Collectivity, Modest proposals and Foolish Optimism

If the mind, while imagining non-existent things as present to it, is at the same time conscious that they do not really exist, this power of imagination must be set down to the efficacy of its nature, and not to a fault, especially if this faculty of imagination depend solely on its own nature—that is if this faculty of imagination be free.

(Benedict de Spinoza, Ethics, Prop. 17)

I want to imagine a life without structural, instrumental, political fear. I want to picture a set of cultural and social values different from the ones I see around me – one that gives priority to collective human aspirations rather than personal and national salvations. I want politics to be on the side of liberty not control and I want to join others in finding ways to make these changes happen – because there still is greater possibility in the many than in the one. But there, at this moment of constructive longing, I have to admit that my desire for change suddenly hit a wall of impossibility. Democratic politics, as currently conducted, offers less than nothing. Revolution(ism) has shown itself to be tragically inadequate. Liberalism is fatalism and compromise by another name.

So, before I (before we?) plan how to resist…before we consider how to begin to act…I think we have simply to deal with how to think? What happens if we ask Lenin’s old question (or is it a statement?), ‘“What is to be Done” in the same spirit but it the light of today. Self evidently, much has changed. We cannot take for granted the very things – trade unions, class solidarity and political possibility – that Lenin built his argument upon. The problem is that, however strongly desired, there is no existing political force or structure that could yet be imagined to articulate a coherent alternative. Or I cannot see one even on the horizon.

The big scale, one size fits all left revolutionary programmes that defined the last century were ultimately unmitigated failures. They simply failed to develop new social, cultural or imaginative possibilities in favour of defensive repression. Eventually, and arguably tragically, they simply ran out of any viable options except collapse. Yet in many ways the subsequent victory of capitalism was won by default and the successes of wild east capitalism have been mixed to say the least. Yet in the political field, capitalist apologists wave away by rapidly arguing that any new steps towards social equality and emancipation through collective action are figments of a twisted imagination and lead step by inevitable step precisely to the Gulag and the secret state that the big Utopias did indeed provide. Their prescription for an imaginable future, such as it is, centres solely on personal economic satisfaction and private security. Society, culture, community are left to fend for themselves under the control of commercial imperatives – except where the obvious inadequacies of a total economic solution are answered by ever more overt calls to faith in personal salvation through God. In this way, the end of the political is effectively ensured because collective agency is entirely denied and ridiculed..

Yet such a prospect patently ignores much human experience and desire. A substantial part of our needs is fulfilled only in companionship and solidarity with others. We come to know ourselves and our shifting identities through common cultural experiences. The ‘common sense’ of a society is not a fixed given but subject to change through imaginative provocation in ‘common’. It is where and how art can in untraceable ways change the world. In these terms, I understand Spinoza’s opening proposal of imagining ‘non-existent things as present’ as a form of deliberate self-deception that has always allowed art to function for both its makers and its public. The question is, given our political desperation, can we use the free imagination to articulate the desires that have no voice in the current capitalist settlement? Of course, I believe can. To do so, we need to look to new models of social and cultural behaviour, particularly when it comes to the public sphere of which art and its institutions are perhaps one of the very few surviving elements.

‘…what I call ‘agonism’…is a different mode of manifestation of antagonism because it involves a relation not between enemies but between ‘adversaries’, adversaries being defined in a paradoxical way as ‘friendly enemies’, that is, persons who are friends because they share a common symbolic space but also enemies because they want to organise this common symbolic space in a different way.

(Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox, London: Verso, 2000, p13)

We can choose to imagine in Spinozan terms that the art sphere can be that place of agonism precisely because it deals in symbolic language and could provide models and what I term ‘modest proposals’ for friendly enmity at a time of superpower unilateralism in the wider world. ‘Modest proposals’ articulate themselves precisely in terms of this ‘what might be rather than what is’. They are essentially speculative in that the imagine things other than they are now yet those speculative gestures are intensely concrete and actual. They avoid the clearly fantastical as well as the hermetic purity of private symbolism in order to deal with real existing conditions and what might be necessary in order to change them. In different senses according to varying artistic approaches, modest proposals at root address the problem of necessity in relation to the free imagination as a prerequisite to producing work. They do not abandon critique but take it as an a priori out of which prospective ideas have to emerge. The idea of new production and original creativity is also in question much of the time. Modest proposals generally make use of existing objects, conditions and situations and manipulate the elements into different, more aspirational or purposeful configurations. This concern for concrete necessity is the quality that defines the limits of the term ‘modesty’ in the expression, rather than the scale of the issue involved or the absence of grand ambition for change. In doing so, these modest proposals exploit the possibilities of free, transformative and singular imaginations that art has reserved for itself since the late eighteenth century.

The current abundance of artistic collaborations finds part of its motivation here. To propose in the current state of affairs is to open up to the charge of naivety or worse. Collective working provides strength to overcome such opposition as well as the means to develop extended research and analysis of existing conditions in order to base the work on necessity as well as imagination. Less instrumentality however, the reason for a growth in collective art may precisely be because of its demise in most other areas of society. Art often works countercyclically, expressing desires that are not easily articulated elsewhere. We could speculate that collective creativity is the normal artistic response to a moment of extreme individualism. Perhaps, in a necessary spirit of foolish optimism, it may be a predictive step towards an idea of creative solidarity expressed not in a common political programme but in shared speculative discourse within an agonistic art sphere. This is neither the forced solidarity of real socialism or nationalism nor the vague shared interests of geographic communities. Rather it is a willed and individual choice to combine and communicate collectively without the need for clear, objective results. That, at least, is an imaginative hope that this kind of exhibition can help to realise.

I will conclude with a third quotation that, in its simple grandeur, commits us all, artists and not artists, to working for such a different, collective future.

…if instead of continuing to search for a proper identity in the already improper and senseless form of individuality, humans were to succeed in belonging to this impropriety as such, in making of the proper being-thus not an identity and an individual property but a singularity without identity, a common and absolutely exposed singularity – if humans could, that is, not be-thus in this or that particular biography, but be only the thus, their singular exteriority and their face, then they would for the first time enter into a community without presuppositions and without subjects, into a communication without the incommunicable.

Selecting in the new planetary humanity those characteristics that allow for its survival, removing the thin diaphragm that separates bad mediatized advertising from the perfect exteriority that communicates only itself – this is the political task of our generation.

(Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, University of Minnesota Press, 1993, p63)

Optimistically, maybe foolishly too, this is the task that the community around art could first choose to accept.


  • Charles Esche is the director of Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven and editor of Afterall Journal of Art.