Marxism and the Visual Arts Now, University College London, 8–10 April 2002

Conference report

Scholasticism and swaggerMarxism and the Visual Arts Now University College London, 8–10 April 2002

The title of this conference produced the expectation that critical analysis relating specifically to current artistic practices would be an issue of some urgency for contributors. For a surprising amount of them it was not. Nevertheless, the conference came close to achieving the organizersʼ aim of providing a forum for assessing ʻthe merits and limitations of established modes of materialist analysis and critiqueʼ through which to ʻdebate and develop the new critical approaches that recent developments demandʼ. It was unfortunate that, in practice, the limits of the historically established modes of critique in question were demonstrated so decisively by some of their best-known initiators.

The opening plenary was treated to an annotated bibliography by Nicos Hadjinicolaou on Marxism and Art. It was weaved together into a narrative of, at times, almost hallucinatory quality, in which the imminent abolition of art history in Western universities was confidently predicted, on the basis that it is no longer functional to the reproduction of the capitalist order. (The idea that visual representations might actually have become more important to the reproduction of the capitalist order was not broached.) Otto-Karl Werckmeister made a plea to contemporary artists for imagery ʻrelevant to Marxist politicsʼ. Andrew Bowie defended the specificity and value of aesthetic experience as more or less conventionally conceived.

The subsequent programme included forty presentations to thirteen panels relating Marxism to the popular, aesthetic value, race, gender and class, amongst other topics. It included discussion of psychoanalysis and sociology as well as assessments of recent historical developments in the Soviet bloc and Third World countries. The range and diversity of panels was ambitious and the quality of papers generally impressive. This went some way to compensate for last-minute cancellations by key speakers, including Slavoj Ziek, Abigail Solomon-Goddeau and Stuart Home. The packed sessions left little time for discussion, which was often further curtailed by lengthy comments from the chair. At times it seemed as if the organizers had opted for a strategy of saturation, perhaps as a way of impressing upon audiences the vibrancy of the materialist tradition through an aesthetic experience of its multiplicity.

There was little need of this. Many papers were very interesting and illustrated the diverse registers in which materialist cultural analysis and criticism continue to be productively pursued. For example, in her account of the discursive construction of copyright law, Anne Baron compellingly interpreted the implicit critical judgements contained in its categorial definitions, and the interpretive demands presented by the letter of its laws, as replicating the form of modernism, rather than the romantic aesthetic more commonly attributed to them. Wojciech Tomasikʼs lively analysis of iconoclasm in post-Communist Poland gave a detailed analysis of the symbolic destruction of the Soviet-period ʻMoscowʼ cinema in Warsaw – recently replaced by a more shiny, themed ʻmultiplexʼ entertainment complex. This engaging account of iconoclasm included many insightful comments on the forms of temporality of monuments in general.

In ʻStages of the Popularʼ, Dave Beech staged an imaginary bar-room encounter between country star Hank Williams and Adorno. Beech used Derridaʼs conception of the aggression implicit in hospitality – with almost allegorical hesitancy – to assess Adornoʼs ʻculture of blacknessʼ in relation to Williamsʼs undifferentiated broadcast friendliness. The suggestion seemed to be that, viewed together, the form of hostility at play in the relation between these two cultural ʻpolesʼ could be seen as descriptive of the social relations reproduced in – and illuminative for thinking about – the recourse to the popular in much recent art production. The panel also included a paper by Alan Wallach about the strong corporate interests and structural conservatism exemplified by the inclusion of illustrator Norman Rockwellʼs work in the programmes of major American contemporary art museums. Wallachʼs detailed, and quite proper, pessimism was in contrast to the residual affirmation that Mary Coffey attributed to cultural institutions in her account of the assimilation of Mexican mural paintings into state museums. Wallachʼs and Coffeyʼs concepts of the popular – a discrete historical construct determined in relation to institutions and practices under scholarly critique – exhibited an anxiety regarding the popular wholly different from that bothering Beech, which was nowhere near as well formed as theirs. Nevertheless, at least he addressed this problematic concept as if it were a pressing and pervasive issue for contemporary cultural production and for the theoretical construction of cultural values.

A similar tension was evident between two of the papers to the panel on the Situationist International. Frances Straceyʼs historical reconstruction of an example of situationist aesthetic practice interpreted the recourse to a strategic concept of the archive as a form of anti-monumental, projective ʻremembranceʼ. This approach was in sharp contrast to Anselm Jappeʼs adoption of Guy Debordʼs mantle as political theorist. Jappeʼs progressively surreal assertions regarding capitalismʼs immanent collapse (and what should replace it) diverted an initially interesting presentation and obscured his more coherent, outright critical dismissal of aesthetic avant-gardism. His analysis undermined itself by reproducing the wishful and formal attributes of the very avant-gardist strategy that he sought to dismiss, in the form of his surreal economic and political pronunciations. This was unfortunate, as here were two interesting responses to the problematic critical heritage of the Situationist International that shared a platform but didnʼt really engage. The chairʼs summary repetition of the papers did not help to bring out the potentially challenging debate that haunted the session.

Peter Osborne and Adrian Rifkinʼs papers in the closing session, ʻArt or Aesthetics?ʼ, were in oblique relation to the conference as a whole and were met with comments that bordered on denunciations. These largely seemed to miss the point of both contributions, which presented specific analyses of the criticism of contemporary cultural practices, at rather different levels of generality. In Osborneʼs case, a thesis concerning the manner in which the concept of the aesthetic has contributed to the misrecognition of the ontological character of post-conceptual artworks was examined and defended vigorously. Rifkinʼs odd, yet elegant, promise to show the assembled conference his ʻdesert islandʼ selection of artworks was a performative instance of critical dialectics, motivated and eventually overtaken by anecdote. Peculiarly, it found a form of resolution in its deferral by the end of the proceedings, which was, after all, perhaps a good note on which to end.

The interventions that followed demonstrated just how alienated a certain Marxism has become from the ʻVisual Arts Nowʼ of the conference title (culturally and analytically, as well as politically) and confirmed the perennial need on such occasions to renew the discovery of ʻa gap between theory and practiceʼ. Werckmeister assured us that proper Marxists were not interested in art. Some of them are clearly confused. For they had organized a large conference about it, and even invited Werckmeister himself.

andrew fisher