a Yale University research initiative
«No radical art actions are going to help here…» :
Political Violence and Militant Aesthetics After Socialism
Conference and Exhibit: Yale University and Artspace Gallery, New Haven, April 17-19, 2015
Conference Organizer: Marijeta Bozovic (Yale University)
Co-Organizers: Maria Hristova and Roman Utkin (Yale University)
Collaborators: Jonathan Platt (University of Pittsburgh); Sarah Fritchey and Martha Lewis (Artspace Gallery); Kevin Repp (Beinecke Rare Books Archive); Lucy Gellman (Yale University Art Gallery)
1. Since the second half of the twentieth century—from the failure of the various revolutionary tremors of the late 1960s to the first “velvet” revolutions of 1989-91—militant politics has been increasingly discredited. In mainstream political discourse, militancy is now associated with suicidal psychosis, atavistic fanaticism, and other forms of dark alterity, while the model uprising is increasingly imagined as unarmed. One might attribute this fact to historical exhaustion. The violent excesses of the twentieth century have sullied images of the militant—the striking worker, the partisan, the guerilla, the terrorist—that once shone with a romantic aura. In a broader sense, however, such images have lost their luster because violence no longer seems capable of enacting genuine change. The dream of an authentic and lasting rupture in the social order appears increasingly foreclosed by other forms of political violence: the state terror that so often follows revolution, the invisible forms of violence (symbolic, pedagogical, domestic, managerial-bureaucratic) that militancy fails to uproot, or—perhaps most insidiously—the spectacular violence of terrorist acts pre-shaped for the media gaze.
In political philosophy (Sorel, Benjamin, Badiou) militancy is often depicted as the consecration of a political subject to an uncertain and perhaps unimaginable future, to a truth beyond the present law. Such devotion requires a tolerance for paradox: the new world cannot be built without a new subject, and the new subject cannot emerge without a new world. Ultimately, militancy expresses a willingness to enter and endure this transitional, uncanny condition. In the Russian language this complexity is expressed well by the word podvig—a heroic, self-sacrificial act of rebellion, resistance, or exploration of the unknown. An authentic podvig positions the subject at once within the ongoing struggle and, through the symbolic, anticipatory image it generates, at the threshold of victorious consummation. Similarly, the practice of militant violence always occurs between transgression and indifference to the law.
The possibility of occupying this position is highly suspect today, and our doubts about militancy resound as truisms. A successful militant revolt leads only to Caesarism—as a new Hobbesian contract is required to prevent the lawless struggle of all against all. Even if state terror is avoided, the post-revolutionary law is upheld through symbolic violence embedded in official language and ritual, as much as through the explicit ever-presence of police. Most significant today, however, is the sense that the inherent inefficacy of militancy reduces it to mere spectacle. Terrorism may respond to an unbearable present by trying to make invisible injustices visible, and, in some respects, it does successfully force the violence of the state apparatus to the surface. Yet it remains nihilistic and fetishistic: terrorist actions are not only rapidly appropriated but originate as spectacle, grimly entertaining or providing cathartic release for citizen-spectators and pushing the possibility of transformation ever further away.
2. It is our contention that this state of affairs is as much aesthetic as political. The artistic avant-garde has always had a metaphorical relation to militancy. The early twentieth-century identification of art and violent revolt is readily evident in Marinetti’s claim that “beauty exists only in struggle,” as in Breton’s “simplest surrealist act” of firing randomly into a crowd of philistines. Beyond such well-known examples, however, the entire tradition of aesthetic critique can itself be seen as a form of militancy specific to the history of art. Critical art is founded on a distinction between cultural products that estrange and those that enthrall (as articulated in Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” or Debord’s Society of the Spectacle). From this perspective, the task of art is to liberate us from automatized behaviors and perceptions, to smash the fetishes of ideology, and—perhaps most importantly—to relentlessly lay bare the conditions of possibility for every artistic medium and institution. To neglect these tasks means to become complicit with the bourgeois culture industry.
Yet while the “avant-garde tradition” (a peculiar oxymoron) accumulated prestige throughout the last century, it never realized the demiurgic ambitions that marked its historical beginnings. The very term “avant-garde” threatens to lose all meaning—including its origins in the semantics of militancy—and critics have been heralding the death of the avant-garde for over four decades. These recurrent proclamations express the fear that critique has run out of steam, that the destruction of fetishes is itself fetishized beyond recognition. Art no longer estranges but only enthralls, and the proliferating neo-avant-gardes read as farce, aftershocks of the misspent revolutionary impulse of the early century.
Thus art and politics inhabit a shared dilemma. If militant aesthetics is no longer possible, does art still extend emancipatory promise? If so, in what new ways and forms? The digital revolution marks an aesthetic and political upheaval on the scale of the invention of the printing press, which ushered in the era of imagined communities. The structure of capitalism has shifted from the production of commodities to that of information and affects, transforming the public sphere into a teeming “sensorium.” Caught somewhere in the middle of this seismic shift, we find ourselves grasping for new languages to explain realities for which the old words are no longer adequate. With all the uncertainty this condition brings, we look to emergent artistic and critical practices for a glimpse of the future.
3. While our topic is of global relevance, demanding comparative perspectives and transcending such categories as East and West, we focus our inquiry on the post-socialist world, and on Russia as its epicenter. Here the revolutionary impulse—profoundly if imperfectly realized in 1917 and then spreading throughout the vast territories of twentieth-century socialism—leaves us on especially fraught terrain. The “negative” or “anti-revolution” that dissolved the Soviet Union in 1991 marked the fall of the Second World and the victory of neoliberal ideology after the Cold War. In the Russian context, we have since witnessed the rapid exchange of varieties of political violence, from the lawless streets of the 1990s to the state repression of activist energies (labeled “extremism”) in recent years. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else, one is confronted with the disappointment of a militant tradition that never achieved its promised consummation. To phrase the question most simply, is leftist art possible after state socialism?
What we find—and what motivates our entire project—is that, against all expectations, after the depoliticizing “transition” to neoliberal cynicism in the 1990s and despite the seemingly reactionary historical moment, the post-socialist world is experiencing a discernable boom in politically engaged, leftist art practices and critical theory. Against the backdrop of the reactionary political situation, activists as well as art collectives, critics, poets, grassroots filmmakers and video artists, performance artists, and digital artists of all stripes are seeking alternative spaces for engaged aesthetic experimentation. In many cases, these aesthetic producers return to the emancipatory promises of earlier political/aesthetic experiments, reimagining them for the digital age or seeking to build new subjectivities and collectivities from scratch. Again, against all expectations, such projects are growing in number.
We take such praxes as an indispensible component of our inquiry. Political Violence and Militant Aesthetics after Socialism looks to the post-socialist world for models of how to move past historical disappointments and reimagine the possibilities for engaged art in the twenty-first century. Central to our project is a determination to bring together scholars and practicing artists for a multidisciplinary and collaborative inquiry. We believe it crucial to include artists who contend with the (im)possibilities of militant aesthetics in their practice, in an attempt to explode the theory-trap of abstract academic discussion—expressed so vividly in the contentious but circular discourse on the death of the avant-garde. We hope to challenge the assumptions and false dichotomies or subdivisions that may be causing such a blockage. The academic conference at Yale University, on April 17-19, 2015, will be linked to object sessions at the Beinecke Archive and Yale Art Gallery, as well as to an exhibit of contemporary art at the downtown New Haven gallery ArtSpace. The exhibit, entitled “Vertical Space,” will combine the work of Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish artists with the practices of local New Haven and area artists.
* The conference title borrows the phrase «Никакие радикальные художества тут не помогут…», from the 2011 poem «Жена активиста, погибшего при невыясненных обстоятельствах…» by Kirill Medvedev, in Keith Gessen’s translation.