Towards a New Universalism

Boris Groys 

“Contemporary art has its origin in this break with national cultural and pictorial traditions—the break that the artistic avant-garde effectuated at the beginning of the twentieth century. The artists of the avant-garde wanted their art to become universalist, to develop a visual language that would be accessible to everyone, beyond traditional cultural borders. Often this universalist project was subjected to the criticism that modern and contemporary art was elitist. In our time the universalist claim of contemporary art has begun to be associated with the global art market and Sotheby’s auctions. In recent decades hundreds and thousands of words have been written against contemporary art, describing it as a manifestation and celebration of neoliberal globalism. The cosmopolitan, internationalist character of art has been seen as a sign of its complicity with the interests of globalized, Americanized capitalism—directed against the diversity of national and regional cultures.

Indeed globalism, and later neoliberalism, were seen in many places, including the countries of continental Europe, as serving primarily the interests of the US and Britain. The opposition to globalism was almost indistinguishable from a certain kind of anti-Americanism. That is why recent cultural and political trends in Britain and the US have been met with surprise and disbelief in European cultural circles. Suddenly, the cultural fronts have been completely reversed. Brexit and the election of Trump confronted the outside world with a new wave of nationalist and isolationist rhetoric coming from the places that have always been regarded as the sources and centers of neoliberal programs of globalization. The reemergence of nationalism that had earlier been witnessed in such countries as China, Russia, and Turkey now reached the US. At the same time, globalized systems of exchange and information flow began to dissolve before our eyes. Not so long ago the internet served as the main symbol and medium of globalization. Today, one is regularly reminded that the corporations and organizations that operate the internet have real, physical, off-line addresses in territories that are controlled by certain states. As such, they are increasingly used as instruments of surveillance, propaganda, and fake news. Instead of constituting a virtual space beyond state borders, the internet is increasingly understood as a scene of struggle for interstate information wars.

Under these conditions the art field is still one of the few public spaces where resistance to these fateful trends remains possible. The reemergence of nationalist and sovereigntist ideologies and their pseudo-charismatic leaders reminds the contemporary art world of its internationalist origins—of a time when internationalism was understood as a political project and not a marketing strategy. The early artistic avant-garde was not interested in producing images that could be bought and sold everywhere. The goal of the early avant-garde was to unify politics and aesthetics, creating a new space of universal politics and culture that would unite mankind across its cultural differences. Of course, throughout the twentieth century the relationship between the political avant-garde and the artistic avant-garde was torturous and tragic—especially in the case of Soviet communism. But the reemergence of nationalism and cultural isolationism today brings art back to the nineteenth century—to a time before the avant-garde arose. Indeed, when one reads newspapers or watches TV today one gets the feeling that an invisible hand has erased the whole of twentieth-century culture, with its universalist utopian aspirations, and put us back into a world in which national-cultural identities dominate. However, without the project of universalism, all forms of modern and contemporary art lose their meaning, their true message; they turn into empty formalist experiments, into mere design. And in general, without political engagement, art ceases to be contemporary because being contemporary means being involved in the politics of one’s own time. It is, indeed, the only form of contemporaneity that is accessible to us under current cultural conditions. Now, it would be a great mistake to think that the universalist project contradicts the interests of minorities and local populations. It is precisely the universalist resistance against the alleged homogeneity of national cultures that opens the way for minorities to assert their heterogeneity, their diversity.”

Boris Groys, Towards a New Universalism, e-flux, Journal #86 – November 2017

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