text > On Artivism (In between Culture and Politics)

 

I

To be among those Moldovans (a word that even the Microsoft Office spell-checker does not want to recognize) who call themselves “contemporary artists” is at times an awkward experience – for what is today called “contemporary art” seems to avoid places that lack vibrant business, financial opportunities and markets, or at least abundant fossil fuel reserves. To be a Moldovan activist contemporary artist is even more difficult, and this is indeed a pity, especially after the “social turn” in contemporary art. While artists from other post-socialist countries have long ago joined a political cause – a very smart thing to do if one is to succeed today in this profession – the Moldovan contemporary artists are still hesitating and holding back. This may not be to their advantage, for to declare oneself a nationalist or God forbid a liberal is not anymore fashionable in Eastern Europe – the 1990s were left behind a long time ago. But to rush to declare oneself a left-wing political radical may also be a risky business in some places.

For some time I have kept an eye on two Moldovan web forums: one is called “Oberlist” and the other “Rezistența” (resistance). Oberlist is the mailing list (listserv) launched by the young artists association Oberliht (www.oberliht.org.md) and used by most of the contemporary Chisinau artists, curators, art managers and cultural activists, many of whom have been or are associated with the local KSA:K, Center for Contemporary Art. Oberlist connects this compact community to the circuits of world contemporary art. Most of its users are engaged in projects which promote beliefs and ideals often found in the “About” sections of various European and American foundations: civil society, cultural pluralism, cultural policies, art management, non-governmentalism, political non-affiliation – words and phrases that at times also name the lines of budgetary spending in these organizations’ annual reports. Politically, I identify the Oberlist non-governmental and non-affiliated community with “liberalism,” or rather with “national-liberalism,” and even if I come across some within this circles who insist on being called “activists” (after the fashion of the day) their activism is primordially cultural, as they seem primarily concerned with the promotion of autonomous forms of culture, of cultural diversity and individual freedom, of the open and civil society, and so on. In the Oberlist posts, on various occasions, I also come across information about “disturbing” radical left-wing political activism, but here any proclaimed Bolshevism is presented as a cultural manifestation, as a “safe” artistic event which takes place somewhere far away in one or another Western kunstverein or center for contemporary art – in one word Artivism. It must be also noted – and this must be remembered – that the main language of communication within the Oberlist community is Romanian, followed by the now-standard “scroll down for the English version.”

“Resistance” (http://rezistenta.info) is a Marxist political forum, less noticeable than the Oberlist listserv, and not concerned directly with art or culture. It promotes values and beliefs that one would typically associate with the working class: general strike and revolution, resistance to the privatization of the factories, liberation of the exploited from the pervasive invasion of capital into local industry and agriculture, internationalism and brotherhood, and so on and so forth. Although the site uses the Romanian word “rezistență” (resistance) to name its TDL (its top domain name) most of the information concerns Russia and its closest neighbors, or what used to be called the USSR. Even though Resistance insists on being a political platform it often posts links to videos in which activists sing, but most often rap, or wrap their protests in hip-hop attire – an activity which, I believe, is not regarded as cultural but simply as another form of carrying their political struggle to the masses. The Resistance site offers on its main page a bilingual choice (RU and MD, that is Russian and Moldovan), although most of their texts are in Russian. In the MD section, for instance, a text may start in the Latin alphabet of this language in order to find itself (only in a few mouse scrolls down) wearing the Cyrillic uniform of the Russian language.

Sometimes the two forums clash. Some from the Resistance site will post information on the Oberlist server, not only adulterating the prevailing Latino-Germanic linguistic ambiance with a slap of soft Slavic parlance, but most importantly trespassing into the oasis of culture created by this community, bringing in explicit political content. This at times causes great distress within the Oberlist community, for many here perceive themselves as cultural producers, not as political activists. Often spirits run high. Another invasion of pro-Russian working class insurrectionist rhetoric into the circuits of the Oberlist listserv prompted some of its national-liberal members to respond with a noticeable trace of irritation in their Romanian language: “Stay away with your Bolshevik political propaganda: we are a cultural forum!” An invisible barricade seems to divide the Chisinau contemporary artistic community into two halves.

One more thing. On the Resistance website, or in the messages sent from their server, I have on multiple occasions run into the stars of today’s Russian contemporary art activism. At times it seems as if Rezistența is their local rostrum, their local branch or “cell” for distributing and passing around information on acute political problems: the G8 summit and the globalization of capital markets, the 1st of May and the new strategies for revolutionary organization, another strike in Kazakhstan and new strategies for proletarian self-education. Here seems to lie the difference between two strategies: if the Russian artists make their rare appearances on the Oberlist server as artists or artivists, offering another form of cultural divertissment, in the messages sent from the Resistance server the same people are presented as revolutionaries involved in direct political action, as intellectuals who take upon themselves the responsibility to represent the interests of the working class, of all those who are oppressed and exploited regardless of their nation, race, or gender.

 

II

As I drift back and forth between these two forums I often find myself pondering over the enduring Leninist question: “What is to be done? Which forum to join? Which cause to follow?”

Although one can hardly speak of a “genuine” contemporary art world in Chisinau, a small scene does exist thanks in many respects to a few enthusiasts who keep applying to various foreign foundations for project-euros in order to organize new events. The Oberlist e-mail service is the vein-system in the body of this community, as it is moving information about events, projects, grants, residencies, competitions, and so forth. Many of its most active members regard themselves as cultural managers engaged in forging new cultural policies. Although I have enormous respect for their work, when it comes to chose between two strategies I often sense on the Oberlist side a certain striving to become “official culture,” to gain legitimacy, to hold positions within the local and regional cultural establishment. At times I find this community somewhat less heroic and more pragmatic, for they seem more concerned with utilities and utilitarian motives, with worries and anxieties about privacies, rights, securities, and freedoms (“whatever this word means” – as a wise acquaintance of mine from the Resistance forum used to say), with management of private affairs (including those of art and culture), with money for the next cultural project and the endless effort to brand themselves within the contemporary art circuits. Overall their values and activities are expressed in the language which they occasionally use among themselves, but used especially when they communicate with their donors – a language which (to be frank) I find a little bit blunt and somewhat tedious. In these circles I often hear such phrases as: “objectives and priorities,” “management skills,” “program instruments,” “capacity building,” “strategic planning,” “well-developed mechanisms of cultural policy,” “cultural creativity,” “monitoring the results,” “institutional behavior,” “self-evaluation and organizational diagnosis” – words that bring to my mind an assortment of latex gloves. What is more disconcerting is that fact that occasionally this language sneaks (disguised as artistic form) into their artworks.

I often think that I empathize more with the artists, or rather with the revolutionaries who appear regularly on the Resistance forum: the notorious Russian activists. First of all, I understand and sympathize with their refusal to make a clear separation between politics and culture, for they seem to know that every field of cultural production (to invoke Pierre Bourdieu here) is also an arena of hegemonic struggle over the distribution of symbolic capital; they know that there is no such thing as a “pure” artistic or aesthetic gaze or state, and that the values of what is presented as good culture are most of the time fabricated by dominant institutions and ideologies that occupy a privileged position within the cultural field. From Marxism they have learned that the ruling ideas (cultural or otherwise) of an age are the ideas of its ruling classes: in other words, there is no culture without politics. My sympathy for this side of their thinking is also based on their radical spirit of protest, on their constant challenge of the status quo, which informs their approach to aesthetics, criticism, sociology, philosophy, art theory, and art history. They are also more interested in matters that concern art directly, and on those rare occasions when we meet, we speak about avant-garde and kitsch, Brecht and method, socialist realism and the culture industry, Lifschitz and Lukacs, Trotsky and the surrealists, art and society or aesthetics and politics.

When I am back within the Oberlist community I find myself again standing in the wide field of “culture,” where I find practical advice as to the next deadline for a grant or to what sorts of projects are in demand among cultural donors this year. The cultural activities of these artists and managers are as diverse as are the meanings invested in the word “culture,” meanings that began to accumulate with the advance of modernity. In the 18th and 19th century German intellectuals made a clear distinction between Kultur, Bildung and ZivilisationKultur was an objective dimension of culture, understood in terms of material and technological achievements directed toward forging a particular national identity; Bilding was a more subjective, personal or Romantic tendency towards self-cultivation, personal growth and individual development; Zivilization was, finally, the universal aspiration of the human species towards mastery over savagery and barbarism.[1] Rarely, I encounter the word “culture” among certain members of the Oberlist community as it was used in the early twentieth century, when critics and artists distinguished between high and low, or elite and popular culture – that is, when “culture” was still understood along the lines of social classes. Predominantly, however, the word “culture” is used within these circles in its contemporary sense, that is to say in terms of diversity and multiplicity. The word is often used in the plural, as in club cultures, consumer cultures, drug cultures, youth cultures, street cultures, alternative cultures, lesbian cultures, subcultures, and so on; or in its adjectival form, as in cultural policies, cultural diversity, cultural heritage, cultural development, cultural pluralism, cultural access, and so on and so forth.[2] When at various occasions some invoke the noun “culture” in the singular, the word is usually capitalized and bears a meaning established in the 19th century when it was used with regard to a particular Culture, to the project of national identity, to what the enlightened Germans called Kultur – a meaning to which I will return in the last section of this text.

Those whom I associate with the Resistance forum – and here please bear in mind that these are not locals but artists from neighboring countries, for after all this text was written in order to explain why there are no Moldovan left-wing artivists – the key words are “politics” and “society.” Their notion of art is based on an aesthetics that cultivates political praxis. For some of them an artwork gains legitimacy only if its author is entirely committed to the cause of political emancipation. These artists see themselves carrying forward the heritage of the historical left-wing avant-garde, representing the interests of the working class and of the exploited masses. The way some see themselves as artists may be expressed in the words of the early twentieth century German Dadaist George Grosz, who once suggested that to call his work “art” would depend entirely on whether one believes that the future belongs to the working class. Others perhaps see their task as did Georg Lukacs, who, drawing on the old Aristotelian pronunciation that man is first of all a zoon politikon, that is a social animal, believed that the task of the (socialist) artist is to contribute to the socialization of humans, to help them take advantage of their zoon politikon status and help men and women to withstand the liberal bourgeois possessive individualism that leads to social catastrophes, to social alienation and estrangement, allowing for such miserable states as angst and fear – states that only the bourgeois artists allow themselves to capitalize on. In other words their main slogan is “Art for Life’s Sake!” – that is, an art that contributes to the full experience of the social totality.

 

III

At times it feels, in my hesitation, as if I am standing on the top of a barricade asking myself what I should opt for: culture – a word that makes some reach for their guns and others for their credit cards – or politics – which is interested in everyone, regardless of whether they are interested in it? In other words, what is to be done? Shall I linger in the dark woods of politics or move into the open field of culture?

This opposition between culture and politics – a division which in art may (under certain conditions) also be perceived along the lines of “art for art’s sake” versus “art for life’s sake,” or of aesthetic autonomy versus heteronomy – is also easily sensed on a broader Eastern European (or what used to be called so) contemporary art scene. Over the past years various collectives and journals have persistently taken a stance toward the neo-liberal institution of culture, towards the rapid institutionalization of culture and of its incorporation into the so-called non-governmental sector of the post-socialist society – a tendency that has gradually succeeded thanks to various mechanisms of neoliberal transition or normalization. Many would agree today that it was the Soros Center for Contemporary Art network (an autonomous spin-off program of the Open Society Institute) that has played a considerable role in this process of artistic normalization. During the 1990s almost twenty SCCA offices (set within a geographical area that extended from Prague to Almaty) implemented radical cultural policies directed primarily at the rapid modernization of post-socialist artistic discourse – a process that aimed primarily at substituting the outdated “fine art” model with the more flexible, open and profitable “for contemporary art” paradigm. But aside from this artistic modernization it was also their task to separate art and culture from politics and state, and the SCCAs were among those mechanisms of transition that assisted in cutting that umbilical cord which for several decades kept the art of this region connected to the body of the socialist state. Under capitalism art and culture were to learn to stay autonomous; they were not to be used as a subsidized political tool for providing “utopian” social harmony, but were to take their place within the so-called third or non-profit sector, and to know how to stay afloat on the high waves produced by speculative financial markets.

But the SCCAs have also contributed to the formation of a trans-national cultural network, to a more or less unified “Eastern European art world,” that today consists of artists, managers, curators and institutions in or from various countries. After the disappearance of this uniting force ten years ago there emerged new institutions that continue to contribute to the consolidation of the regional scene of the “New Europe.” But as this new world was coming into being it grew two-headed. It soon found itself split roughly in two halves: on one shoulder stood the managers, curators, and artists associated with the old or new contemporary art institutions, supported either by the local governments, by various European Union programs, or by banks which sought to build a favorable image of themselves in the post-socialist lands hungry for Western credit. On the other shoulder were positioned the activists: theorists and artists acting both individually and in small groups in order to dialectically synthesize theory with praxis. This new two-headed art world appeared as the result of the so-called “social turn,” a tendency in global contemporary art that some believe began with the 10th Documenta (1997), and others with the collapse of the Soviet project (a decade earlier).

These two sides are like enlarged versions of the two forums in Chisinau – although on the whole they are, no doubt, more sophisticated and better funded. One side seems to maintain the officialdom of the new cultural paradigm, affirming and securing values grounded in the economic and financial sector. The opposite side assumes the position of the critical negator, of the challenger of the status quo. I earlier used the word “liberal” to describe the values promoted by some within the Oberlist community, and now I would like also to add the word “capitalist“ – a synonymy once established by Ludvig von Mises, the father of the Austrian School of Economics, the founder of the infamous Mont Pelerin Society, and the spiritual mentor of Friedrich von Hayek – all contributors to the laissez-faire neo-liberal economic and cultural world that we today inhabit.[3]

One might say that within the last decade the unified Eastern European post-socialist artistic scene has hosted two communities whose two camps face each other: the liberal-capitalist (to use van Mises’ terminology) and the socialist one. Both sides act in conformity with ideas developed in the course of the last century within established intellectual traditions. One camp looks for inspiration to von Mises, von Hayek, Popper, or Soros as they build new democratic institutions which must protect their freedom and property from the state or from the socialists. The socialist side continues to study Marx, Lenin, Gramsci – or they read Zizek – and work hard to contribute to the revival of once abandoned socialist internationalist ideals. While the former spent the last decades erecting new institutions whose main purpose was to make the former socialist countries look more like their Western neighbors (strong civil society, a leading role for the market, the separation of society and politics) the latter struggled to revive and salvage the tradition of the Left, which following the collapse of USSR went through a period of crisis. While the capitalist-liberals carried on various social engineering projects creating institutions that would protect the individual from the collective, and from the State – something which within this tradition is regarded as the greatest evil – the latter sought to reinvent themselves, to find new reasons for re-introducing the concept of universality into contemporary politics, to win new grounds for collectivism, turning for inspiration to the early founders of the Christian church – mainly to Saint Paul the Apostle (Badiou, Agamben, Zizek).

Their approaches to art also seem to differ considerably. The liberals, or the capitalists, seem less interested in art per se, and more in its external conditions: management, administration, selling or using it to solve extra-artistic problems or enhance business. Within this intellectual tradition in which many find inspiration one finds with difficulty a liberal thinker interested in matters of aesthetics and art theory. I am not aware of one distinguished twentieth century liberal author who gave art or aesthetics as much thought as did, for example, the so-called “historicists” (Adorno, Benjamin, Marcuse, Lukacs, to name only a few). It is again Ludwig von Mises who explains why the liberal-capitalists have not been so interested in this area. This is what he writes in one of his most celebrated and re-printed books, Liberalism (1927):

It is not from a disdain of spiritual goods that liberalism concerns itself exclusively with man’s material well-being, but from a conviction that what is highest and deepest in man cannot be touched by any outward regulation. [Liberalism] seeks to produce outer well-being because it knows that inner, spiritual riches cannot come to man from without, but only from within his own heart. It does not aim at creating anything but the outward preconditions for the development of the inner life.[4]

If the liberal-capitalist perspective (let’s pretend for now that there is only one) is reduced to the external and the material conditions of life, this is because to interfere with the soul of the individual (which, purportedly, only the Soviets or the Nazis have done with police brutality) would not be consistent with liberal principles of individual freedom. In other words, messing with the soul or the heart is politics, while letting the soul brood on its own amid the “equal” conditions provided by the free market is culture. It is beyond the scope of this text to consider the relation between the soul and the body, and to ask whether dealing only with the material aspects of life may not, in the end, have some effects on the soul.

Those in the liberal-capitalist camp tend to care more for the external conditions of art. They launch new institutions, design new cultural mechanisms, establish new cultural policies (in plural) and regulations: in short, they deal with all those things that Karl Popper once called “piecemeal engineering” – gradual and methodical social change through impersonal institutional mechanisms. It is only through this approach that according to Popper and his pupil Soros one can build an open society. For von Hayek, institutions (by which he means free and unregulated market mechanisms inspired by the image of Adam Smith’ invisible hand) are the only way to move toward culture, progress and civilization, the only way to subdue and restrict savage human nature, wild human instincts, and the restless soul. In the field of art and culture “piecemeal social engineering” translates into the implementation of those institutions, programs, and policies currently criticized by those who have set themselves in opposition.

The activists act within the boundaries of a discursive practice called “institutional critique.” Like in the West, where this practice began to emerge following the rise of Reaganomics and Thatcherism, in the post-socialist lands of Eastern Europe “institutional critique” appeared as soon as the processes of the neo-liberal normalization of the 1990s showed the first positive results. Those who are part of this forum opt for the soul, for political redemption through artistic and aesthetic (sensual) practices, for an art that instigates a political activism that would finally lead to more democracy and freedom. In their passage from the realm of necessity into that of freedom they denounce and criticize the so-called neoliberal institution of culture, which – they say – has managed in the last decades to establish  a synonymous relation between “creativity” and “profitability,” using the former, like “culture,” to bring a free-market competitiveness and self-interested pursuits into the sacred field of disinterested human poiesis. Most importantly, these critics denounce the tendencies of the new liberal-capitalist elites to turn urgent social and political issues into cultural differences; to present existing social problems (such as exploitation, unemployment, poverty, and alienation) as cultural diversity; to shift urgent political problems from the realm of the state (governments) and political society into the middle ground of civil society, which in this region has been understood in the Tocquevillian sense of bourgeois civil associations designed to keep a constant eye on the central government. The activists denounce the culturalization of urgent political issues, the pushing away of political antagonisms and problems under the veil of culture and cultural diversity.[5]

The Eastern European wave of institutional critique had to be expected. It is a manifest result of the intense process of institutionalization of every sphere of social life that took place during the last decades. It may sound tautological to say that institutional critique means the critique of institutions, but it must be kept in mind that by the word “institution” many activists do not simply refer to offices, to managers, to their computers and coffee-making machines, but to what sociologists call the habitualization of individual experience, to the typification of habitualized actions, to situations in which collective actions become predictable and recognizable, just as certain experiences acquire objective reality, gradually imposing themselves as self-evident (“This is how these things are done” or “This is how things will look from now on”). When a segment of human action is said to have been institutionalized this means that it has been brought under control, it has been reified.[6] In other words the object of criticism of the activists is what Adorno called the “totally administered society” – a thickened and hardened lived experience, a repressive system that tends to turn each individual into a manipulated cog of an enormous profit machinery.

But the activists are being criticized in turn. Voices from the culturalist camp as well as from within their own often ask: how can artists whose practice is itself reified claim to critique the institutionalization of artistic experience? The earlier invoked metaphor of the barricade that supposedly divides the Eastern European (or what used to be called so) art world appears today one-sided. The democrat-socialists and the liberal-capitalists, the free artists and the controlling managers, the critics and the criticized found themselves standing on the same deck, like the sub-tenants of Noah’s Ark. Some have even suggested that there is no “other” side anymore: that it all has been surrounded and enclosed within the deluge of the deregulated markets, and that it may be even erroneous today to conceive of the art world in terms of dichotomies (as I am doing here, proceeding from a concrete situation in Chisinau). Today, it is claimed, one space encloses both camps. The contemporary institution of art differs from the earlier modern one in that it does not only aims at including the site of production, distribution, and reception but it also tends to incorporate everything else, all that may be related or unrelated to contemporary art (“follow me on Twitter!”). Today, in other words,  institutional critique, or what Andrea Fraser calls the “institution of critique” is itself enclosed within the walls of the institution: We are the institution![7]

Indeed, unlike the early practitioners of institutional critique, of all those who carried on their protests standing outside the walls of museums and galleries, today the critique has been kindly invited inside: “Please come in and criticize us. Slap us in our shameless bourgeois faces. You’ll get paid!” It is mainly this kind of disapproval that one hears from the culturalist camp: many find this situation hypocritical, and hypocrisy has always been considered essentially a bourgeois sin. “How can the artivists,” say the culturalists, “come to a kunstverein – to this 19th century bourgeois epitome of the contemporary institution of art – and claim that they are staging a micro-revolution by shouting slogans in the micro-climate-controlled gallery, by resorting to structures and formats that have been reified and ossified a long time ago; how can they imagine that they are changing the world by sticking bright leaflets drawn in the style of the 1920s on the smooth walls of the kunstverein; and what’s more – they are getting paid for giving those symbolic smacks to a perverse bourgeoisie which seems to take so much pleasure in them!”

We also stumble upon culture versus politics opposition within the discourse of the Left itself. In the last century, for example, Adorno has questioned the importance of political commitment in art. In response to Sartre, who issued a call to writers (in What is Literature) to engage with the public, to learn to speak in images or messages accessible to the people, Adorno responded that the artistic intention, or the intended meaning is far from being the most important element in an artwork. The artist’s message is just one constituent elements among others, and accordingly it must be treated on equal footing with the work’s intrinsic material qualities: form, color, expression and so forth. For Adorno both autonomous and committed art are aporetic: the former because, despite of its claims to stand apart from life it is still deeply grounded in empirical reality, and the latter because despite its bombastic declarations about changing life it remains, nevertheless, a work of art. It is only by engaging in dialectical mediation of these two conflicting poles that one may aspire to resolve this aporia. It may seem as if today many Eastern European contemporary artivists have responded to the Sartrean call issued in 1947, raising moral questions with regard to oppressive contemporary political conditions. At times it seems as if many of them have even taken a Lukacsian path that leads to an aesthetics of content – an aesthetic position according to which the artistic experience is framed within (I am almost tempted to say a realist) narrative, given this theory’s belief that the task of art is to reflect socio-economic reality. Many artivists then see their primary task as one of unmasking and criticizing social aberrations and injustices. Adorno – whose Aesthetic Theory the Left found too bourgeois, and too culturalist for its concern with aesthetic autonomy – believed that attempts to deliver a political message by means of artistic content alone is futile, and that artistic activism cannot be very efficient at negating or criticizing a repressive empirical reality. As a matter of fact the opposite is true: politically engaged art succumbs to the same repressive principles, it gives up too easily to the stultification and reification of perception, to the same crisis of meaning that is expected from the established structures of the dominant ideology: “Works of art that react against empirical reality obey the forces of that reality…”[8] For Adorno, the vital element of art is willfulness and spontaneity, for only such an approach can help to escape (and only for a very short time) reification or institutionalization; only in such a way can one speak of true aesthetic negation. Who knows, maybe Adorno was right to insist that the only valid aesthetic expression, the only art worth doing is that which aims at the objectification of the non-objective, for only in this way is it still possible to negate or critique and to seriously engage in the production of radically new meaning.[9] I am always reminded in this context of Charles Fourier – the utopian French socialist, whose Theory of Four Movements (his best known work) resembles more a literary fiction than a serious social critique. However, it was this kind of writing, this fantasy – where androgynous planets engage in celestial copulation and procreation – that was able to give birth to new and radical meanings: to the origins of feminist theories, for instance, or to its being regarded as one of the constitutive elements of classical Marxism. One can also express this tension by invoking Fredric Jameson, who suggests, in The Political Unconscious, that the political is the interpretative horizon of every work of art. It is the horizon – comrades! – something towards which we can walk, something that always shifts in relation to our position. For many contemporary artivists, however, the political is the very ground on which they stand.

These are some of the critical positions that echo today within non-activist circles. I will conclude this section by stating once again that today Culture and Politics may be regarded as the two poles in between which unfolds most of contemporary Eastern European artistic production, and that the choice to gravitate towards one or the other pole may not be so easy as it appears at first glance.

 

IV

What is to be done? Was Ist Zu Tun? Chto Delat’… – well, let’s return for now to our national apartments.

In Chisinau the opposition between culture and politics, between the national-liberals and the socialist internationalists seems not only more pronounced and valid but also more complex due to, or because of the intrusion of a third factor which appears less important within the international Eastern European artistic context. It seems to me that if on the international post-socialist art scene the barricade that divides culture and politics is not very visible and that often, those who embrace conflicting ideologies find themselves standing next to each other before the transparent wall of the contemporary institution of art, it is because here such a category as “nation” does not play a very important part, or at least not as important a part as it does in the context of a concrete nation-state.

Critics today seem to ignore that fact that the most celebrated artistic collectives that practice activism come from countries that once were, or continue to be empires or federations. Is this a coincidence? I have not yet come across any highly praised radical left-wing artivist group or individual artist who comes from a small or a unitary nation-state, a category to which most of the countries of Eastern Europe and the former republics of the USSR (with the exception of Russia, and in the past of Yugoslavia) belong. It seems to me as if contemporary artistic activism tends to favor countries that were or remain “big,” “great” or even “oppressing nations” – to use a Leninist term to which I shall return. By no means do I wish to suggest that political left-wing activism, as a strategy in contemporary art, is absent from smaller or formerly oppressed nations, but rather that there it is less successful, and even less likely to brand itself as artivism as in the “great” nations. This impression holds especially within the context of the former USSR, in those countries where there is an ongoing tension between two or more national groups, as is the case in some former Soviet republics where the population is often divided into “natives,” and the so-called “Russian-speakers”.

What I want to suggest is that within the context of such a country as Moldova the divide, or the barricade that runs in between culture and politics is called “nationalism.” The disparity that exists between the Oberlist and the Resistance forums is manifest first and above all on the level of language. The information distributed through the national-liberal Oberlist listserv, as I have said, is mainly in Romanian and English (and sometimes, depending on the project, also in Croatian, French, German, Ukrainian or Russian). The local Resistance forum, on the other side – and in spite of its internationalist claims – is predominantly and assertively monolingual, although with shy attempts to translate the Russian material into the language of the locals. Of course, for the sake of justice it must be said that Resistance is a political forum and not an information portal, and that the artivists’ individual websites tend to be bi-lingual. But the Oberlist-Resistance divide reflects linguistic issues within the concrete Moldovan context that remain a problem, and it is the linguistic choices of the latter that anger many within the national-liberal culturalist camp. What angers them is this continuation of the Soviet line in which the word “internationalism” is pronounced only in Russian; it is also a certain mistrust in politics when they see how highly rated Russian contemporary artivists appear too often in the local “fifth column,” a column that still lives with nostalgia for the Soviet Union, for a time when speaking only Russian was considered more than enough – for a time when an oppressed nation had only limited cultural autonomy, restricted to singing and dancing in national costume before the members of the central committee as if impersonating the key principle of Soviet culture: national in uniform and socialist in content (or vice versa). It is all of this that is regarded by the national-liberals as too political and very uncultural. They all acknowledge that during the last two decades of national-liberalism, and the declaration of a state language, even the stubborn monolingual communists have managed to add a new language to their toolbox, learning how to make a more or less articulate sentence in their “Moldovan language.” Therefore many believe that to declare oneself a political left-wing activist in Moldova means to shoot oneself in the foot; it means to contribute to a future in which Moldova can end up one day like one of those assimilated “autonomies” scattered all across the Russian steppes with their language and customs exhibited only during the country’s national holidays. This is why when the national-liberal artists invoke the singular form of the word “culture” they mean Kultur – Meine Damen und Herren – they mean the ongoing project of constructing and safeguarding a national identity, of figuring out finally who they are, and why they must constantly ask themselves who they are. Culture with a capital “C” is the attempt to continue the processes of modernization but in such a way that this will not interfere with the preservation of their kind, of their tradition, of their language – all of that which was in the past denied to them.

When upon certain occasions I bring this delicate national problem before a Russian activist – this internal barricade which prevents many artists from countries like Moldova from joining a political anti-capitalist cause – I am told: “We follow the Leninist position on the national question.” I am then informed that Lenin declared his absolute support for the right of every nation to political self-determination, arguing that the denial of such a right will only support the local liberal-nationalist velikoros (Great Russian chauvinism). The true form of internationalism for Lenin, I am notified, consists in getting rid of one’s local national pride, of one’s own chauvinism, of one’s own government’s attempts to oppress and intimidate other nations. I clamber quickly back over the “barricade of nationalism” and roll back into the cultural field to bring the news to my national-liberal friends, but here I am met with suspicion. “What was Lenin’s true answer to the national question?” I am asked. “Was it his theoretical speculations about political self-determination for every nation, which he wrote during the oppressive Tsarist regime (1914), or was it his real actions as head of the newly formed Soviet state, when the Red Army was crushing national uprisings in Ukraine, Georgia, and Central Asian Republics, Estonia, Finland and Poland? Oh, yes, and don’t forget about Stalin’s answer to the national question – an answer, by the way, which according to Trotsky the poorly educated young despot wrote in 1913 under Lenin’s bombastic dictation!”[10]

I climb back over the barricade into the woods of politics. The national question seems indeed to be a delicate problem within Marxism. Many have lamented the lack of a clearer answer, claiming even that nationalism was one of the main causes of the collapse of really existing socialism in the Eastern bloc. This is not the place to enter a serious discussion of the national question in classical Marxism or Marxism-Leninism, except in those aspects of the problem that remain crucial to understanding the relationship between culture, nation and politics on the Chisinau contemporary art scene. The literature that discusses the complicated relation between Marxism and nationalism, between the category of “class” and that of “nation,” often divides this intellectual tradition’s approach to nationalism into three strands of thought: 19th century “classical Marxism,” which contains Marx and Engels’ views on the national question; Lenin’s contribution to the national question written in the first half of the 1910s; and finally the post-1917 solution, or what is often described as Marxist-Leninist or “national Marxism.”[11] Since today the third strand is considered a deviation from the Leninist line I will concern myself – very briefly – with the first two.

For the founders of Marxism, who understood historical progress in strictly economical terms, “nation” was from the very beginning a problematic category. Marx and Engels believed that nationalism was a temporary ideology, something that was to disappear once capitalist relations of production emerged in other non-Western parts of the world, consolidating local national markets and forming new nation-states. Nationalism would cease to be an important form of self-identification once this process was complete. In a world with no restrictions for international capital it is the category of “class” that becomes the main form of self-identification for exploited workers across different countries and continents. Therefore according to classical Marxism nationalism distracts the workers from the international class struggle, being an impediment to the development of a true democratic and internationalist anti-imperialist consciousness. Nationalism was dismissed as “false consciousness,” as the ideology of the middle classes who used it to pursue concrete material gains. Lenin’s contribution to the national question, which is to be found in the 20th volume of his complete works, was written in 1913-1914. Some of the most important arguments were contained in his responses to Rosa Luxemburg’s treatment of the national question. “Our Rosa,” as Lenin called his debater, believed that it would be a big mistake for the Bolsheviks to support the claims for political self-determination of national groups – some which could hardly even meet the criteria of a nation (the Finns, the Lithuanians, the Ukrainians). She thought that to answer the calls of these little national groups was to support the narrow interests of the local national bourgeoisies. Lenin replied that the category of “nation” must not be treated abstractly, but always within a concrete historical context, and that in certain cases the proletariat can and must ally itself with the national-liberal bourgeoisie. Under certain conditions the bourgeoisie may be regarded as a progressive political force which contributes to democratization and to the overcoming of feudalist relations, helping to prepare – willingly or unwillingly – pre-socialist conditions. It was in his response to Luxemburg that Lenin made the important distinction between nations that are oppressors and nations that are oppressed, arguing that the oppressed must receive full respect; they must be offered not only cultural autonomy (as the Russian cadets were proposing for Ukraine) but the right to political self-determination.[12] After 1917,  however, these declarations were not respected, and many critics have argued that the bold call to political self-determination made in 1914 was in fact a smart strategic game, an instrumental tactic to gain supporters to the Bolshevik cause among the national minorities of the Russian Empire.[13]

It is the colonial element in the Marxists’ approach to the national problem that disturbs many within the culturalist national-liberal camp. Marx, Engels, and to some extent Lenin, all took very seriously Hegel’s distinction between the so-called “historical nations” (something along the same lines as the Hegelian “world historical individuals”) and the “non-historical nations.” In their time Marx and Engels strongly supported, for instance, the movements towards the unification of Germany (given this country’s contributions to civilization and culture) but refused to recognize the right to national self-determination for such “non-historical” nations as the Czechs or the Bulgarians.[14] For all those national “fragments” that began to split and fall from the bodies of crashing empires Marxism did not offer any choice for self-determination. Marx even believed that only the highly industrialized and centralized nations were capable of carrying on  historical progress, and as far as the “un-great” nations were concerned they could become part of modernity only if assimilated and integrated within the bodies of other states, only if dragged like cosmic dust into the orbits of the “great” nations. This colonialist understanding of the relation between neighboring nations is what hurts the pride of many national-liberals, for even if they know that they are being looked upon and considered fragments, residues, tribes, cosmic dust they want at least to have the freedom (illusory perhaps) to choose which major cosmic body to follow, and not be dragged into the black hole of history without their consent. They do not hold illusions regarding liberalism either, for both classical liberalism and the neo-liberalism have also divided nations into civilized and savage, into enlightened and backward, into democratic and non-democratic, into open and closed societies, for after all both intellectual traditions have their roots in the ideology of the European Enlightenment. Both the Marxist-Leninist transition to communism, which followed 1917 (and in some parts of Europe 1940 or 1945), and the post-1989 “catching-up revolution” or the neo-liberal transition to capitalism, may be equally accused of immersion in colonial mentalities.

I think it was Hakim Bey who wrote at some point during the late 1990s that he would be suspicious if the next wave of left-wing internationalist revolutionaries happened again to come from Russia or the former USSR. I believe he expected the next revolutionary vanguard to emerge on the ruins of Yugoslavia. I often wondered why: is it because the Serbs lost their status of dominant national group or because they managed to get rid of the barricade of nationalism which divided them from other nations; is it because the national question remains for the most part unsolved within the emancipatory doctrine of Marxism? In other words, where to look for answers for these sorts of questions? For a long time we have known the answer to the question of “what is to be done”: a group of professional revolutionaries of the international vanguard must bring Marxist ideas to the oppressed masses. Perhaps a more persistent question would today be: “How is what must be done to be done?” It is a question of how one can do what must be done in a truly internationalist fashion without needing to climb back and forth over a barricade, to clamber up and down from the field of culture into the black woods of politics and back again.

 

Octavian Esanu 2011,

 


[1] On these distinctions see Turner, Charles. Modernity and Politics in the Work of Max Weber. (London; New York: Routledge, 1992).

[2] For more meanings of the term “culture” see Bennett, Tony, Raymond Williams, et. al., New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2005).

[3] See Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism: the Classical Tradition (Indianapolis; Liberty Fund, 2005).

[4] Ibid., xx.

[5] This section is an interpretation of some of the texts produced by the Prelom collective from Belgrade. See www.prelomkolektiv.org/

[6] On the origins of institutions see Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman The Social Construction of Reality (New York, Anchor Books, 1967).

[7] In this paragraph I paraphrase some of the issues raised by Andrea Fraser in her text “From the Critique of Institutions to the Institution of Critique” in Artforum 44, no 1: 278-283

[8] Theodor Adorno “Commitment” in Bloch, Ernst. Aesthetics and Politics. (London: Verso, 1980), 190.

[9] I draw in this section on James Martin Harding’s book Adorno And "A Writing of the Ruins": Essays on Modern Aesthetics and Anglo-American Literature and Culture. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997).

[10] See Stanley W. Page “Lenin and Self-Determination” in The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 28, No. 71, 1950, (342-358). See in particular page 250 and note 24.

[11] For three strands of nationalism in Marxism see Wallker Connor The National Question in Marxist-Leninist Theory and Strategy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

[12] See V. Lenin Sochinenia, Vol. 20 (Moskva, OGIZ, 1948,) 391.

[13] Graham Day and Andrew Thompson Theorizing Nationalism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

[14] Ibid., 25.