Is art too polite to fight the far right?

By Mike Watson

‘Unite the Right’ rally, Charlottesville, 12 August 2017. Licensed under Creative Commons: Anthony Crider A swastika banner briefly on display in the main hall of Central Saint Martins, London, 15 November 2017. Photo: via social media Adam Szymczyk, Paul B. Preciado and Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi at Documenta 14’s ‘Shame on Us’ evening, 24 August 2017

Donald Trump’s particular brand of presidential communication has allowed him to dominate the cultural conversation globally ever since he came to power in January 2017. Out of this a number of heinous cultural trajectories have taken hold, though surely none more disturbing than the reemergence into the public sphere of an incendiary far-right movement, replete with a hardcore element that embraces both Nazi aesthetics and racialist policies.

Whether the rise of the ‘alt-right’ represents millennial high-jinks as the young try to distance themselves from their elders’ ethical imperatives, or the powerful reappearance of a dormant political archetype, the danger is clear. The normalisation of far-right political values and aesthetics risks immunising us to them, deadening our reflexes in the face of potential extreme rightwing policy-making at a governmental level.

The problem is not, of course, confined to the US. Another indication of a massive nationalist shift in popular opinion came in the form of the Brexit referendum result in the UK in 2016. Since then, far-right electoral swings and protests have been seen across Europe, from France (where Marine Le Pen took 34 percent of the final vote in the 2017 presidential election), to Austria (where conservative Sebastian Kurz governs in a coalition with the Freedom Party of Austria, itself founded by former members of the Nazi Party), to Poland (where national independence celebrations were marred by white supremacist marches in November last year).

The artworld’s enthusiasm for a broadly leftwing ‘political art’ seems to appease a deep need for a sense of usefulness in a world that has made much of our heritage appear without value

As the growth of the far right continues, there appears to be no diminishment in the artworld’s enthusiasm for a broadly leftwing ‘political art’, also known as ‘social art’, ‘art-activism’ and ‘artivism’. The trend, which has developed without pause since the subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent national bank-bailout schemes, appears to appease in the art audience a deep need and hunger for a sense of usefulness in a world that has made much of our cultural discourse and heritage appear without value. Within the full range of political art offerings, the works of artists such as Tania Bruguera (who aims to run for Cuban president next year), Theaster Gates (who is busy redeveloping Chicago to provide better facilities to the disadvantaged) and the art-activist group Artists at Risk (which offers residences to at-risk artists) propose real-world solutions to issues such as immigration, urban poverty and the plight of stateless, and to artist experiencing the effects of these. Despite these positive examples, it remains to be seen whether the artworld has the means or the appetite to fight a virulent strain of neo-Nazism – though two recent indications suggest not.

Firstly, in August 2017, Documenta responded to public pressure in banning Italian theorist and activist Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s scheduled performance, entitled Auschwitz on the Beach. In the sweltering heat of a record-breaking summer, Bifo aimed to take the prescient symbolism of the beach – the favoured location for European holidaymakers to take their summer break – to the art-admiring public in order to challenge a self-imposed blindness. In a statement released by Documenta’s artistic director, Adam Szymczyk, it was announced that the performance would be replaced by a live reading by Bifo of the homonymous poem that inspired the previously scheduled performance, followed by a talk. The evening, entitled ‘Shame on Us’, which went ahead on 24 August, aimed to, in the words of Szymczyk, ‘seriously and responsibly locate the Holocaust as the ultimate border reference for the extreme, violent, and systemic injustice perpetuated by national and transnational European institutional bodies toward the physical bodies of the refugees who attempt to flee to Europe…’

And yet it would seem that we are prevented from entering into the fullness of a debate on the resurgence of a white-supremacist politics by our own rectitude

Among critics of the original event, Boris Rhein – minister of higher education, research and the arts for Hesse, the state in which Documenta is based – argued that ‘any comparison to the Holocaust cannot be allowed, as the crimes of the Nazis were unique’. While it is impossible to disagree with such a sentiment – which points fundamentally to the difficulty in doing justice via art to the specificity and magnitude of the Holocaust as an event – the difficulty in responding to the renewed threat of racialist supremacy without recourse to artistic statements should be recognised. It would appear that in the artworld we are prevented from entering into the fullness of a debate on the resurgence of a white-supremacist politics by our own rectitude. On this note it is worth recalling that twentieth-century German philosopher Theodor Adorno’s famous injunction on the writing of poetry after Auschwitz was followed with the proviso that we should continue to try to make art anyhow, as a challenge to the cynicism of the rightwing. While Adorno favoured an abstract art, which was as such able to circumvent the difficulties of directly representing human suffering, he was writing as a survivor of the Holocaust, who fled his homeland to the UK and then the United States to avoid persecution. As such, Adorno wrote of the best course of action once all opposition to rightwing racialist tyranny had failed and the worst had already happened. Today we face the problem of looking back to a past that we must do justice to while at the same time having at our disposal the full range of available rhetorical and artistic devices in order to counter the far right. As it stands, the sensitivity of the topic often leaves art professionals and academics hamstrung when facing rightwing imagery. 

On 15 November 2017, The Jewish Chronicle reported that a student at London’s Central Saint Martins had hung a large swastika banner from the railing on the third floor of its central foyer. The article went on to state that the piece had been emphatically rejected by the student’s tutor (who remains unnamed) one day prior to its hanging and was immediately removed when the university became aware of its display. The image has raised a number of questions about the response of the university and the capacity of art to carry the weight of Nazi symbolism. 

My email correspondence with Paul Haywood, dean of academic programmes at Central Saint Martins, has revealed that the student – who the college refuses to name – intended to ‘critique corporate institutions and the disproportionate power and influence of large financial interests’ and at no point aimed to ‘give a platform to far right extremists’.

While it is possible to sympathise with the university’s desire to head off a social-media backlash against an apparently wayward student, the institution’s response to the action, albeit unreservedly apologetic, has inadequately explained how tutors did not manage to dissuade the student from his choice on artistic grounds, a point that recalls David Sylvester’s failure to adequately confront Francis Bacon for his depiction of the Nazi swastika on an armband in his 1965 Crucifixion triptych. In the second of the seven interviews conducted by Sylvester and published in Interviews with Francis Bacon 1962–1979 (1980), the painter claimed that he merely wanted to ‘break the continuity of the arm and to add the colour… You may say it was a stupid thing to do, but it was done entirely as part of trying to make the figure work – not work on the level of interpretation of its being a Nazi, but on the level of its working formally.’ Here Sylvester missed the opportunity to point out that a Nazi swastika can never be purely formal, given the weight of associations attached to it, not least the estimated murder of six million European Jews in an effort to eliminate Jewry from all existence. This is why the symbol will never be merely a symbol and why its frequent unchallenged display on Internet forums in close association with the current US president is cause not only for concern but for intense debate and activity within the artworld and academia.

Bacon’s refusal to take responsibility, together with Sylvester’s failure to bring him to account has set a dangerous precedent that universities and art’s agencies need to challenge. The efforts of Documenta and Central Saint Martins to minimise the damage and placate the offence caused by the direct intrusion into the artworld of Nazi symbolism are understandable. Though they point above all to the fact that a large part of the battle – one over the appropriation of historical symbolism – is already being lost.

From the March 2018 issue of ArtReview