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Un-review: ‘Sonst wer wie du’ at The Prehistory of the Crisis

Art is useless, economics, nationalism, Ireland, bad art
Art is useless. Thank goodness.
Back in the, ahem, ‘olden days’ when I was knee-high to a parking metre and as stupid as a political journalist—by which I mean stupider than I am now—I was very confused by the political meaning of art. That is to say, what contribution the politically-minded artist could possibly make. Was political art useful? Was it a waste of time, descending into mere propaganda. That kind of thing. 

So what, says you? Indeed. Fair point. This is not intended to be an apologia for an amadáin, but in the space of a three year degree in fine art I moved from pissed-off to full-blown epistemological crisis.

Without going too deep into cod-psychology, I rather suspect a lot of this was to do with having a self-consciously working class outlook rather than a bourgeois weltanschauung. By this I do not mean that I lionised working class modes of entertainment, just that I harboured a sneaking suspicion that being a court painter—or jester—was not a terribly fulfilling role for an Angry Young Man. This is nothing special—the socialisation processes in working class life produce their fair share of people like me: pissed-off, bewildered and over-educated. Not necessarily in that order.

So no, painting pretty pictures was not for me. I was more interested in fighting. Saith Alan Sillitoe: “Do you know what I’d do if I had the whip hand? I’d get all the coppers, governors, posh whores, penpushers, army officers and members of parliament and I’d stick them up against this wall and let them have it ’cause that’s what they’d like to do to blokes like us.” That’s the stuff! To decontextalise “Sir” Herbert Read: to hell with culture.

I later discovered that I’d been barking-up the wrong orchard. John Carey, professor of big words at the school for very clever people, has argued, at length, that art has no redeeming value insofar as it does not make us better people. Nazi concentration camp guards were happy to have prisoners play string quartets before killing them, so, at the very least, we can say that listening to string quartets does not result in a more well-rounded individual.

In this sense, art is useless. I think my cognitive dissonance was a result of me attempting to square a particularly pointless aureole. Or, to put it another way, I was engaged in the political equivalent of angelology—how many tins of anartist’s shit can dance on the head John Stuart Mill?

How depressing. So depressing, in fact, that I abandoned art and ran away to the circus. Now, however, I am wondering if art’s uselessness shouldn’t be celebrated.

Novelist Paul Auster wrote in Britain’s most up-market comicbook, the Observer, that:

“[...] art is useless, at least when compared, say, to the work of a plumber, or a doctor, or a railroad engineer. But is uselessness a bad thing? Does a lack of practical purpose mean thatbooks and paintings and string quartets are simply a waste of our time?”

I don’t think so. Nor does Mr. Auster, for that matter, but who cares what an award-winning, millionaire writer has to say when you can read the ramblings of Lunchtime O’Booze on a poorly-designed web site? But I digress… So, imagine my joy when I was faced with the Prehistory of the Crisis at Dublin’s Project Arts, an exhibition dedicated to a mind-crunchingly facile engagement with politics—not so much politics with a capital p as politics with a capital misanthropy.

The exhibition hinges on a few very simple ideas. Or, more accurately, simplistic ones. I can’t even bring myself to repeat the tripe on offer but apparently the recession is going to make bastards of us all. Seriously. Read it yourself. It seems that the curators think that poor people, at least poor people in rich countries, are inherently moronic. Unlike them.

You see, despite it’s radical pose, whomever wrote the show’s blurb has actually written a charter for conservatism.

Ireland (Other countries? Who knows? The blurb is unclear) will see an upsurge of nationalism, we’re told. Good. It’s about fucking time we came together as a people. Oh wait, they mean the bad nationalism—the BNP kind. Sorry, but that’s simply sloppy writing—and thinking. Nationalism as a concept is not a synonym for ‘blood and soil’ or ethnic separatism. There are different kinds of nationalism, progressive and conservative. To suggest that one is on a continuum with the other is only true insofar as eating and cannibalism share a continuum.

Never mind that the concept of multi-culturalism itself is rather undermined by the experience in the North of Ireland:

It seems to me that multiculturalism is nothing more than a thin veneer of liberal respectability layered on top of the identity politics which have ripped apart civil society in countries as diverse as Northern Ireland and the former Yugoslavia. Once you start putting people in religious or ethnic boxes it becomes all too easy to vilify them.

Still, taking the government-approved blather at face-value, why does is necessarily follow that having a weaker economy will automatically turn us all into fascists? Quite simply, it doesn’t. This is nothing other than the dinner party prejudice of liberal dunces.

The show’s blurb states: “The Prehistory of the Crisis attempts to broach these issues before the period of crisis has hit, at a time when art can have a discreet yet potent voice.” If this is what art has to say I would respectfully suggest that art needs to stick a sock in it.

All-in-all, the show’s ‘politics’ were no more than vulgar anti-capitalism, what I call the ‘politics of waaah!’ Fine for samba bands and dog-on-a-string crusties, but is this the best that the cultural elite can offer us? I know that the typical Irish Times reader is defined by her self-loathing but this is taking identity politics too far.

Where is the serious analysis of the ‘crisis’? What has caused it? Is it indeed a crisis at all? As the cliché goes, economists have successfully predicted nine of the last five recessions. Believing as a starting-point the business class’s demonstrably incorrect propaganda is good coin, or the identical post-modern twaddle on offer from anti-globalisationists for that matter, means that any artistic response will utterly fail to mean anything.

Art like this makes me want to gouge my eyes out with a blunt spoon. OK, maybe not, but it makes me want to repeatedly slap the artists with a spoon. If I wanted to be hectored with simplistic political viewpoints I would go to Speaker’s Corner—or a meeting of Fine Gael activists. At the very least it’s hard to resist the urge to write a tendentious screed—as you can plainly see…

Nevertheless, I’m in art college now and, like Philip Marlowe, down these mean streets I must walk. So, let’s take a look at Jeanne Faust and Joern Zehe’s sonst wer wie du (who else like you).

I hated it.

It was boring, appearing to be neither a film nor an art work and having the worst qualities of both, it felt like public information film from the Department of Tolerating Foreigners. The political message was leaden, expressed with fragmented and multi-lingual dialogue, and bland, having pace that makes Radio On seem like The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift, and made me nostalgic for the days when the elite’s ideas about auslanders were in the mould of Prince Philip: “Your problem is you’re all foreign! Why don’t you just fuck off!”

Formally, I didn’t find the work totally uninteresting. Had it been a still image, such as a photograph, I would have considered it reasonable enough. The symmatrey of the image—a compact town located in a valley—was pleasing to the eye. Additionally, aside from aesthetics, the contrast between ‘nature’ (the mountains), industrialised nature (the farmland) and the urban, in particular the modernist tower blocks, was interesting enough.

However, as a whole I had too many difficulties with the work.

Firstly, I just don’t know what the hell to do with it. The piece’s relationship with cinema is difficult. On the one hand, it clearly had a narrative, leading me to think in terms of the cinematic. On the other hand, it dispensed with the grammar of film, being more ponderous than Cordelia’s tongue and at least as pedestrian as I was after I crashed my car in Kimmage over the summer.

Secondly, the title and apparrent subject matter of the exhibition influenced my reading of the work to the point where I no-longer wanted to engage with it seriously.

So is it a failure? I don’t know. I don’t even care. I know that I failed—and I do mean failed—to appreciate it. But I just don’t want to hear the politics. So what’s changed in me? Not much: I’m still working class, both in outlook and in not owning the means of production. The difference is, now, every time I see such transparently political art I look through it rather than at it.

I cannot review this work, its politics repulse me too strongly and its aesthetic worth is not enough to make me want to wade through the politics searching for redeeming features. All I could do is take it apart piece-by-piece—and I don’t even want to do that either.

Who says the oppressed want the help of others? It’s a liberal conceit that the impoverished want a hand-out rather than the means to improve their own lives. Unfortunately, it is one conceit that is gaining traction: witness the relentless march of the NGOs—necessarily undemocratic organisations—into parts foreign to tell the natives that they should be happy with underdevelopment. Likewise, national liberation movements have been reduced to crying for help from the powers that be—be it in Zimbabwe, Palestine or virtually eveywhere else, democratic and secular movements for progressive change have either become degraded victim’s groups, a sort of collection of geo-political twelve-steppers, or swallowed-whole by backward religious obscurantists who wouldn’t know their áras from their uachtaráin. In recently history only Nepal has thrown off the yoke of oppression on its own, reminding us that a large enough group of unreasonable people can change the world. Thank goodness.

As Cork’s finest, the great Cathal Ó Cochláin wrote:

Here on the bypass, the loose bottom rung,
where flopsongs are written, where dayjobs are done,
the non-sovereign nations, in thousands, in ones,
no land and no laws, from their black-spotted lungs
they roar out to curse you and spit in your face.
They are not being ironic; I think we should make
a benefit concert, a swell carousel
where the stars dry-hump livestock
to keep you:
amused as hell.

Do art and politics meet? On an institutional level yes, of course they do. But then again, on an institutional level meat-packing and politics meet, wine production and politics meet. Even plumbing and politics meet. But who cares?

Do I prefer my artists to not have a single serious thought rolling-around in their heads? No, not at all. I just prefer to be confronted with some kind of aesthetic experience. I don’t think that life has to be nasty, brutish and short and therefore somehow ‘elevated’ by pretty pictures and I do like to be provoked into thinking. I just don’t like to have it forced down my throat. Frankly, I’d rather choke on someone else’s vomit than have a political argument alone with an art work.

Politics is fine. But there has to be something else as well.

This review is a failure because it barely considers the work. But I don’t care about that. Not a jot. The art may not deserve contempt, but its presentation certainly deserves facetiousness.

Ad an adjunct to the above I’d like to add the following comment: the entire exhibition stank of curation. It seems to me that the curators have taken over the asylum…

Energy, lightbulbs and semen – it must be art

Artistic autonomy, politics, curation and… what’s going on? JJ Charlesworth had recently been arguing for artistic autonomy. This is something that I am very interested in, though I do fear a slide into a kind of romanticism. I have a fair amount of time for Charlesworth as a writer – and, I suppose, by extension a curator. He recently curated a show in London called Fusion Now! The theme of the show was “what art and society would be like if we thought positively about a world based on more energy, not less.” This is a view I am very sympathetic too, being completely tired of the inconsistencies and anti-human implications of the zero-growth and sustainable development trend. The Guardian has a comment on its artsblog here. I haven’t seen the show, but this stuck out: “The outstanding sculptor Roger Hiorns exhibits a huge light bulb that uses lots of power, covered in semen to emphasise its image of joyous waste.” Hmm… This amuses me: it’s a clever comment on the environmentalist movement. ‘Wasting’ energy correlates with Christian notions of onanistic waste. Pleasure versus uptight Puritanism. It’s clever, it’s funny, it’s current. I’m just not sure I want to look at it very much. I do get the feeling that, on the whole, when politics gets into bed with art in such a polemical or upfront way, the art seems to me to suffer.



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