The struggle for freedom does not give back to the national culture its former value and shapes; this struggle which aims at a fundamentally different set of relations among men cannot leave intact either the form or the content of the people's culture. After the conflict there is not only the disappearance of colonialism but also the disappearance of the colonized man.1
It has become commonplace to acknowledge the internal exclusions constitutive of European modernism and modernity, whether in the form of art naïf and primitivism or of colonial war and neo-imperial social violence. Frantz Fanon poses a question all too easily forgotten in the increasingly mainstream endeavor of globalizing art: what does it mean to speak of national culture and, by extension, of culture generally, in the context of a struggle to destroy and radically remake ethical, political, and social relations? Setting aside, at least for the moment, the complexity of Fanon's relationship to this context, these lines also pose a broader set of questions about the role of the aesthetic, alternately in constituting new political subjects and in figuring their transformation within determinate idioms and contexts. The texts included in the present issue not only signal the contradictions and omissions of modernism, they also attempt to figure an ethics and a politics emerging from the very concrete social and political conditions of those lacunae. In doing so, they underscore the tension between culture (as a relation to the repressed in language) and politics (as a relation between the individual and the collective) implied in Fanon's discussion of “national culture.”
Alberto Toscano's essay, “Sadism to Solidarity: Notes on Art, Philosophy, and the Algerian War,” examines violence—specifically, the extreme violence of the Algerian War of Independence (1954–62), which became a topic of philosophical inquiry and the subject of painterly representation apropos the case of Djamila Boupacha. As Toscano reminds us, Boupacha was a young Algerian woman tortured and raped by the French. The case gave rise to what Toscano suggestively describes as a “knot” of questions concerning the aesthesis or sensible perception and representation of violence. Considering both historic and contemporary forms of state and para-state violence, he thus asks whether a political relation can be thought beyond the opposition between the “monstrosity” of such violence and the “tragic” as an ethical stance toward human finitude. Counterintuitively, Toscano suggests that we look to the reclamations of the Marquis de Sade that sustain the French artistic and philosophical interventions apropos the Algerian War of Independence as a way of accessing a jouissance unbound by the moral law and as a first step in establishing webs of complicity or solidarity beyond either the aestheticization of politics or its reduction to an individual ethics.
Lara Ayad's article, “Homegrown Heroes: Peasant Masculinity and Nation-Building in Modern Egyptian Art,” considers the portrayal of the Egyptian peasant (fellah) in an untitled series of four large-scale paintings (1934–37) by ‘Aly Kamel al-Deeb. Al-Deeb's untitled series, which was commissioned for display in the national Agricultural Museum, anticipated his long career as a painter and director of artistic displays at the same institution. As Ayad explains, in the 1930s al-Deeb straddled two seemingly contrary artistic and political currents: a formally experimental avant-gardism critical of the role of museums in the project of nation-building, and the figurative portrayal of the peasant as a heroic social subject in works commissioned by nation-building institutions such as the Agricultural Museum. According to the author, al-Deeb's elevation of the peasant as a subject of portraiture helped cast this figure as a subject of national-popular politics in a moment of rural uprisings and mass urban migration. In Ayad's study, al-Deeb's work in the 1930s thus becomes a prism revealing the national question at stake for both realist and modernist artists at the time—a fact often overlooked by subsequent art histories, and simultaneously, a blind spot that such histories have produced.
Dorota Michalska questions how to render sensible the transformation of Polish society under neoliberalism. “Degraded Objects, Harrowed Bodies: Roman Stańczak and Shock Therapy in Poland, 1990–96” examines Polish artist Roman Stańczak's works from the 1990s, arguing that we should attend to the literal, physical processes of degradation and destruction at stake in such works as Night Stand (1990–91), Kettle (1991), Chair (1996), Couch (1996), and Cupboard (1996). Against dominant interpretations that have privileged the symbolic or metaphorical appeal of such works, Michalska suggests that Stańczak's destruction of household items could be more productively read in terms of the mimetic displacement of signifiers, which Michalska associates with “the trauma of great change” coined by sociologist Piotr Sztompka, capturing “the experience of unemployment, poverty, and painful degradation” characteristic of the first decade of the post-Soviet period in Poland. In Michalska's view, Stańczak's ability to figure the psychic and social experience of transformation during the 1990s through a uniquely expressive idiom helped influence the work of a subsequent generation of Polish artists, who presented the contradictions of Polish society in ways that were at once more immediate and imbued with a greater sense of historical scope and distance.
In “Out of the Outback, into the Art World: Dotting in Australian Aboriginal Art and the Navigation of Globalization,” Matthew Mason argues for Aboriginal Australian dot painting as an assertion of cultural self-determination. The article examines dominant historical accounts of dot painting that have attributed the emergence of the contemporary Aboriginal art movement to the intervention of outsiders, together with landmark exhibitions such as the Museum of Modern Art's “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art (1984–85) or the Centre Pompidou's Magiciens de la Terre (1989). As Mason explains, the latter exhibitions attempted to render dot painting legible within art historical discourse by casting it alternately as an analogue of formal abstraction and a lure in which a veiled Aboriginal spirituality was presented for the gaze of European and US audiences. In a gesture similar to Toscano's, Mason asks whether a certain excess that sustains the antinomies of modernism and primitivism—and the market for dot painting—might not also mark a potential site of Aboriginal self-determination.
Elizabeth Harney's review essay begins where Mason leaves off, with the question of “decolonizing” the gaze. Harney discusses three recent volumes, Suzanne Preston Blier's Picasso's Demoiselles, Joshua Cohen's The Black Renaissance, and David Joselit's Heritage and Debt, attempting to revisit and reframe primitivism and its afterlives.2 Harney accounts for the ways that “increasing interest in the microhistories of modernism beyond the European canon” and the historical consciousness of contemporaneity alternately potentiate and limit attempts to place primitivism in dialogue with modernist movements in Africa and the African diaspora, as well as attempts to rethink the relationship between modernism and colonialism. Harney contrasts Blier's and Cohen's respective attempts at reframing Picasso's claims on African sculpture by connecting them to the artist's research into then-contemporary theories of race and by showing how African and African American artists and intellectuals, from Alain Locke to Léopold Sédar Senghor, drew strategically on the idea and the aesthetics of African heritage, including primitivism, as a way of positioning political and cultural self-determination within universal debates about humanity and culture. Simultaneously, Harney criticizes the purported double-bind of heritage and debt (or of non-European tradition and European modernity) that animates Joselit's book, calling instead for “a reckoning of the debt that contemporary curators and arts institutions owe those whose footsteps are difficult to trace in the streets of Paris” and for a broader, more informed appreciation of the relationship between colonial modernisms and social and political modernity.
The two texts included in the Document section, Gina Ferreira's “Lend Me Your Eyes” and Lula Wanderley's “The Silence That Words Hold,” take as their starting point the experience of the aesthetic for therapeutic ends. As Kaira Cabañas recounts in her introduction, Ferreira, a social psychologist, and Wanderley, an artist who integrates art into psychiatric care, met at the Casa das Palmeiras, an outpatient clinic in Rio de Janeiro established by psychiatrist Nise da Silveira in 1946. Ferreira and Wanderley testify to their experiences, drawing on an expansive understanding of art in the clinical treatment of psychosis. In this sense, their texts also form part of two intertwined histories in mid-20th-century Brazil: the reform of psychiatric institutions and the incorporation of the work of psychiatric patients into exhibitions of modernism. Illuminating a genealogy mediated, most notably, by the work of Lygia Clark and the curatorial experiments and writings of Mário Pedrosa, Ferreira and Wanderley document attempts at accessing the aesthetic that at once are inscribed within and in excess of modernism's circumscriptions and dichotomies.
Slavs and Tatars’ illustrated essay, titled “More Phemes ” offers a theoretical rebuff to Ferreira and Wanderley's attempts at recomposing the psychotic body. In the collective's words, “we're interested in bricks. Particularly the ones thrown at the façade of what constitutes a body, and ideally the ones made from the very clay from which the first body was molded.” Rather than opposing language and the sensible, the quest for “an esoteric, metaphysical ground for gender fluidity” finds a vehicle in “Hurufism, a 14th-century science of letters (ilm al-huruf) of the Perso-Arabic alphabet.” Slavs and Tatars’ project thus unfolds the wordplay in its title as the search for a universe perpetually generated by the creativity in language (“more phemes”) and by the desire to locate the “undifferentiated source of all discourse” (morphemes). The artists conclude by affirming, “The science of letters allows us to constantly compose our own [face], and thus write the universe, both within ourselves and outside.” Their affirmation returns us to Fanon and to a thread running through the contributions to the present issue: How does freedom reshape the law? What culture emerges from the encounters that these texts describe?
Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Press, 1963), 245–46.
Suzanne Preston Blier, Picasso's Demoiselles: The Untold Origins of a Modern Masterpiece (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019); Joshua I. Cohen, The Black Renaissance: African Sculpture and Modernism across Continents (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020); David Joselit, Heritage and Debt: Art in Globalization (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020).