The Art of Chauvinism.
1996 was the year in which Home returned to the production and presentation of art. He showed the bed in which he slept during his Art Strike (Yerself is Steam) and a piece about Vermeer (at Workfortheeyetodo). Both were statements on the commodification of art. The tenure of the argument which informed his practice (both in his novels and his visual art work) is outlined in this text.
This text first appeared in issue 19 and is a response to John Roberts' article on BANK and the New British Art in issue 18. It also served to inform a concurrent debate which appeared in the pages of other publications (Art Monthly and New Left Review). Although this text might seem "leftier than thou" to contemporary eyes it is worth remembering that the anti-Hegelian Deleuze and Guattari were not placed upon the National Curriculum until 2001 and their influence was still relatively marginal in 1996. John Roberts' reply to this text (Home "truths") extends this debate.
Contemporary art simultaneously produces and is produced by, the social forms it serves to legitimate.
"Western" society is in a state of crisis, therefore "Western" culture is an important theatre of operations for those who wish to intervene in this crisis. The cultural realm, always an area of major significance to the ruling class, has come to occupy an even more important hegemonic position in "western" society since the switch to a service economy. The "major" European nations no longer enjoy economic hegemony over the rest of the world, and the European ruling classes clearly view culture as a vehicle through which they can "Will" their way back to global dominance. With every passing day, it becomes increasingly apparent that empty rhetoric about a New World Order was the last resort of American politicians hoping to mask the economic eclipse of "the West" by the emerging markets of south-east Asia. A few years ago, George Bush was speaking of the New World Order as if this meant that Japan had replaced Russia as the power jointly dominating the world alongside the USA. In fact, the Japanese economy is stagnating, its unwieldy corporate structure outflanked by the smaller units of capitalist production favoured in "city states" such as Singapore.
The city-centred development of capital around the Pacific Rim is unlikely to result in a return to the patronage system of the early Renaissance. The birth of art in its modern sense dates from the breakdown of this system. Art's appearance of autonomy is derived from the commodification of objects produced speculatively and sold on the "open" market, thereby escaping some of the ideological constraints of the pre-Renaissance patronage system but shackled all the same by social forms which produce, and are produced by, the institution of art. Despite its "internationalist" pretensions and its development through and across various cultures, the institution of art has in practice served the interests of a narrow-minded nationalism. This observation is true of far more than simply the most obviously totalitarian forms of art such as social realism. The American intelligence service ploughed vast amounts of money into promoting abstract expressionism, as has recently been revealed in articles such as Modern Art Was CIA "Weapon" (Independent On Sunday, 22/10/95). As a result, New York was able to "steal" the "idea" of the "avant-garde" from Paris, while simultaneously attempting to banish the more intransigent proponents of cultural materialism, who remain a spectre haunting both "the East" and "the West". As far as I am concerned, Jean-Paul Sartre doesn't enter into this equation; although the CIA may have feared Sartre's influence, his work is simply rehashed Heidegger, a fact that makes him, alongside hacks like Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper, one of the most despised philosophers of the twentieth-century.
Since ancient Greece forms the founding myth of "Europe", it is only natural that intense rivalry for the mantle of heir to the classical "heritage" predates the formation of the modern nation state. As Jean Seznec observes in The Survival Of The Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art (Princetown University Press, New Jersey 1972, p. 18): "In the twelfth century, cultivated men were already aware of the Greco-Roman origins of their culture, and Chrestien de Troyes affirms the idea that France had garnered the patrimony of antique virtue and culture..." Different forms of pseudo-classicism were developed by the different cultures of "Europe" but those who styled themselves as "French" proved most adept at claiming the "heritage" that was Greece and Rome, while simultaneously inventing nationalism as we know it today.
Although it was Hegel and Marx who provided revolutionaries with the theoretical tools with which they could attempt to forge a passage to the practical goal of overthrowing the state, the wily "French" finding themselves unable to overcome "German" idealism, made Paris the "spiritual" home of revolution. From 1789, via the Commune, to the events of May '68 and more recent strike waves, the militancy of both "French" workers and the "French" bourgeoisie has impressed "Anglo-American" radicals. James H. Billington, who addresses this phenomena in Fire In The Minds Of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith (Basic Books, New York 1980, p. 26), states that: "The cafes in the arcades and the "circus" in the center of the Palais-Royal incubated an intellectual opposition that went beyond the mild Whiggish reformism of the London coffee-houses that the House of Orleans had originally sought to imitate... If the French Revolution can be said to have begun in any single spot at any single moment, it may have been in the gardens of the Palais-Royal at about 3.30 in the afternoon of Sunday, July 12 1789, when Camille Desmoulins climbed up on a table and cried Aux armes! to the milling crowd... the crowd began coursing out onto the streets carrying busts of Necker and the Duke of Orleans."
Thus the "French" transformed Paris into the centre of both the old world and a world yet to come. The classical tradition was appropriated for the "benefit" of "French" culture, while the "first" modern political revolution is historicised as having been brewed in the cafes of Paris, establishments which later became the "centre" of modern art. Therefore, it will surprise no one that early in 1996 Andre Bernard and others involved with the Parisian cultural bulletin Ab Irato, were soliciting responses to the question "will the New World Order mean a New Cultural Order?" The New World Order is a chimera, a mask to cover a crisis of confidence that has swept through the "western" "democracies" in the wake of their alleged victory over a rival power block. What I wish to do, is examine the ways in which this crisis has manifested itself in relation to the institution of art and, in particular, various debates generated by the utter bankruptcy of serious culture.
Before moving on to examine the phenomena of the "young British artist", I wish to deal briefly with Barthelemy Schwarz's text From The Subversion Of Society By Art To The Subsidy Of Art By Society (le Monde Libertaire 4, July/August 1995), which was distributed alongside Andre Bernard's call for papers responding to the question "will the New World Order mean a New Cultural Order?" In the past, Schwarz has made useful criticisms of situationist fallacies, see for example the translated review of Guy Debord's Cette Mauvais Reputation included in Transgressions: A Journal Of Urban Explorations 1 (University Of Newcastle 1995, p. 79-81). Therefore, it is a little disconcerting to find Schwarz claiming that "it is not possible to have the realisation of art without the suppression of capitalism". Among Hegelians, there is an ongoing debate over whether Hegel was positing the death of art through its supersession by revealed religion, and ultimately philosophy within his hierarchically structured system. The SI's desire to realise and suppress art is a clear indication of how it positioned itself as an organisation within this debate. It was the inability of Debord and his friends to theorise beyond the surface phenomena of capitalist society that led them to supersede art with "theory", in effect "philosophy". What we call art is a product of commodification, it does not exist in non-capitalist societies and as a consequence, Schwarz's call for the realisation of art through social revolution beggars belief.
Schwarz's ideas are mired in French nationalism precisely because he wishes to defend art, and the easiest way for him to do so given his geographical location is to adopt the tried and trusted perspectives of a Paris-centred "revolutionary" "avant-garde". From the standpoint of "art theory", Schwarz makes some clever innovations. For example, his notion of mixed-economy art, which is characterised as "the art of the period running from the Liberation... up to the crisis today... on the one hand, the sham artists of the private sector... of which the main features are accumulation, destruction, serialisation... on the other hand, the sham artists... of the State... of whom the characteristics are taxonomy, parcelling, labelling, sorting, defining, naming..." Nevertheless, by accepting the notion of the mixed economy as a phenomena peculiarly characteristic of the second half of the twentieth-century and applying it to art, Schwarz is adopting the outlook of a bourgeois ideologue. The notion of a free market is completely utopian, historically capitalism has always tended towards a mixed economy, although the level of state intervention has obviously varied over time. Likewise, by using the notion of the "Liberation" without so much as quotation marks around it, Schwarz is operating from a very narrow social perspective, since as a form of historical periodisation it makes no sense to the vast majority of people in the world.
Since art has traditionally been defended on the basis of its universal validity, its apologists often find it convenient to disguise the essentially bourgeois character of the views they hold. However, as Simon Ford documents in his article Myth Making (Art Monthly 194, March 1996), those critics cheer-leading the promotion of young British artists (yBa) feel little inclination to place constraints on their expressions of chauvinism as they cynically celebrate the existence of a phenomenon that their "critical" activities have helped bring into being: "The question as to whether the myth of the yBa is nationalistic does not exhaust itself with an examination of individual works but also in how the work is used and promoted abroad. By appealing to national pride the myth of the yBa seeks to instil in its audience a sense of national identity which is where myth fades into ideology. This group has been utilised as cultural ambassadors representing and defining "British" culture abroad... representing Britain in full "enterprise culture" bloom."
Ironically, one of the more insidious expressions of this outburst of cultural chauvinism, Mad For It! Bank and the New British Art by John Roberts (Everything 18, London 1996), appeared more or less simultaneously with Ford's piece. Roberts attempts to theorise the yBa as a bulwark against criticisms of art made from a class perspective: "The working-class philistine may be the excluded disaffirmative presence of art's professional self-reification, but this does not mean that working-class refusal of art's reification is the excluded truth of art. This sociological formalism is what is wrong with the post-aesthetic followers of Pierre Bourdieu who takes the truth of art to lie solely in its class exclusion... the "philistine" is a discursive construction which shifts position depending on what constitutes "proper" or "correct" aesthetic behaviour... For there is the unthinking stupidity of the philistine who sees his or her rejection of the dominant discourses of modern art as univocally true, and the thinking stupidity of the philistine who sees his or her rejection of the dominant discourses of modern art as a matter of ethical positioning. The latter, in my view, underscores the work of Bank and a number of other young British artists (Gavin Turk, Gillian Wearing, Dave Beech, David Burrows)."
Roberts resorts to creating a cardboard opponent and then knocking it down. To reduce art to its class exclusions is clearly absurd, since even for Bourdieu art very obviously provides the ruling class with the ideological glue of a common culture. In fact, many other critiques have been made of art, from Henry Flynt's attack upon it as the imposition of an alien subjectivity to Jean Gimpel's rationalist moral argument. Sociology, like art "criticism", is a bourgeois specialisation which seeks to maintain separate categories of knowledge as, among other things, a buttress to the class position of academics like Roberts, who is thus able to pose as a middle-class expert on a specific form of discourse. Roberts attacks sociology for its reductive formalism, something that is a feature common to all academic specialisations including art "criticism", precisely because he does not wish to deal with materialist critiques that do not reduce the organisation of power to a simple question of class categories, but instead allow other specificities, other patterns of exploitation and exclusion, to be seen in relation to each other and the broader articulation of power. Likewise, Roberts fails to address why, in his words, "after postmodernism the bridging of the "great divide" between popular culture and high culture is formally a dead issue." Roberts is able to make this bald assertion by ignoring the critique of the institution of art elaborated by, among others, Roger L. Taylor in his book Art An Enemy Of The People (Harvester Press, Hassocks 1978), and because "post-modernism", most especially in its yBa form, represents the triumphant re-emergence of what Igor Golomstock has described as being, after modernism, the second international style of twentieth-century culture, that is to say totalitarian art.
With the exhaustion of modernism, it became necessary for the ruling elite to revive the discourse of totalitarian art, and just as National Socialism was a brand of aesthetic politics, so "post-modernism" is ultimately cultural fascism. The identity politics of the democratic "left" was long ago appropriated by the New Right for the defence of "European particularism." Naturally, both pop art and performance were important precursors to these trends, with Beuys, Warhol and Gilbert & George being the leading exponents of this tendency as modernism entered its final phase of decline. One of the functions of totalitarian culture is to simultaneously mask and highlight the class exclusions of art by reaching out to the "masses" and encouraging them to view certain cultural artefacts as windows into a "higher" realm, where their inclusion as passive spectators is actually a mark of their exclusion from participation in "serious" culture in any meaningful sense. Ford in Myth Making describes how the "origination and propagation of the (yBa) myth are firstly the responsibility of the contemporary arts establishment. The myth then becomes a feature of the mediation between the art world and a wider audience by the mass media."
The yBa appeals to those who have made their money from pop and fashion precisely because such people are upwardly mobile and, along with the yBa, form part of a pincer attack on Europe aimed at re-establishing Anglo-American hegemony in culture. It should go without saying that so-called Brit pop is grounded in exactly the same sixties nostalgia, that untenable myth of "swinging London", as the yBa. In 1966, after the "British invasion" spearheaded by the Beatles and the Stones, "England" consolidated its "victories" in two inter-imperialist wars by defeating the West German football team to win the world cup. "Brit" chauvinists long for the feeling of consolidation events such as these give to their "sense" of "national identity", a "Britishness" that has to be willed into being precisely because it never has and never will exist. And so, at the very moment the Anglo-American dominance of youth culture was threatened by the emergence of indigenous techno scenes in metropolitan "centres" all over "Europe", Blur and Oasis took up the "axe" to do battle with the "faceless" hordes of "foreigners" autonomously creating their own dance music. "British" culture can only go backwards, it's got no where else to go if the issue of cultural hybridity is to be avoided. The national identity currently being willed into being remains an echo of a non-existent "white" past.
The cult of the personality is, of course, a central element in all totalitarian art. While both fascism and democracy are variants on the capitalist mode of economic organisation, the former adopts the political orator as its exalted embodiment of the "great man," while the latter opts for the artist. This distinction is crucial if one is to understand how the yBa is situated within the evolving discourse of totalitarian art. Had the "bright young things" of the London gallery scene merely copied the cultural excesses of the Nazi era, their reactionary activities would have been ghettoised within the far-Right fringe. However, the critics who theorise the yBa understand that by transforming art into a secular religion, rather than a mere adjunct of the state, liberalism imposes its domination over the "masses" far more effectively than National Socialism. The focus, especially in the mass media, must be on the artists rather than the artwork.
What Roberts and his ilk are asking us to consume is a "Britishness" rooted in sixties nostalgia, and that is therefore able to make much better use of the totalitarian obsession with "youth" than more obviously "volkish" productions. In this mythological realm, the seventies are dominated by punk, which the yBa has taken up precisely because punk has been rehistoricised as avant-garde art, rather than the popular culture it so obviously was and, in most cases, still is. For the unfortunate student of cultural studies, punk is a potlatch of sixties "radicalism". The importance of the situationists was hugely inflated in the construction of this revisionist history, which substituted London for Paris as the world centre of "revolutionary" art, while the "street" stood in for the coffee-house and the salon. Quasi-revolutionary rhetoric of the type indulged in by proponents of the "punk as art" thesis subsequently taken up by many of the apologists for the yBa, is part of a concerted attempt to divorce "radicalism" from class analysis and simultaneously falsify history, and such phenomena have always been a feature of totalitarian discourse. Similarly, there is much talk of the yBa's "clubbiness", a sly substitution for the notion of "comradeship" found in less liberal forms of totalitarian culture, and one which simultaneously serves to retrench Anglo-American hegemony over youth culture in the face of its erosion within and through the techno explosion.
Now there is another element that is crucial to the success of totalitarian culture, and that is the factor of high kitsch. The words Stephen Crook uses to deal with the issue of fascism in his introduction to Theodor Adorno's The Stars Down To Earth And Other Essays On The Irrational In Culture ( Routledge, London and New York 1994) can very "profitably" be applied to the yBa and the "critical" apologists for those forms of totalitarian culture which have emerged within "democratic" regimes: "While its effects might be deadly, fascist propaganda is not altogether "serious"... The audience who turn out to see and hear the fascist agitator expect a good show... Their "sentimentality, blatant insincerity and phoniness" are not flaws in such performances, but the core of their appeal. The showman-like fakery of the agitator links him to the snake-oil salesman, the circus performer and an entire tradition of sentimentality and false tones" Even more than their originals, recent European fascisms are highly syncretic. German fascist youths parade in the costumes of British skinheads while carrying banners which imitate the swastika flag: theirs is a pastiche of fascism, but none the less dangerous for that." One should not be surprised by the discrepancy between the high minded ideals "traditionally" associated with art, and the subject matter that attracts totalitarian artists working under "liberal" political conditions. Gilbert & George have their pictures of shit, just as Damien Hirst has worked with maggots. These serve to illustrate the gulf between art and life, a gulf which the totalitarian artist wishes to reinforce, whether it be through the idealised depiction of a Hitler or Mao, or by the use of subject matter drawn from everyday life, which ceases to be ordinary after undergoing an "alchemical" transformation through the medium of art. In fact, such discrepancies serve the totalitarian artist very well, since those who support work of this type expect blatant insincerity. Nevertheless, while Damien Hirst might be rated the sixth most irritating man in the world by GQ Magazine, hacks of this type only provide the main focus of attack for those who wish to strengthen, rather than undermine, the institution of art. Hirst, Bank, Gavin Turk et al are interchangeable in their irrelevance, an expert such as Roberts is quick to praise their "thinking stupidity" precisely because there is no danger of this crop of artists usurping the role of the critic by superseding art with philosophy.
Michael Archer, a less accomplished apologist for art than Roberts, concludes his yBa article No Politics Please, WeĠre British (Art Monthly 194, March 1996) with the observation that: "These people are making art, not theory." The social organisation of power under capitalism is predicated upon the canalisation of human activity into separate spheres. Since within this system "theory", or rather bourgeois ideology falsely claiming the status of theory, constitues one of the major occult principles through which "artists" and thus "art objects" are materialised, it is the critics and curators who use the yBa to pursue the chauvinistic chimera of "Britishness" whilst simultaneously retrenching class divisions, who I wish to make the focus of my attack. While "English" intellectuals have never enjoyed the exalted status of their "French" cousins, they are equally insidious and must be criticised from that materialist perspective which constantly reforges the passage between theory and practice, so that the great flood of human history may flow over the dikes erected by priests, cops, art critics and philosophers, washing away every discredited social form and thereby allowing the latent possibilities of this age to pour forth from the well-springs of human creativity.