The New Culture War?

By Laurie Rojas

Critique of art has been put in a tenuous situation following the election of Trump. After the serious beating that critique and critical theory received during the culture wars of the 80s, it was further submerged under Bill Clinton’s administration (1993-2001)—Hal Foster called this period the “post-critical”. The problem only worsened when it became pacified and obscured under Obama’s administration (2008-2016). Trump’s victory, however, has burst the art world’s bubble. We can now look back and see how mired with complacency the last 8 years have been. The shock has triggered an awakening but also an overwhelming sense of despair (with narcissistic and infantile reactions to spare). Not only do we see a return of the same anti-Bush-style propaganda, but we have invidious comparisons to the Culture Wars of the 80s.

As Christian Viveros-Fauné wrote in Artnet, the art world will “need to properly prepare for what is sure to be a forthcoming culture war the likes of which this country has never seen.”

The unmentioned enemy of Trump, Viveros-Fauné writes, is critical culture: “[T]he kind that often challenges power in the name of tolerance, transparency, accuracy and sheer experimentation... What Trump has done by leveraging white America’s mass delusion of ethnic decline is officially declare a war on culture.”

But what has this “critical culture” looked like over the last 8 years—what has culture itself looked like?

Since when is tolerance, transparency, and accuracy defining terms of the critical? The only critical category cited among them is experimentation. But how much true experimentation has been seen in culture in the last 8 years? Where has this experimentation taken place?

How “critical” can this culture have been if it has shown itself to defend the neoliberal status quo by unanimously supporting Hillary Clinton, accepting the liberal media’s claims that Hillary has fought against the “sexism, xenophobia, racism” that Trump represented? The social situation of contemporary art is that it has become absorbed as neoliberal propaganda machine and it has been a promulgator of deceptions that conceal the actual situation. The former is less of a surprise as art has always been tied to the bourgeoisie by an umbilical cord of gold, but its role in mass deception is more recent, thus petit-bourgeois, conservative, opportunist and far from critical.

This false antinomy of “culture vs Trump” seems to forget that politicians don’t create sexism, xenophobia or racism—capitalism does, just as it creates culture.

And even more embarrassing: desperate comparisons to Weimar Era and the rise of fascism have gone viral, mostly at artist’s hands, artists who have no other way of explaining to themselves what just happened. They now worry more about the art market slump or the role of social media in their work and reception, than whether it is possible to imagine life beyond capitalism. Instead, they have created their own scapegoats for the problems caused by capitalism.

“Whoever is not willing to talk about capitalism should also keep quiet about fascism.” — Max Horkheimer, “The Jews and Europe,” 1939.

The art world fails to see, despite recognizing the crisis of neoliberalism, that the critique of this historical crisis is not to be directed at individuals—in this case, Trump and his cabinet—but at the general historical and political situation.

The art world fails to see that they lost the Culture Wars of the '80s, that Reaganism and the neoliberal era might have been synonymous but not one and the same thing. Reagan might have been the posterboy for neoliberalism but neoliberalism prevailed past his presidency and continued unchallenged under the Clintons. That the crash of 2008 has been linked to Bill Clinton’s deregulation of Wall St. Now that neoliberalism is in full-blown crisis, will the art world repeat its mistake, stay obsessed with the new posterboy, and the caricature of evil, or will it seek to understand that the problem runs much deeper?

The art world fails to see the election of Trump as anything more than terrifying repetition (albeit on steroids) of the Culture Wars. This points to an exhaustion of ideas, the fact that “art world Left” has no new ideas to give, and cannot recognize what is new (if not, at least different) in the Trump phenomenon. Instead, it needs to anchor itself in a farcical repetition of the Culture Wars because it has nothing to offer this new condition or era.

For the past 8 years, art world repetitions have been passed off as something new. Now the reverse is the case: no longer is there a postmodernist denial of the repetition, of continuity, now we have a wish for that repetition, because now—somehow—we will be better prepared. But what if the situation is qualitatively different and new?

The task is to grasp the new, however conservative and reactionary it may be, even if we have no way of directly fighting against it through art. But admitting a defeat, or recognizing it’s not where the real war should be taking place, is crucial to break the vicious cycle, to keep culture moving forward—and if need be—to outlive culture. At minimum this will require the willingness to think differently, not only about the Democrats, but about state of politics, and art.

So far the response to the Democrats’ defeat has meant a doubling-down. Affirming the necessity for identity struggles and the need to have a Democrat in the white house. I am skeptical of this turn because it seems the giant that lay dormant during the Obama years has awaken to call for more political art that will work towards “supporting economic justice” or “dismantling white supremacy.” All of which will lead to more activism that will reinvigorate the Democratic Party.

So-called critical art is no longer interested in change.

The point is to meaningfully reflect on and thus change society. But you cannot do one without the other. Without the impulse to change society—without a struggle for emancipation—critique and critical discourse regresses.

So, what is the potential path for critique after the election?

Critique is now forced to address what is new in this situation, via what is new in the art of this situation.

Critique (or critical distance) of the “new” Culture War is the only possible weapon against repeating the vicious cycle. Here critique will require higher historical consciousness of what is mere repetition versus what is new. Critique the new culture war—do not succumb to its false antinomy.

One possible silver lining of the present is the fissure that has been opened up in the art world, a clear line has begun to be drawn between those who continue to support the Democrats and those who have become fed up with them. Anti-Trumpism should not be, need no longer be, bound to support for the Democrats.

Art often finds itself in a contradictory position, it both affirms society and points beyond it. Art becomes a form of cultural criticism that preserves the idea of art while trying to destroy its present manifestations as mere commodities. The radical potential of art is that it represents that human yearning for a society beyond the present one, while it simultaneously reproduces it. If we accept this definition of art, whether modern, contemporary or even “post-contemporary”, artists are complicit in the process of the reproduction of our society, capital, even in ways they don’t entirely recognize themselves, but they recognize it nonetheless.

The election has made the strategy of the 9th Berlin Biennale—curated by DIS with many of their cohort of artists, formerly “post-internet” —far more significant than before. One would have hoped that Okwui Enwezor’s Venice Biennale “All the World’s Futures” could have created a certain recognition of deeper problems, but most responses to the exhibition fell flat. A daily reading of Marx’s Capital, or David Harvey speaking about Capital in the world’s most important biennial was an abortive strategy. While DIS managed to hit a sharp cord, to get under people's skins, on the grounds of what art is or ought to be. Art performs its critical function better when it uses its own material, its own formal laws. DIS managed to organize an exhibition that adopted newer media, technologies, and forms of narrative and refused to distance themselves critically from reality. The potential latent in the “The Present in Drag” was the curators’ rejection of explicit political art that offered solutions, without abandoning the recognition that the present society is not what it should or could be. It was a collective voice of disenchantment with a certain art world discourse of resistance and with the aestheticized politics that result from that position. They shattered the notion that art has to offer direct political solutions for global contradictions, that it can even fully comprehend them. Art cannot offer a reconciliation of the contradictions, they can only be resolved through the development of theory and political practice. By focusing on disenchantment with the world, dystopia rather than utopia, it stressed their own disenchantment with art. It was one of the clearest statements of art = capital, or art is the culture industry, that art is compromised. This angered people. The show was misunderstood as sarcasm, particularly by those who believe art represents some sort of higher moral value. The discontent, disenchantment, and disillusionment that the artists presented posited the limitations for change in the present. That recognition points to the possibility for change.

“The modern world leaves us unsatisfied, or, where it appears to be satisfied, with itself, is vulgar and mean." — Marx, "Pre-capitalist economic formations," Grundrisse (1857-58)

Like DIS said in the curatorial statement, the present is incomprehensible. This is precisely what is reflected in the art: its incomprehensibility.

Because the contradictions in society are not fully understood, they can only be symptomatically reflected, the works at the Berlin Biennale were presented as contradictions produced by capitalism. And art that embodies late capitalism ideology self-consciously has the potential of providing an immanent critique. This is what we need art to be. The job of the critic is to recognize these critical moments in art.












Robert Mapplethorpe's  Self Portrait with Whip  (1978).

Robert Mapplethorpe's Self Portrait with Whip (1978).


Timur Si-Qin's A Reflected Landscape (2016) in the Berlin Biennale "The Present in Drag."