ESR 8 Blog January 2022: Marteinn Sindri Jónsson

January Blog: Chromotones I

On the 9th of December I gave a talk on Decolonial Research Day at Wolverhampton University that I would like to share with you in three separate blogs, one now in January, another one in February and the third in April. In the first part I consider two distinct periodizations of socially engaged art by Grant Kester (2015) and Oliver Marchart (2019). In the second part I inquire what Massimiliano Tomba’s (2019) method of decolonizing modern history might reveal about those attempts at periodizing a field of socially engaged art in addition to introducing Massimiliano Mollona’s (2021) notion of Art/Commons, and in the third blog I muster the Art/Commons to ask how Tiffany D. Pogue’s (2009) account of the Bois Caiman ceremony of the Haitian revolution may reconfigure what Oliver Marchart calls the “long Davidian moment”. I recognize that there are obvious limitations to decolonial recontextualization, reconceptualization and reimagining in my blogs, for instance my use of sources, that are predominantly white and male, but also more generally, as these are for me early steps in the discursive terrain of decoloniality.

Periods of Socially Engaged Art and The Long Davidian Moment
The notion of socially engaged art may be said to rest on what Niklas Luhmann (2000, cf. 133) has described as the “functional differentiation” of modern society. It is only with the rise of an autonomous sphere of artistic production that it becomes meaningful to relate art back to society, as if the two were foreign to one another. In fact, this functional differentiation gave rise to a “modern system of the arts” (Kristeller 1952, 17) established around the first half of the eighteenth century, evinced in Great Britain for instance in “the exclusion of engravers from the newly formed Royal Academy, which was preserved for practitioners of the “fine” arts of painting, drawing, and sculpture” (Ingold 2001, 18, quoting Raymond Williams, 1976: 33).

One important discursive platform related to contemporary socially engaged art is the online journal FIELD, edited by Grant Kester and established in 2015. In the first editorial Kester (2015) describes the field of socially engaged art as a “complex, contradictory and unruly area of practice that is distinguished by its extraordinary geographic scope … inspired by, or affiliated with, new movements for social and economic justice around the globe,” persistently engaged “with sites of resistance and activism, and a desire to move beyond existing definitions of both art and the political.” In fact, Kester recognizes that speaking “of a singular ‘field’ is itself misleading, given the dramatic differences in geo-political context, artistic and activist traditions, vernacular languages of practice, and modes of address that frame work in any given setting and situation,” but emphasizes, as a unifying principle, what he describes as the collaborative, collective, or participatory essence of socially engaged art practices.

This collectivist essence of socially engaged art, and the “questioning of the constitution of the artistic personality,” are at the heart of the periodization Kester offers elsewhere (cf. Kester, 2011). Building on the argument of curator Okwui Enwezor (2007, 225), Kester suggest that “those moments at which the constitution of the artistic personality is most radically in question often coincide with periods of more general political and social crisis,” and asks us to consider “the link between William Morris’s involvement in syndicalist politics in nineteenth-century England and the founding of the Arts and Crafts movement, the obvious influence of the Russian and Mexican Revolutions on early twentieth-century avant-gardes, and the dramatic expansion of experimental tendencies in the arts during the political upheavals of the 1960s and ́70s” (2011, 4-5).

On the other hand, political theorist Oliver Marchart (2019) relegates “socially engaged art”, within parenthesis, to the 1990s, as a very specific mode of artmaking, choosing instead to talk generally about political and activist art, both of which I suspect Kester of wanting to subsume under his much wider notion of socially engaged art. For our purposes it suffices to note that Marchart also offers an attempt at periodizing political art, offering the term “the long Davidian Moment,” predicated on the tradition of the French revolution when painter Jacques-Louis David “crossed the line between art and politics by becoming a member of the Jacobins and a political deputy under Robespierre”. (16) David’s legacy is notably ambivalent. Not only did he immortalize the death of the revolutionary Marat, but also contributed to the consolidation of Napoleonic power through his depictions of the dictator. (Árnason, 508-509). Nonetheless, it is this “foundational moment”, Marchart tells us, that repeats itself with every instance of artistic activism since the French revolution.


Árnason, Gunnar J. (2008). „Hlynur Hallsson og þátttökulist.“ In Skírnir 182 (Fall): 503-518.

Enwezor, Okwui. 2007. ”The Production of Social Space as Artwork: Protocols of Community in the Work of Le Groupe Amos and Huit Facettes.” In Collectivism after Modernism: The Art of Social Imagination after 1945. Edited by Blake Stimson and Gregory Sholette. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ingold, Tim. 2001. “Beyond Art and Technology: The Anthropology of Skill.” In ​Anthropological Perspectives on Technology​. Micheal Brian Schiffer, ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press: 17-31.

Kester Grant H. 2015. “Editorial.” FIELD: A Journal of Socially-Engaged Art Criticism 1 (Spring). Visited 8.12.2021 at

Kester, Grant H. 2011. The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context.

Kristeller, Paul Oskar. 2005. Listkerfi nútímans. Translated by Gunnar Harðarsson.

Luhmann, Niklas. 2000. Art as a Social System. Translated by Eva M. Knodt.

Marchart, Oliver. 2019. Conflictual Aesthetics: Artistic Activism and the Public Sphere. Sternberg Press.

Mollona, Massimiliano. 2021. Art/Commons: Anthropology beyond Capitalism. ZED.

Osborne, Peter. 2018. The Postconceptual Condition. Verso.

Pogue, Tiffany D. 2009 “Bois Caiman.” In Encyclopedia of African Religion. Edited by Molefi Kete Asante and Ama Mazama. Sage.

Tomba. Massimiliano. 2019. Insurgent Universality. An Alternative Legacy of Modernity. Oxford University Press.

Williams, Raymond. 1976. Keywords. London: Fontana.

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