Richard Appignanesi reviews in detail the Open Systems Reader (2017) edited by Gulsen Bal.
Edited by Gülsen Bal
Artists are becoming autonomous agents of social processes, partisans of the real.1
A book review is normally a matter of critically appreciative reception or not. To my mind, this book invites other response than the promise of a ‘reader’ qualified by that name might otherwise receive. Certainly, it is a reader in the compendious sense, offering an apparent miscellany of pointedly brief contributions, several pages each, of essays, dialogues, interviews, conference papers and workshops; but the whole, arranged in seven composite sections, is curatorially orchestrated into something more ambitiously far-reaching than its parts. Each of the seven sections enjoys its own autonomously appointed guest editors who have assigned an assembly of contributing writers to their specified areas of investigation.
The book outspans its specifications. I would rightly name it a textual mode of exhibition, an initiative which in aftermath calls on its visitors for the furtherance of controversy, and thereby opening the portal to the dissemination of creative criticism. I anticipate one of the book’s authors who speaks of ‘turning the art of criticism into an artform in itself’, a nod acknowledging T W Adorno’s paratactical method (26).2
Something about this book urges me to conclude that the time has come for a reckoning of the contemporary guising of art. A complete acceptable picture can never be expected but will remain, as Marcel Duchamp declared his interminable Large Glass, ‘definitely unfinished’, until the damn thing broke. Contemporary art is at once presentable as definitely unfinished and broken. The double bind is all too well-known. Is art blocked and failing to respond to repair either because inherently at its terminus – it has come in short to its end – or because obstructed by social conditions in which art is simply no longer viable. There are three categorical implications therein, aesthetical, historical and ethical, though whichever way, apocalypse has become art’s familiar. And those wearied by its familiarity, while being nevertheless advocates of art’s persevering endurance, will argue remedially for the ‘potency of critique within art’ – quoting the reader’s presenting editor Gülsen Bal in her opening words (11) – which sustains hope in its advancement from the mire.
In the light of such reasons, art is at its core healthy, but the state of pathology that militates against it is our calamitous society. There is a Rousseauist element here, a Romantic subjectivity determined by the ambiguous nature of irony that Hegel had already skilfully assessed, which means that ‘getting over’ the critique within art, going beyond it correctively, will inevitably come to debouch in the enticing Elysian fields of participatory art, the reformative social turn, the unity of politics and artistic practice. Und so weiter. Familiar? The apocalyptic angel is stirring its wings. These areas to which the editor also refers in her introduction, and the other related decisive one of ‘exhibition-making’ for contemporary art, will indicate something of the sweeping prospects to be covered by the reader.
There is purpose in apparently delaying to exhibit the vitals of this book. My review is an intervention aiming to generate a sequel of expanding arguments unlimited to the Third Text online platform. To begin with, I offer a retro provocation.
Our present activities are futile. We take what exists – the detritus of a defunct civilisation – and we assume that by sifting it, cementing it, mixing it with bureaucratic gold or circulating it in unusual channels, we can re-create a past glory, build the foundations of a new civilization. All we can create in that way is an ersatz culture, the synthetic product of those factories we call variously universities, colleges or museum. The universities never have produced an art, and never will. All our technical colleges and public schools, even our primary schools and infant schools, are all so many slaughter-houses, institutions for anaesthetizing the artist, for eradicating sensibility, for repeating endlessly and without variation the stamp of a civilization without art.3
Rub your eyes. It is 1948, when the anarchist critic Herbert Read delivered this diatribe in a lecture to a UNESCO conference in Paris. 1948, only three years after a most heinous war, after the Iron Curtain’s partition of the world in Cold War blocs, the looming threat of nuclear holocaust, war again in Indochina, the oncoming Korean conflict, the recognition of the new state of Israel, the recent independence of India declared in civil war bloodshed, and the long march begun of decolonisation. And at this ominous moment Herbert Read adds his plea: ‘We must begin again, modestly, patiently… [to] ensure the first requisite of a creative age.’ A declaration of optimism, and we – where are we, some seventy years later, in the endlessly contemporary coda of that optimism? Truly, do we dare speak of artists as ‘partisans of the real’ in our hyperreal, biopolitical, postnormal, or whatever else in fashionably occult appellation we prefix to Hardt and Negri’s creaky litotes, the ‘Empire’, in which there is no ‘hors-texte’ to Capitalism? I would not blame anyone who says, simply, in jovial good faith, ‘we’re f----ed!’
Bleak prospects, perhaps. And perhaps that sly Bolshevik mandarin, Lenin, was brutally right to say ‘the worse, the better’, to kickstart the revolution. Another voice from the reader has headlined a section on curatorial practice with Samuel Beckett’s protocol of worsening from his text, Worstward Ho: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better.’ (84) The philosopher Alain Badiou insists on Beckett’s insistence on ‘going on’ in the first lines of that text: ‘On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on.’ Badiou ends his exegesis of the piece with this comment on ‘the imperative of saying’: ‘This ineluctable recommencement can be called the unnameable of saying, its “on”… To sustain it without naming it. To sustain the “on” and to sustain it at the extreme, incandescent point at which its sole apparent content is: “nohow on”.’4 Badiou, need it be said, is upholder of the ‘Communist hypothesis’. And since I have circled here to Badiou’s stark optimism, I shall chance to propose my first overall thesis to provoke subsequent controversy which happens independently to coincide with his concept of ‘inaesthetics’. By inaesthetics, Badiou understands ‘a relation of philosophy to art that, maintaining that art is itself a producer of truths, makes no claim to turn art into an object for philosophy’.5 I take it as the motto of my thesis.
Thesis: Art cannot be made to do what philosophy would seek for it to do.
2 Today is Tomorrow’s Only Hope
The nodal figure of this ‘extra’-textual exhibition enterprise is the reader’s chief editor Gülsen Bal, artist, curator and director of Open Space – Zentrum für Kunstprojekte, an art project centre she initiated in Vienna in 2007. Open Space operated successfully for several years, in Bal’s report, as a ‘laboratory environment of diverse contemporary creative practices’, the urge being to ‘create interconnected routes concerned with European space, as well as building cross border dialogues’. From the start Bal’s idea was to build ‘a real and virtual collaborative forum opening spaces to encourage exchanges and joint projects… to explore the future’, and, in short, to establish ‘a network of networks, a zone of communicative transfer in a particular socio-cultural setting’, the so-called ‘New Europe’. Open Space naturally evolved in online function to Open Systems in 2011 which aimed to take networking further to ‘new outlines of the possible where “nowhere” meets with the settled map through multiple entrances and exits’. Open Systems expresses its purpose in the very instancing of names for some of its recent projects, Mapping Mobilities and State of Transit (with culture itself being a ‘state of transit’). This reader is the first quarterly online issue of Open Systems.
The question of globalisation will inevitably loom in discussions of ‘open systems’ spaces. Globalisation is a prescriptive fact of geopolitical ‘climate change’ best handled sceptically. Nevertheless, no better elective term has been optioned to explain the radical change in our experience of space, and indeed, with the coupling of its regime to the enveloping cyber-space, so also altering our perception of time. What sense of being in place, what sort of temporality will result from globalisation, and the effects for many of territorial dislocation? What are the consequences for the national boundaries of sovereignty, and, as Bal puts it, with what ‘transformations of demographic politics’? So to speak, a ‘continental drift’ has occurred, measured not in geological but in biopolitical time, that is, time authorised in flesh-and-blood, the grim political reality out of which migratory identities are conceived, the regulating social processes by which subjectivity is born. ‘Subjectivity’, Bal maintains, ‘exists as a territory’, and here crucially arises the difference in the ambiguity between being ‘subject to’ (enslaved) and ‘subject for’ (possible empowerment). Crucial, because the antinomy lodged in the socio-cultural production of the subject allows potentially a break, or in Bal’s words, a moment of ‘rupture into “existential territories”’, decisively critical to a ‘territory realizing its own notional space’ in a creative practice – a lesion in biopolitical legislation appears whereby art can make its unique difference felt. (15–16)
3 At the Crossroads
If there is one overarching question attending this book, it is this, ‘Is art still possible?’ To which the reply is a conscientious optimism invested the invincible radicality of art. Gülsen Bal and her team of artworld forensic examiners are committed to the ‘action fields of emancipatory practice’. This means understanding a situation today of globally reproduced neoliberalism in which we find ‘the unstable fields of art as a legally regulated site of ideological struggles, with the sphere – which is to be redefined – between seasoned notions of theory and practice and sites of productive impurity’. (9) To what end are so many ‘new political strategies’ being applied to the aesthetic developments of contemporary art? ‘Especially’, she notes with dry humour, ‘at the verge of encountering several so-called “atmospheric” conditions of democracy at the cost of rights and freedoms in their limitations. This almost reminds us that “the ideology is pure nothingness and all this reality is external to it”, as Karl Marx said in the German Ideology. This yet again “almost” also concerns today’s failure of dialectics as to how to establish a critical space.’ (8)
Here is the case of a book which incarnates the editor’s own immersion in the predicaments and paradoxes of contemporaneity. Her dissidence (maverick echoes of Izmir in her ancestry) speaks at large of the writers she invited to forays in diversity and adversity. Bal steers an editorial course of Brechtian defamiliarisation. I mean the novelty is not on the issue that her co-editors raise – similar enough questions on the problematic situation of art have been often met before, that is to say, they have familiar provenance in quasi-universal critical discourse, as it were, in the ‘millennial Latin’ of postmodernity – but novel in refreshing those issues, making them again feel urgent, defamiliarising the ideological commonplaces by shifting the context. What is new? Ideologically (which we have been ‘almost reminded’ is ‘pure nothingness, all reality is external to it’), place is new. Place, not in the sense of searching out the exotic; there is no more wilderness in globalised levelment. The reader’s map is instead constituted on a core axis of the resurgent Balkan states, reaching to Vienna at the East European boundaries, and circling south to Turkey. We have a mosaic of Eurasia, in part at least, and all the resonances of that much-troubled geopolitical region in which the Balkans and Turkey have been historically at odds. One of the merits of this book – which its participants do not dwell on but take as a donnée of their joint story – is the cross-Hellespont entente cordiale assumed between Balkan and Turkish artists.
Conspicuously absent from this unusually hinged East-West diptych is the rest of continental Europe, Britain and the United States with their dominant artworld power centres, as if they were rendered anecdotally peripheral. Another peculiarity of the reader’s theatre of place is its featuring of short-circuited time – nothing much of declared interest before the 1990s. The contributors are new generation denizens of the axially bridged Eurasian territories who resolutely eschew parlay with the ‘post’ prefix – not for them the destinal designations of post-Yugoslavia, post-Balkan wars, post-Communism – and yet it was within their lifetime, the 1990s, that the Berlin Wall’s collapse heralded the end of East European Communism and Yugoslavia fell apart in ten years of genocidal civil war. Do the scars not remain? It seems that memory volunteers to begin in the 1990s when the aesthetic preoccupations of that decade were at a remove from the wartime siege scenario of the Balkans. Turkey instead exhibited impressive artistic vitality in the 1980s and 1990s which gave impetus to the first Istanbul Biennial, co-ordinated by Beral Medra in 1987, and since become an internationally established event. That era of heroic or perhaps hubristic openness now seem fast receding to embattled nostalgia in the wake of the 2013 Gezi Park civil unrest. What is the relevance of Turkey’s singular paradigm of contemporary artistic experiment? Its attempted cultural ecumenism seems misfired. It remains a restless candidate at the threshold of the European Union, a wobbly tessera in the ruinous mosaic of the Middle East as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan grasps for the après-coup reins of president for life, aspiring to Islamist Sultan in the ebbing away of Ataturk’s secularist heritage.
We are found at the crossroads. Such is the Reader’s lesson, not merely in reference to its axis specifications but in the broader sense of archetypal terrain. Crossroads were in ancient times the burial site of condemned witches, wraiths left to groan tormented in the whistling vagaries of the four winds. Desolation in this sombre positioning of art – or hope.
Anyone venturing into this book will be struck by its contributors’ intense motivational drive to position art in the disheartening, inauspicious conditions of the twenty-first century. A sense of aesthetic auto-da-fé, ensnaring oneself in the social responsibility of art, is not of course unique to these authors but has its long-distance provenance in the disputes on political engagement – the notion of ‘committed art’ – which set Adorno’s critical theory of it in 1962 in contest with Sartre’s existentialist one of 1948 (ah, 1948!). 6 The question at that time concerning the difference between committed and autonomous art – committed to what? autonomous for what? – has since been submitted to a tortuous reprogramming. To simplify the question after a half century or more of critical vicissitudes, the key revisionism supplemented along the way has been the addition of ‘institutional critique’, itself hardly a novelty, already slouching towards Bethlehem with neo-avant-garde Conceptualism in the 1960s, prolonged in various cross-dressings into the 1990s, and up to our time. Thereafter, what’s new?
There is a malingering post-Cold War nostalgia tailed to the 1990s. The co-editors of Chapter 2, ‘Encounters in Critical and contemporary Art 1990s to date: Turkey’, Asli Çetinkaya and Merve Ünsel, speak of ‘horizontal synergy that seems to have been at the core of the Turkish art scene in the 90s’. (55) A touchstone for them is Lars Bang Larsen’s 2012 retrospective text in Frieze,7 ‘The Long Nineties: Revisiting art’s social turn and the 1990s’ – and in particular the ex voto adjunct to his title, ‘the decade that has yet to end’ – which in their opinion suggests ‘a potential response to those who often express a sense of resentment and confusion about the rapid institutionalization following a brief period of “unbounded criticality and productivity” until the early 2000s.’ Larsen’s view is that the ‘social’ as constituent theme of art in the subsequent decade would fall victim to what Foucault described as neoliberalism’s ‘sociological government’ in which ‘the realms of the social and cultural – rather than the economy – are mobilized for competition and commerce’.
Burak Delier, one of the Reader’s Turkish contributors, contends that ‘the 1990s are still alive, here and tangible’. (58) The point Delier makes is important to intermediate history:
A lot of people and groups who were active in the 1990s are still alive. Some of these figures now lead major institutions and some of them have become established artists, while some were scattered with the speed of institutionalization, moving to the margins from [the] centre of the art world or chose to disappear. (57–58)
It is not a matter only of what but who is still with us – or not – the survivors and casualties of the collaborative, participatory and social-turn moment in art, the educationalists, so to speak, who by their example prolong the aura of the 1990s. I suspect the 1990s of being the cashback reward of the ‘liberated signifier’, conceived in the 1960s as an intellectual emancipation from the Cold War ideological deadlock of Western capitalism and Soviet Communism. The sudden melting away of ice-age Communism has left us with SuperDry liberal democracy – and Caliban’s premature celebratory ‘freedom, hey-day, freedom!’ Delier pictures this freedom enticingly offered by the ‘dissolution of the bi-polarised world’:
The unexpected cosmopolitanism that was developed after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviets… informal markets and trading, sub-cultures, transvestite and subject-objects, the re-consideration of kitsch objects and language, strategies of resistance developed from the grassroots against the economic crisis, the changing dynamics of increased circulation and on top of all this, the harsh political climate, the policies of nationalism and violence…The 1990s were confusing, bohemian, vagrant and constantly in flux. It is a moment when the floor beneath our feet, rigid institutions and forms of subjecthood were shifting. Perhaps this is why the 1990s is the target of romantic escapist, mythologizing desires. (58)
Delier laments the change from the 1990s to the ‘lonelier 2000s’ when contemporary art became ‘settled, its fluid, “vagrant” energy [turned] rigid, institutionalized, formalized’ and ‘politicization in the art field became neutralized as the art world was transformed’. He sees this negative transformation not only in Turkish art – ‘even taking into account the special conditions of the AKP rule’ – but the same weakening elsewhere:
At a moment when the market soared and absorbed every artistic, political style and art institutions are chic, sterile, conventional, artworks with highly political content have less impact – I’d even say go so far as to say that the weakest works are these highly political works. (59)
Which brings me to my second thesis. Politics has no focus for art. The immediacy, if not to say ephemera, of politics lends itself best to caricature. (I add as complementary evidence the curious bifurcation of Ad Reinhardt’s oeuvre into political-satirical cartoons and his black paintings, and although he did not separate his practice of professional illustration and fine art, there is nevertheless an aesthetic schism quarantining the two.8 John Heartfield’s photomontage caricatures impact on political delimiting immediacy.)
4 Desperately Seeking Rebecca
I have a strange sense of prefigurement in writing this review. A déjà vu, or perhaps better, déjà conçu, occurs to me as I recall another review I wrote in 1207, published in the aptly named Futures, a journal of future studies. I quote its opening:
I have before me a little book which modestly proposes to forecast the future of art in 2015. It could almost be counted, in J.G. Ballard’s science fiction frame, the future of the next 15 minutes. The title outweighs its pamphlet brevity: European Cultural Policies, 2015: A Report with Scenarios on the Future Funding for Contemporary Art in Europe. My interest to know who produced it is satisfied by the copyright page: ‘Frieze Projects, Talks and Education are commissioned under the auspices of Frieze Foundation which is generously supported by Arts Council England and the Culture 2000 programme of the European Union (2005), in association with the International Artists Studio Programme in Sweden (Iaspis), Stockholm, Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam (DMBA): Project, Dublin; Platform Garanti Art Center, Istanbul; and Sala Rekalde, Bilbao.’ Surely this is a telling conjunction of the commercial art market and publicly funded arts management. And, sure enough, the editor Maria Lind (director of Iaspis) spells it out in her introduction: ‘… it is increasingly difficult to distinguish the private and commercial from the public and non-commercial. The categories are extremely porous’. The report’s 10 contributors strive earnestly to think independently of the creeping porosity. But how can they avoid seepage? Each of them typifies a postcultural novelty – the freelancing curator who relies on the independence afforded by some publicly funded arts policy think tank. They are the interstitial critics of a cultural enterprise system in which self-criticsm and managerial agency have already been indissolubly wedded to ‘Private Public Partnerships’.9
In that little book, launched in 2005, I first encountered a contributing writer met again in the Reader I am presently reviewing. I am offered an unforeseen comparison between then and now. I start with the past account of that meeting.
Rebecca Gordon Nesbitt (curator of NIFCA, the Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art, in Finland) registers the protest of a dissident art collective against the social inclusion policy outlined in the Scottish Arts Council’s Corporate Plan (2004–2009) which is ‘premised on the top-down “democratisation” of culture, a process aimed at engaging members of “excluded” groups in historically privileged arenas. Such a policy neither reforms the existing institutional framework of culture, nor reverses a process of damaging privatisation. Instead, it attempts to make the arts more accessible in order to adapt its target audiences to an increasingly deregulated labour market’.10
My review summarised Nesbitt’s argument in nuce and not I think unjustly to its entirety.
The quandary allocated democratically, that is to say publicly, to the artist is that of manufacturing a privatized autonomy. Artists are held accountable to benefit the public good by producing a facsimile of avant-garde spontaneity. How are artists to escape from these Laokoön-like coils of private and public assimilation? 2015 advises two ways out. Artists might seek to relinquish public funding altogether before being ‘rendered ineligible…by failing to meet ever more stringent criteria’. Those in future who undertake work ‘not determined by market forces’ must contemplate ‘total withdrawal and a refusal to engage with existing mechanisms’. Nesbitt, with admirable straight face, suggests that the question of livelihood could be resolved by a shadow economy of ‘self-organized activity’ and a government sponsored unemployment wage for those engaged in the voluntary sector of the art world. The democratic ideal of self-sustaining autarky – or its almost likeness – is forced onto the artist’s condition of always reliable inventiveness. What else is this but a subscription of the artist to cut-price community worker whose commodities nevertheless await priceless cultural elevation?11
What has changed in the ten years since my review and two years after the 2015 deadline on the ‘future of art’ has passed? I avoid the hackneyed verdict, plus ça change…
Nesbitt’s biographical note suggests a withdrawal from curatorship in Finland to concentrate on independent investigation of the artworld. She is among the few located outside the Reader’s Balkan-Turkish axis but still, as met before, at the Scottish periphery which remains her significant paradigm of the spanning art world wherein ‘everywhere is the same’ appears the ineluctable global rule and without exceptions for the devil in the detail.
Her report on artists’ conditions of precarity today is the same as discovered before, again referring to a 2003 audit commissioned by the Scottish Arts Council which showed that 82% of visual artists in Scotland earn less than £5,000 per year from their practice, with 28% earning nothing whatsoever. This is the status quo which those in positions of power are happy to maintain.
Institutional policy dictates an investment of 93% of the Council’s visual arts funding in the infrastructure of galleries and museums and thereby starving the grassroot organisations that support developments of artistic practice. (28) She notes:
rumour has it that smaller grants forming one of the last remaining lifelines for artists will be abolished by the Scottish Arts Council due to insufficient manpower in a depleted visual art department, a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one. (34, fn 15)
The situation worsens and cries out for ‘institutional critique’ – but to what end? ‘Critique is incited by inequality,’ Nesbitt remarks, as she takes a dim view of two modes of critique: ‘relational aesthetics’, by which the Paris curator Nicholas Bourriaud attempted to categorise a strand of art in the 1990s; and ‘New Formalism’ devised by British art critic JJ Charlesworth in 2002. Both are judged ‘market friendly’ critiques as ‘a way to ease social conscience and an ultimately flaccid endeavour’. Bourriaud claims a Marxian ‘social interstice’ for relational art, yet, at the same time, disallowing any way for it to operate outside capitalism: ‘As a human activity based on commerce, art is at once the object and the subject of an ethic. And this all the more so because, unlike other activities, its sole function is to be exposed to this commerce.’ (27) New Formalism is dismissed as an unthreatening ‘feint parody’ and prompts the question:
Why is it that whilst the world outside spirals in ever tighter circles of terror and repression, artists retreat further into a hermetic world of abstraction, formalism, deferred meanings and latent spiritualism? (27)
The answer to that paradox – if it is one and, need I say, hardly to be imagined new-born – is supplied two pages later. If it is known, and become threadbare by repetition, that once art as genuine critique ‘crosses the threshold of the institution [it] relinquishes its autonomy’, then why should ‘the heirs of Institutional Critique… collaborate with institutions at all?’ The answer self-evidently is that ‘the role of institutions in legitimizing culture and the ultimate need of artists… drives this bargain’. Nesbitt quotes Miwon Kwon’s damnation: ‘Artists, no matter how deeply convinced their anti-institutional sentiment or adamant their critique of dominant ideology, are inevitably engaged, self-servingly or with ambivalence, in this process of cultural legitimation.’ (31)
Nesbitt returns without a single change of word to an archetypic report met in her 2005 script, Taste Buds: How to Cultivate the Art Market, commissioned by Arts Council England in 2004 from the private consultant Morris Hargreaves McIntyre.
This report places ‘special emphasis on the sales on “cutting edge” contemporary work, which is critically engaged’, failing to take proper account of the intention of such art to remain outside the private market. A diagram has been produced to demonstrate exactly how this process works, with all the activities in what was traditionally regarded as the public sphere, from art school and artist-led activity to public gallery, rendered subordinate to the market. (29) (See reproduced below)
The Art Eco-System Model
No change of word is necessary since her writing in 2005, because now in 2018, the crisis has so deepened as to settle into the normality of ‘postnormal’ times. The future deadline of 2015 became a surpassed dateline.
But perhaps the inadmissible answer to the paradox of institutionally co-opted art-as-critique is already evident in what is all too easily digestible in the ‘social turn’ of contemporary art production. There is something new, however, in Nesbitt’s denunciation of art absorbed by the private market, a brief reluctant acknowledgement which vindicates the neo-conservative rant of David Hickey in the US who has long claimed that the artworld is founded on the market, that non-object based art emerged simply because the gallery walls were full and that public institutions exist to absorb the fallout from the private market. (29)
Hickey’s ‘rant’ is in part is this:
In the seventies, however, as these ‘new practices’ began to lose steam in the natural course of thing… they were adopted by a whole new set of venues, by museums, kunsthalles and alternative spaces across the country, first as trendy, economical exhibitions fodder for the provinces, and then as ‘official non-commercial, anti-art’ – as part of a puritanical, haut bourgeois, institutional reaction to the increasing ‘aesthetification’ of American commerce general.12
I would go a step further and state as my third thesis: the ‘new’ practices to which Hickey refers, or the ‘non-object based art’ in Nesbitt’s rendition, or ‘conceptually biased’ deskilling art products, have their transaction value assured as the default system for artificially sustaining art market prices.
5 Exodus. ‘I’m an artist, get me out of here!’
Corina L Apostol, confronting ‘our art factories’ in her essay on ‘Realism Revisited’, asks: ‘Have artists now working under post-fordist, neoliberal conditions become wholly instrumentalized and bound to the reproduction of the system? Is resistance still possible inside the institution?’ (194) Her reply, tentative optimism wagered on the artist’s exodus from the system, is also professed by Nesbitt’s belief that
the potential still exists [pace Bourriaud] for art to operate in the interstices… but… in the light of diminishing and instrumentalized public funding and a massive orientation towards the market, a contingency urgently needs to be developed. A self-sustaining economy that does not rely on the mechanisms of capitalism will be needed to create the conditions for truly autonomous artistic production to thrive. (31–32)
I see a pertinent dialogue developing here on competitive strategies for the artist’s leaving-taking from the capitalist hegemony. For instance, J K Bergstrand-Doley comes back with his impossible desire, in ‘Emergency Ectoplasmic Exodus’, to ‘get out of the commodity’. Impossible, as the Italian philosopher of autonomist operaismo Mario Tronti foretold, because we do not live in a ‘capitalist society but in a society produced by work’, an all-pervasive ‘civilization of labour’, without an ‘outside’ – no hors-texte to capitalism, in paraphrase of Derrida’s famous dictum.
Bergstrand-Doley zooms in on the entrance procedures of art educational institutions
whereby the high-cultural wheat is sorted from the bacterial chaff. At the Viennese Art Academy for instance this takes the form of a three-day entrance exam, where from around 400 participants 60–80 are accepted… from a labour perspective we have 320–340 free workers whose 3-day labour provides the basis of the value of every artist who goes on to ‘make it’ as a commodity producing commodity on the global art market. The losers are component parts of the value of those who succeed, revenants haunting success through their failure. (124–125)
Recall now Herbert Read’s contempt for ‘those factories we call variously universities, colleges or museums… have never produced an art, and never will’ in his provocative lecture of 1948 from which I cited earlier, still, if not all the more, relevant. I hardly dare also mention that Adolf Hitler was twice rejected from the Viennese Academy of Art in 1907 and 1908, ‘the bacterial chaff’ sorted, with socially epidemic consequences.
Bergstrand-Doley’s exit resorts to refusal of labour, an adoption of trash, of detritus material, the spectral side of the commodity, of escaping from the invisible labour that produces production and from
the fact that every product is also a representation of the dead labour of the workers who produced it’ and thereby ‘stripping it of its power to obfuscate where it came from. It also means a refusal of the elite art-system ladder, instead of sucking up to the powerful curators, or chasing big biennales, we can recognize that the majority of artists today live in poverty… a status they share with a large chunk of the global workforce. So the rejected material perspective should entail a throwing away of the art-system ladder. (125–126)
I am reminded of the Gospels, Matthew 21:42, where Jesus says ‘… the stone which the builders rejected is become the cornerstone’. Early Christian asceticism, the Franciscan vow of poverty, an embrace of the poor and wretched of the earth – another sort of turn in the social turn occurs, now to the fusing of absolute marginality and utopian solidarity.
Another author, Marina Vishmidt, from a feminist perspective in her text, ‘Anti-Work, anti-Art: The Paradoxes of Radical Proximity’, takes a de facto approach to the same question: ‘If art is already a refusal of work, then what is its relation to a politics of labour?’ She enlists the assistance of Adorno’s argument that ‘the autonomy of art – its social uselessness – relies on the concealment of labour, and also on the exaggeration of the split between mental and manual, or intellectual and manual labour in capitalist society.’ (115) Labour in art assumes a ‘presentation’ in an emancipatory creative, or ‘pure’, way, which is why Adorno calls art the ‘absolute commodity’, ‘the commodity under laboratory conditions, shorn of the ideology of social necessity that other “products” and labours carry with them’. Art’s distance from ‘real’ commodity-producing labour allows it – from a place of spurious autonomy or not – to ‘model different ways of organizing production’. (115) Vishmidt quotes a feminist artist’s view of ‘refusal of work’: ‘… communist organizations of artists are needed based around a refusal of the work ethic, a refusal of the institution as regulator of work, and possibly demanding a social wage stripped from production altogether and for everyone.’ Vishmidt ends cautiously optimistic with Adorno’s negative dialectical formulation: ‘If… “only what is useless can stand in for the stunted use value”, then it is the deformed and attenuated form of [art’s] autonomy as a speculative intransigence to the existing, including work that is the source of its political powers’. (118)
Not everyone fidgets in the dark for the exit keys. Burak Delier, met before in defence of the 1990s, with sang-froid composure and not to be misled by historicising, considers that ‘some always wanted to arrive at today or they always imagined today as a tangible possibility’. And thereby he makes his own position clear:
I am not an artist who is against institutionalisation or the market. I do not outright reject these structures. I do not think there is anything to be rejected, of course, the market and its mechanisms, giant institutions supported by capital, are determining art knowledge, what art is, what is the good, the beautiful, and the righteous in art, but these institutions are not rigid, nor exhausted; they can be intervened with and transformed. (57)
Delier is far from complacent. He too falls into rank with the other complainant voices in this reader when he declares:
There is an atmosphere of anxiety and insecurity as artists doubt their works’ politicalness and consider their footing in the institutions supported by capital to be weak. A certain cynicism starts to prowl around… I’m saying these things today to identify the illnesses of our chic, formal art world, deemed to have a strong infrastructure. The 1990s is not the only source in which we can look for the good, but it is still the closest and still alive. (60)
The ‘our’ in this instance concerns the Turkish art scene – but the seepage of morale is everywhere familiar.
How did we get here? Or have we (always) been here before?
When I hear ‘production of the artist’, I think produced as if under the deafening heavy metal clang of industry, as if by Detroit assembly-line or Soviet-style Constructivist mechanics. My image of the ‘productive’ artist is rust-belt outmoded. Our artist-labourer today inhabits the advanced post-Fordist robot world of ‘cognitive capitalism’, defined by Antonio Negri and others as ‘immaterial labour’, meaning that
value is created through intellectual, communicative, relational and affective activities, because the ‘form in which we act to produce goods and engender the world’ is dematerialized… cognitive capitalism aims ‘to turn all kinds of knowledge, whether artistic, philosophical, cultural, linguistic or scientific, into a commodity’. (37)
Therese Kaufmann’s essay ‘Art Knowledge: Towards a Decolonial Perspective’ proceeds with
the artist-subject, formerly seen outside classic waged labour [become] the model of a new form of production, and artistic production alternates between art in public space, design and communication at the intersections of creative economy, urban development and city marketing. (37–38)
This new insatiably ‘knowledge-hungry’ economy has engendered another chapter of ‘coloniality and its entailment of “epistemic violence” which makes knowledge an instrument of domination’. Taken to its extreme goal, cognitive coloniality seeks to create worlds. As Maurizio Lazzarato writes, ‘today it is less a matter of producing consumer goods or subjects like those of the worker or the consumer, but rather the world, in which these exist’. Such therefore is the world in which production of the artist-subject occurs, institutionally formed in the art academy, whose ‘orientation’ to the art scene becomes part of the transition that Gilles Deleuze vividly describes in ‘Postscript on Control Societies’, in essence the transformation from pre-twentieth-century disciplinary society to the present paradigm of control. Within this control regime
the art academy… assumes something like a hegemonic position, which also anticipates incorporation into the knowledge economies at the same time. This has led to ‘a merger between the academy, critical theories and discourse, museal representations and the market’, which in turn influence the general system of state, society and economy. (39)
Kaufmann alludes to Gerald Rauning (co-director of eipcp, European Institute for Progressive Culture Policies in Vienna) – an author whose keen ideas I had already broached in my 2007 review in Futures: to quote from it,
The perversion of emancipatory practices of the 1970s has opened the field of cultural policy to ‘neoliberal governmentality’ in which ‘participation becomes obligatory, creativity becomes an imperative, transparency becomes total surveillance, life-long learning turns into a threat, education means permanent social control, and grassroots democracy means developing software that applicants for cultural funding can use to evaluate each other’.13
Here, in Kaufmann’s reference, Rauning similarly proceeds to dissect universities as ‘knowledge factories’ where
forced adaptation in the institutional ‘internment’ is accompanied by new modes of self-government in a totally transparent, open milieu, and discipline through personal surveillance and punishment couples with the liberal visage of control as voluntary self-control. (39)
There is however some nuance inflecting this regime of self-regulated controlling ‘mode of modulation’ which makes possible conditions of resistance and ‘lines of flight’ in the very ambivalence of ‘creating worlds’.
And so on, the dialogue goes on between ‘critiquing peers’, but never quite settling on a definitive argument about the autonomy either of art or of the artist.
To end the scandal of undecidable autonomy, silence the Pauline ‘tinkling brass’ of failed belief, I propose my fourth thesis. Art and capitalism share the character of autopoiesis, which deriving from the Greek, ‘to beget’, ‘to produce’, speaks of self-reproduction. The autonomous, self-reproductive nature of capitalism, in particular the mysteriously originating phase in the (re)production of (surplus) value, which so exercised the ingenuity of Marx, was deemed resolved by rescripting autonomy (one self-law) as heteronomy, that is, being subjected to different (or external) laws. However, the paradox of an-archè – in its shifting double sense of ‘without origin’ or ‘without law’ – remains integral to the self-regulation of capitalism, of which the labour theory of value does not rid itself. Attempting to make art (or the artist) heteronomous will equally go adrift in paradoxes of labour value theories of art. The strange case of the vanishing origin is a parallel phenomenon of art.
6 The Curatorial Conversation
There have been sea changes in curatorial practice since that Wagnerian ego, super-conductor curator Harald Szeemann staged his memorable mega-exhibition, ‘Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form’, in 1969 at the Bern Kunsthalle. Saša Nabergoj rings these changes from the 1960s to the 1990s in her editorial section on the trials and alternatives of curation which have become ‘rules of the mainstream’, the marked clashes in the flux of partisan attitudes, with at least one side claiming that ‘curatorial practice has become too discursive’. (85)
Gülsen Bal, undogmatic ‘curatorial conversationalist’, is not seduced by the over-discursive. She quotes to good effect the dictum of Deleuze and Guattari: ‘the State is built on what escapes it’. By which she means seeking in the interstices for the future of unexpected art that escapes the system and makes visible the reflections of a world ‘yet-to-come’. In her editorial section 5, ‘Balkan(s) Now’, these regions on the move since the 1990s, denied space for contemporary art under the Communist regime, have built up national and international networks: ‘…one can say that this self-organized art scene is a distinct characteristic and cultural achievement of the Balkan region.’ This unique ‘Balkan model’ of self-organization and independent non-profit art institutions faces the familiar problem of being ‘spoilt by success’.
Economic success needed to make a living as an artist in this game is a matter of chance and marketing mechanisms. If art only depends on the conditions of what the market may absorb in view of the likely market failure, the full cultural potential cannot unfold. This is especially the case when there is no substantial art market. (138)
The ‘conversational turn’ in curating, Elke Krasny asserts in her text on the topic, coincided with the beginnings of liberalisation in the 1980s. She sounds a cautionary note. Benign, unproblematic as it might sound, ‘conversation’ is a trick of alternance in the institutional world of stipulated democratic participation.
Even though, in principle, the participation of the public is desired or no public at all conceptualized since everybody involved is a participant anyhow, it is the becoming-public which has profoundly impacted on the very nature of the conversation… (22)
Krasny reminds us that the famed documenta X ‘100 Days – 100 Guests’ conversation event, curated by Catherine David in 1997, looks back to the model initiated by Josef Beuys, ‘Organization for Direct Democracy through Referendum’, and his engagement in discussion for 100 days with the public at the 1972 documenta V. (23) Krasny confesses herself weary with the
conversational turn in curating and its implications for the positionality, and the accrued symbolic (and at times even monetary) capital, of the curator. My weariness comes from the positionality of the curator under post-Fordist conditions of working and the implications this has onto the very desire that knowledge may be produced by way of conversations. (24)
Sarat Maharaj wonders in his ‘Curator of Experiments’ whether ‘the swing towards post-spectacle curating leaves us instead adrift in the “spectacle of discourse”?’ The worldwide proliferation of biennials, in terms of culture industry and mass art culture, plugs into consumerist capitalism. The global assembly-line of today’s culture industries
are like ‘labs’ of innovation and entrepreneurial acumen plugged into the postindustrial world of manufacture where all production is billed as creative labour. Awash with the pan-creativity of contemporary capitalism how is the ‘creativity’ we associate with art practice different – a perplexing shift with which curating must tussle today? (93)
Nothing new in this ‘shift’; but he extends hope to a change in the ‘standard connoisseurial gaze’ which regulates exhibition art traffic.
In blockbuster, control signs and related paraphernalia aid the management of attentive viewing. The regime is world apart from what I call the ‘colloquial gaze’ – perhaps to be updated to the ‘Twitter Gawp’. This was striking in some shows and sites beyond Europe – notably the Guangzhou Triennial 2008. First-time visitors – apparently ‘untrained’, an unpredictable, wild body – seemed to knock together ‘ways of looking’ on the spot. (94)
I am reminded of Jean Baudrillard’s gnomic, mischievous faith in the impenetrable ‘dark matter of mass stupidity’ which makes a cat’s paw of’ the experts’ interpellations. Nevertheless, what Maharaj calls colloquial ‘Twitter Gawp’ segues very tidily into the digital potentials of Virtual Reality Museums and at-home DIY browsing. The risk I see is of Hacker Havoc visitors and – what is not often enough foreseen – the eco-catastrophe of switching off this whole life-support system of digital dependency.
For the time being, as Maharaj concedes, we make shift with ‘curating as an autonomous process of thinking (which) docks in with the more longstanding notion of art practice as knowledge production’, together with a tendency become widespread of academic curatorial studies and the transition from curator as solo expert to ‘expertise as a joint endeavour’. (93)
The editors Asli Çetinkaya and Maeve Ünsel declared that art in Turkey ‘gained a significant momentum in the 1990s, has a relatively established structure now, with its institutions and a growing market’. (55) Elmas Deniz explains that Turkey benefited from – and was hampered by – its special condition.
In the 1990s, ‘contemporary art’ from Turkey was an alternative despite the lack of a mainstream to oppose. That missing mainstream was available in developed countries and in places where monetary capital was strong and which had an art tradition and a basic infrastructure. So mainly, as a geographical alternative [also historically] Turkey was to be considered an extension of Europe: the West invented others in those years – Eastern Europe… Also, the absence of capital-galleries-collectors-art fairs was making art production a very compelling [economical] alternative by default. (62)
Deniz’s opinion on the present is in keeping with the disillusioned majority of his colleagues.
The art movements of the 1990s in Istanbul, which started out as a relative alternative, embraced various modes of resistance and critical structures; these movements are now gravitating in full speed towards the commercial sphere as the economic situation changes… the radical maybe disobedient nature of artists is replaced by passivity and ethical ambivalence [and] the political claims of the art work itself starts to become ridiculous and loses its credibility. (64)
Özge Ersoy informs us that in Turkey ‘all the contemporary and modern art museums are privately initiated and run (the state’s only museum of painting and sculpture remains closed)’. (77) Take for instance SALT, a threefold museum enterprise financed by Garanti Bank, one of its three locations being the former Ottoman Empire Bank building in the Galata district, and a museum dedicated to the history of the Ottoman Empire Bank, the first private bank, is lodged in the basement of SALT’s HQ on Bankalar Caddesi. Another influential museum, the Istanbul Modern Arten, is primarily sponsored by Turkey’s largest holding companies. The risk of private initiative was headlined by the recent case of Istanbul Bilgi University’s Santralistanbul Museum, opened in 2007, which decided without consultation to sell a big chunk of the university contemporary art collection at an auction. (78) The university is legally entitled to do so – but it casts in doubt an assumption of public domain access.
Susana Milevska records her experience of curating exhibitions with feminist perspectives in Macedonia. One of these, Capital and Gender, in 2001 was provoked by the marriage of the
offspring of two local entrepreneurial families, which was celebrated in typical nouveau-riche wedding spectacle that took place in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Skopje (1998). The fact that, for the first time, a private party took place in a public museum marked a new era for the great merging of capital, gender and art… (108)
A further impetus for the project ‘ was the failure of the Communist experiment to claim equality between the genders, a failure that has been emphasized by a strong revival of patriarchy in the transitional years’. (109)
Kooperacija, a self-financed informal collective, founded in 2012 in Skopje, seeks for the ‘unclaimed gap territory’ to combat Macedonia’s authoritarian nationalist-conservative government which enforced ‘neo-liberal aspirations’ by means of aggressive populist methods to declare war on any ‘conception of pluralism… including critical art’ and by hijacking pubic media and institutional space. The radical makeover of the capital city of Skopje – the centrepiece of a government campaign to revitalise ‘alleged traditional values’ – which was executed with astounding speed in three years – has spent some half-a-billion Euros ‘and leaving the already divided society even poorer, more isolated and in an even deeper discord’. (145) With few and compromised democratic options
artists in Macedonia today feel that they must address not only questions regarding identity in the context of global capitalism, but are also burdened with the task of demystifying and deconstructing present local totalitarian narratives which seem to head towards… a ‘turbo-fascism’. (146)
Vera Popovici, in ‘Seven Notes on the harmlessness of art’, with mischievous irony, ponders the conundrum of contemporary art’s function: ‘its ability to provide authority with tools… to neutralize and domesticate political acts’. (127) ‘A position of authority will try… to show that a certain action is merely art, already legal, already part of “democracy”.’ (129) To probe the dynamics of this ‘legality’, as a test case of the ‘domestic harmlessness of art’, Popovici and her workshop colleagues attempted to obtain authorisation to carry and wave ‘other us’ flags on 1 December 2012, Romania’s national day.
At the hearing, the limit of harmlessness was reached when the Public Gatherings Commission realized we will be waving non-national flags in the public space. The manifestation was described as anti-Romanian, and I myself was repeatedly warned on the criminal danger of bringing offence to the national flag. This showed an awareness of the authority for the effective use of art’s harmlessness to political ends, and thus an awareness of art’s potential harmfulness. (129)
7 What for the Avant-garde?
Danilo Prinjat in his article on ‘avant-garde practices’ questions Jacques Rancière’s politics of ‘radical equality founded on an erasure of the schizoid fracture between avant-garde ‘keepers of knowledge’ and the ‘stupefied mass of the ignorant’. Rancière rejects this perverse idea of an avant-garde leadership, in particular the idea of the Communist avant-garde that will free the working class from the illusions of everyday life under capitalism.
The question of guidance by ‘forefront information’ is whether or not ‘the exploited ones really need this viewpoint or it is safe to think that they over-view the exploitation well enough on their own’. (182) Prinjat observes, in a footnote, ‘The same question can be asked in terms of participatory art where the artist acts as an avant-garde activist who fights for the political interests of the oppressed.’ (185.2) The sheep need the shepherd, apparently, if you favour the Marxist pastoralism.
However, even if you deny a division between bourgeoisie and proletariat today, there is still a critical distinction between the democratic oligarchy and those whom oppose it. President Trump’s ‘redneck’ populist election victory proved this. Prinjat marshals Hal Foster’s ‘severe criticism of Rancière and the postmodern inheritance as such’. The position of criticality – call it avant-garde, if so wished – has been gradually, historically eroded. Postmodernism’s franchise of ‘relative truth’ has forsaken judgement, the moral standpoint for critical observation: and next to go is authority as the benighted privilege of the critic to speak for others; and finally critical distance collapses, ending the old Kantian notion of ‘disinterestedness’ that provided independent position to critical observation. Foster furthermore argues that the postmodern reduction of identity to social construction encourages consumerism in the positioning of subject-identities. Prinjat also recruits Fredric Jameson’s injunction that closely associates postmodernism with neoliberal capitalism and matches the deregulation of culture with the deregulation of economy.
Refusing avant-garde critique has left art in a gaseous state, glorifying in the aesthetic…The art world of today is being cluttered by works of engaged art, most of which is based on participation, joint work that tries to avoid any kind of hierarchy (the same strategy is applied on curators’ projects, following the principle ‘Let’s do something together’). (183)
This entirely negative view of postmodernism, not wholly deserved, carries Prinjat to postmodernism’s conclusion in hyperreality, where
substituting virtual for real is becoming a predominant practice in the production of the social today… The public space is being permanently redefined, conquered and ever more available. However, what is actually happening is the privatization of public material space, rapid decrease of citizens’ involvement on activities of general matter, and the growth of urban and industrial zones (districts that are most commonly rich with resources) and large portions of land, that due to privatization become absolutely unavailable to citizens… public space is becoming less and less ours. (184)
The argument is sealed in no-exit claustrophobia. Not easy – if not impossible thereafter – to represent a ‘new’ avant-garde from its virtual grave. Is there hope in the ‘digital commons’, in spite of Silicon Valley’s mega-gluttonous cannibals of information? Betty Yu, in her defence of internet freedom, makes the simple but effective point that the Open Systems’ website – the very platform of this reader –
travels at the same speed to an internet user as the right-wing Fox News. The Open Internet allows us to be creators and producers, not just passive consumers, regardless of whether we have millions of dollars to disseminate our information. (211)
Exemplified on the world stage we had the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt, while although it ‘didn’t start on social media… did unleash our imagination and inspired people to think globally about the use of the internet to connect an international community across borders’. Regressive regimes in the Middle East were not and could not be overturned by urban digital activists, in part because ‘the evolution of our digital age and an open internet has given these same tools to state regimes to suppress social movements by surveillance and insidiously undermining them’. (210)
Nevertheless, Yu and other writers contributing to this Section 7, ‘The Interpellated Subject’, count on numerous grassroots activists – for instance, Net Neutrality,
Media Action Grassroots Network, Voices for Internet Freedom, Free Press (among others) are putting pressure on FCC (the US government agency, Federal Communications Commission) Chairman Wheeler to abandon his plan that would let internet service providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon create a two-tiered internet. It would create fast lanes for the very few who can afford to pay the extra fees and a slow lane for the rest of us. (213)
So, there is hope – ‘yes, infinitely ’ – as Franz Kafka once famously declared, ‘ – but not for us!’ Another black-humoured quip from the master of the absurdist ‘no exit’ world, the anti-messianic opposite of Walter Benjamin’s hope in a Marxist redeemed future. Perhaps they are not so distantly apart in the Sahara of hope.
Where does hope lie? Perhaps in an unexpected sector of the cultural compass. I note in my wanderings, here and there, shy shoots of green, references to ‘representation’, for instance in Prinjat saying
a major task of a new avant-garde practice today is primarily to figure out the exit from this formalist representation deadlock… The avant-garde practice should not necessarily depart from representation as such, as the field of social is, at least in the Western cultural heritage, so closely attached to it that the field of political struggle is almost unthinkable without it. (184)
8 The Dread of Being Fashionable: Notes on Realism
Despite all the catchwords of our century, absolute beauty exists, just as absolute truth exists.
A clue? Maybe Goran Pavlić’s article, ‘Krieža’s (Re)turn to Realism’, gives one, a reversion to Miroslav Krieža (1893–1981), ‘most prominent figure in the Croatian literary canon’, a dissident yet high-profile personality in the Yugoslav Communist Party, close to President Tito.
Krieža’s 1933 essay, ‘Europe Today’, opens with an eerie account of Europe’s situation: ‘From the darkest cannibal times, about stars and sicknesses, about life mysteries and questions, Europe (most likely) has never known so much as it does now; what does it want?’ (172)
Krieža’s own brand of ‘qualitative concrete’ Ibsenian realism, although in non-Party line opposition to the USSR’s official Zhdanovist ‘Social Realist’ orthodoxy, is nevertheless Marxist, Pavlić remarks, and particular his masterpiece drama cycle of 1928, The Glembay Gentlemen, is in accord with Georg Lukács’s views of modern drama. Unacquainted with Lukács’s insights at the time, that ‘the new drama is the drama of (bourgeois) individualism’, he ‘ingeniously anticipated the problem of the structural nontransparency of capitalism as a system, in order to be able to comprehend the reality of modern capitalism’. Pavlić clarifies the issue at stake:
The unseizable differentiation of social relations within the system of capitalism makes the naïve, direct cognitive apprehension of systemic features utterly impossible. Therefore the crisis of individualism, i.e. the drama of modern individualism stems exactly from the individual’s incapacity of grasping the dynamics of her social reality. (172)
The impenetrability of capitalism is guaranteed by elevating individualism and at the same time dissociating it from the occluded social conditions of production. We are all witness to it. Not even those adept at manipulating hedge funds, derivatives, share trading, and other such glittering magpie trinkets of capitalism’s chaos and complexity, really comprehend the opacity of the system from which they seem grossly to benefit. Modern avant-gardism, and its subsequent neo- and neo-neo manifestations, has broken its teeth in attempts to gnaw through the mechanism of capitalism.
Is this a last-ditch plea for realism? Do we not irrevocably and uncompromisingly stand by the gains of the non-representational? Long behind us Clement Greenberg’s Kantian quasi-Marxist notion of modernism has yielded to an exploding diversity of artistic forms, text, sound, video, installation, happenings, environment, performance, encounter, and so forth. The crisis of representation permanently altered the ontology of art, transcending it, dematerialising it, profoundly affecting the status of the viewer, and consequently the relation itself to the art institution. And, with this radical change of practices in the institution, we are back with Harald Szeemann’s ‘seminal 1969 exhibition, Live in Your Head… considered to be the first major survey of conceptual art in Europe’. This heralded the ‘reflexive turn’ in exhibition theory for Nora Sternfeld and Luisa Ziaja, in their article ‘What comes After the Show? On Post-Representational Curating’, by which moreover ‘process replaces representation’.
Rather than displaying finished artworks understood as entities, the exhibition space replaced (re-)presentation by experience – an experience that was not built on artefacts but on ideas and concepts in order to escape the increasingly commodified representational mode of exhibiting. (88)
The snag is that, as they admit, ‘process and transformation are essential governmental techniques of neoliberal capitalism…’ Their remedy for it, ‘tasking a position of solidarity with what is outside of the institution, with actual social debate, fights and movements’, will in no way damage the recuperative energies of neoliberal capitalism.
There is no such exit. In short, more footprints of Kafka’s ‘hopeless hope’ in the desert. Where else look?
Realism has apparently become a post-representational terra incognita. I pass to the aperçu of Vesna Voković in conversation with her interviewer Rena Rädle. She is asked:
is photography today, with mobile phones and social networks, still a relevant means for artists to ‘unveil’ the real. And… what are in your opinion possible or ‘successful’ models of representation?
The idea that there is a reality which is hidden and needs to be revealed in clear terms is a classical prejudice of Western philosophy, stemming at least from Descartes. Presupposing that there is a firm and stable outer reality which needs to be apprehended by a passive subject (or cogito) reduces the procedure of such a quest to a technical question: what is the most proper tool to the disclose the ‘real’? This type of reasoning applies to photography as well. (188)
I myself wonder – suppose we consider virtual reality representation as the ultimate pictorially and still retinal ‘real’. Here again applies, and to far more extreme degree, Voković’s criticism of the Cartesian passive subject: the sedentary, digitally disabled viewer locked in cogitation of ‘firm, stable, outer reality’, the vastitude if information which without horizon pours the seemingly, endlessly always-changing same. But take heed of the aforementioned warning – the plug one day pulled on the digital life-support system.
Voković continues: ‘I think that it makes more sense to start by posing a basic question: are artistic instruments privileged for understanding the society and its relations?’ Her reply adopts an unusual stance: and it seems to me realist.
The fact that contemporary art practices explicitly take on political agendas is actually due to the disappearance or weakening of real political forces that could implement them (left parties, unions). The collateral effect of such a development – contemporary art treatment of political questions without support of real political movements – is the following: the actor of the critique becomes the artwork itself, or in other words, it is the object that takes responsibility for the political, while the subjects of this production can stay at a safe distance. (189)
The struggles of artists – as often occurs with other workers – do not unite them. Why?
From the moment of establishing wage labour, art was separated from all other social activities, becoming thus an autonomous activity in direct opposition to wage labour. This autonomy implies that the production of art is not motivated by money, which means that artistic labour is independent in regard to the definition of its price. Since there is no general price of this labour, there is no possibility for solidarity with other producers. Furthermore, creativity implies an intimate relationship with its object and therefore its uniqueness, which then brings artists into competitiveness – the constant struggle to be different, and better, from the others. All of this thwarts the artists to organize in a concrete political formation. Although – and this should not mislead us – they do perceive themselves as a social group or even class, the ‘creative’ class, it is more of a false homogeneity because it hides the class relations within it, and consequently, those outside the sphere. (189–190)
Vladan Jeremić and Rene Rädle, the editors of Section 6, ‘Reclaiming Realism’, are forthright about ‘today’s inevitability of realism’ (168), encouraged to it by their chosen panoply of writers – some of whom I have already cited – and of special distinction David Riff’s text, ‘Notes on the Avant-garde’, originally published in the Chto Delat newspaper in 2007. Chto Delat, a radical art collective founded in Petersburg in 2003, adopts its name from Lenin’s famous 1902 pamphlet, What is to be Done?, which it too borrows from another’s title, that of Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 Narodnik novel, What is to be Done?, and it in turn was satirised by Dostoyevsky’s novella, Notes from the Underground, 1864.
Riff specialises in a Chto Delat and (a comparison he may dislike) Dostoyevskian fury.
capitalism continues to dig its own grave. But by now, we are so blind to this gravedigger that we wouldn’t recognize him if he came and hit us over the head. We dig, dig, dig away at the same old (new) aesthetic problems. It is time to come back to reality.
He does a nice number in gallows humour whilst gazing impatiently upon the farce of pseudo-vanguardism: ‘the “creative practices” that accompany new political struggles (that) are simply assimilated into a broader YouTube culture of embedded creativity in an increasingly irrationalized global culture industry’. Mercilessly, he shreds today’s ultra-leftism’s infantile disorder, and the symptoms of half-assed, make-believe anarchism that accompany it. So-called ‘political art’ ages so quickly, and the teenagers immediately go to work at the Starbuck’s of contemporary art, as smiling baristas. (177)
By the way, he has to my mind, and speaking only for myself, unintentionally hit on how it is that we seem to cohabit at ease in a comfort zone with terrorism, as I discovered in this remark.
We may somehow have internalized modernity’s existential fears of death by hunger or violence as something biopolitical much bigger than Angst, of course, but our societies are so very much softer in their cruelty than the ones Lukács or Benjamin lived in. This, at the very latest, is where we are somehow reconciled with an increasingly reactionary, marginalized everyday and its hyper-material reality. (178)
There is however entirely revelatory intention in Riff’s observation: ‘For more orthodox Marxists, it is realism that hangs in the balance whenever one speaks of the avant-garde.’ What is at stake? Riff’s argument on the persistent if historically tortuous relevance of realism runs like this:
Since Lukács’ key interventions, it has been clear how much we need realism to make sense of the garbled totality. The old struggle, to wrest away the conception of realism from the bourgeoisie, taking what is best about its narratives of decay and/or its critiques of mass culture, for example: its anthropologies, its formulations of social reality. At the same time, realism can be understood as the first modernism, the one that precedes and already contains all developments to come, the real hotbed of politico-aesthetic invention before reductionist formalism really made it big. This is why books like Ulysses still contain so much potential. (176)
First there is the attending pause, before the leap to realism, on Marx’s well-known summary ‘Note as regards art’ in the 1859 A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy in which he challenged the nineteenth-century conception of what, in Riff’s own words, ‘counted as classicism, though strangely, in a Winckelmannian key’, as follows:
it is even recognized that certain forms of art, e.g. the epic, can no longer be produced in their world epoch-making, classical stature as soon as the production of art, as such, begins; that is, that certain significant forms within the realm of the arts are possible only at an underdeveloped stage of artistic development. (1679)
Riff says ‘Winckelmannian’, not incorrectly, but that I would instead change to the Hegelian aesthetic critique of Winckelmann’s elevation of Greek art to a status of nonpareil acme which determines Marx’s view. But never mind. Let’s put that aside for now.
The Marxist meat of the argument for realism hangs on the impossibility of reproducing the (immature pre-capitalist) social conditions on which classical Greek art was based. Riff states:
It is like Marx says about the art of antiquity: the epoch-making artwork is no longer possible when real artistic production begins. In Marx’s account, this too leads to realism: the mythology behind the epic is disenchanted by the process of production itself, and the modern artist must not rely on mythopoetic models of reality, but upon reality itself, in a world completely disenchanted by capitalism. The quasi-mythology that production engenders may sweep away the old myths, but it stands in direct contradiction with genuine artistic sensibilities. Realism no longer a choice, but an increasing inevitability. (178)
‘… when real artistic production begins’ [my italics] it is with realism in post-classical times. (As a nuanced corrective here, I offer Erich Auerbach’s magisterial study, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946), which locates realism already in classical antiquity.) The question remains: is the modern artist’s imagination really free of the mythopoetic pre-conditions which, in the view of the art historian Aby Warburg, subversively survive beyond the specific epochal conditions of social production? Eruptive resurrections of past forms are not merely wilful stylistic ‘imitations of antiquity’. But that is another question to leave aside.
Nor is this the place to recount the history of realism’s numerous ideological vicissitudes since Marx’s day and that of his contemporary Gustave Courbet, pivotal pioneer of nineteenth-century avant-garde realism, ‘commissar of culture’ in the 1871 Paris Commune, which climaxes in its utmost problematic form, the Soviet orthodoxy of Socialist Realism. Riff knows very well from his Chto Delat station in Petersburg (or by some irony of avant-garde precession, still in October voyage ‘to the Finland Station’) what is inquisitionally in question: ‘Realism becomes a codeword. For what? For the high modernist aesthetic of the Stalinist style? As a mechanism of murderous inclusion?’
Pause again for a moment on Georg Lukács (1895–1971): Commissar in Bela Kun’s mayfly brief 1919 Hungarian Soviet Republic, Marxist philosopher, illustrious literary critic. He became a key figure of the Literary Critic group during his residency in Moscow in the 1930s. Riff alludes to the group’s neo-Hegelian ‘Tendency’, well-fitted to Lukács’s ideal of ‘dialectical materialism’, an attitude to realism which deviated significantly enough from the Soviet doctrine of Socialist Realism to antagonise Aleksandr Fadeyev, Stalin’s strong-arm marshal of culture, and the group’s international Marxist journal was shut down on the eve of World War II. Riff identifies the group’s ‘Tendency’ as an ‘outwardly conservative, inwardly radical aesthetic, a crypto-modernism’ which did not escape the apparatchiks’ perception. Lukács was subjected to NKVD interrogation but survived the ‘Great Terror’, Stalin’s root-and-branch purges, during which he was sent to internal exile in Tashkent.
Riff’s important caveat is not to make the mistake of conflating ‘Lukács’ efforts as part of the “Tendency” with the final “totalitarian” sublation of the avant-garde by the Gesamkunstwerk Stalin.’ (I note gallows humour again in ‘Gesamkunstwerk Stalin’.) His resignation to Communist partisanship, that often could become dangerous, narrowed ‘an aesthetic spectrum that could have otherwise remained quite broad’ and thus fell back ‘in the trap of that same old murderous inclusion’. (176–177)
Can socialist (or dialectical) realism be broadened? Perhaps, looking elsewhere, we ought to consider the socialist aesthetic of Mikhail Lifshitz (1905–1983), another key member of the Literary Critic group with Lukács and the editor of the group’s journal. Riff’s article mentions Lifshitz in passing, but more devoted presentation has since followed.1 I draw meanwhile on another source than Riff for this next, rather bare-bones, simplified sketch of Lifshitz, an ‘unfinished business’, which awaits proper examination of the original Russian texts as yet untranslated.2
Lifshitz is best known to Russian readers for his anti-modernist masterpiece The Crisis of Ugliness, 1968. Notre the date, well after the 1956 toppling of Stalin’s cult, by which time Lifshitz’s criticism of the modernist avant-garde would appear scandalous to the Soviet intelligentsia. An article, ‘Why I am not a Modernist’, had appeared earlier, 1963 in Prague, and 1966 in Russia. Lifshitz characterised Modernism as the ‘Gospel of a new barbarism’: at the heart of modernistic art there was ‘a cult of force and a taste for demolition’. The question is posed: was Lifshitz an aesthetic counter-revolutionary? His conception of realism adheres to the Marxian principle noted in the aforementioned Critique which, duly recognising the eminence of ancient Greek art as a direct expression of its unique ‘unripe’ social conditions, requires of succeeding epochs that they strive to reproduce truth to life, the real emancipated from myth, consistent with higher social stages of production.
This is the credo of Lifshitz’s aesthetic.
He calls the art that participates in truth, realistic. The concept of realism in Lifshitz is extremely broad. It is not simply one of the historical trends in art. Any true art is a realistic one. According to Hegel, mind reflects itself in the external, material world, whereas for Marx it is nature that reflects itself by means of the human mind (‘nature’ in an ultimate sense, including people, human society). Art is one of the forms of this reflection of nature itself. An artist, like an actor, must be a ‘voice’ or ‘herald’ of the very nature of things, Lifshitz asserts.3
Lifshitz’s broad church of realism – a rebellious one – defended the realism of Russian icon paintings in 1933 when churches and monasteries were being destroyed.
It might seem strange that Lifshitz preferred orthodox icons to canvasses of the revolutionary avant-garde. And after that, he would still consider himself a foster child of the October Revolution?
In his aesthetic,
a fairy tale or icon, for all the irreality of their plots, may have ‘a deeply real sense’, if they grasp the vital values of human being. Realism is not just an exactness of depicting the outer world. It is the true estimation of reality, expressed in the sensual forms which are derived from realty itself: ‘representation of life in real images of the senses’, as Lifshitz formulates it.4
What benefit would Lifshitz’s ‘anti-modernist’ Marxist realism have in response to ‘what is supposedly the most radical claim of contemporary capitalism, namely its invention of knowledge economy?’. (180) Unfinished business: dread risk of the unfashionable…
My 2007 review of ‘the future of art in 2015’ comes back to mind with its close on the Russian activist Oleg Kireev ‘advocating a reprise of Soviet Russia’s communal retina’:
We still do not understand well what a heritage of rich conceptual variety communism has left us, and a new generation of intellectuals is only starting to explore it. For example, the Soviet sci-fi of the 1960s demonstrated some completely new approaches to future modelling, technological development, utopianism (Yefremov, Strugatsky brothers…); art formulated new understandings of the ‘public sphere’ and ‘artist-society’ interrelations (Eisenstein, Yevtushenko; art magazines of the 60s; or socialist art in other countries, like Siqueiros in Mexico); the anti-capitalist critic of the 1920s (Mayakovsky, the Constructivists) is still valuable as is Alexandra Kollontai’s feminist perspective, etc. I think that a new non-postmodernist type of intellectual will be born, who will freely operate in both Western and Eastern contemporary and historical doctrines, recombining and synthesizing them.
In the background, as you ponder this, I recommend listening to Dimitri Shostakovich’s ‘apology’, his Fifth Symphony, premièred in 1937 in the midst of the Stalin’s Great Terror, and titled, ‘A Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism’.
9 The Executive After-life of Art
One is bound sooner or later to come upon the tedious funereal conventicles on the ‘passing of art’. And given the labyrinthian-snarled strands of critical theory, one might also be forgiven for thinking that the fate of art and that of the ‘Communist hypothesis’ are somehow inextricably linked destinies, both accounted ‘post’ as in post-mortem.
I find the after-life of art – or perhaps more conceptually haunting, its anachronism – here and there throughout this reader, a worry raised by the table-rapping Marxist spirit. Here, for instance, are the editors of the section on Turkish art, conjuring the ghost of art with the talismanic Marxian quote: ‘Why does art still have a meaning even when the social dynamics conditioning art are lost and gone?’(55) This is a re-distillation of the question – previously surveyed by Riff, whereby for Marx realistic production begins with the disenchantment of the mythopoeic model – which here is instead posed retrospectively or post-conditionally: ‘If art is a transformation (deconstruction) of certain social ad hoc dynamics, can we still talk about the validity of art after those dynamics lose their effect?’
It is pious to believe that art ‘transforms’ social conditions, ad hoc or not. The validity of art does not coincide with the timeliness of its social conditions. Marx suggests well enough the continuity in the combative arena of the real, after the ‘epoch-making’ preliminary of Greek art, which can be further extrapolated to imply that art thereafter continues in a permanent socially agonistic condition (agon, from the Greek, ‘’struggle’, ‘battle’, and referring to agon Olympikos, the great Olympic contest).
There is admittedly a double-entendre in Marx’s note on art. One Janus face looks to Winckelmann’s judgement on the inimitable supremacy of Greek art; but the other more important aesthetico-philosophical aspect is turned to Hegel’s resounding verdict on the presumed ‘end of art’ delivered in the 1820s. The pertinent passage in his Lectures on Aesthetics is so well-known I apologise for repeating it. Hegel considers that art ‘in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past’. And he next puts paid to Winckelmann:
Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth and life, and has rather been transferred into our ideas instead of maintaining its earliest necessity in reality and occupying a higher place.
(Precisely art’s ‘necessity in reality’ is a question for Marx.) Hegel continues:
The philosophy of art is therefore a greater need in our day than it was in days when art by itself as art yielded full satisfaction. Art invites us to intellectual consideration, and that not for the purpose of creating art again, but for knowing philosophically what art is.5
Hegel reduces art to precarity, subsisting in the present on the jejune diet of conceptualism. We might think of Hegel indeed being first to raise the ensign of postmodern conceptualism, the ‘intellectual consideration’ of ‘what art philosophically is’. Incorrectly, in fact – but that is not my interest. Of interest is that we could not have a better instance of the difference between Hegel and Marx than this Hegelian contemplative ‘mortalisation’ of art, to which Marx opposes his sarcasm of ‘dirty Judaical practice’, summed up notoriously in ‘The Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach’. Art is brought down with a thump from Hegel’s empyrean heights of spirit – no more the ghost in the philosopher’s machine – but resurrected to practical ‘necessity in reality’. ‘The foul rag and bone shop of the heart’, in Yeats’s memorable phrase, the socially subjectivised real, includes the risk of Socialist Realism’s ‘murderous inclusion’, as Riff warns, but as he also avows, that ‘Socialist Realism needs to stress contradiction in its inheritance.’ (176) Marx’s double-entendre on art is that of being brought at once to an end with myth and yet passing to sequel in realism. The ambiguity of realism (mere after-life or healthy continuity?) emerges by, so to speak, unfolding the ‘disapparition’ of art in philosophy. The ambiguity is never wholly resolved. This is so because the duration of art is not only an aesthetico-critical enigma but must also answer to historical and ethical imperatives. I shall further aggravate the enigma of art’s duration by aligning it with anachronism (from the Greek, meaning an, ‘not’ or ‘without’ and khronos, ‘time’, in other words ‘to be out of harmony with time’ or ‘error in attributing time’); and anarchic (to be without arkhé, ‘origin’, ‘beginning’, but also ‘order’ or ‘leader’). Art is both anachronistic and anarchic – without time and without origin. My extreme allegations are more temperately posed by Keith Moxey as art’s ‘heterochrony’, its different time(s). Moxey remarks that ‘time passing cannot itself have meaning’, but that stories told of it ‘are justified only by their enduring cultural power’. Heterochrony serves to differentiate ‘the aesthetic time created by the object from the temporal conventions of the location in which that response is lodged’. In other words, ‘The experience of the image is distinct from the time that surrounds it’. To sum up:
If the time of the work is not to be restricted to the horizon of its creation, then its status as an agent in the creation of its own reception, its anachronic power, shines through. The ‘presence’ of the work of art – its ontological existence, the ways it both escapes meaning yet repeatedly provoked and determined its own interpretation – comes to the fore.
Özge Ersoy, in the reader, sheds an intriguing sidelight on the unrealised power of the ‘belatedness’ of art. He was invited in 2010 to write on the envisaged impact of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and ‘whether the new museums of the Middle East are merely symbolic capital – or could they possibly offer new structural support?’ Ersoy believes that
emerging museum collections do have the potential to reshape recent contested histories that are yet to be canonized… the new museums have the ability to tackle the idea of so-called ‘belatedness’ compared to the Western art history canons, which would reveal the emancipatory potential of non-canonized histories. That could be an opportunity to reframe shared visual histories… (77)
This is what Moxey argues for in heterochronicity, ‘that there are multiple forms of time’. And that in this perspective, ‘there is no belatedness to non-Western appropriations of Western art’. We can either imagine a non-boundaried a-temporal public for art – or take the less benign view that the petro-billionaires’ club presently financing art’s diaspora will only succeed in exposing the already fragile ecology of art to further erosion. Big bucks and art are by now inseparably clenched in cultural pornography. The spectral anxiety of artworld prostitution haunts the pages of this reader. Valiant efforts are made to disinculpate the poor, struggling put-upon, reflexively paranoid artist. Is there any shabbier marginal economic figure than the artist? Is the artist’s labour voluntary – uselessly in an already deregulated market – or should artists unite with the grievously oppressed by ‘de-privileging’ themselves, to use Pierre Bourdieu’s weasel word, and become ‘pragmatic activists’? (30–31)
I suppose that these night-sweats of artistic angst might pass if the idea that art issues from the cervix of the commodity were finally understood stillborn. Art is not a commodity. It is a phantasm of expendably impassioned time which is neither quantifiable nor qualifiable, value-less and at the same time literally inestimable. Consider Marx’s example of the jeweller’s high degree of instructed skill which makes no difference in comparison of labour with a factory yarn-spinner:
the surplus-value results only from a quantitative excess of labour, from the lengthening-out of one and the same labour-process, in the one case of the process of making jewels, in the other of the process of making yarn.7
The artist’s product, unlike the jeweller’s, does not however conform to ‘a quantitative excess of labour’ resulting in surplus value, in the one sense because there cannot a measurable ‘excess’ in the time an artist expends on a work; in another because the artist’s time is like his work itself an ‘offside luxury’, and luxury we know is relegated by Marx to irrelevance in the process of commodity production. The artist’s labour is therefore not a matter of ‘commodifiable’ skill.
Can we at least admit that the art object is treated like a commodity? Even metaphorically, no, for this is a catachresis (the incorrect use of words for rhetorical effect). Pricing, and indeed notorious price-fixing in the art market, which does look like capitalistic dalliance in commodity supply and demand, does not depend, as is usually assumed, on the rarity value of art objects (the number of available Vermeers) but instead on the constant over-supply of contemporary art – an inflationary phenomenon of the art market already known to Pliny the Elder in his First Century AD encyclopaedia of the arts. What is sold is not the art object, but its marketable price, bizarre as this will sound. To be sure, the art market is unconscionably absurd – and to call it ‘capitalist’ is a compliment of utter cretinism.
If this, my fifth thesis, appears unacceptably eccentric, very well then, I offer as substitute this down to earth Marxist interpretation of artistic labour.
Unlike many other types of workers, capital is unable to make the artist completely subservient to its drive for accumulation. The reason is simple. Since art is centred upon the expressive, individual artist, artistic objects must appear as the product of a recognizable persons; the concrete and named labour of the artist is always paramount and must be preserved. As socially constituted, artists appear to capital as the antithesis of labour-power, antagonistic to incorporation in the capitalist labour process as abstract labour.8
10 Social Surrealism:
Historical-Materialistic Theses on the Mystery of Art
I come across a species of art endeavour hitherto unknown to me. Social Surrealism. It introduces an expectation of hopeful exit from the frustrating impasses of contemporary, not to say modernist avant-garde, art. I reproduce Sezgin Boynik’s six theses of Social Surrealism as presented in the second section of the reader.
● Art begins with the translation of structural norms of the social material that it is dealing with into its own norms/language;
● Art is a material social fantasy based on lack;
● Art’s epistemological difference (situated beyond history, the ecstasy, the fantasy etc.) stems from its construction of knowledge and society as a contradictory and conflictual field;
● Art’s difference does only exist when the time that it has constructed, avoiding insularity, does become materialistic;
● Even if the concept of the strange is deemed socially-driven and art theory and practices regard surrealism as a dead end and a confusion, the forms that are in circulation are always psychological;
● Art is an absolute construction, since all outside/external materials (society, psychology etc) are included in its own system as a construction. (66)
Boynik exemplifies his theses in the Social Surrealist works of two contemporary Turkish artists, Hüseyin Bahri Alpetkin and Ahmet Öğüt. I shall focus on several elements from Boynik’s article that underpin his explanation of Social Surrealism. He first of all marks the sixth thesis as the fundamental ‘conceptual operation’ which differentiates Social Surrealism from previous Surrealist realism. That is, it puts ‘the construction of society through a transformative process’ and accepts this as its own absolute.
Social Surrealism’s aim is resurgently avant-garde, to confront modernity’s ‘abstract and cruel one-way progression and contemporaneity’ (by which I take him to mean our all-too-well-known impasse, the immobilisation in contemporaneity) by realisation of ‘how the construction of society is included in art, or rather how society is inserted into the language of art’. (71) The reach of its questioning is an examination, so to speak, ‘naïve and sentimental’, in the sense of Friedrich Schiller’s great 1795 essay which refers to types of artistic psychology and not to naïve and sentimental subject matter. Social Surrealism has a socially transformative agenda like Schiller’s own Rousseau-inspired one, of which perhaps the author Boynik is unaware. But, more to the point in modern terms, it compares with previous avant-garde Surrealism by taking apart material society ‘as a fiction that consists of strange places and strange people intersecting at strange times. The whole surrealist operation of the artist is based on this flux of experience’. (67) We can trace back this flâneur-like flux to Baudelaire’s formulation of ‘Correspondences’, Lautréamont’s hybrid grotesques, later on to Breton’s Vases communicants and Salvador Dalí’s ‘paranoiac-critical’ method. Social Surrealism does not halt here, at its predecessors’ synchronicity of ‘spiritual phenomena’, but looks to verify them as encounters with ‘facts’ that can be drawn on cognitive maps. (67) What is ‘fantastical’ is dormant in language-function itself which, akin to Wittgenstein’s analysis, can be determined materially visible in the image-fact.
What distinguishes Social Surrealism from other artistic operations? (Take ‘operation’ in the pedigree vein of Comte de Lautréamont’s description of a youth, beautiful ‘as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting-table’.) Sezgin Boynik singles out two elements to do with space and time.
One of the most significant works of Hüseyin Alpetkin is the installation Heterotopia (1991 – 2007), considered a surrealist narrative of space, borrows its title from Michel Foucault’s text of that name and also appearing as the single theoretical text included in the book about Alpetkin. Boynik says: ‘the surrealism of Alpetkin most closely resembles Foucault’s third principle of heterotopia’, which is described as ‘juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible’. He cites in particular the cinema ‘a very odd rectangular room, at the end of which, on a two-dimensional screen, one sees the projection of a three-dimensional space, but perhaps the oldest example of these heterotopias that take the form of contradictory sites is the garden’. (68) Such is the spatial form of Social Surrealism; but Foucault’s fourth principle instead relates the form entirely to time.
Heterotopias are most often linked to slices in time – which is to say open onto what might be termed, for the sake of symmetry, heterochronies. The heterotopia begins to function at full capacity when men arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time. (69)
We are back with heterochrony which, as seen provided in Moxey’s thesis, does indeed ‘break’ with traditional chronology of linear time.
Ahmet Öğüt’s 2009 installation, Exploded City, conveys buildings that exploded at various points in time (and in various places) in a surrealist operation that sutures them together in an historical narrative. Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities – in which the explorer Marco Polo describes purportedly real and imagined cities to the Chinese Emperor Kublai Khan – is a backdrop reference. Boykin asks:
does a historical narrative which is based on fantasy remain exempt from the strong ideological wind blowing through the science of history, in other words historicism? In order to answer this question, we need to understand what makes a surrealist history dissident.
Öğüt declares that he tries
to create a live experience for the audience by taking as my departure point the facts of recent history and my totally subjective view… By creating a ‘site of experience’, the audience can explore the knowledge that they already possess, namely the memory in a coma. (69)
How does ‘fantasy history’ act to free ‘memory in a coma’? Boynik’s solution is that ‘because Exploded City does not refer to the past, it takes these buildings further away from the experience and ethics of history: it erects them as an impossibility. What Walter Benjamin calls “now-time” makes it possible for them to be together.’ ‘Now-time’ or Jetztzeit: Boynik quotes from Walter Benjamin’s XVI’s thesis on the Philosophy of History:
A historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time stands still and has come to a stop. For this notion defines the present in which he himself is writing history. Historicism gives the ‘eternal’ image of the past; historical materialism supplies a unique experience with the past. (70)
The crux of Jetztzeit, with the Marxian reversal of Hegel’s passive historical contemplation, is that ‘now-time’
in the form it’s utilized in art, does point at the end of history; but it considers the time we are in as a point in which the conflicts are most developed…
and therefore now ‘art should be open to all the liberating effects of modernity’. (70)
Here I enter David Riff’s caveat on Benjamin’s Jetztzeit messianism, his ‘secret heliotropism’, which actualizes hope in the anthropological universal of class struggle. Beware, on two calls,
for precisely this reason, a transhistorical framing of realism (as in the theory of Mikhail Lifshitz) is suspect, at least for most people. Translated back into the mute language of commodities, Jetztzeit is now called ‘contemporary art’, with contemporaneity functioning as all times at once. (177)
Should we doubt ‘transhistorical realism’ – and in equal measure Social Sur-realism? Are they not perhaps the same, the former trans-muted into the latter? Perhaps so.
11 The Unavowable Community
Aware that the now-time object is indeed ‘heliotropic’ and at times in the weakened dark of history, unable to focus on a decisive bringing together of liberating effects, Boynik turns to the time-object’s other inclination towards ‘a strange social constellation… formed by the subjective metaphysics of individual “differences”’. Maurice Blanchot best describes this inclination, based on the Surrealist Georges Bataille’s writings, as ‘the community of things that don’t have a community’.
But what makes the constellation of an ‘unavowable Community’ possible is not the historical denials or splits, but rather the effect which Blanchot calls the ‘principle of incompleteness’. The meaning of this absence of history is this: there’s an inadequacy and incompleteness in everything and this state of things makes it possible for them to yield a liberating opportunity. (72)
Social Surrealism is the practice of ‘being homeless at home’, as Alpetkin calls it, ‘being-out-of-context that is not only spatial, but also chronical, national, tribal; and most importantly this attitude presupposes an absolutely political being-out-of-context’. (72)
I have heard it said: reality is more interesting than art. Semblance is the mysterious interest of the real.
Is this installation art or its semblance? Andrey Karlov, Russian ambassador to Turkey, appears assassinated by twenty-two-year-old Turkish off-duty policeman Mevlut Mert Altintas, in Ankara, on 19 December 2016.
I pause again in another moment of second thought: can Social Surrealist artists withstand Silicon Valley’s own breed of Social Surrealists? I look again at Boynik’s six theses on Social Surrealism – and at a blinding stroke of postnormal capitalist magic – they are transformed into Silicon Valley’s mission statement. As in a Marvel comicbook fantasy I see corporate Orcs queueing horrendously in pilgrimage to the ultimate digital capitalist Shangri-La. The outpost shrines of YouTube, Google, Amazon, Facebook and more are already there, harvesting our personal date to process consumer opiates. ‘Transforming social construction’ – the aesthetic principle of Social Surrealism is the very cornerstone of Silicon Valley’s global temple. Marc Andreessen, Netscape founder and the King Midas of Silicon Valley venture capitalists, has mapped the next social territories for the entrepreneurial conquest of education, healthcare, construction, government and law: ‘There’s a huge pot of gold at the end of the rainbow!’, Andreessen boasts.
‘Translation of social material’ – the art norm of Social Surrealism – becomes instead the predatory inputs of psychographic profiling to create mental models of the consumer and algorithms plugged into the data to predict users. Öğüt’s concern for ethical ‘audience experience’ of history in recovery from ‘memory coma’ – what of that when compared to OpenDNA, founded in 2013, its AI machine-learning system sits at the backend of mobile and web-based applications, analysing a customer’s interactions in real time and automatically creating detailed psychographic user profiles. This then allows businesses to deliver instantly more relevant and personalised ‘customer experiences’ which mean greater engagement, retention and ROI in marketing. Or compare Janrain’s global base of 3,400 brands and managing over 1.5 billion customer identities…
I note but two examples of minor Silicon Valley clones among the Google glut. Silicon Valley’s avant-garde ‘info’-capitalism has provisioned a new behavioural technique of politics, an elite of trans-disciplinary synthesisers, well in advance of Brexit and Trump’s electoral victories:
… ways of doing politics that aren’t concerned with the formation of ‘a people’ but with the activation of momentary ‘swarms’ around assertions of identity or grievance, the demand for recognition of pain or enthusiasm, anger or vaporous hope. In the emergent system of communication and information, power doesn’t consist in the capacity to structure or direct what is thought and said, ‘hegemonising’ it and connecting it to a system of decision-making which is thereby legitimated. Instead it rests on the ability to read the ebbs and flows of mood and opinion so as to anticipate what is coming, find a wave that is useful to amplify, and capitalise on the temporary force and intensity of numbers. It is a practice of politics analogous (not coincidentally) to high-frequency trading on financial markets or venture capital speculation. And it is the political right that has so far been best able to exploit it… Brexitism and elite ‘post-bureaucratic’ politics converge on a shared hostility to traditional forms of professional political expertise and to the liberal, progressive ideologies associated with them, and both are committed to clearing out ideological and cultural objections to the ‘post-democratic’ politics forming around us. Arron Banks – the insurance millionaire who funded Leave.EU – describes his as ‘a very simple agenda: to destroy the professional politician’…
I quote from Alan Finlayson’s thoughts in his exemplary article on ‘Brexitism’ in the London Review of Books, 18 May 2017.9 Worrying thoughts…
I recognise what my depiction of Silicon Valley’s progress resembles. I am updating by some 150 years Marx’s comparative commentary again from the Critique: a reconstitution of his view of nineteenth-century capitalism’s miracles of technological progress which annuls the mythological foundations of Greek art:
… [is] Greek imagination and therefore Greek art possible when there are self-acting mules, railways, locomotives and electric telegraphs… is Achilles possible when powder and shot have been invented? And is the Iliad possible at all when the printing press and even printing machines exist?
Marx’s examples have not aged well. ‘Self-acting mules, electric telegraphs, powder and shot’ are remote, while Achilles, The Iliad, the Aphrodite of Knidos by Praxiteles of 350 BC are still with us. Technological innovations perish with obsolescence, and as Marx well knew, classical Greek art minus the support of its social conditions, shorn of mythology – still fascinates us, because it trespasses time.
So then, does Marx’s paradigm apply foreseeably to Social Surrealism? Do Silicon Valley’s technological novelties testify to social conditions that render Social Surrealism obsolete? Not more likely than the reverse.
I do not believe Instagram will depose Social Surrealism Jetztzeit; not will algorithmic analysis displace heterochronia; nor will behavioural data-harvesting systems – which makes consumers akin to the victims keenly anticipating ‘the rapture’ by which aliens literally harvest them in the classic 1979 sci-fi Quatermass TV series – succeed to entrap the out-of-context fugitives of the unavowable community.
Social Surrealism’s value as a practicable tactic for the artist hinges on a peripeteia – the turning-point ‘reversal of fortune’ in drama identified by Aristotle – which in this this case is Marx’s double entendre on realism, the aftermath reversal of fortune which makes realism possible, in his statement: ‘a society [therefore] demanding of the artist an imagination independent of mythology’.
I offer my thesis, a realist corrective to Marx: Social Surrealism as a Mythology Independent of the Artist’s Imagination.
I sit on my immoveable stone of propinquity, the poet says, to the far away philosopher.
Richard Appignanesi has a doctorate in Classical Art History; and is a writer, curator and lecturer. He is former executive editor of Third Text and former reviews editor of the Futures policy studies journal. See his Wikipedia entry.
1 Peter Weibel, Kontextkunst – Kunst der 90er Jahre, Köln, DuMont, 1994, p 57, Barnaby Drabble, trans, quoted by Rebecca Gordon Nesbitt in her article, ‘False Economies: Time to Take Stock’, in the reader, Gülsen Bal, ed, Open Systems Reader: Tomorrow is not Promised! LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, Saarbrüchen, Germany, 2017, paperback, 237 pages, p 26
2 Nesbitt, op cit, p 26
3 Herbert Read, ‘The Fate of Modern Painting’, in The Philosophy of Modern Art, Faber and Faber, London 1964, p 69
4 Alain Badiou, Handbook of Inaesthetics, Alberto Toscano, trans, Stanford University Press, California, 2005, p 121
5 Ibid, motto, facing page 1
6 See Jean-Paul Sartre, What is Literature? , Bernard Frechtman, trans, Methuen, London 1950 and T W Adorno, ‘Commitment’, in Aesthetics and Philosophy , Francis Mcdonough, trans, Verso, London, 1980 pp 177–195
7 Frieze 44, January/February 2012, also available online.
8 Michael Corris, Art Reinhardt, Reaktion Books, London, 2008, p 30 et passim
9 Richard Appignanesi, ‘The Future of Art in Postcultural Democracy’, Futures: The Journal of Policy, Planning and Future Studies, special issue, Juliet Steyn, ed, Elsevier, volume 39, no 10, December 2007, pp 1234–1235
10 Ibid, p 1235
11 Ibid, p 1237
12 Dave Hickey, ‘The Birth of the Big, Beautiful Art Market’, in Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy, Art Issues Press, Los Angeles, 1997, p 65., quoted in Nesbitt’s footnote 26, p 35
13 Futures, op cit, pp 1235–1236
14 A good start is David Riff’s website lecture at Garage Museum, https://wn.com/mikhail_lifshitz
15 A D Maidansij, ‘The Aesthetics of Mikhail Lifshits and Modernity’, a lecture, 210, caute.ru/am/lifmod.htm
16 Ibid, pp 3–4
17 Ibid, p 2
18 G W F Hegel, Aesthetics: Lecture on Fine Art , T M Knox, trans, vol 1, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995 p 8
19 Keith Moxey, Visual Time: The Image in History, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2013, pp 3–5
20 Karl Marx, Capital, vol 1, Lawrence & Wishart, ‘The Labour-Process’, London, 1970, p 197
21 Bill Ryan, Making Capital from Culture: The Corporate Form of Capitalist Production, Walter de Gruyter, New York, 1992, p 44
22 Alan Finlayson, ‘Brexitism’, London Review of Books, vol 10, no 16, 18 May 2017, pp 22–24