Opening All of the Windows

Reviewed by Olive

Randy Martin, ed. The Routledge Companion to Art and Politics (London: Routledge, 2015), 348 pp., $240.

Randy Martin, a professor at New York University who founded and chaired the program in Arts Politics, died on January 28, 2015. The Routledge Companion to Art and Politics appeared shortly before his death, marking one of the last installments of his lifelong engagement with its subject matter. This volume shows key aspects of his orientation to intellectual life, his politics, his wit and spirit, his unceasing utopian hopefulness.

Opening with a short introduction, the volume is divided into four clusters of articles: Conceptual Cartographies, Institutional Materialities, Modalities of Practice, and Making Publics. Roughly corresponding to theoretical concerns, institutional contextualization, arts practices, and audience constitution, these sections bundle an eclectic set of contributions from artists, theorists, historians, activists, and organizers. The sections are loose and overlapping, such that essays could easily be moved around to bring out different resonances within and between them. The texts themselves are varied, ranging from informal interviews, densely woven theoretical investigations, political musings, readings of particular art works, or first person narrations of political events. The bridging of scholarship between the humanities and the social sciences as well as the interdisciplinary terrain that the volume generates is characteristic of Martin’s approach.

Randy Martin’s mind was too wily, too expansive to stay within the parameters of one field. Trained as a sociologist at the City University of New York, teaching at Pratt and then at NYU, he took up a diverse set of subjects in his scholarship: dance studies, Marxist theory, the politics of higher education, processes of financialization, American empire, theater in Central America, etc. He moved laterally, shifting between discourses and fields, while honing a set of moves and sensibilities that he brought to social analysis at large. This is not to say he was unanchored. He maintained a long-term affiliation with the Social Text editorial collective, served as president of the Cultural Studies Association, and received the American Sociological Association's Marxist Sociology Lifetime Achievement Award. He was an active participant in New York intellectual life, in leftist social movements, in the downtown dance scene, and other milieus. His friendships and collegial relationships inform much of The Routledge Companion.

Martin describes the goal of the book as “to expand recognition of what art and politics can be” (7). He proliferates the possible ways of thinking through the art/politics nexus. The essays take up a sprawling set of questions: What is the relation between art and labor-power, or art and the commodity-form, in the aftermath of the economic crisis of 1973? How does the temporality of the artwork relate to the temporality of capital? How do we see or define moments of freedom in what might appear as situations of social control? In what ways does state power treat artists as threats to national security? How have digital worlds and new media altered the contours of curation, censorship, and/or access? Through what conceptual tools do we make sense of experiments with participation in art practices over the last three decades? How do we rethink our disciplinary tools and methods to account for the politics of art and the social relations that art puts in motion? How can we think through the interaction between artistic and political avant-gardes in revolutionary Russia? How can the practice of making art with people who share an experience of oppression be a means of organizing? How do these questions resonate within the Indian context or the Chinese context or with the Puerto Rican community in New York or in the liberated territories of Chiapas? How can we learn new ways of listening? Do we want to succeed, or do we want to fail? How and when can we get wild and start a riot?

Martin deliberately widens the scope of what is included in the discussion, what bodies of scholarship are relevant, what discourses, practices, and communities are important to consider. Reflective of what he refers to as an “agnosticism toward what might be considered art and what can count as politics” (3), he opens all the windows, maybe even breaks down a few of walls. The resulting collection draws from a wide range of disciplines and discourses: performance studies, art history, new media, sociology, post-colonial theory, queer theory, environmental studies, practice as research, community-based arts practices, critical pedagogy, contemporary political theory, among others.

Individual contributions are rich and gestural, hinting at larger bodies of research. The volume opens with Ana Maria Ochoa’s “On the Zoopolitics of the Voice and the Distinction between Nature and Culture” which is a brief yet expansive discussion of characterizations of indigenous vocality in the colonial archive and how listening to the howling of natives must be understood through the simultaneous registering of their land claims. The volume takes us through the intricate synthesis of Adorno’s aesthetics, left-communist thought, and value theory that Marina Vishmidt and John Roberts develop in their art historical work, to Diana Taylor’s visit to Chiapas for the twentieth anniversary celebration of the Zapatista uprising, to Stefano Harney’s meditation on Fanon, the rhythm of globalized production circuits, and the militant arrhythmia of the undercommons.

A number of the essays discuss the work of fellow contributors, citing previous artistic projects or scholarly texts, producing threads that weave the volume together. There are points when I would like to close some windows or draw some lines, as in the case of Suzanne Lacy’s self-congratulatory discussion of her series titled the Oakland Projects, which she made in collaboration with youth of color from marginalized communities. Lacy does not cite a single voice of the youth that were involved in the projects, while she does take time to reflect on “how to support police mentorship of youth.”  Such moments might call for a critical read, but it was not Randy’s style to seek out any particular political tendency, always opting for the inclusion of a range of perspectives.

Randy Martin was never a polemicist; rarely if ever was he willing merely to perform a critique. Instead of drawing lines between positions, he would find ways to reorient the terms of the discussion. Rather than picking a side, he would spin the board. One of his chief intellectual modes was that of disorientation. He would take any periodization and contextualization of aesthetics or of politics and find ways to reconfigure the coordinates of the discussion. In the introduction to The Routledge Companion, he discusses avoiding a structure for the volume that would “assert a pre-given grammar to the organization of this emergent knowledge.”

Martin’s scholarship makes it difficult to reduce his work to arguments one has seen before, to say ah yes, “this is reflective of [a certain Bourdieuian, or Jamesonian position, or a cultural studies mode, or a sociological method…].” His writing changes the contours of the discussion too quickly for it to settle into a tidy line of argumentation. His prose does not make points; its spins webs. Never simply declarative, his clauses seem to wind around corners unexpectedly. Martin certainly had his intellectual and political commitments, but he was a supple thinker, always ready to see how a particular concept or term might resonate in a different discourse or context.

The Routledge Companion might can open up one’s thinking about an art practice, political movement, or set of aesthetic concerns by generating a slew of new questions. It could introduce a reader to a different set of optics or avenues of inquiry regarding history, political economy, institutional constraints, qualities of engagement, constituencies, and pedagogy. The book’s mode is more evocative than in-depth, gesturing to larger bodies of work more than thinking through them in detail. Randy dwelled in the space of evocation, letting a discussion spin and turn, never settling for a point of arrival.

In my years spent trying to chart Randy Martin’s thought, I have come the closest to finding a possible key to his work in the writing of Ernst Bloch. In The Principle of Hope, Bloch writes: “Along this line, therefore, lies the solution of the aesthetic question of truth: Art is a laboratory and also a feast of implemented possibilities, together with the thoroughly experienced alternatives therein…”1 In selecting these articles for the volume, Martin animates and makes visible what is already in motion, what hopeful excesses endure within the patriarchal, colonialist, capitalist world in which we live. On questions of art and politics, his analysis held onto the dialectical relation between two poles, never reducing art’s social function to “unlocking the doors to a better world, or being but the gilded cage in which alternative visions are imprisoned” (2). He found ways of naming and valuing the practices in our midst – the proliferation of social movements and aesthetic strategies – without letting a sharp critique of social relations dim the glimmers of a world to come.

Thanks to my studying with Randy Martin, he became my most important interlocutor – not only because he seemed to be the only person rigorously conversant in the two traditions I am concerned with (Marxism and dance), but also because his nimble mind never let me rest. I, and I hope readers of this volume, will not stop thinking through and with him.

Reviewed by Olive Mckeon, PhD candidate University of California at Los Angeles


1. Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, Vol. I. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986), 216.