‘What keeps mankind alive?’: the Eleventh International Istanbul Biennial. Once More on Aesthetics and Politics

Day, Gail; Edwards, Steve and Mabb, David (2010). ‘What keeps mankind alive?’: the Eleventh International Istanbul Biennial. Once More on Aesthetics and Politics. Historical Materialism, 18(4) pp. 135–171.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1163/156920610X550631


Co-written with another art historian and an artist, this essay assesses contemporary debate about art, politics and commodity culture. Starting from the 2009 Istanbul Biennial, with its Brechtian curatorial theme, this we consider's the Left's varying responses to art's co-called 'political turn'. Our essay, includes a substantial review of this important event and a substantive engagement with contemporary thinking about art.

The essay ranges a consideration of the local and regional context of the Biennial's function as part of Turkey's bid to join the EU, through to a longer term theoretical perspective on the critical debates over 'art and life', artistic autonomy and heteronomy, and the revival of avant-gardism.

The authors propose that the standard accounts of the intimate connection between the commodity and art are theoretically flawed and have become conservative and politically counterproductive. We suggest that Marxist analysis needs to develop a more complexly-articulated philosophical reflection on the relation between economy, politics and art - and between political and aesthetic praxes - if it is to advance its longstanding contributions to considerations of 'aesthetics and politics'. This will necessarily entail, we suggest, a serious engagement with the critique of political economy.

This essay is an original contribution to the debate on contemporary art, drawing on an intimate knowledge of recent art and art criticism, it involves a reworking of the standard accounts drawing on an understanding of Marxist theory, which is often invoked in these debates, but often misunderstood.

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