Chantal Mouffe on Art, agonism, and antagonism

Notes on Chantal Mouffe’s Agonism and Public Space, from 2007.

Defining the terms we consider, Mouffe describes different modes of understanding, public, contrasting it with private.

Public private

Public is common, general, visible, manifest, accessible, open. Whereas private is particular, individual, secret, closed.

Within my practice I see these terms helping describe the context of relationships I’m examining and curious about. Mouffe’s desire is to understand the public space from a political perspective; what the public and common spaces look like with regards to engagement and relationships, are they places of consensus or agonism and confrontation? Her position is that in a functioning democracy, public spaces are not necessarily ‘free’ and places where one finds consensus, rather that one would find conflict and antagonism, these would be actively hostile places to exist.

On Antagonism, Mouffe states that political questions are not merely technical problems to be solved, but are questions that require us to make a choice. I can see this within a dynamic where individuals are making multiple and differing choices, Mouffe calls this a pluralism, in which conflict arises which can never be resolved. This is the heart of agonism, a real decision reveals the limits of rational consensus.

We/them, Mouffe explains further that political identities are always collective, as one seeks to define oneself in relation to the other, seeking the differences as well as commonalities. The differences allow one to locate ones identity clearly, these differences denote exclusion and hierarchy, black / white, man / woman. This dynamic tends to create a state of antagonism.

‘Common bonds’ Mouffe describes Agonism, as a state where opponents in the us/them model, as not trying to eliminate the other, but as recognising the legitimacy of the other, and their views. Sharing a common space within a political framework.

Agonism Mouffe

Critical Art and another meaning of public, that is audience. Mouffe asserts that art and politics are not mutually exclusive, but are interlinked and all art is political. We exist within a power structure, politically and socially, and that art practices play a role in maintaining, creating and challenging that structure. Within an agonistic framework, ‘critical art’, as Mouffe calls it, “… forms dissent, that makes visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure or tries to obliterate.” Recognising that identities are both created and can shift within a discursive public space.



Marina Vishmidt et al., eds., Uncorporate Identity (Baden : Maastricht: Lars Müller ; Jan van Eyck Academie, 2010).

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