Ape Says No

Suhail Malik


This essay argues that the prevalent modes of criticality in contemporary art ultimately have the same operational logic as radical human rights claims. Looking to Rise of the Planet of the Apes for a counter-paradigm of institutional negation, by which art can in principle and fact gain political traction, it concludes that art can do so only by disposing of contemporary art. An earlier version of this essay was first presented at CCS Bard in October 2011.

—Tirdad Zolghadr


[In the key scene in Rise of the Planet of the Apes,] Caesar, the chemically enhanced, super-smart chimp, faces off against Dodge, a daddy’s boy who runs a “sanctuary” and frequently partakes in torturing the animals. Dodge is about to put Caesar down with his Taser when something indelible happens—Caesar catches his hand in a grip, meets his eyes with Felton, and speaks clear English—specifically, the word “No!” He’s seemed so firmly ape-like before that, the development of Caesar’s larynx is a genuinely chilling moment, and as ridiculous as it might seem on paper, you’re virtually there, shouting “No!” with him. … This is his moment, triumphant and chilling—the beginning of a revolution.[1]

In the run-up to the seventh Berlin Biennale in the spring of 2012, the curator-artist Artur Zmijewski asked eighty “cultural producers” to respond to ten questions confronting the uncomfortable role that contemporary art and culture plays in the social politics of Berlin. The provocations and 43 responses were printed and web-published in the “P/Act for Art” edition of the Berlin Biennale Zeitung in September 2011.[2] The questions have two underlying concerns:

  1. How the social milieu and interests of contemporary art aid a process of gentrification, a euphemism for the removal of the poor from urban centers in favor of the rich (what might be more directly called wealth cleansing);
  2. The mobilization of contemporary art by the city’s mayor to promote Berlin as a major hub for cultural production through the based in Berlin exhibition, while at the same time the city undermined the required conditions for the production and exhibition of such art: cheap rent, free spaces, state support, and so on.

For all the local and immediate urgency of the sociocultural problems of Berlin’s fate addressed in “P/Act for Art,” the contributors also expose a less pressing structural issue of art and institutionalization at the core of the claims and conditions for the real political or critical effect Zmijewski wishes for the Biennale specifically and art more generally:

I believe that the art community should stop being an acquiescent object of manipulation, become an active subject, and return to politics, which consists in executing our rights and opportunities for development.[3]

This “execution of rights” is tied to “the trust of the artists in art institutions,” which is “in fact built on the only acceptable model of cooperation: the total freedom of the artist in a field designated by the institution.” We’ll return later to this starting assumption of the “total freedom of the artist” as a “right”; more immediately instructive is that “P/Act for Art” presents a pretty good survey of how critically attuned cultural producers deal with a proximate institutionalization.

The following paragraphs demonstrate how these responses capture well a kind of common sense of contemporary art as a critical and even political undertaking in both its artistic and sociological aspects. But these prevalent assumptions will also be seen to proscribe contemporary art making any effective political intervention precisely because of the very institutional negation that—in common with radical human rights theory—they take to be the condition for art’s politicality qua critique. That is, contemporary art is intrinsically inadequate to the political claims it declares and takes itself to have. And it is inadequate precisely insofar as it internally negates institutionalization with the kind of strident exclamations of the “total freedom of the artist” or, more usually, soft claims made for art’s indeterminacy—its freedom in interpretation. This is not to decry negation as a condition for political transformation: again, Caesar the No-saying ape in Rise of the Planet of the Apes demonstrates another condition and method—another paradigm—of negation by which art can in principle and fact gain political traction.


To return then to “P/Act for Art”: the collated responses can be loosely categorized under the following 7.5 headings of increasing ease in art’s relation to its institutionalization (presented here with a representative sample for each category):

  1. The uncapturable

    Godard: “Culture is the norm, art the exception”; the “art scene,” whose agenda is at present largely set by curators, museum directors, emirs and mayors, collectors, gallerists and auction houses, and which includes academia’s proliferating art, visual studies and visual cultures departments, and curatorial studies programs and centers, as well as thousands upon thousands of … artists, is at best a subculture, therefore only exceptionally affined to the exceptional tasks of artists. (Jalal Toufic)[4]

  2. You need us more than we need you

    For years, art has been exploited almost only to improve image and reduced to a questionable economic factor instead of being accepted in accordance with its particular nature as a necessity that is uncontrollable, subjective, and follows non-functional criteria, and as a component of our lives. … Since it is precisely these uncontrollable and unpredictable ideas that are indeed literally an existential component of our society, it should be a voluntary commitment for every nonartist to allow and make it easier for artists to create their work— without any ifs or buts! (Leonie Bauman)[5]

  3. Cultural producers themselves know what is best

    What is necessary is support for art that is not oriented toward exploitation, visitor numbers, and reviews in the press, but that instead emphasizes the artistic and curatorial production of knowledge, which is immanent in art’s complex forms of action. (Joerg Franzbecker)[6]

  4. It’s vexed

    Although “trust” may be a wonderful thing in interpersonal relationships, the relationship between individuals and institutions should instead be better considered politically and thus as conflict. (Tom Holert)

    4.5.  No thanks

    an initiative to … collect statements from berlin based artists … functions like a survey about what artists want … in order to sell the sell-out of berlin’s cultural life more successfully. For this reason I will not comment on the questions raised by the berlin biennale or make statements on what artists want or not want. (Natasha Sadr Haghighian)

  5. More statism we can control, please

    In order to maintain and develop [good infrastructural conditions in the most varied areas of production], artists need the support of cultural institutions and associations, and, of course, of cultural politicians. Cooperation is called for, but not the service of artists to institutions or the service of art to politics. (Ute Weiss Leder)[7]

  6. Protect us

    The critical competence of art is questioned now by populists everywhere, in many local dialects. Art is the last refuge of free speech, which must be carefully guarded and preserved above all. (Janos Sugar)[8]

  7. Smug condescension

    Art should do what it wants to do, get involved or not. (Monica Bonvicini)

Responding to the statement “In our opinion, it is necessary to formulate a new covenant between artists living in Berlin, local art institutions, and the (cultural) politicians responsible in order to facilitate a next step toward a productive solution,” Bonvicini says: “Really? Wonderful, then do it.”

These categories are admittedly tendentious in that they hold only partially, as they must since they are neither absolutely distinct nor exclusive from one another, and since one statement readily appears simultaneously under several categories. What is however telling about these statements is that these categories share common assumptions that can lead to a general characterization of contemporary art’s prevalent traits. The commonality underlying the putative difference in positions that the survey evokes is evidenced in Ellen Blumenstein’s statement.[9] Art, says Blumenstein,

is a space of possibility that can open up our perception and experience to something beyond everyday politics or currently fashionable trends [the category “You need us more than we need you”].

In order for art to exist, it requires a protected space that is free of given political, economic, or other constraints [i.e., “Protect us”]. Such constraints should, if at all, be negotiated by the artworks themselves, and not be dictated by the general conditions that surround it [“It’s vexed”].
The task of all actors in the field of art is to create the conditions necessary and / or to provide such space and safeguard it [“More statism we can control, please”]. With regard to the responsibility of politics, art institutions, academies, critics, curators, viewers, and also artists here, a specific form is suitable in each case [“Cultural producers know what is best”]. Yet in every case, it is distinguished by structuring the constraints one faces in such a way that this opening that art embodies remains free of them [“The uncapturable”]. Each one of us has to take this responsibility and the necessary measures to it.

Art alone does the rest.

Put schematically, the “opening that art embodies” is its critical virtue, which is its freedom from existing sociocultural realities: art’s assumed excess, surplus to policy, regulation, administration, command, etc., from which we all can learn and on which basis the artist has “total freedom.” However it may come to be institutionalized or “protected,” such institutions must respect this critical virtue if they are not to do a disservice to contemporary art—and, by extension, themselves, as contributors to the social good.

The effort to establish an institution for contemporary art that would be just to its critical virtue falls under the “It’s vexed” category, as Johannes Paul Raether says in other terms:

The joint search for objectified political sentiments, in municipal and state cultural policy as well as in the institutions of “political art,” needs first and foremost not trust in the institutions, but rather a shared mistrust of art as an institution.
Put this way, contemporary art’s critical virtue necessitates its suspicion toward institutions (including its own). Contemporary art’s suspicion of institutionalization includes by necessity the mistrust toward any identification of an ordering logic. Yet the contention here is that the logic of that perennial and constitutive movement, of art’s critical virtue, can be identified through its similarity to the proposed (anti-) relation between law, legal institutions, and rights in radical human rights theory.


Following his deconstructive genealogy of modern human rights in The End of Rights, Costas Douzinas presents the radicality of human rights in the following words:

When the American civil rights activists asserted their rights to equality, when torture victims all over the world claim the right to be free in their integrity, when gays and lesbians in homophobic countries proclaim the dignity of their identity, or when an abandoned lover demands his “right to love,” they are acting strictly within the human rights tradition, even though no such legal rights currently exist or are likely to be accepted. [It is the tradition of] proclaim[ing] and this bring[ing] into being new types of entitlement and forms of existence against received wisdom and law. The absence of legislative approval, often the legislator’s opposition to the new claims, is their structural characteristic.[10]

Human rights claim justiceprecisely because (not just “even though”) the claimed rights do not exist in given legislation or institutional recognition. Such exteriority is their radicality. The similarity with contemporary art’s critical virtue is that it too shares the “structural characteristic” of radically constituted human rights: contemporary art claims critical virtue because it is external to the limitations of the institutions and categories in/against which it is nonetheless manifest (“Art does the rest,” “total freedom of the artist”).

What is important for human rights in this theory is that they remain outside of any positive determination or given code; that they are not captured by law, nor turned into a category of it. To incorporate human rights into any such legislation, to positivise them, reverses human rights into institutionalized identities, whereas it is precisely the rupturing of such identities that are given legitimacy by human rights:

To the extent that [human rights] become positivised legal discourse and join law’s calculation, thematization and synchronization, they share the quest for subjecting society to a unique and dominant logic. … But at the same time, they are the promise of a justice always still to come: they are the figure of the negative and the indeterminate in the persons and the state. … The justice of human rights therefore does not offer a definition and description of the just society or a prescription of its conditions of existence. (368)

With Douzinas, rights must then be distinguished from legal frameworks. Human rights prescribe nothing and give no positive sense of what justice might definitively be. Belonging to anybody and everybody at any time, human rights are the inherent civic virtue of rights, rather than their legislative codification and limitation as law.

What does this inherent civic virtue of rights amount to? How is it manifest? Douzinas gives two main characteristics:

  1. it avows indeterminacy and openness over calculation, identity, closure, etc.—indefinition rather than the prescription of a “unique and dominant logic”;
  2. it is negative to the powers of given institutions and categorization.

And these are no less the claims of contemporary art’s civic virtue, what is now expected of and assumed by contemporary art as a critical undertaking.

The relation between the critical virtue of contemporary art and radical human rIghts theory is, then, more than analogical. Minimally, they are alike; maximally, the critical virtue of contemporary art is only one particular instance of the inherent civic virtue of human rights. This order of predication, since art’s critical virtue is assumed as a right—that of the “total freedom of the artist” or, with Blumenthal, the condition for the negotiations undertaken by art against its constraints. Put the other way, and to summarize: the politics and moral claims of contemporary art are based on human rights that are radically negative with regard to institutional codes and prescriptions, rights that are affirmed and enacted through the demands for justice of what must be indeterminate with regard to those positive codes, other to them.[11] That is, and as the contributions to “P/Act for Art” all symptomatically attest, the critical virtue of contemporary art manifests the affirmative negation of institutionalization required by the civic virtue of rights.


The affirmative negation of institutions is the civic virtue of contemporary art. Not only that: it is the condition and horizon—the sustained assumption—of contemporary art, its common sense, and its political, artistic, and intellectual limitation. That limitation and its consequences for the very claims that contemporary art makes as to its own political ambitions come into relief by evoking the ape who says No in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the ape who teaches us an important lesson about a politics of institutionalization other than that of the affirmative negation of institutions.

It does not seem so: certainly, Caesar says No against his incarceration in the ape sanctuary and its cruelties, negating (his) institutionalization for want of justice. It is a reactive No against the sadistic site of his incarceration, against which he rails with the most effective possible refusal by the eruption of language from within his volcanic ape roar of protest, this primary English word emanating from deep within the animal growl of indignation. To that extent, Caesar’s No is a negation, articulating an indignation fracturing all the codes and places. It seems to be the No of civic virtue common to radical human rights and contemporary art.

Yet this No-saying is not that of an intrinsic civic virtue external to institutional coding. Exactly the contrary: Caesar can only say No at all because he has been institutionalized more than any other ape. He is born, genetically modified, into the experimental science lab; adopted into a family as a test subject for radical medication; intelligence enhanced through drug intervention; incarcerated again in an ape sanctuary, and so on. In sum, Caesar’s No is a No conditioned by his being an institutional animal. There could be no world-historical revolution, no radical transformation of order and place, without the institutionalization that constitutes his No. Without it, his protest would be like that of the other complaining, livid, or resigned apes: wordless, ape-like, overpowered.

Caesar’s No does not then assume his freedom but his institutionalization. His refusal of his place as much as that of all apes, his breaking the primary uniqueness of Aristotle’s human qua speaking or political animal, is constituted by his institutionalization—as both cause for indignation and its new formulation. Contrary then to the anti- or contra-institutionality of the affirmative negation of critical and civil virtue (autonomy), Caesar bellows an institutionally constituted No that articulates and enacts indignation against institutional depredation. In this case, it is a No against the immediate situation of the ape sanctuary but also against the human exploitation of apes in general, an allegory for exploitation of all kinds, ranging from the civil rights movement (the explicit reference for the Planet of the Apes series in the 1960s– and ’70s) to the current ecological and capitalist crises. And this transformative, insurrectionary No is a negative affirmation of institutions.

Attached to and assuming the intrinsic civic virtue of its criticality, contemporary art is not adequate to such negation and the (anti-) power of institutions. Avowedly so: precisely its claim to critical virtue prevents contemporary art from building negatively affirmative institutions adequate to the causes for indignation. The effects located here are twofold: (i) a pressing artistic problem, since contemporary art is now mostly a mock-radical, but in fact polite, vessel for the circulation of critical virtue, blocking in the process more powerful (because more transformational) negations, and (ii) a sociological problem for contemporary art, since its social and artistic operations are for the most part highly exploitative and strongly power-hierarchical (albeit informally so).

To be clear: it is not that art cannot come to such a negative institutionality but, as “P/Act for Art” amply demonstrates, contemporary art cannot, because of its assumption and attachment to its own critical virtue. If, then, there is to be an art adequate to transformational No’s against injustices, what is needed is an art other than contemporary art, an art other than that of civic virtue.

What this other art might be, and how to get to it are political questions, in both senses: it is a matter of what art’s politics can be, and also of what art is validated, wanted, expected to be and to do. These are problems of art’s institutionality, of what its institutions present and produce. Even accepting that contemporary art has to be dispensed with—and there is plenty of motivation not to do so—the working out of these tasks and the struggle to dispel contemporary art will take at least a cultural generation. Yet two initial characteristics of this art other than contemporary art can be identified from the argument so far: (i) a good and immediately salient object of indignation is contemporary art itself, its tendentious assumption of critical virtue and anti-institutionality in both its artistic and sociological aspects, and (ii) the negative affirmation of institutions, the constitution of the indignant no, is an institutional task.

Comparison with the field and practice of human rights is again instructive for grasping what the latter task amounts to. If the comparison holds, then two further sub-claims have to be noted: (i) that with regard to human rights, the institutional task is not instantiated by the claim of a universally intrinsic civic virtue such as Douzinas advocates, but of institutionalized, legally coded human rights, a strenuous task undertaken by judicial activists, and (ii) the constitution of collective indignation and its transformative articulation is something that the political Right has done far better than the Left in recent years. The argument above outlines the reasons for that success and the necessary inadequacy of contemporary art in the face of it.

Suhail Malik is a writer and teaches in the Department of Art, Goldsmiths, London. He is currently visiting faculty at CCS Bard. In May–June 2013, Malik presented a series of talks titled “On the Necessity of Art’s Exit from Contemporary Art” at Artists Space, New York.


  1. Oliver Lyttelton, “From Bloody Murders To Bridesmaid Speeches: The 25 Best Movie Moments Of 2011,” Indiewire. return to text
  2. In full, the questions are: “1. Should art consciously participate in current debates and serve as a critical voice in social respectability to generate democratic processes within society? 2. How should the situation be assessed in which almost the entire budget of existing art institutions is spent on infrastructure, with no money left for new, experimental approaches, programming, new productions, or acquisitions? 3. What are possible alternative sources of cultural funds, and how can they be realized in order to generate reliable and independent funding for cultural and artistic production? 4. How should topic-specific funding and funding connected to a particular federal state—which is made available based on the need for political representation—be dealt with? 5. What responsibility does the commercial sector within the art system have with regard to competition among artists? Does the non-commercial part of the system contribute to it ‘innocently’ and how? 6. Should commercial galleries co-finance new ‘nonprofit’ art production and exhibitions? 7. What is the responsibility of artists toward the city and society in which they live? 8. Why don’t the politicians responsible work together with art and cultural professionals, and why are there not any advisory committees for this field? 9. Have artists lost their trust in art institutions? Why do they so often feel manipulated? 10. How is it possible to involve international cultural producers based in Berlin in the debate about culture in Berlin and resolve existing language problems?” See P/Act for Art. return to text
  3. “Artur Żmijewski,” Based in Berlin. return to text
  4. Other representatives include: “Contemporary art bears something within it that eludes standardizations and the positing of absolutes; it contradicts the assertion of a harmonic whole as a social concept” (Florian Wüst); “The person who demands cultural policy is always a culture functionary. Politics has to completely stay out of art. … Art does not allow itself to be exploited by absolutely anything and can never allow itself to be put to any other service other than art (dictatorship of art). … Art is always the most total loyalty to ART.” (Jonathan Meese) return to text
  5. Also, “It is not the city, the state, or the federation that should be thanked [for shaping the identity of Berlin as an international art city], but rather the many individuals who created this situation in the first place with their time and engagement, without always giving priority to personal or economic added value. Through doing so, they have fulfilled a social contract far better than many of the decision-makers who are now attempting to benefit from it.” (Esther Schipper) “I would like to see art that creates utopias and models that are so strong that they can stand for themselves as a result of their validity, and that bring everyone, whether politicians, curators, or other observers, to think and act. If conformism in art were to be superseded by idealism and an unflinching will to transform our social and political structures—that would be a desirable first step.” (Ela Kagel) “Culture is a primary level of self-perception in society. Our political aspirations as actors responsible for the common good are based on this emancipatory quality, which involves understanding social processes, upheavals, and options for action early on and in a complex manner.” (Arno Brandlhuber and Alexander Koch) “If the institution of art is not constantly called into question, no cultural policy can reorient the institutions. The joint search for objectified political sentiments, in municipal and state cultural policy as well as in the institutions of ‘political art,’ needs first and foremost not trust in the institutions but rather a shared mistrust of art as an institution.” (Johannes Paul Raether) “What should . . . be at the fore are not primarily analyses from within the field of art but rather questions that build on them of the possibilities of other forms of subjectification and anti-hegemonic articulations in light of a neoliberal dominance.” (Sønke Gau) return to text
  6. Also, “Berlin is in need of institutions with the financial resources to encourage in-depth development of such initiatives, without compressing them into sluggish conventions.” (Adrian Lomüller) “If artists take themselves and their chances of developing and communicating an awareness-raising of another kind, it then seems only logical to combine and interweave artistic production with further options for action: from involvement in political processes to the creation of self-organized structures.” (Florian Wüst) “I … also find th[e] hypothesis [that ‘Culture is not made in ministries of culture’] confirmed by my experiences in Istanbul. There, contemporary culture is not promoted by the administration. It flourishes nevertheless.” (Rene Block) “Despite all openness to discussion, I initially await absolutely nothing here from politics. First and foremost, it is the art scene itself that has to take a more active role.” (Ela Kagel) “If cultural policy lacks the expertise or means to properly represent our interests and our social self-understanding, the political legitimacy of such policy with regard to content has to be rejected. If it has gambled away its representative role, this role reverts back to cultural producers.” (Arno Brandlhuber and Alexander Koch) return to text
  7. Also, “the [local government cultural authoritiy] should draft a position paper on future funding in cooperation with an advisory panel. In it, targeted additional support measures with a long-term impact and international appeal should be specified (e.g. financing of individual outstanding exhibitions of contemporary art with sums that go beyond the funding provided by the Capital Culture Fund; support structures for project spaces and artists’ projects that guarantee work over a funding period of one to a maximum of three years; an increase in catalogue funding; preservation of studio buildings and safeguarding of the studio program; an increase in the funding for the acquisition of art that is created in Berlin; a funding framework for innovative intercultural projects and exchange projects with Eastern Europe).” (Gabriele Knapstein) return to text
  8. See too: “if the admired and much talked-about special cultural atmosphere of Berlin should be retained and even further developed, then we do not need merely lip service but rather clear political agendas” (Leoni Bauman), and “art is one of the few spaces for experiments, critique, production of knowledge, education, aesthetic experience, and freedom of expression at the same time. And this space has to be defended.” (Zdravka Bajovic) return to text
  9. Blumenstein’s statement is not one among others in that she took a lead role in coordinating the letter of protest from Berlin’s “free scene” (independent spaces) against the Mayor’s “achievement show,” which became based in Berlin. This protest generated not only the debate picked up by “P/Act for Art” but also the artists’ activist group Haben und Brauchen (To Have and To Need). Blumenstein was appointed chief curator of Kunst-Werke, Berlin’s leading contemporary art public venue, in July 2013. return to text
  10. Costas Douzinas, The End of Rights (Oxford: Hart, 2000), 344. Page numbers are presented in the main text. return to text
  11. More modestly but also more likely, it may just be that the formulations of contemporary art’s critical virtue and of radical human rights in Douzinas’s account share the same poststructuralist conventions. Recent critical theories popular in contemporary art advocating such extra-institutionality as a condition for art’s civic virtue include: creativity, dissension (Rancière), singularity, machinism (Deleuze-Guattari), the multitude (for recent communism), eventhood (Badiou), art (aesthetics), etc. But even if the commonality of contemporary art and radical human rights is only a discursive-ideological effect, it nonetheless remains the case that both have institutional and real consequences that are not merely theoretical. Equally, for quotidian sociological-institutional self-legitimization, the problem of how to account for contemporary art’s inherent exteriority to institutions when it is palpably highly-instituted is taken care of by contemporary art’s colloquial discourse immunizing art in a protected pocket inside such institutions, often by insisting on some claim of artistic, aesthetic, or sentimental virtue supposedly distinct in kind from these sociological misfortunes. The pious visit to the artist’s studio or the intimate conversation with her or him, or the latter’s widely declared disregard or disavowal of her or his institutionalization (qua marketization, say), is often wheeled out to attest to the integrity or “truth” of the institution’s interest in the art despite its very institutionality. The power effects of the institution are then able to be either left out of consideration or, worse, warranted by such maneuvers and legitimizations, operating all the more effectively for that reason. return to text