Satire, Critique, Provocation, Propaganda: Session 1
Writer, curator, and reader at the
Courtauld Institute of Art, London
Novelist and journalist
Professor of Art History,
Theory and Criticism, Maryland Institute College of Art
Artist and writer
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.
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.
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.
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.