I recently finished reading Caroline Levine's Provoking Democracy: Why we Need the Arts and found it to be one of the most interesting books that I've read in a long time, and perhaps also one of the best written. Provoking Democracy is part of the Blackwell Manifestos series, published by Blackwell's Bookstores, and if Levine's text is anything to go by, I may well have to pick up the rest of the collection.
Levine tackles the difficult issues of Art's role in a democratic society with a new and fascinatingly original argument; she tackles the age-old question "Is art for or against democracy?", but does so in a way which elegantly sidesteps entrenched arguments over censorship and funding. Levine focuses on the peculiar logic of the Avant-Garde as a way of looking at iconoclastic artists who have created challenging and unconventional works that attack institutions and ignore the tastes of the majority of the population.
" ...I want to suggest that the logic of the avant-garde itself can best be understood as a social institution... Continuous, organised, self-governing and prescriptive, institutions might seem like the very antithesis of the spirit of the avant-garde. And yet, despite its desire to be radically outside of the social order, the logic of the avant-garde does take shape as a social institution, reappearing with surprising regularity over time, and supported and legitimized by fellow institutions. And so to claim that the logic of the avant-garde is an institution is to draw a certain paradox at its heart: despite its aim to disrupt settled norms and routines, it is itself highly organized and self-regulating" (Levine, 2007, p25-6)Levine's masterstroke is to argue that the Avant-Garde, like the Judiciary, is essentially an institution that disrupts and challenges the threat of "majority rule". In causing controversy, it is willfully divisive, able to blow apart public consensus and that by challenging the limits of acceptability, art forms an important function, constantly testing and affirming democracy. The catch to this paradox is that the avant-garde iconoclast is always within an institution; even at it's most venomously anti-democratic and offensive, the avant-garde promotes democracy by demonstrating its pluralism.
Perhaps what makes Provoking Democracy so involving is that Levine has deliberately focused her attention on the legal aspects of this debate, drawing her discussion points from important precedents that have been set in the past. In doing so she's able to not only provide fascinating evidence of the evolving legal definition of art, but also to ground what could have been a very abstract and flighty manifesto in something very tangible. Levine's accounts of the court proceedings also furnish us with interesting examples of just how well the opinions of Art Critics hold up in a court of law. Some are much more successful than others, and unfairly it seems to come down to nothing more than how condescending the expert is when addressing the Jury. That's democracy!
The legal cases themselves are clearly explained, assume very little prior knowledge, and cumulatively provide a very interesting history of changing social mores. Plus they're just great anecdotes! Alongside the Bird in Space ruling of Brancusi v. United States are the hideously obscene and misogynistic rap lyrics of 2 Live Crew, the cringe-worthy spectacle of Jeff Koons making a total tit of himself in a court of law and some absolutely mind-blowing declassified facts about the CIA secretly bankrolling Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionist movement as a form of propaganda for democracy. Seriously, I'm not giving any more away about that. You have to go and buy the book yourself.
I came to Provoking Democracy looking for simple, blankets statements but came away with a lively debate and an energetic means of framing it. Levine has made me think differently about how I'll be approaching my work in the future and considering the role that underground comics play in the avant-garde.
Review by Sam Jones
Review in Times Higher Education (Steve Blandford)
Review by Paul Parker
Blackwell's Manifesto Series