Art serves the masses by abolishing itself

Philippine poetry and institutional critique in a time of protracted people's war

The author performs ‘Chairs and Table Event’ with choreographer Donna Miranda, commissioned by Za-Koenji Public Theater, in Tokyo in 2018. Onstage, they assemble chairs and a table from which they talk about the conditions of their production, the wood they use, the Philippines’ import-dependent and export-oriented economy, and the mass movement for national democracy that informs the very work they present. Photo courtesy of Za-Koenji Public Theater.

[I]nstitutional dismantling now also involves dismantling myself; I am part of the problem — Mel Ramsden

In the Philippines, poetry is increasingly integrated into the gallery-university complex. The complex’s entanglement in semifeudal, semicolonial social conditions makes it vulnerable to neoliberal encroachment. Thus, an emancipatory practice of poetry requires poetic production that simultaneously unveils this entanglement, to the point of antagonizing the institutions one’s poetry has been integrated into, and condemning the insufficiency of this unveiling. Further, in an emancipatory practice, one would complement one’s poetic production with direct participation in the ongoing national democratic revolution with a socialist perspective.

Suffering in the clutches of US imperialism since our nominal independence from US occupation (which began when US colonizers bought the country from Spanish colonizers), Philippine society has remained semicolonial and semifeudal. Our poetry is wrought from the following material conditions:

  • Feudal landlessness. The peasantry makes up 75 percent of the population, yet seven out of ten farmers remain at the mercy of landlords for having no land of their own to till.

  • Ceaseless imperialist plunder. Everyday life is shaped by state policy dictated primarily by US-directed financial institutions whose interests remain compatible with those of big landlords and the comprador bourgeoisie.

  • Bureaucrat capitalism. State officials, often big landlords and compradors themselves, make full use of their positions and craft policy for personal gain. 

The pursuit of artistic autonomy — which fueled the formal experiments even of pioneering Filipino modernists like painter Victorio Edades and poets José García Villa and Alejandro Abadilla — clashes with these conditions of oppression. And yet, hardly any dialectical appreciation of it as a practice allied with the national democratic revolution in the Philippines, and subsequently the world socialist revolution, has been articulated. This essay attempts to start such a conversation by identifying in institutional critique a viable modernist practice for poets who are honing in on the contradiction between institutional affiliation, which merely extends the clutches of feudalism, imperialism, and bureaucrat capitalism, and participation in a mass movement, which acknowledges the inevitability and urgency of the Maoist armed struggle led by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), founded over fifty years ago.

The president of our reactionary state, the comprador warlord Rodrigo Duterte of growing international renown for extrajudicial killings, the vulgar facilitation of landgrabs, and bald misogyny, is consolidating his dictatorship both for and through imperialist accommodation — and the strongest resistance to his fascist regime remains the protracted people’s war waged by the guerillas of the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the CPP. Despite the rebels’ willingness to enter a bilateral ceasefire — provided their representatives in the National Democratic Front of the Philippines sign the historic Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms (CASER) alongside representatives of the government of the Republic of the Philippines during the peace talks — the US-Duterte regime has settled for ditching the negotiating table, turning its back on the legitimate anti-imperialist, antifeudal democratic demands of the people, and indulging the US-militarist line of calling communists terrorists. This line has led to the rampant and fatal redtagging even of unarmed activists — including artists — working in the legal mass movement.

The struggle against imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat capitalism, participated in by poets who double as activists in the mass movement, is compounded by the struggle against fascist rule. This essay proposes what may be called a “poetics of hysteria” — a practice of poetry that reveals its own complicity by highlighting its entanglement in imperialism, feudalism, bureaucrat capitalism, and even fascism — as a viable course of artistic action for the progressive poet to complement their activist work of (as the CPP puts it in talking about mass work) arousing, organizing, and mobilizing the people.

In 1988, two decades after Amiri Baraka invoked the desire for “Assassin poems, Poems that shoot / Guns,” Guy Debord claimed “one can now publish a novel in order to arrange an assassination.” Yet, fast-forward to literary conceptualism, our avant-garde insistence on the materiality of language has barely scratched the surface, literally — from erasing extant text to inscribing in detail the act of inscription. Given how Andre Breton considered shooting blindly into a crowd the supreme surrealist act, we vanguards sure know how to retreat. If there’s a skill we’re even better at than stepping back, it’s theorizing stepping back, hobbling homeward clutching theory for a crutch. Instead of taking to the streets, we’ve scribbled metaphors for taking to the streets, patting ourselves on the back for being souls made beautiful by failing at the fantasy of weaponized literature. How convenient is it that many of us can fetishize failure into a monetizable practice?

Good for us it was an indistinct bottle rack Marcel Duchamp took as a preliminary readymade; his so-called “visual indifference” couldn’t have illustrated clearer that the infrathin, his heurism for institutionality, was as valid a drape on one object as it was on another. It was this indifference, carried further by Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven when she turned a urinal into a piece of sculpture, that would art-historically become license for turning measured silence into a three-part musical performance (Cage), a bubble-making machine into kinetic sculpture (Medalla), the serial retweeting of a celebrated racist novel to get an author’s estate to own up to racism into a poem (Place). But too bad for us it wasn’t a flaming bottle rack for hurling at state armed forces in an armed insurrection. Fact is, it was this same visual indifference that could have turned hurling Molotov cocktails rather than representing hurling Molotov cocktails into art; and instead of a revolution overthrowing the bourgeoisie taking that slot in art history — wasn’t it V. I. Lenin who said, “[A]t the present moment it is impossible to remain loyal to Marxism, to remain loyal to the revolution, unless insurrection is treated as an art”? — it’s a bottle rack. Artists looking for the easy way out have been duped by wishful thinking: Duchamp turned out to be less license than limit, more marker of what’s done than what to do. While in 1914 exhibiting a bottle rack as an art gesture was a step forward, it would have been a leap had the art gesture been, say, seizing the means of production.

Not that there haven’t been attempts to move on from the iconic readymades. It’s been a rocky path, but artists have made great strides with the infrathin, less through dematerialization than expanding what the object in “art object” can be — strides made straight, unfortunately, into the pockets of oligarchs, enemies from the ranks of the comprador bourgeoisie in cahoots with imperialists and feudal landlords. An edition of the bottle rack itself that had been bought by Robert Rauschenberg in 1959 has been deaccessioned by the Rauschenberg Foundation for sale in 2016 through a dealer who values it between $8 million and $12 million — an amount he considers pretty low. Between Joseph Beuys sculpting society and Rirkrit Tiravanija cultivating land, social and relational art practices have emerged like so many corporate-funded advertisements peddling commodities to catch up with global overproduction — which they are, considering these gestures are measures of conferring legitimacy on the production of saleable luxury objects through the reproduction of patron-artist relations. When mediated by national museums, festivals, and residencies, they could also be state-funded mechanisms for soft diplomacy between states to ease the plunder of third-world resources and the gentrification of third world communities into markets by first world empires — which might as well be corporate-funded advertisements peddling commodities to catch up with overproduction. Looking for exceptions, one might be tempted to raise the Soviet Union as the gesamtkunstwerk par excellence, but that was just Boris Groys being cavalier with his art/nonart categories to examine Stalin’s regime through an aesthetic lens. It would be just as tempting to raise Augusto Boal’s invisible theater, but even he has tended to disavow its art status to sharpen its propagandistic-agitational edge aimed no less than at revolutionary goals, and admirably so.

Among existing art forms, poetry has had the distinct privilege of posing the most roadblocks to its own monetization, from its ties to the medium of the book whose appeal springs from its reproducibility (undermining the accumulation of value that comes with rarity) to its roots in oral tradition (undermining the protection of private property through communal sharing). Kenneth Goldsmith hit the bull’s-eye when he insisted on Charles Bernstein’s belief that a blank piece of paper was more valuable than a piece of paper with a poem on it, but he was off the mark in sidestepping qualifying what sort of poem it was; it can’t be said, after all, that his career amounts to less than the value of a blank piece of paper (unless the blank piece of paper were all the world’s variants of Tom Friedman’s 1,000 Hours of Staring stitched together). While I sympathize with his resistance to instrumentality, leaving it at that obscures how even noninstrumentality has been instrumentalized by a feudal gallery system that facilitates accumulation through dispossession. A poem may not edify mechanisms of patronage directly the way the commodities of the visual art world routinely do, but it sure can indirectly. It can do so by cementing its reception in an increasingly privatized ecosystem for education (as in the case of poets who make a living as teachers whose labor value is increased by poetic production credited as academic accomplishments provided they are validated by bourgeois institutions), by serving as a cost-efficient apparatus for sustaining a monetizable institution’s prestige (as in the case of galleries who confer legitimacy on the luxury objects they peddle to oligarchic clientele through the supposedly charitable gesture of making their assets, whether printing networks or spaces for hosting readings, available to unprofitable art practices such as that of poets), or by the inevitable intersection of the history of literary production with that of the production of luxury collectibles marauding to be art.

Recuperating autonomy

Poetry has so often invoked autonomy in pursuing innovation, but rarely has innovation been invoked for pursuing autonomy. While I agree with Vanessa Place’s aesthetic pursuit of Beckettian failure because of its ability to direct attention towards the insufficiency of existing social conditions to assert artistic autonomy (“the poem is the platform”), this otherwise radical modernist self-negation tends to deteriorate into fetishistic complicity — an unreflexive, even damningly faux-reflexive, promotion of the art market in its deployment of the rhetoric and vocabulary of activism too willing to fail. Philippine art history, for instance, is rife with social realists as decorated as they are decorative, whose works, peddled by state-endorsed art fairs by the overpriced square inch, are presented in the households of landlords resisting the distribution of their haciendas to the farmers and agricultural workers who till them. Philippine literary history is riddled with the opportunistic progressivism of liberals whose excoriation of the Marcos dictatorship in the ’80s has earned them respect in the face of their reproduction of neoliberal market logics that Marcos himself pushed, if not pioneered. With art and literary institutions under elite capture, practitioners get caught in varying degrees of contradiction: a visual artist may be all for genuine agrarian reform but accepts anyway a commission from the daughter of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos; a poet who aligns himself with the anti-imperialist struggle for national democracy may take pride in his participation in a workshop long known to be a CIA-backed literary platform. That is to say, an art practice may take on the guise of activism by deploying the rhetoric of liberation struggles, but its activism — whether feigned or sincere — is co-opted when it fails to examine, as Walter Benjamin had demanded in “The Author as Producer,” its own position in the relations of production.

The progressive poet’s desire to “serve the people” and the institution of poetry’s entanglement in imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat capitalism constitutes a class contradiction one cannot simply wish away, no matter the purity of one’s intentions. The inescapability of this entanglement may, on one hand, constitute a failure, but, on the other hand, it is a failure that provides an opportunity for social investigation and class analysis, identifying the author-producer’s position in the relations of production. Mao Zedong offered a rough outline over seventy-five years ago at the Yenan Forum to guide us in gauging at what point a work of art fails and how badly enmeshed it is in networks of complicity: 

Since our literature and art are basically for the workers, peasants, and soldiers, “popularization” means to popularize among the workers, peasants, and soldiers, and “raising standards” means to advance from their present level. What should we popularize among them? Popularize what is needed and can be readily accepted by the feudal landlord class? Popularize what is needed and can be readily accepted by the bourgeoisie? Popularize what is needed and can be readily accepted by the petty-bourgeois intellectuals? No, none of these will do. We must popularize only what is needed and can be readily accepted by the workers, peasants, and soldiers themselves.

From this, one can sketch out a formulation that art readily accepted by the feudal landlord class, by the bourgeoisie, and by the petit-bourgeois intellectuals will not do. It is opposed to the interests of workers and peasants.

Peasant advocates who work in the art, culture, and knowledge industries march together as SAKA (Sama-samang Artista para sa Kilusang Agraryo or Artists’ Alliance for Genuine Agrarian Reform) on Labor Day, carrying a banner that calls on the state to stop killing farmers. As of this writing, 202 farmers have been killed under the US-Duterte regime in relation to land disputes since he came to power in 2016. The author is one of the marchers carrying the banner. (Photo courtesy of Yo Salazar and SAKA.)Peasant advocates who work in the art, culture, and knowledge industries march together as SAKA (Sama-samang Artista para sa Kilusang Agraryo or Artists’ Alliance for Genuine Agrarian Reform) on Labor Day, carrying a banner that calls on the state to stop killing farmers. As of this writing, 202 farmers have been killed under the US-Duterte regime in relation to land disputes since he came to power in 2016. The author is one of the marchers carrying the banner. Photo courtesy of Yo Salazar and SAKA.

The world’s longest protracted people’s war has been going on in the countryside — practically in all parts of the country, from Luzon to Mindanao — for almost half a decade, waged by the armed peasants and workers of the New People’s Army (NPA) of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). This Maoist legacy of an emancipatory armed struggle encircling the urban center creates a unique set of conditions for an uncompromising art practice — one that, ironically, exposes its history of compromise as its formal horizon by encircling the institution of art in which it partakes. Such a practice of institutional critique becomes genuine in its intent to dismantle the institution of art, but only by arguing that the actual dismantlement of bourgeois institutions is carried out not by art but by activism — from legal organized rights-based mobilizations geared at social justice, to underground support for and direct participation in the Party-led armed struggle. After all, “power grows” not from poetry, but “from the barrel of a gun” (as Mao reminded us at an emergency meeting of the Communist Party of China in 1927). 

Renewing constructivism through Maoism

Almost a century later, it is possible to synthesize Place and Beckett with Mao, the gun with Alexei Gan, the conceptualist with the communist horizon: till the overthrow of imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat capitalism through liberation struggles for national democracy and socialism, art in its bid for autonomy can only fail through the sheer, default acceptance by class enemies. The incredible extent of what they can monetize is a testament to the radicality of their opportunism.

The progressive poet who recognizes their complicit entanglement can therefore find a valid — if not the only valid — art practice in institutional critique. In institutional critique, one resorts to “strategies of failure” in which one unmasks for radical ends the rottenness of the neoliberal gallery-university complex — but by participating in it to demonstrate the complex’s reach, depth, and limits. In order to “fail better,” one can find in constructivist principles a means of reframing failure with a revolutionary orientation. The first of these principles is faktura, the quality of the work of art which demonstrates the plasticity of the institution of art. From here emerges the poem or the artwork’s tectonics,the formal and social dynamics at workin laying bare the device of the infrathin as institutionality; as well as its construction,whichtips its hat to poetry’s tradition of privileging the commons and refusing co-optation through what could be called a “poetics of hysteria.” 

In such a “poetics of hysteria,” the foremost compositional impulse would be a reflexive revelation of institutional complicity so deft and vulgar that no imperialist, no feudal landlord, no bureaucrat capitalist will want to have anything to do with it. A “poetics of hysteria” makes a clearing, an “empty zone” akin to the Collective Actions Group’s conceptualization of it as “extra-demonstrational time in the flowing of events.”[1] In CAG’s practice, the action draws the attention of the participants to the temporal and spatial demarcations — the paratext — where action and nonaction meet and split off; in a work that operates through hysteria, a constructivism renewed by Maoism, the work unveils the institutional ramparts that reveal its poeticity as much as its complicity. Like a performance by CAG, the new constructivist poem calls attention to institutional demarcations as the site of action (where the poem takes place as do imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat capitalism), foregrounding the paratext as text. 

This has been my goal, for instance, in the long and unfinished poem Leisure, which I have described as “an ongoing collage of excerpts from Filipino poets’ bios from various published books, in which they disclose what jobs they hold for the accumulation of capital other than the writing of poetry.” Desiring to unpack the production of poetry as work that insists on becoming not-work, I describe my poem as “a work about work, forever a work in progress.” A trilogy I have been working on aims at the same hystericization more intensely — as an initial set of attempts at literary self-sabotage. Released in 2017 through GaussPDF, Conflict is a collection of episodic drafts for a novella submitted to the marketing department of a brand of cheese, releasing in public corporate documents that record not only the cultural prejudices that shape any communication material designed to peddle a commodity, but the very commodification of the novella as a genre that gets produced on the condition that it contribute to commodification. The next work in the trilogy, still in progress, is a collection of BuzzFeed quiz outcomes answered daily using an office-issued laptop and only within office hours. The title of this work featuring quiz outcomes is determined by the amount the composition process is worth in pesos computed against my daily rate as a creative director who manages a team of writers, art directors, and animators producing content for an app. The last in the trilogy is a series of erasures from Benjamin’s essay “The Author as Producer,” in which I leave unerased words that, strung together, reveal the very process of the work’s production — that it has been assembled at the office where the author makes a living, printed on office paper via the office printer, bound with the office stapler using office staple wires.

These are not novels that “arrange an assassination” as Debord might have fantasized, but as instruments of self-sabotage they “dismantle myself” as a step toward “institutional dismantling” — which might be a part, albeit a tiny part, not so much of the assassination but the suppression of the bourgeoisie as we forge the future dictatorship of the proletariat. But as much as these works render precarious my status as a knowledge worker in the creative industries, there is no doubt capital will catch up with these works and turn them into failures, art refunctioned into artifacts for the accumulation of social and cultural capital. This essay alone embodies such a class contradiction.

“Whenever we are engaged in radical emancipatory politics,” Slavoj Zizek advises, “we should never forget (as Walter Benjamin put it almost a century ago) that every revolution is not only, if it is an authentic revolution, directed toward the future, but it redeems also the past failed revolutions.”[2] All hystericizing we accomplish in art — doomed to failure by the inevitability of co-optation by imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat capitalism — will be redeemed by the justice served by AK-47s. For poets working in the Philippines, keeping this in mind has never been more important.

If we are to construct a proletarian literature and art that are, as Mao described them at the Yenan Forum, “powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people” even as the unfinished revolution takes place, then we must do so in view of their complicity with the bourgeois institutions of literature and art, and consequently their inevitable limitations in “attacking and destroying the enemy.” The suppression of the bourgeoisie, no thanks to Duchamp, may no longer be compositionally viable as a poem, but it remains necessary for poetry’s advance to abolish itself.   

1. See 
Andrei Monastyrski, “Collective Actions and Trips Out of Town: The Aesthetics of Collective Actions,” in Empty Zones: Andrei Monastyrski and Collective Actions, ed. Boris Groys (London: Black Dog Publishing Limited, 2011).

2. Slavoj Zizek, quoted in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, directed by Sophie Fiennes (Zeitgeist Films, 2012), 136 min.