The Art Kettle

It would be nice to suppose that we could begin here with: “We’re all aware of the occasion, on December 9, 2010, when police in London adopted the paramilitary tactic called ‘kettling’ and restricted the movement of a crowd of lawful protesters, blocking entrance to and exit from Parliament Square for a period of around eight hours.” But we cannot begin thus, for the sad truth is that awareness of this occasion, never very strong, is now waned almost completely. This is a sad truth, because, on December 9, 2010, the British government used the London Metropolitan Police effectively to manipulate public perception of protests at student cuts, making it far more likely that the protesters, and, by implication, their objections to government cuts to spending on higher education in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, would be judged irrational, trouble-seeking and deserving of our censure. The use of the police to push through government decisions, in the face of fully lawful resistance to those decisions, is not something to which any government pretending to democracy ought to resort, nor any population committed to basic democratic freedoms ought to submit.

But this “kettling” technique, now fast becoming an almost procedural feature of British government, is nothing new, not even to Parliament Square, London. In June 2001, a man called Brian Haw began his own protest against another British government decision, the one to invade Iraq. Haw produced and collected placards and other objects, expressive of his and others’ opposition to the invasion, displaying them neatly along one side of Parliament Square. The protest was well conceived: obtrusive but not offensively so, sustained (Haw lived with it for twenty-four hours a day), and of course right on the pulse of political events and visible to thousands of Britons every day and to their Prime Minister Blair on many days. However, in April 2005 a new Serious Organized Crime and Police Act was passed which had the effect of making unauthorized protests illegal within one kilometre of Parliament Square; in May 2006, five years and forty metres of Parliament Square after its beginning, Haw’s protest was almost entirely dismantled. But—and this is the really interesting bit—before it was dismantled it was carefully photographed by the British artist, Mark Wallinger, who then faithfully reconstructed it as a work of art; its title was State Britain and it was on exhibition in Tate Britain from January to August 2007. Why this is interesting is that Tate Britain is partly situated within one kilometre of Parliament Square; Wallinger used an arc of black tape to mark the intersection of State Britain with the newly-designated exclusion zone. But Wallinger’s art work, though indiscernible from Haw’s protest, was not dismantled by the police. Haw’s protest, become art, had ceased to make itself heard.

What exactly happened here? And what does it suggest about the relation between protest and art, or, to put it more specifically, between our liberal democratic government’s mode of managing popular resistance to its decisions, and the social and political effects of that which we call “art”? In one sense, we can reply by saying that nothing much at all happened that was not already commonplace, although somewhat less explicit. On January 16, 2007, The Guardian quoted Tony Blair as saying: “When I pass protestors every day at Downing Street, and believe me, you name it, they protest against it, I may not like what they call me, but I thank God they can. That’s called freedom.” What is significant about this comment is the manner in which it defuses the content of particular protests by highlighting merely their form as protest (“you name it, they protest against it”), and then actually moves to call upon all protests, by virtue of their very proliferation, as supports for the liberal democracy against at least aspects of which they would, if they could!, protest (“I may not like what they call me, but I thank God they can. That’s called freedom.”).

In this short reaction to Haw’s protest, Blair, very astutely, availed himself of the fact that liberal democracy is further justified and strengthened in direct proportion to the extent of the presence it allows to criticism of itself; the louder the protest can be heard, the more tolerant and therefore “liberal” the regime that gives it its airtime. Which means, of course, that protest against liberal democratic governments is not, at least not straightforwardly, possible, given that any protest, whatever its content, unwittingly lends support to the apparent liberality of the polity that not only permits it to happen but “thanks God” that it can. We might, therefore, begin to think that the dismantling of Haw’s protest under the Serious Organized Crime and Police Act merely makes explicit the subtle dismantling of possibilities for protest achieved by a government bent on protecting the “freedom” of its citizens, and that its transportation from the political realm to the art museum merely enacts the extent to which the political commitment to “freedom” as a regulative ideal tends, once it begins to operate at the level of form rather than content, to reduce political action to a mere performance of action, to remake it as an “installation” with merely aesthetic import, and thereby to manage very well its scope and its effects.

Let us, for a final episode in this opening sad tale, stay in Tate Britain, which is now partly situated within Parliament Square, understood as that sacrosanct territory in which protest must be authorized. It is the evening of December 7, 2010. Outside in the entrance hall, invisible but audible, is the remains of a protest (illegal if the entrance hall falls within the zone of exclusion) by students from London art colleges, at the recent announcement of government cuts to funding for higher education in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Inside, also invisible but audible, Susan Phillipsz’s Lowlands Away wins the year’s Turner Prize for being the “outstanding” work of a British artist under the age of 50. Nicolas Serota, director of the Tate, speaks for both outside and in, when, in compliment to Philipsz and with an ironic nod in the direction of the chants of the protestors, he observes that “now seems to be all about sound.”

Philipsz, the morning after the event, recalled the presence of the protestors as “a surreal experience. The particular acoustics in the gallery,” she said, “made it seem like it was a dream—the way the cheering and the chanting carried.” So here, on December 7, 2010, we have the couldn’t-have-written-it-better juxtaposition of an award-winning artwork of sound, and the sound of a protest destined to fall on deaf ears; here we have a call for popular resistance conflated with a study of the sculptural qualities of the musical voice (this is how Philipsz describes her work); here we have a case of real political dissatisfaction made to sound like a dream to those gathered in honour of a prize whose function, since its inception, appears to be the determination of surprisingly “real” objects and events—the switching on and off of a light, an unmade bed, the sounds of an untrained voice singing a folk song—as, in fact, great pieces of art.

The Art Kettle argues that this event, on December 7, 2010, carries a great deal more of significance than its merely coincidental appearance might seem to suggest. For The Art Kettle’s central claim is that the manner in which art is constituted in our society—that is, what we understand art to be and to do, and the value we attribute to what art is and does—operates primarily as a mode of control. We are taught to shy away from the question “What is art for?”: part of the way in which art is constituted means that art is understood as, almost by definition, for nothing; art is disinterested, without use or purpose, and this is regarded, not as a vice, but as a virtue, of art. But we ought not to shy away from the question, for the answer to “What is art for?” is: “To keep us all in good order.” Hence the title of this book—The Art Kettle—for its thesis is that, just as the “kettling” techniques increasingly being employed by the British government as a way to both physically corral crowds of dissenters and, much more sinister, psychologically herd the population at large through the construction and distribution of the figure of the student-protestor-as-threatening-vandal, so what we call “art” operates to physically and psychologically contain a growing population of allegedly “free” thinkers, speakers, movers and livers. It does this by regulating the manner in which our capacities for creativity, for inventiveness, for imagination, our capacities to interpret, to judge, to experience, seek and find what is perceived to be their most fitting expression, leaving the rest of social, cultural and political life free of such unpredictable, such potentially revolutionary, capacities, all the better for our uninterrupted control by the almost-global forces of mass uniformity and constant, small-scale, change that suit so well the interests of capital to which liberal democracy seems now inextricably tied.

When Susan Philipsz confessed to having experienced the sound of chants of protest at government cuts as if they were in a dream, she could not have summarized more accurately the extent to which, in its simultaneous monopolizing of the creative impulse and designation of that impulse as necessarily extricated from any purpose, as for nothing, what we call “art” has rendered un-real the possibilities for “free thinking” and for resistance that are supposed to lie at the heart of our political system. When Brian Haw’s protest against the invasion of Iraq was dismantled into an artwork, this kettle-effect of art was made just a little less subtle. That our government now begins to “kettle” more blatantly, shortcutting the route through art altogether by simply sending the police out onto the streets, and that this development coincides so closely with government cuts to funding for art, may be the effect of an art kettle that has worked so well it is no longer required: when a population has ceased to judge for itself, what need any more for a convoluted regulation of its judgement? Either that, or liberal democracy is growing careless, too careless to present its excessive need for control as anything other than what it is.