Alles over kunst

Essay

Living in Regressive Times

Michiel Vandevelde

Naar aanleiding van de bekendmaking van steirischer herbst '20 publiceren we een essay van choreograaf, curator en schrijver Michiel Vandevelde, eerder opgenomen in de reader van de vorige editie getiteld A Pleasant Apocalypse. Notes from the Grand Hotel Abyss. Meer informatie vindt u via 2019.steirischerherbst.at. Lees het HART-verslag van steirischer herbst '19 hier.

If only the members of the Frankfurt School and its heirs were still there in Georg Lukács’s Grand Hotel Abyss... If only they were still there discussing climate change, for example, and the uses and misuses of the term. If only they were there putting Marxist theory in conversation with the latest developments in postcolonial discourse. If only they were now at the forefront of advancing more inclusive methods for future critical theory. If only...

Yet, some years before the 2008 financial crisis, Lukács’s hotel went bankrupt. In that same year, 2008, the hotel opened again. Its new investors had profited from the crisis through short selling and futures contracts. The renovated hotel still situates itself at the same abyss, which is now used as a dumping site, although it is deep enough for the debris to remain out of sight. Capturing the zeitgeist of the 2010s, the hotel is now ecologically pimped: there are some solar panels, the swimming pool is filtered by plants, the products are local and organic, and the guests are kindly asked to reuse their towels—greenwashing, according to international standards. The typology of the guests has changed (the intellectuals didn’t consume enough), and now we find people from all walks of life: workers that profit from cheap deals via booking.com beside the wealthiest businessmen who reside in the upper floors’ suits, and politicians who fly in and out.

It is 2020 and at the edge of the abyss, we find a society that is obsessed with the culture of wealth and with its own self-image.

Happiness predominates while the pile of debris, deep down in the abyss, still grows skyward. Meanwhile, a storm is taking place on the other side of the world...

We are witnessing a strange joint in time. We have been progressing at an incredible speed, yet people all around the world have been voting for leaders who stand for higher or lesser degrees of conservatism. The discourse of these leaders is often openly xenophobic, misogynistic, and homophobic. From Brazil to Hungary to the United States, to Flanders, to Austria, to Greece, this phenomenon is on the rise everywhere. Political leaders have tapped into the fear of everything that is different from local norms and values. And while doing so, they have provoked a hatred toward anyone on the opposite stance. While “the few” are technologically and financially progressing, “the many” are culturally and socially regressing. What adds complexity to the picture is that those “many” seem for the large part to be blinded and deafened by the few. The many desire the same power positions, the same excess of wealth, and the same financial comfort.

How is this possible?

How should the regression of our time be understood? Are we facing a mere dialectic reaction against the notion and culture of transgression that has marked the second half of the 20th century? How should we understand the expanding conservatism even among those who were formerly progressive? How can the process of regression be opposed?

This text is constructed along the axis of progression-transgression-regression. These three notions will be taken as viewpoints from which the political and cultural sphere is read. Starting in the 19th century, over the course of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, one could discern the evolution from a belief in progress, to the conviction that transgression could question and dispute a neoliberal approach to progression. This finally ends up with a counter reaction in the form of regression and the glorification of a fictitious past where the order of things seemed so simple; in this past, “grand narratives” gave sense to peoples’ lives.

Progression-transgression-regression are of course interrelated and in a constant dynamic. At a micro level, one could always discern an interplay between these notions. At the same time, one could also analyze the past in more general movements, on a macro level, where in distinct periods each notion (progression-transgression-regression) plays a dominant role. Along the axis of these three notions, I will align respectively the writing of Nâzım Hikmet, Steven Shaviro’s critique of transgression, and Macedonian government project Skopje 2014. How did we arrive at the current political, social, and cultural landscape, and, above all: Can we shift today’s tendency toward regression to a new understanding of progression?

Progression

Written in the early 20th century, Nâzım Hikmet’s epic poem Human Landscapes from My Country not only gives a beautiful account of ordinary people’s lives, it also brings these lives into stark contrast with a period of modernization in Turkey. The poem, evolving over five books, sensibly and intelligibly describes the tension people experienced at a moment when the idea of progress was also present.

The idea of progress, of course, characterized much of the 20th century, but its origin can be traced to the beginning of the 19th century. It was an epoch of industrial progress. Turkey followed quite late and industrialization advanced its economy only in the second half of the 19th century. The first railway—seen by many as a symbol of progress—was introduced in Turkey in 1860. It is no coincidence that the train is an important setting in Hikmet’s poem. It is primarily in this setting that Hikmet narrates the lives of “the haves,” who occupy the first-class carriages, and “the have nots,” who sit in the third-class wagon.

Political progress in Turkey came a little later on, after the War of Independence, which took place between 1919 and 1923. It was then that the Republic of Turkey was founded, and one could say a political and cultural modernization project ensued. As a symbolic example, Turkey was one of the first countries where women gained full suffrage, as early as in 1934.

It is against this backdrop that Hikmet wrote Human Landscapes from My Country (1938–50), while imprisoned for his outspoken communist sympathies. As noted, this epic poem vividly describes the tension engendered by the modernization project, while at the same time employing modernist techniques of poetic writing. By doing so, Hikmet became a symbol of the renewal of poetry in Turkey. His writings are deliberately nonlinear, and his style is almost cinematographic in approach, with jump cuts, close-ups, and bird’s-eye views. His sense of timing is often surprising: from slower sections to hyper-edited parts that give a sense of the pace of a train clacking away on the tracks; to a spiraling feel of time in the third book, which mostly takes place in a prison.

Through all this, Hikmet always makes clear that despite the project of modernization in Turkey, inequality still dominates the country. The vast majority of people are not freed from poverty at all, or from worrying about their most basic needs. They have not the freedom to be free, as Hannah Arendt would put it.

Hikmet shows this painstakingly when, in Book II, he describes a scene where, as the train pierces through the landscape “as a brave little toy,” a five-year-old girl is seen carrying water across the steppe. She doesn’t know that her father and her mother have just died. In this heartbreaking scene, which is rather simple in its format, Hikmet effectively allows his reader to consider circular poverty and the many meanings of freedom within any modernization project. Progress, yes ... but for who?

Hikmet’s message, delivered both in content and form, can be extrapolated and will, in different variations, be true for most progress movements that enveloped the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. This process was halted in the wake of World War II.

Michiel Vandevelde, Human Landscapes - Book II, 2019, installation and performance (photo: Mathias Voelzke)

Transgression

If the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century were marked by a sense of progression, the period after World War II was marked by transgression. Of course, after the war there was a period of building up again what had been shred to pieces (both materially and immaterially), so the steady pace of progression could soon be heard once again. Yet, from the end of the 1950s onward, this feeling of progression started to shift into a feeling of transgression. Not only in art was transgression used as a method to contest the conservative moral of a traumatized society, but later from the 1980s onward it also started to melt into mainstream culture and the political and economic sphere.

As the theorist Steven Shaviro wrote: “In the twentieth century, before the developments that I have recounted, the most vibrant art was all about transgression. Modernist artists sought to shatter taboos, to scandalize audiences, and to pass beyond the limits of bourgeois ‘good taste’. From [Igor] Stravinsky to the Dadaists, from [Georges] Bataille to the makers of Deep Throat, and from Charlie Parker to Elvis [Presley] to Guns N’ Roses, the aim was always to stun audiences by pushing things further than they had ever been pushed before. Offensiveness was a measure of success. Transgression was simply and axiomatically taken to be subversive.”

The foundation of transgressive art may well be perceived at the beginning of the 20th century, when artists started to fundamentally contest artistic conventions, but its peak is to be seen in the second part of the 20th century. Transgression aligns here with the project of postmodernity as it was one of the methods used to deconstruct common norms and social, political, and cultural codes.

It must be said that transgression was not only employed as an artistic operation. It soon started to be a norm in itself. Today in the financial world, the transgression of boundaries (both on a personal and financial level) is rewarded with extra bonuses. On television, transgression becomes a daily operation in order to convince viewers to keep watching and to not switch to another channel. Meanwhile the internet and the gaming industry increasingly channel the desire for sexual and/or violent transgressive fantasies. All in all, one could say that when mainstream culture became inundated by the operation of transgression, it also meant the end of transgression as an effective artistic tool. Or as Shaviro put it: “Neoliberalism has no problem with excess. Far from being subversive, transgression today is entirely normative. Nobody is really offended by Marilyn Manson or Quentin Tarantino. Every supposedly ‘transgressive’ act or representation expands the field of capital investment. It opens up new territories to appropriate, and jump-starts new processes from which to extract surplus value.”

In other words, a once powerful artistic tool used to shake the spectator system of belief and morality is no longer of any use as a political gesture within art.

Regression

It seems that at the turn of the century, and as we enter the 21st century, all the “isms” that have characterized the 20th century return. What’s more, they all seem to be mixed up in a strange and dangerous cocktail. We can see the rise of extreme right-wing groups and fascist movements all over Europe (from Golden Dawn in Greece, to The Freedom Party of Austria, to CasaPound in Italy, etc.). Often, these groups are in favor of neoliberal policies mixed with a nationalist agenda. Think about a so-called “communist” country like China, whose economic policies align with relentless capitalism. The examples of strange alliances are numerous, and these strange alliances are increasingly eroding the space for political difference and the accompanying space for freedom of speech.

Despite certain fields of progression still to be witnessed today (robotization, financialization, the developments in artificial intelligence, etc.), and despite transgression still being employed as an operation in different societal spheres (artistic, media, political, etc.), the emphasis of our current time seems to be on regression. This new emphasis is mainly unfolding in the form of a return to the philosophical strand of conservatism. Of course, conservatism is not seen as a regression by those who practice and preach it, but rather as a progression away from the transgressions that have been present in the past decades. Yet in my view, what is being restored is old recipes that are inadequate responses to the new challenges of climate change, migration, and globalization. Conservatism is a mere mirage, simplifying a complex world, dehumanizing the unknown “other,” and protecting ideas of belonging that were already given up long ago in the wake of globalization.

There is no clearer image that symbolizes the regression of our time than the one to be found in Skopje, Macedonia. The former conservative government devised a plan called Skopje 2014. Their plan envisioned the redesign of the façades of modernist buildings into neoclassical ones. They also erected new monuments that tell the forgotten history of the concealed pre-communist past of Macedonia. Everything that had an air of modernism had to be replaced by its neoclassical counter image. The conservative elite rewrote its own past into a heroic one satisfying to the people’s desire for nostalgia, sentimentality, and “grand narratives.”

Skopje 2014 is a striking example because of its brutality in enforcing a conservative idealism onto the minds and bodies of the city’s inhabitants. It is a rewriting of history that is so shameless it becomes a bad joke. The progressive government of Skopje today is stuck with the new façades and, as is often the case, it is difficult to undo mistakes and to offer something that doesn’t simply appear as mere deconstruction. Only the caesura found in forms of resistance, often spilling out in violence, holds the potential for any kind of progression.

Toward a New Project of Progression?

How to bend the tide? How to push against regression in the form of the conservatism that characterizes our time? How to break the loop of progression-transgression-regression? How to internalize the humanist-communist critique of progress, as outlined by Nâzım Hikmet?

“To understand
is the greatest peace.
The irresistible force of social necessity and the struggle
—with head,
heart,
and fist,
with all-out hatred
and malice,
with all-out compassion
and love—
to end man’s exploitation of man,
for a more just world.”

The history of progress, which predominantly has been an economic one, has been a history of violence. Think, for example, about colonialism, and the many inequalities that have made Western progress possible. If today there is to be a new project of progression—and if this notion of progress would still be useful—it should be a social-ecological one.

It takes artists like Hikmet to remind us, but also to show us, how to strive for a progressive political vision, how to share it with many people, and how to bear the consequences of one’s political acts with raised heads. How, in short, to build political consciousness, and through this consciousness, how to become emancipated. Hikmet’s writings contributed—and continue to contribute—to the freeing of the minds of his readers. He offered a space where political thought could be exercised. Today, that is precisely what art must do: train one’s ability to politically think and act. What other public work is there left to do so?

The space of art might be the point that finely balances Lukács’s hotel and the abyss.



Michiel Vandevelde, “Living in Regressive Times,“ in A Pleasant Apocalypse: Notes from the Grand Hotel Abyss, eds. Ekaterina Degot and David Riff (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, May 2020), pp. 121-128.

www.hatjecantz.de