And by a prudent flight and cunning save A life which valour could not, from the grave. A better buckler I can soon regain, But who can get another life again? Archilochus

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Non-Representative Art

Slavoj Zizek, "The Political Implications of Non-Representative Art"
In his Philosophy of History, Hegel provided a wonderful characterization of Thucydides’s book on the Peloponnesian war: “his immortal work is the absolute gain which humanity has derived from that contest.” One should read this judgment in all its naivety: in a way, from the standpoint of the world history, the Peloponnesian war took place so that Thucydides could write a book on it. What if something similar holds for the relationship between the explosion of modernism and First World War, but in the opposite direction? The Great War was not the traumatic break that shattered late nineteenth-century progressism, but a reaction to the true threat to the established order: the explosion of vanguard art, scientific and political, which undermined the established worldview. This included artistic modernism in literature – from Kafka to Joyce, in music – Schoenberg and Stravinsky, in painting – Picasso, Malevitch, Kandinsky, in psychoanalysis, relativity theory and quantum physics, the rise of Social Democracy…

The rupture – condensed in 1913, the annus mirabilis of artistic vanguard – was so shattering in its opening of new spaces that, in a speculative historiography, one is even tempted to claim that the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 was, from the “spiritual” standpoint, a reaction to this Event of rupture – or, to paraphrase Hegel, that the horror of the World War I is the price humanity had to pay for waging the immortal artistic revolution of the years just prior to the war. In other words, one has to turn around the pseudo-deep insight on how Schoenberg et al prefigured the horrors of twentieth-century war: what if the true Event were 1913? It is crucial to focus on this intermediate explosive moment between the complacency of late-nineteenth century and the catastrophe of World War I. 1914 was not the awakening from slumber, but the forceful and violent return of patriotic sleep, destined to block the true awakening. The fact that Fascists and other patriots hated the vanguard entartete Kunst is not a marginal detail but a key feature of Fascism. It is against this background that we should approach the relationship between modern art and the horrors of twentieth-century history.

In his Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911), Wassily Kandinsky develops the idea of how every artwork influences the spectator not through its subject matter but through a certain choice of colors and forms. In this sense, Kandinsky sees “high art” not as the thematization of a neutral medium, which represents nothing, but as having its own operational goal, namely irrational, subconscious influence on the spectator. Particular colors and forms influence the psyche of spectators and produce specific moods in them:
“Here the individual is placed not outside the artwork or in front of it but inside the artwork, and totally immersed in it. Such an artificial environment can create a powerful subconscious effect on the spectator, who becomes a visitor to, if not a prisoner of, the artwork… This approach to art does not propagate irrationality, it relies on an even more radical spiritualism: spiritual meaning is inscribed already into the form itself, not only into the content the work of art represents.”[1]
However, a quite naïve problem immediately arises here: if the specific form of a work of art produces moods of anxiety, discontent and disorientation, does it not deprive itself of any emancipatory dimension? Does it not propagate irrational pessimism and hopelessness? This is how abstract art (as well as atonal music and free-association writing) were perceived by both poles of the political spectrum in 1930s.

In 1938, during the Spanish Civil War, the French poet, artist, and architect of Slovene origins Alphonse Laurencic relied on Kandinsky’s theories of color and form to decorate cells at a prison in Barcelona where Republicans held captured Francoists. He designed each cell like an avant-garde art installation, so that the compositions of color and form inside the cells were chosen with the goal of causing the prisoners to experience disorientation, depression, and deep sadness:
“During the trial Laurencic revealed he was inspired by modern artists, such as surrealist Salvador Dali and Bauhaus artist Wassily Kandinsky, to create the torture cells /…/ Laurencic told the court the cells, in Barcelona, featured sloping beds at a 20-degree angle that were almost impossible to sleep on.
They also had irregularly shaped bricks on the floor that prevented prisoners from walking backwards or forwards, the trial papers said. The walls in the 6ft x 3ft cells were covered in surrealist patterns designed to make prisoners distressed and confused, the report continued, and lighting effects were used to make the artwork even more dizzying. Some of them had a stone seat designed to make occupants instantly slide to the floor, while other cells were painted in tar and became stiflingly hot in the summer.”

Indeed, later the prisoners held in these so-called “psychotechnic” cells did report extreme negative moods and psychological suffering due to their visual environment. Here, the mood becomes the message—the message that coincides with the medium. The power of this message is shown in Himmler’s reaction to the cells: he visited the psychotechnic cells after Barcelona was taken by the fascists and said that the cells showed the “cruelty of Communism.” They looked like Bauhaus installations and, thus, Himmler understood them as a manifestation of Kulturbolschevismus (cultural Bolshevism). No wonder Laurencic was put on trial and executed in 1939.

But the paradox is that orthodox Stalinist Marxism advocated the same thesis, just in the opposite direction. In the 1930s, writing in Moscow, Georg Lukács diagnosed expressionist “activism” as a precursor to National Socialism. He stressed the “irrational” aspects of expressionism that later, according to his analysis, culminated in Nazi ideology. Along the same lines, Ilya Ehrenburg wrote at that time about the surrealists: “For them a woman means conformism. They preach onanism, pederasty, fetishism, exhibitionism, and even sodomy.”[2] As late as 1963, in a famous pamphlet called Why I Am Not a Modernist, Soviet art critic Mikhail Lifshitz (a close friend and collaborator of Lukács in the 1930s) repeated the same point: modernism is cultural fascism because it celebrates irrationality and anti-humanism. He wrote:
“So, why am I not a modernist? Why does the slightest hint of such ideas in art and philosophy provoke my innermost protest? Because in my eyes modernism is linked to the darkest psychological facts of our time. Among them are a cult of power, a joy at destruction, a love for brutality, a thirst for a thoughtless life and blind obedience /…/ The conventional collaborationism of academics and writers with the reactionary policies of imperialist states is nothing compared to the gospel of new barbarity implicit to even the most heartfelt and innocent modernist pursuits. The former is like an official church, based on the observance of traditional rites. The latter is a social movement of voluntary obscurantism and modern mysticism. There can be no two opinions as to which of the two poses a greater public danger.”[3]
In short, modernism is a much greater danger than Fascism… While modernism is Fascist for Soviet Marxism, it is Communist for the Fascists. (There are exceptions on both sides, of course: futurism was appropriated by Italian Fascism as well as by the Soviet art in the 1920s.) On the opposite side, the realism of representation is “totalitarian” for Western modernists who see in anti-representative modern art the liberation of the medium from the message it is supposed to transmit: the message is (in) the medium itself, not in what the medium represents…[4] But the truly surprising fact is that today some cognitivists propagate the same anti-modernist stance, claiming that a good traditional taste for beauty as a source of pleasure is grounded in our nature, so that we should trust people’s taste. Here is what Steven Pinker wrote in this regard:
“The dominant theories of elite art and criticism in the 20th century grew out of a militant denial of human nature. One legacy is ugly, baffling, and insulting art. The other is pretentious and unintelligible scholarship. And they’re surprised that people are staying away in droves?”[5]
Such a stance is not just gaining traction among some theoreticians, but it is also spreading among Rightist populists. In Slovenia, the Rightists are elevating national folk music into the emblem of being a true Slovene, and are attacking its critics as traitors to Slovene nationhood… The proponents of the idea that the sense of artistic beauty and pleasure is grounded in our nature denounce the modernist “desire to destroy beauty” as an ideological moment of elitist globalism. In a naïve sense, they are making a valuable point: modern art reproduces horror, anxiety and dissonances, which characterize our social being. The question we should ask here is: so why is reproducing anxiety and horror in art subversive, not merely imitating and thereby sustaining the existing alienated social life? The answer is simple: just bringing up anxieties and dissonances is in itself an act of liberation, which enables us to regain a distance towards the existing order. To see this, we have to accept the Hegelian position of Adorno: art is not about pleasure or the experience of beauty; art is a medium of truth, the truth of our human condition in a given historical epoch. And in our epoch, after the modernist break, sticking to the tradition of tonal music or realist painting is as such a fake.

Why? Let’s return to Hegel, to his notion of the end of art. Hegel’s fateful limitation was that his notion of art remained within the confines of classical representative art: he was unable to consider the possibility of what we call abstract (nonfigurative) art, or, for that matter, atonal music, or literature which reflexively focuses on its own process of writing, etc. The truly interesting question here is in what way this limitation—remaining within the constraints of the classical notion of representative art—is linked to what Robert Pippin detects as Hegel’s other limitation, namely his inability to detect the alienation/antagonism that persists even in a modern rational society where individuals attain their formal freedom and mutual recognition. In what way—and why—can this persisting unfreedom, unease, dislocation in a modern free society be properly articulated, brought to light, in an art which is no longer constrained to the representative model? Is it that the modern unease, unfreedom in the very form of formal freedom, servitude in the very form of autonomy, and, more fundamentally, anxiety and perplexity caused by that very autonomy, reach so deep into the very ontological foundations of our being that they can be expressed only in an art form which destabilizes and denaturalizes the most elementary coordinates of our sense of reality? So, for Pippin, Hegel’s “greatest failure” is that he
“never seemed very concerned about [the] potential instability in the modern world, about citizens of the same ethical commonwealth potentially losing so much common ground and common confidence that a general irresolvability of any of these possible conflicts becomes ever more apparent, the kind of high challenge and low expectations we see in all those vacant looks. . . . He does not worry much because his general theory about the gradual actual historical achievement of some mutual recognitive status, a historical claim that has come to look like the least plausible aspect of Hegel’s account and that is connected with our resistance to his proclamations about art as a thing of the past.”[6
And Pippin himself designates as the core of this new dissatisfaction class division and struggle (here, of course, class is to be opposed to castes, estates, and other hierarchies). A fundamental ambiguity thus characterizes the disturbing and disorienting effect of Manet’s paintings: yes, they indicate the “alienation” of modern individuals who lack a proper place within a society traversed by radical antagonisms, individuals deprived of the intersubjective space of collective mutual recognition and understanding; however, they simultaneously generate and reflect a liberating effect (the individuals they depict appear as no longer bound to a specific place in the social hierarchy).

Pippin is right to point out that, in his proclamation of the end of art (as the highest expression of the absolute), Hegel is paradoxically not idealist enough. What Hegel doesn’t see is not simply some post-Hegelian dimension totally outside his grasp, but the very “Hegelian” dimension of the analyzed phenomenon. The same goes for economy: what Marx demonstrated in his Capital is how the self-reproduction of capital obeys the logic of the Hegelian dialectical process of a substance-subject, which retroactively posits its own presuppositions. However, Hegel himself missed this dimension—his notion of industrial revolution was the Adam-Smith-type manufacture where the work process was still that of combined individuals using tools, not yet a factory where the machinery set the rhythm and individual workers were de facto reduced to organs serving the machinery, to its appendices. This is why Hegel could not yet imagine the way abstraction rules in developed capitalism: this abstraction is not only in our (financial speculator’s) misperception of social reality, but it is “real” in the precise sense of determining the structure of the very material social processes. The fate of whole strata of population and sometimes of whole countries can be decided by the “solipsistic” speculative dance of capital, which pursues its goal of profitability in a blessed indifference to how its movement will affect social reality. Therein resides the fundamental systemic violence of capitalism, much more uncanny than the direct precapitalist socio-ideological violence: this violence is no longer attributable to concrete individuals and their “evil” intentions, but is purely “objective,” systemic, anonymous.

And in an exact homology to this reign of abstraction in capitalism, Hegel was paradoxically not idealist enough to imagine the reign of abstraction in art. That is to say, in the same way that in the domain of economy he wasn’t able to discern the self-mediating Notion which structured the economic reality of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption, he wasn’t able to discern the Notional content of a painting which mediates and regulates its form (shapes, colors) at a level that is more basic than the content represented (pictured) in a painting. In other words, “abstract painting” mediates/reflects sensuality at a non-representative level.[7]


No, absolutely not! Here is the main reason.

A news item passed largely unnoticed while our eyes are mostly on the Ukraine war: on April 20, 2022, Julian Assange moved one step closer to being extradited to the United States, where he is set to be tried under the Espionage Act. A London court issued a formal extradition order in a hearing Wednesday, leaving UK Home Secretary Priti Patel (the one who proposed sending refugees who arrived to the UK to Rwanda) to rubber-stamp his transfer to the US. If convicted, Assange faces up to 175 years in prison… So, yes, we should fully support Ukrainian resistance. And, yes, we should defend Western freedoms. Just imagine with shudder what would have happened to Chelsea Manning if she were Russian! But our Western freedom also has limits, which we should never lose out of our sight, especially in moments like this when “the fight for freedom” is on everyone’s lips.

We hear these days the demand that Putin should be brought to the Hague tribunal for Russian war crimes in Ukraine. OK, but how can the US demand this, while they do not recognize the competence of the Hague tribunal for their own citizens? And, to add insult to injury, how can they demand the extradition of Assange to the US when Assange is not a US citizen, was not involved in any spysing against the US, plus all he did was to make public what are undoubtedly the US war crimes (recall just the famous video clip of US snipers killing Iraqi civilians)? Assange is under threat of getting 175 years of prison for just disclosing US crimes, which are beyond reproach… Not even to mention the long list of crimes of the US Presidents!

If Putin belongs in the Hague, why not also Assange? Why not Bush and Rumsfeld (who is already dead) for the “shock and awe” bombardment of Baghdad? It is as if the guideline of the recent US politics is a weird reversal of the well-known motto of the ecologists: act globally, think locally. This contradiction was best exemplified already back in 2003 by the two-sided pressure the US was exerting on Serbia: the US representatives simultaneously demanded of the Serbian government to deliver suspected war criminals to the Hague court AND to sign the bilateral treaty with the US obliging Serbia not to deliver to any international institution (i.e., to the SAME Hague court) the US citizens suspected of war crimes or other crimes against humanity. No wonder the Serb reaction was one of perplexed fury…

There were things – not only on Assange, but also on the weaknesses of liberal democracy, on the Israeli apartheid politics in the West Bank, on the aberrations of Political Correctness, etc. – which I was simply able to publish in English only there, in Russia Today (RT). If I were to do it in other very marginal sites in the West, the texts would have found a very limited echo. Of course, we have much more freedom in the liberal West, but that’s why prohibitions are all the more conspicuous. The lesson is that Western democracies also have their dirty side, their own censorship, so we have the full right to ruthlessly play one superpower against the other. What I was publishing in RT and what I am now publishing in support of Ukraine are for me parts of the same struggle, in the same way that there is no “contradiction” between the struggle against anti-Semitism and the struggle against what Israel is doing on the West Bank with Palestinians. If we see Ukraine and Assange as a choice, we are lost; we have already sold our soul to the devil.

Far from standing for a utopian position, this necessity of a common struggle is grounded in the very fact of the far-reaching consequences of extreme suffering. In a memorable passage in Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered, Ruth Klüger describes a conversation with “some advanced PhD candidates” in Germany:
“one reports how in Jerusalem he made the acquaintance of an old Hungarian Jew who was a survivor of Auschwitz, and yet this man cursed the Arabs and held them all in contempt. How can someone who comes from Auschwitz talk like that? the German asks. I get into the act and argue, perhaps more hotly than need be. What did he expect? Auschwitz was no instructional institution /…/. You learned nothing there, and least of all humanity and tolerance. Absolutely nothing good came out of the concentration camps, I hear myself saying, with my voice rising, and he expects catharsis, purgation, the sort of thing you go to the theatre for? They were the most useless, pointless establishments imaginable.”[8]
In short, the extreme horror of Auschwitz did not make it into a place which purifies its surviving victims into ethically sensitive subjects who got rid of all petty egotistic interests; on the contrary, part of the horror of Auschwitz was that it also dehumanized many of its victims, transforming them into brutal insensitive survivors, making it impossible for them to practice the art of balanced ethical judgment. The lesson to be drawn here is a very depressing one: we have to abandon the idea that there is something emancipatory in extreme experiences, that they enable us to clear the mess and open our eyes to the ultimate truth of a situation. Or, as Arthur Koestler, the great anti-Communist convert, put it concisely: “If power corrupts, the reverse is also true; persecution corrupts the victims, though perhaps in subtler and more tragic ways.”

NOW is the time to insist on equal treatment and to address the same critical questions to Russia and to the West. Yes, we are all now Ukrainians – in the sense that every nation has the right to defend itself like Ukraine does.

[1] Boris Groys, quoted from The Cold War between the Medium and the Message: Western Modernism vs. Socialist Realism – Journal #104 November 2019 – e-flux. In my description, I rely heavily on Groys’s text.

[2] Quoted from Groys, op.cit.

[3] Quoted from op.cit.

[4] One should mention here another surprising exception: Irving Reis’s Crack-Up, a noir from 1946 in which the elite proponents of modern non-realist art are presented as corrupted Fascist villains who aim at confusing masses of ordinary people; the film’s hero is an art critic who attacks modern art and defends the taste of ordinary people.

[5] Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, London: Penguin 2002.

[6] Robert B. Pippin, After the Beautiful: Hegel and the Philosophy of Pictorial Modernism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), p. 69.

[7] I resume here my argumentation from chapter 4 of Disparities, London: Bloomsbury Press 2016.

[8] Ruth Klüger, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered, New York: The Feminist Press 2003, p. 189.

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