Cultural Marxism and “Ironic” Fascism

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Due to underfunding and understaffing at Afterall, it does not look as thought the Art and Autonomy reader I’ve edited will ever see the light of day. The manuscript (which I worked on with a number of editorial collaborators and research assistants: John Byrne,  Noortje de Leij, Jeroen Boomgaard, Kim Kannler, Lara Garcia Diaz and Glorian Göttke) was originally submitted four years ago, in August of 2014, and it’s spent most of its time since then in development hell. This is not the only contribution to the planned restart of Afterall’s “Critical Reader” series to which this has happened.

The Afterall journal is going strong, however. The Autumn/Winter 2018 issue contains my essay “Cultural Marxists Like Us,” which examines a key feature of alt-right and neofascist discourse: the notion that a sinister conspiracy of “Cultural Marxists” has been brainwashing impressionable youngsters since the 1960s at least. Its origins are usually identified with Critical Theory the Frankfurt School, whose protagonists were conventiently Jewish. After all, it’s always a plus if you can incorporate The Jews in your conspiracy theory—and it’s even better when you have plausible deniability.

In his recent open letter explaining his withdrawal from the 2018 Athens Biennale, the artist Luke Turner describes having “had multiple white supremacists turn up on my doorstep—in some cases equipped with firearms—in both the USA and Europe, carrying ‘Smash Cultural Marxism’, ‘Kekistan’, and Confederate flags, and making threats to my safety and those around me.” This is a reminder that, for all its proudly displayed stupidity and its grotesque features, the Cultural Marxism trope has a potential to unleash real violence. These incidents occurred because of an anti-Trump piece Turner collaborated on with two others— including Shia LaBeouf. I don’t know (about) Turner’s work, and being associated with LaBeouf is asking for raised eyebrows and eyerolls, but this is immaterial: Turner deserves full support in the face of both physical intimidation and online bullying and trolling by some post-internet alt-right chancers. The archived tweets from the would-be Marinettis of faux-ironic neofascism, the professional trolls Daniel Keller and Deanna Havas, are their own indictment.

Given the curator’s terminally dumb “ANTI” theme (“ANTI is indulgent, ascetic, libertarian. ANTI invests in Bitcoins and detests political correctness. ANTI is a contra-establishment politician, a humanist, a creature of our time”), their reaction—with its nauseating characterizaton of the Kek-worshiping “meme magic” hype man Keller as “an another anti-fascist Jewish voice”—comes as no surprise. Their stance has been aptly summarized by the title of the Shut Down LD50 collective’s piece on Mute: The Biennial of Very Fine People, on Both Sides.

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Texte zur Kunst no. 111: Trade Markings

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Texte zur Kunst no. 111 (September 2018) has a thematic section on “Amerika.” In the review section, I discuss the ehxibition Trade Markings at the Van Abbemuseum, curated by Vivian Ziherl.

A correction: in one passage in the review, the name Gordon Hookey got mangled to read Gordon Murray – no doubt a short-circuit in my brain due to his Murriland! series. Also, in the interest of giving credit where credit is due: Rachel O’Reilly’s project was made in collaboration with PALACE, Valle Medina & Benjamin Reynolds.

Image: works by Wendelien van Oldenborgh and historical diorama.

Modernist Memories in Dutch

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My Texte zur Kunst essay on Günther Förg, which was originally written for, but not published in, the catalogue of the Stedelijk Museum’s current Günther Förg retrospective, has been translated into Dutch for the latest issue of De Witte Raaf. The essay was de facto rejected the museum: imposing unaccaptable edits, or an unacceptable editing style, is a sure way of making an author withdraw an uncomfortable piece. Why fire someone when you have ways of making them quit? Entire paragraphs came marked with the truly brilliant editorial comment “Difficult passage: please rewrite,” without further specification; other parts were deemed “too cryptic” and/or “too abrasive” for “an international public, but even for an average Dutch audience.”

The real bone of contention was of course my critique of the Stedelijk’s policies in the 1990s (when Förg was a mainstay there), as well as in recent times. Criticism and critical art history are site-specific, and for me the only way to contribute to this Stedelijk publication was to provide a form of immanent institutional critique, taking Förg’s presence at the museum over the years as my point of departure. Perhaps not suprisingly, this was a bridge too far; in fact, what happened eerily mirrored what befell a catalogue essay by Mark Kremer from the 1990s, which I discuss in my piece. However, my awareness of context-specificity also meant that the comments on the current Stedelijk were in fact far more condensed and less explicit in the catalogue draft than in the more abrasive version that was ultimately published (in English and German) in Texte zur Kunst, and now in Dutch in De Witte Raaf.

Life After DAI

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Last weekend, I attended the graduation presentations of the Dutch Art Institute’s second-year students, at State of Concept in Athens. This was also my farewell to this institution, which in its current “roaming” format required me to travel to a different city (and, usually, country) each month. DAI is in the vanguard both of critical art education and of relentless self-exploitation, exhaustion, and pseudo-glamorous precarization. All that is solid melts into Airbnbs (or, for the students, youth hostels). In addition to my university teaching in Amsterdam, this was not viable for me in the long run. I can quit because it will not result in instant neo-Dickensian poverty; others are in less privileged positions.

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Nonetheless, I regret having to take this step; not being able to continue working with the current first-year students is a particular regret. The experience of teaching at this exceptional art programme has been rewarding. Teaching a theory seminar at an art school provides different challenges and rewards from teaching in a university context;  with their interesting interests, their already distinct merging practices and critical questions, my students have been inspiring interlocutors, and it has been a pleasure seeing them (and helping them) develop their thoughts and their work.

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After the graduation presentations, my students (Alaa Abu Asad, Stephan Blumenschein, Sara Cattin, Leon Filter, Olga Micińska, Dina Mohamed, Nina Støttrup Larsen, Sam McCulloch; Matthieu Blond couldn’t make it to Athens) raised a toast with a certain beverage that I seem to be notorious for consuming. I usually don’t deal with my teaching here on this site, or get personal, but every rule needs exceptions: cheers peeps, and thanks!

UIQonversation

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Silvia Maglioni and Graeme Thomson’s project about Félix Guattari’s 1980s script for a science-fiction film, Un Amour de UIQ, has manifested itself in a variety of gatherings, exhibitions and publications. During gatherings called seeances, various “envisionairies” responded to Guattari’s screenplay about an alien “infra-quark” intelligence and its disruptive and trasformative social effects. This resulted in a sound piece, UIQ (the unmaking-of), and now also in a typographic transcription of the sound piece in book form. UIQ (the unmaking-of): A Book of Visions (post-éditions) also contains a conversation between me and Silvia and Graeme. This is a condensation of a conversation we’ve had for a forthcoming volume on futurity that I’m co-editing with Eric de Bruyn in a new series with Sternberg Press.

Productivity

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It can be intriguing (and confronting) to get a sense of how others perceive you and your work. Reviews have that effect; so do introductions for lectures and other appearances, and sometimes just comments in passing. Once I was introduced with a surprised comment on how I “self-identify as an art historian” (which I do, but I never realized this was in any way noteworthy). Another time I was told that my writings “are tinged with wryness in the best possible sense” (that one I really liked), and recently I heard that “I think of him as the conscience of the Dutch art world” (which horrified me for a variety of reasons).

Aside from having my writing characterized as “dense,” the thing I hear the most is that I’m “so productive.” This goes back to my PhD days, when my professor ironically compared me to a novelist of whom it was said that “he writes faster than God can read.” Though there often is good-natured envy in those words, it has never struck me as an entirely positive comment. In my own subjective perception, of course, I never have been all that productive.

It’s also clear that production has been slowing down as I’ve become more entangled in a variety of academic obligations. This is not all bad: teaching, which is mostly a very satisfying endeavour, takes up a lot of time, but it also encourages you to take your time by developing research projects in the context of seminars, enriching and deepening your understanding of the problem at hand in dialogue with students and their own agendas. This takes the pedagogic process beyond teaching as it is currently conceived, with its enumerated “learning goals,” but such protocols have colonized Dutch universities to an extent that is truly unimaginable to, for instance, my German colleagues. A wide variety of ever more molecular and invasive bureaucratico-neoliberal control mechanisms has bred sujectivities to match, perennially afraid of the next visitation or evaluation.

Furthermore, the Dutch academic year is marked by short breaks between semesters. For years, my only periods for really sustained writing been from Christmas to late January and July through mid-August. Sabbaticals don’t exist. As luck would have it, I will have an unoffocial quasi-sabbatical in the second half of this year, since I don’t have any courses scheduled then. That’s the first time in almost fifteen years.

That being said, my low output in the first half of this year is due to the sometimes very drawn-out editorial and production process of various publications. Some texts that I wrote two or three years ago, and some newer ones, will probably finally see the light of day in late summer or autumn, as will hopefully two edited volumes. It looks like the autumn of 2018 just might confirm the dreaded prejudice about my productivity.

Neolithic Childhood

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Artist Matthijs de Bruijne once paid the Van Abbemuseum the highest compliment when he characterized it as one of the few museums that are worthy of being critiqued; with most institutions and their projects, it seems pointless to even engage in a critical exchange. Looking not only at the Netherlands but at Europe overall, the group of institutions that truly matter, that can be engaged with critically and worked with productively, is not exactly enormous. The Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin is perhaps foremost among those. I’ve spoken at HKW symposia and conferences a number of times over the years, and it’s a serious annoyance when I miss one of their exhibitions because my commitments don’t allow me to visit Berlin at the right time.

The upcoming exhbition Neolithische Kindheit, which is on view from April 13, focuses on the time around the year 1930 as a period of crisis when, “[for] the artistic avantgardes in Europe, the contemporary condition also became problematic; the impositions of the present led artists to break out into an imaginary realm of the archaic and the exotic— seeking out alternative origins and points of departure for humanity. […] Taking its cue from texts by the extraacademic art historian Carl Einstein, an exhibition and conference will thematize the upheavals, openings, and contradictions that became manifest in art and the humanities from the 1920s into the 1940s. The ‘Neolithic Childhood’—a concept used by Carl Einstein to characterize his understanding of Hans Arp—seemed to be a helpful fiction through which to critique the present.”

The show has been curated by Anselm Franke and Tom Holert, with an advisory board composed of Irene Albers, Susanne Leeb, Jenny Nachtigall and Kerstin Stakemeier. I contributed two short texts on the subjects of autonomy and myth(ology) to the publication, and I will participate in the conference that takes place on May 26-27.

On a somewhat related note, I’ve posted my 2016 Texte zur Kunst piece “Returns of the Stone Age” on the “Articles” page, which I will try to update more generally in the near future.

Image: Brassaï, from Graffiti de la Série VIII: La Magie (1955).

Texte zur Kunst no. 109: Stanley Brouwn

Texte zur Kunst no. 109 (March 2018) starts with a thematic section that “considers art’s relation to rules — or rather, the exceptions to them that art and its agents seem to claim. How can we speak of rules in the context of art, where transgressions are lauded even while traditional hierarchies (class, gender, race, sexuality) continue to assert their influence? And would we demand anything less of art than the promise of disobedience, rule breaking both in terms of formal restrictions and normative regulations? Therefore, in this issue we ask: by what rules does the art world play, and how are transgressions made visible/invisible therein?”

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My own contribution to this issue is a review, “The Distance Between Stanley Brouwn and Yourself,” which discusses three Stanley Brouwn exhibitions that were put on in the months following his death. On the basis of these shows, I reflect on the artist’s legacy and on the critical and scholarly perspectives that strike me as valid and productive.

Meanwhile, TzK has put my essay on Günther Förg from the previous issue online. As this essay also discusses the role played by Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum in the reception of his work, as well as the current crisis of this institution, it deserves an update now that a farcical chapter has been added with a petition clamoring for Beatrix Ruf’s reinstatement as director. I will have a few things to say about this petition, which had been in the making since december and failed to get any real traction, in the updated Dutch translation of the text that will be published this spring.

By then, the Stedelijk’s Günther Förg retrospective will also be on view. As the original version of the essay was written for the catalogue of that exhibtion, only to be withdrawn in the face of populist ineptness and paranoid censorship masquerading as editing, things wil have come full circle.

Photo: Installation view of the Stanley Brouwn exhibition mens loopt op planeet aarde at the Stedelijk Museum Schiedam. The caption of another installation view that accompanies my review in TzK erroneously says “Stedelijk Museum Schiedam, Amsterdam.” Obviously this museum is in Schiedam, not Amsterdam; it is not to be confused with the more famous Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. “Stedelijk Museum” simply means municipal museum, and there’s a bunch of those in the Netherlands, even though many (including the Stedelijk in Amsterdam) are no longer truly municipal.