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Progress in art: what would that possibly be in a time when the very idea of progress has become ridiculous, when the world’s bullies revive the most phantasmatic divisions and binaries that keep us hostage, and where no ghosts, demons or vampires of the past are buried safely, prevented from sudden return? And yet there can be progress in art. Perhaps it makes it necessary to say farewell to contemporary art as we know it, to disentangle from some of its codes and rituals – the rituals of how it constitutes itself as a social fact, produces value, and how it distributes its symbolic powers. That is because contemporary art, as a paradigm, is to a large extend the post-historical product and expression of a (neo-)liberal age that has just come to an end, and which we might come to mourn. But it was ill-conceived, the bubble of liberal consensus; and what it gave way to is not so much its adversary as its naked, unmasked underside: the violence of exclusion. The space of this column does not suffice to unpack liberalism’s implicit calculus of violence, which goes well back into the age of colonialism.

We have to be brief, hence the suggestion that the rituals of social power in the economy of contemporary art is where its deep affinity to financialization under neoliberalism lies, tapping into archaic layers of our sociality not unlike social media are mining our very constitution as relational beings. Progress would consist of making art accountable again to politics beyond the neoliberal identity between market and society, and instead of engaging in celebratory or defeatist rituals of defensive adaptation to a seemingly overpowering enemy without any outside, to engage in an explication of humanness and its fragility. This is possible only by picking up a threat that in the past decade was not so much discarded as it has hit a glass wall – perhaps the glass wall of what can be seen from within the liberal consensus itself. This threat has been the gradual opening up of contemporary art to its own conditions of possibility. It has rendered art first into meta-art, that is, art about the possibility of art, before it proceeded to engage in the critique of representation and institutions. In the course of this development, contemporary art became a medium of reflection, a process in which world-views and conditions of signification and representation were rendered explicit and could become thematic. Yet such explication does not occur in a determinate fashion, rather, it takes place within the medium of the aesthetic, as a reflection on our being-in-a-medium, our mediatedness as social and historical subjects. This reflection begins not by fixing meaning, but by ungrounding it, by rendering it uncanny, as it were. Art then confronts us with our own tacit assumptions, our own cognitive maps. Its indeterminacy is what opens this space of interpretation not to a limitless play of significations, but to the space of situated, habituated world-views and their sensorium. It is not a matter of only a few or many possible interpretations, but of the capacity to render the implicit explicit, without subjugating it to positivist signification and fixed meaning.

Art then produces situated, non-essentialist knowledge. But in the past decade, it arguably has ceased to further its critical advance of reflecting and rendering thematic its own conditions of possibility. Instead, contemporary art has essentialized itself as a social value and fact. It must disentangle itself from the economy of affects and capitalized individuality, and resurrect from the ruins of the neoliberal individual the possibility of different subjectivities, different forms of ‘subjectivation’. Art needs a consciousness of deep time and the imaginary of the longue durée to achieve this.

Perhaps the comparison is far-fetched, but a post-Trump world may well look like the post-Soviet world in certain respects: a disaster zone, a post-ideological ruin. It is not pretty. Where in the Soviet Union, the power-plug of the Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy had been pulled, today, the power supply was withdrawn from the pluralistic, liberal democratic consensus in the very place where it was forged into a global hegemonic framework. Both ideological breakdowns may well resemble each other in their outcome: the rise of rogue capitalism, corrupt oligarchy, and nationalist and racist forces.

Perhaps this is where the analogies cease to make sense; perhaps they could be pushed further. It must be noted that for the very ‘liberal establishment’ against which the new authoritarianism has been agitating, the scale of the event is difficult to stomach, even to realize: hence the desperate attempts at normalization and rationalization that we are currently witnessing. The history of post-war liberalism and American power are so intertwined that rationality itself, including the notion of progress, are unimaginable to most beyond its framework and mythemes, a framework that has early on in its development already claimed for itself to be post-ideological. There simply is no historical conscious, no narrative beyond that framework readily at hand, which has not been swallowed up by the ahistorical rhetoric of liberalism, in which progress became an automatism. But the white supremacists have such a narrative, a deep memory of their ‘struggle’, which can be activated at all times, eerily shape-shifting and yet consistent.

Progress in art will thus mean the construction of a different kind of memory and narrative. It must be an art that rescues the idea of progress from the ruins of liberal capitalist triumphalism. It must start form the insight that the ideology that has just come to an end, that is that of the happy marriage between capitalism and democracy, which collapsed because of its inner contradictions, brought down by the very cybernetic technologies of social control that sprang out of those once meant to secure democracy against totalitarianism. Trumpism is a logic outcome of the thrive to create a total identity between market and society, a logic outcome of the militarized underside of hegemonic liberalism. To rescue progress from the ruins of the post-1945 consensus means to recover a different kind of memory: a memory of precarious struggles whose achievements are at all times reversible. Awareness of one’s role and position within these struggles has at all times fundamentally affected and transformed art. Now is a time when it hopefully begins to be clearer again that what needs to be defended is our humanity, and reality itself.


Bad Government in the Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti

Anselm Franke

is writer, curator, and Head of Visual Arts and Film at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin


Anselm Franke

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