Springe direkt zu Inhalt

Politics of the Applied: Theatre and Art as Intervention

A short introduction.

One year ago, our group has started working on a project on “the aesthetics of applied theatre” funded by the European Research Council (ERC). Since then, we have been thinking about the question of how theatre finds itself applied in today’s world, and how the performing arts are applied in order to fulfil certain very concrete functions in society. In our first conversations with colleagues, artists and practitioners during the last months, we have noticed that no one seems to like the concept of ‘applied theatre’ too much, because everybody knows that problems do arise if the arts show themselves prepared to be instrumentalised without much reservation. At the same time, there is nothing new in expecting artists and theatre people to take on social responsibilities and to position their work within the present fields of political struggle. This conference will ask in which ways artists recognise their social responsibilities today, and how they intervene in urgent political conflicts, particularly if these conflicts belong to a community of which they themselves do not originally form part.

Times of globalisation are also times of worldwide interventions of any kind. And it might well be that in such times the relationship between arts and society has to be re-conceptualised. On the other hand, a long tradition of reflecting on this relationship exists. When discussing about aesthetics and politics in Germany, the repercussions of Critical Theory are still influential. Without glorifying the Frankfurt School, one cannot refrain from acknowledging that Adorno has already posed and answered many of the questions we will be discussing on this conference in his 'Aesthetic Theory', which was first published no later than in 1970. And Adorno’s perspective was not limited to rather abstract concepts and definitions, but became related to very concrete projects of political theatre and political arts, namely by disciples of him, like literary scholar Peter Bürger. In the early 1970s, Peter Bürger wrote a 'Theory of the Avant-Garde', fully based on the aesthetic concepts of Adorno. In his book, Bürger is quite clear about what the arts have to keep in mind if they want to intervene into the praxis of life and into politics of the everyday. First of all, Bürger tries to clarify what kind of everyday life he is referring to. The historical avant-garde movements in Europe, which he observes, were situated in a social context that was shaped by capitalism and by the purpose-driven lifestyle of the bourgeoisie. What can the arts make out of such a constellation? How should they intervene into it? According to Bürger, any successful intervention can only start from an aesthetic or even aestheticist position: 

“Aestheticism had made the distance from the praxis of life the content of works. The praxis of life to which Aestheticism refers and which it negates is the means-ends rationality of the bourgeois everyday. Now, it is not the aim of the avant-gardistes to integrate art into this praxis. On the contrary, they assent to the aestheticists’ rejection of the world and its means-ends rationality. What distinguishes them from the latter is the attempt to organize a new life praxis from a basis in art. In this respect also, Aestheticism turns out to have been the necessary precondition of the avant-gardiste intent. Only an art the content of whose individual works is wholly distinct from the (bad) praxis of the existing society can be the center that can be the starting point for the organiziation of a new life praxis. [...] All those needs that cannot be satisfied in everyday life, because the principle of competition pervades all spheres, can find a home in art, because art is removed from the praxis of life. Values such as humanity, joy, truth, solidarity are extruded from life as it were, and preserved in art. [...] the (relative) freedom of art vis-à-vis the praxis of life is at the same time the condition that must be fulfilled if there is to be a critical cognition of reality. An art no longer distinct from the praxis of life but wholly absorbed in it will lose the capacity to criticize it, along with its distance.” (English translation taken from Jason Geiger / Paul Wood, ed., 2003: Art of the Twentieth Century. A Reader, Yale University Press, p. 58)

Bürger consents to the dialectical tension in which Adorno places the relationship between art and society. If art is intended to change society, it has to keep itself apart from society. Only from outside the given world an alternative world can be envisaged. From this point of view, any attempt of art to intervene into the everyday life must seem highly contradictory, because intervention is not possible without giving up at least to a certain extent the distance and autonomy that may distinguish art from other fields of society. But do we still believe in these idealist narratives of distance and autonomy?

Intervention basically means not to keep the distance, but to make a plunge into the drama of reality. Such decisive gestures of exposing oneself to the struggles of the world were of course formative in the history of the avant-garde. Russian and German agitprop theatre, for example, engaged in very concrete and well calculated campaigns to raise money for communist organisations or to sell subscriptions of activist newspapers. The Berlin Dadaist movement after World War I disturbed political and religious ceremonies and tried out street performances quite closely related to the anarchist tradition of direct action. Under the umbrella of the Reform Movement of the years around 1900, a variety of dance and theatre projects emerged with clear therapeutic ambitions. Psychodrama, still an important form of applied theatre today, can be traced back to these theatrical experiments of life reform.

It is quite obvious, though, that after Wold War II and especially after the experiences with fascist theatricality during the 1930s and 40s, the later post-war generation of the avant-garde assessed their chances to artistically intervene into social and political conflicts much more pessimistic. Such different artists like the group of the Situationist International around Guy Debord and the East-German Brecht disciples around Heiner Müller turned towards a melancholic view on the relationship between art and society. They still saw art in the duty of addressing the crises of society, but they no longer believed in a positive outcome or in the preventability of a tragic end. Heiner Müller stated in his pieces at the same time the necessity and the futility of revolutions. Guy Debord promised the creation of subversive situations in his manifestos, but he nearly always backed down when it came to the implementation of these ideas. Other parts of the neo-avantgarde, however, as for example feminist performance artists or pacifist groups like the Living Theatre, aimed at a direct confrontation with art institutions and audiences.

Today’s interventions seem to operate once again under different circumstances. It is of course problematic to generalise in these matters, but it is my personal impression, that in many artistic projects going by the name of ‘applied theatre’, ‘community theatre’ or even ‘theatre for development’, despite considerable political ambitions, there is no anarchist dimension any more. Instead, there is a certain readiness to cooperate with international organisations, foundations, and sometimes governments, which for their part do not hesitate to define goals and to provide the practitioners with clear instructions. A sense of melancholic distance has given way to pragmatic optimism. Many facilitators and practitioners seem to believe that artistic practise could, if not change the whole system, then at least foster particular identities and initiate some kind of self-empowerment. Contemporary strategies of identity politics somehow seem to have an easier access to the broad repertoire of performative arts than class-based political approaches used to have in earlier times. Today’s artistic interventions are often planned with an almost scientific accuracy and in full awareness of the complexities of the respective social fields. All parties concerned seem to know that the political implications of such practises are difficult – artists, sponsors, facilitators, and of course also the scholars of the different disciplines analysing contemporary art and activism.

For the panels of the conference “Politics of the Applied: Theatre and Art as Intervention”, we propose three concepts to help identify some important problems of artistic interventions: With “agency”, “protection”, and “transference” we focus on structures that can be found in artistic interventions of very different kinds. The notion of “agency” raises the question of who is really being in charge in such projects: are these the artists, the sponsoring institutions, or are there real political opportunities for those people for whom the projects have originally been conceived? Many projects claim to provide some kind of “safe space”, in which strong emotions can be expressed and dissident opinions may be articulated. This idea might indeed point to a particular potential of theatre, but at the same time, it has a paternalistic aspect, which we want to connote by the word “protection”: If a “safe space” is needed, there must be somebody who apparently needs to be protected by someone else. Talking of “transference”, we want to highlight the on-going importance of psychoanalysis for a profound understanding of theatrical structures in therapeutical practises and dispositivs. In a slightly different sense, transferences are operating in all kinds of theatre, if actors or spectators for example project their own problems and traumata onto dramatic persona and stage actions. We hope that a debate around these concepts will help us shape a better understanding of what it can mean, today, in a variety of cultural settings, to ‘apply theatre’, to intervene into an always already politicised field.


(Transcript of talk given in Berlin on January 31st 2014, opening our first conference)