The Illusion of Homogeneity

in Engqvist, J.H., New Småland, Arvinius + Orfeus Publishing and Linnaeus University Press, Stockholm.


Nya Småland was a program of conferences, seminars, residencies, workshops and international collaborations held between 2019-20 in Småland, a region situated among forests and lakes of southern of Sweden. It investigated questions of entrepreneurship and local production, notions of emigration and immigration and the relationship between the urban and the rural. 

The program was the culmination of a three-year collaboration initiated by four art institutions (Kalmar Konstmuseum, Kulturparken Småland, Vandalorum and Växjö Konsthall), the three Småland counties (Jönköping, Kalmar, Kronoberg) and Linnæus University. It was curated by Jonatan Habib Engqvist and Mike Bode.

Buy the book here.

The artworld came to Romania after a long period of isolation and generalized suspicion: the 1980s are to most intellectuals the retina image of totalitarianism, with their queueing for food, interdiction to travel, and mutual spying. This is the class which concerns us here, because they are the ones who benefited from the entrance on the scene of Soros, ProHelvetia, and all the other foreign cultural institutes who started to hand out project money to anyone willing to shed all interest in addressing local art forms and embrace new media, institutional critique, or any other such hashtag which spelled development.

The sharp separation on the 90s art scene between neo-orthodox painting and new media art was a desired mapping by these foreign foundations. What is more, their agenda included totally obscuring the different strategies of surviving the intellectual isolation and poverty of the previous decade, which leaned more towards the spiritual-religious than the critical.

One religious artist, previously dabbling in neo-expressionist painting and conceptual installations in the 70s, said of the 80s: people would come and thank me after seeing my shows, telling me that my art kept their spirit alive. Hard to believe if one has grown up in the 2000s: to her, people who would become ‘contemporary artists’ in the 90s were the true keepers of faith. But years later, if one looked for them in the memories of other people, one could only say: they were all absent. There was no one there, from either camp. Where did a whole generation disappear for an entire decade? Well: they were all hiding quietly in their studios and apartments, making subtle introspective art with one hand, whilst receiving their commission money from the artists’ union with the other. Everyone had been systematically bought out, clearing the way for the only true artist, the total work of art, as Groys would later say. Only one thing remained from the 80s: the House of People. The artists who were popping their head out after the revolution, claiming they had also been active during that time, and who are now comfortably seated in all the director’s fauteuils available or specially created, failed miserably at gaining the trust of those arriving on the scene in the following decade.

But what arrests the attention whilst thinking of these survival strategies in the last decade of totalitarianism is that they are ultimately identical. Whether the artists were making blatantly religious art or abstract drawings or ‘the first happenings’, after the audience was taken away from them, they were left with a single subject matter: their own soul. All their work dealt with the possibility of a reality beyond the experienced one, and which could be communicated at least to one other person. The dictatorship had forever destroyed communality. When the foreign foundations came and started drawing lines in the small scene, the chosen ones were those who accepted to forget these attempts at soul-searching and turn to a form completely alien to us: critical art.

The newly set up NGOs would be receiving free money from foreign banks to do critical art and theory. They would also be taught to beg for money from the state, under the form of grants covering fees but no permanent expenses. The agenda would be completely open, except that the direction had been inbuilt throughout the 90s and would never shift until this day. The competition was on for the most radical discourses, bringing to light instances of repression in modern Romanian history that would prove we have even more catching up to do with the west. Communities were to be built, but the entry exam was more difficult than a shamanic initiation and involved giving up blood and one’s own thinking. If it looked like a group would become powerful and relevant, appealing to more and more people, factions would appear, people claiming that the direction was not radical enough and a split or a purge were necessary. No group would grow large enough to reach people outside of the artworld, yet for those whose daily life consisted of exposing the real mechanisms of society and setting apart right from wrong, this would not be a drawback; at times perhaps, it would even seem that the real world, the world of people working on their farms or going to jobs in 20-storey buildings, was there only as a field of study for radical thinkers. A violent rupture would be required to understand what heights one had reached in the formatting process and how easily one was equating criticality with thinking. Even if one’s quest was spiritual, her actions were automatized, pulling her away from difficult questions. Criticality was a safe place where one could meet her mates for drinks and add to each other’s fine observations.

This is the concrete mechanism through which communality, which had been destroyed by totalitarianism, was made sure never to return. Communality is the intuition that participating in the common good is not only non-inimical to the individual good, it is precisely what makes the latter possible. The reality however is that decades of institutionalized mutual suspicion have shrunk reality to such small cells that these can ultimately only contain a percentage of the self, and definitely not the organs of emotional intelligence. The most educated people rival with thugs to put out their gang members, whilst giving speeches about the primacy of the family. The fight is not for ideals, but for resources; these are deliberately so reduced that every single pion on the board believes it is their duty to ensure that they have a part in the feast. What is more, the resources are free. Yes, free. One is given project money, a space, an exhibition venue. One only has to write an application and a report.

*

This short story with predictable ending about the state of the artworld as realm of the critical, set in present-day Romania, is but a slice of a bigger farce. Locally, it represents a tiny world within a 30-years cycle of protests instigated periodically as part of the politics of durable disorder used to control and profit from regions which are politically and economically not stable enough to respond coherently. Globally, it is in perfect synch with a world no longer divided along national borders and differently-prefixed developments: a world where neo-liberalism has long spoken the idiom of the left, whilst the latter has become a lifestyle accessible to the select few, living their autarkic lives in city-center condos or on Twitter. The extreme power of the financial capitalists-cum-politicians, who rule with impunity over almost 8 billion people, is in no way challenged by the discourse of the cultural elites, who are at best moving words across cyberspace in order to better mirror their interesting and fashionable discoveries: one day it’s Rosa Luxemburg, next day it’s the matriarchal Malayalam society, yet another time it’s Reggaeton, all empowering, all progressive, all cutting edge and most importantly, all superficially understood. The 1% does indeed speak the same language and mean the same thing; that cannot be said of the cultural elites: they all speak the language of criticism only to better obscure the fact that they cannot understand each other unless they use the mediating and flattening effect of this pseudo-scientific discourse. This class displays no curiosity for the experience either of others in the same class, or of those outside of it and perceived as deprived of the right tools.

The artworld, essentially a financial mechanism from the portfolio of a handful of extremely rich individuals, operates using the cultural class, which serves its interests perfectly. Not only are the cultural elites able to circulate value, they additionally reinforce, through criticality, the status quo, by deconstructing any possibility of resistance and making sure that no honest attempt at destabilizing the grid acquires any relevance. The basic mechanism of the artworld is to absorb and circulate handpicked references, ideally drawn from the history of resistance, in order for these to be quickly and irremediably flattened, aestheticized and ultimately forgotten, like any fad. In practice, all those performing the position of art critics with a voice are on the payroll of this small group of super powerful people; they live by sucking out the blood of any fresh apparition and ensure the unimpeded and one-directional flow of symbolic capital.

The artworld is thus a predictable space, self-absorbed and essentially antagonistic to whatever definition one might have for the practice of art. In fact, it is the last place where one would find creativity, sincerity, curiosity or any such characteristics usually associated with art making. It is indeed the breeding place of criticality, a dusty idiom which has long been the supporting discourse of power, now able just to jump with indignation at the sight of any kind of non-rational proposition. It is the boring space of correctness disguised as radicality, of segregation wrapped up as solidarity. It is the dangerous space of a claimed community in which death lurks behind fantasies of disembodiment, where those who cannot afford to buy their way in can only enter the pantheon posthumously, but necessarily young. It is a space which has long considered as its duty the promotion of the ideal society, which at least since the 1950s has been taken to signify the ‘fluid’ / ‘networked’ / ‘accelerated’ world of global financial capitalism. An ideal pendant to modernity, criticality has never created the space for its other. Coolness is conservative fear dressed in black .

One is forgiven to remember at this point the handful of honest thinkers living in the shadow of the left, battling with the demise of criticality which they understood as the mechanism for unveiling the truth and accessing the genealogy of thought. Sociologically and economically, these people are outsiders, driven by different goals and for whom criticality is both an idiom they must learn in order to enter the fortress and, until the moment of either their co-optation or their disaffection, a tool to signify the work towards a world that is more just. Looking at the extreme difficulty that grassroots left movements have had in the past years to be endorsed politically by the class which they are supposed to address, and keeping in mind the historical corruption of social democracy which has served as background to this demise, it is clear to even the most idealist revolutionary that this ideological universe has failed. Essentially, the issue of the political & intellectual left is no different from that of the artworld: it is a lifestyle, a badge of hipness, a code to keep away those deemed insufficient for whatever reason, a jealously guarded ‘safe space’ ruled by internal cruelty, complacent mediocrity and complete disregard for the outside. Even with the best intentions, it is difficult to break away individually from a powerful system designed to keep in check thinking as Arendt wanted it: dangerous and alive. Criticality has simply ousted any other type of thinking and become the only respectable – ‘real’ – mode of expression and formatting. It would be outrageous, for example, to use the vocabulary of vitalism to address climate change, since the correct mode has been set to talk of diversity, participation, activism, or ecology. Intellectuals from across the globe meet because they speak the language of criticality, in which they have been trained by reading the same books and same authors for decades already, at the expense of both thinkers who are emotionally closer to them and thinkers who are outside the canon because of the trouble they create if they are taken seriously. What do freedom, revolution, nation mean to sophisticated political formations that were fed Jacobinism or liberalism only as a side dish to their breakdown? Or, closer to our inquiries, what does art mean to creators of spiritual journeys or those driven to express their existence, following or not formulas? It is impressive that art today can only be ‘contemporary art’, the only grid to understand it being modernism, with its various alterations brought about in time.

From wherever one looks, and with no matter how much ingenuity, the picture is bleak. Inside the logic of [insert here: criticality / modernity / rationality / the left / etc.] thinking as such has been exhausted. The fantasy of purity & correctness and the refusal to contaminate one’s thought with ideas which have not received the seal of radicality have led the cultural elites to misunderstand, misappropriate and eventually harm the people for whom they claim to think. Inside the castle, the pure evil of ‘art as life’, more recently known as ‘performance’, has destroyed those prone to self-sacrifice and nestled with impunity the total control of contemporary bio-politics. Resistance of the non-elites, produced with tools which tend to deny the very precepts on which ‘workers movements’ are built, and that are often in complete suspicion of the ‘good people’, are questioned and eventually denied. (I can offer the example of massive anti-immigration protests in Assam, India, which represent a decades-long struggle against central Indian colonialism, and which are read by the leftist elites in this very center as a sign of bigotry and [sub-]nationalism.)

In this case, only one gesture can be trusted: a non-equivocal exit from the rarefied space of criticism and soy latte’s, and the humble entrance into the world which one claims to speak for. ‘Art as life’ needs to be blown up and on its ashes, people can build worlds where production is expression: where responses require that dangerous thinking which is already feeling and intuition. There are many such individuals living up to the exigency of life, who have exempted themselves from attention economy and lead an existence as part of an ecosystem they respect. They have turned their back on negative metaphysics, that impasse which is responsible for the ultimate reactionary turn of criticality, and invest their energy into creating new methods of dealing with reality. They do not have the arrogance to grow their thinking from abstraction, but strive to ground it in work. In such instances, criticality is toned down and infused with knowledge one gathers from trees, animals, children; with learnings from ancestors and those who work the land; with the actual experience of contributing to growing and making the everyday meals and having them as part of a group built on struggle, not on the sharing of political positions. Such choices may not seem viable to those trapped in the world of glitter and goodness, but the truth is there is happiness in this world.

[1] Sanjib Baruah, Durable Disorder, 2005, Oxford University Press.
[2] Bruce Mau, Incomplete Manifesto for Growth, 1998. Available online [accessed 3 May 2020].   

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