In Their

First-time translations of existing texts

Social Art Practice and Corporate Social Ideology

May 15, 2014

The rationale and interpretations of social art practice—of which most dominant discourses have been articulated in the North—do not fully relate to the ways in which public or community engaged art in Latin America has developed in the past decades. Just consider some of the leading voices on this matter: Nato Thompson, Grant Kestner, Claire Bishop, among several others. They have influentially championed, critiqued, and created standards or taxonomies of the modalities and ends of this kind of expanded public art practice. They have, thankfully, given visibility to historic or ongoing art projects that are, for the most part, difficult to grasp, whether because these are process-based to be experienced rather than discrete objects or installations to be seen; because these are using unconventional, perhaps new, artistic languages and grammar yet not fully comprehended by art specialists and its audiences; because they happen at the margins of society, its institutions and narratives; because they do not engage art specialists but instead general audiences turned active participants as collaborators, co-producers and, at times, also as the sole receptors of a project. The list of reasons can go on.

However, there may be no need to point out that, in the North, institutional infrastructure for the arts has a very different history and funding structure—private, for the most part. Neither, that its cultural histories diverge with those of the South—just take the experience of colonialsm, revolution, dictatorships. The notions of the public and the practice of civicism have a different basis, depending where and when one is acting. The analysis of social practice in contemporary art raises a number of interesting issues that relate to aesthetic theory and political history, namely, around art’s function in society. The point is this: What is being thought in Latin America about social practices in contemporary art? The instrumentalization of art (By who? For the sake of what?), the antagonisms it may generate or represent, the intended or naïve complicities it creates, are among these issues explored in this critical essay by Carlos Salazar. First a lecture in “Art and the Market” at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia (April 24-28, 2006), and later published in the online blog Esfera Pública (November 27, 2012), this is the first English translation of Salazar’s essay. The original title of the lecture was “Social Practice and Social Corporate Responsibility; the text here has been translated by Phillip Penix-Tadsen, with permission of the author and in collaboration with Esfera Pública.

-Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy

Written by Carlos Salazar and originally published in Spanish by Esfera Pública on May 02, 2006. Translated by Phillip Penix-Tadsen.

(Text adapted and edited for the web based on the presentation “Social Practice and Social Corporate Responsibility,” part of the “Art and the Market” series at the University of the Andes, which took place from April 24–28, 2006)

“He has the malice, the cleverness, the wickedness, the sharpness of wit, the hardness of heart, stipulated for loving the world profitably. He will never die of it.”

Katherine Anne Porter. Flowering Judas. 1930

“What’s that word you say, boy?”
“Social responsibility,” I said.

Ralph Ellison. The Invisible Man.1947

“C’est l’opportunisme qui fait la fonction.” *

Contemporary social practice or contemporary political art is not the inheritor of the Brechtian enlightenment that inspired the liberal culture of the 60s, as might be deduced from the attempts of those trying to establish its historical prestige. Brecht, and Piscator before him, attempted to make art and especially theater into an instrument of social praxis and political consciousness-raising, terms that have been euphemized ad nauseum as political art, relational art, responsible art, historical consciousness, social consciousness, social responsibility, ethical responsibility, duty to report, etc.

Nor is contemporary social practice a vindication absorbed into capitalism by a pioneering segment of the artistic community consisting of artists, academics, and curators, a “Corporation of Social Practice” which sees itself as the only morally valid entity within the cultural superstructure, to the extent that we have ever more testimonies by curators and artists self-promoting and selling themselves, as if singing Brecht’s own “Ode to Dialectics.”

“Let us show you the path.

The hungry will feed you.”

For beyond the circular delirium of what seems ever more like the central committee on culture, like the Prince’s Party sought by Gramsci, contemporary social practice is in fact a microcosmic reflection of neoliberal corporate policy inspired by Andrew Carnegie and his belief that society should be left to the care of corporations through corporate social responsibility and philanthropy (Hymn to Wealth, 1899). That is, its origins are not in the aesthetic theories of Marx, as was suggested in Brecht’s time and through the aforementioned enlightenment aesthetic of the 60s, but rather they can be found concealed behind a discourse “hostile” to capitalism, in the basic theories of capitalism itself with regard to the design and reactionary use of culture as an ideological vehicle for the corporation.

The existence of a paradox of this nature is nothing new, having been brought to light by Trotsky’s observation that every new tendency in art begins with rebellion. As rebels who are at the same time seeking to climb the social ladder, artists—who almost always belong to the middle class and whom Trotsky denominated the “petty bourgeois”—“are inevitably influenced by opposing ideologies and impulses from the left as well as the right, with a great preponderance of the right over the left.” (1) Contemporary social practice is a good example of this contrast between opposing ideas: Marx’s terminology, Carnegie’s strategy, and in practice, the preponderance of the latter. Lenin himself, in his definition of the term “leftist opportunism,” would speak of adopting “the tactics of the right to achieve the goals of the left.”

All the dialectical and opportunistic juggling involved in the conceptual discourse of social practice—that hyphen whose parts never come together—and all the impossibility of what Spinoza calls “ethical coherency,” comes from the clash between rebellion, on the one hand, and need for social ascension on the part of the artists on the other. Or, as Marx put it in March of 1850:

“The democratic petty bourgeois, far from wanting to transform the whole society in the interests of the revolutionary proletarians, only aspire to a change in the social conditions which will make the existing society as tolerable and comfortable for themselves as possible.”

Heroic language—hostile syntax, a discursive overdose of serotonin and plenty of posturing; the language of pessimism and suspicion, which according to Goebbels are “the best teachers in our earthly valley of sorrows”—is born out of the necessity of rebellion. Social practice replicates the market strategy of the corporation by way of the artistic mainstream, which is dazzled by corporate efficiency, power and presence.  This impulse is born out of the drive for social ascension, as in collector Robert Scull’s classic declaration, “I’d rather use art to climb than anything else.” But above all, it attempts to copy from the corporation its great capacity for permanence and its grandiloquent appearance of moral impenetrability.

Frederic Jameson recognized in 1991 that:

“The new political art (if it is possible at all) will have to hold to the truth of postmodernism, that is to say, to its fundamental object—the world space of multinational capital.” (2)

The parentheses are Jameson’s own, and this is significant because they insinuate that political art’s nature is pure appearance, and put us only a step away from contemporary political art as the Wagnerian “Total Spectacle” or “Gesamtkunstwerk” of global capitalism. While in the heart of modernism’s development the theater sought to develop “social praxis,” postmodernism ended up converting “social praxis” into theater: into “Sozial Gesamtkunstwerk,” which, we might note, is meant to be a symptom of the beginning of its moral ending. (3)

Basically then, contemporary social practice, whatever red makeup it might put on to stage its act, is the aesthetic materialization of capitalist corporate social responsibility. But most important, contemporary social practice, both in the opportunistic way it comes about and even down to the very letter, adopts the strategies of corporate marketing, which maintain that a product—and the artistic product is no exception—is more marketable when accompanied by a social cause. Said social cause should be the one most highly publicized to the community through communication media (socially committed spectacle), winning the product a great deal of moral prestige (moral capital) among consumers at the same time it receives a great deal of market mobility ahead of the small businesses whose products lack the means to introduce socially responsible action into their strategies—normally small business struggling to stay afloat—making those businesses seem disinterestedly inhumane, greedy and selfish. The moral essence of corporate greed is concealed in a magical-ideological act, while increasing the probability that competitors will collapse due to their lack of attachment to a social cause, much to the delight of the monopoly.


 “We must entertain each other in brotherly affection.” John Winthrop. A Model of Christian Charity. 1630

“DO ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers,
Ere the sorrow comes with years?” Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The Cry of the Children. 1842

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Winthrop. A Model of Christian Charity. 1630

However, the contemporary idea of corporate social responsibility has its roots, as we noted early on, in the writings of Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie, founder and magnate of the steel industry in the United States, articulated two principles that he believed necessary for capitalism to function with an aura of moral validity:

1. The Charity Principle, which urges the wealthiest members of society to assist its less fortunate members, including the unemployed, the disabled, the ill, the widowed and the elderly. These groups could be helped directly or indirectly through institutions such as churches, shelters and community organizations.

2. The Administration Principle, which urges businesses and the wealthiest individuals to consider themselves administrators or overseers of this policy. Carnegie believed the rich should infuse their money with an aura of moral confidence before society at large, thus making it possible to use it and invest it in any area and for any purpose with a spirit of legitimacy.

Carnegie’s ideas were widely accepted because, by adding social concerns to economic considerations, corporations could reduce the risks of the threat of intervention and regulation by the state, and they had an open field for the accumulation of capital at their fingertips.

Carnegie’s idea of corporate social responsibility was finally consolidated by a decision of the U.S. Congress in 1946, which offers a tax deduction of up to 5% for charitable donations.

More recently there have been two papal encyclicals, “Quadragesimo Anno” (Pious XI, 1931) and “Centesimus Annus” (John Paul II, 1991), which have discussed the role of corporations and emphasized that, while it is legitimate for them to accumulate capital, the fundamental rule of doing business is to serve the common good.

Many of those opposed to this vision, inspired by Milton Friedman’s arguments in the 1970s, argued that corporations had no responsibility to society beyond making money in accordance with the legal rules of the game of capital, and considered social responsibility an issue for the government, not for corporations. Their primary responsibility was to their stockholders and their sole obligation was to guide the company’s operations toward an increase in those stockholders’ earnings.

Today, business ethics dictate that corporations should set aside part of their resources for cultural and social service organizations. Over the past 20 years the most commonly held belief in business schools and societies has been that the moral quality of a company should be evaluated in terms of corporate social responsibility.

So for more than 50 years, inspired by the spirit of Carnegie, American corporations have financed art museums, encouraged to commit to social responsibility by laws for “Enlightened Charitable Taxes” and the opportunity to cultivate audiences.  Each year corporations provide more than a billion dollars in funding for said museums, and they naturally expect in return—through directorial and curatorial policy—the implementation of the social programs of their choosing, the corporate vision of social responsibility (7) that favors what Kevin Jackson calls their Reputational Image, and most important, supports their ideology.




“His greatest strength is the art of taking from others while giving them the impression that he is doing them a service.” Gide

 “Every act of kindnessevery deed of charity, she had ever performed, were produced to the public.” Catharine Maria Sedgwick. Cacoethes Scribendi. 1830

There are three aspects of moral responsibility based on the concept that corporations and the artistic system are not just legal agents but also agents with moral responsibilities, and these deal with:

1. People, in this case artists, who have shown themselves to be socially responsible through a “social action” in the past, which guarantees present and future responsibility.

2. The responsibility of the individual, in this case the artist, for the care, wellbeing and treatment of others according to prevailing social conventions.

3. A person’s individual capacity to make moral and rational decisions, in this case an artistic or curatorial decision.

The recognition of social pluralism is, along with the moral conduct of business, the motivation for the members involved—academics, critics, curators, artists and supporters—to make “serious” moral decisions. What is fundamental is for these decisions not to harm the efficiency of the corporate market in any way.

Kevin Jackson, professor of Business Ethics at Fordham University in New York, argues that corporations need to take for granted that they have a social responsibility to build, by way of the prestige granted by social responsibility, the reputational capital that is the equivalent of a new “brand” to be sold. (8)

While a company uses its reputational capital to attract better employees, raise its prices, do better business, attract new investors and have a greater margin of security in the case of a crisis, social artists use it in a similar way, to attract better clients for their work, raise their prices, make themselves known to potential buyers and collectors, and to have greater reserves in case of a crisis in dealing with art’s purely symbolic and ephemeral form of capital.

Social practice is not only reputational capital in and of itself, but also every artist and every intermediary or dealer seeking to market themselves must, aside from their “socially responsible” work as such, build reputational capital based on some type of  “community work.” In accordance with the corporate moral imperative to “do well by doing good,” they stimulate the exercise of “compassionate capitalism” by using one of the most popular methods for building reputational capital: philanthropy and “enlightened charity.” The enlightened culture represented relates to popular culture in a kind of feedback loop, almost always in a vampirical manner, and uses it as elitist reputational merchandise in line with the market. That is, it isolates popular culture in the form of “ethnic” rural or urban culture, and is little more than a continuation of the taste for the aesthetics of local color in popular U.S. literature, which dates back to authors such as Longstreet.

To define it further, Tirdad Zolghadr and Martine Anderfuhren have termed this phenomenon the “Ethnic Market,” a product of “xenophilia” or love for the foreign, a love of a purely aesthetic nature. 

The strategic market objectives of the contemporary social artist do not in fact differ in some aspects from the “light” culture he so abhors. Like him, pageant queens and Miami celebrities base their market reputation on their stock with the abandoned sectors of society. Even artists considered frivolous or superficial in the past have taken on a heroic attitude and market strategies based on social responsibility, which is a symptom of the extent to which they are functioning as a market. As Adorno stated, “light” art is just the “social bad conscience of serious art.” (10)




“It is true without untruth, certain and most true:

that which is below is like that which is on high,

and that which is on high is like that which is below;

by these things are made the miracles of one thing.

And as all things are, and come from One, by the mediation of One,

So all things are born from this unique thing by adaption.”


The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus


The cycle cannot end in the social act alone. This reputational capital is not effective if it is not publicized and made into spectacle, another concept against which the social artist is supposedly engaged in intrepid struggle.

This socially committed spectacle is developed through bureaucracy and media that puts it into contact with the chain of distribution represented:

1. By the cultural institutions of the state, the postmodern corporation being the most relevant (A. Kojéve. “The Roots of Postmodern Politics” St. Martin’s Press. NY. 1994.)

2. By museums that are obligated by financing from the Corporations to promote the aesthetics of corporate social responsibility. (11)

3. By the local and international critic-curatorial system, which is truly the validating force, both ideologically (valid art vs. useless art, historically conscious art vs. frivolous art, responsible art vs. irresponsible art, etc.), as well as in terms of “exchange value,” the status of social responsibility in the work of the artist in accordance with the codes of the corporate method of selection. This method of selection replicates the aesthetic and structural spirit of corporate social responsibility.

Thus, in some way, underneath the Brechtian “enlightenist” sheen of the “committed” artist, we have been witnessing the rebirth of the dictatorship of the 19th century Academy. Only now, the Gramscian State monopoly on the use of ideology through culture is appended to the management of culture by the corporation. The Roman mythology and civic deeds “in illo tempore” of Neo-Classicism have given way to a mytho-Biblical vision of compassionate capitalism’s social uprooting. To paint a simple picture, what we are seeing is a corporation of “enlightened” individuals who, using a Brechtian image and discourse hostile to capitalism, are spreading the ideas of Carnegie.



“Allow me to be so far a Censor Morum for this end of the Town.” Samuel Stewall. Diary. 1692

“When civil fury first grew high…” Samuel Butler. Hudibras, Part I. 1663


Contemporary social practice also recovers mechanisms of dictatorial participation from the 19th century academy that correspond in our era to the birth of the concept of vertical corporate participation about which Karin Geiselhart speaks. (12)

So, while the culture’s democratic values of information are based on:

1. Alternative sources of information that are transparent and easily accessible

2. Diversity of points of view

3. Mechanisms of communication between sectors, levels and interests in a communication “by many for many”

4. Deliberate participation in the design of the system; strong interaction

5. The possibility of deliberation at each stage

6. Open access to information and decisions

7. The possibility of reflection about these principles

8. Freedom from direct or indirect censorship

9. Maximization of the protection of individual privacy;


the values of globalized information adopted by the social practice corporation and reproduced by the contemporary bureaucratic and curatorial system, copied from the mechanics of corporate participation and (in the opportunistic melding of which Trotsky speaks) from Gramsci’s theses about the need for conquest by an authoritarian cultural hegemony prior to a “Prince Party” taking power, are based on:

1. Centralized sources of information that are the least transparent possible

2. Monoculture

3. A “one for many” model of vertical distribution

4. Trivialization of the participatory model through acceptance of purely instrumental decisions; intermittent consultation or trivialized participation

5. Direct and indirect control over the agenda by an elite. Schemes for action reflect decisions made in advance

6. Secrecy about process and methodology

7. The functioning of the system is taken for granted

8. Close supervision

9. Unilateral protection of the privacy of members of the corporate elite.


This mechanics of discrimination, as in the 19th century, is expressed through the imposition of exclusionary thematic patterns, or as Jan Jagodzinski more crudely calls them, “fantasies of popular ‘resistance’.” It is on their foundations that the space of contemporary social practice is curatorially constructed within a framework of democratic populism, based on symbolic and non-material vindications of ethnicity, identity and memory that seek to fit the collective desire for justice into an intangible mold permitting capitalist relationships of production to remain intact and achieving a transferal of class struggle into community struggle. The poor have been divided, fragmented and taxonomized according to their local cultural color, and the risk of a break in the consensus has finally been neutralized and controlled. (13)

The thematic patterns are generally few in number and their lingo is less heroic and pompous than that of the 19th-century Academy:

“memory,” “identity,” “popular emergence,” “rituals,” “resistances,” “hybridisms,” “alterities,” “transit,” “itinerancies,” “uprootedness,” “pilgrimage,” “disputed territories,” “emergence,” “deterioration,” “violence,” “tolerance,” “imminence,” “displacement,” etc., etc. What is relevant is that, in spite of their semantic origin and the subliminal litany of their use of the “hermeneutics of rejection,” they are themes that:

1. Adapt to the corporate aesthetic of philanthropic roots and are the topics envisaged by cultural aesthetics driven by “capitalist urbanity”  from Erasmus, Winthrop, Carnegie and Rockefeller, to the contemporary corporation, and which are directed toward a neoliberal “community ethics.”

2. Do not have the slightest possibility of subverting corporate policy or the structural functioning of society given that they are designed according to the principle that, as purely symbolic objects, they do not affect the essence of the system—that is to say, the already legally constituted property—much less the function of the flow of business. Simple propagandistic testimony says that corporations, the state, and culture “are doing well” and any ethical questioning directed toward them is rendered null.

What is certain is that, as Freeman observed in 1991, the moment in which social practice became cosmopolitan, “The idea of corporate social responsibility has failed to help create the good society. Long seen by academics and managers alike as the missing link in capitalism, the concept of corporate social responsibility has not delivered on its promise.”



This exquisite, horrible misery… Jonathan Edwards. Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. 1741

“Everything is used today. Even misfortune.” Chateaubriand. Memoirs from Beyond the Grave. 1836


The other major aspect of contemporary social practice deals with terror; not the “frivolous” or “light” terror of the film entertainment industry, but the terror that through art becomes the barometer for social responsibility. As noted earlier, though both forms of terror are “politically antagonistic,” they originate out of the same regressive aesthetics of culture.

Since the “shipwreck with a spectator” about which Lucretius spoke in the 1st century, the great aesthetic attraction of terror has not only been supported by a pleasure in the morbid but rather it has always been controlled by those in power as an evaluative form, as a way of taking a reading of the moral level and of citizens’ capacity to respond to the demands placed upon them by the system. This was certainly how Robespierre conceived of it when he celebrated terror as the inexorable path leading to virtue in his speech from February 5, 1794:

“Terror without virtue is fatal; virtue without terror is impotent.”

Although due to their cultural hegemony they have formulated an anthropological system of “seeing without being seen,” Anglo-Saxon nations also possess “identity,” “memory” and “folklore,” historically rooted customs and inherited traits; magnetic poles toward which and from which their Weltanschaung emanates. We could create an anthropological system through which we could examine our cultural customs and motivations. We peripheral countries provide the Rousseauian spectacle with our suffering, our wars and our customs, but it is essential to realize that it is possible—as it was for the characters of Uzbek and Rica in Montesquieu’s “Lettres Persanes”—to break the taboo and lift the veil of taxonomical protection.

So it would seem—and in this way it attempts to publicize itself and build its prestige in the market—as if the great Anglo-Saxon attraction for the art of terror, on the one hand, and the art of sympathy for the distress of others on the other, were the product of a great epiphany of responsibility, something that can already be seen in the 30s in North American painters such as Thomas Hart Benton who admired Siqueiros, but who began to come into fashion in the 80s with the ascension of Beuys’ term “social sculpture.” Beuys, who turns the activism of the 60s into gallery activism and “museum activism,” in fact takes the concept from Goebbels, who wrote in 1931 that, “For us the mass is but shapeless material. Only the hand of the artist can bring forth a people from the mass and a nation from the people,” and that “The statesman is an artist too. The people are for him what stone is to the sculptor.”

So why, in a large-scale epiphany at some point in the 80s, does the world of culture suddenly turn “good”? Why is it that since that day of collective revelation, artists, curators and collectors have all taken communion, been forgiven and become good? In the past, the panorama of market sources was, for better or for worse, more varied: Machiavellian patrons like the Medicis and the Borgias; licentious ones inclined toward pornography like Charles II of England, the “happy king”; libidonous ones like Godoy or Khalil Bey, the Turk who commissioned Courbet’s “The Origin of the World”; madmen like Louis of Bavaria, sponsor of Wagner’s Lohengrin; and megalomaniacs like Goering.

The world of culture, that world that consisted of the militant Brechtian avant-garde through the enlightenment of the 60s, decided to give itself over to the masses in the 80s and, on an epidemic level became contemplative and opportunistic—though there were exceptions like the conceptual artist Ian Burn. Springsteen, Bono and Sting set a populist precedent, bastardizing the confrontational legacy of Woody Guthrie and leaving it written in the public memory that the strategies of corporate social responsibility could be applied to the promotion of a product without having to resort to a union or a strike to exhibit one’s belligerence. Where Guthrie’s only reward was material scarcity, they encountered a gold mine.

If we strain ourselves a bit like Uzbek and immerse ourselves in the Anglo-Saxon aesthetic traditions, we will find that what really occurred was that the Anglo-Saxon victory in World War II represented the triumph of its traditions and regressions over global culture; of its folklore contaminated with its puritanical interpretation of the Bible, or vice versa; in a word, its cultural syncretism—though even its existence is denied out of a virginal fear of taxonomical abduction—remains a central part of its ethnic culture, as with any other group.

Beginning in 1945 and for the first time in history, the Mediterranean Catholic culture with Greco-Roman origins that had ever dominated the west was replaced by a Protestant culture with strong barbarian roots. And one of the most important components to come out of this new culture was its version of the ritual therapy of terror. The cult of terror was already present, as in many other celebrations around the world, in the festival of horror masks and costumes of Shamain, or the Festival of the Living Dead on the last day of the harvest, in which it was believed that the dead returned to their homes to share and to eat with their families. Shamain would derive into the medieval “All Hollow’s Eve” or the modern Halloween. On the other hand we have examples like the German cult of Holda or Hella, the Queen of the World of the Dead of those who do not die in battle (those who die in battle go to Valhalla). Hella had the terrifying appearance of a living corpse, sad and decomposed, and was accompanied by the ghosts of horsemen, children and dogs on what was known as her “savage hunt.”

Regarding the Festival of Hella, Winifred Hodge tells us that the Ladies of the Night or the Ladies in Hella’s Service made the pilgrimage to mount Walpurgis on the first day of May, disguised as her, apparently riding animals, and once there, they would frantically dance under her watchful eye. The ladies of Hella became, in the Middle Ages, the witches we all know, but when they were persecuted by the church, the festival of Walpurgis was syncretized into the cult of Saint Walpurga, the patroness saint of the dead. Today, for her festival on May 1st, people leave the windows of their homes open so that the flying goddess in a white tunic can escape from the wind-borne dogs and ghastly horsemen that pursue her by passing through the cross formed by the window frame. (Winifred Hodge. Witches and Walpurgisnacht s.f)

Between 1743 and 1750 the poetic current known as the “Graveyard School” flourished in England, earning its name because its works tended to take place in cemeteries and its content tended to center on death, tombs, anguish and grief, preceding Romanticism and the great authors of the horror novel by fifty years. We have poems such as “The Grave” by Robert Blair (1743), Edward Young’s “The Complaint, or Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality” (1745) and Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1750). The Graveyard School would have a great impact on the development of the “Schaueroman” or German horror novels of E.T.A. Hoffman, which with their scenes of shameless terror, ghosts, living dead, and sexual relations with demons would in turn influence authors like Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, or painters like Fuseli or William Blake; their echoes can even be heard in contemporary authors like Anne Rice.

Shortly thereafter, in an event central to the history of Anglo-Saxon aesthetics, Edmund Burke synthesized the phenomenological explanation of aesthetic pleasure provided by terror and sadness, elevating them to aesthetic values based on sensorial experience. The value of sensorial experience is itself inspired in the idea that comes about in the intellectual cosmos of the 18th century: Locke’s idea of “empirical affection.” For Locke, who was himself inspired by Epicurus, “All our knowledge is founded in experience.”

In a return to Epicurus, Locke sets aside the medieval concept of knowledge originating in the spiritual interior in order to place the focus on sensorial knowledge, where it will remain until the advent of Romanticism. Later, it will be resuscitated once again by Impressionism and the Imagism of Pound, and spurned once again by postmodern internal morality.

Burke (1729-1797) is the father of, among other ideas, the “Intervention Principle,” which legitimates the right of states to intervene in other states which “pervert the natural order,” inaugurating the philosophy of Imperialism. (15) However it is his best known work that concerns us: his 1757 “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful,” which sets in place two basic principles of Anglo-Saxon aesthetics that have been mentioned previously, namely terror as the lived experience of the sublime, and the positive effects of sympathy on the distresses of others.

Let us allow Burke himself to explain, in the first place, the question of terror:

Part I, Section VII.- Of the Sublime

“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

“But as pain is stronger in its operation than pleasure, so death is in general a much more affecting idea than pain; because there are very few pains, however exquisite, which are not preferred to death: nay, what generally makes pain itself, if I may say so, more painful, is, that it is considered as an emissary of this king of terrors. When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful, as we every day experience.”

Part II, Section I.- Of the Passion Caused by the Sublime

“The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.”

Part II, Section II.- Terror

“No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. For fear being an apprehension of pain or death, it operates in a manner that resembles actual pain. Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too, whether this cause of terror be endued with greatness of dimensions or not; for it is impossible to look on anything as trifling, or contemptible, that may be dangerous.”

“And to things of great dimensions, if we annex an adventitious idea of terror, they become without comparison greater.”

“Indeed, terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime.“

Part II, Section III.- Obscurity

“To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.”

And let us allow Burke himself to explain the question of sympathy in the distress of others.

Part I, Section XIV.- The Effects of Sympathy in the Distress of Others

“I am convinced we have a degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes and pains of others; for let the affection be what it will in appearance, if it does not make us shun such objects, if on the contrary it induces us to approach them, if it makes us dwell upon them, in this case I conceive we must have a delight or pleasure of some species or other in contemplating objects of this kind.”

 “…terror is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too closely; and pity is a passion accompanied with pleasure, because it arises from love and social affection. Whenever we are formed by nature to any active purpose, the passion which animates us to it is attended with delight, or a pleasure of some kind, let the subject-matter be what it will; and as our Creator has designed that we should be united by the bond of sympathy, he has strengthened that bond by a proportionable delight; and there most where our sympathy is most wanted -- in the distresses of others.”

“...there is no spectacle we so eagerly pursue, as that of some uncommon and grievous calamity; so that whether the misfortune is before our eyes, or whether they are turned back to it in history, it always touches with delight. This is not an unmixed delight, but blended with no small uneasiness. The delight we have in such things, hinders us from shunning scenes of misery; and the pain we feel prompts us to relieve ourselves in relieving those who suffer; and all this antecedent to any reasoning, by an instinct that works us to its own purposes without our concurrence.”

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Burke on the Sublime and Beautiful by Thomas Cornell. 1785

And so the contemporary artistic act of terror and grief as aesthetic values, and of course as values of change and exchange, was not born in the 80s, nor is it the product of a spontaneous generation of empirical consciousness about immorality. It is simply that after 1945 cultural values followed a different path. The contemporary declaration about the immorality of terror and the grief of others is just the passing mention necessary in order to enjoy them in just the way that Susan Sontag perceived them with nostalgia at the end of her life. In the same way that the regressive pleasure of the unspeakable terror of pagan rituals melded in the 19th century into the sublime of the gothic novel, the contemporary way of dealing with terror and grief is a cultural melding that evokes Germano-Celtic archetypes, the medieval Christian consecration of the imagery of the afterlife, the gothic novel and Victorian phantasmagoria. In the same way that the pagan ritual of Hella was converted into the Christian ritual of Walpurga, contemporary culture—19th-century, academic and Victorian par excellence—makes regression acceptable to the clan, in this case in the apparently politicized form of art and culture. Apparently politicized because contemporary politics and the enlightened social practice it inspires, to the extent that they are not nor will they be capable of transforming society by making it more just, are merely a novel form of religion with its subtle aroma of opium. Contemporary culture, like the Anglo-Saxon romantic novel, is merely an exciting fiction that oscillates between the morality of terror and sentimentalism.

But how does the contemporary regressive impulse toward terror become something socially acceptable? In reality, the contemporary educated liberal society that consumes terror and grief functions no differently from what Freud had already discovered about transference mechanisms in sexually repressed or neurotic individuals. The process involves four stages of development.

1. Transference or Paraphilia.

The individual negotiates sexual gratification with gratification achieved through socially permitted terror and grief. The spontaneous sexual impulse, which has been systematically repressed through the presuppositions defining the collective behavior of parishioners regarding sexuality, is redirected toward the excitation produced by the horrific or unfortunate deed being observed. Unlike in masochistic Catholic paraphilia, in which the sexually alienated individual self-inflicts damage, in sadistic Protestant paraphilia, the sexually alienated individual contemplates the damage inflicted upon others.

2. Sublimation.

In this case on the moral level, which redirects the original unacceptable impulse of terror as regressive pleasure toward another socially accepted target that substitutes it: terror is presented as social denunciation and as an essential link in political consciousness-raising.

3. Altruistic Rendition.

In which social regression projects its necessities for such a pleasure in a vicarious manner, which is to say through others, in this case artists. Artists who are overly dependent on the reception of the paraphilic consumer are likewise a second filter: the alchemical flask that even more crudely neutralizes the horrific or compassionate experience and turns the lived experiences of terror for the original actors—meaning the victims themselves—into something digestible to a museum-going audience. It is in this sense that they eventually come to reject that which is “demagogic” and “crude,” and morally validate their presentation by adopting styles that incorporate metaphor, metathesis or a multitude of minimalist hermeneutic acrobatics that make their product mysterious, consumable and museum-worthy. Here we see put into practice what Burke demanded for the rational enjoyment of terror and grief. But lest we forget, it retains “certain distances and certain modifications.” The distance and modification are such that it becomes a touristic or televised experience. When Burke was asked why suffering and grief can give us pleasure, he replied, “Because they do not touch us too closely.” It is at this point that the merchandise is immersed in the current of the ethnic market. Terror and grief construct a new gothic cultural palace where, as in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” the protagonist is an artist like a new Marlow, and where exotic and foreign ghosts wander about, coming from countries that are not, as Burke would have it, too close. All of this allies itself with the indispensable ingredient of the emotional and sophisticatedly sentimental shock absorber of moral content and social responsibility. Now the product is ready to be consumed in developed nations, and it is now that we finally enter into the fourth phase of transference.

4. The Neurotic Satisfaction of the Superego

The circle of consumption of the merchandise of terror and grief comes to a close when the dealer, curator, museum and collector turn the immaterial transference that is social work into exchange value. That is to say, into merchandise. The only thing left is to export it. It is then that the greatest and most chilling of phantasmagorias appears. A system that advertises itself as subversive and marginal is possessed by the words of its worst enemy, saying, like him,

 “We will export death and violence to the four corners of the earth…”
George W. Bush. 2002

Social practice has not been, is not, nor will be capable of achieving a better society because, just like corporate social responsibility, it is designed as a symbolic delirium of distraction from the inherent immorality of globalization. It is designed precisely like a “deus ex machina” of culture in order to avoid a historical turn anywhere but in a dramatic theatrical staging. Social practice, to the extent that it is attributed the dictatorial right of moral validation and at the same time does not achieve it in practice, is most certainly an ethical paradox, the “missing link” of culture under capitalism.

Brustein, who introduced the concept of coercive cultural financing—coercive financing that circulates from corporations to museums, from museums to curators and from curators to artists—observes that the artistic community is simply forced to be the vehicle of equality and social change, rather than achieving such goals through legislation on property, thus “distracting our artists and absolving our politicians.” In his own manner, Egyptian Samir Amin complains of it more radically still. (16)

“...the current state of the world is not about culture, national identity and religion but about imperialism, capitalist development and underdevelopment and, ultimately, class.”

Nor is it a question of memory, immaterial heritage, or fantasies of rebellion within a museum of white walls and Nordic pine flooring, in a Swiss collection or an exquisite art fair in Basel, doing business—as Lichtenberg said—“with small-scale darkness.”

One might think that within a few years and due to nothing more than its intrinsic contradictions, Henry Brooks Adams’ ideas will come back into vogue:

“Artists...disappeared long ago as social forces. So did the Church.”

However this does not seem to be the case so long as corporations exist, with their need to morally legitimize themselves through social culture and artists, intellectuals and writers who fulfill their Hegelian will to power with a “critical commitment” that, as Adorno observes, “is often nothing but a lack of talent or concentration, a slackening of energy” that they impulsively transform into social content. (17)

The market tactics and strategies of social practice are moderately far from being rejected by the world of culture. Art in the era of opportunism and the taking of art by populism will be a reality for some time, at least until its Enigma Code (18) has been deciphered.


Carlos Salazar*


* Text adapted and edited for the web based on the presentation “Social Practice and Social Corporate Responsibility,” part of the “Art and the Market” series at the University of the Andes, which took place from April 24-28, 2006.

On the blog Carlos Salazar uses an alternate title that the author considers equally pertinent: “The Taking of Contemporary Art by Populism: Social Practice and Corporate Social Ideology.”



* (“Opportunism is what makes it work.”) Antoine Danchin. La Recherche. 1996. Antoine Danchin is a mathematician, geneticist, and discoverer, in 1997, of the complete genome of the bacteria “Bacillus Subtilis.” He is director of the Unit for the Regulation of Genetic Expression at the Pasteur Institute. Within the context in which we are writing, the word “function” also has a theatrical function, as we will see. Moreover, opportunism may be the only truly democratic form within postmodernism. It does not presuppose that individuals anxious to get out and be accepted by the system are of a “good” or “bad” nature. Humans are opportunistic by nature and opportunism is a mechanism of natural survival, only within the system, as in Sade’s “Justine,” in Nietzsche and Duchamp, success often demands ethical sacrifice.


 (1) Trotsky. “On Literature and Art” (New York, 1977) p. 104

“Oppressed minorities often reflect the techniques of the bourgeoisie more brilliantly than some sections of the bourgeoisie themselves. The psychological importance of this becomes evident when one recalls that oppressed minorities, and especially petty bourgeois sections of oppressed minorities, strive to assimilate the virtues of the bourgeoisie in the assumption that by doing so, they can lift themselves into a higher social sphere.” Richard Wright. Blueprint for Negro Literature. 1937

(2) Frederic Jameson. “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” Verso, 1991.

(3) “History is thorough, and passes through many phases when it conveys an old form to the grave. The final phase of a historical form is its comedy. Why does history proceed this way? So that mankind will separate itself happily from its past.” Marx. “Critique of the Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’,” 1844.

 (4) Robert G. Kennedy. “Does a Business Corporation Have a Responsibility to Society?” Acton Institute. 2003.

(5) Alberto Lafuente. El País, February 2, 2003.

(6) Edward Freeman. “Corporate Social Responsibility: A Critical Approach. Corporate Social Responsibility: No Longer a Useful Concept.” Business Horizons, July-August, 1991.

“GOD ALMIGHTY in His most holy and wise providence, hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission. (…)

“Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with.” John Winthrop. A Model of Christian Charity. 1630

“But another and better day is dawning; every influence of literature, of poetry, and of art, in our times, is becoming more and more in unison with the great master chord of Christianity, “good-will to man.” The poet, the painter, and the artist now seek out and embellish the common and gentler humanities of life, and, under the allurements of fiction, breathe a humanizing and subduing influence, favorable to the development of the great principles of Christian brotherhood. The hand of benevolence is everywhere stretched out, searching into abuses, righting wrongs, alleviating distresses, and bringing to the knowledge and sympathies of the world the lowly, the oppressed, and the forgotten.” Harriet Beecher Stowe. Preface to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. 1852

(7) “Whose money? Whose power? Whose art history? – Money, Power, and the History of Art.” James Cuno. The Art Bulletin. March, 1997

(8) “The Burdens of Responsibility”. On “Building Reputational Capital”. Kevin Jackson. Oxford University Press. The Economist Global Executive. Jun 25th, 2004.

(9) “Whose money? Whose power? Whose art history? – Money, Power, and the History of Art.” James Cuno. The Art Bulletin. March, 1997

(10) “Art supplies the tragic substance which pure entertainment cannot provide on its own yet which it needs if it is to adhere to its principle of meticulously duplicating appearance. Tragedy, included in society’s calculations and affirmed as a moment of the world, becomes a blessing. It deflects the charge that truth is glossed over, whereas in fact it is appropriated with cynical regret. It imparts an element of interest to the insipidity of censored happiness and makes that interest manageable.”

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. “The Cultural Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Published in Horkheimer, Max and Adorno, Theodor, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Sudamericana, Buenos Aires, 1988.

(11) In an article published in the New York Times in 1994, Robert Brustein cites an anonymous source who stated in the Corporate Philanthropy Report, “We no longer ‘support’ the arts. We use the arts in innovative ways to support the social causes chosen by our company.” Robert Brustein, “Culture by Coercion,” New York Times, Nov. 29, 1994.

(12) Karin Geiselhart. “The Interactive Organisation Does Democracy Scale? A Fractal Model for the Role of Interactive Technologies in Democratic Policy Processes.” University of Canberra, Australia. December 1999.

(13) Jan Jagodzinski. “Questioning Fantasies of Popular ‘Resistance:’, Democratic Populism and Radical Politics in Visual Cultural Studies”. The Journal of Social Theory in Art Education # 24. 2004

(14) Winifred Hodge. Witches and Walpurgisnacht s.f.

(15) Edmund Burke. A Vindication of Natural Society: A View of the Miseries and Evils Arising to Mankind. 1756

(16) Al Ahram Weekly, October 24-30, 2002.

(17) Adorno. Aesthetic Theory, 355f.

(18) The Nazi army’s Enigma machine consisted of a keyboard connected to a codifying unit. The codifying unit contained three separate rotors whose positions determined how each letter of the keyboard would be encoded. What made the Enigma code so difficult to crack was the enormous number of ways in which the machine could be configured. First, the three rotors of the machine could be chosen from a group of five, and they could be changed and rearranged in order to confuse decoders. Secondly, each rotor could be placed in any of twenty-six different positions.   

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The Nazi army’s Enigma machine.

This means that the machine could be configured in more than one million ways. In addition to the permutations permitted by the rotors, the electrical connections on the rear of the machine could be manually modified, permitting more than 150 trillion possible configurations. In order to increase security even more, the orientation of the three rotors changed continually, so that each time that a letter was transmitted, the machine’s orientation—and therefore the codification—changed for the next letter. In this way, typing “DODO” could generate the message “FGTB”: the “D” and the “O” were sent twice, but were codified in a different manner each time. Its code was finally deciphered in September of 1940. (s.t)