It is what it is: the failure of culture in the face of imminent rise of fascism
In a short text that perhaps had an air of deliberate pretention of “didn't I tell you? Now see what happened” Liam Gillick argued how “[T]he cultural elite in Britain failed to address the real stresses of Europe and counter them with good arguments.” The text in its self-righteousness demanded a response. It was written in a tone that encouraged a reaction from the reader, that asked for a counter argument, a debate; the author, essentially asked to be attacked. Perhaps it was asking all of those cultural elite who before the Brexit vote came out with proclamations such as ““We [heart] EU”, “What is lost is lost forever”, or “We are the European family,” my personal favorite was “Baby its cold out there,” to engage in a dialogue, to come up with something more than cliché humanistic aphorisms that are only as good as the many likes they receive on social media. Perhaps we should attack Gillick and to start a debate on how we have failed and continue to fail.
It seems like the ideological inconsequentiality of the art space politics, is now defining the direction of our political and social life. While the art space is compensating for the representational politics in its designated space, without offering it any challenges whatsoever, all to the benefit of the right wing ideology through vacating the political-sphere from the burden of accountability – be it economical, racial and sexual inequalities – the right wing ideologues further attack art’s inconsequentiality in terms of quantifiable outcomes and limit its access to national and subsidized financial resources.
While the first decade of 21st century was marked by a self-reflexive turn in the arts that acknowledged the complicity of contemporary art post-globalization in the expansion of the forces of capital and global inequality which confronted the audience with their privileged neutrality by using the parameters of the art space, now we are in an era that the reflexivity has become the basin where artists and institutions merely wash their hands clean and walk to the vernissage dinner self-content. The issue nowadays is not a lack of reflexivity – there is an over abundance of it– rather what to do with it. The catchphrase of our post-reflexivity moment is “it is what it is.”
In the morning after Brexit, most progressive friends on social media were quick to point to leave voters xenophobia and fascism, bemoaning the impending disintegration of the
European Union, talking about Frexit and Oexit exit, Nexit and Italian exit, as if directly echoing and stirring the right wing media demagogues. Aggressively self-othering and insisting on their identity differences rather than on shared anxieties, fears and alliances. Calling the leavers xenophobic and racist so they could go on feeling good about their progressive cosmopolitanism. Fascism harvests and reaps the nascent racisms it to its own benefit and to further social polarization only contributes to its ascend.
As Gillick points out they did not and do not respond to the left wing critique of the EU, that “[it] is not – and cannot become – a democracy. Instead, it provides the most hospitable ecosystem in the developed world for rentier monopoly corporations, tax-dodging elites and organized crime. It has an executive so powerful it could crush the leftwing government of Greece.” As for the art institutions, it appeared that the most significant aspect of Union was the multinational granting possibilities, that in return turns them into touring corporations that contribute to the art world star system. My limited exposure to this was how in at least two occasions we were almost bullied into collaboration with European institutions so that they could qualify for EU grants by giving us the chump change in return. Even though there were absolutely no connection between our context and project with what they had in mind for the artists.
It is hard not to see the similarities between the current moment and 2012 when the passionate seculars and educated intellectuals were quick to scream hardline Islamist, after Western media and governments’ reluctant and rather dismissive acknowledgement of the –however hastily and arguably fraud – elected government, and neutrally supported, if not rallied behind the ‘secular’ military takeover of hard won democracy. We are quick to point the finger: Islamists! Fascists!
How can we respond to the disenfranchisement of the blue-collar worker? to the outsourcing of jobs to multinational sweatshops of the monopoly corporations? to the taxdodging financial elite and the rising tax burden of the middle and lower middle class?
How can we respond to the rising Islamophobia when we are quick to shout Islamist at the elected government? The right demagogues can successfully channel the indignations of the disenfranchised Caucasians, how can the left leaning cultural elite respond to their anxieties without name-calling?
In Los Angeles two new downtown art spaces – a museum and an Institute for Contemporary Art (former Santa Monica Museum) – have announced construction plans. Ironically, while both funded by the most ferocious developers who are directly responsible for the displacement of the low-income residents of downtown LA, their preliminary programing is a line up the most progressive social practice artists. Thus underlining how the supposedly ideologically progressive wing of the art world contributes to the rampant neoliberalization of art and culture. If we are not ready to join the Verizon picket line, the least we can do is to say no to brazen gentrification, which is far more effective than making drawings of the placard holding picketers and make superficial associations between the labor of the artist’s hand the workers’ labor?
Art should fight against theory and unravel it to play out its outcomes negatively. It is not merely a space for the artist, the curator and the audience to congratulate themselves on their theoretical weightlifting, intelligence and progressive ideas. Rather it is a place for negative criticality, where theory is used not affirmatively, but as a measuring stone, where it is tested out if it can survive the blows of art. Critical art practice is a critique of critical theory. The permissive safety of art space is no longer the battleground for the avant-garde, but rather as Walter Benjamin wrote “forces which in the political sphere lead to fascism could be expected to have a beneficial function in the domain of art.” Art’s challenge is how to play out these forces and examine their functions. In other words, democracy cannot exist without art. This relationship however, is not dialectical.