The Customary Abuse of Artistic Autonomy.



As the historic home of a de-politicised and fully autonomous art-space, the region comprising today's European Union and some of the metropolitan centres of the United States has traditionally engaged in a series of busy mutual cultural exchanges. The large cities of this region of the world thus came to be the sanctuaries of the White Cubes and Momas. Elsewhere in the world such institutions were unknown - offering, as they did, special refuges inside buildings where practically anything could be said or shown without any consequences punishable under a penal code.

Some theoreticians from Third World and former Communist states were quick to level accusations against these large-scale presentation events, which flaunted their freedoms all too openly, as being "optimistic propaganda actions" (1) "And indeed the geographical placement of one of the most representative major festivals of the Cold War era, the Documenta, so exceedingly close to the eastern border, is apt to give one pause. Was it perhaps really intended as Red baiting? (2) Kassel itself is a sleepy little town somewhere near the centre of Germany, and during its normal summertime activity no pedestrian near the railway station would be presumed to even have a clue as to where one might find the Fridericianum. The town is, however, marked by its geographical location, a close proximity to the Iron Curtain that once cut through the Soviet and Asiatic wastelands and finally also into the Third World, The specific form of middle class (or bourgeois) institutional and civil liberty taken by modern art was primarily known to artists of the Third World and ex-Communist states, certainly up to 1990, but also beyond that date, and indeed until this very day, only from other people's narratives, as a myth, reported back by travellers who spent holidaying sojourns at some reservation where they had been able to maintain the status of scholarship holders, or else as something learned from lifestyle magazine articles about famous emigrants. To avoid any misunderstandings at this point permit me to emphasise that the concept of artistic freedom is well-known everywhere. What IS lacking is a form of institutionalisation of such freedom. At this point we may well ask ourselves: just who are the powers-that-be during the present new phase of the polarisation of the world that might have an interest in ensuring that this gap, this free space within society, continues to be accessible to the public? A space which, after all, has harboured such "unspeakable" things as Vienna Actionism and many other activities not tolerated elsewhere. And does this niche really still exist today? Basically, the answer is "yes." It does. A person painting a Moslem half-moon on a wall may be arrested or lynched in some countries, another, say, painting a Nazi swastika in Germany, may be caught by the police and lose his livelihood, a third might paint a star of David onto the wrong wall and face spontaneous loss of life. We could continue with similar examples from Ireland, India or the United States. So it does matter quite a bit, after all, just which wall a person picks to paint a red star of Communism on, or, to put it another way, whether that wall is situated inside a museum or outside of it. By contrast, Gerhard Richter paints members of the German Red Army Faction terrorist group. His pictures are included in a sophisticated American collection, and still later brought to a museum in Frankfurt. Warhol paints and puts on the market a picture of Mao. But neither Todosievic, who paints a giant Nazi swastika with a diameter of about five meters - nor Richter, nor Warhol - are ever called to account for their actions. This is not so because of some lack of taboos or an absence of laws against defamatory campaigns in civic democratic societies. In Germany, the propaganda of the Red Army Faction is outlawed, in the US pro-Communist and pro-Arab agitation is frowned upon or prohibited, and elsewhere many forms of criticism of the government are banned. But there is one fundamental difference here. A reading of the red star on the wall could likely suggest that, "Communism is good". The Nazi swastika might suggest that, "Nazism is good", and the half moon might be interpreted as claiming that, "the Moslem faith and set of laws promise the only path to redemption." The one linear statement, however, that may be derived from Richter's and Todosievic's and Warhol's works and images, primarily, is that, "art is free". In the words of Malevich, the early 20th century Soviet avant-garde artist, this has meant that pictures now convey nothing but their own autonomy, no longer being the servants of any state or ideology, nor subservient to the pleasures of the bourgeoisie. (3) "The new art is on its way towards its own truth, rejecting attempts to have itself debased by being roped into expressing the "truths" about some objective, practical society that are alien to its own goals." The contradictory aspect of this historical document is that it was precisely this autonomy which, serving as proof of the liberty and tolerance of the democratic, western elites, would turn art into a demonstration and collection object and an expression of ideology. Thus it is that the image of the pasteurised, sanitised and normalised tomato soup eaten by a lowly class of labouring people can now hang as a status symbol over the mantle pieces of the expensive modernist villas of the ultra-rich (in the shape of Warhol's famous Campbell Soup screen print.) But before jumping to any rash ironic conclusions about the freedom of modernism, let me look up another page from Malevich, where he outlines his utopian vision. Art, he thought, lay along the path leading to the future where "man could appreciate his fellow men with- out regard to nations, races or states, without consideration of religions, customs and habits." In the Malevich vision, then, the whole global society has moved beyond nationalism and also beyond the "feeding- trough realism" of Socialist aesthetics, and so all of society is now uniformly perched on the level of an elitist, less physical, material culture. The new wealthy democratic elite arising after World War Two has no problem identifying with this dual process of distancing from the corporeality of both the totalitarian Socialist and nationalist aesthetics. However, an exclusive flight into pure abstraction does tend to bring about a simultaneous disregard for the physical and material problems, which continue to plague the Third World, and a concomitant distancing or shutting off from the rest of the world. The question arises whether Malevich, if he were alive today, would banish without further ado the physical presence of the refugees, the homeless, the junkies, the migrant workers, the Palestinians, and not to forget the Russians themselves, from his now institutionalised white square which has since mutated into a White Cube. The question acquires a greater significance and urgency whenever artists or curators attempt to make use of this niche of freedom in a more directly political way, misusing or abusing the aesthetical autonomy of art, because they see themselves and their democratic ideals as being at risk, or because they feel politically pressured, and so find a sanctuary here where they can show things which otherwise would not be placed before the general public and not directly before the eyes of the social elite. (4) In a practical sense, this results in a fair number of quite banal, historically anchored questions, such as how, for example, can curators or cultural facil- itators cope with their dual role, or will they simply not allow the disturbing aspects of the autonomy of the beautiful mind to enter into the system, or might they simply put their jobs at risk if they entered into a confrontation with the people who held their purse strings? And of course, whether autonomy, and the neutralising effect, as Groys has called it, of the grand pluralist cultural archives can even continue to exist?(5) Or whether the political neutrality and political correctness and the autonomous aspect of contemporary art can, in some way, be canonised, so that it may later be judged by a jury and have expert opinions pronounced upon it by a panel of experts. In putting up such judging jurying procedures one might then refer back to historical precedents - such as, for example, the Socialist era in Hungary - to buffer the responsibility of the individual with corporate decision making. Today, the main enemy is terrorism and the terrorist and so the question is asked many times over whether the museum, as a White Cube or as a cultural archive, is sufficiently neutral, and whether democracy is strong enough, to lift the image of the enemy onto a purely aesthetical level. In many places opposition to having everything shown in a museum has become more vocal (recent examples being Richter's RAF portraits in Berlin and my own blood transfusion performance and Arafat collage.) The catch cry in these situations continues to be that "terrorism has no business being in a museum." The image of the terrorist is being equated - disregarding any formal aesthetical aspects - with the presence of the terrorist himself or herself as a person, providing proof positive that the complex aesthetical sanctuary of democratic and pluralistic art has been seriously weakened. It is possible that this very sanctuary may be forced, in times like these, to provide a safe haven for its own political role when being put under pressure in such a way. One of the most significant questions arising in my work as an artist is how I can, from time to time, pierce or penetrate the pseudo-neutrality of the museums, and to speak more freely than it is expected of me. The other question, no less difficult to answer, is: how can one even begin, - in two such fundamentally different locations as my respective Hungarian and Syrian home regions, or even in the Balkans, for that matter - to create extra-territorial realms of art in collaboration with other artists?


Roza El-Hassan, 2002-2004

Published in Hungarian in "Kp_al_rsok, mvszek a mvszetrl", MAOE, Budapest, 2004


(1) An expression used by Janos Sugar, Hungarian Documenta VIII participant

(2) Quotation by Bernadette Kovacs

(3) "Suprematism" - Kazimir Malevich.

(4) According to a common practice, such elements have been, since the 1970s, banished to the sub-cultural, degraded, and disconnected circles of the so-called alternative scene. The operation of such minor spaces is maintained by state and communal financial injections, although the communicative potential of such places is frequently rather limited.

(5) Boris Groys, "Regarding That Which Is New".