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The left contra Critique?

Let's have no more calls for the destruction of art works.

Samir Gandesha
13 March 2020
Mural at George Washington High School in San Francisco.
Mural at George Washington High School in San Francisco.
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Victor Arnautoff. All rights reserved.

There are many signs within the realm of art and literature that critique and criticism are under attack by what presents itself as ‘the Left’ today. While there are no doubt profound countervailing tendencies, not least the grass roots movement crystallizing around Bernie Sanders’ nomination bid for the Democratic Party’s candidacy, what we have seen, by and large, in response to its long-standing crisis is a sense of melancholy deepening on the Left.

If, according to Freud, mourning involves the gradual withdrawal of libido from the lost object, then melancholia entails a turning against itself of the subject who guiltily takes on blame for such object loss. What this has entailed is an endless turning of elements of ‘the Left’ broadly understood, against itself – as we saw recently in the demand from certain LGBTQ+ organizations that Bernie Sanders distance himself from the admittedly problematic yet extremely valuable endorsement by MMA fighter and comedian, Joe Rogan. What seems to elude those who make such calls is that the point of electoral politics is to win rather than to lose elections.

In a manner quite consistent with Carl Schmitt’s denigration of the liberal emphasis on discussion and debate as well as the more politically engaged gesture of “critique” enabled by an open and agonistic public sphere, the identitarian Left increasingly seeks to impose a kind of dictatorship of its own as to what is morally permissible and what is not. As with Schmitt, there’s a shifting of the terrain from procedural categories to existential ones, from the argumentative articulation of truth claims and counter-claims grounded in logic and evidence to ontological ones grounded in proprietary claims to ownership of experience and highly questionable categories of “existence.”

The identitarian Left increasingly seeks to impose a kind of dictatorship of its own as to what is morally permissible and what is not.

In a sense, this is the reanimation of the deep-seated quarrel between categories of “consciousness” and “being.” In the first, art works are adjudicated in their truth and falsity: in the second, the language is of a granting or denial of the right of certain groups to their very right to exist. Epistemology or what can be known, on the one hand; and the epistemic violence of speech acts on the other.

Perhaps the best example of such left-wing melancholy can be found in the furore surrounding the Russian-American Communist painter Victor Arnautoff’s mural at George Washington High School in San Francisco. The mural dating back to the early 1930s was the first of its kind to depict this most iconic of founding fathers in a less than iconic light.

It is a twelve panel, meticulously researched work covering all the walls and stairwell of the entrance to the school. The mural ( see above) is an exemplary instance of a style of fresco that consists of applying paint directly into wet plaster – the so-called “buon” style. It took some ten months to complete.

What’s particularly interesting about the mural is the way it actually centres enslaved African-Americans, working class revolutionaries and Indigenous peoples while at the same time marginalizing its subject, George Washington, in a kind of inverted ‘great man theory of history.’ One panel depicts Washington standing over the corpse of an Indigenous person, giving orders for the catastrophic westward expansion of the Republic, another of enslaved African Americans. Criticism, here, would attend to the truth of the mural, its refusal to present a monumental, legitimating account of the shining US “City upon a Hill.” In contrast to such an account, Arnautoff brushes history against the grain so as to reveal the utterly barbaric truth of the American civilizing mission. This, by any account, is an exemplar of politically engaged art.

Arnautoff brushes history against the grain so as to reveal the utterly barbaric truth of the American civilizing mission.

Today, however, calls have been made for the Arnautoff mural’s destruction, because the work fails to depict these communities in ways that its self-appointed representatives consider to be appropriate. As mentioned above, these calls take place in the complete absence of democratic mechanisms. It is a version of the Bolshevik idea, democratic centralism, yet without the “democracy.”

Nonetheless, there will be those who reasonably disagree. The answer, as in the case of Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2017), therefore, is not to destroy the art works themselves but, rather, to subject them to relentless and ruthless immanent criticism.

Here the pertinent question would be: Does the work subvert itself by, on the one hand, intending solidarity with the oppressed, yet, on the other, by presenting them as objects rather than as subjects of history, and therefore reifying them in the process? This, it can be argued, is precisely the role of art criticism and political critique: understanding the fractured unity of the true and the false. Perhaps it was because of this alliance between art and political criticism that, as his first act as Minister for Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels outlawed the former in order to annul the latter.

This piece was originally published in the March edition of Splinters.

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