The Chaos and Classicism exhibition is singularly well timed. Our continuing wars take many people back to reading and seeing those whose work was forged by the first European outing for total war—to Karl Kraus or Virginia Woolf, Otto Dix or Hannah Höch. Equally, the financial crisis, as its deep social consequences unfold before unbelieving eyes, cannot but summon parallels with the crash of 1929 and the prolonged depression that followed, dispatched finally only by the fiscal stimulus made necessary by another war.
Yet it is a strange experience reading, say, Woolf’s “Three Guineas” (1938) from the vantage point of the new century. In that essay, she argued, elegantly and brilliantly, that if the symbols of nation and the military were held up to ridicule—if we could only see how absurd the parades, the medals, the ostrich-feather plumes, the sashes, the rituals of the glorification of war were—they would lose their power, and we could be done with them. Our media environment is awash with satire, and there have been times, such as the 1960s counterculture, when satire and critique seemed predominant. Woolf’s thesis, then, seems to have been tried and to have failed. What other resources are open to us?
In his celebrated 1916 novel, Le Feu, Henri Barbusse described the ungraspable tangle of cloth, broken crockery, shards of metal, and mud that were the remains of a bombarded village in terms that evoked Cubist painting. But it was perhaps not only the chaos, filth, and abjection of the trenches that drove the common post-1918 urge for clean lines, classical forms, and economy of ornament in a remarkably broad movement not just across Germany, France, and Italy (as in Chaos and Classicism) but also with artistic and architectural work in Britain and the Soviet Union. Classical forms may also have been held to because of the unique character of the interwar period, in which liberal capitalism faced powerful challenges from both Right and Left, especially following 1929; in times of great uncertainty, art comforted with modern versions of the familiar.
If current art lacks that type of conformity, the contemporary art system has its own standards—not the least of which is an overt display of alienation and discomfort. Somehow this is found comforting, since contemporary art appears as a semiautonomous realm in which what is denied in the worlds of work and mass culture finds sanctuary: radical critique, utopian visions, even the spectral Left. This can only come about, of course, because of the lack of convincing and overarching alternatives to the global capitalist order. Even now, when the system is manifestly broken, a replacement seems hard to imagine. Žižek has recently remarked that it is harder to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the world. The provocations of groups such as the Yes Men acquire an artistic sheen because they seem quixotic and thus escape the status of political act or propaganda. Likewise, even those artists whose work seems to make overt political interventions (Regina José Galindo or Santiago Sierra, for example) deny that it has a political effect.
In this extreme situation, what role can there be for satire and critique, and can art bring itself closer to concrete political purposes?
Midnight flight from Santiago to Mexico City. I’ll type as long as I’m able to sustain some coherence.
Over a glass of good Chilean cabernet at an airport bar, I’ve just re-enjoyed Julian’s thought-provoking first post. I won’t be able to see the Chaos and Classicism exhibition before the end of this Forum. But here, in a Latin American context, some of the show’s underlying ideas, as explicated by Julian, resonate. Classicism, neoclassism, their relation to “symbols of nation and military” are deeply embedded in Latin American history and its political and cultural atmosphere in ways that at least somewhat parallel the uses to which those aesthetics have been employed in Europe, and specifically as highlighted by the show.
have just come from Buenos Aires, where the ongoing pomp over the
sudden death, from a heart attack, of the former president Néstor
Kirchner, who was also married to the current president, Cristina
Fernández, is once again exposing the shallowness of Argentinean
politics and especially of its long-dominant movement, Peronism. The old
kitschy, corny, unsubstantial emotional Peronist demagoguery, rooted in
a personality cult—Peron, Evita—that was itself something like a
castoff Mussolini wardrobe is now being transformed and manipulated into
the cult of Nelson and Cristina, an appropriately dinky
twenty-first-century version of the original, which was never much
better than nauseating anyway. “Nelson we will follow you anywhere” and
other such graffiti now adorns nearly every shabby wall of the rundown,
long-ago-spectacular capital, itself a classical dream and delusion of
European grandeur and power and wealth.
The Peronist party is busy investing in Cristina, dressing her as a new upscale sort of Evita, Our National Widow, and that alone seems enough to make it seem extremely likely that she will be invincible in next year’s presidential elections. What will people be voting for? Nobody seems sure. In early November in an address in Madrid, Kirchner barely in his grave, new Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa spoke even more harshly, blaming Peronism for what he termed Argentina’s permanent crisis and underdevelopment. So yes, we outsiders can see how ridiculous and destructive it all is. Apparently most Argentines—a country whose greatest artists, such as Borges, have been outspoken anti-Peronists—see something else. But it’s no surprise that most Argentines don’t see their country’s politics as Borges did or might have now, no surprise that there is no influential Borgesian idealism (I’d even say he possessed a generous democratic idealism, as any true librarian should) at work or even dormant in the country’s politics.
The seemingly apolitical Borges has much in common, I think, with the seemingly overtly political art of Regina José Galindo, who is also a poet, and who in my opinion is Guatemala’s greatest contemporary artist in any genre. As a reader and an art viewer, I experience them in a similar way. She is right to deny that her art has a political effect. I think if she had ever even considered that her art might serve some concrete political purpose, it would lose all its mystery and power and eloquence. More on that in the next post. Am going to try to get some sleep now.
As a scholar whose work investigates the role of tradition in modern and contemporary art, it seems to me that references to the classical, often in the form of satire or critique, have figured prominently in postwar art, and especially in art of the past thirty years. Appropriation, citation, and pastiche—the tried-and-true strategies of artists in the trenches of the culture wars—certainly drew on the language of the classical, oftentimes inverting its actual or perceived conservatism for their own ends.
Consider, for example, the works of Robert
Mapplethorpe and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who used classical art and
culture in literal and metaphorical ways to critique assumptions about
sexuality and gender. The sculpted bodies of Mapplethorpe’s photographs
and the mythological references and frieze-like word portraits of
Gonzalez-Torres cast retrospective glances at art history while
advancing politics. In short, they were able to recalibrate assumptions
about the classical as they worked through (and against) the idiom.
Likewise, the self-portrait busts of Janine Antoni in materials as
unexpected as chocolate and soap undermined assumptions about the
stability of classical iconography and its relevance for contemporary
identity. For Fred Wilson, the classical body became a conduit of
critique, highlighting the flawed (and failed) promises not only of
classical art but also of the institutions that enabled and sustained
its pervasive power in sculptural installations that literally toppled
the heads of Greek and Roman mythological figures.
The classical tradition remains poised to serve as a springboard for political, social, and art-institutional critiques today; a classical infrastructure underpins the language of criticism and theory from the interwar period to the present. The psychoanalytic writings of Freud, Jung, and Lacan and the more philosophical viewpoints offered by theorists such as Barthes, Blanchot, and Cixous invoke classical narratives, relying on the tales of Narcissus and Orpheus, Oedipus and Medusa, to name but a few examples. Contemporary artists share this affinity for the classical tradition as both subject matter and strategy. And yet the significance of classical subject matter is too seldom brought to bear on contemporary art. The classical’s myriad forms of expression stand to act as powerful interventions in an everyday culture of continuous punditry and news cycles precisely by conflating them with enduring extensions of the past.
Further, while the classical remains squarely situated as a phenomenon of art in the West, it is increasingly valuable as a lens through which to view contemporary art emerging from a global perspective, art itself replete with connections to and critiques of the classical tradition. Artists as varied as Yinka Shonibare, Yayoi Kusama, and Oscar Muñoz reproduce classical models as a means of challenging their conceits. Being critical of the “extreme situation” today—not only of politics and the economy but also of religion and culture—may in fact demand a synthetic investigation of the materials, meanings, and geography of the humanist tradition, one that evaluates anew the potential of the classical and its permutations in contemporary societies.
Thanks, Julian, for your remarks. But I hardly know what it means to claim that the system is broken; your own thoughts and the cited ones of Žižek both suggest the contrary. The global capitalist order flops from one crisis to another and yet shows no sign of truly faltering. If, as Žižek suggests, the Left is not capable of plotting its demise, that could be because we have yet to see the emergence of a historical actor to replace the one Marx posited, the international industrial proletariat. (An irony is that the largest sector of the contemporary global proletariat is in China, the only successful existing state that calls itself communist—but it might better be described as a postcommunist command economy looking to liberalize its social sector.) I wonder, too, what causes you to suggest that either Galindo or Sierra’s work makes political interventions, as opposed to producing symbolic acts within prominent and well-understood institutional frameworks. I also find them to be of opposite polarities in regard to the meaning of their work, although my knowledge of Galindo’s is quite limited.
regard to your question “In this extreme situation, what role can there
be for satire and critique, and can art bring itself closer to concrete
political purposes?” I would note that satire and critique are presently
quite active in mass culture, for example in late-night talk shows, to
direct political effect in Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. You seem to write
off the Yes Men and similar groups, even though they operate in a wider
world than either Galindo or Sierra. The Yes Men work in the performative
mode that aims to create a ruckus in the real world, a long tradition
that emanates from, but does not remain in, theatrical or avant-garde
art milieus. The Yes Men are artists, albeit ones operating outside the
bricks-and-mortar frames of the art world.
Finally, I haven’t yet seen Chaos and Classicism and unfortunately cannot do so until I return from traveling, but I do have a response to the show’s title as you explicate it. I do not see the world-historical moment as one of chaos but rather as part of a process of rapid transformations involving more or less localized upheavals. But I can believe that a great many members of the elite are more than uncertain about the present and the future, in an unsettled situation they interpret as chaos, and it strikes me as reasonable that in chaotic times, elites strive for classical expressions, conveying balance, order, and that which is always already known. But I am more interested in the classicism embraced by the present art world, which is the classicism of aesthetic remove via a neo-Kantianism that denies the double role of art as both aesthetic address and as political, albeit symbolic, behavior. By and large it may be fair to characterize art as being stuck at alienation and discomfort, but that is a symptom, an institutional marker emanating from museums and galleries (and thus the market and funders) rather than from artists. This attitude, in other words, is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and being stuck in twentieth-century modernist expressions of alienation strikes me as an offering of weak tea; is that the best we can do?