Suarez’s essay can be read at this link.
Like conscience, the phantom of the Rizalian tradition continues to haunt us even today at the cusp of communicative capitalism and surplus digital technology. Perhaps the persistence of ‘socially-conscious’ art, from the time of the Propagandists, Jose Maria Sison’s Second Propaganda Movement, until today’s incarnations only emphasize the continuing dominance of the elitist patronage-centric art market, sustained by the rich, and the dominance of art-as-entertainment-as-commodity in Philippine commercialized culture.
Yet the old contradiction between ‘elitist’ art vs ‘socially-conscious’ art, framed within the conditions of Philippine culture and society, chronically re-phrased as the drama between the formalists vs Marxists, art-for-art’s-sake vs commited art, Villa vs Lopez, Almario vs Guillermo, and other countless permutations, seems to be founded on the lack of contemporary theorization on the subject of Philippine art and commitment, apart from the usual bearings set by the colonial-learning academia and its being pitted against the social realist tradition of the national democratic movement.
Angelo Suarez’s “Materializing Free: notes toward a new constructivism” filled this void. In an attempt to outline his aesthetic theory, while issuing a manifesto for this ‘new constructivism’, Suarez complicates the subject of art and commitment with an indulgent, feverish prose which Philippine literary criticism desperately needs today.
Suarez appropriates Walter Benjamin in asking when he suggested: Rather than “What is the attitude of a work to the relations of production of its time,” ask instead, “What is its position in them?” The article then goes in a lengthy exposition of the concept of materiality, wherein it ultimately posited that ideas and art propositions (coming from the accusation that concept art is immaterial) are material. He then proceeds to conceptualize the Duchampian ‘infrathin’ as the labor to be recognized institutionally as art, through the accumulation of social capital, and such ‘material’ acts.
Thus, by establishing the essential material connection of an art work/ art proposition to History, Suarez suggests that not only paper, paint, sound, or words can be shaped into art as materials, but ‘institutionality’ itself can be played with. This self-referentiality exposes the dynamics which confers an art work its status as art. Suarez revives virtuosity from being the mastery of technique but as “the precision of the labor of proposition.”
Such binding of art into social life allows Suarez to further emphasize the importance of an art work’s ‘position in the forces of production’ / institution in the assessment of its radical-ness, as reflected in its form.
Such assertion instantly triggers the question, ‘what is radical and how radical is it really?’
Adorno is summoned as Suarez asserts that “the extent of [art’s] autonomy is the extent of its resistance; that is to say, a work is only as resistant as it is autonomous.” Here we are beginning to get the idea that Suarez proposes a re-articulation of the avant garde political aesthetic, which is based on an art work’s ability to repel the forces of capital and commoditization by way of form as art’s social aspect, as Lukacs asserts.
Indeed, Suarez calls for “the construction of the new outside of the grammar of the market.” The more practical aspect of Suarez’s ‘new constructivism’ is best taken as a whole, in the quotation below:
It responds to the question, “What is the market yet to coopt into its logic of profit?” To believe in the new is to believe there is a way out of the market, that the market has a beyond; to be constructivist is not so much to be contemporary as it is to be modern.
The work of constructivism is made but never peddled, peddled but never sold, disseminated but never distributed, asks for grants but gets rejected, gets the grant only for it to be withdrawn. It aspires, performs an aspiration, to the status of commodity—but, manifesting its performance of aspiring for commodification, fails.
For Suarez, the “presentation & manipulation of institutionality” makes a work of constructivism radical. Its active isolation and autonomy from Capital, or in Adornian terms, its ‘negative relationship’ to society, allows this kind of art to create an autonomous space of resistance.
Yet this is founded on a utopian form of idealism, “a way out of the market” which seems impossible to imagine today, in a world where, as Suarez himself points out, complicity is where we start from, and even our patterns/algorithms of thought are shaped by capitalism even before we were born. On the flipside, a reluctance to imagine this utopian autonomy might be easily dismissed as a pessimistic defense of careerism. This exposes an absolutism/ purism which propels Suarez’s energetic polemic but also serves as its most vulnerable component.
Suarez’s formalism is reminiscent of Adorno’s own, as implied by Adorno’s claim that “Art is not a matter of pointing up alternatives but rather resisting, solely through artistic form.” Nevertheless it must be pointed that this resistance cannot possibly exist outside social conditions; which begs the question: what particular social and cultural conditions would enable such art to resist?
Here Suarez’s theory begins to take on a more interesting turn. According to him:
W/ no market for the work to be lost in yet outside of the state’s official art of agitprop, the work concerns itself only w/ the presentation of the infrathin, indexing institutionality in an action or situation that cld only be constructed by material conditions that sustained it, by free time that enabled it. [italics mine]
Suarez formulates the production of the constructivist work as ‘play’, perhaps in the Derridan sense, which takes place only “when material circumstance allows poets to partake of such a privilege.” We can only imply that these “material circumstances” are composed of resources (for buying art materials, internet access, etc) and ‘free time’, either earned through privilege, social standing, or refusing to engage in work.
There are a lot of obvious problems which arises once we formulate a concept of liberatory art from (inevitably) the logic of work. The problems are as follows:
- A formulation of radical art as autonomous art, framed within the logic of labor/non-work (“free time”), with art-as-materialized-free-time, necessitates the production of these “material resources and free time”, either through the economistic easing of labor (through workers’ action, union work, etc) or through the outright refusal to work. In short, in Suarez’s formulation, the creation of art is essentially dependent on work, like a promotion or vacation or any other ‘privilege’ acquired through work. It is as if the very creation of this liberatory space is dependent on the conformity to the rules of work.
- Such a formulation readily underscores the simple fact that such material resources and free-time exist in scarcity, if not none at all, for the majority of disenfranchised Filipinos. Yet this does not mean that the creation of art or possession of any other privilege (having pets, having a smartphone, reading books, etc) can be considered as compliance with the system. Revolution is not simply about the refusal against capitalism but the systematic deployment and interplay of objective and subjective factors, including the broad revolutionary forces, from the most advanced to the least, to not only distribute material resources and increase free time for art, but to totally dismantle the social system which maintains this very arrangement we resist against, while constructing a revolutionary culture in relation to the said arrangement.
- The implied political call to not create art at all because it is a privilege lacks foresight in that it ignores the material basis of the continuing existence of art in Philippine society, that is to say, that the wholesale rejection of art does nothing to the fact that capitalism will continue to use art for reaction, pacification, indoctrination, or even actual repression (as in the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ use of music against this year’s APEC’ rally). What needs to be rejected is not art but the material conditions which brought up and continues to support the very definitions we confer to ‘art’ today.
- What is the relationship of art-as-materialized-free-time to the current precariatization of work in the form of freelance, where time is considered free until hired? What must we make of the increasing popularity of art-related events and the much-celebrated rise of the so-called ‘creatives’, equipped with freelance free-time, to justify precariatization and the refusal of the system to provide stable jobs, regularization?
As it was already established that the institutionality and the radical autonomy of art have material basis, there is a need to objectify the actual conditions for such artistic ‘play’, as Suarez suggests, to emerge. This is because a status of indie(pendence) from profit-oriented market, or semiocapital, or any other apparatuses of Capital cannot possibly spring out of nowhere. Such position is negotiated, seized, through objective and material action, through working for more disposable income, through developing an alternative locus of power or through actually taking hold of the forces of production. To conceive of it as a mere ‘privilege’ is to snatch it from the social and place it within the realm of the individual and the universe of his/her labor – each of us with our own little, private rebellions.
Revolutionary cultural work in some sense follows the logic of capital but only in the realization that a formal rejection of capital (through embracing full-time revolutionary work, sustained financially by the support of the masses by being part of the masses) requires the execution of art within the ranks of the ruling system. Revolutionary cultural work does not have a utopian ‘negative’ because it is already a negative in the sense that it sustains itself and is therefore autonomous. Its negative is the total embracing of reification. While it may seem that some revolutionary cultural work mimics reactionary art in the field of form, such similarities are only symptoms of the social-ness of form vis-a-vis society as a whole and the embeddedness of art to life. To reject these forms as not radical enough lies on the assumption that mainstream/ popular culture is fully controlled by the ruling class, when in fact pop culture is an unending flux of contestations between social forces.
Further, Suarez’s refusal to make art as activism can be read as a Benjaminian rejection of the aestheticization of politics and the depoliticization of aesthetics –two strategies employed in consumer culture- in order to pave a way for the “artistic equivalents for political positions” as Claire Bishop had formulated. Yet this formulation lumps together SM’s art galleries which justifies ecological destruction and corporate greed, public-private-funded art works to decorate the dining rooms of the APEC leaders, with the chapbooks made for the Lumads , socio-political hip-hop, agit-prop posters and other cultural products for the forwarding of social transformation. It significantly limits the arsenal of resistance based on a vague notion of revolutionary ‘purity’ from capitalism, when in fact such pure social formulation, and therefore such pure culture, is yet to materialize.
What is becoming clearer is that Suarez’s formulation is an attempt to re-assert art’s autonomy as utopian index for an ideal ‘art-to-be’. Yet this call to re-awaken the avant-garde cannot suffice in a system as total as capitalism. For utopian art to exist, it is necessary to not only ‘sustain’ it with activism but to include it within the broad range of struggles of the basic sectors of Philippine society. A practice of art which simply teases out a utopian vision of art bears the danger of isolating itself from the very utopia which includes, by essence, not only itself in isolation but the whole society as its Other.
Thus the systematic mobilization of every possible arsenal from the all sectors of society is necessary to actualize this utopian ideal. The utopian impulse for an autonomous position, manifested in the form of indie(pendence) from hegemony, ‘pockets of resistance’, self-sustainability and others should be materialized by the violent, active, and total grabbing of this hegemony from the forces of reaction.
Nonetheless, Suarez’s reiteration of ‘art-for-art’s-sake’ provides an interesting counterpoint to the moralistic apology for ‘committed art’ as superior art simply because it is committed rather than for any remotely artistic reasons. Suarez’ manifesto extends a call for artistic innovation grounded on the aim to politicize art, to bring it down to human terms and grab it from the pedestal built by the ruling elite. It calls, not a rejection of Taste for political reasons, but the construction and assertion of another kind of Taste which comes from below, from actual, dusty, sweat-y and depressing reality. Thus, his ideas should be best welcomed rather than rejected, but nonetheless its limits and tendencies should be properly addressed.