Socially engaged art, monuments and the state: re-imagining the dialectic in the age of post-truth

Lang, Martin and Grimwood, Tom (2021) Socially engaged art, monuments and the state: re-imagining the dialectic in the age of post-truth. In: State (in)stability in the age of post-truth, 12 November 2021, Libertas International University, Zagreb.

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Item Type:Conference or Workshop contribution (Presentation)
Item Status:Live Archive


The Turner Prize 2021, for the first time, exclusively consists of socially engaged art collectives. We take on the rise of socially engaged art (SEA) as both a performance of post-truth, and a compendium of its genealogy, in attempting to introduce artistic sensibilities into the cultural instability of British society. We do this by staging a dialectical engagement, utilising the classical form in order to draw out the key sites of contestation for a renewed, Marxist-informed, cultural hermeneutics.
The first part of this paper presents the thesis that a major impact of postmodernism and social constructivism on culture was to create the conditions where artists abdicate their authorship through fear of being termed authoritarian. It is assumed that artworks cannot reveal truths, as truth itself is a social construct. To assert a truth claim would merely be to pick one narrative from many. What is post-truth if not the impossibility of truth claims? We argue that the resulting suspicion of artistic expertise renders artworks 'empty signifiers' onto which any meaning can be projected, by anybody. If SEA has become an empty signifier, then we can read populist politics in the same vein. During the Brexit campaign Michael Gove infamously declared ‘Britain has had enough of experts’, and when asked what Brexit means Theresa May responded that 'Brexit means Brexit', for example.
The second part of this paper offers a deconstructive antithesis, arguing that the role of postmodernism and social constructivism is overstated in the creation of post-truth. We argue that the valorisation of objectivity and truth merely reify particular terms. Reification is read as a form of ‘monumentalising’ which drives a dysfunctional model of cultural value, and consequently contributes to instabilities around social identities and fuels cultural tensions. So-called ‘unmonumental’ art (including SEA) is actually monumental in its reification of equality. It is this monumentalising process, rather than postmodernism per se, that has the bigger impact on post-truth.
The paper concludes with a call for art to retain a dialectical tension between equality and the production of truth as a cultural value; a dialectic which involves the careful reinstatement of artistic authorship and a more sincere vision of SEA’s political ambitions and signification.

Keywords:Socially Engaged Art, dialectics, Reification, Unmonumentalism, Marxist Hermeneutics, Post-truth
Subjects:W Creative Arts and Design > W100 Fine Art
V Historical and Philosophical studies > V500 Philosophy
Divisions:College of Arts > School of Fine & Performing Arts > School of Fine & Performing Arts (Fine Arts)
ID Code:46323
Deposited On:07 Dec 2021 15:51

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