Texts/Participation as a Fragment of Functionalism
Andreas Spiegl, 2000
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Participation as a Fragment of Functionalism
This essay concerns a phenomenon that is not only welcomed on (almost) all sides but which has also entered the discourse of art today: participation. The intention here is to focus on the relationship between participation and functionalism, and hence to derive a critical concept of participation.

Functionalism is based on a notion of reality that consists of elements whose prime object is to fulfil a task. These tasks are in turn defined by what that reality as a whole is to produce, be it no more than reproducing itself. Thus functionalism instigates a state of interdependency between elements and tasks as well as a value system that assesses these according to their usefulness or otherwise: anything that fulfils a purpose is good, anything that is dysfunctional or appears to be without purpose is rejected. Functionalism is indifferent to specific goals and is thus compatible with the most diverse of ideological applications. And so it is that the industrial society and Modernity availed themselves of functionalism in just the same way as the fundamentalist ecology movement was to do in its early days. For functionalism only ever reaches its limits when the effects it produces and the consequences it leads to in fact militate against its own conditions. Therefore everything that is produced in the context of a functionalist approach is ultimately based on reproduction and reproducibility. However different functionalist products may be in their form and function, they are forever beholden to the principle of usefulness. Functionalism itself becomes metaphysical when it attributes a function to each and everything, making sense of everything, as it were – a principle that knows no exceptions. In functionalist argument there are neither remainders nor even death. The history of psychoanalysis and its success owe much to this functionalist approach, which ultimately finds a purpose for thoughts and experiences that at first sight would appear to be dysfunctional. While the darker sides of functionalism and its expulsion of seemingly functionless ‘elements’ have led to doubts as to its social and political legitimacy, at the same time these suspicions have been allayed by system theory which sees a function even in things that appear contradictory or dysfunctional. As such, functionalism takes on the mantle of an ethical principle in that it assumes at least one function where none was previously apparent. And thus its underlying maxim is: if in doubt, assume the probability of function. And art, too, owes its existence to this maxim, for art has often spoken out explicitly against functionalisation and has laid claim to a right to dysfunctionality.

Paradoxically enough, it was the failure and/or the (postmodern) admission of the failure to create a binding and universal code for the entirety of social reality that was crucial to functionalism and its evolution. It was only in the face of the irreconcilable nature of different world views and with the acceptance of the reality of certain contradictions that functionalism and its immanent logic of interdependence took on global dimensions. (By way of an aside: it also seems paradoxical that with the failure of the so-called ‘great narratives’(Lyotard) nihilism also met its end.) What is left of functionalism is not so much an awareness of what reality as a whole produces, but more the notion that all things are at least connected somehow and impinge on each other. The paradigm that may be extrapolated from this now unites once-modern antagonisms. Every effort is made to create as much that is new as possible, only (thereby) to simultaneously preserve and archive as much as possible. In this state of interdependency, the new is as important and functional as the old, and the distant is as present as the near. Theoretically.

In practical terms, i.e. from an economic and a political point of view, the contradictions within this functionalism are negotiated via power-structures. And when no direct functionalisation ensues, the contradictions are either eliminated or aestheticised – that is to say, they are re-assigned as a change or a rest from functionalism. Thus, for instance, cultural differences under ‘protection’ in reserved zones fulfil a task for the leisure industry and tourism. If certain attitudes do not appear to be functional per se, they can always meet the need for exoticism, thereby serving as an image of alterity. This problem is not unknown in art, above all when its critique of the prevailing conditions in the reception and marketing of art dwindle into mere deviation from the everyday. What was intended as a critique, even functionally, becomes institutionalised as a dysfunctional exception. In this sense critique is not safe from being perceived as mere ‘change’.

This situation leads to a seemingly paradox challenge for art praxis today: while the practising artist may recognise the increasing societal difficulties arising from the global accumulation of exceptional situations and thereby of people who cannot be integrated into a functionalist structure, nevertheless the artist tries to legitimise his/her own position within this context by attempting to re-functionalise these leftover functional shreds and surpluses. The key word – which is itself rooted in functionalist argument – is ‘participation’.

There is an automatic assumption that individuals will ‘partake’ of the interdependence that is immanent to functionalism. However, this ‘partaking’ becomes problematic when it does not involve actively ‘taking part’ in the system – a system that one in any case cannot escape – for then it becomes a burden, just as much for the system as for those who cannot or will not fit in to it. Seen in this light, all those who do not find a place in a particular system become disturbing misfits who must take responsibility for and cope with the exclusion they have brought on themselves.

To the extent that art attempts to undermine the mechanisms of social exclusion by presenting itself as an opportunity for participation, it confirms its own functionalist intentions – albeit well meant. In this sense participation acts as a form of medication to alleviate feelings of alienation. The new shibboleth is that victims must become actors who will take their fate into their own hands and organise their own room for manoeuvre, thereby carving out a place for themselves in society: help towards self-help is the name of this endeavour to leave behind the colonialist assistance of the past which only ever succeeded in setting up a form of modified dependency. Now the aim is to leave it up to the new participants; how and by what means they find a way to integrate themselves into a (globalised) situation and hence into the prevailing power structures – with the emphasis on self-integration because the striving for independence is not regarded as absolute but as an optional, self-chosen pattern of dependency. This also includes that sensus communis which proclaims worldwide economic interdependency as the basis of our continued existence and co-existence. The hegemony here is the inevitability of the economy that puts this existential basis at our disposal. Thus the path to independence is often depicted in terms of the individual (small) business plus a plea for a niche-economy. The argument is: once the conditions for economic independence have been achieved, then there is no reason why ideological, cultural and ethnic differences should not flourish side by side. No mention is made of the fact that these same differences and contradictions have been relegated to a secondary, relativistic level. As long as the primary demand for economic integration is obeyed, the insistence on ethnic or cultural differences is legitimate. It is then hardly surprising to see the reaction that follows when these differences re-emerge as aesthetic concepts: clad as spectacle, even ideological disagreements and the disputes of realpolitik become acceptable and marketable. By way of an aside: there is a close proximity here between the communication of cultural or religious differences as art and folklore and Schlingensief’s theatricalisation of the drama of real-politik. For our purposes here, the point is that the cry for participation in the process of social valuation can be implemented – through the transformation of a difference or a contradiction into a matter of aesthetics. As laudable as such a re-functionalisation may at first seem, it becomes equally problematic when this transformation on an aesthetic level is not seen as a pointer or as a challenge, but glibly accepted as a solution. The temptation to regard the transformation of a problem into an aesthetic issue as a solution is always greatest when this in turn leads to commercial success. Commercial success means that the relevant enterprise becomes largely self-financing, thereby fulfilling the demands of functionalism and its ultimate goal, namely reproducibility. This criterion also characterises artistic projects that not only see to it that marginalised or excluded groups can participate in them, but which also seek their own legitimation as a form of service industry. In this context it is worth noting the shift of erstwhile activist art projects – which fought for the rights of marginalised or excluded groups, without being profitdriven – in the direction of artistic brand names that are organised along the lines of business enterprises and which operate both in the art market and as a competitive company in the ‘real world’. In other words: today we are faced with a generation of younger artists who have long since internalised functionalism and the parameters of the market eco-nomy as the conditio sine qua non.

In the sense that artistic praxis thereby moves closer to the contradictions and requirements of ordinary life, this must be a welcome development. Above all in view of the tendency for artists to dysfunctionalise even their critical artistic interventions by re-functionalising them as ‘change’ – and as long as the project in question does indeed have the appearance of a business-like enterprise – the work is guaranteed a certain sense of reality. These brand-name projects not only provide an opportunity for participation, but they themselves participate in the advantages and disadvantages that come with this symbiosis. Indeed this merger with the demands of ordinary, everyday life can go so far that the question as to the artistic input on a project seems either secondary or not relevant to the intended function. Obviously it would make no sense to replace functionalism with a new formalism that would clearly display its supposedly artistic element. It would seem much more urgent to actuate a form of nominalism, which is often the last signature by which an artistic undertaking can be distinguished from what is merely a creative niche-industry.

There is no need here to dwell on the fact that in a situation which is plagued by a permanent legitimacy deficit due to its inherent contradictions and disadvantages, the proximity to art and its associated ‘values’ becomes highly sought-after territory. These values notwithstanding, which may be associated with critique or emancipation or simply with conscience per se, the mere designation of a project or a work as ‘art’ implies a certain aspiration. Besides suggesting various levels of legitimacy, this nominalism implies first and foremost an element of distinction which, in economic terms, functions as symbolic capital. And this distinction not only operates externally, i.e. dividing the artistic from the non-artistic enterprise, but above all it operates internally: that is to say, while an artistic project can be structured and can operate like a conven-tional business enterprise, it can at the same time intentionally present a likeness of such an enterprise and a likeness of its consequences. However, an illustrative likeness of this kind will have a particular relationship to its subject, and this relationship can be accurately documentary or it can display an implicitly ironic or critical perspective. Since commercial success alone cannot vouch for the artistic quality of a work, in this context it has to be assessed primarily on its illustrative powers along with the questions raised by the latter. How does it illustrate and reflect the prevailing balance of power, the dependency structures and the social and political consequences of a business enterprise, and how do these relate to the institutional parameters of the discourse on art itself? If a project is successful, who is then participating in which and in whose success? And moreover: What does measurable (commercial) success really mean in terms of the quality of an artistic work?

The mention of illustration here inevitably recalls the question of the aesthetics of the work. However, in this context, ‘aesthetics’ refers not to the design of a project, but to the perceptibility of a critical relationship that a ‘real’ – possibly even pragmatically structured – business has with itself. The visible presence of such a relationship is all the more important when artistic works – closely intertwined with reality – cast aside distinctive formal attributes and rely solely on the nominalism previously alluded to. Merely being exhibited within the framework of an art institution may highlight the illustrative quality of a project and its otherwise invisible difference to some functionalist alter ego, but this alone is too little to counteract the equally possible aestheticisation of political or economic issues.

Aestheticisation results when socially marginalised or excluded participants in an artistic project themselves end up as pictures in an exhibition, and their different fates and problems function as a classical mode of distinction – in other words: when they are not integrated into an artistic process as actors but as the motif.

And aestheticisation also results when the division of functions remains intact despite the part played by the participants: that is to say, when the artistic entrepreneurs see to the representation of a project within the framework of the discourse pertaining in art institutions, while the parti-cipants are simply responsible for the production. For then the participants become more or less voluntary employees, who bring not only their commitment and interest but also their problems to the valuation process, without themselves being able to participate in the symbolic and/or economic capital of the nominalist distinction. And with that we find ourselves up against admittedly well-meaning functionalism, which can no doubt productively extend the circle of participants to the benefit of both sides, but which takes no account of the existing balances of power nor of the implicit questions regarding the politics of representation.

Yet none of these arguments is sufficient to cast serious doubt on the notion of participation. To date there are no signs of any better alternatives or strategies for countering the ever-growing mechanisms of social exclusion. Meanwhile the relationship between participation and functionalism is a separate issue. As we saw at the outset of this essay, functionalism tends to treat reality as a totality, like a sum with no remainders. Yet at the same time, if projects are devised which invite the participation of marginalised or excluded individuals, so that these may be reintegrated into the functional interconnections of society, then we are faced with the seemingly paradoxical danger that success will simply obscure existing contradictions and the unequal balance of power in certain situations. Instead of putting differences up for discussion, functionalism always suggests an over-riding ‘common sense’, i.e. a solution that is valid for everyone. Thus, any critical notion of participation begs the question as to how participation in a project can be organised in such a way that it is possible to reflect the reasons and differences that caused the original marginalisation, and hence the contradiction to smooth functionalism. The real significance of the aesthetics of a work and of nominalism – that we touched on in our argument – is to make these very differences visible and negotiable. If these projects can indeed do something towards improving the lives of the participants, then it is well and good that the question of art should come second, although it should not be entirely forgotten. For only then does our reliance on nominal differences have a chance of surviving as a means of critical distinction. In order to avoid the danger of further aestheticisation, there is paradoxically still a need to elucidate the resistance and contradictions that always accompany and endanger success in realpolitik and its attendant functionalism •
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