“...nor promise that they would become in general by learning criticism, more useful, happier or wiser.”
—SAMUEL JOHNSON, Preface to Shakespeare
Like any other human activity, art has always had a relationship with politics, and by extension and as an inevitable process, with the ethical and the social. As political and social animals as we are (“Zoon Politikon”)—following Aristotle’s thoughts in the “Nicomachean Ethics”—we are in need of norms and principles that can implicit and explicit regulate our daily-life. In this order of ideas, it is impossible to think about any social existence outside an ethos, given that nothing escapes the social and legal normativity that shapes all our activities. Thus, anything we do is political, and this is what differentiates us from the Homo sapiens, following Aristotle’s notion.
Ethos derives from the Greek ēthos, nature, disposition, customs, and the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the characteristic spirit of a culture, era, or community as manifested in its attitudes and aspirations defines it”. We can interpret this definition from its reverse as it follows: What an individual and a society might consider as “attitudes and aspirations” is nothing more than the manifestation of an absence. “Although some of these regulations may have a distant origin in our natural needs, such as those that have to do with altruism and solidarity, the fact of specifying an ethos is one of the main factors that distinguish us from the rest of living animals. The ethos replaces our lack of instincts and regulates and orders in each culture the individual, collective and social practices, including the artistic ones.”Gerard Vilar | Precariedad, estética y política | Círculo Rojo Kindle Edition | 2017 | Translated by the author.
Knowing that we are living in times of image industries and information agencies (corporate, governmental or illegal), that surveil, regulate and lead our affections with enormous power, it is necessary to promote and ensure the democratic “distribution of the sensible”. In this matter, the French philosopher Jacques Rancière calls for the activation of the spectator beyond the mere act of awareness, given that “aesthetic acts are configurations of experience that create new modes of sense perception and induce novel forms of political subjectivity”.Jacques Rancière | Aesthetics and its Discontents | Polity Press | 2009
However, even if we consider Rancière’s program necessary and essential given the actual state of culture and politics, some questions arise. To whom should the sensible be distributed? What kind of culture or ‘sensible’ should be taught, the one invented and promoted by the government, the market or corporations? Or should we keep on promoting the “good-old” bourgeois culture? And last but not least: what kind of role should artists play in the act of creating and promoting awareness through the sensible?
“There is an idea common to all of us: that the worst of the world‘s ills is poverty, therefore the culture of the humblest classes must be replaced by that of the ruling classes, and history cannot be more than bourgeois history. We are currently witnessing a ‘realistic’ acceptance of the status quo. We think that in any case, it is always preferable for people to learn and be educated in this bourgeois history than not doing it at all. We will say that it is better for people to read books or go to museums to stop doing so. This is, however, a guilty manoeuvre, useful to calm consciences and move on.”Manuel Borja-Villel | La rebelión del espectador | Periódico ABC España | 02.05.2009 | Translated by the author.
Nowadays, addressing the notion of the people, due to its complexity and historical content, requires high sensitivity and care. On behalf of “the people”, atrocities and injustices have been and continue to be committed. The use of this abstraction, for instance, sums up the horrors of a not so distant and still living fascism. Already in the early twentieth century, Fritz Mauthner’s “Critique Of Language” “was a reaction against the political witchcraft he saw being exercise all around him by the use of such grandiose abstract terms such as Volk and Geist”Allan Janik &S tephen Toulmin | Wittgenstein’s Vienna | Touchstone | 1973. So it was Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “ Tractatus Logico–Philosophicus”: a
critique to the predominant values and culture of its time.
Contemporary post-politics is showing us that political parties, and above all, right-wing leaders around the world are, once again, using and promoting this category as a means for creating a bond of identification with their supporters, with the deluded, afraid and insecure majorities. That is why they are making emphasis in the clear distinction on who belongs to their land, which shares the same history, identity, values and even blood, just as it was done by the fascist regimes during the decades of the 1920s and 1930s.
When addressing the notion of Das Volk, it is impossible to omit Hans Haacke‘s installation of the year 2000 at the Berlin Reichstag: “Der Bevölkerung”. With this piece, Haacke reminds us of how sensible and necessary is the correct use of terms when assuming political positions. The work establishes, from a vindicatory perspective, a critical dialogue with the frontispiece of the old Reichstag building where it reads: Dem Deutschen Volke, that is to say “[Dedicated] to the German people”. Haacke contrasts Volk (the people) with Bevölkerung (population), a distinction based on text from Bertolt Brecht from 1935:
“In our times anyone who says population instead of people or race, and privately owned land instead of soil, is by that simple act withdrawing his support from great many lies. He is taking away from these words their rotten, mystical implications. The word people (Volk) implies a certain unity and certain common interests; it should, therefore, be used only when we are speaking of a number of people, for then alone is anything like community of interest conceivable. The population of a given territory may have a good many different and even opposed interests—and this is a truth that is being suppressed.”Bertolt Brecht | Fünf Schwierigkeiten beim Schreiben der Wahrheit | 1935 | Translated by the author.
PUBLIC SPHERE AND CITIZENSHIP
Hannah Arendt, on the other hand, developed the concept of citizenship around the idea of public sphere. She makes emphasis on the relationship between collective identity and political agency in the construction of a theory of democratic citizenship—radical if the case. However, this concept entails great challenges, questions and impossibilities, due to the actual state of national and international affairs, where diverse political agents play not only a national but also a post-national and supranational role. Furthermore, and going back to the core of the term: what is it and what exactly entails to have, and most of all, to exercise a (national) citizenship, when it has been being redefined and vigorously defended as a privilege and not as a right by populist right-wing politicians? Moreover, what does it mean, for instance, political equality in times where the spatial and artificial quality (Arendt) is being dissolved? “Certainly, we need new accounts of citizenship, ones that aim to take the full measure of neoliberalism, perhaps along the lines of the citizen of Europe proposed by Habermas or, even more broadly, of the citizen of the Anthropocene suggested by Latour.”Bertolt Brecht | Fünf Schwierigkeiten beim Schreiben der Wahrheit | 1935 | Translated by the author.
It is evident that the social bond is as pressured as the social sphere. The latter, if not dissolved, is under enormous strain and atrophied, and it depends more and more on system integration—just as Talcott Parsons suggested as possible. This means that social integration nowadays is relying on big data and on old and new mechanisms of surveillance to don’t collapse. Thus, criteria more robust and active than discursivity and sociability are required in response to the lack of social and political compromise.
Under this scenario, what art and aesthetics can do is to create critical content that can go beyond the mere act of triggering awareness, given that critical positions are essential for rescuing the idea and practice of public sphere. Criticism, as Hal Foster suggests, has to be considered as the (social) sphere in action. In this regard, Jügern Habermas, in the text “Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit”, reminds us about the value of argumentation and discussion at the time when the public (sphere) was being built, and the power to create common sense based on the confrontation between public and private interests. In this regard, discussion is essential for the development and consolidation of the social sphere. That is why it should return to the public arena and not rely entirely on the freedom offered by social media platforms and use of data.
Critical theory did not go well in the culture wars since the 1980s. The weakening, discrediting and almost disappearing off the left, and the subsequent use of its concepts for the benefit of the conservative thought, caused it to lose its discursive and disruptive power, and most of all, its credibility. Today, criticality is frequently dismissed as “old school”, dissolved into air. However, the concepts and the critical tradition are not obsolete, they still have validity and functionality, as Rancière and Latour insist, and this can be seen in the arguments of those who deny it. In this sense, critical art based on cynical reason can be a way, perhaps the last option, to save social and cultural critique from its reification.
Art practices based on the actual state of critical theory must talk from and about the bad new days, not from the good old ones, as Brecht encouraged us to do. The idea that a single person is capable of embodying the whole of a society is not just part of an isolated artistic and poetic idea coming from William Shakespeare, Louis Stevenson, Hermann Hesse or Jorge Luis Borges.
As we know it from Sigmund Freud, the id is contingent and also multiple; it is historical, as Karl Marx and Michel Foucault revealed; and it is always, as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel suggested, a we. Self-critical pieces can be framed in the critical tradition, given that they move between the thin structures of fetishism and anti-fetishism critique that constitutes individuals and society. In this regard, it is essential to have in mind that “fetishisation involves two operations above all, a misplace of value or agency, as understood by Marx in his account of commodity fetishism, and a blocking of perception of knowledge, as emphasised by Freud in his account on sexual fetishism.”Hal Foster | Bad New Days | Verso | 2017
These two perspectives, or better to say, this dialectic process, can be acknowledged in the actions of recognition and disavowal, Brecht’s principle of alienation effect. “I know exploited workers produced this commodity, nevertheless it appears immaculate and beautiful to me;” “I know my mother lack a penis, nevertheless I deny this traumatic absence.” This Je sais, mais quand même (“I know, but nevertheless”), responds to an act of cynical reason that confirms an ant-fetishistic attitude. Peter Sloterdjik, in his text “Critique of Cynical Reason”, suggests that usually, the problem is not that truths are hidden but that many are too obvious, so they arrive too self-evident, blocking any response, identification and even produce refusal or denial.Peter Sloterdijk | Critique of Cynical Reason | University of Minnesota Press | 1987
Impossible not to think about Martha Rosler’s series from the 1970s “Bringing the War Home” as a visual and discursive referent. Her photomontages combined images of America’s middle-class domestic interiors with images of the Vietnam War. The pieces combined images of America’s middle-class domestic, unpolluted and perfectly idealised interiors, with the cruel and terrifying reality of images of the war in Vietnam. The act of revealing and playing with well-known images—already placed in the imaginary of western societies, and clearly antagonistic in their content—can be perceived as an act of cynical criticism. This critical procedure, therefore, aims to have a double effect: on the one hand, it seeks to create awareness of the hidden reality of the system of domination; and on the other hand, it seeks to trigger a feeling of guilt and complicity with the system itself, reflected in the act of denial expressed in “I know, but nevertheless”. This kind of actions, as in Martha Rosler’s photomontages, “accentuates the heterogeneity of the elements and it ‘couldn’t be integrated into the beautiful interior without exploding it”.Peter Sloterdijk | Critique of Cynical Reason | University of Minnesota Press | 1987
Thus, the power of a self-critical practice, which denounces injustices and contradictions in our society via cynicism, does not lie in the possible act of identification that the spectator could have with what the artist is exposing. “Artistic critique therefore always proposes to generate the short-circuit and clash that reveal the secret concealed by the exhibition of images [...] it is always a question of showing the spectator what she does not know how to see and making her feel ashamed of what she does not want to see, even if it means that the critical system presents itself as a luxury commodity pertaining to the very logic it denounces.”Jacques Rancière | The Emancipated Spectator | Verso | 2011 If this is the case, it would is effortless and unnecessary to reduce the work and its discourse to a mere “preaching to the choir”.
In this order of ideas, we might understand critical art based on cynical reason as a personal and intimate reflection no exempt of moralism. That is to say: the artist thinking aloud, questioning her relationship with the artworld and the politics of her time, with her environment, with the society of which she belongs. If we believe that the intention of an artist is to make us reflect and say, “yes, I am also that person”, “I also behave like that”, or “we are just like her”, we are reducing, ignoring and omitting and consciously denying a reality that is present in the day to day of our lives. To pretend that we have to affirm or that our judgement has to be consequent with the artist and the piece will make us not only accomplices but also it will show that we are not able to see beyond the appearances.
We should let the artist live with those doubts, with the weight of knowing herself to be conscious and critical, to be cynical and moralist if the case. We also have to consider the fact that most contemporary artists come from middle-class families and have an affluent life in comparison with the majority of population. This reality shows clearly that we are not all equal, that exist substantial differences to be taken into account when we want to identify ourselves with “the other(s)” when we want to be the voice and see ourselves as not only part of a community, but as it saviour.
This kind of pieces and attitude remind us that to wish to engage the spectator’s awareness via cynicism implies an act of recognition for both the artist and the spectator. It is a fetishist mirror where we can recognise and enjoy ourselves; it is to exercise the privilege of being in a secure and comfortable institutionalised space from where we can be critical while remaining sat; it shows us the impossibilities of becoming a better person within the limits of a private sphere.
Ever since art emancipated itself from the influence of the church and the interests of the state and the bourgeoisie, it has seemed to wander without a function, while attempts to provide it with on by philosophers, the historical and neo-avant-garde movements and former and new populists regimes, have failed. However, this has been art’s essential characteristic since it gained its autonomy: the impossibility to be reduced to a mere instrument of ideology.
One of Adorno’s most persistent ideas is that an artwork is the place of the non-identical, impossible to be dominated and subsumed. This is precisely what gives art its irreducible value, in a world in which everything tends to be instrumentalised and homogenised. Artists, always interested and pressured to create something new, seemed unable to provide a raison d’être beyond art’s autonomy. Although they would like to produce something “socially valuable”, they succumb over and over to the forces of the market and ideology that seek to reify every single aspect of our daily life. Thus, is inevitable to not have in mind the opening lines of Theodor W. Adorno’s “Aesthetic Theory”: “It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist.” This could be interpreted beyond Hegel’s perspective: art has no (social) function, either because it has achieved its historical mission or because its meaning has been lost.
“Artists, philosophers, critics and the public have often considered art’s unbridled freedom a mixed blessing: the lack of guiding principles and the sense that ‘anything goes’ raise questions about the value, function and responsibility of art in society. This is precisely why the same question comes up again and again in the course of modernity: Why art?”Thijs Lijster | Amsterdam University Press | Benjamin and Adorno: On Art and Criticism | 2017 The reality is that we are facing a fragmented and constantly changing public sphere, and an entity such as the public of contemporary art does not exist any longer as it was imagined by the avant-garde and neo-avant-garde movements. Nowadays we can talk about “public”, “post-public” and “counter-public”—this being another evidence of art’s dissemination and plurality.
Artists, artworks, curators, critics and publications must create their public. They have to build it at every moment since it is not given. Thus, the traditional idea of audience is definitely disappearing. “As a consequence of this, when the contemporary artist tries to open up to wider audiences and to a reception that is not exclusively of insiders and aware, then it is when she perceives the limits of her relationship with the public sphere and the precariousness of an art that depends on experts or minorities, very willing to make the efforts that today’s art usually demands, compared to the majority of indolent consumers.”Gerard Vilar | Precariedad, estética y política | Círculo Rojo Kindle Edition | 2017 | Translated by the author.
This condition is not negative for the artworld per se, on the contrary: it offers the possibility for reaching a wider public, to promote art’s values in sectors of our society where socio-economic and educational conditions are not optimal for understanding art practices in particular, and cultural values in general, that are based still on traditional bourgeois narratives and myths. This precariousness of concepts, narratives and conditions for production and reception of art is, in short, a space, a crack in the given order that should be exploited and strengthen; a possibility for the promotion of progressive values in spaces where is really needed in times of populism—given the case that art has to have a social function.
What is left is the possibility to “travel light”, as Wittgenstein suggested. This means: not compromising oneself with moral and political positions, to avoid worldly entanglements, given that criticism per se will neither make us wiser nor useful or happy.