through desire.

Representation as represented and representative is a matter of control: control of meaning, control of us. Leftist politics is representational, in that it tries to represent the future (the one meaning of the future), and representative in assuming political representation of the masses. Jean-Francois Lyotard has spoken of the representation of the future in terms of the work of art: “To suspend the meaning of a work of art to its ulterior political effect is not to take it seriously once more, to take it as an instrument, useful for something else, as a representation of something to come; it is to remain within the order of representation, within a perspective that is theological or teleological.” (“Suspendre le sens de l’oeuvre à son effet politique ultérieur, c’est de nouveau ne pas la prendre au sérieux, la prendre pour un instrument, utile à autre chose, comme une représentation de quelque chose à venir; c’est rester dans I’ordre de la représentation, dans une perspective qui est théologique ou téléologique.” Lyotard, “Notes sur la fonction critique de l’oeuvre”).

Not only does politics in art, as in practice, wish to represent the future, but it also presumes to represent public desire. It is in this manner that the Party in Marxist-Leninism represents the working class, but by representing it, interprets and directs it (controls it) according to a theory of history, but not desire, which cannot be represented—that is, symbolized and directed. This desire, I should add, is not spontaneity, but real production critically recognized. The public assumes its own history by recognizing its repressed desire in the social world—that is, its ideological oppression. This desire can only act in a situation of the “accumulation and exacerbation of all the historical contradictions,” that is, their “overdetermination” (Louis Althusser, “Contradiction and Overdetermination”).

Representation and reading proper are inseparable. In the case of Conde and Beveridge, it is a matter of the reading of clues, a reading of signs that compose the totality of the message. A reading that does not go beyond itself is representation, contained within the frame and limit of one meaning. It does not even matter what one’s politics are: there is still only one reading. Multiple readings, ambiguity, would open the work to desire, but also to ambivalence, to positive or reactionary investment in the work. Any intervention in history, however, must open itself to this possibility of positive action/function, recuperation, or negative response and reactionary usurption (the Nazi abuse of Nietzsche, for example). Any art, any act, must be open to this lack of control, to the abandonment of the hierarchical distribution and unification of meaning, to the release of a mechanism from which desire issues. Reading as representation does not lead to action; only multiple readings can. How do we act from content or even think about it if there are no breaks to provoke thought, no gaps, no ambiguity, no tension of meaning? Because one reading cannot construct—where earlier I wrote “signify”—contradictions (contradictions are an impossibility where only one meaning or reading is possible, just as they are impossible in essences which are the ground of univocal meaning), that is, inscribe the overdetermined social contradictions within itself, because it cannot be connective, disjunctive or conjunctive in its breaks, the subject of its reading (who multiply create themselves in these readings) cannot inscribe the contradictions on their own bodies because desire is an issue from/through contradiction leading to production and action. To be effective, a reading must be a productive transformation of the text—within one’s body, within the social. Hence, the text must be open to the productive transformation of desire.

Conde and Beveridge may wish to take control of the signs usurped by media in the service of capitalism. By remaining within representation, however, the effectiveness of the action is neutralized. Moreover, they are still contained within the limits of control: the control of signs, the control of meaning. To escape both, we must infiltrate the code and rupture the semiotic flow.