Why Art now? – Art went Heiligendamm
von Kerstin Stakemeier
So Art went Heiligendamm - but what did it want there? Be there, when the delegates of the eight leading industrial nations meet, under the presidency of Angela Merkel to discuss questions of “Growth and Responsibility”?
When they invite delegates from African, Asian and South American nations to discuss “commitment to freedom of investment in industrialised nations and emerging economies“, or spread sensational news like „The Germans like Europe“, all fenced in a twelve kilometre long steel fence? Or accompany the large-scale protests against this absurd reinforcement of the status quo, with an approximate number of over 10.000 people and numerous blockades, rallies and manifestations? Already in looking at the sheer number of participants and their approachability one can say that a successful exhibition would rather long to address the protestors than the G8 participants – just imagine the press you get for 8 to 20 visitors and than imagine what a coverage 10.000 visitors might produce.
And so Berlin-based journalist and curator Adrienne Göhler set out to bring art to Heiligendamm. “Art Goes Heiligendamm. Art Goes Public”, her large-scale exhibition project, which took place between the 24th of May and the 9th of June near Rostock, did proclaimed to be “an experiment to enlarge the resonance field of the arts“. One might ask herself, what could be the use of enlarging art’s resonance field near Heiligendamm at that very moment, in a situation of political battle - but then gain, that might mean to go beyond art itself, to let it slide over into political action and to practically counter it’s role in late bourgeois nation state’s we’re living in. Materially, Göhler had the best of all starting positions: connected to an international group of artists, funded by numerous institutions and private sponsors and equipped with all it needs to ensure a massive press coverage. The exhibition itself was realized with the help of more than forty cultural producers, who contributed architecture, installations, theatre plays, lectures, posters and visual arts. Some of the artists involved have been producing highly influential political art in the past (Politische Kunst like Martha Rosler), some have been restaging works which have been shown in numerous institutional contexts before (like Ursula Biemann) and most were probably not aware of the context in which their works were shown in Rostock. All in all, it could have been the chance to process art’s political capacities, to put its media to the service of militant politics and thus to prove that political engagement in the cultural sector is important not so much for the art’s sake but for the sake of fighting global capitalist policies, like those (re)produced at the G8. But than again, does a network of sponsors ranging from the provincial government of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern to the KW Institute for Contemporary Art Berlin open up a promising field of radical artistic practices? And also, Göhler herself was not so decided whether she wanted the 8 or the 10.000. Trying to get everybody in, she announced, that “the intention of the project is to bridge the gap between the perception of pros and cons, of black and white.“ Once again, one might ask herself: what are the pros of global capitalism?
To put it midly, Göhler’s goal was much more ‘positive’ than that of the protestors who came to Heiligendamm. But as most of those who are not frequently confronted with art’s contemporary subtleties would not expect much radical potential in it anyway, Göhler’s social-democratic reinforcement camp remained quite uncontested. And this is where the problem starts: Art went Heiligendamm as a snitch: to advertise affirmation as a form of critique. Not so much an affirmation of the political protests at Heiligendamm, but much more one of the terms and conditions defined by those authorities the protesters were up against: the G8 summit at the Hotel Kempinski. Göhler’s affirmatory concept opened up two major problems: On the one side, it reproduced a concept of artistic production, which clearly separates it from political action and on the other the predominance of this concept in the staging of “Art Goes Heiligendamm” disarms the works incorporated in it, because, whatever their radical potentials might be, they were enshrined in Göhler’s goal to „contribute to de-escalation on site.2 Actions
The easiest answer to the question of what art’s place in Heiligendamm could possibly be, is the same as for any other sphere of production: protest. Large numbers of artists went to Heilgendamm in the role of everybody else: as protestors. That is not even particularly radical. It is very simply the only active thing possible at the site of a G8 summit. Also, this answer is not even specific to those four days in June, but much more a general answer to the question: why take any interest in art at all? Artistic practices offer different possibilities to articulate and make visible radical discontent with the capitalist state of the world, and can thus, in alliance with political actions, support the fight against global capitalism.
However, in the case of Adrienne Göhler’s large-scale exhibition, “Art goes Heiligendamm”; art did enter the geographical space of demonstration, without even leaving its bourgeois repository of contemplation. Being so drastically misplaced, the qualities and capacities of the artistic interventions became unpleasantly secondary, because they were assembled to produce a simple doubling of art’s classical role in bourgeois national and today even transnational culture: appeasement. This text therefore wants to focus what makes “Art Goes Heiligendamm” so utterly conformism.3 Bourgeois revival
Theodor W. Adorno in the “Aesthetic Theory” rightfully stated: “The bourgeois wants his art opulent and his life sparse, it would be better the other way around.” Göhler has turned this statement into an absurd twist: she wants her art opulent and her life to learn from it. In “Art goes Heiligendamm”, art seems to be a healing force which renders political antagonisms as mere illusions.
Proclamations like those quote above seemed to not only install Göhler’s project in itself as a form of political action but also unite the artworks and projects included to become expressions of this distinct understanding of what the politics of art might be. This understanding of art politics, which Göhler acted out in her project, is a very modern one – in the historical sense of the word. It brings back the early bourgeois idea of art, the Habermasian salons of the 18th century, the expressions of a class of proprietors, for whom art offered a contemplative reflection on their own political status, an educational past time which is spared from the reproductive everyday of that form of general production, which was established at the very same time and which is, after hundreds of years of self-revolutionizing, still widely known as: capitalism.
Göhler staged a critical amusement park at Heiligendamm, with mixed media, mixed backgrounds and an enlightened group of subaltern voices. Whatever their individual capacity for dissent might be, in “Art goes Heiligendamm” they were all united within powerful pacifying brackets which, in enchanted memories of the bourgeois pasts, distinguish art very sharply from all other productions of society (as to be seen in the absurd staging of institution-like exhibition spaces in save distance from the areas of direct political action), to not let it be contaminated by any form of function external to the field of art. Where, however, this bourgeois ideal of effortless reproduction attempted to unite artistic practices with the everyday life, this was not realized in dissoluting the privileges of art but moreover in dissoluting this everyday (in this case the indeed violent and indeed antagonistic fights outside of the art caucus). Such extensions of art into life - in “Art Goes Heiligendamm’s case the “Silver Pearl”, conceived by Berlin’s Raumlabor, a full environment with spa, lounges, Badminton court and other features which mimic the Hotel Kempinski, the venue of the G8 itself at Heiligendamm - in the bourgeois tradition have historically been attempts to put ‘Life into Art’. Richard Wagner and Joseph Beuys are only the most prominent examples of this bourgeois tradition. Its counterpart, the revolutionary avant-gardes of the early twentieth century as much as militant artists today, attempted to turn this bourgeois game upside down and turn ‘Art into Life’. This was, of course, most rigorously realised by those who, like Carl Ioganson, Varvara Stepanova or Vladimir Tatlin, grapsed for the realisation of art’s practical capabilities within a revolutionary situation. In the early years of the Russian revoltution of 1917, the revolutionary artists where with the society they lived in, whereas revolutionary artists today are forced to work against the society they are producing in.
But still, the important choice to make in any attempt to radicalize artistic practices, is that between the bourgeois dream that all life could be art, which happily excludes all material (re)production from the focus of its actions and the anti-bourgeois position, which longs to dissolute artistic into general production, giving away the security of the bourgeois field of art to take a risk within and against the late capitalist politics of production. 4 Against Politics
The political mobilisation, which preceded the G8 summit in Heiligendamm, was, at its more radical ends, carrying one major assumption: the politics represented by the G8 meeting are in and of themselves unacceptable. They are politics of administration, in which representatives of not only specific nations but even more so specific political and economical interests decide in an administrative manner over ‚the rules of the game’, the administrative cornerstones for the next years of retention of power on a global scale. Those administrative acts are politics of passivation. This passivation is not the result of particularly ill-bred minds but of a concept of politics, which understands itself only in administrative terms (a setting in which Bono is the teletubby-like social worker affirming again and again his own limitations: “Angela Merkel is a very wise woman. (...) She is as warm-hearted as she is pragmatic. (...) I think she will stand up for the poor of the world.“ ).
The G8 summit set out to administer the most urgent tasks of a misery, which almost 300 years of capitalism have produced, while the protesters mobilization set out to counter the system of capitalist reproduction in itself. Göhler did not set out for anything but for an aside on better world management, again, a purely administrative task. The confinement of politics to administration is based on one major division, a historical choice, introduced with the rise of capitalism and its most successful administrative form, the bourgeois nation state as an economical system of reproduction: the division of politics and economy. Capitalist politics present themselves as decisions over the how- but not over the why of production. Neither the division of labour nor property laws are in discussion, even though they are the precondition of each and every political action. As a result, politics seem to administer production but have no saying in its general terms: capitalism in itself seems to be a ‘natural development’. When the capitalist division of labour was implemented in the 19th century, a form of progression was installed, which is measured by the development reached by its means of production – not by a reflection on its means ends. The mobilization against the G8 summit did, at its more radical points, not set out against specific answers to world hunger, ecology and social security but against the questions themselves: why discuss distribution without discussing the abolition of property?4 Against Art
To discuss decisions on politics of ecology, of health and of social policies based on the assumption that the economic regime of production which has caused all those scarcities is to be left untouched is a farce and this is as true for political actions as it is for artistic re-positioning in relation to it. Documentary artistic practices, which might have an impact when being presented in an art institution, a structure that in and of itself educates the bourgeoisie, are rendered absurd when being positioned in the direct neighbourhood of a political fight. Here, where practical solidarity is needed most the artistic gestures of aesthetic solidarity with ‘the subaltern’ drift over into sarcastic coffee-table humanism. This absurdity, which in “Art goes Heiligendamm” was most vividly expressed in ‘informative’ art works, which loose themselves in education rather than in positioning, is exactly what makes “Art goes Heiligendamm” so successful and so openly affirmative. In accepting that basic distinction between an economic core of society, which is left for others to discuss, and political decision-making on its basis, in which every dilettante wants to have saying, Göhler acted as an art caterer. A politics of pure gesture void of any consequence or responsibility.
In contrast to the demonstrators, “Art goes Heiligendamm” did not attack the politics but affirmed them and adorned them with a second grade affirmation: that of bourgeois assumptions on art. Göhler’s project did not pose the question of legitimacy – more precisely, an answer to that question lay at the core of the project: the world’s order as such is legitimate, it is only its self-image and the image of its ‘other’, its antagonisms, contradictions and specified differences which is not legitimate. In “Art goes Heiligendamm”, art’s traditional role in those antagonisms, its separation from the fields of political action and general production, were not problematised but affirmed: “Unlike the state, art is not tied to any hierarchical interest.“(Göhler) Well, so the only problem, which remains, is that the world is still full of „hierarchical interests“? I would still assume that those „hierarchical interests“ lie at the core of art’s role in contemporary Western Societies and have to be fought within art’s constitution not by art’s enigmatic idealisation.
1 That is Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Russia, United States.