Issue 4/2012 - Leben im Archiv

Why does bourgeois society have such an urgent need for political art? Why now? And in which form?

A tour of Manifesta 9, dOCUMENTA (13) and the 7th Berlin Biennale

Alice Creischer, Andreas Siekmann

In 1770 Abbé Raynal published his »Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et de commerce des Europeéns dans les deux Indes«. The history of English colonial rule in America is described in this work as a moral dynamic that must inevitably lead to a political crisis, »like the two pans of a scale: when one goes up, the other goes down«. London is attacked, but it is actually Paris that the author is targeting. »That Atlantic difference becomes a universal signal of the crisis […].The political innocence of a philosophy of history that invokes this crisis not as civil war, but civil war as a moral tribunal carries within it the assurance that the political crisis will be resolved favourably«.1 This quotation comes from the last chapter of the famous essay »Kritik und Krise. Zur Pathogenese der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft« (»Critique and Crisis. Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society«), written by conservative historian Reinhart Koselleck in 1954. The Abbé’s prognosis picks up on the start of the essay, closing the circle: Hobbes’ concept of the moral abstinence of politics as the raison d’être of civil peace after the 17th-century religious civil wars ends with the bourgeois revolutions. It was the determining factor for the absolutist era, which now gives the impression of having been a stable interval. In this essay Koselleck analyses the critique bourgeois intelligence directs at the absolutist state, emphasising the need to overcome the division between morality and politics.
This critique could be viewed as a gradual form of seizing power, yet it intermeshes strangely with a lack of power – the apolitical nature of the salons, exhibitions, plays, boxes at the theatre or opera , in which it is publicly proclaimed. The apolitical space, the space devoid of power, gives criticism an opportunity to develop a moral force of judgement that asserts its global universality precisely due to its autonomy. Koselleck references Schiller’s comments on the stage: »While for Schiller politics ›came to a halt‹ at the apron of the moral stage, the secular law gave the stage the freedom to become the ›common channel through which the light filters down to the thoughtful, superior portion of the nation‹. The light then spreads throughout the State, the stage having kept itself apart«.2 This signifies however that critique needs itself to be excluded from power in order to be able to shed light on it. Koselleck pursues the question of how critique is projected, due to this exclusion, into the historico-political certainty of the inevitable downfall, of the catastrophe of the regime. A notion of crisis that must be blind to the political consequences of the political reality initiated by it is inherent to 18th-century bourgeois critique. Koselleck is referring to the revolution.

Can this analysis – written shortly after the Second World War – offer criteria that are still viable today? The modern implosion of bourgeois critique has been described often enough, the way in which it became identical to the regime that now asserts its legitimacy as global enforcer of the »Declaration of Human Rights«, which was devised by criticism in its autonomous space and which it however projects onto power as difference. Similarly, there are manifold descriptions of the way that critique now inhabits the autonomous enclaves set up for it by power – universities, theatres, museums – and how these serve it as a test-bed for the global exercise of hegemony.3 Are the large-scale exhibitions and media events we visited this summer – Manifesta, dOCUMENTA (13) and the Berlin Biennale – stagings of difference? Or are there indications within these stagings of an awareness of crisis in a society that feels overwhelmed by the dynamics of its own mode of production? This dynamic has rendered international diplomacy and national parliaments impotent to act in the economic policy area. Like a boomerang, it has returned to strike the states whose structural adjustment policies previously drove post-colonial debtor states into poverty. It is described as »the markets«, whose unquestionable mechanisms are highly reminiscent of the absolutist machinery of dominance, where morality (dependent on human decisions) necessarily splits off from power (law of nature). Does this division contain anew the space in which criticism can project its light as a different angle, and do the »stages« that have existed so far function as spaces for projection? This leads us to the questions that became increasingly pressing for us whilst visiting the three aforementioned exhibitions. Why does bourgeois society have such an urgent need for political art? Why now? And in which form?

[b]The bourgeois society of Manifesta needs political art to bring about a temporal explosion of this art, subsequently to be buried in pluralism’s panoply of offerings[/b]

The Manifesta is held in Genk, in a former coalmining region of Belgium. It is concentrated in the main building of the André Dumont pit, which was closed in 1987. On the ground floor we first of all stumble across Het Mijndepot, which exists independently of Manifesta; a museum organised autonomously by former miners. The exhibits include tools, photos from various phases of the pit’s existence, trade union flags and posters. Het Mijndepot is not a regional history museum, but instead a depiction of a social context that constituted the cause of – rather than a reaction to – the closure of the mines. In this context every object displayed is there for a specific reason and is accompanied by its own specific history.
The first of the three exhibition sections of Manifesta, »17 Tons«, seems to be seeking to supplement this museum. We see inter alia embroideries from mining households, prayer mats belonging to the first generation of Turkish workers, drawings from the Planning Archive, many works by artists from the mine worker context, including the impressive »Miner’s Heads« by worker-artist Manuel Durán.4 Why though do we find this display of works and archives – often full of integrity – so strangely disconnected, so contingent and at the same time so assiduous? Files recording the repression of the protest against the closure of a neighbouring mine, during which two people lost their lives, are set out, untouched, on reading tables, complete with chairs and lamps. That all happened in 1966, and now the police – over 40 years later – has released the files in this exhibition.
The next section, »The Age of Coal«, shows works from the 19th and 20th century in nine art historical chapters, classified through the prism of »how coal affected and defined artistic production«. This section sees itself as an »essay on a new kind of Material Art History«.5 We can admire exhibits including Henry Moore’s 1942 »Four Studies of Miners«, Cécile Douard’s painting of women on the pithead stocks from 1898, woodcuts ranging from works by Frans Masereel to Gustav Klutsis’ Stalinist propaganda posters and graphic design that draws on the Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics in the chapter on »Stakhanovism«. At the very latest at this point we feel as if we are locked into a search engine, which – having been fed with the algorithms art/coal – mercilessly spits out new references. We almost miss the reconstructed version of Marcel Duchamp’s 1,200 sacks of coal, which he exhibited in the 1938 Surrealist Salon in Paris. »The whole space […] contravened the conventions of the ›white box‹ […] Dark, dirty, with echoes of industry rather than art, it must have seemed a strange distortion of the grand celebrations of technology and creativity of the Paris Universal Exhibition of the previous year«6. In the decommissioned pit it is hard to distinguish the installation from everything left behind when the mine was closed.

The third section, »Poetics of Restructuring«, turns its attention to contemporary artistic references to global economic transformation. Are we overcome by an unfair sense of boredom, or why are we so imprecise, unable to appreciate the serious works and disregard the stupid ones? Why don’t we want to cooperate with this stimulus that permanently calls upon us to engage with the works – the sweatshop simulations, the photos of Chinese neo-colonialism in Africa, the references to Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, street traders plying faked brand products, politically committed figures dressed up as pop icons, the neon sign of a cultural centre from a city near Chernobyl – in a process of site-specific recontextualisation? Why do we resist the invitation to trace back their references and simultaneously extrapolate them to the current economic regime – this »all-in-one«, which the locus poses so intensively as a historical and contemporary challenge?
The development of the region 20 years ago followed the same principle as in all industrialised countries. It did not occur due to out-of-date machinery or depleted resources or because industrial capitalism had somehow drawn to a close, but as a consequence of the high wage levels and safety standards, which were the outcome of labour struggles. The neighbouring power stations are supplied with coal mined in accordance with global standards of exploitation. E.ON, for example, the operator of the Langerlo power station, sources its coal in Columbia. »Official statistics from the country document 500 deaths and 300 people injured in coal-mining accidents over the last six years […]According to figures from the farmers’ organisation Ascamcat, more than 10,000 small farmers were killed in disputes related to the coal industry over the last five years, and 130,000 compulsorily resettled «.7
The police files from 1966 and the coal sacks of the 1938 Surrealist Salon refer to scandals of the past, an imploded actuality, in which no-one is called to account any longer. Perhaps this exhibition shows that in times of crisis criticism no longer projects blindly into a historic-philosophical future – as described by Koselleck – but instead – certain of its political function – views itself as history and remains blind to the scandals of the present.
»The curatorial team has worked to […] provide a geographically and gender diverse representation of contemporary artistic practice today«8, the concept for the third section declares. Yet this balanced approach makes everything appear the same, it is »pluralist«. We understand pluralism to signify treating demands like commodities, in isolation, always available in an inclusiveness devoid of political consequences. At the same time, this pluralism is a powerful presentation of a universal representability. Neither the curatorial balance nor »Material Art History« can depict historical contexts and connections that are tied to power and that compel us to abandon the universality of enumeration and to take sides in a historical space that is always imbued with the dynamism of class struggles.9

[b]The bourgeois society of dOCUMENTA needs political art to regenerate the legitimacy of the German state[/b]

The pit building is part of a project of the city of Genk in conjunction with the Developer LRM and Leuven University. »EnergyVille, with the Knowledge and Innovation Community (KIC) InnoEnergy […] [will] develop and maintain buildings and infrastructure for the establishment of a science park for research-intensive companies.«10 »Clusters […] are much more than an agglomeration of companies […] Clusters signify organisational pooling and intensification of innovative energies, coupled with aggressive social strategies.« Clusters, according to Detlef Hartmann and Gerald Geppert in their study on the restructuring of the main financier of d13, the VW Group, aim to »overcome anew the dichotomy between work and life, to occupy the wayward niches […] of ineffective life, which have been able to spread in the Fordist cycle of derelict industrial land, blighted inner cities and independent minds […] Making a quality population available in a regional quality process constitutes the core of cluster policy«.11 Manifesta of course serves as an aperitif to this process.12 We wonder however precisely what the concept of autonomous art adds to this mobilisation of superfluous population or how it can counteract this process. For global companies, the local populace is interchangeable. Mobilising them is a bio-political measure from a nation state that must secure its capacity for regeneration. And with that thought we go to documenta.
In the Karlsaue, the imposing Baroque park in the vicinity of the main building of d13, works by around 50 artists are exhibited, largely in pavilions, mostly exuding an introverted material poetry and often installed over a long period by the artists, for example Thea Djordjadze’s installation made out of plaster, wood and wire nets, or the interior of a garden house completely filled with minimalist clay forms by Anna Maria Maiolino. The entire arrangement of huts in the park is reminiscent of artist settlements in the reform movements, 13 which in the early 20th century sought to overcome the dichotomy between art and life – at the same time as the conveyor belt appeared as a further step to prevent the dichotomy between life and work in factories. Is that the reason why here too we resist cooperation with the exhibition? Why don’t we enjoy it? Why is it that this mass of material poetry tends to make us wonder which factory we are in? What is this accumulation of individual cells supposed to mean, cells that cannot stop producing, have to fill everything up and display a vitalistic duration, in which the dichotomy between work and life once again fuses together?
2001 saw the publication of Peter Hartz’ book »Job Revolution«, examining the development of a new paradigm of time. »Out of 1,760 annual working hours, a total of 1,200 […] are actually spent working. […] The only opportunities for growth would exist in [conceptualising] a new self-organised time […]. Work [would have to] […] comprise an integral chunk of life. With greater flexibility, by adding additional shifts or weekend models and keeping production lines running, every workplace could be used four to six times over.«14 Is this existential panic about competitive advantage in the global productivity race reflected in the workaholic hermitages of the Baroque park?
In the Fridericianum’s empty windswept ground floor (a work by Ryan Gander), we read in one single display case the letter from artist Kai Althoff turning down the request to participate in documenta. We have to listen to the ambient sound loop »I’ll just keep on, ’til I get it right« by Ceal Floyer as we read, and we feel as ashamed as when you have to listen to coerced statements during team coaching sessions. The reasons why Althoff chose not to participate, which are formulated in the letter, are reminiscent of the widespread syndrome of burn-out. A floor higher we read a text from Francesco Matarrese, who since the 1970s has taken part in the exhibition circus with a rejection of artistic production, which he interprets in this contemporary context as resistance to »one’s inevitable involvement in production […] in the era of cognitive capitalism. ›The something in art […] is the true scandal [because it] hinders the advent and liberation of the work ›without something‹«.15 We are thus dealing with a classical »symptom«. For »the Something in art« does indeed contain the potential to be scandalous by taking as its topic the theme of the mode of production of bourgeois society itself. The »liberation of the work« entails repressing this scandal.

If we describe d13 so pointedly as a vitalistic cluster, it is because the repercussions of the crisis demonstrate that the so-called tertiary sector has to a great extent issued an uncovered bill of exchange for the classic valorisation of life and resources. Perhaps it is therefore just as over the top to experience the biophilic, anti-anthropocentric sub-concept of d13 as an eerie accomplice of this valorisation. Doesn’t d13 give a prominent place, for example, to the involvement of the group And And And in the protest against Monsanto? However, committed works such as these appear at d13 to be included again within a scenario of catastrophe, »traumatic moments, turning points, accidents «16 that occur as if a meteor had struck or – as experiments in quantum physics and computer technology show us – as the innocence of facticity. This catastrophism shows the same blindness to political responsibility, to » the gamble and risk of all political actions […], in which all historical movement is actualised «17 that Koselleck castigated in 18-century criticism. For him, this critique imagines itself as a phoenix arising from the catastrophe of the absolutist regime, yet it persists in precisely that moment. Is this constantly repeated birth from the ashes now transformed, in the cultural enclaves of the bourgeois state, into a permanent promise of critical regeneration?
Since 1989 the documenta as an institution has had to grapple with a highly specific crisis. This is rooted in the transformation of its ideological function in the Cold War, which now takes the form of a claim to be globally representative. This task intermeshes with German »Vergangenheitsbewältigung« (coming to terms with the past) and thus adheres to an ideological stereotype, namely being a global cultural poster boy for a formerly totalitarian state that is now democratically reformed. Never before – it seems to us – was there such a broad »approach« to NS-history, which, alongside the many extraordinary works – for example the wall carpets by Norwegian artist Hannah Ryggen or the journal-like gouaches by Charlotte Salomon – exhibits a great deal of clumsy sentimentality, such as the photos of Lee Miller in Hitler’s bathtub after visiting Dachau, alongside her »trophies«, towel and perfume bottle.
With the conclusion of payments to forced labourers on 11th June 2007, the last chapter in a German history of reparations and restitutions was closed, a history characterised by shamefully cold-blooded stinginess throughout the entire 50 years over which it unfolded. The payments made to forced labourers were inter alia a state-sponsored measure seeking to keep global stock-market activity of German firms (for example Allianz, Deutsche Bank, Siemens, Bertelsmann) free from international compensation litigation as much as possible. Parallel to this. individual businesses and public authorities began to engage in History Management, and a wave of trivial films appeared, in which NS history was given a definitively folkloric spin, now that the perpetrators are retired or dead. Do we then find ourselves once again »confronted with an imploded actuality, in which no one is called to account any longer «? At documenta however this implosion is subject to a different political actualization. There is a mise-en-scène of a catharsis, with the ruins of the Fridericianum overlaid with the rubble of Kabul, the book burnings of the NS superimposed upon the destruction wrought by the Taliban.18 In this, documenta pursues precisely the same line as the German ideology of intervention, which makes the country’s military deployments seem predestined by this cathartic purification of crimes committed in the past. Rarely – we feel – have artistic works been so clearly forced to fulfil an ideological obligation, so urgently needed, as if they formed part of the mobilisation of a government in the new struggles for global allocation of power and resources.19

[b]The bourgeois society of the Berlin Biennale is insulted and at the same time the newest trends in political art are served up to it on a plate[/b]

As a centre of the NS armaments industry, Kassel was largely destroyed in the Second World War. As early as 1956 tanks were being built in Kassel again, now dispatched to Saudi Arabia from behind the Kulturbahnhof exhibition venue by Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and Rheinmetall Defence, which have merged with the Henschel Group. At the same time as d13, a Wanted! banner was hung up at the Berlin Biennale with photo-fit images of the heirs of the Henschel Group. Not only were the names of those depicted included underneath these photo-fit images; the banner also comprised descriptions such as: Waldorf pupil, psychotherapist, humanist, artist … The banner targeted the current tank deliveries by attacking the liberal educated middle-class principles of the heirs too. The Internet page revealed the ambitious scope of this undertaking, which reflected on its denunciatory form as a conscious strategy. The banner was immediately censored. The initiative is called »Zentrum für Politische Schönheit (ZPS)« and sees itself as a »forging thinking, feeling and acting for the search for moral beauty, political poetry and human magnanimity […] Artistically the present is seen retrospectively (Schiller’s 9th letter) and consistently viewed in the light of future history books. When it comes to the history of the 21st century, the ZPS assumes two unprecedented genocides in Africa and Asia, which will once more find Western civilisation unprepared«.20 Here too criticism is projected into the historico-philosophical certainty of a catastrophe. This projection is however not a critical loop, nor is it an affirmative certainty as in Abbé Raynal’s writings. Rather than an insurrection of the colonies being visited upon Europe too, a genocide is projected from Europe to »Asia and Africa« – an omnipotent projection onto an eerily silent screen that, unchallenged, encompasses two entire continents.
The Berlin Biennale promised to at last abandon the stage of subsided difference and move towards real political space. In the process however it forgot that it is not itself the political reality that it displays in the numerous initiatives. It suppresses this representative division and in so doing becomes a regime that has no clothes on and shows its power unveiled: the Occupy camp on the lower floor of the Kunstwerke gallery is a human zoo, the multitude of videos showing political protests from Tahrir Square to Moscow, stripped of their context, are an accumulation of looted goods, the inflationary and naive approach to National Socialist history – here too – is cynical, the transparency of curatorial decisions is nothing but management of an open call for projects, a casting process that »exploits every participant as a kinetic resource «21.
We reiterate: »We understand pluralism to signify treating demands like commodities, in isolation, always available in an inclusiveness devoid of political consequences in isolation, always available in a political inclusion devoid of consequences. At the same time this pluralism is a powerful presentation of a universal representability.« The Berlin Biennale serves a very topical need of bourgeois society. It wishes to observe the global insurrections it has summoned up before consuming them and in the process to forget its own threatened state of being. Koselleck writes about Rousseau’s »volonté générale« as a vision of difference-free political being after the liquidation of the dilemma of bourgeois criticality: »The sovereign is always what he is supposed to be. Everyone believes he knows who he is but for that very reason no-one does. [The] balance between the […] morality of the citizens and the policy of the State is a fragile one since the ideological cover of their identity is in constant danger of tearing apart. To make the appearance into reality requires the perpetuation of the means of identity – terror and ideology«. 22 He wrote these words shortly after the end of the NS regime. The Berlin Biennale makes this dilemma – the dialectic between critical culture and political power that is constitutive of the bourgeois – appear obsolete in an era in which conservative, neo-liberal and neo-rightist governments wish to make short shrift of this bothersome criticality buzzing like a fly in its cultural enclaves.


If we have criticised exhibitions here and not artistic works, then it is because we wish to draw a distinction in the artistic realm too between those who produce and those who exercise dispositive powers over this production. These exhibitions as moments of disposition generate their own specific »bourgeois societies«. With the exception of the annoying counter-examples, we believe that the many works in all three exhibitions that manifest commitment and integrity very clearly recall a potential that is fundamentally inherent to artistic work; the capacity to articulate one’s own political circumstances and empathise with the circumstances of others.
We therefore do not conclude on a catastrophist note by predicting the end of art or the bourgeois system. We do not invoke a moral tribunal that will inevitably pass judgement. Instead we call for a responsible curatorial approach which, instead of unselectively including content and works, instead carefully concentrates its attention on the specifics of its respective political context. That would mean that the contents would leave their mark due to their consequences for the exhibition’s structure and the statement it proclaims.
We have frequently recalled here the principles of a Marxist analysis that repeatedly renders transparent the economic conditionality of the bourgeois system and its humanitarian consequences. This analysis is now freed from the obsolescence of a Marxist philosophy of history which – entirely in keeping with the bourgeois template – imagines itself as a phoenix rising from the catastrophic demise of the bourgeois regime. We believe that this analysis runs the risk of becoming solely academic rather than devoting its attention to concrete contemporary political conditions. This focus of attention is not a voluntaristic act that can make tidy distinctions between subject and object, this camp and the other. It is a psychic process that lingers stubbornly in what it criticises, and does not dissipate. The dilemma of bourgeois critique, acting politically from a – sponsored and arrogated – autonomy is its always dubious, always unauthentic constitution. Whether it produces lies, kitsch or critical genre, or strives repeatedly to name the criminal conditions and repercussions of the society that pays for it is not an issue of political structural change, which criticism cannot attain on its own, but is first and foremost a question of the political ethics of each individual protagonist.

Manifesta 9, 2nd June to 30th September, Genk, Limburg, Belgium, ; dOCUMENTA (13), 9th June to 16th September, Kassel, ;
7th Berlin Biennale, 27th April to 1st July, Berlin, .


Translated by Helen Ferguson


1 Reinhart Koselleck, Kritik und Krise. Zur Pathogenese der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft. Frankfurt am Main 1973, 2nd edition, p. 149/151. (English translation, »Critique and Crisis. Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society«, Berg Publishers, 1988)
2 Ibid., p. 85.
3 C.f. Benjamin Buchloh talking to Catherine David about documenta X.
4 The work shows a horde of miners’ heads carved in various materials, created over the last 50 years; equally impressive are the paintings and photographs of miners from the English Ashington Group (1934–1984).
6 Dawn Ades, Interview in the Manifesta 9 journal, p. 27. We feel much the same about »Bolivian Coal Line« (1992) by Richard Long and »Trois tas de charbon« (1966–67) by Marcel Broodthaers.
8 Manifesta concept, loc cit..
9 The term is meant in the sense of a relationship of exploitation and not as a sociological ascription.
11 Detlef Hartmann/Gerald Geppert, Cluster. Die neue Etappe des Kapitalismus. Berlin/Hamburg, 2008, p. 28 and p. 10.
12 »The renovated venue in Waterschei [...] can be seen as an industrial monument, exemplary for the redevelopment potential of the former mining region [...] After Manifesta 9, the remaining architectural elements of Waterschei have been included in the development of a master plan, Thor Park.«;
13 »Little houses … that recall the Monte Verità retreat commune of the early 1900s near Ascona«. An Essay by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, d13 press folder, Kassel 2012. The work by Lea Porsager in the Parkaue shows objects of a reconstructed séance with her friends in Monte Verità.
14 Hartmann/Geppert, p. 162; Peter Hartz was a trade union functionary at VW, the rationalisation of the German social security system was named after him and he was and co-planner of restructuring of the VW Group.
15 dOCUMENTA (13), Das Begleitbuch/The Guidebook. Ostfildern 2012, p. 90.
16 »Instead it [d13] looks at traumatic moments, turning points, accidents, catastrophes and crises – events that mark moments when the world changes. And it looks at them in so far as they are moments […] when matter comes to matter, as in the story of the Chaco meteorite.« Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, loc. cit. The commitment of the group And And And is described in detail in the same essay, but is scarcely visible in the exhibition.
17 Koselleck, loc. cit., p. 156.
18 For example Mariam Ghani’s video portrait of the Dar ul-Aman Palace in Kabul and the Fridericianum in Kassel; »landmarks for modernity and enlightenment when built, they became monuments to the fall of civilization through destruction.« d13 Begleitbuch/Guidebook, p. 478.
Michael Rakowitz had books, which went up in flames in 1941 in the bombarded Fridericianum, chiselled out of the stones of the Buddhist religious site in Bamiyan that was destroyed by the Taliban.
19 As early as 1992 the »maintenance of free global trade and unimpeded access to markets and commodities all over the world « was cited as a guideline for the German Armed Forces. This is now a matter of common sense: »Precisely in the era of globalisation the German economy relies more than ever before on free access to the markets and commodities of the world. As part of state security precautions, the German Armed Forces can contribute to securing trade routes and access to commodities as part of international deployments.« CDU Party Conference, November 2006;
21 Art Covers Politics, Radek Krolczyk im Gespräch mit Creischer/Siekmann, in: Konkret 6/2012.
22 Koselleck, loc. cit., p. 13.