Exploring the Principles of Allodoxic Art (in dialogue with Baroness Elsa)

Jenny Brown

Allodoxic art

The concept of allodoxia describes the complex ways that power and control operate in society. As part of this, it shows how artists may gain agency through their privilege. It also provides a toolkit of tactics to guide the design of effective activist interventions as socio-politically engaged art.


Bourdieu describes allodoxia as a way of thinking and acting that may seep from one field into another, creating hybrid forms of culture that disrupt the internal development of the affected field.[i] In his earlier writing, Bourdieu focused attention on allodoxia as misrecognition in the media field. He used the term specifically to refer to the inclinations of consumers who revere high culture, and are inclined to allodoxia because of their distance from the centre of cultural values.[ii] These consumers give approval to 'journalist-intellectuals’ who have embraced market pressures to inculcate misrecognition of culture, thus contributing to the emergence of impure and compromised cultural productions.[iii]


I invert these meanings of allodoxia in order to theorise a positive relationship between the strand of my art practice focused on reclaiming lost ground or new territory for the protection and expansion of rights, including the commons, and activism more generally. In doing so, I move away from Bourdieu’s interest in protecting the specificity of productions in a field, and instead toward art interventions that use the art field for allodoxic processes as remediation or vaccinations.[iv]


Positive allodoxia embodies active citizenship because it suggests that misrecognition can impact upon privileged space to expose and challenge the hegemonic processes of neoliberalism, globalisation and governmentality. Allodoxic artists seek to counter these agendas that constrain the art field and the everyday by using creativity to make systemic impacts outside the art field. Responding to threats and opportunities, these artists embed policy, rights, and sustainably managed programs in community stewardship.  In keeping with both Plato’s and Bourdieu’s original use of the term, art interventions using allodoxia deliberately create a falsehood, because they are fundamentally activism claimed as art. Here the cultural myths associated with artistic activity can be drawn upon, such as the work being created from a position of ‘art for art’s sake’ disinterestedness. 


Bourdieu uses allodoxia to describe what results from violations of the autonomy of field production. Deriving from the Greek terms self (auto) and law (nomos), the concept of autonomy when applied to Bourdieu’s fields means fields function according to the logic of the field itself rather than heteronomously — that is, they are not directed by external forces such as economic and political power. However, while fields and sub-fields enjoy a relative degree of autonomy, and the kinds of capital competed for in each field are generally specific to those fields, they are themselves grounded in a broader field of power. This has an effect on individual fields. Such effects could take the form of a radical inversion, which Bourdieu argues is the case in the art field, as it reverses the economic world. Or they could involve ‘fuzzification’: a deconstruction of the existing system of distinctions and classifications that lead to field porosity, permitting cross-field ‘contaminations’ or ‘leaks’. These fertile spaces are open to both positive and negative allodoxia, and the mediating role of habitus is critical here.


The habitus that moves between fields transposes, resists, fails to understand, becomes a problem, or alternatively, deliberately accommodates, shifts and manages. Allodoxic art currently sits within this ‘fuzzy’ logic of the social world, where its practical and therefore mutable nature can work against the way that society operates through socialisation. ‘It is the gap between the habitus and institutional structure, whether due to the conditions of formation of a habitus being misaligned with the conditions in which the allodoxic agent operates or due to the very economical quality of its operations that depends on a “fuzzy logic”, which makes both creative agency and critical social movement possible’.[v] According to Bourdieu, in this space of social inertia distinctive new histories, both personal and collective, are made out of the disjuncture between embodied and institutional pasts and presents.[vi]


Allodoxic practice is appealing because it moves beyond the metaphysics of representation, in which everything is interpreted as pointing beyond appearance to an underlying, purportedly ‘real’ set of causes. This is because the real leap that is being taken here is towards a performative programmatics, in which various forms of capital do not merely represent underlying relationships but rather constitute those relationships. Here, art does not simply reveal or expose, but does things.[vii]


Austrian theorist Gerald Raunig groups artists into three waves of institutional critique, with those in the third generation impelled to link social criticism, institutional critique, and self-criticism. I extend this into a fourth wave to capture how artists unfold and adjust a sequence of tactics within their projects in order to engage with institutions and practice radical social criticism. This fourth generation moves beyond merely imagining how to close the distance between themselves and institutions, which was Raunig’s vision for a new third generation.


Although Raunig’s critique arises out of a landscape of increasingly complex political art, I argue that allodoxic art can occur in a single artist’s career trajectory, or even in single projects within a constellation-style practice (such as my own).[viii] Raunig says that the three different waves of criticality he describes have occurred since the 1970s. I argue throughout this exposition that critical practice began much earlier, in the work of artists such as Baroness Elsa and as part of the expression of Indigenous creativity. 


Australian allodoxic art is a comprehensive art field that has existed for over 40,000 years, and has offered various positions since the British invasion. Allodoxic art is grounded in Indigenous creative activity that is important for land rights movements internationally — in particular for Australia, where the legal grounding for invasion was ‘terra and aqua nullius’. Within this context, allodoxic art responds to the self-reflexivity of the whole art field, whereby institutions and non-Indigenous artists can address the art field classification gulf that excludes Indigenous practice. Allodoxic art also encourages an embrace of the rich history of creative approaches of Indigenous peoples.


Allodoxic art can readily incorporate cultural creativity because it embeds and sustains commons-enhancing systems. Post-invasion community activities in remote areas of Australia qualify as allodoxic art because the continuing contestation of invasion automatically positions these activities as counter-cultural and outsider art. Furthermore, this long-established art practice is hermetic, as it tactically uses power from the restricted art field to reinforce the commons, enhancing activities that incorporate Indigenous cultural maintenance and support Indigenous rights. The large ground painting and ceremonial performance created by the group of Warlpiri artists from Lajamanu at the 4th Biennale of Sydney in 2008 involved the artists using the event as protest craftwork against Central Desert Papunya artists painting on canvases for commercial reasons.[ix]


There are Indigenous allodoxic artists whose activism sits alongside their traditional cultural practice, which in turn is situated at various positions within the art field. Among these artists is the group of women that includes cultural advocate Fanny Cochran; Joyce Clague who helped instigate the 1967 Constitutional Referendum; Dr Thancoupie Gloria Fletcher who joined the Sydney-based civil rights movement in the 1970s; and Rosalie Kunoth-Monks who denounced the human rights violations committed by the federal government in the Northern Territory in 2009.


In 1996, the Yolnu (Indigenous inhabitants of north-east Arnhem Land) discovered an illegal barramundi fishing camp which had desecrated the Ancestral crocodile Garranali and dumped rubbish, which caused great agitation in the community. The Yolnu responded to the invasion by creating eighty bark paintings to explain to outsiders the meaning and lore that underpinned their society. The works function as title deeds, as claims to ownership stimulated, and became a significant part of the evidence in the legal proceedings that led to the historic 2008 High Court of Australia case. This case confirmed that traditional owners of the Blue Mud Bay region in north-east Arnhem Land, together with traditional owners of almost the entire Northern Territory coastline, have exclusive access rights to tidal waters overlying Aboriginal land.


The contemporary curatorial projects of some Indigenous artist/curators such as Djon Mundine have extended these ideas further and embedded them within national programming. Performativity and collaboration are situated here as experiences shared by Indigenous peoples in creating their work.


Other allodoxic Indigenous contemporary artists,[x] such as Gary Foley and Richard Bell, actively seek adversarial engagement with institutions in their art practice. These artists, including those whose activism sits alongside their traditional cultural practice, fit within a fourth wave, extended from Raunig’s original schematic; while Tracey Moffatt, Gordon Bennett and the artists behind the Sydney Boomali Aboriginal Artists Co-operative correspond with Raunig’s third generation.[xi]


Allodoxic interventions also build on the participatory elements of new genre public art, as theorised by Suzanne Lacy. Lacy states that the critical consideration of the effectiveness of this practice has remained relatively unexamined.[xii] Allodoxic interventions extend new genre public art by aiming to embed sustained change; they are able to take up Lacy’s challenge, providing evidence of this embedding as a criterion of judgement. This can be done through an examination of the tangible systemic impact of the work, rather than simply the impression left on the audience. The second part of this exposition considers how this can be drawn out from the application of four principles.


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[i] Bourdieu theorised the development of Western European societies since the Middle Ages in terms of a differentiation into distinct fields of practice, each involving its own specific form and combination of capital and value, and specific institutions and institutional mechanisms. 

[ii] Pierre Bourdieu, On Television and Journalism, (London: Pluto Press, 1998), p. 75.

[iii] John B. Thompson, ‘Introduction’, in Language and Symbolic Power by Pierre Bourdieu (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), p. 25.

[iv] Jenny Brown, ‘Virtuous Allodoxia’, in Critical Thinking: Research + Art + Culture, Sydney College of the Arts Graduate School Conference, 2011.  

[vRoger Friedland, ‘The Endless Fields of Pierre Bourdieu’, Organization Articles,16 (6), 1-31. p. 4.

[vi] Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice (California: Stanford University Press, 1990b), pp. 62-63. Even if there are few or no enabling or protective measures during the execution of interventions, the fact that this activity is framed as part of the art field means that the art field’s ‘machinery’, including the human rights movement as part of socio-politically engaged practice, can be mobilised to assist in the longer term when artists are imprisoned or face other legal penalties.

[vii] Ian Maxwell in “Report on PhD thesis and exhibition submitted by Jenny Brown, Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney,” 15 December 2015, p. 9.

[viii] Constellation-style allodoxic interventions involve working slowly on issues using a number of exploratory trajectories to test a range of tactics. Examples include my formative work in affordable housing (2006–2011) and people living with disadvantage (1996–2003), and more recent work focussing on neo-extractivism and climate change.

[x] The history of Western avant-garde art has also informed the practice of these artists and contributed to the development of allodoxic art.

[xi] Gerard Raunig and Gene Ray (eds) in Art and Contemporary Critical Practice: Reinventing Institutional Critique (London: MayFlyBooks, 2009), p. xv.

[xii] Suzanne Lacy. Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Pubic Art. (Seattle: Bay Press, 1995), p. 173.

[ix] December 14, 2017. Panellist Djon Mundine at the Art Gallery of NSW Sydney Biennale Talk, led by 2018 curator Mami Takaoka.