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Radicalism as Ego Ideal: Oedipus and Narcissus

When the 2008 Berlin Biennale was being discussed, a mood of friendly disappointment prevailed among critics, which had less to do with individual works and the eternal problems of the Biennale than it did with a perceived absence of struggle and aggression throughout the Biennale in general. Critics found the young artists’ positions too well behaved. In the Tageszeitung, Brigitte Werneburg wrote:

You draw your own conclusions as you leave the exhibition, in this case that it was the work of overachievers. Those model students who always do everything right, who are out to please the teacher or professor and eagerly note down whatever is on the agenda in terms of topics, methods, materials, and theory.[footnote Brigitte Werneburg, “Lieber artig als großartig” Tageszeitung, April 5, 2008. See .]

This wasn’t the first time the older generation—that is, my generation, more or less: the fifty-year-olds, give or take ten years—had accused a younger generation of not being revolutionary, critical, or aggressive enough.[footnote Brigitte Werneburg, “Lieber artig als großartig” Tageszeitung, April 5, 2008. See .] But those who make accusations like these rarely consider the fact that a truly radical, fundamental critique—if it is to be in step with a new era and do more than simply reiterate the critique formulated by the previous generation—cannot possibly be understood by the older generation. And in addition to that, the older generation is already well acquainted with the repertoire of the previous generation failing to understand a certain new youthful vehemence. According to our own notion of radicalism, the radicalism of the young should fly beneath our cognitive threshold.

Of course, in another sense, this is ridiculous. How could anything that does not concern everyone possibly be radical? And where does the fetish for radicalism in art come from? How is it that an impulse that was originally called radical—a justified impulse to carry the autonomy of art to extremes, to see it as an opportunity for a fundamental critique of, or even attack on, society—degenerate into a mere fetish?

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