“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear” A. Gramsci
Periods of crisis are critical times, not because the old is dead, but because the old persists on living through a multitude of symptoms. These are not periods of transition but times of resilience of the dying; the dying that can only live through the signs of its own coming end. The current crisis, whether understood as the final blow to the post-war world liberal/social-democrat Euro-American dominance or the implosion of the more recent neoliberal system, seems to vindicate this zombie-like state of extension. The much hailed, yet never realised, recovery is both a mirage and a fantasy that reinforces this symptomatic deferral. When we do indeed recover, the time for a new time has arrived.
In this sense, the mood of political apathy and impotence that we live today is as much the effect of a general state of confusion and uncertainty as the result of the effectiveness of the reactionary forces of control and neutralization of those in power. We are all a bit confused, a bit lost, but only a few hold the instruments of dominance. Yet, as Gramsci’s well-known quote indicates, through this persistence a new surface of symptoms emerges, making the crisis not just a period of confusion and indecision, caught between the old and the new, but the decisive time when a critique of what lives through its dying is possible, if not unavoidable. Every symptom is an expression of the persistent and carries with it, in a more or less visible way, the power of critique. Even what seem irrational or infantile responses to the current situation, such as populism and nationalism, have the potential of opening a decisive critical position regarding the old and the new.
The correlation between crisis and critique is not foreign to modern art. It finds its model in the avant-garde. Internally, the classical avant-garde is understood as a radical critique of bourgeois art (aestheticism). Externally, it was a powerful critical response to a collapsing world order. Indeed, the avant-gardes of the interwar period produced a powerful double articulation, criticizing the world through the creation of revolutionary art and assailing an attack on art through a re-opening to world-life. To a certain extent, the effectiveness of the classical avant-gardes relied on the coincidence between the crisis of art and the crisis of society, allowing the identification of enemies, the delimitation of territories and the staging of positions inside and outside art. The avant-garde was able to draw a new horizon and project itself towards it.
Today, the avant-garde is artistically dead, surviving as a model for political art. The reason why we consider the avant-garde a paradigm for politically engaged art while placing it unproblematically in the history of modern art, petrifying it as a thing of the past, tells a great deal about our relation to contemporary art. Eight years after the irruption of the subprime crisis we have become accustomed to live under dire and unstable economic conditions, but we are unable to find a corresponding convergence between artistic and socioeconomic crises. In fact, several parallels have been drawn between the current socioeconomic crisis and the crisis that ultimately lead to the Second World War, but no such analogies are to be found in art. This is not to say that contemporary art is particularly resistant or blind to present economic conditions. It means rather that its response to the crisis is mostly realised by way of a revival of political art, for instance in the novel investment in the intersection of art and activism, but not so much through the creation of new aesthetic forms. If, politically, contemporary art is responding to the crisis by reinventing and intensifying well-known socio-artistic mechanisms (key words: participation, performance, prank, involvement, community, grassroots), artistically it is unable to invent new images, a new aesthetic language that reflects the present situation while taking our imagination somewhere else.
According to this perspective contemporary art must respond to the current socioeconomic situation by dissecting ‘political art’ from ‘aesthetics’ so that the former can fulfil its full potential, as if the aesthetic dimension of art was some kind of bourgeois or middle class disease or degeneration (the so-called artivism being the paradigm of this strand). But the world of contemporary art is vast and multiple. Despite such predicament, contemporary art has produced images of the crisis that are not subsumed under the aegis of ‘political art’ and that, on the other hand, are able to counter the way in which the present situation is being represented by the mass media. This double distancing has paved the way for the creation of a kind of aesthetics of the crisis, an artistic aestheticisation of the current critical situation. The examples that come to my mind are varied but share a common artistic strategy: the use of the medium of cinema in the framework of contemporary art.
To be continued…
Nuno Faleiro Rodrigues