At "Protest and Survive", an exhibition about politics and contemporary art currently at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, Thomas Hirschhorn has built a makeshift bridge over a narrow alley, linking the gallery and the anarchist Freedom Bookshop. It is an unnerving experience to tread on its slightly yielding surface (the bridge appears to be made of cardboard held together with masking tape), but stranger still is the contrast between the two spaces: one is white-walled, tasteful, judiciously minimal; the other is cluttered, hedged in by noble and unfashionable texts, tobacco-stained and marked by the passage of years. Moving between them reminds you just how corporate the decor of art galleries has become.
That the passage between the two - art and politics, that is - should feel provisional and rickety is fitting. It has become a cliche in the contemporary art world to claim that the two cannot mix well, or that their alliance breeds tyranny, or that art can be political only in the continual recitation of contradiction. How has it come about that the bridge, so robust as recently as the 1970s, is now so frail?
The most salient reason is the decline in the belief in a universal alternative to liberal democracy and capitalism. The progressive, activist art of John Heartfield and Tina Modotti in the 1920s and 1930s, or Hans Haacke from the 1970s onwards, was founded upon a utopian attachment to the future, as well as a revulsion towards the present. While struggles based on identity issues have provided contemporary art with most of its politics since the 1980s, the rapidity with which they were adopted by the mainstream ultimately proved discouraging, and their residue consists of a few entertaining ghosts of radical engagement. Without the hope for large-scale transformation, critical art often declines into cynicism, violent lashing out, grim humour or nostalgic whimsy (some of these can be found in "Protest and Survive").
Yet hope in the future is not confined to the past, as the rise of anti-capitalist protest movements has shown. (These movements are unthinkable in conventional postmodern theory, and it is most inconvenient that they exist.) They have well-developed forms of cultural expression, which are not much seen in art galleries. That exclusion, and the general tendency to skip over political art, is due to the involvement of big business in fine art. From the beginning of the 1980s, with greatest effect in the US and Britain, corporations moved into the art world, sponsoring exhibitions and prizes and establishing art collections, while prominent business people became trustees of major public art institutions.
At the same time, state support for the arts rapidly declined. A fine book to be published next year by Verso, Privatising Culture by Chin-tao Wu, details that involvement and its consequences. The museums and galleries became more market-oriented and business-minded, and the character of the art that they showed changed. All large exhibitions - and even the rearrangement of works in public collections - now require sponsors, which means that art that is not attractive to sponsors is rarely seen. Some critics have complained that "Protest and Survive" is too modest and muted a show, that its slight and ironically inflected statements are less calls to action than acts of mourning for a lost heroic age. We will come back to these charges, but this show, too, needed sponsors - the donors, in this case, being Bloomberg in association with the Big Issue.
Much as most people in the art world are loath to admit it, their activities are strongly influenced by the state of the economy. In boom times, there tends to be a revival of painting and other decorative media, and a proliferation of vacuous or ideologically rebarbative objects meant to hang or sit in the living rooms of patrons. There is quite a bit of talk about the "return to painting" at the moment, and those who wilfully ignore the economy will continue to be mystified by it, no matter how regular the revivification. In times of recession, there tends to be an increase in work that stands outside the usual circuits of buying and selling (performance, say, or objects that quickly decay), and a higher proportion of artists rediscover a social conscience. The present long and steady period of economic growth, especially in the US, has not been conducive to the production of political work, and has made assurances about the disconnection between art and politics appear all too plausible.
In this context, as an intervention in the art world, "Protest and Survive" - despite being far short of a full-blooded call to arms, and despite its eccentricities (both curators, Matthew Higgs and Paul Noble, work as artists, and the entire show could be seen as an artwork in itself) - is a worthwhile statement. A small notice in the exhibition, beneath an excellent work by David Hammons, bears a text by the artist describing the art audience as overeducated, conservative, out to criticise and never having any fun. It is those people (a little more fun-loving now than when Hammons wrote that 14 years ago) whom "Protest and Survive" sets out to remind that history still exists, that antagonisms still sunder society, that people still go without the essentials of life, and that the ceaseless rehearsal of contradiction serves conservative ends.
The most ground-breaking statements in the show, such as the photographic collaborations of Jo Spence and Terry Dennett, seem ancient now, as dulled and distinguished with the patina of passing time as the Freedom Bookshop. Yet, despite the lack of a well-formulated alternative politics, there does exist a lot of explicitly engaged contemporary art that could have been included. We could have seen, for example, the photographs of Sebastiao Salgado made in support of the Brazilian landless movement; or the extraordinary pictures by photojournalists of the Mexican border favelas, working in extremely dangerous circumstances to seize images of life in the streets and in the unregulated factories run by multinational companies; or the devices used by movements such as Reclaim the Streets, including the tall tripods from which brave protesters suspend themselves, which simultaneously serve aesthetic and practical purposes; or online tools that bring about the same coming together of art and action, such as collectively activated pieces of conceptual art designed to bring down the servants of repressive governments. But it is unlikely that the sponsors would have gone for any of that.
"Protest and Survive" is at the Whitechapel Gallery in London (020 7522 7878) until 12 November