Eleven theses on art and politics, #10 & #11 (not the last)

IMG_527610. Repetitions as farce from the Brumaire. 20 years ago Rushdie was the part catalyst for an insurgent Muslim political articulation in Britain. Among the reasons why the threat to Rushdie was picked up so prominently – as a case of freedom of expression – was that the demonization of Islam and the Ayatollah greatly suited a West that had recently lost its favourite cold war era demon. 20 years ago this year also the Berlin Wall fell down, heralding the end of sausage-and-three-veg socialism. Recently we organised a conference in Berlin on the theme of Borders and the anniversary of this event was a topic of conversation after a presentation by the Goethe Institute on their plans for a commemoration ceremony (here accessed 6 June 2009).

The wall was famously a site for artistic expression in critique, and sometimes denial, of its repressive function. Famously graffiti marked the wall, appearing for example in films like Christiane F and Himmel Uber Berlin – during which the artist ThierryNoir appears himself, chattingtoBruno Ganz. Each act of resistance becomes a contribution to the economy of film. In 2009, the commemoration involves recreations of some of the art work – controversially – and the Goethe Maurriese project which also, not without problems, focus only upon artistic elements and wholly ignore, for various politically sensitive reasons, questions about the political wall, the place of the former DDR in contemporary Germany, the changes since unification, and the ways this symbol of division has become a marketing tool for a new (hygienic) Berlin. Instead, neat project this may seem, with cheesy website, foam sections of the wall have been made and shipped to Goethe Institutes worldwide. These are to be decorated by children at the various global Goethe offices, and returned to Berlin where they will, in November, be lined up in the manner of dominos along part of the path of the former wall, to be ceremoniously toppled on the anniversary. Without irony this is presented as the Goethe Institute’s effort to do work within ‘all’ Germany and to change its perception as primarily a West German international agency.

The fall of the wall marked the end of the Cold War and ushered in a new demonization, of Islam, that culminates in the 1990s and early 21st century Iraq wars, not to mention ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and Palestine. But it should be noted, that just as the fall of communism has been cleansed, the art burned but resurrected in film and in commemorations (though there will need to be two new walls to protect the reconstructed domino wall), there is a readiness to move on in Berlin that moves past the old wall and border. The wall was degenerate, not the art.

11. Might things also be moving on elsewhere? Is it plausible to see another event of 20 years ago as significant? This month in June the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen is commemorated. The build up to Tiananmen had been a protest by students, then joined increasingly by workers, against the corruption of the Dengist capitalist road clique. A media event as much on television as in China, the protest was aggressively crushed, a famous image of a man in front of a tank becoming the iconic, and ironically inverse, image of Beijing controlled by tanks and the 4th Army. Deng Xiaoping’s control affirmed, in some ways this event can be seen as the confirmation of China’s economically driven capitalist restoration today, with Tiananmen erased – no press or TV commemoration in China – in favour of a new nationalism, ‘to be rich is glorious’, the celebrate the Olympics, to take a place on the security council, China ascendant, significant growth rates… Only outside China is Tiananmen recalled in books, and even in a Tank Man ballet, a favourite on you tube (with instructions on how to perform the tank man dance). Here art contains a critique that is inverted in the real. That the elevation and erasure of the tanks coincides today with the credit crisis and global anxiety about the environment. Three Gorges Dam, plastic manufacture, six billion car owners and other news about economic growth is calculated in terms of climate change and corruption, so that China-anxiety has a certain significance not unrelated to the triple crisis of the automobile industry, financial regulation and environment. Would it not be a surprise to see China emerge soon as the new scapegoated demon for a war that is neither cold nor hot, but played out as an art of manoeuvre, with orientalist backdrop, over which an inter-imperialist rivalry of a new type is engaged between the West – Obama/Clinton – and the East – Deng/Hu Jintao group. Art – the tank man – here becomes hygienic yet again in the face of a struggle over productive power – the struggle for productive dominance, mediated via the financial markets, the steel industry and climate (read oil). It may seem a strange thing to say, but the culture industry could be set a task now, if we were cynical enough: never more than ever was there a need for Chinese Rushdie. What shall we burn?

Of course that would not be serious. But the exposure of Art as always being caught up with politics, at both its moment of explicit politicization and at the times when it claims conceptual or abstract separation, are in a certain way equivalent. The role of bees is to busy themselves with flowers, but this does not set them apart from the biosphere nor disconnect them from architecture, or institutions, or commerce or geopolitics. The secret omnipotence of production shoots through the most obscure corners of the culture industry and only the bee that turns to drawing has a chance to make this apparent – there is where attention can be focussed, there is a contribution towards changing the world – the point is not just to paint it.

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Theses 8 and 9 (its getting ropey now)

There may be more than 11 of course.