POPULIST REASON

MANUEL BORJA-VILLEL*

8 KASIM 2013

I could only grasp her more quickly yet, for even while she spoke the hideous plain presence stood undimmed and undaunted. It had already lasted a minute, and it lasted while I continued, seizing my colleague, quite thrusting her at it and presenting her to it, to insist with my pointing hand. "You don't see her exactly as we see? — you mean to say you don't now — now? She's as big as a blazing fire! Only look, dearest woman, look — !"1, Broadview Press, Peterborough, ON, 2010, p. 232]

It is the governess who is talking, the tutor whose name we don't know and who constitutes the sole voice in the tale by Henry James, The Turn of the Screw. In this novel, the American author submerges us in a world of horrors and uncertainties, caused by the existence of a menacing presence in the house inhabited by the protagonist and her relatives. The text concludes with a terrible and devastating doubt: its characters suspect the veracity of their own existence, sense that perhaps they themselves are the spectre that threatens them; and that the other figure, who seems to be ethereal, is in fact the one that is real. Published more than a century ago, James' novel continues to be very contemporary. From more established political positions, those who are outraged by social injustices are accused of sabotaging democratic coexistence, of not respecting the rules. The severity with which the Turkish government suppressed the occupation of Taksim Square is one example. But what if the reverse were the case. What if it were the representatives of these institutions who were acting against democracy and the individual?

Art has always maintained an ambiguous relationship with power. It is this same ambiguity that has allowed it to elude utilitarian reasoning, or the various types of instrumentalization to which it has been subject throughout history. A religious painting by Caravaggio, or a royal portrait by Velázquez both had an educational and symbolic function. But they are also in themselves an enigmatic signifier; a relational element that encourages different approaches, provokes a great variety of meanings, and complicates and impedes their absorption. In the same way, even if conservative factions of bourgeois society are suspicious of the artistic avant-gardes, their transgressive proposals do come to be tolerated over time, provided that such limits are confined to very concrete discursive and institutional limits. The museum was one of these enclosures. By separating works from their historical and social reality, it constituted a place of privilege in which antagonism and diversity became affirmative through a process of canonization, aestheticization, and even inversion of its meanings. The institutional criticism that some artists deployed in the seventies opposed this assimilation, attempting to create fissures and spaces of resistance in the system itself.

In recent decades, modern art has been subject to all kinds of pressures that have led to its transformation into a commodity and the consequent loss of its critical nature and its Utopian anticipation. As Benjamin Buchloh said, in an article recently published in Artforum, radicalism has been converted into its opposite, a condition of universal aesthetic entropy.2 The last edition of Unlimited, at the Basel art fair, was a good reflection of this attitude: decontextualized pieces, short- length videos, and a grandiloquence reminiscent of the art pompier of the nineteenth century. A gigantic bug by Lygia Clark, situated at the entrance to the pavilion, was palpable evidence of how the sharpness of a brilliant artist had been transformed, in the hands of an unscrupulous market, into a joke in bad taste. The aesthetic experience is no longer a liberating experience, an opening up of new worlds, but rather the ratification of the status quo. Artistic practice has been assimilated into the culture of consumption and, due to the growing casualization of criticism, the parameters of evaluation and distinction are fading in an alarming way. The result is this "anything goes" that is so popular in some sectors of contemporary art. These sectors perceive the existence of a judgement or discursive suggestion as an aggression against a supposed aesthetic pluralism, which is another manifestation of this advanced capitalism that reduces any artistic expression to an indifferent and interchangeable product.

Over the course of just a few days, around 70,000 people visited the retrospective exhibition of the work of Salvador Dalí that the Museo Reina Sofia organized this spring. Many of them put up patiently with having to queue for up to two hours to be able to visit the rooms. Together with Picasso, Tradition and Avant-Garde and the exhibition dedicated to Antonio López, this Dalí show will be our most popular by far. It belongs in the line of exhibitions dedicated to Velázquez and Monet, at the Prado, or to Hopper at the Thyssen, to mention just some of those that have taken place in Madrid in recent years. What is it that makes these artists popular? What does their popularity consist of? Although a number of factors come into play, there are two that stand out in the case of Dalí. The first is to do with the implosion of the art market that has converted modern art into a refuge value, reaching prices that were unimaginable a few decades ago. Logically enough, economic investment is clothed with enormous communication campaigns that move people to internalize the offer of the spectacle as a need. The authors and their works are converted into brands for products of rapid consumption. Dalí, like Picasso, Miró, Van Gogh, Monet and others, forms part of an imaginary universe of creators that we know and in whom we recognise ourselves. Secondly, Salvador Dalí set a precedent for Warhol in his perception of the central role that the mass media had acquired in contemporary society. Both understood that it is the communication industries that determine our subjectivities and had no hesitation in exploiting their resources to the point of fever pitch. If, over the course of the nineteenth century, instrumental reasoning (the use of reason with the ultimate aim of gaining a benefit) took the place of historical reasoning (reason as an element of liberation), we might conclude that populist reason is hegemonic in these moments. This is characterized by the desire to direct our attention to what is exempt from interest and to introduce to us as something new that which we have already had our fill of seeing time and time again.

We know that power is not to be found outside of society, in a court of superior standing, but that it is rather submerged within the framework of our personal relationships. The fact that these are objectified and rendered meaningless has to do with a collective order that brutalizes us, takes advantage of us. A world of consumers is organized by impulses similar to those of the masses as described by Canetti, very different from the multitude that occupies the squares. At the heart of the masses, the excited individuals who constitute it do not make up a public as such. The mass is a non-reflexive amalgam, composed of semi-subjectivities, of people without a profile who unite around a leader, hero or idol, and identify with him. Their actions tend towards submission, not emancipation.3, Valencia: Pre-Textos, 2005, pp. 13-14] Hence there is no need for the voice of an artist or an intellectual who questions their world. He has a clear sense of what he wants and does not need an external judgment to call it into question. Any judgements and contrary opinions are always perceived as a danger and raise all kind of suspicions.

The modern artist and the modern intellectual freely represented the kind of universal consciousness that was opposed to those high places that were in service of the State or of capital. Their freedom proceeded from the relative autonomy of art. At present, however, artistic practice is increasingly integrated into a system in which knowledge no longer belongs to us. Our intellectual work is constantly expropriated, and our own experiences are now susceptible to being transformed into merchandise. The porosity between critical approaches, the activity of the intellectual, the artist and that which the communication industries promote becomes more intense every day, in some cases reaching levels of cynicism and perversity that were unknown until very recently. When our years of research, funded by public money, ends up being the subject of speculation in private hands, we realize, unfortunately, that our work is helping to establish the thing we criticize. In addition, when we wish to generate spaces managed and financed on the margins of the State, we start to have doubts about whether or not we might be participating in the general privatisation that advanced capitalism advocates, assuming a task and responsibilities that the State does not want to exercise because they are not considered profitable. As in the novel by Henry James, perhaps it may be true that we are all of us at the same time ourselves and the other, the living and the ghost.

The role of the intellectual can no longer be that of situating himself either "a little in advance or just outside" in order to show truth to the rest of humanity. It is a question of struggling against forms of power where this is at once object and instrument: in the order of "knowledge", "truth", "consciousness", and "discourse". As Foucault reminds us, power and the market are organized on the basis of a network of influences and relationships that are global and total. Faced with this practice, there arises the need for responses that are fragmentary and local. "We have no need to totalize that which is invariably totalized on the side of power; if we were to move in this direction, it would mean restoring the representative forms of centralism and a hierarchical structure."4 So, if there is something today that unites the artist, the critic and the curator, it is the pressing need for self- reflection and specific approaches. Filliou's jester, whose games are beyond instrumental reason, Broodthaers' melancholic and ironic poet, or a critical author in the shape of a Haacke or an Asher are examples of methods that break down the existing barriers between the work of the intellectual, the artist and the manager. They avoid the totalized logic of the market and come close to that which Foucault himself called "specific intellectual". And they succeed because their works are not concerned with producing value, nor in obtaining any accountable earnings. Perhaps therein lies the great potential for creating spaces of resistance and freedom in a society that ignores that which it does not find useful, which serves no purpose.

*Director of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
June 2013
  • 1.
    Henry James, The Turn of the Screw and Other Tales, [edited by Kimberley C. Reed
  • 2.
    Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, 'Farewell to an Identity', Artforum, vol. 51, No 4, December 2012, pp. 253-261
  • 3.
    Peter Sloterdijk, El desprecio de las masas. Ensayo sobre las luchas culturales de la sociedad moderna [The contempt of the masses. An essay on the cultural battles of modern society
  • 4.
    Michel Foucault, 'Power Strategies', in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, New York: Pantheon Books, 1980
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