The art of dissent: the price of freedom

Núria Guiu durant un moment de l’actuació a l’espectacle Likes al Teatre Lliure. © Ajuntament de Barcelona / Laura Guerrero

Today we wonder whether dissent can still be exercised in a culture subsidised and domesticated by the official discourse of institutions. Is it feasible today to think of artistic practice based on counterculture? Or is the concept of ‘counterculture’ perhaps already wholly obsolete? Can an anti-system discourse be built without becoming entrenched in marginality? What if rebellious spirit finally succumbs to the temptation to take refuge in the most innocuous elitism?

Barcelona’s counterculture in the 1970s has recently been defended with a certain nostalgia. Exhibitions such as Underground at the Palau Robert or books such as El bar Kike y Paca la Tomate by Nazario, published by Barcelona City Council, have reminded us that a spirit of freedom and transgression was palpable in Barcelona at the outset of the transition to democracy whose absence is felt today.

That romantic vision of the rebellious artist defying the prevailing order was undermined by the moral relativism of postmodernity, which marked the 1980s. Then, from the 1990s onwards, it was dismissed by the neoliberal creed, which has subordinated artistic practice to the laws of the market and individual success. And today that transgressive spirit has been undermined by political correctness and the culture of cancellation, which has heightened artists’ self-censorship. We have also seen how artistic expressions that were postulated against the self-righteous order, such as rap or hip hop, have been assimilated by the market, which has incorporated them into mainstream consumption.

Apart from all the ideological determining factors that restrict creators’ freedom, there is yet another factor that overrides dissent: the vulnerability and precariousness with which artists live, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic and that erodes their intellectual or artistic integrity.

Confronted with these afflictions, we have asked creators, managers and curators from different realms (visual arts, publishing, theatre, film and music) if dissent can still be exercised today. We have also asked them what resistance they have come up against and what they have had to give up to hold onto their independence.

Retrat de Elvira Dyangani Ose. © MACBA © MACBA

Elvira Dyangani Ose
Director of the MACBA [Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona]

Artists have the ability to dismantle notions of history and challenge norms. Incorporating its discourses into the museum, within a certain officialdom, serves to shatter the mental frameworks that support these notions of history.

The museum can accommodate dissent. It can even serve to break with aspects of fixed structures that have taken hold in museums, structures that not even the museum itself, despite having an absolutely radical programming against the neoliberal system, does not realise that it has in its own bedrock. For me, as a person with an active imagination and a very practical person at the same time, the museum must redefine its terms and bring about the social changes that we would like to see in society. The museum must endeavour to transform itself, to have a critical sense, to avoid becoming bourgeois in certain positions. And the museum should be concerned with bringing together different communities that must share this transformation. Whether you are part of a racialised community or not, you have a role to play in this postcolonial society, and we all need to decolonise our minds. And in this respect, the museum must make an effort to unlearn.

Sometimes we forget that we are part of the system we wish to change. And we must understand that we will not be able to do that in five or even in ten years. We know that certain dissenting practices have often been incorporated into the museum’s discourse programmatically, but have failed to make structural changes. These structural changes are what we are calling for now.

Retrat de Laura Arau.

Laura Arau
Cultural manager at the KULT cooperative. Coordinator of the Literal Fair. Member of the Protesta Festival team

We are committed to a cultural model based on the premise that culture is a right and a basic good, not so much a consumer item. Also on the assumption that the public should be oriented towards becoming a community, and adopt an increasingly direct and participatory approach to culture.

The Literal Fair is committed to the voices of critical thinking. We work from the sidelines, but we don’t want to be sidelined. We aspire to reach people who are in the mainstream, but who can connect with our discourse. In this vein we have adopted a less radical aesthetic, which brings us closer to a more general public.

The fair would be impossible without the subsidies we receive from Barcelona City Council and the Government of Catalonia, but this does not influence us when it comes to giving a voice to dissent. We are afraid that the government will punish us if we do the opposite, but we must be brave since it is public money.

More than 10,000 people visit the Literal Fair every year and it hosts a hundred companies from the independent publishing sector specialised in critical thinking. We believe that this affords us strength and legitimacy to give a voice to uncomfortable and subversive discourses.

Retrat de Albert Serra. © Albert Roig © Albert Roig

Albert Serra
Film director

Today dissent is excessively influenced by political correctness. With the culture of cancellation, you can no longer even generate a discussion or you will be erased from the public sphere. Today, dissent that puts forward values contrary to the prevailing ones is rare, because everyone already exercises previous self-censorship. New ways to subtly express one’s non-conformity can be sought out, but if it is too subtle, it no longer has the strength of dissent, which must be manifested as a head-on and visible collision against the system.

There is censorship of the left for the first time in history. In the past, censorship was imposed from a conservative morality, but today, paradoxically, it is exercised from a progressive morality.

Today the only dissent worthy of this name is to do serious things and take them to the extreme, without being ensnared by banality or seeking easy acceptance. It is a dissent that will not seek a head-on collision but rather an inner one, based on preaching by example; over time, it creates a stance, an attitude that can only be understood in the long run, and which, implicitly looks down on success even if it is taken advantage of.

Retrat de Núria Güell.

Núria Güell

My artistic practice is an anti-cultural practice. What I’m interested in is bringing established moral and cultural conventions into play, rethinking and challenging them. The tradition of modern art was also anti-cultural in its infancy, but when art became a recognised value as of the 1980s, its subversive power was seized by the cultural apparatus, and us artists were forced to perform veritable miracles so that this power remains active.

Subversion can be executed on three levels. First of all, in relation to the content of the work. I always try to make the work bring out something real: putting a name on what cannot be said, making people look at what they don’t want to see, making them hear what they don’t want to hear.

On a second level, in my practice, I try not to omit the museum or cultural-institution apparatus, which has its own history and interests. When I begin an exhibition project, I always ask myself what battles I am willing to support in my relationship with the institution. There’s a lot of hidden negotiation work behind each of my exhibitions, so I try to push the boundaries so that the work doesn’t get caught up in the apparatus. And things often happen that are disruptive for the institution itself, because through the process of involving them, the institution positions itself.

And on a third, more intimate level, I try to make all my projects subversive with myself. When I have finished a good project, I have never emerged as the same person who started it. There is also this yearning to push my own limits.

Retrat de Semolinka Tomic. © Viquipèdia © Viquipèdia

Semolinka Tomic
Founder and artistic director of the Antic Teatre

Three factors prevent the practice of dissent. In Barcelona, powerful creation in contemporary art isn’t possible, because there is no programme that encourages experimentation and critical reflection, nor any school where how to integrate body language, video, robotics, text, light, sound, energetic movement in space, dance or circus in a multidisciplinary creation is really taught.

The Antic Teatre is part of the grassroots culture movement ( and promoter of the ParlaMent Ciutadà de Cultura de Barcelona (PMCCB) [Barcelona Citizens’ ParliaMent of Culture], an instrument that must open a public debate and a citizen observatory of culture in order to oversee and audit what is done with public money. The ICUB (Barcelona Institute of Culture) continues to foster cultural projects with a vertical, top-down view, instead of supporting independent projects.

The precarious nature of the sector makes it impossible for real dissent to emerge. Without the status of artist, there are no rights for the cultural worker. The artist is preoccupied with “What is in this for me?”, but there is no institutional circuit where they can exhibit their art, apart from a handful of theatres and festivals. Not many artists are aware that only a common front can change the situation.

Retrat de Francina Gorina 'La Queency’. © Agus Izquierdo © Agus Izquierdo

Francina Gorina, ‘La Queency’
Urban music singer

I don’t trust record labels and I prefer to stay underground, so it doesn’t make sense for me to involve more people in my work. When you want to start making a living from this, you realise that it’s not enough to just upload a song to YouTube, but I don’t want to sign to a record label either because I think the music I make is countercultural and urban music, and so signing a contract would seem counterintuitive to me. In the Spanish market, singers can hold onto their independence because they have their own hallmarks. In Catalan it is more difficult.

I was offered record contracts on the promise that, if I signed, I would be invited to perform at festivals with the band 31 FAM. And since I haven’t signed, I can’t go nor do they call me. Of course, I’m an emerging artist, I’m just starting out, but I think a gamble is only taken on emerging artists here if they make a specific, politically correct sort of music, and if you don’t venture down the route they want, you don’t get on the circuit. Why do we always come across the same four trap singers at every festival? Because that’s what the media promotes and therefore what we want to see. And those of us that don’t play their game don’t exist. It’s a circuit that feeds on itself.

Retrat de Daniel Gasol. © Agus Izquierdo © Agus Izquierdo

Daniel Gasol
Artist and essayist. Author of Art (in)útil [(Un)usable Art] (Raig Verd, 2021)

Duchamp brought a urinal inside a museum and a century later the debate over what is art and what isn’t is still very much alive. We continue to trust the authority of museums, trying to resolve the issue from within the art system. But if you pay attention, the panel of judges in an artistic call for proposals works like a “got talent” competition. Capitalism is not just an economic system: it creates ways of doing, of existing, of relating, in which the idea is constantly promoted that if you work hard you can go far. The arts work according to the rules of the capitalist system instead of challenging it.

A museum is a cemetery where you can see deactivated works. The idea of performance, conceptual art or the avant-garde itself started out with an anti-commercial position and ended up being swallowed up. I don’t think it’s the museum’s problem, as its conservation and dissemination work is necessary. The mistake is to understand that cultural institutions are a system impervious to capitalist hierarchies, that the museum is a space of authority within a system that must generate a very specific narrative.

I am glad that many discourses are being democratised, but I see that capitalism has the power to override them, because it managed to find the method to generate gains from its own critique. Capitalism is interested in pluralising its discourses because that is how it spreads. The narrative is the same, because even if the content changes, the form is always the same: there is a vertical structure where those higher up are constantly encouraging those lower down to strive to climb and achieve well-being.

Retrat de Joan Burdeus.

Joan Burdeus
Philosopher, cultural critic

One generous way to understand the contradictions of the contemporary artist is to see them as a parasite eating away at the system. The difference between parasitism and other trophic relationships, such as predator-prey, is that the parasite avoids a head-on collision in which it could die devoured and survive inside the host, weakening it.

Those of us who have been following the cultural world for a long time have gotten fed up with artists spouting these kinds of discourses, who always present themselves as livid critics of the system and, at the same time, argue that hacking from the inside is more effective today than colliding head-on from the outside.

Everything we call “contemporary art” is post-revolutionary, and this contradiction is accepted right up to the end: to be both the object of consumption and subversive propaganda, to participate in the system in an attempt to transform it from the inside. The case of Banksy, which we can now see at the Disseny Hub, is very illustrative: Is Banksy an activist who enters the market to hack it, or a cynic who takes advantage of it to profit from empty gestures? Meanwhile, anti-capitalism has become a lucrative idea and may be the new Barcelona brand.

Retrat de Mar Carrera. © Antolin Avezuela

Mar Carrera
Editora independiente. Pol·len Edicions

At Pol·len we understand that dissent can be exercised in the publishing sector within the framework of values that are not purely commercial. We are committed to critical thinking and bibliodiversity. We try to apply the ideas we advocate in our publishing practice. We publish according to sustainable publishing criteria, backing local suppliers and we have joined the Llibre Local [Local Book] label, which is committed to printing our books in local printers and thus strengthening Catalonia’s publishing facilities. In sustainable publishing, we design our books to minimise environmental impacts, and one of the elements we do is use FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified and 100% recycled paper from sustainably managed forests, with no illegal logging or the displacement of native populations. Moreover, we include environmental communication as a common practice. In the book, we calculate, through a software called bookDAPer, the ecological backpack. In the field of transnational co-editions, instead of exporting our books, we release co-editions with Latin American publishers to strengthen local economies. Instead of flooding another continent with our books, we prefer to share knowledge and publish authors from there, and vice versa.

Retrat de Roger Bernat. © Blenda © Blenda

Roger Bernat

It is absolutely possible and necessary to exercise dissent, otherwise art ceases to make sense. However, the question of whether this subversion can be maintained within the framework of institutions is a false debate. Art is made in a specific context and is therefore conditioned, either by a public or private institution, or by the market.

Art ceases to be culture to become art when it is able to convey what culture is unable to see. If art isn’t dissident, it becomes entertainment, business, or some other way of legitimising institutions.

It is true that when I work in an institution like Santa Mònica, which depends on the Government of Catalonia, or in a festival in Chile funded by large mining companies, there is a contradiction, but I think that in this tension dissent can eventually emerge victorious, if the play or the show is good enough to disconnect the audience from a false reality.

Theatre is where we allow ourselves to say what we really want to say and what we cannot say in another arena (parliament, academia, etc.). That there is a space where the most dissenting discourses have a place to be heard is a distinctive feature that honours our societies. However, it is not true that we are free to say whatever we feel like, but rather that we always adjust according to our position.

Sure, there are shows of mine that haven’t excelled enough and have become one more element of an institution’s cultural programme that needed to give itself credit, but I’ve never been aware that anyone has asked me to change my discourse nor have I felt inhibited.

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