Maxime Rodinson: Marxist, Orientalist, anti-Zionist, anti-Islamist

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The French Marxist scholar Maxime Rodinson, whose Polish parents died in Auschwitz while he was serving in the French Institute in Damascus, was born on May 22, 1915. Some sources say Paris; others say Marseilles. A true iconoclast, he resigned from the French Communist Party in 1958 in the name of anti-authoritarianism. He opposed Zionism as imposing a false nationalism upon all Jews while forcing the displacement of Palestinians from their homeland, though he learned both Hebrew and Arabic. Yet he urged peaceful negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and continually urged the Palestine Liberation Organization to renounce violence, terrorism, and their hope of a military victory over Israel. Rodinson was the first commentator to call Israel “a settler-colonial state,” and also coined the phrase “Islamic fascism” [le fascisme islamique] to describe the Iranian Revolution in 1979, taking Foucault to task for his uncritical enthusiasm and support of Khomeini. In 1961 he wrote Muhammad, a biography of the prophet of Islam that is still banned in parts of the Muslim world.

On political Islam’s potential duration, Rodinson wrote:

Islamic fundamentalism is a temporary, transitory movement, but it can last another thirty or fifty years — I don’t know how long. Where fundamentalism isn’t in power it will continue to be an ideal, as long as the basic frustration and discontent persist that lead people to take extreme positions. You need long experience with clericalism to finally get fed up with it — look how much time it took in Europe! Islamic fundamentalists will continue to dominate the period for a long time to come.

On Zionism as a form of nationalism, he wrote:

I am well aware that the designation “nationalist” for the Zionist movement often gives rise to protest on the part of Arab intellectuals. I have already come up against it. This is because in the Arab world, for reasons which are evident, the term “nationalism” has acquired a positive connotation, a sacred aureole. For the Arabs, nationalism is by definition a feeling, a passion, a duty, a praiseworthy (even admirable) movement. Zionism, being in their view something which is in its very essence bad, a perverse undertaking, cannot be nationalistic. It is a project of pure banditry, an operation planned by Satanic manipulators which sweeps along the deceived masses or individuals essentially just as evil.

In 1948, he became director of the Muslim section of the National Library in Paris. Edward Said in Orientalism (1978) praised Rodinson for his “extraordinary achievements” as well as his “methodological self-consciousness.” For Said, Rodinson was one of the exceptional few who proved “perfectly capable of freeing themselves from the old ideological straitjacket” of the Orientalist disciplines. In the endnotes of his book Europe and the Mystique of Islam (first published in French in 1980), he gave his opinion of Said’s Orientalism:

Edward Said’s Orientalism (New York, 1978) had a great and unexpected success. There are many valuable ideas in it. Its great merit, to my mind, was to shake the self-satisfaction of many Orientalists, to appeal to them (with questionable success) to consider the sources and the connections of their ideas, to cease to see them as a natural, unprejudiced conclusion of the facts, studied without any presupposition. But, as usual, his militant stand leads him repeatedly to make excessive statements. This problem is accentuated because as a specialist of English and comparative literature, he is inadequately versed in the practical work of the Orientalists. It is too easy to choose, as he does, only English and French Orientalists as a target. By doing so, he takes aim only at representatives of huge colonial empires. But there was an Orientalism before the empires, and the pioneers of Orientalism were often subjects of other European countries, some without colonies. Much too often, Said falls into the same traps that we old Communist intellectuals fell into some forty years ago, as I will explain below. The growth of Orientalism was linked to the colonial expansion of Europe in a much more subtle and intrinsic way than he imagines. Moreover, his nationalistic tendencies have prevented him from considering, among others, the studies of Chinese or Indian civilization, which are ordinarily regarded as part of the field of Orientalism. For him, the Orient is restricted to his East, that is, the Middle East. Muslim countries outside the Arab world (after all, four Muslims in five are not Arabs), and even Arab nations in the West receive less than their due in his interpretation.

His books, available for download here, include:

  1. Mohammad (1961)
  2. Islam and Capitalism (1966)
  3. Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? (1967)
  4. “On Zionism and the Palestine Problem Today” (1975)
  5. “Islam Resurgent?” (1979)
  6. “Khomeini and the ‘Primacy of the Spiritual'” (February 1979)
  7. The Arabs (1979)
  8. Europe and the Mystique of Islam (1980)
  9. Marxism and the Muslim World (1982)
  10. Cult, Ghetto, and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question (1984)
  11. “Mythology of a Conqueror: On Saddam Hussein” (1991)
  12. “Critique of Foucault on Iran” (1993)
  13. “Why Palestine?”
  14. “On Islamic ‘Fundamentalism’: An Interview with Gilbert Achcar” (2003)

An interview from 1986 follows the picture gallery below. Enjoy.

 

Rodinson looks back

Joan Mandell & Joe Stork
Middle East Review 269
November 15, 1986

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Joan Mandell and Joe Stork spoke with Maxime Rodinson in April 1986, when he came to Washington for the celebration of MERIP’s fifteenth anniversary. We publish the interview here for the first time.
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You represent a unique combination of someone who has a militant left political background as an activist and is at the same time a renowned scholar. What circumstances account for this?

I was born in 1915. The milieu of my parents was one in which we had no doubt that this combination was absolutely essential. We had no doubt at the time there could be contradictions between scientific work and a commitment to action. I learned a great deal from my old master and professor, Marcel Cohen, a Greek linguist and communist. He had great ideas about Semitic linguistics and on the side he felt the duty to be committed. He was a member of the French Communist Party from the beginning. He used to say that people who never change are fools, and I have asked myself whether I was a fool because I had been in the Party since the 1930s. I remember that at one time I had some disagreements with the Party, but some months after that I understood that the Party was right and I came back to it. So I am not a fool!

You wrote in the preface to one of your books how even when you first joined the Party early in your life you were conscious of the problem. You didn’t join naively or blindly and you were aware of the constraints that it would represent.

I understand now that there is a process. I couldn’t have understood it without the experience…. Once you are in an organization you are restricted. I remember just before joining and committing myself by adhering formally and signing papers, I was buffeted between two trends.

On one side there was the French primary school where I learned to be tolerant, democratic and respectful. This trend was supported by a man among the Jews who emigrated from Poland and Eastern Europe.

Did your family also migrate from Eastern Europe?

Yes. My father was from Byelorussia. He was educated in college in Smolensk, wrote poetry in Russian, read English, French and German. He came to Paris in 1885 and my mother in 1900 or 1901. They were the kind of people who came to France to pursue their studies but were forced to work to survive. My mother was less educated; she spoke Yiddish and a bit of Russian. She was very fond of things Russian…Poland was at that time part of Russia.

Were your parents already in the Communist Party when they came to France?

There was no Communist Party at that time. They were more or less socialist-minded. My mother had disgust for all things religious, and I inherited that. She spoke with horror of rabbis. When my father first came to Paris he was a Marxist, a syndicalist, one of the founders of Jewish trade unions. In 1905, there was a process of unification of many socialist parties in France. My father entered this new socialist party. He had a job — unpaid — as a keeper of a library. Many new people like Trotsky and Lenin went there.

In France, at the time of the revolution, to what extend did the Jewish workers work as a group? To what extent was there consciousness as Jews, and how did that intersect with the broader trade union movement?

It was a process of transition. Many of them were just coming from Russia, and spoke only Yiddish. On the side, they were concentrated in certain sectors like the garment trade. So naturally the trade union of workers who made raincoats were almost all Jews. At the time of the Russian revolution many went to Russia. I was born in Paris and perhaps my mother and father found this a great excuse to stay in France. My father understood how things were in Russia, while my mother and I were enthusiastic to go back. So she prepared to go back without my father. But her friends advised her not to leave her husband, and she stayed.

I was dispirited at the time because I was in primary school and had no prospect to go to university. But one of the things that upset me was that I did not know foreign languages. I was without culture. Then I discovered a marvelous thing: Esperanto. I understood that it was replacing all the languages; it was easy to learn. At that time it was encouraged by the Soviet Union, by trade unions, by the Communist Party. I studied it in evening lessons at the houses of trade unionists. I was assigned a correspondent in the Soviet Union, in the town of my father. I wrote asking, “What is the problem with Trotsky and Stalin?” and so on.

Continue reading

The Stenberg brothers and the art of Soviet movie posters

Alma Law: Let’s begin, if you’re agreeable, simply with some biographical information.

Vladimir Stenberg: My father was born in Sweden in the town of Norrkoping and he finished the Academy in Stockholm with a gold medal. Then he was invited to come here to Moscow to do some kind of work. At that time [1896] there was an exhibition in Yuzovka — now it’s called Donetsk — so there in Yuzovka my father worked on an exhibition. Later at the Nizhninovgorod fair he did some kind of work. In Moscow he met my mother. They married and had three children.1

My father lived and worked in Moscow and I wanted to enter a technical school. I was very fond of technology, mechanics, and so forth.2 But conditions were such that I had to enter Stroganov, the art school. My father worked as a painter, and from the time I was six years of age, we had pencils, brushes, and the like in our hands. We began to draw very early. Well, like children, they see their father drawing, and so we drew too. And here’s what’s interesting about our father. When we were going to school, we would bring home our drawings at the end of the year. My brother, Georgii, and I would play a trick and switch some of the drawings. But my father always knew. We would sit together and draw figures. Everything. And it seemed to us that we had everything the same. But nevertheless our father would still distinguish the hand of one son’s work from the other’s.

When we had to do perspective, to study all that, we told the teacher that our father was an artist and he had taught us a little. The teacher gave us a test assignment and we did it. He said, “That isn’t the way it’s done. The plan should be at the bottom, and at the top, the representation of that perspective.” But our father had another method: the plan on top and underneath the representation. Because when you’re working, it’s more convenient to have at the bottom what is most important. Therefore we had it the other way around. When the teacher asked, “Why do you do it that way?” we answered, “Our father taught us that way.” “Well, of course,” he said, “with foreigners, they have things the other way around.” Continue reading

The life and works of the Marxist art historian Meyer Schapiro

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The following series of interviews from the early 1990s gives a good sense of the Marxist art historian Meyer Schapiro’s life and work. You can download a selection of his writings by clicking on the links immediately below.

Meyer Schapiro with his wife Lillian in 1991, Photograph, Black and White Silver Gelatin Print, 6.25 x 6.25 inches

Memories of John Dewey, confrontation with Jacques Derrida, visits with Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Claude Lévi-Strauss

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David Craven: It has been suggested by some people that you were involved behind the scenes in the Erwin Panofsky/Barnett Newman debate that took place in the pages of Art News in 1961. Could you confirm or refute this claim?

Meyer Schapiro: Yes, I was in Israel in the Spring of 1961 when I read Panofsky’s letter in Art News. I sent Barnie one letter, with the understanding that my counsel be kept confidential, in which I pointed out that Panofsky was wrong. I told him to check a large Latin Dictionary and he would see that both sublimis and sublimus are acceptable, as demonstrated by their appearance together in Cicero’s citation of a passage from Accius. Both bits of advice appear in the first letter. Everything else in those two letters was contributed by Barnie himself.

DC: What type of relationship did you have with the philosopher John Dewey?

MS: I was a student of John Dewey, whose classes I very much enjoyed. Dewey asked me to do a critical reading of Art as Experience in manuscript form. The book is important, of course, but it is marked by a tendency to treat humanity and art as extensions of nature, as products of nature, without dealing with how humanity reshapes and remakes nature, hence also itself. This lack of emphasis on mediating nature, on humanity using craft and art to redefine itself, is a problem of the book.

DC: Did you ever meet the Marxist theoretician Karl Korsch when he was in the U.S.?

MS: I admire his work very much, but I only met him once or twice. His critique of the Stalinist misuse of Marx’s thought is of fundamental importance.

DC: How often did you see Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo when they were in New York City in the early 1930s?

MS: We met with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo several times. Diego was very entertaining and on one occasion he railed with great emphasis against color reproductions of artworks.

Lillian Milgram: Frida was quite taken with Meyer. She gave him gifts a few times, including a pre-Columbian figurine that we still have.

DC: On October 6, 1977, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida gave a presentation at Columbia University, in which he responded to your refutation of Martin Heidegger’s interpretation of Van Gogh’s 1886 oil painting of shoes that is now in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. This presentation by Derrida would later appear in a longer version as “Restitutions” in his book La Vérité en Peinture (1978). Derrida’s paper is surprising because of how the whole tenor of the piece becomes so shrilly ad hominem.

Yet on the one occasion when I had a chance to talk with Derrida up close, in April of 1983 when he was speaking at Cornell University, I found him to be quite approachable and unpretentious, even though I was taking issue with some things that he had said in his public talk about Western Marxism.6 He welcomed this exchange and was much more put off by the sycophantic behavior of some other people in attendance. This is why I find Derrida’s reaction to you so surprising and perhaps uncharacteristic.

MS: He was challenged strongly by many people in the audience. I was abrupt with him, because he neither understood nor cared to understand the nature of my criticism. Furthermore, I discovered later that Heidegger changed his interpretation of the Van Gogh painting when he did an annotated commentary of his own essay and that he ended up admitting that he was uncertain about whose shoes they were. This material will appear in volume 4 of my selected writings.

One of Derrida’s obvious shortcomings is that he entirely disregards artistic intention in his analysis. Continue reading

There is no criticism, only history

Manfredo Tafuri
Design Book Review
No. 9: Spring 1986

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Manfredo Tafuri is a prolific author on a wide variety of subjects ranging from 16th-century Venice (L’armonia e I conflitti, coauthored with Antonio Foscari) to more alien topics such as The American City (coauthored with Giorgio Ciucci and Francesco Dal Co). Each of his works serves as a platform for questioning the methods of architectural history, which, as he so emphatically states below, is not to be distinguished from criticism. In Theories and History of Architecture, he identified a major problem of “operative criticism,” endemic to architects who write about architecture. His suggestion to counteract this tendency to impose contemporary standards on the past was to shift the discourse away from the protagonists and individual monuments and consider architecture as an institution. His most widely read book in America, Architecture and Utopia, advanced this position, proposing an ideological analysis of architecture. His disconcerting message for those who had hopes of a “progressive” architecture was that there can be no class architecture which can revolutionize society, but only a class analysis of architecture. In his most recent theoretical work, La sfera e il labirinto, he has outlined a method of history called the progetto storico. This historical project, which is deeply indebted to Michel Foucault’s “archeologies of knowledge” and Carlo Ginzburg’s “micro-histories,” seeks to study the “totality” of a work, disassembling it in terms of iconology, political economy, philosophy, science, and folklore. His goal is to penetrate the language of architecture through non-linguistic means. At the core he still finds the problem of “the historic role of ideology.” The job of the Tafurian critic-historian is to “reconstruct lucidly the course followed by intellectual labor through modern history and in so doing to recognize the contingent tasks that call for a new organization of labor.” In November, 1985, we interviewed Professor Tafuri on the subject of criticism.

— Richard Ingersoll

%22On Theory%22 conference with Manfredo Tafuri, as part of the %22Practice, Theory and Politics in Architecture%22 lecture series organized by Diana Agrest, Spring 1974. Courtesy of Princeton School of Architecture Archives Round table at ETSAB with Manfredo Tafuri, José Muntañola, Pep Bonet and Josep Quetglas, February 1983. Manfredo Tafuri lecturing at ETSAB, February 1983

There is no such thing as criticism; there is only history. What usually is passed off as criticism, the things you find in architecture magazines, is produced by architects, who frankly are bad historians. As for your concern for what should be the subject of criticism, let me propose that history is not about objects, but instead is about men, about human civilization. What should interest the historian are the cycles of architectural activity and the problem of how a work of architecture fits in its own time. To do otherwise is to impose one’s own way of seeing on architectural history.

What is essential to understanding architecture is the mentality, the mental structure of any given period. The historian’s task is to recreate the cultural context of a work. Take for example a sanctuary dedicated to the cult of the Madonna, built sometimes in the Renaissance. What amazes us is how consistently these buildings have a central plan and an octagonal shape. The form cannot be explained without a knowledge of the religious attitudes of the period and a familiarity with the inheritance from antiquity — a reproposal of the temple form devoted to female divinities. Or take the case of Pope Alexander VII, whose interest in Gothic architecture at the cathedral of Siena [mid-17th century] compared to his patronage of Bernini in Rome can only be explained through a knowledge of the Sienese environment and traditions. The historian must evaluate all the elements that surround a work, all of its margins of involvement; only then can he start to discover the margins of freedom, or creativity, that were possible for either the architect or the sponsor.

The problem is the same for comprehending current work. You ask how the historian might gain the distance from a new work to apply historical methods. Distance is fundamental to history: the historian examining current work must create artificial  distance. This cannot be done without a profound knowledge of the times — through the differences we can better understand the present. I’ll give you a simple example: you can tell me with precision the day and year of your birth, and probably the hour. A man of the 16th century would only be able to tell you that he was born about 53 years ago. There is a fundamental difference in the conception of time in our own era: we have the products of mass media that give us instantaneous access to all the information surrounding our lives. Four centuries ago it took a month to learn of the outcome of a battle. An artist in the 15th century had a completely different reference to space-time; every time he moved to a new city (which was very rarely) he would make out his will. In earlier centuries, time was not calculated but was considered to be a gift from God. Knowledge was also considered to be God-given and thus teachers in the Middle Ages could not be paid; only later was their payment justified as a compensation for time. These factors belong to the mental web of another era. The way for us to gain distance from our own times, and thus perspective, is to confront its differences from the past.

One of the greatest problems of our day is dealing with the uncontrollable acceleration of time, a process that began with 19th-century industrializations; it keeps continually disposing of things in expectation of the future, of the next thing. All avant-garde movements were in fact based on the continual destruction of preceding works in order to go on to something new. Implicit in this is the murder of the future. The program of the “modern” artist was always to anticipate the next thing. It’s just like when you see a “coming attraction” ad for a film, essentially you have already consumed the film and the event of going to see the film is predictably disappointing and makes you anxious for something new. Continue reading

Art, a modern phenomenon: An interview with Larry Shiner

Chris Mansour
Platypus Review 67
June 1, 2014
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On March 18, 2014, Chris Mansour, a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society in New York, interviewed Larry Shiner, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, History, and Visual Arts at The University of Illinois, Springfield and author of The Invention of Art: A Cultural History (2001), in which he argues that the category of art is a modern invention. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

To be clear, I’m not in Platypus anymore. Nevertheless, this is a good interview. It covers a number of topics relevant to this blog. Also, for anyone who’s interested, the above painting is Henri Fantin-Latour’s Studio at Les Batignolles.

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Chris Mansour:
 You first wrote The Invention of Art in 2001, nearly 15 years ago. Why did you feel the need to write a book about the historical development of the category of “art” at this time?

Larry Shiner: In the field of philosophical aesthetics, or the philosophy of art, the focus of attention in the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s was on the issue of how to define art. A famous essay by Morris Weitz argued that art cannot be defined, and that the most we can do to understand art is to resort to what Wittgenstein called “family resemblances.” This position was challenged in another influential essay by Maurice Mandelbaum, who said that we might not be able to define art in terms of any visual or perceptual properties, but we might be able to define it in terms of its relational properties, in terms of art’s social context. This set up a new pursuit for the definition of art, and it was considered a very important question during this time.

Among these attempts to generate a definition of the essence of art, one of the most influential writers was Arthur Danto, who said that the historical development of the concept of art needs to be taken into consideration if we are to define it at all. He believed that art’s essence has been revealed progressively, culminating in the twentieth century. I was skeptical of finding the essence of (fine) art as such. From my perspective, art does not have an ahistorical essence but is a multivalent term referring to a set of ideas and practices that function differently in society throughout time. Thus, The Invention of Art was an attempt to construct a sort of genealogy of art and to flesh out what it means when we consider art as an historically developing concept.

The historical transformations during the long eighteenth century, from roughly 1680 to 1830, culminated in the emergence of the cultural complex that we now call “art” today, that is, a semi-autonomous sphere of practices within society. This was a shared but unevenly developed trajectory of several art forms. Yet, despite the differences in the pace of the transformations of the various disciplines and mediums, these transformations were part of a total social process. Philosophy students as well as art history students need to know this history of the concept of art and recognize that (fine) art, as we now understand it, is the product of modern society and is barely 200 years old. Many art history books never bother to define what they mean by art, although there is a definition implied in what they exclude and what they cover. I consider my book to be somewhat of a companion volume for students and artists, helping them to situate art historically and to understand this historical process philosophically.

CM: You say art is barely 200 years old and is specifically a modern phenomenon. The early 1800s was a rapidly maturing period for global bourgeois society and culminated in the Industrial Revolution. What makes the practice of art in bourgeois society different from prior, art-like practices? Also, why is this historical distinction so significant in understanding art qua art?

LS: There is great importance, for me, in the dialectic of continuity and discontinuity in history. Confusion arises from the fact that, since the late nineteenth century, the historically specific phrase “fine art” — as distinct from art practices before this time — has dropped the “fine” out of the phrase and we now simply term it “art.” However, the meaning of the term “art” is incredibly ambiguous.

One meaning descends from what I call the “older, broader” meaning of art, from ars in Latin and techne (τέχνη) in Greek. This use suggests any human craft or performance that is done with some skill or grace; in one sense, everything humans do is an art. Here, there is a complete continuity from the caves of Lascaux to the present. It is not only the bison depicted on the cave walls that are art, but also the stone tools used to create them. Art as techne or ars lacks the precision of what we define as art today, which is roughly a semi-autonomous set of social practices, often geared toward aesthetic contemplation.

5341_lascaux_animals_cave_painting

The big change in art’s definition came when all those human arts got split up into various kinds: the first split was the opposition between the liberal arts and what the ancients called the “servile arts” (which was later replaced by the “mechanical arts”). That polarity was very different from the modern one contrasting the “fine arts” to the “applied arts,” “commercial arts,” or “craft arts.” The old schema of the liberal arts included what we call sciences and mathematics as well as the humanities. Part of what distinguishes the “fine arts” as a category of classification is that things like painting, poetry, architecture, music, and theater were pulled out of the old liberal arts and made into a separate category. In fact, things like painting and sculpture, because they involved physical labor, were not even considered part of the liberal arts until Renaissance painters, sculptors, and critics argued that these disciplines should be included among them. Up until the eighteenth century, for example, the producers of paintings and sculptures and the composers of symphonies were what I call “artisan-artists,” since these two terms, “artisan” and “artist,” were used interchangeably in English and many other languages. The old notion of the artisan combined genius and rule, inspiration and skill, creation and imitation, freedom and service. What began to happen in the eighteenth century is that these two notions were pulled apart and, by the end of the century, each term was defined as the opposite of the other term. It took decades for the new ideas of “Fine Art” and for the new ideals of the “Artist,” in contrast to the mere “artisan,” to become generally accepted.

By the time they did become generally accepted, the famous seventeenth-century “rise of science” had already split apart the liberal arts. At this time, the humanities, sciences, and fine arts began to emerge as distinct fields. A key point of my book is to show how the emergence of the category of fine arts, and its accompanying ideals of the artist and the aesthetic, occurred in conjunction with a new set of practices, institutions, and behaviors.

Paul Oskar Kristeller’s essays on the development of the classification systems of art were very influential for my book; I share his vision that the category of (fine) arts fully emerged only in the eighteenth century. Kristeller ended his essays with Kant and Schiller’s writings on the nature of the aesthetic. It seemed to me that the way we use the term art in the singular, as a kind of semi-autonomous subdivision of culture in the modern world, is still deeply influenced by the Romantics and the German Idealist philosophers. When I reread the literature, it struck me that the real culmination of the long process of constructing the social system of the fine arts occurred around 1830. This is why I speak of the long eighteenth century: You can see the beginnings of the fine art category and its institutions as early as the 1680s. My long eighteenth century encompasses the epoch spanning from the 1680s to the 1830s. By the 1830s, the fine arts system as we know it today was almost fully developed.

CM: How did the broader socio-political, institutional, and practical changes that happened in bourgeois society in the eighteenth century transform the liberal arts and fine arts system? What is the specialized fine arts system’s relationship to large societal transformations, and how was this relationship expressed?

LS: In very broad strokes, the historical transformation entailed the shift from an aristocratically organized society toward a society dominated by the bourgeoisie. The development of the market economy played an important role in the emergence of the categories of fine art and the artist. On the production side, the old order was dominated by the patronage-commission system. As an artist, you were typically either employed full-time by a lord or bishop, as were many of the great figures of the Renaissance and the seventeenth century, or you received commissions as an owner or member of an independent workshop with apprentices. Continue reading

Is the funeral for the wrong corpse? An interview with Hal Foster

Bret Schneider & Omair Hussain
Platypus Review 22 | April 2010
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Hal Foster is a prominent critic and art historian who contributes regularly to
 ArtforumNew Left Review, and The Nation. He is also an editor of October. In the fall of 2009, he sent out a questionnaire to 70 critics and curators, asking them what “contemporary” means today. Foster notes that the term “contemporary” is not new, but that “What is new is the sense that, in its very heterogeneity, much present practice seems to float free of historical determination, conceptual definition, and critical judgment.”[1] 35 critics and historians attempted to answer to the problems implied in this observation. The following interview originally appeared in Platypus Review 22.
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Bret Schneider: About the What Is Contemporary? survey that appeared in the journal October this past fall — I am interested to learn your motives in surveying critics and curators in this way, i.e. by questionaire. It seems to imply some bewilderment, or maybe even discontent with the recent heterogeneity of contemporary art. What was at stake for you in this questionnaire?

Hal Foster: Perhaps it was fueled by discontent, but bewilderment also played a part. For my generation contemporary art seemed to have a special purchase on the present; the sense that art is an index of the moment appears lost in today’s profusion of practices. That is a source of discontent for me. As for bewilderment, well, that could just be another name for ignorance.

EPSON scanner image tumblr_m2fjgl561a1r70t2xo1_1280 (1)a

Of course, any present is made up of many presents. One of the definitions of contemporary is not that we are all in the same time, but that many times coexist at once. We live in a plurality of moments, and I am ill at ease with the relativism that such a temporality implies. There used to be a way in which contemporary art was still connected to prior art as well as to its own moment. That, too, does not seem to be powerfully the case anymore. This is why I framed the questions in the survey around two models that appear dysfunctional now: modernism/postmodernism and avant-garde/ neo-avant-garde. This framing was also an avowal of my relative distance from contemporary art, which is odd for a person who, for a long time, was active as a critic.

Omair Hussain: I am interested in the discussion of times when contemporary art was seemingly a more acute expression of its contemporary moment, but also understood itself as expressing and reflecting upon an entire history of art making. If, by contrast, contemporary art today can be characterized as both pluralistic and lacking in historical awareness, how do you perceive the relationship between these two attributes? Is contemporary plurality antithetical to historical consciousness?

HF: One excellent response to the survey speaks to this question. Kelly Baum, a young curator at Princeton, argues that the heterogeneity of art today actually performs the greater heterogeneity found in the social field at large. Rather than chaotic, then, it represents the dispersal that characterizes societal relations today. In this view plurality does not invalidate contemporary art as an index of the present but guarantees it. This take is interesting, but it is also a little sophistical — and it gives art too much of a pass.

What drew me to contemporary art originally was the way it seemed both to engage the historical field and to access the contemporary moment. Art history suggested that if you could follow a line, say, from the 19th century to the present, you might grasp the very trajectory of history. That was an illusion, of course, but a powerful one; it was an ego trip, too, to imagine you could surf the dialectic in this manner. Yet it made for a historical consciousness on the part of particular artists and critics that is not so evident today. The terms have changed, and the October questionnaire was a way to get at how the old terms no longer function, and to see what new terms might be taken up in their place.

BS: Why did you not ask any artists to participate in the “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary’”? What was the significance of asking only critics and curators? Do you think that this domain is where the problems of contemporary art are best addressed, and if so, why, considering the current interest in decentralizing art discourse? What does the lack of response from curators express?

HF: I did not ask artists because I felt it was not their problem really — that it bore more heavily on critics, historians, and curators. At first I was puzzled as to why more curators did not respond. It is likely this silence speaks to an anxiety in institutions dedicated to contemporary art, but I can only guess. Certainly in the discipline of art history the contemporary is putting great pressure not just on the modern field but also on other fields. If you are trained in traditional Chinese or Indian art history, say, you might think that contemporary art, with the great pull of the market, has distorted your field.

BS: Could you clarify the ways in which art of the past had a purchase on its own historical moment? This implies that there was some sort of cohesive promise or at least some guiding principles. If there was once a promise of contemporary art, what was it?

HF: By the late 1930s, with Stalinism in particular, there was the sense that radical innovation in society was thwarted, but that it might be continued elsewhere, in the realm of culture — “to keep culture moving” is how Clement Greenberg put it in 1939. It’s an idea that comes out of the disappointments of 1917, out of a long history of the failure of radical politics in the 20th century. In this way the Trotskyist notion of “permanent revolution” was displaced onto advanced art, and in large part it kept the idea of the avant-garde alive in the postwar period (Michael Fried argued this point in 1965). If the political seemed to be thwarted somehow, maybe the idea could be preserved within the sphere of the artistic. Yet even in that formulation there was already a reactive, or at least a conservative, displacement from politics to art.

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BS: There has been a lot of theorization about the avant-garde being a project committed to breaking down the barriers between art and life. Do you see this characterization as valid, and if so, what have been effects of that project?

HF: That idea that the avant-garde aimed to break down the division between art and life was never my understanding, at least as far as most movements were concerned. That is an idea that critics like Peter Bürger supported, but it is just not specific enough.

BS: You called it a “romanticized” view somewhere.

HF: Yes. Nevertheless, it is not untrue for some avant-gardes. Certainly there was a desublimation of art in Dada, but its effects were very ambiguous. Did it produce a politicization of art or an aestheticization of much else? That is the old question, and I cannot answer definitively. Later, if a breakdown of the division between art and life did occur, it occurred in the interests of the culture industry, not of anything else. That recuperation, too, is an old story now, and for a long time artists have developed other projects in its wake.

OH: Yet I think the problem is raised anew by new social art practices and relational aesthetics, art practices that are still very much concerned with the breakdown of boundaries between art and the everyday. How do you understand the curious persistence of that mission within contemporary art today? If that project is continued, what do you foresee as the repercussions for art as a specific genre of production?

HF: My sense is that one cannot decide once and for all between artistic autonomy and social embeddedness. It is a tension that should persist. Sometimes I am on the side of Adorno, and sometimes I am opposed. It depends on the situation. To me that is not opportunistic, it is simply being responsive. Even if the autonomy of art is always only semi-autonomy, it is important to insist on. Otherwise art becomes instrumental, which is problematic even if that means it is an instrument in the hands of progressive artists.

One thing that strikes me about relational art is that it treats art spaces like a last refuge of the social — as if social interaction had become so difficult or so depleted elsewhere that it could only happen in the vacated spaces of art. It was such a sad take on the state of sociability at large. I also felt that, for all its worthy attempt to work against the spectacular basis of contemporary art, there was a way in which it posed participation as a spectacle of its own. I suppose I am more interested in practices that use art as a guise or ruse for other practices altogether, such as pedagogy, say, or politics. Continue reading

Walking between precipices: An interview with Ernesto Laclau

Hegemony vs. reification,
Gramsci contra Lukács .

Platypus Review 2
February 1, 2008
Ashleigh Campi
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May 2014: Ernesto Laclau, the post-Marxist Argentine political theorist of populism and democracy, died a little under a month ago. I’m reposting this interview Ashleigh Campi conducted several years ago with him because I think it gets at some of the tensions within Marxist thought and the differential legacy of concepts like “hegemony” and “reification.” To be sure, I’m not really an admirer of Laclau’s work, and consider post-Marxism (a term coined by Laclau and his French colleague Chantal Mouffe) a form of late capitalist dementia, a senility of sorts. But it is one that expresses a broader pattern of degeneration across the board during the 1980s, that is not merely the fault of various intellectuals’ “loss of nerve” or idiosyncratic “deviations.” It reflects an objective political reality that had regressed from the position it occupied even a few decades earlier.

February 2008: Confronting the confusion and fragmentation that wrought progressive politics in recent decades, Ernesto Laclau’s work attempts to theorize the path to the construction of a radical democratic politics. Drawing on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony to devise his own theory by that name, Laclau describes the processes of social articulation that creates popular political identities. By redefining democratic politics as the construction of hegemony, Laclau reminds political actors of the work necessary to construct the plurality of democratic structures vital to any emancipatory political project. In December 2007, Laclau sat down to talk about the use and misuse of Marx’s theories, and what he sees as the essential questions for political theory today. Laclau teaches political theory at the University of Essex and at Northwestern University, in Chicago. .

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Ashleigh Campi: In describing the process of uniting disparate social demands behind a common politics, your work argues that the proliferation of social movements and politicization of certain identities in recent decades offers the potential for a deepening of the democratic process and presents new possibilities for social emancipation. Politics is to be understood as process through which demands are articulated by particular identities; immigrants, public-housing residents, the unemployed, etc. Do you see this emphasis on the plurality of political demands as a challenge to the creation of a coherent progressive politics?

Ernesto Laclau: I think we are dealing with two edges of a sword, because on the one hand it is obvious that the horizontal proliferation of social demands in recent decades is enlarging the area from which an emancipatory project can be launched. On the other hand to put together all of these social demands in a coherent project is more complicated than when people thought that there was just one social agent of emancipation which was the working class. For instance, I remember thirty years ago in San Francisco; everybody said that we had all the conditions for a very large emancipatory movement, popular pole etc., because we had the demands of the chicanos, the demands of the blacks, the demands of the gays, but at the end of the day, some of these demands clashed with the demands of the other groups, so nothing happened. There have been attempts like the Rainbow Coalition of Jesse Jackson to put together a plurality of these demands but the task is not easy; the Rainbow Coalition didn’t have a particularly good end. So I think that the dilemma of contemporary politics is how to create a unity out of diversity. That is the political challenge that we are facing today.

Ashleigh Campi: You’ve described the process of radicalizing political demands as the process through which disperse localized claims become discursively linked such that political subjects come to identify themselves in common as the bearers of rights that are not being met by an institutional order. This unity then becomes asserted as the demand for the radical overhaul of the institutional order, or some process of radical reform or revolution. Does this common antagonism provide a sufficient mechanism of unification among ‘the people’ of democratic politics to allow them to carry out the task of self-governance?

Ernesto Laclau: Well, I have tried to argue that all demands taking place in a public sphere are always internally divided. For instance you can have a demand for higher wages, but if it is articulated in some kind of repressive regime in which the demand is not immediately responded to, on the one hand the demand will have its particular content (higher wages), but on the other hand people will see the demand as a challenge to the existing system as a whole. Because of this second, more universal side of the demand, the demand could generate other social demands whose content is very different from the first; for instance, student demands for increasing autonomy in schools will start to form an equivalential relation so that the two demands, higher wages and increased autonomy — which are very different from the point of view of their particularity, come to be seen as equivalent in their opposition to a regime which is challenged by both. Thirdly let’s suppose that you have a third demand: the demand for freedom of the press from some liberal sector. Again this demand is a particularity that establishes the opposition to an existing state and creates some equivalential relations and in this way it constructs what I would call an equivalential chain. Now, at some point you would see not only the individual demand, but the chain of demands as a whole. At that point, because the means of representation of this chain is one individual demand — this demand is charged with the function of representing the whole. This is an example that I have used in my work: the demands of Solidarnosc in Poland. In the beginning there were the demands of a group of workers in the Lenin shipyards in Gdansk, but because these demands took place in a situation in which many other demands were not recognized by a repressive regime, these demands assumed the function of representing the whole. This is what I call an empty signifier. Why empty? Because, if the signifier is going to represent the totality of the chain, it has to abandon its only relationship with the particular demand from which it originated, and it has to represent a vast array of demands which are in an equivalential relationship; so it is less clearly a particularity and more and more a universal, and at the same time it is a hegemonic signifier because it has the function of representing — through its particular body — the universality transcending it. As I see it, this is the process of generation of a popular will as a whole. But as we were saying before there are counter tendencies that go against this popular representation of the collective will. For instance there is the tendency to reduce each demand to its own particularity so that this equivalential effect — the construction of the popular will — is finally defeated. And in the societies in which we live, these two tendencies — the tendency toward universalization through the production of empty signifiers and the tendency towards the particularism of the special demands — create a tension that is the very terrain in which the political is constructed. Continue reading

Trotskyism in Greece: An interview with Andros Payiatsos

Nikos Manousakis
Platypus Review 64
March 2, 2014

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On November 22, 2013, Nikos Manousakis, a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society in Thessoliniki, interviewed Andros Payiatsos, Secretary General of Xekinima or “Start,” the Greek chapter of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

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Nikos Manousakis
: Tell us about the Greek chapter of the CWI. What are its involvements politically, its connection to the wider international organization, its ideological background, and what are Start’s aims in present-day Greece?

Andros Payiastos: Xekinima, which can be translated as Start, has a long history that dates back to the period of the Junta, the military dictatorship from 1967-1974. It was originally a small group that operated illegally under the Dictatorship of the Generals and, in 1974, joined the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK). Xekinima had evolved in a Trotskyist direction, although not with full clarity at the outset, and was involved in the uprising of the Athens Polytechnic in the autumn of 1973. Start members joined PASOK when the latter was created in 1974. Around the same time Start came into contact with the British counterpart of the CWI, then called Militant, which was working inside British Labour. The group has had an interesting and a complex development since then. In its initial period it was very successful within PASOK, which, in the 1970s, was an entirely different organization from the one we see today — with thousands of working-class fighters and radical left activists. It was also very bureaucratic. But Xekinima was very quickly expelled. From 1975 onwards, Xekinima has worked as a tendency outside PASOK, although it directs itself at the PASOK rank and file.

Then in the late 1980s, a discussion began to develop in Greece and internationally about the character of working-class parties, labor parties, Social Democratic parties, etc., and there was a move in the direction of abandoning them. So Xekinima, too, shifted toward independent work and abandoned any kind of relationship with PASOK. Furthermore, in the 1990s, Xekinima came out openly as an independent organization with a stated aim of rebuilding the forces of the Left, describing PASOK as a bourgeois party, which had abandoned any link to working-class interests.

The 1990s were a very difficult period. The Left, as a whole, was in crisis as a result of the collapse of Stalinism and was confronted by a major ideological offensive by the bourgeoisie globally. It is fair to say that the entire Left was in crisis, even in tatters! Many organizations split and Xekinima also suffered from such clefts.

NM: This in spite of the fact that Xekinima had a different ideological or Trotskyist background?

AP: The Trotskyist current, although it was the only one that had predicted Stalinism was a temporary historical phenomenon and that it would collapse in one way or another, nevertheless paid the cost of the collapse of the Stalinist left. Because the collapse had an adverse, negative effect on the struggles of the working class, on the consciousness of the working class, on leftist working-class organizations, and on the leadership of the trade unions, etc.

NM: So you understand 1989 to have been a turning point for the Left in Greece and globally?

AP: Without any doubt! And Xekinima paid a cost for 1989. Actually, it is fair to say that Xekinima was able to restart, to rebuild its forces, having contracted to a small group by the late-1990s, when leftist movements found new life as the repercussions of the financial-economic crisis in southeast Asia were felt internationally, by the effects of the anti-globalization movement, and then the anti-war movement. It was this rebirth that followed the collapse of the Left in 1989 that also allowed Xekinima to rebuild its forces and become one of the significant forces on the Left today.

NM: How would you define the present goals of Xekinima?

AP: The general goal, of course, is the transformation of society. Capitalism is a deadly system leading to the barbarism that we experience today. How we get to transform society is the main question and a difficult one because the entire Left claims, in one way or another, that they are struggling for a socialist society, but historically the Left has proved incapable of achieving that aim. We have two goals given the present state of things in Greece: The first is to develop a transitional program that reflects the needs of today, define the aims for the working class to fight for, launch proposals about how that fight should develop, in other words a plan of struggle for the working class in order to be able to face this barbaric attack by the troika and the Greek bourgeoisie. The second is to try to bring together the forces which agree on the fundamental tasks of our epoch, I mean forces from the rest of the Left with an orientation toward revolutionary Marxism.

The Greek left is in turmoil — reflecting the depth of the current crisis on the one hand and the deficiencies of the (international) Left on the other. What is very important, however, is that there are significant forces inside all of the major left formations which are in opposition to the ideas or political lines of the central leaderships of those left formations. Such forces exist inside SYRIZA, but also inside the ANTARSYA coalition, and the KKE, the Greek Communist Party. These forces understand the necessity of a transitional program as I have described above and, also, the vital importance of the United Front. Continue reading

Khidekel and the cosmist legacy of suprematism in architecture

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The following is a brief extract from an interview Elena Dobriakova conducted with Regina Khidekel, the daughter-in-law of the great suprematist painter and speculative architect Lazar Khidekel. It touches on the subject of Russian cosmism, a philosophical current which has become a renewed topic of interest thanks to George Young’s new book on The Russian Cosmists, as well as some of the materials published on e-flux by Benedict Singleton and Anton Vidokle.

Following this extract there is a short article by Regina Khidekel on suprematism in architecture. See also a post by Martin Gittins as well as Enrique Ramirez’s work on cosmism and flight in modern architecture, “Rocket Talk.” The interview translation is my own, but feel free to reproduce it. Click on any of the images below to see them in higher resolution.
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Khidekel and cities of the future

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Elena Dobriakova:
 How has suprematism withstood such a serious test of time, in your opinion?

Regina Khidekel: When the founder of suprematism Kazimir Malevich arrived at this Black Square, he soon understood that suprematism — or, that is to say, geometric abstraction — is the terminal stage of abstract art, that this art that is connected with the cosmos, with cosmic vision. The plain fact of the matter, technically speaking, is that Malevich grasped the property of this new space when, according to the story, it escaped beyond the horizon. In this fashion, the laws of linear perspective for were repealed, and before the artist opened an immeasurable expanse, which then became the space of the suprematist painting and, as Lazar Khidekel phrased it, the infinite plane of the canvas. That’s why in the early stages of suprematism the forms fly into the unknown of cosmic space. This is to speak only of the formal aspect. After this came the further development of suprematism, which Malevich saw as the creation of modern architecture. The students of Malevich sought to introduce this art to the limits of life during the early 1920s — and above all Khidekel, who was to Malevich the most active, energetic, and congenial. Chashnik called Khidekel a revolutionary suprematist as early as 1921, meaning a “real, genuine suprematist.” And Khidekel introduced suprematism into architecture, not as a utilitarian, elementary style, but as revolutionary-innovative vision.

For Malevich’s students, including Lazar Khidekel, these forms have been converted into space stations. Structures and volumes were perceived by them as the cosmic dwellings of future earthlings. This is another story: that of Russian cosmism and its mystical philosophy of the “common cause,” capable of uniting mankind in the task of overcoming death and resurrecting our forefathers, for whom these space colonies were designed. By the way, this was the motive behind Tsiolkovskii’s scientific research.

Елена Добрякова: Каким образом супрематизм, по вашему мнению, выдержал столь серьезную проверку временем?

Регина Хидекель: Когда основоположнику супрематизма Казимиру Малевичу пришел этот черный квадрат, он очень скоро понял, что супрематизм, или, иначе, геометрическая абстракция, и есть последняя стадия абстрактного искусства, что это искусство связано с космосом, с космическим видением. Дело в том, что чисто технически Малевич осознал свойство этого нового пространства, когда, по его словам, вышел за линию горизонта. Таким образом, законы итальянской перспективы были отменены, и перед художником открылся безмерный космос, который стал пространством супрематической живописи и, как сформулировал для себя Лазарь Хидекель, бесконечной плоскостью полотна. Вот почему на первой стадии супрематизма формы летают в безвесии в космическом пространстве. Это если говорить о формальной стороне. Затем последовало развитие супрематизма, которое Малевич видел в создании современной архитектуры. Студенты Малевича, и в первую очередь Лазарь Хидекель как самый активный, деятельный, конгениальный Малевичу, в начале 1920-х годов стремился ввести это искусство в пределы жизни. Чашник еще в 1921 году называет Хидекеля революционным супрематистом, что означает «подлинный, настоящий супрематист». И Хидекель ввел супрематизм в архитектуру, не утилитарной составляющей стиля, а революционно-новаторским видением.

Ученики Малевича, в том числе и Лазарь Хидекель, стали эти формы превращать в космические станции. Структуры и объемы воспринимаются ими как космические жилища будущих землян. Это отдельная тема — русский космизм и его мистическая философия общего дела, способная объединить человечество для решения задач преодоления смерти и воскрешения наших предков, для которых и проектировались эти космические колонии. Кстати, это было побудительным мотивом и для научных разработок Циолковского.

Lazar Khidekel:
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The trajectory of suprematism;
between sky and earth

Regina Khidekel

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The cosmic “gene” of Suprematism, the philosophy of Russian Cosmism in Malevich’s interpretation and his cosmological concepts, fell on fertile ground. The adolescent, who, by his own account, “walked the streets late at night, staring at the sky, the moon, and the clouds waiting for the coming of the Messiah, who…appeared floating in the clouds of the dark sky,”[1] soon encountered the art of his first teacher, Marc Chagall, where the flight over the city and the life on the roofs perfectly accorded with the Vitebsk reality.

From the Chagallian metaphorical ascent over side streets familiar from childhood, he was already within arm’s length of the systematized flights into the endless limits of Suprematist space. Malevich’s destruction of Renaissance perspective and the horizon line led to the revelation of another space — that of the boundless cosmos, which became the space onto which Lazar Khidekel would project his Suprematist compositions. Continue reading

Amidst the ruins of the Soviet avant-garde

Isa Willinger on her film
Away from All Suns!

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Originally published at the architecture website uncube. Several weeks ago I posted another interview with the director.

Architecture was once considered fundamental to the rethinking of society and the shape it took. This is the premise of Away from All Suns! a new feature-length documentary by filmmaker Isabella Willinger, a documentary filmmaker based in Munich and Berlin, whose work focuses on gender, social upheavals and human rights. Her film examines the relics of Constructivist architecture scattered throughout Moscow and attempts to tease out what’s left of their revolutionary past. Upon their construction, these buildings embodied the emancipatory change promised and, at least for a time, instituted by the Bolshevik Revolution. Over three-quarters of a century later, suspended in a fragile purgatory between decay and demolition, structures like the Narkomfin Building (1928-30) and the Communal Student House of the Textile Institute (1929) still stun in their radical and emphatic newness.

These buildings seem to rise “from a time more modern than my own,” Willinger says at the beginning of the film. And yet they are just one part of the story. The film’s narrative juggles a cast of unconnected characters, each of whom occupies — in one sense or another — three revolutionary residences. As becomes apparent over the course of the film, their paths are intrinsically bound up with the misfortunes of their storied addresses; like the buildings themselves, they are imperiled by increasingly conservative, reactionary forces that, buoyed by a galvanized corporate sector, threaten their existence, if not that of democratic Russian society. Even so, they persist against great odds, with mixed feelings of nostalgia, hope, and helplessness.

Willinger recently premiered Away from All Suns! at the Istanbul Architecture Film Festival, where it was awarded the top prize. Ahead of its European DVD release, she talks to Sammy Medina for uncube about her film, the Soviet avant-garde, and the bleak future of Russian architecture.

Archival newsreel footage of a Soviet parade with a wooden model of Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International (1919-1920) carried through the streets

Newsreel footage of a parade with a model of Vladimir Tatlin’s
Monument to the Third International (1919-1920) in the streets

Interview

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Sammy Medina:
 
When did you first visit the modernist ruins in Moscow?

Isa Willinger: I first visited them in the summer of 2010. I was actually researching a completely different film topic in Moscow then and was not planning on making a film about them at all. On my walks through the city, I felt an affinity to the Constructivist buildings that I would come by randomly and began to photograph them. Moscow as an urban space and also as a cultural space has something very inaccessible about itself, something even unwelcoming and closed. In retrospect, I think the buildings were the only thing in Moscow’s cityscape I could visually and culturally connect with.

Sammy Medina: What was it about them that impressed you?

Isa Willinger: To me the buildings seemed like gigantic signs in the city. I have no background in architecture, so initially I wasn’t aware of the spatial and urban concepts behind them. In the course of making the film, this obviously changed, but I have never lost the sense of my initial impression. I’ve always continued to see and treat them as signs, rather than architecture. Continue reading