Thuistezien 180 — 17.02.2021

Stewart Home & Sören Schmeling
Gustav Metzger: Years without Art


In his work ‘Years without Art’ (1977-1980) Gustav Metzger issues a call for artists to withdraw their labour for a minimum of three years. Also known as an ‘art strike’, Metzger was definitely a child of his time, where political reform and institutional violence were addressed in protests and movements. The striking thing though, is that while most protest groups were making appeals to institutional bodies such as art museums for inclusivity, political engagement and awareness, Metzger’s aim was quite the opposite. His call, rather, criticizes doctrines such as ‘artists engagement with political struggle’ and ‘the use of art for social change’ as well as ‘art in the service of revolution’. Metzger found them merely reactionary. Instead, ‘Years without Art’ states that ‘artists have attacked the prevailing methods of production, distribution, and consumption of art’ and that ‘the refusal of labour is the chief weapon of workers fighting the system.’ Three years cite as the ‘minimum period required to cripple the system.’ He employs neo-marxist thought that assumes that the exploitation of labour and alienation of labourers from their practice has seeped through all domains of society, including culture – creating a culture industry.

In this discussion by activist Stewart Home (photo), who also called for an Art Strike in the ’90s and a close acquaintance with Metzger, and author Sören Schmeling questions are raised regarding Metzger’s relevance in our times. As standards for artists and exhibition makers change, other factors are left behind or turn into contradictory expectations. Museums require higher standards of engagement, often creating ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions that result in popularity and a high visitor tally. The premise here is that it would surely be a good thing to have more people engaged with art and frequent museums. Yet the question remains whether this produces an authentic engagement; whether art serves its function fully when it’s consumed as entertainment. At the same time, governments seem to keep starving funding for art institutions, while the pressure and demands are turned up, and exploitation of workers within the cultural sector rises. Considering this, one could wonder the effects of ‘artwashing’ and its value, or rather, destruction. What would Metzger say and propose? Is it really possible to have a critical relation to art institutions, or governmental bodies for that matter, when one is dependent upon them? Can we expect artists to stay consistent in their practice (and political views), and museums in their draw? What is the function of a museum at all? Can an institution be autonomous and collective at the same time? Would the art world or museums, as they are now, change if an art strike were to happen?

Sören Schmeling (1979) is an art critic, researcher, independent curator and author based in Freiburg/Breisgau (Germany) who is working on the link between archives, art and society. He is head of the photo archive of Kunsthalle Basel (Switzerland). From 2011 to 2013 he had run an independent research and exhibition project on Gustav Metzger based on his library in Freiburg and related archives.

Stewart Home (1962) is an English artist, filmmaker, writer, pamphleteer, art historian, and activist. He is best known for his novels such as the non-narrative ‘69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess’ (2002), his re-imagining of the 1960s in ‘Tainted Love’ (2005), and earlier parodistic pulp fictions that integrate pornography, political agit-prop, and historical references with punk rock and avant-garde art.

Text: Rosa Zangenberg