Consider the nature and function of art and art historical scholarship in the present: Is there still a line—even fine or porous—securing the fragile autonomy of the arts and humanities from commodification in late capitalism? Can art still serve as a negative and critical mirror for reality under the seemingly complete commodification and technological mediation of social life? Is there any real need for art and art historical scholarship even to exist today? Can the arts and humanities serve an emancipatory social agenda, and, if so, how? What role might the humanist ideals once shared by liberals and communists play in the reformulation of art and scholarship today?
In this roundtable we have invited art historians and theoreticians whose work, in one way or another, has been critically engaged with the humanistic legacy of art history and the boundaries of the discipline's autonomy, as well as with the complex relationship between art and politics.
In the late 1930s, as hope for a world socialist revolution had almost entirely faded and war in Europe started to seem inevitable, philosophers and art historians, from both the left and the liberalhumanist camp, were framing the relationship between art and scholarship in exceedingly political terms. In this moment of danger, when the National Socialist regime in Germany and fascism in Italy were beginning to threaten the world, questions of emancipatory pedagogy, humanistic heritage, and the free and noninstrumental pursuit of truth were foregrounded as being inseparable from the historical destiny of modern humanity.
On the left, the true universality of the arts and the humanities was seen as possible only if they were articulated in terms of class struggle, with the proletariat as the figure of universality. By contrast—given the vulgar ideological instrumentalization of the arts and humanities in Stalin's USSR throughout the 1930s—the liberal-humanist camp largely viewed the free and autonomous pursuit of truth and knowledge as the political weapon of choice against what they saw as the forces of darkness. If, from the perspective of the communists and the socialist left, universality and truth were entwined in the historical destiny of the proletariat, and if scholarship was seen as political and ideological in and of itself, for the liberal humanists, the autonomous pursuit of knowledge was considered an end, but one that would be also a means for the betterment of humanity and humanism, a weapon of choice that would be deployed against barbarity. Despite these differences, both sides shared a belief in the political role of the arts and humanities in what Benjamin referred to as moments of historical “danger.”
We wonder whether Benjamin's theological “flash” was merely a divine revelation, or if it had material effects that can guide our engagement with our own historical present. The concept of danger— proposed by Benjamin in “On the Concept of History” (1940) with its call for a historical articulation of the past “as it flashes up at a moment of danger” (wenn sie im Augenblick einer Gefahr aufblitzt)—may help us confront the moments of danger in our own present, moments that have in their turn raised the question of the exigency of art, scholarship, and pedagogy. In this vein, we asked the roundtable participants to consider the nature and function of art and art historical scholarship in the present: Is there still a line—even fine or porous—securing the fragile autonomy of the arts and humanities from commodification in late capitalism? Can art still serve as a negative and critical mirror for reality under the seemingly complete commodification and technological mediation of social life? Is there any real need for art and art historical scholarship even to exist today? Can the arts and humanities serve an emancipatory social agenda, and, if so, how? What role might the humanist ideals once shared by liberals and communists play in the reformulation of art and scholarship today?
Ashot Johannissyan Research Institute in the Humanities, Yerevan, Armenia
I treated the invitation to participate in this roundtable as an invitation to reread two texts side by side, since I felt the roundtable itself had been conceived largely through the meeting of these texts.1 The first and most obvious of these is, of course, Walter Benjamin's theses “On the Concept of History,” especially thesis VI, which steered the round-table's objective to think through “Moments of Historical Danger.”2 However, the subject of the roundtable—”Art and Scholarship”—seems to be directly referring to another, now largely forgotten text by Ernst Gombrich.3 The two authors and their followers traditionally have been and still are on different, if not opposite, poles of the ideological spectrum. Benjamin's left-leaning radical cultural critique, with its sense of urgency, has been and still is conventionally opposed to Gombrich's right-wing traditional humanism, with its archaizing historical outlook. By bringing these two authors together, the roundtable presents a welcome provocation to rethink the boundaries between these intellectual traditions, formed during the moment of danger instigated by fascism and the Second World War and reframed since the 1960s. The challenge of the roundtable, as I interpret it, is to focus not so much on the dangers that intellectual and artistic practices face today, but rather on conceptual approaches to these dangers as defined by self-assuring ideological boundaries.
The political and ideological differences between Benjamin and Gombrich are amply clear. Gombrich's “scholar,” who is steeped in the past, contrasts sharply with Benjamin's “historical materialist,” who conceives the past in terms of its revolutionary potential for the present. Benjamin's method of exploding the continuum of history also differs from Gombrich's method of explicating the complex threads that make up this same continuum; it is obvious that Gombrich's understanding of historical time as a succession of events opposes Benjamin's understanding of the past in terms of the moments that flash up through the Jetztzeit. Such clear differences, along with their political and ethical consequences, are numerous. Even the critique of “historicism” that Benjamin and Gombrich share confirms their differences; for Gombrich's critique of “historicism” (the conceptual categorization of history) applies also to Benjamin (e.g., understanding history through the concept of the messianic); and Benjamin's criticism of “historicism” (reducing history to facts) applies to Gombrich as well (e.g., recovering the past events as they actually happened). These variations on the meaning of the German concept of Historizismus, and other such cases, may be interesting in and of themselves, in addition to being politically attractive. But pinpointing such differences ultimately strengthens boundaries that are far too obvious and require rethinking.
Meanwhile, this rethinking should not proceed through a search for simple similarities instead of obvious differences. For instance, both Benjamin and Gombrich are vehemently opposed to the idea of progressive time; for both it is unacceptable to conceive of lived time through the idea of progress, just as it is unacceptable for them to “empty out” historical time generally through historiographic schemas. Nevertheless, if we deepen such similarities, we will once again come across the obvious differences. Therefore we need to search for similarities elsewhere in order to attempt thinking across the intellectual and political boundaries that otherwise end up in a kind of exhilarating isolation.
The danger of fascism for both Jewish émigrés was very real. They perceived the menacing danger of physical annihilation in terms of tradition, or more specifically, the political and ideological instrumentalization of tradition. According to Benjamin, were this threat to be realized, “even the dead will not be safe,”4 whereas the living, who have been nurtured on the mythologized past, would be infected with the neuroses of “a haunted past,” according to Gombrich.5 Therefore, for both, the moment of danger foregrounds the problem of the relationship between tradition and power as a matter of principal concern. Seeing it as an existential problem, they went beyond speculative contemplation and took the problem in its urgent moral-political significance. Benjamin and Gombrich do not understand tradition simply as an issue of historical interpretation, but rather as one of memory.6 Benjamin's “historical materialist” captures the mnemonic image that flashes up in the moment of danger and thus rediscovers himself as the embodiment of the dreamt-for happiness of the oppressed forebears, acting as a bearer of a “weak messianic power,” which, through the Jeztzeit, disrupts the empty time of historical progression.7 Gombrich's “scholar” is meanwhile “the guardian of memory” who engages in the arduous task of remembering tradition in all its concreteness, so as to counteract the danger of instrumentalizing the past through “myths” such as progress, while realizing that knowledge of the past is marked by a fundamental unattainability.8
Benjamin's revolutionary “historical materialist” and Gombrich's traditionalist “scholar” are both active subjects of memory—politically conscious agents who fully realize the political stakes involved in theoretical practice. In the moment of danger, words and images acquire flesh and blood; they become material weapons that are meant to discursively and figuratively strike the enemy. The experiences of loss and exile, therefore, endow their discourses with a magical dimension, something that is vividly apparent in the images they “recall” during the moment of danger.
Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920, oil transfer and watercolor on paper, 31.8 × 24.2 cm.
From the moment that Benjamin, yet again (but this time, once and for all), evoked Paul Klee's Angelus Novus in his theses, the painting became inextricably linked to, if not condemned for, its reception through Benjamin's interpretive lens.
Angelus Novus is discussed by Benjamin in his theses as a “dialectical image” that reflects the position of the “historical materialist” toward the past: an angel that sees historical progress as an unfolding catastrophe he cannot redeem. The angel is suspended in this painful ambivalence, with its face turned toward the catastrophic past from which it is moving away, while it has its back toward the future paradise to which it is propelled. Having divine power, but being unable to exercise it in relation to human history, Benjamin's angel is not so much a symbolic representation as a revelatory figure. Like an icon, the angel is not present in, but as an image, a truth incarnate that appears in the moment of danger. Faced with no political alternative to fascism, Benjamin—displaced, traumatized, and desperate—saw the image as a space of reality more real than the desolate reality against and owing to which it acquires its magical dimension.
When Benjamin was re-creating his sacralized yet tragic “angel of history” from Klee's Angelus Novus, young Gombrich, who had immigrated to Britain after Germany annexed Austria, was working as a monitor of Nazi broadcasts at the BBC Monitoring Service. Exactly at this time, for the BBC's weekly magazine The Listener, he started writing short antifascist texts about the relationship between art and the pressing issues of the day.9 As a “guardian of memory,” he was historicizing contemporary themes by evoking their historical connotations and contexts. By deconstructing their current meanings in this way, he fought totalitarian politics with the mnemonic politics of his historical writing, which he had turned into an ideological weapon. In his 1939 text “Art and Propaganda,” Gombrich discusses the power of the image in political propaganda and the special, magical dimension of the image: “It can show the menacing opponent as humiliated and defeated, pilloried, hanging on the gallows, or tortured in hell. The persistent popularity of this device among the more robust strata of society calls for a psychological explanation: to paint an opponent under the gibbet is obviously not far removed from hanging him in effigy, and this in turn is an unconscious expression of the magical belief that the harm done to the dummy will exert its effect on the hated adversary.”10 When discussing this strategy of viewing the image as a magical device to overcome the enemy, Gombrich refers to a print from Goya's Disasters of War series; by reproducing the print in his text, he mobilizes the very same magical power of the image.
Francisco Goya, “The Carnivorous Vulture,” plate 76 from the series The Disasters of War, ca. 1810–1815, etching, engraving, burnishing on paper.
Goya's engraving The Carnivorous Vulture (ca. 1814–15) depicts the Napoleonic eagle as an enormous vulture that is being stabbed by the pitchfork-wielding popular masses. The print presents a scene from the Spanish resistance against Napoleon's army. The figure of the vulture represents the imperial eagle of the Grande Armée and serves as a symbol of imperialist military ambitions. In a text written against fascist aggression, however, it acquires contemporary relevance through its unambiguous association with the Nazi Parteiadler, especially if we consider its black coloring, widespread wings, and head pointing to the right.
Gombrich employs Goya's image as a magical device, part of his antifascist critique, in the very same context where he discusses the magical power of images. In the moment of danger provoked by fascism, Benjamin, through revelatory memory, and Gombrich, through historical memory, both evoke images that acquire magical power. And while Gombrich as a scholar historically problematizes this very power, Benjamin, as a visionary, conveys it as a moment of truth.
Meanwhile, it is difficult to ignore the disturbing association between the figures evoked by Benjamin and Gombrich—an association that appears in light of Gombrich's evocation of Goya's vulture. Is Benjamin's interpretation of Klee's angel so powerful that it can compel us to think that a monoprint made in 1920 has affinities with the heraldry of German National Socialism? Does this anachronistic “dialectical image” now represent a counterrevolutionary case or a chronological extrapolation? This connection compels us to move beyond the Benjaminian understanding of Klee's work as the sanctified figure of the “angel of history” and to seek an interpretation that would reveal Klee's angel's possible link to the iconography of imperial heraldry.
The basis for such an interpretation is grounded in the iconographic parallel between Klee's angel and the bird with outspread wings, a parallel that also turns out to be historical. Klee's Angelus Novus is one of several works by the artist related to his experience of World War I, especially to his service at a military airbase, where seeing planes fly and crash left a profound impression on him. German propaganda of the time represented the country's air force through various parallels with eagles. Klee's works from this period are full of parallels between birds and planes through images of flights or crashes.11 With respect to Angelus Novus, it is worth noting the fact that soldiers in the German imperial army generally bore the insignia of the Reichsadler, which mirrored the image of the eagle representing the German air force. The depiction of the Reichsadler's outspread wings was endowed with an upward movement, particularly in the design of the so-called Pickelhaube, which Klee himself had to wear during his service.
Paul Klee: das Frühwerk 1883–1922: 12. Dezember 1979–2. März 1980, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, München (München: Galerie+Edition A, 1979), 29.
Thus, consistent with its historical explanations, Klee's angel with outspread wings reveals the features of a self-portrait (expressive black eyes, the “double” chin formed by a beard, and so on), which becomes more apparent if we compare it with the characteristic features of his 1919 self-portrait (the depiction of his nose and mouth and, of course, the shape of his face almost as a rectangle with rounded angles). In Angelus Novus the artist presents himself as a “new angel,” embodying the birth of the new abstract artist arising from the ruins of World War I. But it is remarkable that the angel “abstracted” from this catastrophic reality is itself represented by appropriating a political symbol of that reality—the figure of the Reichsadler. It is this heraldic eagle that became the basis for the Nazi Parteiadler which in its turn was reinaugurated as Germany's Reichsadler in 1935 with a difference that it now looked left in compliance with the iconography of the older imperial tradition. The reason for the disturbing resemblance between Klee's angel and the Nazi eagle is that they both utilized, albeit differently, the same imperial German iconography of the eagle. From this perspective, Klee's Angelus Novus appears to contradict Benjamin's interpretation of it as the “angel of history,” an interpretation that denies Klee's angel its historical references to political authority and transforms it into an angel in the religious sense.
Benjamin severs the angelic “historical materialist” from the reality of political domination in an attempt to “distance” the former from the history of civilization as a history of barbarism. Interestingly, Gombrich's “guardian of memory” would agree that civilization—with its “cultural treasures”—and barbarism are inextricably linked, but he would work through this complicity between political domination and art, on the condition that the value of the art itself be revealed and affirmed.
Therefore, through their theoretical practice, our two displaced emigrants open up a space for a cherished subjectivity by turning their texts into habitats where they can allow this subjectivity to live and reside. If, in being electrified by the “state of emergency,”12 Benjamin's text gives birth to and nurtures the angel-like revolutionary “historical materialist,” Gombrich's historical text houses the no less angel-like great artists, who produce “art in itself, pure and simple.”13 But this “art in itself,” born out of the inextricable link between civilization and power, is according to Gombrich even more political, because it becomes “the most powerful, the most lasting propaganda.”14
For Gombrich, art is marked by the historical conditions of political power, but he does not believe that it is possible to reduce art to those conditions. Instead, art's autonomy acquires far greater political significance as an ideological weapon. Historically, this significance can go very far. In some cases it can surpass strict moral-political criteria and emerge as a justification for domination, as when, for example, Botticelli's and Michelangelo's art presents Lorenzo de Medici as Il Magnifico.15 This is the point from which Benjamin strives to distance his “historical materialist,” so as to prevent the latter from succumbing to political domination and becoming a servant to the victors by defending the “cultural treasures.”16
Thus a clear-cut moral-political boundary is drawn, and, with a single blow, Gombrich appears to be in the opposite camp. Yet the issue is not one of being in the opposite camp. Because, no matter how strange it may sound, to both the contemporary “left” and Gombrich's followers on the “right,” Gombrich's historical approach, which considers art and its autonomy within historically conceived power relations, is closer to Marx's conception of historical materialism than to Benjamin's “historical materialism,” with its heightened religious-anarchistic sensibilities. Benjamin's “angel of history” continues to be, even if tragically, the sacred being who, according to the “first creator” of materialism, cannot take part in human life, but ultimately remains an onlooker: “But men must know, that in this theater of man's life it is reserved only for God and angels to be lookers on.”17
TRANSLATED BY ANGELA HARUTYUNYAN
Vardan Azatyan is an art historian and translator of philosophy. He has taught at a number of institutions, including Columbia University and the American University of Armenia. He is the author of Art History and Nationalism: Armenian and Georgian Medieval Arts in 19th-century Germany (2012).
I thank Nanor Kebranian for her editorial input.
Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” (1940), in Selected Writings, vol. 4, ed. Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 389–400, 401–11; cf. Walter Benjamin, “Über den Begriff der Geschichte,” in Gesammelte Schriften I, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991), 691–704, 1229–52.
Ernst Gombrich, “Art and Scholarship” (1957), in Meditations on a Hobby Horse (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 106–19. For the ideological importance of this text for Gombrich, see my “Ernst Gombrich's Politics of Art History: Exile, Cold War and ‘The Story of Art’,” Oxford Art Journal 33, no. 2 (2010): 129–41.
Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” 391.
Gombrich, “Art and Scholarship,” 108.
Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” 391, 403, 397; cf. Gombrich, “Art and Scholarship,” 107, 108.
Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” 390, 395, 397.
Gombrich, “Art and Scholarship,” 107–8, 117–19.
Ernst Gombrich, “Art in Education—8: Some Trends and Experiments Abroad,” The Listener, September 22, 1939, last visited December 10, 2020, https://gombricharchive.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/showdoc2.pdf. Ernst Gombrich, “Art and Propaganda,” The Listener, December 7, 1939, last visited December 10, 2020, https://gombricharchive.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/showdoc66.pdf.
Gombrich, “Art and Propaganda.”
O. K. Werckmeister, The Making of Paul Klee's Career, 1914–1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 100–5, 237–42.
Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” 392.
Gombrich, “Art and Propaganda.”
Gombrich, “Art and Propaganda.”
Gombrich, “Art and Propaganda.”
Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” 391–92.
Francis Bacon, “The Advancement of Learning,” in The Major Works, ed. Brian Vickers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 247. Marx considers Bacon the “first creator” (ersten schöpfer) of materialism. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Critique (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956), 172; cf. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Werke, vol. 2 (Berlin: Dietz, 1962), 135.
FREDERIC J. SCHWARTZ
University College London
What if the past isn't an image that “flashes up” at a split-second moment of danger? And what if the decisive trace of the past—maybe it's not even an image—doesn't disappear forever, but instead hangs around, gathers dust, and begins to get in the way? Or even decays, perhaps mutates? Though Walter Benjamin's formulations are compelling, they emerged from a specific historical constellation that perhaps deserves a closer look in the light of such questions.
To state the obvious, Benjamin was thinking about history using the model of photography. The shock of the halogen flash, the split-second of a shutter, and the image held fast behind the lens produced an archive of history that, he wrote, could be grasped, cited, and even redeemed. Ernst Jünger celebrated this photographic “moment of danger,” in its epistemological potential, within his book of the same title (Der gefährliche Augenblick, 1931). Here he dwelled in gruesome fascination on these decisive instants: the split-second of an accident when the victim of a violent death is still alive and able to survey the motorized means of his own destruction, the tense moment before an execution by firing squad. For Jünger, it is through these extreme moments that modernity could be known. This epistemology of the extreme can also be found in the thought of another figure from the right who was central to Benjamin's left philosophy of history: Carl Schmitt. In his Political Theology of 1922, Schmitt (who admired Jünger's work) saw the moment of danger as the extreme point where the nature of sovereignty comes into sharp focus: legally sovereign was he who could overstep all legal limits and suspend the rule of law. The sovereign could bring the polity to a halt, freeze the moment, and subject it to immediate measures of arbitrary and violent control. The legal concept of the sovereign could only be formed immediately outside the law. This epistemology of the extreme had been crucial to Benjamin's thought since The Origin of German Tragic Drama of 1928.
Yet the temporality of danger was not necessarily so precipitous. In Schmitt's own work, it emerged from a context much more routine and mundane. Schmitt's theory of sovereignty, in fact, represents a shift in his legal thought. In his thesis Statute and Judgment of 1912, Schmitt defines danger not in terms of sovereignty but in terms of everyday judicature. The root of his decisionism lies in a consideration of the specific predicament of justice in modernity. The speed with which society changes outstrips the ability of legislative statutes to keep pace—hence Schmitt's rejection of legal positivism, which gave the judge the role of passively subsuming an act or state of affairs under the appropriate law. In line with many critiques of positive law, from both the left and the right, Schmitt argues that the judge must be productive of the law. He asserts the priority of the decision over the statute: when cases cease to be subsumable under existing codes, that a decision is made at all is, for Schmitt, more important to the rule of law than is the content of law itself in codified form. Decision trumps the statute. (Of course, the transposition of this logic to the terrain of constitutional law might make one suspicious.)
Title page from Ernst Jünger, “The Last Second,” in Der gefährliche Augenblick, ed. Ferdinand Bucholtz and Ernst Jünger (Berlin: Junker und Dünnhaupt, 1931).
Schmitt's “danger” was thus not a matter of the split second but an everyday, drawn-out nonsimultaneity of legislation and modernity. Attention to the media through which Benjamin and Jünger were thinking shows this clearly: Molly Nesbit and others have shown how new media —photography, film, or now the digital—have always troubled the law. (And it would not have escaped Schmitt's notice that photography, film, and radio ended up being messily split up across different legal domains in Germany—constitutional, administrative, commercial, and civil.)
So let's look again at the intersection of history, law, danger, and media: there are a number of possible models. Indeed, when Benjamin wrote, the medium of justice and history was still paper, by and large. The two fields worked not by images but by text held in the form of files and records, an archive to be manipulated in a much more cumbersome way. This archive tended toward entropy, and power depended, often enough, on the ability to keep the entropic archive under control. But this form of power by the accumulation and control of data was nonetheless modern. For example, the fate of many Germans between 1933 and 1951 was determined by their answers to paper questionnaires, and then by the party cards, or later Persilscheine, that would be issued as a result. This was a fundamental means of social control shared both by the Third Reich and the victorious Allies.
Guardians of the revolutionary flame have always known the power of data, no matter how tediously the data were recorded and stored. And these guardians were aware that the flame might burn slowly, without the shock of the halogen flash. Recall Bakunin's confession to Tsar Nicholas I: “I wanted to destroy all castles, to burn all files of documents in all of Bohemia without exception, including all administrative, legal, and governmental papers, and to proclaim all mortgages paid, as well as all other debts…. In short, the revolution I planned was terrible and unprecedented, although directed more against things than against people.”1 Indeed, a revolutionary crowd in Vienna tried to put this insight into practice on July 15, 1927—Benjamin's thirty-fifth birthday— when they broke into the Palace of Justice and set fire to the central archive of legal documents held there.
The Vienna Justizpalast in flames, 1927. Contemporary postcard. Private collection.
Perhaps Benjamin—a scholar, writer, and bibliophile, a man of the pen who eschewed the typewriter—knew this. His “historical materialist” was the political subject who could cite all of history at a moment and grasp the revolutionary moment of the past as image. But his angel, witnessing the wreckage that history hurled before him, would have seen the pile of debris growing toward the sky in the form of files, books, archives, paper.
Our everyday and ever-extending moment of danger has not just shifted to more up-to-date media but has also expanded messily across different platforms. When in the brief lull between two historical moments of danger, a “virus” became, incredibly, a mere metaphor for a danger to electronic data, other viruses did not cease to attack the banal biology of our lives, writing history in that way. For Benjamin, his own last moment of danger was to be at a border with the wrong papers. What matters now is still the longhand of history.
Frederic J. Schwartz teaches in the History of Art Department at University College London. He is the author of The Werkbund: Design Theory and Mass Culture before the First World War (1996) and Blind Spots: Critical Theory and the History of Art in Twentieth-Century Germany (2005).
Mikhail Bakunin, “Confessions to Tsar Nicholas I,” in Bakunin on Anarchy: Selected Works by the Activist-Founder of World Anarchism, ed. Sam Dolgoff (New York: Vintage Books, 1971), 69. Bakunin wrote this in 1851, while he was imprisoned.
T. J. CLARK
I find I can only think about the questions you ask—and as your statement admits, it is immediately a further question whether the early-20th-century terms in which they are posed, and the early-20th-century hopes and fears informing them, can possibly be relevant to our “current rearticulation” (or do we mean catastrophe?)—by means of a juxtaposition of two oil paintings.
This in itself, I know, largely predicts my answer—or maybe, it predicts that I won't have an answer. My only hope is that the absence is not accompanied by the usual liberal self-congratulation about “dwelling in doubts” and so forth. The two pictures are shown here.
I suppose at one level they need no commentary. What was it the man said? … “Two sides of a torn totality, to which, however they do not add up.”
Henri Matisse. studio, Quai saint Michel, 1917. Oil on canvas, 58 1/4 × 46 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC © 2021 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Jörg Immendorff. Wo stehst du mit deiner Kunst, Kollege?, 1973. Acrylic on canvas, 130 × 210 cm. Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. © Estate of Jörg Immendorff. Courtesy Galerie Michael Werner Märkisch Wilmersdorf, Köln & New York.
The Matisse was painted most probably in March and April 1917. It was year 3 of World War I, with no end in sight. There had been a revolution in Russia the previous month, and rumors of mutiny among French troops at the front north of Paris. Later the rumors were confirmed (that is, denied), with summary executions to follow. Matisse's studio, you will notice, looks out at a corner of the Île de la Cité. The sound of big guns from the front was occasionally audible. Immendorff's Wo stehst du? was painted in 1973. The artist was at that time (briefly) associated with the Maoist League against Imperialism, having moved left from a 1960s affiliation with the Communist Party. The year 1973 was the midpoint in the Red Army Faction's war against the West German state. Baader, Ensslin, Meinhof, Meins, and Raspe had been captured the previous year. The RAF's final wave of attacks, during which the imprisoned leadership died—murder or mass suicide, you take your pick—was in preparation.
About the two paintings’ fate as commodities not much needs saying. Immendorff's canvas belongs to the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris—it seems to have found its way there by the usual route. Matisse's Studio, Quai St Michel has left more art-world traces. John Elderfield points to the picture's four owners in the course of two years, the years being 1939 and 1940 (alas), and the owners being David Tennant (for Tennant's Gargoyle Club in London), Lord Clark, the Pierre Matisse Gallery, and Duncan Phillips. Apparently, the art historian Douglas Cooper was in the background, flipping the picture from owner to owner.
Matisse's response to the circumstance of 1917 in Studio, Quai St Michel is—shall we agree?—inexcusable. Can we even call it a response? Surely the moment we try to situate it somewhere in the sphere of answers, descriptions, appraisals, “coming to terms with,” “taking a stand toward,” the painting itself —the peculiar useless artifact—becomes less than nothing, less than despicable. No justification of it is possible. But isn't that the painting's point? “What is it we do, as human beings, when we make the unjustifiable things called artworks?” “How can we?” “How can we when the world all round us— as here, on Quai St Michel, with its tourist's-eye view through the window—is dark to the point of death?”
I do think these are Matisse's questions (and not just in 1917). And the point seems to be that the painting doesn't give an answer to them, or even try to. It is interested in the questions—as permanent (scandalous, unjustifiable) perplexities that attend the human wish to be part of, but not wholly part of (not responsibly part of), “real life.” This is all easy. Human beings just are animals with specialties—skills, obsessions, ways of life, craft identities, commitments to small perfections. (Writing and painting aren't much different in that regard.) Sitting and looking at a woman's or a man's body and trying to get a trace of its beauty and vulnerability (and ugliness and invulnerability) on canvas is at best questionable, but we all do it—or some variant of it: some Dada, some pastime, some practice we can't help half-believing in. It's not heroic, painting the nude. But when did you last storm a barricade?
The trouble here is the drift back toward the realm of excuses. And I go on insisting: The Matisse painting is inexcusable, and that fact appears to be bound up with—be the basis of—its horrible cognitive power. If you can't feel the cognitive torsion in Studio, Quai St Michel—the world made to reveal new “aspects” by things being done in the thick of the oil paint—nothing I can say will convince you of it. To me, the world in a representation has never looked more dreadful than here—more unlike anything I want to credit about the world, and more soaked through with a terror I want to reject (say it is one man's nightmare) but can't. I look at the colors of the view out the window, and their leakage into the room; at the non-pictures unaffixed to the nonback-wall; at the perspective of the nude in charcoal on the easel; at the flayed flesh of the curtain; at the black paint cracking and biting at the contours of the body; at the final pathos of the studio ceiling, ready for a shell to spoil its fleur de lys. This is 1917. The year could not have been here like this—immortalized—if “Art” had not been so determined to exclude it.
We're not dealing, needless to say, with a recipe or prescription. (“Painter, be as narrow-minded as Matisse …”) We're confronting one of the paradoxes of modernity: that those who are surest they can speak to modern life almost invariably reproduce nothing but clichés about it; and that a few—a very few—of those holding modernity (rightfully) in contempt, but (wrongfully) thinking art might offer a way out of it, end up, poor devils, with the feel of the modern issuing from their brush.
And Immendorff? I admire the explicitness of the question he poses—or the one posed by the young man coming through the door. I like to think of the artist at the easel as Matisse, with bad hair grown long à la 1970; or as Immendorff himself, already half-realizing his Maoism was about to join the list of isms on the scrap of paper. (How much the idea we see there, of a history of succeeding art movements, each elbowing the other out of position, seems key to Wo stehst du?'s period flavor—part of its quaint, late, bygone modernism, all styles and certainties and dreadful flared jeans!) And I like most of all the Immendorff's unseriousness: the fact that the painting knows its question is a caricature, only to be asked by characters in a strip cartoon.
“Pop Art” on the studio wall is answered by “Kampf gegen” on the banner in the street. Workers and factories look the way they always do in agitprop. The red flag of the KPD is flying. (By 1973, Immendorff's view of his old party was, shall we say, mixed.) The horrible certainty— the horrible youth—of the activist in the doorway is answered by the seediness of the oldster smearing semen from his brush. (Shades— sadly—of Immendorff's own later fall from grace …)
The question “Wo stehst du?” is a false one, then—it is not really a question at all. This is the picture's truth. The choices the question posits are already irrevocably in ruins by the time Immendorff rehearses them, mined from within—in Germany's case, by the whole history of the 20th century, and in 1973, by its specific Götterdämmerung of Baader-Meinhof, Ulbricht, Honecker, Brecht, the returnee, the disaster of the DDR.
And in my case, ruined by what? … And in yours? …
T. J. Clark taught at the University of California, Berkeley. He has authored several books including The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France 1848–1851 (1973), The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (1984), and Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (1999). In 2013, his 2009 Mellon Lectures on Fine Art, delivered at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, were published as Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica.
Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design (HfG)
The self-reflective negativity of art is not a given, built-in artistic feature, but a feature that is dependent on particular historical coordinates that create the reflective resonance chamber for dissonant voices. Artistic critique and art criticism are thus historical in a double sense. They partake in writing history and reflect this process politically, epistemologically, and ontologically. In line with its Greek etymology (krinein: to separate, to distinguish, to decide), critique's “moment of danger” (Walter Benjamin) is crisis; beyond the separating activity of crisis, critique does not exist—unless it is relegated to an individualized attitude of the self, a post-historical criticality as commodified intellectual property. It is in this sense that the question of critique and the epistemological moment of crisis pose the question of the negativity of art. What does the latter reflect? Or, rather, has reflection become a tautological concept, once society coincides with its own hyperreal image? Are not what, in the 1980s, Jean Baudrillard called simulacra1— simulating images without an original—self-reflective by default, an image-world of self-fabricated and thus self-relating realities?
If the social relations of ever-late capitalism are already dancing to their own tune, negative art cannot limit itself to the reflective task of “singing their own tune to them.”2 The point is that capitalism's tune is constantly changing: its sound is dissonant to itself without canceling out. In an age in which even the voice of critique adds to this dissonant dance by becoming background noise, critical art needs to find a frequency that is both singular and universally heard. Theodor W. Adorno held that art's radical dissonance could articulate and reflect society's disavowed negativity in an inverse way: “The darkening of the world makes the irrationality of art rational: radically darkened art.”3 For Adorno, such artistic presentation of society's double negation never becomes positive; it figures negativity even when posited in a positivist manner. Today, however, even the negative—if not apocalyptic—promise of art's negativity seems disappointing: such formal negativity has already become part of capitalism's commodified self-criticality. One could even argue that the real subsumption of critique as commodified criticality is older than Adorno's observation. “Kritik is a matter of correct distancing,” as Walter Benjamin summed up the fate of critique in the age of technocapitalism and the advertisement industry.4 Benjamin's remark dates back to the mid-1920s, and almost a hundred years later, we may agree that such a distance was never there in the first place.
For a historical-materialist critique, critical distance translates as immanent critique: it presents an entangled critique and a critique of entanglement, which is critical beyond the theorist's or artist's critical or uncritical attitudes. In this sense, the social relations that produce art can be critical without aiming to be so. The question, however, remains: does art (and, to a lesser degree, the products of the culture and communication industries) offer a privileged site to articulate such an entangled self-critique—a critique that estranges and denaturalizes the commodified self-reflexivity of capitalist relations of re/production? In their chapter on “The Culture Industry,” Adorno and Horkheimer observed that culture has become a “paradoxical commodity”: “It is so completely subject to the law of exchange that it is no longer exchanged; it is so blindly equated with use that it can no longer be used. For this reason it merges with the advertisement.”5 In the case of culture, the commodity's dual character seems to have imploded: exchange and use lose their polarity and are rendered identical. If the culture industry has actually succeeded in incorporating art and accommodating art's negativity, affirmation and critique seem to coincide. But how did we get here?
One could argue that today, in the age of “semiocapitalism”6 and of digital blockchain technology, virtually every commodity is a “paradoxical commodity”— particularly the commodity of labor power that also produces art. Already in modern industrial capitalism, the commodity form had not been tied to noncapitalist use. As Marx showed, the capitalist use value of labor power—its sole purpose—is the production of surplus value and capital. In societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, the collateral usefulness of concrete labor is always superseded by abstract labor—that is, value. Each commodity functions as the transitory bearer, the contingent vessel, of value and money. The realm of commodity exchange is not grounded in an assumed extra-capitalist world of usefulness. With today's culture and communication industries, we only witness the radicalization of the automatization of surplus value production. If the paradox of the commodity form, its split character of use value and exchange value, is the rule, art commodities are no exception to “normal” commodity exchange. What makes them still exceptional has to do with their exhibiting feature: they present the commodity's paradoxical normality in an “exceptional” manner. The latest example of this exceptional feature might be witnessed in crypto-art, or digital art commodities that are rendered unique by virtue of blockchain technology (non-fungible tokens, or NFTs). In this way, the work of art in the age of its digital reproducibility can be signed and sold as a singular one. Of course, this “singularity effect” (Fredric Jameson) is not limited to crypto-art; its digital technology is also at work in cryptocurrencies. The current application of blockchain technology to digital artworks, however, demonstrates a general tendency in the transformation of capitalist use values. What counts as a distinct use value here is singularity itself. It is as paradoxical as it sounds: the use value of singularity becomes the (im)material medium of the universalizability of distinct exchange values. This might have no use outside of commodity exchange, yet such commodities can be exchanged. It is in this way that the production, circulation, and valorization of commodities (artistic, cultural, or otherwise) undermine the vulgar-materialist fantasy of use value. The capitalist scandal or paradox is this: commodity exchange is not grounded in some solid or tangible materiality, representing distinct needs of different empirical commodity owners. As a value-thing, every commodity is paradoxical insofar as it embodies abstract labor. The (im)material results of labor power have no empirical-physical relation to the real-abstract substance that is equated in every commodity-exchange relation: the value of labor power (i.e., a wage) against the value of the results from the application of labor power in the production process. This mismatch expresses and represses the negativity of exploitation and class struggle.
This normalized paradox is crisis-driven and constantly pushes for the technological transformation of the productive forces. In a postFordist society in which “knowledge has become an immediate force of production,”7 the results of the production process are knowledge objectified. Today's culture and communication industries produce such products. As Paolo Virno remarks:
In a situation in which the means of production are not reducible to machines but consist of linguistic-cognitive competencies inseparable from living labor, it is legitimate to assume that a conspicuous part of the so-called “means of production” consists of techniques and communicative procedures…. The culture industry produces (regenerates, experiments with) communicative procedures, which are then destined to function also as means of production in the more traditional sectors of our contemporary economy. This is the role of the communication industry, once post-Fordism has become fully entrenched: an industry of the means of communication.8
According to Virno, the means of communication/production (what Marx called “constant capital”) and communicative labor power (“variable capital”) are made of the same thing: knowledge. This knowledge also produces what is formally known as art. However, if art is ultimately knowledge objectified, made from an immediate means of production, art's critical dialectic of distance and entanglement is deflated. In this case, negative art only shows that negativity can be “put to work” in capitalism. This showing, however, might still be critical in terms of creating the measuring tools to analyze the historical trajectory of the means of production. While art cannot seize the means of production, ex negativo it can render them useless by exposing the tautological exchange value of semiocapitalist commodities: exchangeable products that are so completely subject to the law of exchange that their exchange undermines the re/production of their means of production. The current state of neoliberal higher education and academia is clearly indicative of this historical trajectory: squeeze the means of production, de-skill and kill them. Negative art shall not sing their requiem.
Sami Khatib is a researcher and lecturer in critical theory. He is the author of “Teleologie ohne Endzweck”: Walter Benjamins Entstellung des Messianischen (2013) and coeditor of Critique: The Stakes of Form (2020).
Jean Baudrillard,”Simulacra and Simulations,” in Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster (Cambridge: Polity, 2001), 166–84.
Karl Marx, “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” ed. Andy Blunden and Matthew Carmody, last modified 2009, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm.
Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Continuum, 2002), 19.
Walter Benjamin, “This Space for Rent,” in One-Way Street, Selected Writings, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. vol. 1, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 476.
Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 131.
I borrow this term from Franco Berardi, who contends that “semiocapitalism” is a “new regime characterized by the fusion of media and capital. In this sphere, poetry meets advertising and scientific thought meets the enterprise.” Franco Berardi, Precarious Rhapsody: Semiocapitalism and the Pathologies of the Post-Alpha Generation, ed. Erik Empson and Stevphen Shukaitis (London: Minor Compositions, 2009), 18.
Karl Marx, “Fragment on Machines,” in Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft) [1857/58], trans. Martin Nicolaus (London: Penguin, 1993), 706. Translation modified by the author.
Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2004), 61.
Faculty of Media and Communication, Belgrade
When I received the invitation from the editors of ARTMargins to take part in a roundtable discussion about art, education, and historical danger, the first thought that came to my mind was this: my entire life has played out during times of historical danger of various kinds.1 I am familiar with political ruptures: for instance, the protracted process of socialist Yugoslavia's distancing from the USSR and the Warsaw Pact; the beginning of the Cold War and the construction of the Berlin War; Hollywood cinematic projections of nuclear catastrophe; a genuine economic crisis in the early years of market socialism; military interventions, such as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia or the US war in Vietnam; but equally, the outbreak of smallpox in Serbia; the austerity measures and control of artistic production imposed by the state in the early 1970s; the economic self-destruction of 1980s late socialism; the violent breakup of the federal state in the early 1990s; the political and economic transition from self-managed socialism to a paradoxical blend of neoliberalism and primitive nationalist capitalism; the birth of the new ruthless capitalist class; the global economic crises of the 2000s; and, presently, the global COVID-19 pandemic. There were even more events, occurring on different micro and macro levels of danger and promise, destruction and emancipation. Visions of a new world have retreated in the face of the old worlds; emancipation was pushed back by conservatism. There were frequent and unexpected reversals in different directions, from traditional modes of life, through neoliberal management, to emancipatory practices. I might say that I have had— and still have—an exciting life, whether as an observer or a bystander, a participant, or a fugitive.
A present danger invariably constitutes a greater challenge than past dangers. A danger that was successfully eliminated and belongs to the past acquires a sort of romantic “guise” in our treacherous and blurry memories. A present danger provokes feelings of fear, dread, or trepidation—that is, panic—or stimulates depression, introversion, and the imposition of an unjustifiable amount of social distancing. I will therefore focus on the present—the historical danger we are facing today.
Describing the present historical danger is not a simple task. It involves confronting the tendencies of the global expansion of cultural conservatism, autocratic political social management, the concentration of fascistic values and identities, notions of a closed society, and a global neoliberalism that drives the economic stratification of society, as well as the destabilization of the entire health and education system since the 1990s.
Recent years have seen a global turn away from general humanistic education. This has affected art schools as well as those teaching the humanities and social studies, both in Serbia and globally. Instead of an education in theory and criticism, contemporary university technocrats are offering “practical” or “useful” operational knowledge: “skill education”! Primacy is given to quantitative rather than qualitative analysis and interpretation. Skill education, from manual to software and managerial approaches, is based on the belief that successful professionals “telling experiential stories” can substitute for theory and enable the direct and unquestioning adoption—downloading—of genuine professional experience, which is not re-examined but perfected and pragmatically applied.
Differently put, there is a claim that critical theory is no longer needed, that knowledge does not rest on criticism-cum-analysis, but on archiving, de-archiving, packing/unpacking, comparing, and structuring endlessly available data—the Google mythology.
My thesis, by contrast, is that without theory, data can only serve as a soft basis for yet another manipulative narrative/intrigue offering illusory explanations, illusory of construction of truthfulness, illusory utilitarian comparisons, and so on. What is always necessary is a critical look at the conditions and circumstances surrounding contextual work in data—that is, quantitative parameters. That is why all education, especially education in the humanities and the arts, includes critical theory within every generative practice. Education needs to have reflexive potentiality.
What I am talking about is reinforced—galvanized—by the danger exacerbated by the global COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on everyday life (in Wuhan, Venice, Paris, Berlin, Belgrade, Rio de Janeiro, etc.), on professional work, on education processes, and on local and global economies and policies of governance.
What we are confronting is no longer a surveillance society, but one of justified repression. Is justified repression even possible? Does justified repression exist? Or is justified repression an expression of cynicism on the part of entirely diverse state apparatuses, rather than of the virus? Does justified repression amount to transferring the impact of state and corporate institutional powers to everyday life? Viruses can't be cynical! People can! The virus serves as a “justification” for state and corporate manipulations in their articulation of our lifes.
Radenko Milak. Wuhan Airport, February 27, 2020. Watercolor, 95 × 140 cm. © Radenko Milak. Image courtesy of the artist.
Rage has therefore emerged as a sort of response. This is social rage!
Eruptions of rage are an expression of powerlessness and panic inside closed and traumatized societies. Rage is a response to the darkness of a future devoid of hope. For indeed, today's future is the next wave of the pandemic: further elaboration of aggressive repressive techniques used by state apparatuses; violent racism/nationalism advocating the closing of national and racial states; totalizing specters of corruption out of control; a minority growing richer thanks to the work of the virus; a global economic crisis; unemployment; and finally, a reconstructed and enhanced fear of the other. Biopolitics is being replaced by “commercial medical management” and undeniable necropolitics.
In a Facebook message, Professor Tyrus Miller wrote: “It seems the market has decided we need more COVID-19 infections and death.”2
Rage is everywhere: in every drop of morning dew, in the torrential or gentle rain during spring or fall, in every spilt drop of oil, in every lost coin, untreated patient, and humiliated citizen. It is not without reason, although not for the same reasons, that there are protests everywhere, from Minneapolis to Paris to Belgrade and Hong Kong, Beirut or Minsk, Warsaw. The reasons are police brutality, socioeconomic inequality, political autocracy, violation of self-rule, endemic corruption, repression of women, state perversions of democratic institutions, and so on. Insecure societies are turning into damaged societies, both locally and globally.
For me, the university is essentially involved in actively and interactively articulating free human life in the domain of a new domain of politics that is much broader than issues relating to human society, and much, much broader still than those relating to knowledge management. On all levels of “learning” and “studying,” education is one of the most important media for all types of historical, current, and future development of the micro, macro, local, and global society. Without education, society crumbles—therefore society and its role on the living planet must be defended through an open, dynamic, and nonutilitarian university. To be educated means to keep moving within an open, heterogeneously mastered, and transcended surplus of knowledge, rather than to deal exclusively in specialized knowledge—be it for practical purposes, making a profit, or staying in power.
The ideal of the progressive university was formulated long ago by German political activist Rudi Dutschke: “The critical university is a reinvention of the original contents of scholarship as a process of man's self-liberation through education! A process of man's self-emancipation through education.”3
TRANSLATED BY ŽARKO CVEJIĆ
Miško Šuvaković is a professor in the Department of Transdisciplinary Humanistics and Theory of Art and Media in the Faculty for Media and Communication, Belgrade, Serbia. He is the author of several publications, including Epistemology of Art (2008) and The Neo-Aesthetics Theory (2017). He is president of the International Association of Aesthetics (IAA).
Compare with the concepts “real state of exception” and “fictitious state of exception”: Giorgio Agamben, “The State of Exception as a Paradigm of Government,” in State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 3.
Tyrus Miller to the author, Irwin, California, June 10, 2020, 8:32 p.m., Facebook Messenger.
Rudi Dutschke, “Što je kritičko sveučilihšte?” (“What is critical university?”) in Rudi Dutschke: Moj dugi marš. Govori, članci i dnevnici tokom dvadeset godina (My long march. Speeches, articles and diaries for twenty years), ed. Gretchen Dutschke-Klotz, Helmut Gollwitzer, and Jürgen Miermeister, trans. Goran Gretič (Zagreb: Globus, 1983), 74.
University of Münster
We are in a weak spot. The rise of authoritarian sentiments across the globe leaves little hope for many of us on the left. How can we strengthen the weakened democratic structures in the face of eroding public spheres, political participation threatened by hate speech, and violent acts against open societies and critical practices? How can advanced capitalism, based on a destructive racial and colonial logic that has carried our world to the tipping point of an ongoing catastrophe, be challenged? Can critical theory become effective beyond the campus discourse? How can a progressive international order be rebuilt without collapsing into identitarian concerns? These issues are of pressing relevance for intellectuals as much as for cultural producers.
In this context, it is deeply disturbing that academic voices, especially in philosophy and the humanities, have remained virtually silent at the criminalization of the live-saving initiatives in the Mediterranean Sea. Such necropolitics call for a public debate that goes beyond the daily press reports on struggles between activist groups and career politicians. It requires public debates about the ethical foundations of civil society. Empathy does not suffice; instead, blueprints are needed to form new critical practices for a radical imaginary that builds an understanding of an experience that is not (yet) ours but that has already overtaken thousands who have lost their academic positions in Turkey, Poland, and Hungary.
Such a commitment to polity is what resonates in Hannah Arendt's claim that we have to “assume responsibility for all public affairs within our reach regardless of personal ‘guilt’…. The solidarity of mankind may well turn out to be an unbearable burden, and it is not surprising that the common reactions to it are political apathy, isolationist nationalism, or desperate rebellion against all powers that be rather than enthusiasm or a desire for a revival of humanism.”1 It is in this sense necessary to make the experience of so-called “superfluous” groups ours, not simply by incorporating that experience into our world, but by recognizing its vanguard role in changing our world. As Arendt suggests, one should think of the refugee as today's avant-garde, a perspective that emerged from her own experience of being one of the world's “superfluous” people during the 1940s.2 Arendt was committed to thinking as dialogue, implying a practice that isn't about mastery, control, or rationalization, but about beginning a moral life that maintains dialogue as a political and poetic practice of building solidarity.
Arendt's statement “that even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination”3 echoes Berthold Brecht's poem “To Those Born Later” (1940), where Brecht speaks of disorder, hunger, slaughter, outrage, injustice, and despair: “We who wanted to prepare the ground for friendship / Could not ourselves be friendly. / But you, when the time comes at last / When man is helper to man / Think of us / With forbearance.”4 In dark times such as ours, it seems more important than ever to design counter-scenarios that make interventions feasible by exposing the intrinsic instability of existing orders and that reveal the nondefinitive character of the world. By rendering the unfathomable visible, art has the potential to traverse the habitually adapted and naturalized conditions of a seemingly unalterable socioeconomic reality. Art in this sense can “oppose a system,” as Nicolas Bourriaud speculates, but it “must first conceive its nature as precarious. Doing so implies waking from a kind of hypnosis, breaking through the marmoreal representations imposed by the conservative bourgeoisie, and seeing the operative system as a fragile installation— a spectacle that ideology has transformed into reality.”5
Silke Wagner, Münster's HISTORY FROM BELOW, 2007, Concrete sculpture, posters, 3.4 m high, LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur, Münster/Sculpture Projects Archives Münster, photography by Roman Ostojic, artdoc.de.
The archive, especially, has the potential to make resistant narratives visible—the abilities and convictions of the excluded that are eminently political and ethically binding in the face of a violent ‘resentment memory.’ Artistic means such as the statue of Silke Wagner (which has served as a platform for archival material of Antifa activism since the 1960s) act as tributes to a man's lifelong fight for justice after he was sterilized by the National Socialists, elevating marginalized life to public matter. Emancipatory actions of antifascist engagement are woven into the idea of reframing and reenactment as methods that call into memory and cultivate democratic processes. Such works dissolve the bureaucratic logic of the archive to make visible precarious lives. These are practices of recognition that value human struggles, particularly in times when democratic cultures of debate are endangered. They create symbolic, not pragmatic, “spaces of appearance”6 like the ones addressed by Milo Rau's International Institute of Political Murder (IIPM) over the last ten years. Rau's collective theater projects and actions redefine the relations between tragedy and justice, event and realism, research, representation, and receptivity through (re-)enactments. They explore the potential of future institutions for the time after those in place now break down during capitalism's final phase. For example, Rau's staging of The Congo Tribunal (2017) investigated how an international tribunal might mediate global conflicts over raw materials and neo-colonial exploitation.7 In the end, no one was imprisoned, of course, but that is why the tribunal could happen in the first place. After all—although the victims and perpetrators, as well as the juridical experts and witnesses, were real—the tribunal had nonetheless maintained an artificial character, enabling participants to see themselves as political subjects. The culturally pessimistic position of always postulating the impossibility of political action must therefore be understood as a form of deliberate blindness that is both deeply tragic and culpable. Rau has called this “the extremism of the concrete”; his goal is not to have art as a corrective of politics but as an ongoing liminal enterprise, inclusive and based on collective efforts to provide evidence for acts of ruthless exploitation, genocide, and human rights violations that could be relevant for future trials.
Milo Rau, The Kongo Tribunal, 2017, Film still, Germany/Switzerland, 100 min.
Forensic Architecture, a multi-disciplinary artist collective that practices the radical exposure of suppressed narratives and withheld evidence in collaborative structures, is another example of art's role in making structures of oppression visible. The members of this collective do so through research and micro-analysis as a basis for audiovisual reconstructions of humanitarian offenses and structural injustice that have served as testimony—even in legal cases.8 Instead of succumbing to small islands of emancipated practices disconnected from the sites of tragedy, these creative concepts spill over from the world of art into the world at large at a time when global capitalism has created a worldwide hegemony, designating new collective ways of making things public in the process. Such projects emphatically maintain that, in the end, we must accept an impossible responsibility. The fight will only be over when the elitist ego is visibly wounded. Art could then become a practice of corriger la fortune, a concrete proposition of a possible future.
Film still, The Beirut Port Explosion, 2020, Courtesy Newsflare © Forensic Architecture, https://forensic-architecture.org/investigation/beirut-port-explosion.
So, yes, there is hope—but in moderation.
To introduce her “Requiem,” the poet Anna Akhmatova describes a short scene from memory in “Instead of a Preface”:
During the terrifying years of the Yezhov repressions, I spent seventeen months in Leningrad prison lines. One time, someone thought they recognized me. Then a woman standing behind me, who of course had never heard my name, stirred from her own, though common to all of us, stupor and asked in my ear (there, all spoke in a whisper):
—Could you describe this?
And I said:
Then, something akin to a smile slipped across what once had been her face.
April 1, 1957, Leningrad9
Ursula Frohne teaches in the Department of Art History at the University of Münster. She is the cofounder of the journal 21: Inquiries into Art, History, and the Visual and coeditor of PUBLIC Matters: Debates and Documents from the Sculpture Projects Archives (2019) and Realisms of the Avant-Garde (2020).
Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times (New York: Harcourt, 1968), 83.
Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees,” in Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on Exile, ed. Marc Robinson (San Diego: Harvest Books, 1996); see also https://www.documenta14.de/de/south/35_we_refugees.
See Hannah Arendt, “Preface,” in Men in Dark Times, vii-x, ix.
Berthold Brecht, “To Those Born Later,” in Poems 1913–1956, ed. John Willett and Ralph Manheim (North Yorkshire: Methuen, 1987), 318–20.
Nicolas Bourriaud, The Exform, trans. Erik Butler (London: Verso, 2016), 36.
A space, according to Arendt, “where I appear to others as others appear to me, where men exist not merely like other living or inanimate things, but to make their appearance explicitly.” See Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958–19899.
See Milo Rau, “Representation,” in Wiederholung und Ekstase, ed. Milo Rau and Rolf Bossart (Zurich: diaphanes, 2017), 179–94, 182.
See the website of Forensic Architecture to explore their projects: https://forensic-architecture.org.
Anna Akhmatova, “Requiem” (April 1, 1957, Leningrad), trans. Alex Cigale, https://hopkinsreview.jhu.edu/archive/requiem/.