”Say Hello to My Flexible Friend” Watercolor by Nour-Eddine Jarram.
”Defining art” sounds like a pompous quest, but it is a necessary polemical struggle to be taken, beyond merely asking the question with a flippant shrug of irony and sarcasm, as if to answer with brow-slap ”Nothing and everything” For such “Anti-Art’’ and anti-romanticism is the paradigm of neoliberal post-modernity and chic tongue-in-cheek vanguard-ism that serve the purpose of setting up barricades to freeze the dialectical forces from shaking up the house. Even if all art functions as propaganda, it does not immediately follow that all that functions as propaganda (especially of the kind deemed helpful, Progressive, or healthy) is therefore art. That seemingly simplistic understanding—‘’All Art is Propaganda, but not all Propaganda is Art’’ is a slogan first invented in the previous century to appease and instruct armed Chinese peasants who were otherwise led by an urge to destroy everything—they understood, intuitively. Such intuition is completely prevented, as if by a neural haywire-job, in the younger generation of artists in this 21st century. All polarizing discussions on defining art, on defending art or believing in its existence, are postponed, thrown off or censored, often thanks to the discourses of academics which have absorbed all literary production, all aesthetic-political discussions along with the curating of visual arts into their substrata, into their pontificating bureaucracy.
Trying to define art, even if it may be a pompous quest, becomes altogether impossible in the forever nuance-seeking language of academics, scholars and activists for superficial social reparations.
Inherent in all artistic creation is that the artist, like a primitive magician, will transform material and elements—physical, tangible materials as well as invisible substances, the “subject matter,” or an idea from a book, maybe a newspaper article about a murdered pawn-broker landlady.
An emphasis on the transformation of reality perhaps reaches back to the pre-Socratic philosophers’ understanding of human nature (like the notions of Parmenides and Zeno) who believed the human animal is one that modifies and alters, transforms reality; a reality-modifying beast. This is unlike the later Neo-Platonist definition of the human as merely a logifying beast, thinking, conceptualizing animal. But it is also in conflict with Aristotle’s understanding of Zoon Politikon: man as a rational-political life form, a parliamentarian who rationalizes incessantly (the ancient prototype model for the gabbing, bourgeois and liberal political citizen.) The ideologues of Latin American Liberation Theology in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Brazil in the 20th century used these radical, and poetic pre-Socratic concepts to define their revolutionary mysticism. (In a time of Protestant values that are reflected in a politically correct art world, it is good strategy to resort to insurrectionary Jesuits.)
Figurative art that is anti-transformative, takes a picture of disenchantment, maps alienation, and reproduces it without real subversion.
Multimillionaire CEO-painter Takashi Murakami insists that his enormous murals of smiley faces are actually an “ironic” commentary on what post-industrial Japan has become: a constant affirmation of plastic niceties, well-visible in his work reproduced by robots and wage-slaves at international offices. Murakami’s oeuvre (if he can be, for a moment, taken more seriously than a mere money-making machine) adapts perfectly to the society in which he stands not merely as an artist, but as a captain of corporate management, overseeing the production of tongue-and-cheek criticism merged with acceptance of the prevailing order. Tongue-and-cheek and the mode of Farce are essentially of defeated civilization and the nth rehearsal of Duchamp’s sniveling excavated corpse.
Art fulfilling the criteria of the revolutionary romantics of the 19th century, in music were Schumann, Chopin, Bartok, building on the populist revolutionary traditions of Verdi; in painting Delacroix’s traveller’s paintings of Oriental revolution, evolved into the revolutionaries of European surrealism, Italian Futurism and Russian avant gardeys in the early 20th centuries. The artistic movements remembered as late ‘‘romanticism’’ or self-titled as Futurist or Surrealist sought to do much more than what passes for awareness in the predominant MFAs and contemporary art-scape, which is to provide an ironic flatulent comment of the cultural logic of alienation and consumerism, while accepting it and even embracing as inevitable. Theirs was not merely critique, but direct attack and rejection of the forces of alienation.
While regarding some of the works of contemporary South African artist Marlene Dumas in high esteem, Dumas’ “Birth of the World” after Courbet’s painting of the same title showing a woman’s hairy vulva, was only a half-hearted subversion. Dumas’ Birth is interesting and effective only in its refusing to acknowledge the puerile gender politics of the conceptual performer who featured at the re-unveiling of Courbet’s unsurpassed world-birthing vagina. The drawing shows a world of disenchantment, the vagina no different from the body of a defrosting chicken, following the tired ennui-motored clichés of feminists: it is a picture of the existing disenchantment in a world where love and passion must be sought on dating websites and Sisyphian internet-searches, or substituted by the hysteria of omnipresent gender politics, or tranquilized with pornographic consumption. Dumas’ visual farce of Courbet was exhibited in the Stedeÿk Museum of Amsterdam. The original painting, Courbet’s subversion from 1866 recently censored in France by Mark Zuckerberg when a provincial French schoolteacher had used the painting for his profile, only to find it removed after complaints were issued in a scare in 2013. Facebook insisted that any legal dispute with its company be held in California in a Silicon Valley court, but the plaintiff’s lawyer Mr. Cottineau shot through the colonial arrogance and abuse against French citizens, keeping the court trial in France, and winning. Courbet’s painting affirms life, that women are life, and those who despise life try to obscure such a painting with their civic and moral concerns and the protection of children, or the man-childish fear of feminist ire. Dumas’ 21st century commentary on Courbet’s vulva is precisely about drainage, the absence of life, the disenchantment, of the big vulva, of life and of the world’s origin.
Mozambiqan-Portuguese writer Mia Couto has been known to insist that the mission of literature today more than ever is ”the re-enchantment of the world.”
A revolutionary art must seek a re-enchanting of the world, and not a further static, stuttering mimesis, a slideshow documenting alienation in timeless and motionless acceptance of it, permitting tongue-and-cheek irony from the viewer. The parallel in academia’s warped creative writing is to be found in Mary Oliver’s ”poetry of witness,” writing as documentation, the hum-drum bourgeois confessional of suburban North American upper-middle class ennui as fiction. A revolutionary art rejects the replacement of fiction by narrative journalism, narrative nonfiction. A more honest account than Truman Capote’s icy yet artful-carved plasma prose, is to be found in the mystical carnality of Jean Genet’s diaries of his life in prisons and in the criminal underworld. The lack of remorse and redemption in Genet is redeeming and rare. But the lack of redemption in French postmodern literature such as that of Bataille (despite its vapid championing of Genet) is full of fearful despair instead of the ecstatic despair of a mystic like Genet was, (or like Kerouac or Frantz Wright was or as Theresa of Avila or Simone Weil were.)
Art that is un-mimetic, betraying the Grecian photographic mimesis of nature, might transform reality: magical circus-act-like transformation, as opposed to mere “Activism.” Most activism, though it may harbor every intention of practically imposing social justice and thereby transforming reality, seldom transcends beyond the act of reporting. Activist reportage is by way of demonstrations and lectures, in order to inform (or misinform) and thereby alter public opinion. The activist makes the public sober with repeated facts, then drunk with a sentimental rage and indignation at the images of atrocity, of what should not be. Then he will at last present to the audience with a solution, a “What is to Be Done’’, how they can make the benign change. This political game is present in every successful mobilization, though there is seldom hope that the mobilization in itself effects radical change. The honest activist is one who admits to a constant state of defeat, at times near impotence: unless there is artillery and a clear militant platform for action, mobilizing a convinced public, there is a critical self-doubt as to the effectiveness of his, the activist’s lectures and demonstrations, a pessimism of the intellect and an insistence in continuing the desperate course of action until a reasonable hope materializes. The activism of contemporary Western cultural establishments, amounts to the opposite of such a state of melancholy: it is glorious, vain optimism of the intellect, belief in instantaneous ready-made utopianism. The instantaneity of the hopeful liberal-leftist utopia is achieved mostly by censorship of offending images and words, cutting them from exhibition spaces and showrooms, from dictionaries, schoolbooks and classic texts used in education. Injustices are redressed by being adapted, redressed in vocabulary. In a recent Brazilian lecture tour, Mia Couto marveled at having learned from Brazilian intellectuals of the fact that the word ”favela” has become politically incorrect. “’Correct” would be the absence of the favela! the novelist insisted.
One of the many frivolous battles about ‘’representation’’ in recent years revolved around the art and theater show Exhibit B, a menagerie directed a South African theater-maker Brett Bailey (a white South African) The gig employed Namibian performers to represent touring carnival actors of the Picadilly circuses in the 19th century European metropolises, in which visitors and captives from the colonies were exhibited. The troupe of mostly black African, foreign young artists actors and dancers were hounded out of London and Paris metro exhibitions by art-establishment activists who called them ‘’racist’’ and who, in a surprisingly xenophobic political statement, spread the rumor that Namibian actors were not real actors, but were allegedly ‘’refugees’’ being paid in food or in abysmal means, exploited by their ring-leader. The protestors, ironically denouncing ‘defamation’’ just fell short of shouting ‘’dirty refugees’’ at the actors in the name of political correctness and diversity—which typically stands for the assimilation of those who have already been approved as citizens and absorbed into the labour market. Local London artist and petition author Sara Myers said the show should be withdrawn because “I want my children to grow up in a world where the barbaric things that happened to their ancestors are a thing of the past.” The concerned mother and contemporary artist Sarah Myers, represents the cultural preference for amnesia, tabula rasa allowing for petty bourgeois domesticity—the protection of parenting and suburbanite family life, in which her tyrannized children must be cooped up in inoculated vivariums of intellectual void and anxiety.
Mao’s dictum of revolutionary aesthetics, intuitive and accessible to the masses, intelligent despite the brutality that was present in the Cultural Revolution, was that ”All Propaganda is Art, but Not All Art is Propaganda.” The “analect” from the red book, a slogan meant to ‘’enlighten,’’ to appease and instruct armed peasants who had a desperate urge to destroy everything, was often quoted by the North American militant poet Amiri Baraka, (formerly LeRoi Jones) Baraka used the quote in interviews to explain the complexity of political art in simple language.
Mao’s dictum may have presented a diamond of militant wisdom in the history of Thought and Talk about Art—if it were not for the abuses during the cultural revolution that enshadowed his words, deracinating them in the rancid vinegar of chopped onions fed to the blindfolded and despised know-it-alls.
For the much more extreme Wester art-establishment, however, what counts is perhaps the inverted opposite of Mao’s line: “All Our Propaganda, is de facto Art, or All Our Activism is, automatically Art, (all else is deplorable barbarism)” is the unwritten slogan of the global art world parliamentarians. For them, the fiber of art and “artisticity” resides in the essence of who has been appointed the title, who has been favoured by bureaucracy, can be a perpetual artist, even when simply performing consensus opinion instead of making something beautiful (or making something of a deep ugliness, for that matter.) Once anointed within the consecrated space of the official platform or residency (such as the Rÿks-Academy in Amsterdam the Netherlands, or equivalent Royal Colleges) anything the anointed does or says counts as art. The artist within that space, therefore can attest to their authority and expertise on art by participating in its activist de-mystification, by pretending to be ‘’anti-art’’ and denouncing any value to art and any significance to being an artist: being a scientific, educated initiate in turn teaches atheism, sobriety and ennui; only the outsider knows idolatry and believes in passion and originality.
A mystification by bureaucracy is made even more possible in an era when there is no public attempt to define art. Pragmatism seems banal, yet it is the ideological commitment most championed by the Management ideology of recent gospels of capitalism: the radical unbelief in the invisible or the transcendent. Such values are also endorsed in universities, where the quest of postmodernist deconstructionist academics is precisely to teach a young generation that would otherwise be receptive to high culture, not to read literature and not to look at art and to believe in the worthlessness of art history: a philistinism taught to the ruling elites and reflected in prominent US-based art magazines that produce poison click-bait under the editorial command of wounded academics, online Schmatah’s (Yddish for ‘’rag’’) devoted to the maligning and serial character-assassination of artists (especially male artists who happen to be somehow subversive; criticisms made by female artists against the current progressive propaganda, such as Doris Lessing’s biting comments critical of contemporary feminists, simply go ignored with no character-maligning).
These form part of the process of preventing any movement towards the dangerous and haphazard discussions of defining art, that dangerous conversation that was engaged in, with often pretentious experiments, by every single art movement and avant-garde which by definition conceived entirely exo- and outside of academia (as the futurists, surrealists, romantics and predecessors did.) That necessary, inevitably snobby discussion that seriously attempts to answer the question can be indefinitely postponed, but its absence will only empower bureaucracy and its Jargonauts.