Sophie J Williamson



The Artist as Cynic

In Greek philosophy, the scandalous Cynics eschewed conventional desires in favour of a simple life, practising parrhesia, the act of speaking freely, even if this posed great personal risk. Diogenes of Sinope, one of the most notorious of the Cynics, regarded the rules of behaviour towards bodily functions as contradictory; since there was no scandal in eating in the agora, he saw no reason why he should not also masturbate there, arguing that in both cases he was simply satisfying a bodily need, adding that ‘he wished it were as easy to banish hunger by rubbing the belly’. On another occasion, after having insulted Alexander the Great, he fearlessly proclaimed: ‘In view of what I say, rage and prance about … and think me the greatest blackguard and slander me to the world and, if it be your pleasure, run me through with your spear; for I am the only man from whom you will get the truth, and you will learn it from no one else. For all are less honest than I am and more servile.’

The Cynics based their philosophy on the concepts of freedom (eleutheria) and self-sufficiency (autarkeia) or independence, believing that all decisions should be dependent on nothing other than oneself. Questioning collective habits and opinions, standards of decency, institutional rules etc, the Cynics opted for a completely natural lifestyle in an effort to eliminate all of the dependencies introduced by society, refusing the Sophists’ distinction between nature and conventions (physis and nomos), upon which ethics were founded. The word cynic (kŭnĭkós) is believed to derive from the ancient Greek word for dog (kuōn) due to their lack of sexual shame in public. In living in this shameless manner, uncompromised by both legal constraints and social conventions, the Cynics merged the art of existence with the discourse of truth.

The practice of laying oneself bare has an established lineage in performance art, for example Marina Abramović’s The House with the Ocean View, 2002, when she lived in the gallery space on three open platforms for twelve days or Corneila Parker’s The Maybe, 1995, where Tilda Swinton slept inside a glass vitrine among a museum display of the relics of historical figures. Peter Osbourne’s recent article in Radical Philosophy also interestingly used cynicism to interpret the work of Günter Brus, such as his piece Clear Madness – Urination, Excretion, 1970, and other Viennese actionists of the late 1960s. However, these practices, in the safety of an art context and a performance timeframe, are rarely tested on a wider public or pose the outspoken risk demanded of parrhesia. In order to proclaim the truths they accepted in a manner that would be accessible to everyone, the Cynics believed that their teachings should manifest in a very public, visible, spectacular and provocative way of life. Accounts record that Diogenes refused to go to the royal court and only offered an audience to the King when he visited him at the barrel which he lived in on the street. Teaching through example and associated explanations, the Cynics intended their own lives to be a blazon of essential truths, which would then serve as a guideline for others to follow. Michel Foucault proposed the cynic philosopher to serve as a backdrop for a more general form of activism, coining the term ‘philosophical activism’; an activism in the world and against the world.

The agora’s successor today is a transformed forum for discourse not only through the potential of physical spaces but also through continuously evolving communication technologies. Architectural accomplishments such as Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, 1929 and Philip Johnson’s Glass House, 1949, with minimum interior walls and greater use of glass, served to forge a bridge between private and more public activities. Dan Graham’s work of the late 1970s observed that architectural code both reflects and determines the social order of public/private space as well as the psychological sense of the self. The postwar architectural zeitgeist for visual transparency was reflected in social change through television in programmes such as An American Family in the US, 1973, the successor to which is the more recent plethora of ‘reality’ programmes typified by Big Brother. As an array of new communication technologies connect and mediate among public/private domains, as well as geographically and socially bounded spaces, they take on an architectural and social function, reinforcing Graham’s observation that the permeability of private and public space is now pervasive.

In their seminal text Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri illustrated the integral link between new global communication networks and symbolic action. Taking advantage of these networks can be a catalyst for the rapid, and free, distribution of imagery and information to a mass audience with little additional effort on the part of the protagonist, offering the potential for further debate and action.  Perhaps this is nowhere more poignantly illustrated than in recent uprisings and protests. Political action now instinctively utilises what has commonly been termed ‘cell-phone journalism’, employing multiple networking channels as its medium. The parrhesic desire and whistle-blowing tendencies are further secured by cyber-publishing platforms, such as Wikileaks and the Independent Media Centre (, for the dissemination of information that may be contrary to that of orthodox media representations. In this context it is easy to see how the new global public realm can accommodate cynical discourse.

Josh Harris, one of the first dot-com multimillionaires, stated ‘Orwell was wrong; the government doesn’t impose Big Brother. Audiences demand it’. Despite the UK being the most closely watched country in the world (the average city dweller is recorded on CCTV at least 300 times a day), we accept it without question, even offering up our personal identities to the public realm through ever more apps and social networking profiles. Dubbed the ‘Warhol of the Web’, Harris denounced the online business that made him his $80m fortune as an art project, to the dismay of his former colleagues, and set out to pursue the limits, possibilities and implications of this new technology and our relationship to each other through it. The web was the focus of a counterculture thrilled by the utopian idea of free, unmediated information exchange. Running for a month over the turn of the millennium, Harris’s most notorious project, Quiet: We Live in Public, became the living quarters for much of the downtown New York art scene. Everything was provided for free and the activities of the ad-hoc community of artists, curators and other creatives living in a six-storey Broadway warehouse was streamed live to the web by Harris’s online TV portal. Quiet featured a shooting range, a banquet hall, theatre, temple, club, giant game of Risk and a public shower area. It offered its residents complete freedom; drugs and public sex were abundant. Each sleeping pod was both the receiver of the multiple TV channels and a producer of its own; participants could tune in to view any of the numerous feeds covering all areas of the ‘human terrarium’, but inevitably could also be watched doing so. However, Harris claimed that it was not until the final week that the experiment truly worked; participants lost themselves in an unmediated information exchange, at once their physical and virtual selves. His prediction of all-encompassing public interaction online, prefigured by a decade Web 2.0 sites like MySpace, YouTube and Facebook.

Foucault’s proposal of cynicism as an activism ‘in the world and against the world’ could be likened to the anti-globalisation movement, anti-racist no-border camps, transnational migrant strikes, Mayday movements and, of course, most recently to the Occupy movement (#Occupy Art AM359). However, activism often still has a stance that is distanced from people’s everyday life, even that of its own protagonists. The Occupy movement, while having successfully traversed national borders, risks appearing to the general public as a militant activist subculture with its own signs, values and conventions quite separate from the rest of society. As autonome a.f.r.i.k.a. gruppe have argued, the future of this global activism will depend on whether it succeeds in being capable of action at a local and everyday level while continuing to develop its transversal, border-crossing character. The most important border that has to be crossed is the border that constitutes the activist her or himself in a separation from the rest of society.

Considering the artist’s role, Brian Holmes has suggested that talking about politics within an artistic framework is false; the institution allows the representation of problems and efforts to change them, but only their representation, not the real unfolding of necessarily antagonistic process. By entering into the public realm artists can play a valuable role in producing what Douglas Crimp has termed ‘cultural activism’, creating symbolic actions with an aesthetic (whether visual or poetic) that will be readily redistributed through communication networks.

Parrhesia is not always a risk of life, but can be a risk of losing popularity by taking a stance contrary to the majority’s opinion. Responding to the election in Austria that resulted in the far-right FPÖ party forming part of a coalition government, Christoph Schlingensief’s Please Love Austria, 2000, appropriated the format of a Big Brother TV show. Amid intense public interest, twelve asylum-seekers were housed in a shipping container, complete with blue flags representing the FPÖ party, a banner bearing the slogan ‘Ausländer raus’ (‘Foreigners out’) and the logo of the Kronenzeitung, Austria’s biggest-selling tabloid. CCTV streamed their activities live, each day two participants were voted out by the audience and deported, the prize being a permit to stay in Austria. Proving Holmes’s suggestion that real antagonistic process is possible in art existing beyond the gallery walls, Please Love Austria bore witness to Giorgio Agamben’s thesis that the camp is the hidden matrix and nomos of political space in which we are still living.

Rather than the overly academicised political work of the gallery space, the parrhesiastes avoids a rhetorical form that would veil what one thinks, instead using the most direct form of expression that can be found. Hannah Arendt argues that it is the thoughtlessness of the individual that allows violence in society; confronted with the reality of the FPÖ party’s anti-immigration policies, Please Love Austria forced its audience to consider the consequences of their failure to prevent the party’s election. One man quoted in the Guardian said, ‘they showed these containers on television in Paris. In France, people are pointing to us and thinking this is a country of Nazis’. In taking advantage of the viral nature of media and the internet to broadcast the message to an extended public audience, Please Love Austria far exceeded the ephemeral nature of live performance and the limitations of a gallery audience, and, in so doing the artist expanded the parameters of activist art by recognising the rise of interactivity and connectivity as a significant mode of public discourse.

Cynicism took the Greek philosophical conception of the relationship between one’s way of life and knowledge of the truth to a radical extreme, believing that the individual is nothing else but his relation to truth and the way that this shapes one’s own life. Few artists manage to maintain an outspoken, cynical position. Even those artists who spoke out against the art institution itself, for example Daniel Buren, Hans Haacke and others involved in Institutional Critique of the 1960s and 70s, now find themselves embraced by the establishment. For an artist to truly be a Cynic, it must not only be present in his art practice, but his practice of living in its entirety. As Foucault described, when one accepts the parrhesiastic game in which one’s own life is exposed, one takes up a specific relationship to oneself: risking death to tell the truth rather than be false to oneself.

Earlier this year, in protest at the constant surveillance he has been subjected to since his release from state detention, Ai Weiwei installed webcams in his home with a 24-hour live video stream of his activities on the internet. For Ai, the presence of these cameras had little impact on the way he lived, they merely added to the numerous police surveillance cameras and plain clothes police officers watching his house around the clock. However, by choosing to take control of his own surveillance, and allowing it to be viewed by the world, he initiated a dialogue with the Chinese authorities with a very public audience. Through this defiant act, living as a modern-day Cynic, Ai posed the threat of transparency to the Chinese government. In consequence the web feed was removed by authorities after only 46 hours. During the short period that was live it received 5.2 million views; the immediate and uncompromising response to it on the part of the Chinese authorities only strengthened the agency of his protest.

Ai’s project highlights the ongoing struggle of internet censorship in China, however this is only a detail of much larger injustice. While whistle-blowing sites such as have done much for transparency around the world, they can only exist within a society that allows a certain degree of freedom of speech. Ai has commented that blogs and the internet are the great invention of our day, giving ordinary people the opportunity to change public opinion. However, in February this year it was made mandatory in China for anyone with a microblog account to register their real names with the government, eliminating the protective anonymity of the online realm.

As with the Cynics, Ai has a strong sense of duty, commenting that ‘the world is not changing if you are not shouldering the burden of change’. Much of the Cynics’ preaching was against social institutions, arguing that such institutions hindered one’s freedom and independence, and sought to highlight the arbitrariness of the law. Ai’s persistence in proving how the Chinese state is failing its people has put him in a position of constant vulnerability. Ai’s release last year came with the bail conditions that he submit to a form of semi-house arrest in which permission to leave his walled compound is required and is forbidden to tweet, write, or meet with foreigners and journalists; all conditions which he readily admits he has violated. During his interrogations, Ai was primarily questioned about subversion of state power. Subsequently authorities prosecuted him for tax evasion and billed him 15m yuan (£1.5m), in retaliation his supporters believe, for his social and political activism. His persistent refusal to be compromised by the Chinese authorities has made him a hero in China and much of the tax bill was covered by donations from Chinese supporters.

The examples set out here act as what Gerald Raunig has called ‘micro-machines’ which, in their singularity, represent disobedient modes of existence. The controversy of these alternative ways of living mirrors the struggle between political power and the power of truth that was seen in Diogenes’ proclamation to Alexander. They apply all the more to the collective cynicism, or rather what Raunig calls the ‘molecular Cynicism’ of the new activisms today. In this kind of molecular cynicism, it is not the individual that is at the centre but rather the exchange relations between singularities testing disobedient, non-subservient, industrious forms of living. This builds on Guattari’s concept of the molecular revolution in which action focuses not only on taking over state power but takes effect in everyday life. While artists following a cynical existence do not drop out of society altogether, they breach the social regime that the majority lives in, testing new ways of living and new forms of organisation, throwing into question the legitimacy of social and political conventions, in a very public manner.