Day 9: Ceci N’est Pas Un Blog


As today seemingly seems to be free from substantial news apart from that radical piece of resistance (to be voted on by the Senate as I am writing this) intended by Democrats to tell Bush that he is being weally, weally mean, Condi’s visit to Baghdad (congratulating the Iraqis on their fine leadership after the perceived absence of strong leadership and the fact that they “do not step up to the plate” has been the Republican’s argument for why the US is experiencing problems in Iraq) and Britney Spears shaving her head, I feel compelled to write about something less contemporary (maybe).

On the day 96 years ago the Armory Show opened its doors to the public in New York City, exposing a wide public for the first time to Modern art. President Theodore Roosevelt commented: “this is not art!” For the first time presenting a major display of non-realistically representational art, the Armory Show has been credited with opening up an entire discourse about alternative forms of representation, subjectivity and, eventually, politics.

Was it not nice when there still was a disjoint between a radical art exhibits and our president? In how far do we still agree that art, as famously claimed by critics beginning with Adorno’s analysis of art in relation to the culture industry, climaxing in Jameson’s critique of postmodernism, is indeed becoming increasingly one-dimensional, lacking the artistic and political transformational potential displayed for example by the Armory Show? Is art truly fully contained, serving almost singularly the interest of mass production and consumption? What are areas that exist outside of this situation? Is there  a political justification for idealizing past accomplishments such as the Armory Show, realizing that Modernist art did exist in an elitist space, segregated from mainstream society, but was precisely from this space able to launch critiques and analyses of society from the outside? What are the precise political consequences of the popularization of art, making it, as opposed to Modernism, into a medium accessible to everyone? Jameson et al. have voiced their critique of this supposed democratization of art almost twenty years ago. What do we think about this now? What is the potential of artistic production in our stage of consumer capitalism? What is/should be the role of a potential artistic avant garde (in the tradition of the Armory Show)? Do we need one?

Lots of questions, I know. But I simply want to suggest that these questions are often treated as singularly involving a binary choice. Isn’t the formulation of the question in these terms in itself indicative of Modernist logic we should depart from? Is it not out of this logic that the longing for an avant-garde arises? And, is there even the logical possibility for something like an avant-garde these days? I claim the logic of neoliberalism has made this impossible.

Whatcha think?

And: I would like to send my best wishes to my friend Natascha who has just begun her field work in South Africa–all by herself–she is a very brave soul when it comes to radically restructuring her life. I have to force myself not to regress into Hemingway-idealizations of the idea of Africa, as I have never been there, proving the accuracy of the old quote: “the darkest thing about Africa has always been our ignorance of it.”

Take care of yourself and good luck! May you pave the way to a less ignorant me.

“When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.” (Bishop Desmond Tutu)



  1. I don’t know that art is all that one-dimensional these days. I’m not sure what that means. Is it an invocation of Marcuse? And I’m not sure what you mean but the impossibility of an avant garde movement in art arising out of neoliberalism. I don’t deny it, I just don’t see what that means.

    I guess when I look at the difference between today and 1914 in the political possibilities of art I see a situation in which there are no norms. Nothing has the power to shock because nothing can really be perceived as particularly new. Much more likely that any casual viewer of art will suspect that it comes from a subculture with which she is unfamiliar than suspect that it represents some new direction in which art is moving.

    Sure, people will look at Deschamp and say that it looks like an explosion in a shingle factory, but not for the same reasons they did in 1914, when the expectation was that art would be representational. Now everyone seems to say “it’s a matter of taste.”

  2. Yes, I agree with your description of the difference in the aesthetic mission of art comparing these two historical conjunctures.

    What I would like to indicate/potentially see complicated is precisely what you describe, namely the possibility of an avant-garde movement, which per definition draws its artistic motifs from a situation of negative opposition to a social dominant. Within a situation that is increasingly based upon inclusion, as transgression and resistance are extremely valuable (in a material, economic sense) impulses within consumer capitalism, it seems logically increasingly impossible to formulate such a project. Even sub-, or countercultures, as you mention, are not really marginalized any more and fully work in correlation with consumer capitalism’s need for innovation. The question is thus where to locate such avant-garde potential within a logic that makes this increasingly impossible, or, as I finally suggest, we have to consider that question itself as an outmoded way to think about the potential function of art, corresponding to the logic of a historical situation we have superseded.

  3. Just quickly, myself, I’m interested in the next *small* thing. Something radically democratic and accessible to masses, free. An avant-garde, were there one, might take us right into the bad aura that benjamin famously discusses.

  4. aaaw! thank you, you are the best!

    well, in all honesty, the idea of being in the US of A all on my own would scare me a lot more than being in Jo’burg – albeit for different reasons.

    I may try to post the occassional comment to your blog in which I will look at some at how some of the issues you are interested in are playing themselves out in a South/ Southern African context.

    (on a totally different note, I just found the message you left me about driving and you brought me right back to school days. in a good way [know that I don’t say this often].)

  5. That may be true. South Africa seems to be courteous enough to put up signs that tell you to gett off your cell so that you can see who is going to shoot you. Loved that picture!

    And school days–aaah, yes. I remember a blue Opel Corsa, interesting hair colors and styles, that sweet Mary Jane, Hot Rocks…
    However, I cannot really remember how we got from there to here. Wow. Kinda glad I am actually using my brain these days, though, I must say–especially you–that’s why I’m so proud of you–famous scholar with hair brighter than the sun.

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