Is civil disobedience our civic duty?

don't do anything. Reader on civil and social disobedience in art and practice

Martin Büsser

The editors have big plans: »not doing everything« not only offers a historical overview of the theory and practice of civil disobedience, but would also like to tie this back to strategies of the visual arts. This is unusual, because within the left either the originally educated bourgeois idea of ​​art autonomy, which loses its freedom as soon as art becomes politically active, or the idea that any kind of artistic protest remains socially ineffective in the field of art prevails. In contrast, the political scientist John Holloway in his article "On Poetry and Revolution" advocates imagining the revolution artistically: Revolution cannot simply react to violence with violence, to ugly with ugly and postpone the question of an art that serves it. Even if it is almost presumptuous to speak of revolution in view of the given political conditions, Holloway touches on an important complex of topics. Art usually represents a blind spot within the left or is exhausted in agit prop and revolutionary romanticism. However, if the revolution actually occurred and capitalism were abolished, agitational art would also have become superfluous. And what comes after that? The question of an appropriate material aesthetic, which Adorno once asked and answered very rigorously for himself, does not arise in Holloway. But he warns against imagining a revolution without poetry. With reference to Marx's distinction between “abstract” and “concrete or useful work”, artistic work for Holloway already represents a path to self-determination. It refers to a “world based on use value and not exchange value”. In doing so, however, he becomes entangled in contradictions in several ways. On the one hand, artistic self-determination is only guaranteed under capitalism as long as there is a market for it. On the other hand, what Wolfgang Seidel, formerly a musician of the left-wing band Ton Steine ​​Scherben, stated on the special path of art in capitalism still applies: “Whether I call for a general strike on the theater stage or in front of the factory gate, it's two pairs of shoes. One is art and gets applause, the other is politics and affects the foundations of our society. "

However, some of the works by visual artists documented in »not doing everything« make it clear that it is entirely possible to work at an interface between real civil disobedience and artistic intervention. For example, when the Spanish artist fran meana holds miniature landscapes mounted on sticks in front of surveillance cameras and documents these actions later in the museum, he is engaged in both agitation and education. On the one hand, his work 'disrupts' his work, as it temporarily suspends surveillance, and on the other hand, the documentation in the museum creates awareness of the ubiquity of surveillance.

However, it is not just the intensive examination of the visual arts in the context of civil disobedience that makes “don't do anything” an extraordinary publication. The preoccupation with civil disobedience itself has become a rarity today. In their introduction, the editors state that the debate, at least in German-speaking countries, has almost come to a standstill after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Against the background of the globalization-critical movements in the so-called emerging countries and new action alliances within the framework of the G8 summit in Heiligendamm in 2007, the topic is also attracting increased interest in Germany. It is to be feared, however, that much historical knowledge about the history and development of civil disobedience has been lost. That is why “not doing anything” is historically based, beginning with Thoreau's work “On the Duty to Disobey the State” and tracing the development of Gandhi's anti-colonial resistance in India via the British sit-in “Operation Gandhi” against the stationing of nuclear weapons in the early 1950s Years until the New Social Movements protests of the 1960s and 1970s. In his historical overview, Lou Marin points out an interesting aspect that may be specific to Germany and yet at the same time represents one of the typical democratic appropriation effects: At the beginning of the 1980s, some SPD politicians attempted to state concepts of action such as civil disobedience collect and reconcile with the rule of law «. Civil disobedience was reinterpreted as a democratic civic duty, but at the price of denying the legitimacy of all illegal actions. However, if civil disobedience is limited to a critical letter to the editor or a collection of signatures that ends up in the shredder anyway or is forwarded to the BKA for data collection, both resistance and democracy become a farce. The fence that shielded politicians from all protests in Heiligendamm made it clear, however, that the fear of civil disobedience and its consequences has not subsided, but has become downright panic.


don't do anything. Reader on civil and social disobedience in art and practice cannot do everything. A reader on civil and social disobedience in art and practice