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‘New!’ ‘Improved recipe!’ ‘Now better than ever!’ This much is clear: if you want to sell something, you have to emphasize its novelty. The driving force of history is innovation, constant progress and improvement. That is at least what we are made to believe; the dominant ideology of our times. This ideology was once most forcefully voiced and promoted by nineteenth-century artists and art theorists. Make it new! said Ezra Pound. Il faut etre absolument moderne, said Arthur Rimbaud. ‘And plunge to depths of Heaven or Hell, / To fathom the Unknown and find the new!’ said Charles Baudelaire. After God, morality and even beauty had ceased to function as credible criteria for evaluating the arts, all that remained were novelty and originality. The shock of the new, as Australian art critic Robert Hughes later called it, became the primary characteristic of modern art, the first as well as the final criterion for its valuation.
In the 1980s and 1990s, however, theorists of the postmodern argued that this final criterion now too failed us. In his essay ‘The Sublime and the Avant-garde’ (1984) Jean Francois Lyotard scorned ‘the cheap thrill, the profitable pathos, that accompanies an innovation’ (106), Fredric Jameson in his seminal essay ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’ (1983) argued that ‘the writers and artists of the present day will no longer be able to invent new styles and worlds’ (7), and American art critic Rosalind Krauss published a book titled The Originality of the Avant-garde and Other Modernist Myths (1986). In his essay ‘Comrades of Time’ (2009) Boris Groys writes:
The present as such was mostly seen in the context of modernity as something negative, as something that should be overcome in the name of the future […] Today, we are stuck in the present as it reproduces itself without leading to any future. […] One can say that we now live in a time of indecision, of delay—a boring time.
This boredom characterizes contemporary art, in Groys’ view. The contemporary artist for him is like Sisyphus, who in the same repetitive and senseless act has to keep rolling the boulder up the mountain. The modernist artist was facing the glorious horizon of the future, but the contemporary artist swims in a sea of contemplation and confusion. For Groys this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does raise questions on the nature and function of ‘artistic innovation’ today.
These were questions that he already dealt with in his book Über das Neue (On the new), which was published 25 years ago in 1992, in the context of aforementioned debates on art and theory. According to Groys, something peculiar was happening with regard to the new: on the one hand, and in line with the theorists mentioned above, no one ‘believed’ in the new any longer; but on the other hand, everyone still expected to see or hear something new, upon entering the museum, going to concerts or theatre plays, or when reading novels, poems, philosophical books etc. For Groys, this meant that we had to start looking for a new understanding of the new.
In order to do that, Groys first stripped the new from its – mostly modernist – connotations of concepts such as utopia, historical progress, creativity and authenticity. Referring back to Nietzsche, he defines innovation instead as the revaluation of values:
Innovation does not consist in the emergence of something previously hidden, but in the fact that the value of something always already seen and known is re-valued. The revaluation of values is the general form of innovation: here the true or the refined that is regarded as valuable is devalorized, while that which was formerly considered profane, alien, primitive, or vulgar, and therefore valueless, is valorized. (10)
The exemplary work of art, to which Groys would return again and again throughout his oeuvre, is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917). What Duchamp did, after all, was not to invent something that was not there before, but to place something from the domain of the profane in the domain of the sacred. In retrospect, argues Groys, this was what art and artists have always done. Duchamp, by stripping the act of artistic transformation down to almost nothing, shows us what innovation comes down to: cultural revaluation.
For Groys this meant that the answer to the question of innovation was to be found in a specific place: the collection or archive. To collect something, whether it concerns the library, the collection of immortal souls, or the museum of modern art, means to grant it importance, that is, to sanctify it. Hence, Über das Neue can be considered as the starting point of Groys’ reflections on the function and status of the museum in our contemporary society, which he later developed in books such as Logik der Sammlung (1997) and Topologie der Kunst (2003). As the subtitle of Logik der Sammlung makes clear – Am Ende des musealen Zeitalter, ‘at the end of the museum age’ – Groys was already well aware of the waning influence and importance of the traditional museum, in the face not only of societal developments such as the suspicion of a supposedly elitist culture and the increasing power of private collectors, but also of artistic movements, which in several waves of so called ‘institutional critique’ tried to break out of, or emancipate themselves from, the museum. Still, as Groys emphasizes again in the interview below, without the museum, there can be no innovation.
Groys distinguishes the new from modernist ‘myths’ of historical progress and utopia, but also from contemporary myths such as creativity and the ‘Other’. With regard to the latter, he has always been critical towards the idea of the art world having to be a ‘reflection’ of society. In Art Power (2008), for instance, he writes:
When art relinquishes its autonomous ability to artificially produce its own differences, it also loses the ability to subject society, as it is, to a radical critique. All that remains for art is to illustrate a critique that society has already leveled at or manufactured for itself. To demand that art be practiced in the name of existing social differences is actually to demand the affirmation of the existing structure of society in the guise of social critique (113).
However, this does not mean, for Groys, that art is apolitical. On the contrary, as he argues below, the revaluation of values which is the general form of innovation, i.e. to value something that was not valued before, or to devalue something that was valued, is the political act per se. Scenes from everyday life, the dream, rituals, household equipment, advertisement and popular culture – all these things were considered too base or banal for art, but were included in the cultural realm by innovative artists, in much the same way as voices that are not heard in the political realm strive to be heard, and as entities that were not previously represented in politics and law gained rights.
Born in East Berlin in 1947, Groys began his academic career in Leningrad and Moscow, where he was also active in the unofficial art scene. In 1981 he moved to West Germany where he later received his PhD at the University of Münster. Today he is Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University, and travels around the globe as a lecturer and curator at art institutes, biennials, conferences, etc. His experiences of both sides of the Iron Curtain proved to be crucial for his thinking, which is always thought-provoking, sometimes puzzling, and which occasionally leads to controversial or even questionable statements. He has a way of thinking through a certain statement up to its most extreme and seemingly bizarre consequences, such as in Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin (1988) in which he argues that Stalin completed the utopian project of Russian avant-garde artists like Malevich or Mayakovsky, and even understood it better than they themselves did; or in Das kommunistische Postskriptum (2006), where he argued that the Soviet Union was the realization of the linguistic turn in the political realm.
Another aspect of his work and style that makes him both a fascinating and provocative thinker is his apparent nihilism. In this interview as well as in any of his other writings, he resolutely refuses to be nostalgic or moralistic. He registers the differences between, and historical developments of, the modern and the postmodern, between the East and the West, or between the museum and the supermarket, but he nowhere speaks of decline. Rather than passing value-judgments, Groys seems to be more interested in analyzing what has actually changed, and how this change allows or forces us to reframe our concepts and practices.
On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Über das Neue, as well as, as it happens, that of the 100th anniversary of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, Krisis asked Groys to reflect on the legacy of this book, on the contemporary meaning of notions such as creativity, originality and novelty, and on the future of the new.
I. On the New, 25 years ago
Thijs Lijster: Could you tell something about the time in which the book was written? What was the situation in the art world, and why did you think it was important to write a book on the category of the new back then?
Boris Groys: That was the time of postmodern discourses: everywhere everybody was speaking about the impossibility of the new. That was a core belief of the postmodern mind-frame. At the same time, it was quite clear to me – I was teaching at the university and I was also, as a curator, participating in artistic activities – the factual criteria of the new were still valid. For example, imagine someone who has to write a doctoral thesis, saying: I don’t say anything new, because we live in postmodern times and the new is impossible, so let me only repeat what was said before. It would not be possible for him to make his doctorate. So, to make the doctorate, he would have to prove that he said something new. It was the same in the case of selection of artworks at an exhibition, especially contemporary overviews of the state of the art world. Here again, the first question was still: is the art work a new phenomenon, did this artist do something new or not?
So, there was a kind of duplicity in culture that I experienced at that point: on a theoretical level, everybody said that the new was impossible, but in cultural practice this requirement of the new was still valid. The goal of the book Über das Neue was to try to reconstruct and to describe the hidden, implicit presuppositions of this requirement. So: what does it mean to require something new after the new became impossible? What is the context in which the new is still possible? My book was an attempt to reconstruct the theoretical, and in a certain way also pragmatic, presuppositions of the new, against the background of this cultural duplicity.
TL: In order to do that, you rid the concept of the new from all kinds of ideological connotations, like ‘utopia’ and ‘progress’. You start out by giving a series of negative definitions of the new: “The New is not just the Other”, “The New is not utopian”, “The New is not a product of human freedom”, etc. Could one say you try to ‘rescue’ the category of the new, by detaching it from all these other categories?
BG: I wouldn’t say I tried to rescue it, and I wouldn’t say I tried to negate all the other concepts. I merely responded to the situation I just described. I saw that all these connections, between the new and progress, utopia and so on, became obsolete, if we would take the postmodern discourse seriously. All the while, the new hadn’t become obsolete; it remained operative in our culture. So, it’s not like I tried to do something – to disengage the new from all these associations, it is what happened in culture. That was the situation. I was not the author of this situation; I just tried to phenomenologically describe it.
TL: The new was, as you said, separated from utopia and progress, and with that also from its temporal dimension. You write: “The new stands in opposition to the future as much as to the past” (2014, 41). Innovation, in your view, is what happens when an object is transferred from everyday life into cultural tradition. Still, is it possible to detach the new from its temporal dimension? After all, isn’t the new what happens after the old?
BG: Again, I didn’t detach it; it was detached de facto. So, I asked myself: What is the function of the new in this context? It became clear to me that the new, in the context of art, is related to what is already in our archives. Our culture is structured in the following way: we have the archives, and the world outside of the archives. The archives exist in the here and now, and the world outside of the archives also exists now, it is not the world of the future or the past; both worlds – that of the archives and the outside world – are contemporary to each other and to our own experience.
But what is their relation? My idea was that it is in the intersection between these two worlds that the new emerges. If I write a doctorate and I want to show that the doctorate is new I do not compare what I said to all possible opinions in the world I’m living in, because it can happen that some of these opinions actually are part of my world. I begin to compare this text, my own text, with the archives, with what is already accepted as valid in a certain discipline. So, I take some opinions or knowledge – my own opinions and those of my friends – from outside of the archives, compare them to what is already in the archives and precisely if some of these opinions are not in the archives I present them as new. The artist does the same. That is something already described very well by Baudelaire, in his famous essay on ‘The Painter of Modern Life’. Baudelaire speaks about an artist who looks at the classical ideal of beauty and at the same time at what happens around him, and then what he tries to do is to combine them. The same can be said about the avant-garde. The avant-garde never ever indicated any future. If we look at the avant-garde writings, their programs and manifestoes, they tell you all the same: we have the museums, filled with ancient Apollos and so on, and outside of the museums and around us we have tanks, trains, airplanes, explosions and killings, industrial machines, and mathematics and geometry. Some kind of new order; these things are not precisely the things of the future, they are already around.
TL: All they did was implement them into the cultural realm?
BG: Precisely. That’s it, and only that. The avant-garde never went an inch into the future. The avant-garde always only wanted to transport and transpose certain experiences that the people in their contemporary life had into the museum space, into the space of the cultural archives. And the power of the avant-garde was precisely its ability to cross this border and to bring the lived experience into the cultural space. It was not concerned with some idle projection of the future, or some senseless utopia, but with the lived experience of everyday life in an industrial civilisation. It is the same with Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, and so on. Duchamp doesn’t invent anything. He takes a urinal and places it in the museum. Now imagine that you bring to the museum another urinal, and say: this is a different one, because it has a different form. No museum would take it, because they would say: it is irrelevant, because it is not new enough. What does that mean, not new enough? It means that it might be different in form, but does not engage in the difference between art and life, between the cultural and the profane realm, between the archives and everyday existence. So, I would say that the notion of the new, and the effect of the new, is something that has its place on the border of the cultural archive and contemporary life.
TL: If the new is detached from the aforementioned categories like utopia, progress and human freedom, doesn’t that also imply a depoliticization of the new? In Über das Neue, also in Logik der Sammlung, you point to the many failed liaisons between artistic and political avant-gardes. However, if the idea of innovation is detached from the idea of a better world, what is then still the value of the new?
BG: First of all, I consider my own theory of the new as a total politicization of the new. The decision to take something from everyday life or everyday experience and to put it into the archive is an eminently political decision. In a certain way, it is the actual political decision. It’s what Kierkegaard said with regard to Jesus Christ: believing he was not just a normal man but the son of God is simply a decision. To ascribe value to something that up till then had no value, to put it in a valuable context, is the Urform of political decision-making. Actual politics functions according to the same pattern. For example: up to a certain point in history the workers had no value in the system of representation. It takes a political decision to change this value, after which they are represented.
In the Second Surrealist Manifesto, Breton asks: What is an authentic surrealist artwork? And he answers: to go into the crowd with a revolver and randomly shooting into it. So, you take this action, a terrorist deed, and put it into another context, the context of art. In the same way, Marinetti speaks of the metallization of the human body, the wonderful effect of exploding African villages, and so on. If you look at those examples, you see immediately that what I describe is eminently political. Utopias are not by nature political, they are literary fictions. Whether they have any political value has to be decided politically. In other words: utopias are not a source of politics, but an object of politics. I have to make the decision, and this decision cannot be delegated to any theory or any utopian vision. That means that the value of my political decision cannot be deduced from utopia itself.
TL: The politics of the new, then, is that in the same way as people that were not politically represented get a vote and get representation, something that was outside of the cultural realm gets inserted.
BG: Yes. And with regard to politics, not only people, but maybe even lions or plants. There has emerged a new ecological consciousness that believes that also certain animals or plants should be represented in our culture, which means they should be protected. The question what should be represented is the crucial question of our society, because our society knows only two modes of relating to things and people: to let them perish, or to protect them. That is the basic political decision. If you decide to include something into the system of representation, this means that you are interested in how this thing – object, human being, animal or whatever – will be translated into the future. The museum, the archive in general, is a futurist institution, because it keeps things for the future. Futurism was never about the future, innovation is not about the future, but it relates to the future in so far as it gives us a promise of protection and preservation.
TL: So what is new now will be included in the collection and preserved for the future.
BG: Yes, precisely. Being included, it will not be discarded. That is the promise on which our culture is based. This basis is so fundamental that it is often neglected. For example, Nietzsche said: my writings will only be understood after three hundred years. It meant that he firmly believed that mankind, without actually understanding his writings, would be reproducing them, putting them in libraries, distributing them, for three hundred years. If you want to speak about utopia, this is a true utopia. There is an almost automatic and unconscious reliance on the institutions of protection in our culture. People writing books, producing art works, have an instinctive trust in the possibility of their survival. This faith is precisely what gives the basic energy to the effort to make something new, so that it would be safeguarded, protected, translated into the future. And that is precisely what I was and still am interested in.
II. The new, then and now
TL: What, in your view, is the main difference between the situation in the art world 25 years ago and now?
BG: The main differences have to do with the emergence of the Internet, as an electronic archive. These differences manifest themselves in the two following ways. First, if you think of the traditional role of the writer, philosopher and artist, it was precisely to mediate between the archive and everyday life, that is, to provide artistic (or theoretical) expression and representation of everyday life. But the Internet gives to everybody the immediate possibility to present oneself on the global stage – everybody makes selfies, videos, writes blogs, and so on. We no longer have a mass culture of consumers – the situation that was described by Adorno – but a situation of mass cultural production, where everybody is an artist, everybody is a writer, and a philosopher. We no longer need mediators, so we no longer need writers, philosophers, or artists.
The second difference, however, is that the Internet still does not produce the stability, security and protection that the traditional archives had. We often think this is an institutional question, or a technological one, but in fact it is an economic one. Internet platforms are privately driven, so they have to make profit. And that means that on the Internet there is no place for the museum, or an archive in any form. I’m quite sceptical about whether this will change. Basically, today, if you want to have an archive on the Internet, it should be based on already existing archives. Only institutions like the MoMA and Tate can establish something like an Internet archive, partially also because they are able to pay for this. In the EU, if you want to establish an Internet archive, you get a guarantee of protection of maximum 30 years. So it will cost a lot of money, and there is still a lot of insecurity.
What does it mean if you take these two points together? It means that in the contemporary global framework, you have total representation, but from a future perspective, it is all garbage. What is interesting is that the Silicon Valley people know this very well; they all create secret museums, libraries, documentation centres, etc. but these are not traditional archives in the sense I describe in my book, since they are not publicly supported and accessible for the public. There have been many attempts to create electronic archives, but de facto none of these attempts were really successful, precisely because of the general structure of the Internet and its relations of property.
It is the classical Marxist situation of collective use and private property. That analysis, if there is any place to use it, very much applies here. Everybody uses these Internet platforms, but they belong to only a few companies. There is a tension between the interests of the users and the interests of the companies, but this tension is hidden and not thematized, because people believe that the Internet is a means of communication. If we would start to think the Internet as a means of archiving, then this tension would be obvious. It is possible, however, that people would give up the archive in general, that people will be only interested in communication and no longer in archiving. That would mean indeed that they would not be interested in the future, and then the role of the archives would be decreasing. Partially we already are in this situation: the museums are poor; they cannot compete with private collections. Private collections are based partially on the current situation in the art world, but being private they are based very much on the collector’s taste, which cannot be collectivized. These private collections do not of course constitute the framework for protection that I was describing. The same can be said about libraries and so on. We more and more experience them as too expensive, taking up too much space.
It seems to me that today we are in a period of transition. On the one hand, the structures I described in my book – in academia, in museums, in the art world – are still existing and function in the same way. Parallel to that we have Instagram, virtual reality, viral videos, and so on. I don’t say we have to make a choice; I only want to say that there is a factor of uncertainty and a lack of clarity about their relationship, and I think that is a factor that emerged only after the book was written.
TL: You say that people are no longer interested in the archival function, but at the same time there is a lot of anxiety about the preservation of tradition, in the shape of ‘cultural heritage’ and so forth. In Über das Neue you write: “[T]he new ceases to represent a danger and becomes a positive demand only after the identity of tradition has been preserved” (2014, 21). Might one say that the contemporary anxiety emerges from a lack of historical orientation? In other words: since we cannot make sense of the present, or determine our direction for the future, we do not know what is historically meaningful and meaningless. And what would this mean for the category of the new?
BG: Indeed, we can no longer rely on the tradition. And again, I think this is related to digital media: we are confronted with everything at the same time, and everyone globalized him or herself. At the same time, we’re not sure what the archive still means under this new condition. But as long as there are archives, it makes no difference for the category of the new. There would only be a difference if the archives would dissolve completely. If that happens, then we no longer have the new, but then we also no longer have philosophy, literature, and art. Probably we’ll still have politics, but I’m not sure about it. All these phenomena relate to the archives, so if the archives dissolve, then all the other things dissolve as well.
TL: Is that a real threat?
BG: Maybe it is a threat, maybe a relief. I think a lot of people would see it as liberation. It is difficult to say. I think it is a mixture between threat and liberation, in the same way that every utopia is also a dystopia. But I think the fact is that many people welcome this development; that the feeling of liberation prevails, the feeling of being liberated from the archive, but also from literature, art and philosophy.
In a sense it would be another step in the history of secularization. European culture has a complex relation to its religious heritage. You still have the names of the saints, ideals of sovereignty and creativity, and an institutional long-term memory, which all together show that it is really a secularized version of a feudal or religious order. In one of my early texts, written at the same time as Über das Neue, I wrote that I would not be surprised if after a new revolution curators would be hanged on lampposts in the same way the French aristocracy was, because they incorporate the same feudal order. It is possible that we go through a new wave of liberation, which started in the 1960s, found its medium in the Internet, and now rids itself of the final traces of the feudal order.
TL: And would this also mean the end of the new?
BG: Yes. The problem is that the new itself, in European culture, has of course its origin in the New Testament. So what is the new? The New Testament is new in relation to the Old Testament. If you don’t have the Old Testament, you can’t have a New Testament. That’s only logic. Now, if we have an anti-testamentarian movement, as we have now, almost already full-fledged, then it is all over. There is no old, no new, there’s no culture. And I tell you: people experience that as liberation. I see that a young generation is very happy about it. And I’m not against it.
TL: In your book, you discuss the issue of representation, and also the struggle of minorities or socially oppressed groups that want to be represented in the collection or archive. This seems to be a highly topical issue (not only with regard to the museum, but for instance also with regard to popular culture, e.g. Hollywood that is considered to be too masculine, too white, etc.). However, you are quite sceptical of the way this debate is usually framed. You write: “Even if an artist or theoretician utilizes things and signs of the social class from which she comes, she has always already detached herself from this class and acquired a capacity for observing it from without.” (2014, 169). But isn’t it also the question from which direction the innovation is supposed to come? In other words: whether it is from the perspective of the collection that something appears as new (as you argued in your book), or that something from the outside demands access to the collection? In the latter case, you might say that claims to just representation or, in Honneth’s terms, cultural recognition, are in fact highly important.
BG: They are relevant. But first of all: if there is a pressure from the outside, a struggle to enter the collection, this struggle is almost always successful. Why is that? It is always successful because, as I try to show, it corresponds to a certain kind of inner logic of the collection itself. It wants to expand. When the collections are confronted with something they overlooked they are eager to absorb it.
However, as I tried to discuss in Über das Neue, the question of minority representation involves two problems. In my view, this whole issue has an American background. When I went to America some years ago, it was an interesting discovery for me that I had to fill in ‘race’ in many forms. I suddenly belonged to the cultural majority, because I am a white male. There are 1.5 million Russians living only in New York City, many don’t speak English, but they are supposed to belong to the majority culture of the US. So first of all, the problem is: what counts as a minority and what is the majority? These categories are always problematic.
The second problem is that the individual artist, writer or philosopher never really represents his or her culture of origin. Could we say that Baudelaire is typical French, that Huysmans is, or who is typical German or Dutch? After all, these artists represent only themselves. The idea that they represent a bigger group is, I would say, a very American idea.
TL: But even if you say that the individual artist doesn’t represent a group, you still might say that the museum represents a certain western white male culture, rather than other cultures, which are present geographically speaking but aren’t represented in the museum’s collection.
BG: I agree with that. We have a complicated structure of protest and domestication. To become a famous French poet you first have to hate everything French, to break with the tradition. Like Rimbaud who said: I want to become black, I hate France; or Breton who said: when I see a French flag I vomit, and so on. If you are really and typical French, you will never get into a French museum, and you will never be a French poet of genius, because you will be average French. You will have to break all the rules, hate France, committing some crimes is always helpful – think of Genet – and only then you get the status of being a great French artist.
The problem with the contemporary struggles is that people want to get access to the collection, but without putting into question yourself and your own tradition. You are not obliged or expected to make this detour, not obliged to become other to yourself, which is, actually, the meaning of the word ‘other’. As French philosophy crossed the Atlantic it changed in many ways, but the crucial change was in the word ‘other’. In the French tradition, the ‘other’ is either God, or the subconscious, but in any case, it is something living in you that is not you, that can possess you, destroy you, take over. You are struggling against it, put it under control or otherwise it controls you. It is an old story, and eventually leads to Bataille, Foucault and Derrida, for whom the other is writing: it is not you who write, but something in you and through you. But then, after this French philosophy crossed the Atlantic Ocean, the ‘other’ become simply: the other guy. People think they are already the other, because they are the other guy. This secularization or banalization of otherness is actually what constitutes the major part of contemporary discourse.
I don’t say it’s a wrong development, because secularization is at the core of our modern consciousness. I just wanted to point out that, in relation to the concept of the new, something changed. My relation to my identity changed. Instead of trying to destroy my identity, becoming other to myself and in this way gain access to the cultural tradition (as was always the case), now I simply reassert my identity and raise a claim to be accepted to the cultural archives, without any kind of suffering or inner struggle.
TL: Today, even more than when you wrote the book, innovation seems to be applauded throughout society, especially with regard to economic production. Think of Richard Florida’s praise of the creative class and the creative city, everyone has to be creative, think outside the box, every product has to be innovative, etc. How do you regard this imperative of creativity in the sphere of economic production?
BG: I think creativity is nonsense, total nonsense. The notion of creativity is a Christian notion per se, it is a residue of religion. I think that, if you are not a Catholic, and all these people probably are, you cannot believe in creativity. Mankind cannot be creative. It’s the worst form of religious naivety. The only form of human productivity is combining, putting things together. The Internet was modelled after an elementary Turing machine, and that was actually a full description of what a human mind can do. After all it is just copy and paste. We cannot do anything ontologically new; that is the principle of human activity. So creativity is divine privilege.
TL: You argue in your book that it is impossible to distinguish authentic from inauthentic newness. But don’t you think that newness/novelty means something different, or is used in a different way, in different spheres? For instance, the new iPhone that one needs to have every couple of years; is it the same kind of newness as an innovation in the art world?
BG: A new iPhone is not an innovation. It is repetition. The structural condition of innovation is the archive. We have two models in our civilization: the supermarket, and the museum. What is the difference? One model, the museum, allows for innovation, because it keeps all the old productions, and so you can compare the old with the new. If I introduce a new product in the supermarket, it is simply part of the offer. You don’t see what is not offered. Assyrian Gods, for instance, are not offered in the supermarket. What is not produced here and now is removed from the supermarket, and so we can’t see it. And because you can’t see it, you can’t compare it, and because you can’t compare it, you are in the same situation as you were before. Maybe you can remember what was in the supermarket two months ago, if you have a good memory, but not for very much longer. So if you are not in the archive but in the real world, there is no real change, because every moment is like the other moment. As long as you don’t think teleologically – so if you don’t think there is an origin, and don’t believe there is an end – you cannot differentiate between one moment and another, since you cannot determine their distance from the beginning or the end. If you believe in the second coming of Christ, you can calculate the distance of a particular moment from the first and the second coming, but if there is no such promise, whatever it is, then it is like if you’re running on a treadmill: you are running, but you remain in the same place.
When I came to America, there was the Obama campaign, with the posters “Change”, and “Yes we can”. I always told my students: changing is the only thing we can. There is change today, and change tomorrow. The only real change would be a change from change to no change – that is utopia.
TL: But social institutions can change. Replacing the feudal order with a democratic system is an actual change, isn’t it?
BG: Yes, that was a historical change. But after that, and if there is no longer a hierarchy, then you don’t have any change. The problem of our social institutions today is rather that they change all the time. You can never find the same person in the same place. I don’t think democracy has anything to do with it. What happened is that ever since the industrial revolution, there is constant technological development, and we as humans tried to accommodate to changing situations. Every day, all our effort is concentrated on how to survive this day under different conditions. I cannot send e-mails because my mail program is obsolete; I can’t install a new program, because my computer is obsolete; I cannot buy a new one, because I don’t have Internet connection, etc. I spend day after day just trying to accommodate to these changes. Today we are witnessing the disappearance of the division of labour: you have to do everything yourself on the Internet, become your own doctor, taxi driver, and so on. What our civilization is about is basically the sheer material survival of mankind.
The protection of human beings is very closely related to the protection of artworks. Actually, the museum was installed at the same time and by the same people who thought of human rights. Human rights are actually the rights of the artwork: there is this body that has to be protected, and so you cannot use it, you cannot mistreat it, etc. All you can do is look at it, and speak about it. And that is precisely what is established in the museum: you look at art, you speak about it, but you cannot use it. Human rights are basically art rights.
Now it seems to me that human beings are more and more left to themselves. We feel like Mowgli, or Tarzan, so that we have to look for ourselves what is dangerous, how we can improve our chances, and so on. Children are raised this way, with a very cautious and frightened attitude. If I remember my own young years, I was absolutely not frightened, but today my own students are scared to death. They have the feeling that if they lose, they’ll simply perish; it is sheer fear for survival. They no longer believe in the social conditions for survival. It is an interesting period in human history. But there’s no place to think of innovation, only of survival.
III. Innovation and acceleration
TL: A more recent plea for societal innovation and progress has been accelerationism, as explained in Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ much-discussed #Accelerate Manifesto from 2013. They argue that capitalism has become a source of stasis rather than of innovation. Rather than working against the accelerating powers of capitalism – as in the different slow-movements, or romanticizing localism and authenticity – we should speed up even further, so as to let capitalism crash against its own limits and go beyond it. How do you consider this proposal, or how in general would you describe the relationship between acceleration and innovation?
BG: There is no acceleration, there is just more pressure. Moreover, you are not the subject of this movement. The problem of accelerationism is the belief that you can appropriate this movement and steer it. That is impossible. Even our friend Deleuze didn’t believe that. He believed we can enjoy acceleration, but he didn’t believe that we could control it, or appropriate it.
TL: In their recent book Inventing the Future. Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (2015), Srnicek and Williams further argue that left politics has abandoned the idea of progress and modernization, leaving them in the hands of neoliberalism, while retreating to a localized and romanticized ‘folk politics’, as they call it. In their view, the left should reclaim the future, and the category of the new is the instrument to do so. They write: ‘If the supplanting of capitalism is impossible from the standpoint of one or even many defensive stances, it is because any form of prospective politics must set out to construct the new.’ (75) How would you respond to this?
BG: I think that the moment we are experiencing now creates illusions of this type in the minds of young people. They believe that they are something like living start-ups. It’s a new neoliberal illusion. Our whole development will lead to stagnation. First of all, the globe itself is a symbol of stagnation: it circulates, while progress is linear. Today we speak not about universalism, but about globalization. But globalization is circulation and that means that we already reached the point of stagnation. The stagnation is not obvious for most people, because there is still a middle class, with its traditional institutions: the universities, the museums, etc. But as soon as these collapse, the middle class will also collapse. I sometimes tell my students that every day they spent at the university makes them poorer, because the people who have money, from Madonna to Bill Gates, never went to school. So, we will come to a very traditional situation of poor and rich, and this will produce the return of left ideas. Because, as long as you think that you can individually cross the bridge between poor and rich, as long as there is still a bridge to cross, you will always be neoliberal. You can think what you want, but you will try to do so. But if the gap is too wide, like in the 1920s and 1930s, like in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, then the only answer will be left ideas.
TL: What will these left ideas produce, then? A new middle class?
BG: We will see, we don’t know that. I am like Marx: never predict what that revolution will produce. He was always against French utopianism. But I think it will produce a new Soviet Union. Not precisely in the same way, but to the extent that the Soviet Union was basically the administration of stagnation. In the contemporary competitive world, it was difficult to keep it. But if the whole world becomes stagnating, then the question of world revolution can come again, the question of international socialism can come again, the question of world administration and world state can come again, all the Hegelian/Marxist/Kojevian line will come again. Right now, it is suppressed by this running to nowhere. The feeling of that may be exciting, but it is a certain period of time, and it will not last very long.
TL: So, if I understand you correctly, you say that the left doesn’t need new ideas, because these ideas are already there.
BG: Yes. In many ways we are back in the nineteenth century, and that is the rhythm of the European culture: the seventeenth century was reactionary, the eighteenth century was progressive, the nineteenth reactionary, the twentieth century progressive, etc. If you look at the reaction of the nineteenth century to the French Revolution, first of all, everybody believed that the Republican democratic regime collapsed because they could not succeed structurally, and secondly everybody believed the revolutionaries were morally evil because they killed children and young women on the guillotine. Both this moralization and the disbelief in the capacity of survival were general throughout the nineteenth century, but at the end everybody was democratic. Now you know how history works, there’s nothing new: now the Soviet Union is totalitarian, terrible repression, women and children killed, and it was impossible, it could not survive. But in 70 or 80 years it will be completely reversed. So, we should simply relax and wait, for in time we will be disappointed by neoliberal illusions and utopias, look at the reality of life, which is miserable, and then look at the models, not of the better life, but how to organize miserable life.
TL: Like in the saying of Brecht, that communism isn’t the equal distribution of wealth, but of poverty.
BG: Of course. And it is as bad as any other social system, but it has at least one advantage, that I understood when I went to the West. You really didn’t have Angst, this prominent insecurity, and this sheer fear of not surviving the next day. On this very basic level people felt themselves totally secure and protected. And I believe this desire for stability, protection, and security will emerge again.
Today you see it on the right. Why is that? The West believes it has won the Cold War against socialism and communism. But who exactly are the winners? It is neoliberalism and religiously coloured nationalism. Now they are fighting each other. But they will try to find a compromise, because they have a common feature, and that is competition. Neoliberalism believes in the competition of everybody against everybody, and the other in the competition of one ethnic group against the other. Both hate universalism, and both hate the ideas of solidarity and cooperation. They honestly believe that what is best should be defined by competition, and if you don’t arrange a harsh competition you won’t know what is the best, or who is capable of winning. The problem is that, as I believe, man isn’t capable of anything at all. The problem of nationalism and neoliberalism, then, is still the illusion of humanism, that humans can be creative, competitive, determine their own lives, can be responsible for themselves, and so on. They believe there is this kind of potential in human beings to deal with and manage any burden, going through any difficulty and making it: the American Dream. But it’s all a huge lie, and the challenge is to see it as a huge lie that was only invented to terrorize people. To say to them: why are you poor, you have to make an effort, you have to struggle, you have to constantly improve and update yourself. Somehow, and at a certain point in time, we have to be relieved from this blackmail.
When I was a child and responsive to these things, I was always fascinated by these Russian posters, saying: let us reach the level of the current day. This presupposed that we are somehow always behind. Stalin, who was a good thinker and much more honest than everybody else, said: when we really understand Marxism and Leninism, we should accept that our situation is always a bit ahead of our ability to reflect on it. So, our thinking is behind our real situation. And that is precisely what connects capitalism and socialism, this belief in the powers that are faster than we can think.
IV. The future of the new
TL: Let’s return once more to the concept of the new in relation to the art world. In the Dutch book of essays on your work, Dirk van Bastelaere argues that the concept ‘entropy’ you use in Logik der Sammlung (according to which the collection constantly extends and absorbs that which it is not) should – in line with your own economic jargon – be replaced by the concept ‘inflation’, which is less neutral. Inflation would then mean that the increase in artistic innovations (and hence the culturalization of profane domains) implies at the same time a decrease in value of these innovations. (Bastelaere et al. 2013, 85). Do you agree with that diagnosis?
BG: If we follow our earlier line of thinking, that is if the whole system of selection and representation collapses, then the new will have no value at all. It only makes sense if you have the archives and institution – and the critique of institutions is part of it. Without the institutions, the critique of institutions obviously makes no sense. Art that leaves the museum [e.g. street art, land art, performance art, community art, TL] always has to return to the museum in the shape of documentation. So, whatever you do outside of the museum, also in contemporary art, has cultural value only if it is afterwards represented in the museum in the form of documentation.
TL: In an interview I did with Luc Boltanski (Celikates and Lijster 2015) he argued, following Isabelle Graw, that the economic valuation of art works can never persist without the aesthetic valuation by critics, curators, artists, etc. If the two merge this is also destructive for the economic valuation. Do you agree with this analysis, and should this reassure us that market forces could never take over the art world completely?
BG: I think that art becomes more and more like a luxury product, like china or perfume. Everyone can make art, but not everybody makes a living from art. But if you don’t make a living from art, it doesn’t mean that you’re not an artist. If you speak about professional art, you speak about making a living from art. Then it becomes simply a segment of the general market, and it’s the same as Armani design and so on. If you look at creative districts in China, you see design, cutlery stores, fashion, art galleries, all together. But then it has nothing to do with general society.
TL: Is that so different from seventeenth century Holland, when art was also a luxury product?
BG: The institution of the museum, as you know, was created after the French Revolution. The revolutionaries took the objects of use from the aristocracy and instead of destroying them, they disenfranchised them and exhibited them, but forbid their use. It was a decision in between iconoclasm and iconophilia. What Duchamp later did was a repetition of this gesture – it is the same gesture.
This museum is a public space. Privatization recreates the situation as it was before the French Revolution, but then we can no longer speak of public institutions and we lose historical consciousness. So the problem is not if Isabelle Graw or someone else finds some painting beautiful, according to a certain aesthetic theory. The question is: Is a certain artwork historically representative, so that it can be put in the museum? For a private collector, this question has no relevance, because it is his taste that matters, and not the archival importance. After writing Über das Neue, I was invited to Switzerland, where they organize schools for leading European collectors. I told them I considered these collections as installations and not as museums, because the installation is the assemblage of objects according to a certain taste. At the moment you privatize, you get involved in private passions and relationships that have nothing to do with an archive.
I tend to think that the model I proposed is probably a model for secularized culture that started with the French Revolution and ended with the end of communism. Now this system of culture in general collapses – it still survives of course, this process of collapsing takes very long, and maybe the archives survive in another way. The first libraries were private collections, the first art collections were in the pyramids, and they survived. So maybe they will survive in a certain way, in so far as they survive the current model.
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