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PRovokiNg
DeMoCRACy
By Caroline Levine
Blackwell, £19.99/$29.95 (paperback)
Provoking Democracy: Why We Need the Arts
is a thoughtful and highly readable challenge to
the idea that difficult, unpopular art is necessarily
Just as democracy needs art to maintain a
anti-democratic. Author Caroline Levine argues
healthy innovation of ideas, the author points out,
that the arts play a special role in democracies by
art needs democratic institutions to safeguard
questioning orthodoxy, encouraging a culture of
its autonomy. In the landmark obscenity trial in
critical dissent and seeking to establish a more
1960 over the publication of D.H. Lawrence’s
‘truthful’ perspective of reality. This logic of the
Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), the British courts
avant-garde, she insists, is beneficial to majorities
affirmed the value of expert opinion in judging the
in the long term, even though quite often it
social value of art. It disregarded the prosecution’s
appears to spit in the face of public opinion.
complaints about lewd sexual passages and
Although Levine sometimes presents her case as
focused instead on what the ordinary reader
though it were novel, she in fact builds upon a
might derive, if given time, encouragement and
longstanding tradition of critical cultural thought
education. Although this verdict left the general
which stretches from Matthew Arnold to the
idea of moral censorship intact, it at least showed
Frankfurt School and, later, Raymond Williams.
increased respect for the public and its capacity
Their call for art as uncomfortable provocation,
to read literature, reflecting the more progressive
as Levine shows, remains highly influential in the
mood of the times. In America, while Congress
artworld today.
was busily condemning contemporary artists for
Fundamental to the logic of the avant-
being anti-American and immoral, the CIA was
garde is the belief that although ordinary people
secretly funding abstract expressionist painters
may not initially ‘get’ modern art, they can be
in order to demonstrate to the wider world how
open to persuasion. The radical ‘outsiderness’
genuinely radical the artworld could be under
of art, Levine shows, is internally linked to the
capitalism. In both countries, a democratic
democratic conception of the citizen as someone
conception of the public (at least in principle, if
who is potentially open to ideas and expertise.
not always in practice) secured the basis of art’s
Likewise, notions of artistic expertise and value
autonomy.
– regularly treated with suspicion by bureaucrats
Levine’s argument is deftly illustrated,
– are essential components of a universalist,
historical and persuasive. Yet it ultimately begs the
egalitarian approach to art.
question of how much the artworld today really
Of course, this process of mediation
lives up to its democratic ideal. The problems of
between the radical artist and the wider public is
dull conformity and managerial or commercial
rarely straightforward and often unpredictable. In
imperatives are as pervasive in the arts sector as
1925, newspaper headlines proclaimed outrage
anywhere else. Artists seem only too happy to aid
at Jacob Epstein’s medallion sculpture Memorial
the conventional moralising about community
to W.H. Hudson (Rima), in Hyde Park. Today it
cohesion, regeneration, anti-social behaviour,
is passed by unnoticed, reflecting the gradual
recycling and so on. At the same time, much of
acceptance and eventual indifference of the
contemporary art can feel gratuitously shocking,
public. By contrast, Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, a
esoteric and contemptuous of its public.
monolithic curving steel wall installed in a plaza
Modern art is certainly sceptical about its own
in downtown Manhattan in 1981, was destroyed
claims to value. Although the book expresses
By Philip Tinari
eight years later when 1,300 signatories
well the relationship between artistic autonomy
Thames & Hudson, £48/$95 (hardcover) protested its construction. For anyone involved
and democracy in the abstract, its blind spot is
in commissioning public art, these examples
perhaps that it takes for granted the health of
are worth reading for insight into the changing
this relationship today. Munira Mirza
nature of public opinion, and the rewards or risks
in trying to change it.
March_books_prt1.indd.indd 171 6/2/08 15:41:40
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