"Terrible manners.... terrible; but what criticism!" Sir Thomas Beecham, reflecting on a particular elephant's performance during a rehearsal of Aïda.
There's a particular kind of dumb I've noticed with a certain type of China-born intellectual, artist or graduate student: not exactly dumb, just a lack of intellect, as in inter-legere, “to grasp the in-between, to pick up the subtext.” In this case it's the subtext of global capitalist culture: the more we attempt to master it, the more it masters us. As Ellen Meiksins Wood points out, to understand the global dominance of capitalism you have to understand the incentives it gives for each local actor to grasp and exploit its dynamics; this is never so important as at the intersection of the culture of global capital and the culture of, well, Culture.
Ai Wei Wei's dumb comes out in his response to the news that a local artist in Miami has smashed one of Ai's vases, on display at a local entrepreneurial art museum. The smashiste, an artist of Dominican extraction named Maximo Caminero, had grasped the in-between: the vase in question, a Chinese Neolithic pot slathered with paint, is one of a group of similar pieces that were displayed in front of three photographs of Ai himself dropping and smashing, in sequence, a Han Dynasty vase. Caminero established a symmetry between Ai Wei Wei, an artist smashing cultural objects (or slathering them with paint) and himself, another artist, smashing Ai Wei Wei's work.
Assuming the objects in question belong to Ai Wei Wei in any sense: legal, moral, aesthetic or otherwise. Says Ai Wei Wei:
"The argument does not support the act:" that's what we call the Intentional Fallacy. Far more important to ask whether the act supports the argument, and what argument that is to begin with. When Ai gets put under house arrest in China, supposedly for protesting corruption, it's implied that he's protesting against the corruption of a market culture. When Caminero gets busted for "destroying property" as Ai interprets the act, that too implies protest against the dominance of a market culture, it implicates the role of market culture in the arts, and implicates it far more deeply than Ai Wei Wei could have ever done. In subsequent comments Ai made matters even worse, sounding for all the globe like a transnational corporation trying to fathom why the natives aren't grateful for its new transgenic wheat: "Damaging other people's property or disturbing a public program doesn't really support his cause."
Obviously there's a difference between protesting (on the side) against a market culture and destroying (cultural) property: it's the difference between the liberal who imagines everything will run smoothly after a few adjustments, and the self-described revolutionary who thinks things must change, by any means necessary. Which in turn, begs the question: why is Ai's destruction exempt from the second definition? Why is it okay for AWW to destroy Chinese cultural property with the claim that he "owns" it, and not okay for Caminero to destroy AWW's property because he, Caminero, supposedly doesn't? Would Caminero have helped his own cause by destroying a Taino artifact? Or is it that Caminero's action is aimed at the culture of capital and property in a way Wei Wei couldn't begin to imagine? There's nothing wrong about destroying a corrupt and destructive order of things; the issue is, which order do you aim to destroy, the one represented by Han Culture, or the one represented by photographs of Ai Wei Wei destroying Han Culture? Caminero was quite embarassed to discover he'd destroyed an ancient artifact; Ai, not.
The French film-maker Claude Grunspan is planning a movie about Gustave Courbet's experience during the Paris Commune of 1871, and we've been having a lively exchange of ideas. For starters we're trying to make sense of the following:
The anecdote about the incendiaries who in the last days of the Commune had gone to destroy Notre-Dame and who found themselves confronted by an armed battalion of artists, is rich in meaning.... Were the artists right to protect as one the Cathedral in the name of eternal aesthetic values—ultimately in the name of Museum Values, while their opponents were grasping for self-expression? The anticipated destruction was a challenge to Society which, in the very moment of defeating the Communards, was throwing their whole lives into silence and oblivion. Even then the specialist-artists were pitted against an extremist manifestation of the struggle against alienation.
Back in 1871 Courbet was a very busy man: a member of the Commission on Education, president of the Federation of Artists, a delegate to the central coordinating committee of the Commune. Naturally and legitimately, he oversaw the protection of historic monuments as part of his regular duties, and Notre-Dame was a sensitive case because the statuary had indeed been vandalized during the French Revolution: it was important that the Communards not allow the enemy to control the narrative of workers as proletarian vandals. Anyone who imagines that Zola was a friend of the working class should read his horrifying dispatches from the crushing of the Commune, as well as this later passage, from his novel Germinal:
This was the red vision of the revolution that would sweep them all away, inevitably... Fires would burn; not one stone would be left of the cities, they would all turn back to living like savages in the woods after the great feast, the great orgy in which the poor, in one night, would disembowel the women and empty the rich man's hoard...
In his autobiographical novel L'Insurgé Courbet's friend and co-revolutionist Jules Vallès gives as clear and witty (and realistic) a summation of "what it was like" to protect or not protect a Parisian monument from burning: Like Courbet, Vallès had the legal authority as a representative of the Commune to sign off on orders to burn buildings in the interest of military defense. In the last hours of the Commune Vallès finds himself confronted with a rowdy group of Communards who've already wrapped dynamite around the Panthéon. Follows a democratic discussion as to whether or not the Panthéon goes down (or rather, up) from the point of view of military tactics, political strategy and human cost. The question of aesthetics plays a very minor role, with Totole, the rogue battalion commander, telling Vallès/Vingtras in front of his men, in a superbly manipulative exchange:
Finally, the question of existential despair sways the issue, though not quite as the Situationists might have imagined: after an hour back and forth a little old man timidly interrupts the discussion to complain that
"for the honor of the Commune it would be better not to withdraw when the explosion goes off... The deal is good only if we blow up along with the enemy... If we keep on arguing we'll never, ever blow up..." We all laughed at his fear of not getting blown sky-high. Then we dropped the idea.
Imagine the Situs going to the occupied factories in 1968 to tell the workers how existentially and aesthetically desperate they all were, and getting a rousing casse-toi! (I guess that's why they're called Situs: they love to situ-ate themselves in places where they've never been.) The idea that destruction of any kind, whatsoever, might be a form of self-expression was entirely outside the range of thought of Courbet, or Vallès, or the most extreme Communard; it was, in fact, outside the range of thought of most artists until Pyotr Kropotkin (a prince!) came along in the waning years of the nineteenth century, offering artists and other anarchistes de salon the fantasy that they, too, could pass as destroyers of the Old Order simply by being photographed smashing a vase.
Not so, according to an uncertain Jean-Pierre Mohen:
At the beginning of the nineteenth century the students of Jacques-Louis David rebelled and formed a group, the "Barbus," whose spokesperson, Maurice Quai, declared that the Louvre should be burned because it was in the service of a corrupt taste. [...] These rebellions remained verbal and theoretical, but they contributed to the creation of the artistic movements of the Salon des Refusés [in 1863] that welcomed the paintings of the Impressionists.
The quote is irrelevant verbiage, but that's what keeps us art historians busy, so here goes: the "rebellion" in question happened at the end of the eighteenth century, not the beginning of the nineteenth. The spokesperson's name was spelled Quaï, and occasionally Quay, but not Quai. No matter. The point is, the anecdote is a vastly distorted version of the original telling by Delécluze, the biographer of David and incidentally the uncle of Viollet-le-Duc, the architect who by 1871 had restored Notre-Dame, including its statues of the Kings of Judah. Quaï, according to Delécluze, was no wild-eyed museum-burner but a thoughtful artist caught up in the Thermidorian reaction that almost cost David his head. Delécluze himself appears to have been trying to distance his friend Quaï from association with any dangerous political overtones; not all artists were that lucky: one of David's students, Topino-Lebrun, was sent to the guillotine.
As Annie Jourdan has recently shown, recent scholarship confirms that much of the history of revolutionary vandalism was promoted during the Thermidorean reaction against Robespierre and the Jacobins, and passed on unquestioned by later historians. From the very first days of the French Revolution reactionary propagandists spread the idea that murder and destruction were not a tactical interest to "the People," nor even a matter of resentment, rage or revenge, but pure aesthetic satisfaction: Le sang, le feu sont pour nous une fête: "blood and fire are our celebration," to quote Jean Gabriel Peltier, that inexhaustible purveyor of Guillotine Porn. After all, what other motive could the lower classes possibly have but an innate, animal impulse to destroy? (I can think of a few, but never mind.)
George Levitine suggests that applying these same aesthetic impulses to the Barbus was part of a growing tendency in the nineteenth century to tar artists with the broad brush of being déclassé; that's the only way one might confuse the Barbus with the members of the Salon des Refusés who, too, had no intention of burning anything at all, they just wanted to get their paintings shown. (On the other hand, a number of them were accused of not wearing clean underwear, which under certain circumstances could pass for attempted genocide.)
Jourdan makes a nice point about the Jacobin's attitude toward vandalism: their primary concern was to draw the line between the political and the aesthetic: as the Jacobin priest Grégoire explained, he had invented the word Vandalism in order to define the crime. In the case of Notre-Dame, unfortunately, the destroyed statues were images of kings which the working-class revolutionaries believed, quite correctly, to refer to the kings of France: to define such works as "apolitical" was not possible within the newly invented revolutionary discourse. It could also be objected that the Jacobins were in the business of inventing the category of the Aesthetic in order to protect objects whose real value lay in their function as capital: that's not something you'd want to be required to explain to your average sans-culotte.
Defining the fluid line between the political and the aesthetic: it's what the Jacobins, the Barbus, Courbet, and Vallès and Totole were all busy doing. With Ai Wei Wei, though, there's a radical twist: destruction in and of itself becomes a form of aesthetic.
Daring? Not really. Levitine is quite wrong when he compares Maurice Quaï to the Italian Futurists: if Quaï actually intended to really burn down the Louvre in real, like, you know, life, that would have meant no more than excluding the objects in the Louvre from the criterion of being works of art. No one until then would have denied that destruction in itself was an exclusively political act; no one after Kropotkin would have denied that certain forms of artistic or literary activity might be compared to the physical destruction that was part and parcel of political activity. Destruction in the service of the aesthetic ran in parallel with destruction in the service of the political, occasionally confusing the two: As Bertolt Brecht pointed out, there are plenty of people who imagine they're destroying the rule of the Bourgeoisie when the only rules they've destroyed are the rules of grammar.
Then there are those (Ai Wei Wei, the Futurists, the Situs) who act out the destruction of the dominant class while in the process of extending its rule: this is no longer an aesthetic that excludes the destroyed objects from the category of the aesthetically valuable, but an aesthetic that colonizes everything: destruction, politics, and the politics of destruction.
Nietzsche had taught Western intellectuals the cheap trick of preemptively reversing the apparent logical and causative order of observed phenomena; the Futurists, the Situs and Ai Wei Wei ape the same strategy through the implicit argument that destruction, rather than defining what is beyond the aesthetic, in itself defines the aesthetic; yet they ape it with different, specific historic aims: the Futurists, for starters, cannot really be understood apart from Georges Sorel, the extremist ideologue (right-wing or left-wing, it's never been clear) who, like the Situs, imagined that the road to revolution led through the existential despair of the working class: fiat ars, pereat mundus says fascism: "Let there be Art; let the world perish."
Fiat capital, pereat Han vase, says Ai Wei Wei. The objects are not valuable to Ai for their exchange value in cash but because their destruction or defacement (by Ai) constitutes an extraction of cultural capital for Ai's benefit and his patrons: a re-valorization, if you like. Likewise, Caminero's assault on Ai's representation of destruction was clearly intended, not as an assault against the objects themselves, but against their use as capital in the global economy.
Consider the following, ye who keep insisting that the Han vase was Ai's property, and so he had the right to destroy it: would you say, if I "owned" a horse, that I had the right to beat it to death in public? Obviously not, because animals are a type of property that's usually endowed with certain moral rights. Cultural artifacts, likewise, are generally thought to be protected by certain moral rights as well, one of them being the right not to be smashed: if there's one thread that runs through our whole story so far, fron 1789 to Ai Wei Wei, it's the idea that certain social classes are innately aware of that distinction, and others, not. In the case of Ai Wei Wei it's a particularly nasty distinction: do you imagine for one minute that I, a round-eyed Euro, could get away with smashing a Ming vase in public in order to send a message or another? Ai's gesture is a privileged gesture, which in itself makes it a gesture of domination: it seems some people are culturally entitled to trash Han vases and others are not. Does that mean all Chinese people, or all citizens of the People's Republic of China, or all ethnic Han people who are citizens of the People's Republic of China are entitled to smash a Han vase, by birth? It would be fun to ask exactly what legal titles Ai has to these antiquities, how he was privileged to obtain them, and whether those titles would be considered valid in an American court of law; it wouldn't be fun for Mr. Ai. In Caminero's place I would have circulated the rumor that the triple photograph of Wei breaking the Han Vase dates from the Cultural Revolution; that Ai, as a Communist Red Guard, was intent on destroying all vestiges of the Old China. The three photographs (which, tellingly, are recycled and placed in the background of his more recent work at the Pérez Museum) are meant to confirm Ai's "ownership" of Chinese cultural property within the global, capitalist meaning of the term; they're his export permit: his permission to extract capital. So it's the act of trashing, not the trashed objects, that makes an Ai Wei Wei work valuable: it's not the cash value of the vase, it's the extraction of value. Likewise, it's the act of trashing Ai's work that gives Caminero considerable cultural capital of his own, otherwise known a "fame."
In the nineteenth century the attempted extermination of the indigenous people of the present United States was justified under the pretext that since the Indians did not understand the concept of property, they had no ability to properly exploit the land, therefore they had no right to it. (The fact that the Choctaw and Natchez did, too, hold property and exploit it didn't carry much weight.) Caminero told the press that he had "broken the vase to protest what he said was the museum’s exclusion of local artists in its exhibits," and that's consistent with his own art, which I'm told is in the tradition of Wifredo Lam, the fine Afro-Cuban painter (partly Chinese as well) who attempted to take "Primitivism" back from the French Surrealists and return it to its originators. Subsequently, Caminero insisted that his original impulse was to smash Ai's vases in sympathy, and I can understand that, too: both artists are susceptible to the Ghost Ship Mentality, the mentality of those Pacific Island people who, at the end of World War Two, entertained the mystical belief that the Great Ghost Ship was coming to their island, laden with tee-vees and refrigerators, and we must show our complete trust in the ways of the Great White Ghost by throwing out all our old stuff: the statues and the vases and the sleeping mats. There's a little bit of the Cultural Revolution in Ai, after all, and in Caminero as well, inasmuch as the Cultural Revolution, like May, '68 in France, had its own share of the Ghost Ship Mentality; but as Rosa Luxemburg might have put it, the rights of the oppressed take precedence over the rights of the oppressor. AWW seems to believe the property he recycles or destroys is his own because he's bought it, which makes him a kind of MoMA of Chinese Art: it allows him to destroy the works of others in the name of his right to exploit all works of art. In addition, AWW complains that Caminero is not correctly exploiting property: exploiting it in AWW's terms, that is; meaning that Caminero, like the Natchez and Choctaw, is not competent in the extraction of capital (even symbolic capital) of which AWW is past master.
Cicero, who pretty much invented the European concept of High Culture, may also have described the first known art consultants. The Roman Proconsul Verres, who'd been assigned to Sicily, was stealing Greek antiquities right and left, as was expected of a Roman governor. Cicero charged Verres with being so insecure his own taste that he had to hire a couple of experts, who in turn were always willing to come up with a low opinion of whatever Verres thought he wanted, in exchange for a modest fee from the original owner.
As the papers keep remind us, Caminero could be charged with Criminal Mischief, which under Florida Law applies to destroying property that's valued at $1,000.00 or more and carries a maximum sentence of five years in jail. It ain't gonna happen. At this moment, if I read the cards correctly, his lawyer, if he's half competent, is directing his client to act sufficiently apolegetic while the lawyer himself negotiates with some Assistant DA. Hypothetical: We go before a jury and ask them to determine the worth of the destroyed object. Meaning what? Replacement costs for a vase that was originally bought for a few thousand dollars, but has been slathered with paint and is now worthless in terms of resale value? Or do we ask the jury to evaluate the value of Ai's artwork as a whole so that the lawyer, can cross-examine a couple of artwork hysterics nattering about Eternal Value and Pricelessness and get the case laughed out of court? Most likely Caminero will plead guilty to a much reduced charge, after apologizing profusely as he's been told to do: we don't want to encourage others to do the same. But how do we discourage others from announcing that the Emperor has no clothes?
For some, making art is like making bread; for others, it's like gaining a controlling share in a bread factory. When in 1924 a gang of right-wingers came to destroy his own frescoes at the Scuola Preparatoria in Mexico City, José Clemente Orozco attempted to turn the tables by joining them: to destroy his own art was to affirm the hope, at once aesthetic, political and culinary, that better things lay in the future. Here, at last, the aesthetic, the political and the technique are legitimately joined: Destruam ut aedificabo, "I will destroy in order to rebuild," to quote Courbet's friend, the Anarchist thinker Proudhon. If Wei Wei had a matching pair (of balls, not first names) he would stop whining about the destruction of "his" property and join with Caminero; in doing so he would assert that the future of Art matters more than the destruction of capital; and that the highest priority for an artist, nowadays, is the destruction of art, not necessarily in the physical sense, but rather in the overturning of the concept of art as accumulation of capital; that in this goal all artists are brothers and sisters. Destroying artifacts for the extraction of capital: not good, Wei Wei. Destroying artifacts in the struggle for human liberation? All things fall and are built again / And those who build them again are gay. Or straight; or Dominican; or Chinese...
2/28/2014; last revised 9/11/2014.
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