Eflux: On Art Activism by Boris Groys



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Aestheticization and the U-Turn

Thus, modern and contemporary art allows us to look at the historical period in which we live from the perspective of its end. The figure of Angelus Novus as described by Benjamin relies on the technique of artistic aestheticization as it was practiced by postrevolutionary European art.6 Here we have the classical description of philosophical metanoia, of the reversal of the gaze —Angelus Novus turns his back towards the future and looks back on the past and present. He still moves into the future—but backwards. Philosophy is impossible without this kind of metanoia, without this reversal of the gaze. Accordingly, the central philosophical question was and still is: How is philosophical metanoia possible? How does the philosopher turn his gaze from the future to the past and adopt a reflective, truly philosophical attitude towards the world? In older times, the answer was given by religion: God (or gods) were believed to open to the human spirit the possibility of leaving the physical world—and looking back on it from a metaphysical position. Later, the opportunity for metanoia was offered by Hegelian philosophy: one could look back if one happened to be present at the end of history—at the moment when the further progress of the human Spirit became impossible. In our postmetaphysical age, the answer has been formulated mostly in vitalistic terms: one turns back if one reaches the limits of one’s own strength (Nietzsche), if one’s desire is repressed (Freud), or if one experiences the fear of death or the extreme boredom of existence (Heidegger).

But there is no indication of such a personal, existential turning point in Benjamin’s text—only a reference to modern art, to an image by Klee. Benjamin’s Angelus Novus turns his back to the future simply because he knows how to do it. He knows because he learned this technique from modern art—also from Marinetti. Today, the philosopher does not need any subjective turning point, any real event, any meeting with death or with something or somebody radically other. After the French Revolution, art developed techniques for defunctionalizing the status quo that were aptly described by the Russian Formalists as “reduction,” the “zero device,” and “defamiliarization.” In our time, the philosopher has only to take a look at modern art, and he or she will know what to do. And this is precisely what Benjamin did. Art teaches us how to practice metanoia, a U-turn on the road towards the future, on the road of progress. Not coincidentally, when Malevich gave a copy of one of his own books to poet Daniil Kharms, he inscribed it as follows: “Go and stop progress.”

And philosophy can learn not only horizontal metanoia—the U-turn on the road of progress—but also vertical metanoia: the reversal of upward mobility. In the Christian tradition, this reversal had the name “kenosis.” In this sense, modern and contemporary art practice can be called kenotic.

Indeed, traditionally, we associate art with a movement towards perfection. The artist is supposed to be creative. And to be creative means, of course, to bring into the world not only something new, but also something better—better functioning, better looking, more attractive. All these expectations make sense—but as I have already said, in today’s world, all of them are related to design and not to art. Modern and contemporary art wants to make things not better but worse—and not relatively worse but radically worse: to make dysfunctional things out of functional things, to betray expectations, to reveal the invisible presence of death where we tend to see only life.

This is why modern and contemporary art is not popular. It is not popular precisely because art goes against the normal way things are supposed to go. We are all aware of the fact that our civilization is based on inequality, but we tend to think that this inequality should be corrected by upward mobility—by letting people realize their talents, their gifts. In other words, we are ready to protest against the inequality dictated by the existing systems of power—but at the same time, we are ready to accept the notion of the unequal distribution of natural gifts and talents. However, it is obvious that the belief in natural gifts and creativity is the worst form of social Darwinism, biologism, and, actually, neoliberalism, with its notion of human capital. In his lectures on the “birth of biopolitics,” Michel Foucault stresses that the neoliberal concept of human capital has a utopian dimension—and constitutes, in fact, the utopian horizon of contemporary capitalism.7

As Foucault shows, the human being ceases here to be seen merely as labor power sold on the capitalist market. Instead, the individual becomes an owner of a nonalienated set of qualities, capabilities, and skills that are partially hereditary and innate, and partially produced by education and care—primarily from one’s own parents. In other words, we are speaking here about an original investment made by nature itself. The world “talent” expresses this relationship between nature and investment well enough—talent being a gift from nature and at the same time a certain sum of money. Here the utopian dimension of the neoliberal notion of human capital becomes clear enough. Participation in the economy loses its character of alienated and alienating work. The human being becomes a value in itself. And even more importantly, the notion of human capital, as Foucault shows, erases the opposition between consumer and producer—the opposition that risks tearing apart the human being under the standard conditions of capitalism. Foucault indicates that in terms of human capital, the consumer becomes a producer. The consumer produces his or her own satisfaction. And in this way, the consumer lets his or her human capital grow.8

G.U.L.F. Labor banknote designed by Noah Fischer for the Guggenheim protest of March 29th, 2013.

At the beginning of the 1970s, Joseph Beuys was inspired by the idea of human capital. In his famous Achberger Lectures that were published under the title Art=Capital(Kunst=Kapital), he argues that every economic activity should be understood as creative practice—so that everybody becomes an artist.9 Then the expanded notion of art (erweiterter Kunstbegriff) will coincide with the expanded notion of economy (erweiterter Oekonomiebegriff). Here Beuys tries to overcome the inequality that for him is symbolized by the difference between creative, artistic work and noncreative, alienated work. To say that everybody is an artist means for Beuys to introduce universal equality by means of the mobilization of those aspects and components of everyone’s human capital that remain hidden and inactive under standard market conditions. However, during the discussions that followed the lectures, it became clear that the attempt by Beuys to base social and economic equality on equality between artistic and nonartistic activity does not really function. The reason for this is simple: according to Beuys, a human being is creative because nature gave him/her the initial human capital—precisely the capacity to be creative. So art practice remains dependent on nature—and, thus, on the unequal distribution of natural gifts.

However, many leftist and Socialist theoreticians remained under the spell of the idea of upward mobility—be it individual or collective. This can be illustrated by a famous quote from the end of Leon Trotsky’s book Revolution and Literature:

Social construction and psychophysical self-education will become two aspects of the same process. All the arts—literature, drama, painting, music, and architecture will lend this process beautiful form … Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser, and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movement more rhythmic, his voice more musical … The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.10

It is this artistic, social, and political alpinism—in its bourgeois and Socialist forms—from which modern and contemporary art tries to save us. Modern art is made against the natural gift. It does not develop “human potential” but annuls it. It operates not by expansion but by reduction. Indeed, a genuine political transformation cannot be achieved according to the same logic of talent, effort, and competition on which the current market economy is based, but only by metanoia and kenosis—by a U-turn against the movement of progress, a U-turn against the pressure of upward mobility. Only in this way can we escape the pressure of our own gifts and talents, which enslaves and exhausts us by pushing us to climb one mountain after another. Only if we learn to aestheticize the lack of gifts as well as the presence of gifts, and thus not differentiate between victory and failure, do we escape the theoretical blockage that endangers contemporary art activism.

There is no doubt that we are living in a time of total aestheticization. This fact is often interpreted as a sign that we have reached a state after the end of history, or a state of total exhaustion that makes any further historical action impossible. However, as I have tried to show, the nexus between total aestheticization, the end of history, and the exhaustion of vital energies is illusionary. Using the lessons of modern and contemporary art, we are able to totally aestheticize the world—i.e., to see it as being already a corpse—without being necessarily situated at the end of history or at the end of our vital forces. One can aestheticize the world—and at the same time act within it. In fact, total aestheticization does not block political action; it enhances it. Total aestheticization means that we see the current status quo as already dead, already abolished. And it means further that every action that is directed towards the stabilization of the status quo will ultimately show itself as ineffective—and every action that is directed towards the destruction of the status quo will ultimately succeed. Thus, total aestheticization not only does not preclude political action; it creates an ultimate horizon for successful political action, if this action has a revolutionary perspective.