Sunday, April 10, 2016

Repeating History: A Nostalgic Perspective 

A typical critique of nostalgia has the same overtone of a cliché as does the sentence ‘when one does not know his history, one is destined to repeat it.’ This sentence seems as true as it is patently false in the same way that nostalgia, still a dirty word in our so called post-modern culture, seems to be a word that describes a true emotion, longing, but at the same time keeps its distance by suggesting itself to be a delusion, a sentimental longing for a simple past, a home.

That history repeats itself because we are not aware of it is a simplification, a sounding board for generations that grew up with false wisdom masquerading as studied fact. What if it is precisely the opposite that is true? What if it is because we know our history that we repeat it again and again? The nostalgic knows this and therefore she yearns for a time when this was not the case, which is of course never. This case in point was well put in the short mini-series A Young Doctor’s Notebook. Based on a book by Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov, it follows the protagonist as he is guided through his early adulthood by his older ghostly self. He knows he is talking to his future self and knows exactly the outcomes of his actions in advance as he spirals toward morphine addiction, yet every time his future self warns him against a specific action, the young doctor does it anyway, usually with a sense of personal or moral justification, because the weight of the moment is greater than the supposed abstract and inconclusive future.

This is of course a contradiction from the standpoint of the young doctor that points to Mannoni’s dictum ‘I know very well, … but nonetheless’ which also points further to Zizek’s critique that sums up ideology as a fetish object of desire. Zizek describes fetishism in three forms. First is ‘co-substantial with the symbolic order’ meaning that I know very well that there is nothing behind mere appearances and that the appearances are more powerful and yet I continue to act as though the true core behind those appearances is somehow inherently powerful, I show my father respect even though I know very well that he is a ‘corrupted weakling.’ Second is the ‘cynical-manipulative distance’ meaning that when I know there is no Santa Claus, I nonetheless feign belief for the sake of my children. Third is fetishism proper that Zizek claims needs no ‘but nonetheless’ because the fetishist knows how things really are and ‘the disavowal of this knowledge is materialized in the fetish,’ he chooses the fetish rather than real love because the fetish truly arouses him. The young doctor knows very well that his future is very grim, should he continue on the road toward self-destruction as outlined by his future self, but nonetheless decides to follow that very road not because he does not believe his future self, but because the momentary morphine-induced escape from the brutality of his all too sober reality is more appealing and perhaps arousing, substituting his momentary lapse in reason with pleasure derived from his fetish.

Is this not exactly our current predicament, with thousands of books, television programs, films, and internet articles on history, all pointing in the same direction, toward a knowledge of that history, that at the end of the day we are simply not smart enough, did not learn enough, and cannot overcome a simple tendency toward parroting ourselves and repeat our same mistakes even though we knew what they were going to be in advance? Those on the left and the right have this argument at their disposal and they use it with equally zealous audacity and authority, apparently neither willing to learn its message. The nostalgic knows this also and this is why she spends so much time in quiet solitude.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Back from the (almost) Dead

It has come to my attention that The Gutter Art Critic has been dormant for a long time, over two years to be precise. I am not sure why this happened. Maybe it was because I got into graduate school, maybe because I was busy with making work and residencies abroad, maybe it was life and maybe I couldn't bring myself to write anything sensible other than complaints about the fucked up things I saw around myself. Whatever it was.... today is a new beginning, a rebirth of The Gutter Art Critic. I hope that two years of graduate art school has given me a new perspective, I also hope that living near Los Angeles, the supposed new capital of the art world (whatever that means) has given me a new impetus to write about art and culture from ground zero. Ok, maybe not quite ground zero, I don't actually live in Los Angeles, maybe ground five and a half, because I am pretty close, as close as I think I can stand it. But don't get me wrong, I actually like Los Angeles, well, parts of it anyway. I also hope that you, my readers, wherever you are and whoever you are, will find the new blog interesting and worth the effort. Since I started GAC there have been close to 10K hits, which is way more than I would have every predicted. Ok, I realize that GAC has ten followers right now (thank you wherever you ten people are right now!) and that in the scope of real readership for mainstream blogs 10K is like a drop in the ocean, but GAC is not concerned with numbers. I couldn't give two shits less about the popularity contest we call western culture right now. What I want is to put out something that is real, authentic and that has feeling. This stuff comes from the heart! For the past two years I've been writing academic theory papers and working on a thesis using peer reviewed materials, primary and secondary sources, and on and on. Much of the time I don't know where my theory begins and someone else's opinion ends, or vice versa. The new GAC is hopefully going to meld the shit I learned in grad school with the real world shit I experienced, without the ridiculous opinions of others who think that I'm either not going far enough or that I have already gone too far, even if it concerns the same piece of work or writing. That said though, I want to say that I enjoy reading the comments left on GAC, I do read them and I look for them. If you read this and want to comment, do it and I thank you for it! I may respond but I also may not. Grad school definitely taught me that everyone has an opinion, but opinions are like assholes, everybody has one. Stay tuned!!

Friday, January 3, 2014

Killing and Painting

How should one begin when writing about George Zimmerman painting? It might be a good idea to put Zimmerman in a context by which we can judge what he is in fact doing and why is it that this is either accepted or not. George W Bush as we know is painting also, and when he was alive, John Wayne Gacy was painting as well. As much as we would like to dismiss their art as hacky, or worse, let us not forget that it has been decades of unrelenting deskilling of artists, pluralism and appropriation of art for the sake of money and consumerism among other things that have resulted in non-artists claiming the status of artist and non-art elevated to high art. Can we at all imagine a time fifty years ago, when critics like Harold Rosenberg or Clement Greenberg were writing about art and producing actual criticism, which meant that artists had to be somewhat accountable to a de facto higher authority than themselves? Regardless of how wrong or conservative these critics were, in their approach to critique, one thing is certain, and that is that criticism ought to serve as the art world’s peer review, its zero level coordinate, rather than a one way ticket to celebrity status. The lack of real criticism in contemporary art, supplanted with descriptive methods of writing and a lack of interest in the periphery of art making by fringe avant-garde and emerging artists created just such a situation in which criticism’s only function is to create status without judgement. One can argue that such a situation is more democratic, because it allows members of the public to engage in what was once reserved only for those skilled or educated in art and art making. The counter argument is that it is precisely this democratization that destroys the function of what it is trying to democratize. In a recent article in the Guardian (Friday, 13, 2013) the author looked at the impact that smartphones and particularly the iPhone have on photography. While we drown in endless streams of images and while we supplement images for real experiences (people taking pictures of paintings in museums rather than looking at them and so on), photography as an experience is on the rise, but professional photography is suffering. “Kodak used to employ 40,000 people in good jobs. What have they been replaced by? Twelve people at Instagram.” On the one hand we do not have to pay a professional photographer thousands of dollars for a few snapshots of a wedding, we can do it ourselves, but on the other we are more and more giving our power over to technology, which as we well know tends to be (mis)used by governments and corporations looking to protect their bottom lines.

We could also say that perhaps it is payback time, because at the beginning of the twentieth century it was photography that put many painters out of business of painting family portraits. We could argue that photography did not actually destroy painting as a practice as we could say that the iPhone and Instagram will not truly destroy photography as a professional practice, because no matter how many millions of people can readily take a snapshot, most will not go out of their way to stage photo shoots, or create photographic panoramas in miniature. One might say that photography’s salvation can only lie in increasingly obscure methods of shooting or avant-garde methods, pictures might therefore attempt to resist their commodification but also resist the appropriation and democratization process itself, and perhaps the only way to accomplish this is through criticism, which brings us back to George Zimmerman.

Taking the example of Gacy, let us look at the social and psychological context of Zimmerman’s work. Gacy’s works have been sold for thousands of dollars and the implications are that a work of art by a serial murderer, without any art training, credentials, skill or artistic passion, must rely on the status of celebrity, notoriety and fascination with the shadow side of human nature to create value in a work of art. Zimmerman in this case is a weak example of jus t such a fascination. He did not murder dozens of victims and bury them under his house like Gacy, he was not responsible for the deaths, displacement and ruined lives of hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern citizens like Bush. Yet he did set a precedent with this particular type of work. In the art world, much like in Hollywood, when celebrity no longer has to rely on a particular skill, just celebrity itself, status given over by celebrity is enough to sell work. How much different is the case of Jeff Koons, whose career as an artist was preceded by one as commodities broker? Though he studied art in college, his insider contacts from trading were what really got him started on a career of super stardom since he could use those contacts to peddle his own mediocre art. Is not Zimmerman’s just another case of an individual (ab)using a particular system, in place such as it is, for his own benefit? It would be silly to simply dismiss his work as hacky (it is) or as the worst kind of kitsch (which it is also), anyone with a minimum amount of knowledge knows this. The point is much more radical. In the wake of the Beuysian truism “everyone is an artist”, Zimmerman is doing exactly what many of us would do should the opportunity present itself, by this is meant the unflinching self-merchandising and crass (mis)use of the term. In a typical class of thirty kids, it is usually the biggest idiot who takes the rest of the class down with him, if he is the one disrupting class and does not own up to his own idiocy. The teacher will usually punish the entire class rather than look for the culprit. Does this not seem like the obverse of the situation with contemporary art, where a handful of hacks are able to undermine generations of honest work in a matter of hours on the auction house floor?

Predictably, Zimmerman’s painting sold for $100,000 and Zimmerman himself became an “artist” after painting only a single piece. It is hard to say whether it is time to laugh or to cry.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Of Elections and Their Implications

This year’s election for mayor and city council was one of the stealthiest campaigns that I have ever witnessed. Unless one was an ever vigilant follower or watch dog of the local political scene, all one saw one day were a handful of yard signs and an eerie silence in the press and media. As if the fact that the political arena here as much as elsewhere has become a medley of circus freaks and reality tv-like “celebrities” was not enough, the campaign itself had devolved into a he said she said argumentation about why there is so much debt still in the air when all we have tried to do is to make this place more tourist friendly and more developer happy, a tried and true formula for making money. But is that really so? If anything, recent history has always shown that late capitalism is a process by which individuals are compelled to take as much advantage of a given situation and run as soon as the money is made. Was this not the case with most of the “development” in Asheville? Not to mention that anytime a big corporate franchise opens its doors anywhere, the money made there invariably goes elsewhere? There is a term for this late capitalist phenomenon in Eastern Europe, where the ravages of Communism were followed by further ravages of Capitalism. The term is “tunneling”. When a company is established, or bought, a series of “tunnels”, virtual lines by which money is channeled outward into other corporations or tax havens, is built to suck the body dry of all its fluids and to enrich those who run it. When there is nothing left, the company is either dissolved or sold to the lowest bidder. Tunneling is one way by which debt is incurred by those directly involved with these bodies, because through hikes in prices, fees and service charges, the burden is transferred to the lower strata, while at the same time money flows directly to the top and outwardly, with nothing left for the community.

Now that the election results are in, I have to be honest in saying that I have never seen a more dreary set of gray people with no ideas and no life essence in them running for office. What this year’s election was about were power and name recognition, nothing more, nothing less, because what each and every single candidate stood for is a preference for running things along the same tired train tracks into oblivion, some with a ridiculous sloganist campaign of “change”, the same type of change that will keep everything the same, because it is working out for the corporate structure so that it can keep sucking the life out of the poor and middle class, develop more plots of beautiful countryside into abominable tracts of monocultured wasteland, and above all, feed us all staggering amounts of beer.

Should any of the candidates or for that matter anyone living in this here town take notice, I have developed a set of ideas that could be evolved further through conversation and debate.

-Raise the minimum wage in all of Buncombe county to $15/hr

-Institute a basic income to all Buncombe citizens at $999/month

-Place a ban on all public advertising and take down all billboards within county line (it will be great for our psyche and fun to watch them come down like the Hussein statue)

-Place a cap on the number of new buildings in Asheville to 5 (all buildings will have to be integrated into the community)

-Tear up Tunnel and Hendersonville roads and rebuild using a grid system and interconnections

-Free busses running up Merrimon and Patton, electric rail would be preferred however

-Make golf carts street legal

-Divert money going to utilities companies to create small privately owned startup power stations

-Give money to leftist think tanks

-Create a mobile application and computer program by which every citizen can cast votes on every single issue before the council

I absolutely understand that most of these ideas are going to be derided as unworkable, idiotic, or insane, maybe utopian, but if we do not start talking about even the possibility that something like this can work or take place, we will never get out of the hole we have dug for ourselves. If the city of Asheville had gotten into so much debt as is claimed by the media, through the methods that even today most candidates are espousing, that have been mythologized by the establishment and that clearly do not work for the people, then maybe it doesn’t matter that we will get into more debt as a result of these policies, but at the same time help those that are in most need and make this place into a truly unique place, instead of the Disney version that has been created over the past five years.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

On art and artists in Asheville, contemporary art and its implications (Is something rotten in the art scene?)

The Question

For years, Asheville has been seen as an arts destination. The reasons are simple; lots of artists result in lots of art produced which enters the market, which draws in the money, which ultimately draws in more artists and the circle slowly but surely perpetuates itself. Whether or not artists can squeek out a living in such conditions is an entirely different question from the one I will be asking today and it can be found in a conversation, which this article will try to dovetail into, from some two years ago printed in the Xpress. Similar topics have been raised later on Craigslist and Ashevegas. The question that will be dealt with here is the state and nature of contemporary art, its (non)existence, and its representation here in Asheville.

Contemporary art seems to have been largely redefined in Asheville. Whether this is a mistake or a concerted effort is unclear. What is clear however is that within this definition are included various practices such as crafts, pottery, fabrics, performing arts, music, and so on. The term therefore gets rather muddied by a definition which itself is blurred because it does not know what it wants to be. In a typically postmodern pluralistic way this definition could be satisfactory, but only until ontological questions arise. The only way to solve this issue is to truly define what one is talking about. Here we should therefore make the distinction between contemporary craft and contemporary fine art. It is always within the definition of contemporary fine art that contemporary craft is included and ultimately represented. When one speaks about contemporary art, one is really speaking about contemporary fine art, with its tradition rooted in painting, sculpture and the avant garde.

Aesthetically speaking there may not be much of a difference between what one would call contemporary craft and contemporary fine art and that is fine, what one sees however is the implication in the reasoning behind creating it. There the difference is between two types of injunction, that of the struggle and that of enjoyment. Firstly, by and large the history of avant garde art (which unfortunately today is as much a simulacrum as it is a myth peddled by commercial interests in art) is that of the radical leftist struggle directly opposed to the conservative enjoyment (small pleasures, beautiful images which nonetheless result only through chaotic production, the enjoyment is in the making already and not just in the finished product, and so on). Secondly, that same history was split into two independent epochs, that of the early 20th century transgressions of values and the elimination of boundaries of art and late 20th century resistance to its appropriation by the market. It is as if to circumvent the original strategy of defining ourselves and our art, we have accepted the conservative ethos of enjoyment precisely so that we would not have to deal with the burdensome task of having to explain our position and ultimately defending it against possible criticism, here resistance ceded its position to appropriation. This was apparent already in 1985 on the national level, when Hal Foster wrote in his polemic Against Pluralism that “ as a general rule pluralism tends to absorb argument” and that “one can only begin out of a discontent with this status quo: for in a pluralist state art and criticism tend to be dispersed and so rendered impotent. Minor deviation is allowed only in order to resist radical change.”

Art for pure pleasure doesn’t need to be defined, it simply is, and that is why it becomes pedestrian and uninteresting as soon as it is made. It is not wrong to create such art however (therapeutic effects of such art are well known), but it is on the other hand a devious comparison which suggests that art borne out of pleasure is directly synonymous with art borne out of struggle. Here I believe the old Abstract Expressionists (most of whom did not have their first solo exhibitions until they were well into their 40’s and 50’s) would laugh at just the simple suggestion of such a comparison and it could be said that their tendency toward disliking Pop art is rooted in this differentiation between art for pleasure and art as a struggle. It was easy for Pop artists to make art and get famous by celebrating consumerism because of the struggle by the Ab Ex painters that smoothed and paved their way. It is as much a case these days, here and now, in which art for pleasure has largely sidestepped the need for ontological struggle precisely because it was the earlier struggle by serious artists that made this situation possible. This art eventually replaced and devalued its predecessor on the condition that it can use it as its philosophical undercurrent. The avant garde tradition gets espoused no matter how duplicitous the art that gets created in its wake actually is.

Is it time to wake up from this dream however? No true contemporary art magazines do any reviews of Asheville art galleries or museums (art papers, artforum, etc. I don’t mention juxtapose because street art in my opinion belongs in the streets. By its inclusion in the gallery system its vitality gets completely lots, but this is another conversation entirely). Virtually no great contemporary artists, from New York, Los Angeles and so on, ever exhibit here. The one exception might be Mel Chin, who can however be considered local as he lives not far from here in Burnsville. This however has more to do with access to this artist, rather than the desire by the museum to promote contemporary or conceptual art.

The Response

The concern of the second section, or rather the concern over preemption of the response to the first, is the response itself. There are three kinds of responses to this conversation about lack of contemporary art in Asheville and unfortunately, despite best intentions by all participants, they do not resolve any issues, but rather perpetuate the symptom

First is the conservative, who says that ultimately artists that bring up this issue are just complaining for the sake of complaining, that they should stop looking for a handout, put up or shut up, and that they don’t want to pay with their tax dollars for someone to sit on their ass in a studio, and so on. This reaction is completely wrong and uninformed, and misses the point completely, because it attacks the artists and not the idea originally espoused. It reaffirms its position through the constant negation of a serious problem, by substituting it with the artist and treating it as a symptom. It says, that the problem is only a problem because the artists themselves are the problem. Second is the liberal position, who instead of confronting the issue does what the conservative does (substitutes the artists for the problem), but elevates himself above the rest by giving out “enlightened” advice rather than attacking the artists. This is also completely wrong and uniformed. If we were to look at the two responses, we will see that they are two sides of the same coin, one an obverse of the other, but acting as if they were different. Here a Zizekian example might shed some more light on this issue. It concerns the injunction by a father to his son to go see his grandmother. The authoritarian (conservative) father says to his son “you know that this weekend is your grandmother’s birthday! Go and see her and wish her a happy birthday and it doesn’t matter if you had other plans because she is your family and that is the most important thing!” On the other hand the post-modern permissive (liberal) father says to his son “son, I know that you have some things to do this weekend, but it is your grandmother’s birthday and it would be really nice and she would enjoy it so much if you came and wished her a happy birthday” and so on down the line. The difference here is that the second injunction says that not only do you have to do exactly what the first one proposes, you also have to like it. Similarly, the advice given out by the liberal carries within it this hidden aspect, that not only do you have to listen to what I say, but you have to like it as well.

Both opinions only seem to enter the conversation not to really solve a given problem but to diffuse the situation because they believe the situation is just fine the way it is and it’s the fault of the others that things are the way they are.

The third type of opinion is the complete agreement with all other opinions and as such is useless to propel the conversation further. I believe we need a fourth, critical opinion which never appears and this is the opinion which actually deals with the real problem at hand, is able to understand it, reflect on it and give it a new impulse by creating a reaction to it. The problem with the first and second response is that as soon as the conversation starts, it quickly devolves into personal attacks without confronting the actual issue. This is due to the misreading and misinterpreting of the given problem. If the issue is contemporary art, then because of its broad definition, there is too much at stake for everybody, which gives way to feelings of being challenged.

This challenge is however what could be considered criticism. After all, the word crisis is included in the word criticism, and the main function of critique is to bring a certain crisis to the subject at hand. The need for art criticism in Asheville is long overdue, and I believe that there are two types of responses/obstacles to be overcome. First, which says we need criticism, but only the good kind of criticism. For most artists, critique is harsh and personal and typically recalls the art school style criticism that most students loathe and fear. This type of criticism is too harsh and personal for most artists to take publicly in a forum or in the media. Second, is the belief that criticism is inherently bad and should therefore not exist because it stifles creativity. It is the latter attitude that gave rise to the giving out of E for effort in school and is largely responsible for the elevation of mediocrity to the level of high art, and ironically is itself responsible for stifling creativity because it disperses the potential rather than concentrating it.

The Afterthought

Just so the above are not just empty words, I propose a few steps that we as artists can take in order to counteract the pluralistic tendency toward art and hopefully recover its true center, which is inherently anchored in philosophy and polemic, rather than cheap entertainment and consent.

Start a radical left think tank about art and philosophy

Set up philosophical symposia and presentations during exhibitions, at your studios, your houses that deal specifically with art and cultural critique

Start writing and publishing a zine with actual art criticism, a blog like this one might do, and I am open to having others publish their ideas, opinions and criticisms

Etc.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Connie Bostic at the Flood Gallery

Connie Bostic’s exhibition comes at a particularly interesting time when the conversation about gun control has been rekindled by the violent events of the past couple years, especially the school shootings and mass murders in places like Connecticut and Colorado and the craziness of violent outbursts by right wing extremism in Norway, punctuated and/or capped off by the obscene pronouncements and gestures by the NRA. It is not surprising that the spokespeople for the NRA issued such crazy platitudes like “the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”. This is the pinnacle to which their own ideological fortitude extends. Let us not for a second forget that the ideological underpinnings of such a pronouncement lies in the mythology laid down at the dawn of the American revolution. America is the only place that has actually codified its mythology in a legislative document, the constitution and its amendments. Mythology begat as law. Figures like Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin love these pronouncements because they point to their efforts of turning the whole of American capitalism into an army of experts, versed only in their responsibilities to the state/corporation, unambiguously upholding their laws, set by the institutionalized machine for producing those experts, the university. In this environment, the good guy with the gun does not reflect on his position within the environment he finds himself in, as that is tantamount to heresy, he is simply to do his job of shooting the bad guys with guns. It is interesting that the often quoted clause “shoot first, ask questions later” is not even mentioned these days, as if asking questions is exactly what puts us in a position of the weaker subject. The good guy shoots, without asking questions.



This is however only the background for the exhibition. The whole of the show is much more ambiguous. The conversation extends far into the past as there are works from the early nineties represented alongside newer work. History however is not enough to make this show work, it is only a marker by which one can orient oneself. The fact remains that while the conversation of gun control is a heated debate it is also one which ideologically is unable to be resolved. In this sense a painting of a gun surrounded by a set of toys from 1990 is redoubled by a similar painting several years later. Thus the conversation is always in a state of becoming because the two sides are at a virtual deadlock over the details contained within it. This is what makes the show seem very tragic. Hidden under the slogan for change is the injunction to resist change, and if change is needed then only cosmetic, so as not to undermine each side’s position as that of the truth bearer.

The most successful works seem to be the small and rather softly painted watercolors of guns inside purses. This is what exemplifies the horror of the right wing gun lobby ideology. Far from aestheticising firearms, they point to the violence inherent in a weapon meant to kill or harm, regardless of whether in self defense of direct aggression, without representing it. In an almost Goyaeque way, the paintings assume the position of documentary, but where Goya documents violence and stupidity perpetrated in the everyday state of war, Bostic documents the potentiality of violence disguised as the everyday. Unseen, the weapon does posses a certain amount of subjective power and assumes the role it is supposed to assume, that of a defensive screen between its bearer and the outside, but this is exactly its greatest weakness, because it produces this effect at the expense of that safety net. Carried within itself is the injunction that owning a gun that should make its bearer safer is its complete opposite, that on the contrary, the gun by producing its own hypothetical safety net, actually makes the bearer more susceptible to violence. Hidden by the soft fabric of the purse, the gun however still remains ambiguous, far from being the monster waiting to be released, it is a cold inanimate object with that potential or in the case of a painting, representing it.

The Flood Gallery does a good job of bringing in artists that stir up the pot of controversy, if only temporarily. Bostic’s show is not overly controversial, perhaps that depends on an individual’s reading of her work, and Asheville for the most part will be a receptive audience, as the tone of the show is more or less in line with the general sentiment of the Asheville public. I do feel that perhaps a greater injunction toward a rethinking of the issue is needed here. The ambiguity of the work is its weaker facet. The work seems to want to steer clear of politics, yet there is nothing more political, or invested with social imperatives, than guns and what they represent. This is my personal opinion, yes, but in an increasingly radicalized political climate, in which the position of the left has been largely abandoned for a pseudo-liberal moralistic new-ageisim, what do we have left other than art to turn to for a sense that the world isn’t truly mad? There may be injustice, but the way to correct this is precisely to do the opposite of what we are compelled to do, that is to say we need to turn away from violence precisely at a point when increased violence seems like the only way out.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Modern Anxiety, Buzludzha and the American Superhero

I will try and piggyback a little bit on what I thought was the most asked question, or at least what I felt was the most perplexing image or idea, during the night of the opening of my latest solo show “apotheosis”. The image is that of the Buzludzha monument and I have described the piece this way

“On a lone mountaintop in a Bulgarian national park sits one of the most perplexing and perhaps ironic monuments to late 20th century socialism. Built in the waning years of Eastern European socialism, when the writing on the walls was already running out of walls, this monument celebrated the revolutionary spirit in such a way as if the sheer spectacle would be able to carry through the intended ideology, that everything is just great the way it is. The hyperinflated ego of such a project constitutes the dramatization of what occurs naturally in every culture faced with its own impending doom. Instead of reflection and reassessment, we get bombastic displays of confidence in the existing system and wild proclamations of better tomorrows. It is only through the display of power, and not its actual manifestation, that the state can in such times “buy” time and prolong its existence. Today, only thirty years later, the monument is in ruins, yet the ideological underpinnings remain largely intact.” A little bit more information is needed here to fully grasp the implications of not just this image, but also that of the image of the Pruitt-Igoe demolition of 1972. Buzludza was built and ceremonially opened to the public (and here the public has to be thought of in terms of the old communist regime, since the public generally constituted only members of the party proper in most cases) in 1981. From Wikipedia we get a little blip about the purpose of the structure as such.

“The Buzludzha Monument on the peak was built by the Bulgarian communist regime to commemorate the events in 1891 when the socialists led by Dimitar Blagoev assembled secretly in the area to form an organised socialist movement. It was opened in 1981. No longer maintained by the Bulgarian government, it has fallen into disuse.”

What is interesting to note here is the reversal of the dates, the former mirroring the latter that in actuality constitutes the reversal of the rise of socialism in Bulgaria and Eastern Europe by providing us with a concrete timeframe when socialism came to a close. It is as if the reversal of a couple of numbers literally spelled out, or brought about the waning years of state socialism. My claim about the palpable feeling, the writing on the walls so to speak, that something is terribly wrong with the current system in 1980’s Eastern Europe was precisely what motivated the state to go ahead with the construction of the monument. The move must seem to us as madness today, but it is absolutely logical, and it finds its correlate in today’s hypercapitalist society (we are told to shop more, buy more entertainment, and so on, to produce demand for products and stave off the ultimate doom scenario when even the capitalist system comes to an end). The Bulgarian central committee, as was the case with all other Eastern European governments, understood that the time of deadlock is slowly approaching. The threshold of even more repression could not be crossed at this point as it would give rise to immediate revolution and the loosening of the stronghold on power would totally disintegrate the center and the whole system would collapse in a matter of weeks. The time of normalization, the 1970’s, and its pragmatic conservatism, ushered in a decade of unease. Goods and food were scarce, ecology devastated, depression, addiction and divorce rates on the rise. It is as if in order to buy time, the government decided to sidestep all political implications and dump a lot of energy into producing a monument that would function as a spectacular image that would show that everything is ok, that we do not need to run for the hills, and that above all, the state is firmly in control. The tragic irony is that the people in the central committee believed in the project no more than the workers that worked on it, or the “people” for whom this obscene monstrosity was built. By all accounts, the people at the top knew that their time was up before anybody on the ground suspected it. What we get in fact is a grandiose finale, the way that fireworks operate (they start slow and finish with a massive cacophony), of the tragicomedy that was Eastern European state socialism.

But what does all this have to do with us? The one thing we learn visually is that totalitarian regimes build and waste vast amounts of energy on public projects, monuments, etc , in order to satisfy some dictator’s ego, prop up the existing power structure and so on, and that democratic states on the contrary are organized so that the energy is all equally distributed based on the majority consensus, that the president and the government represent the will of the public and all kinds of other bullshit. We need to look no further than to the flamboyant neo-imperialist architecture of all the biggest government buildings across this country and most obviously in Washington DC, but also to the rather neo-stalinist statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. brought to us courtesy of the Chinese artists versed in such depictions in order to understand who is in charge here. The appropriation of the image of King by the state and by that virtue his ideology of non-violence, when we all know that America is one of the most violent countries internally (high murder rates, domestic violence, etc.) , but also one which wages war with impunity on the smallest of states, reveals itself as the true horror of the last stage of capitalism before it turns into an authoritarian nightmare. What is to follow is what we would call “capitalism with Asian values” a more dynamic, but more repressive form of capitalism that no longer relies on the democratic functioning of the state, but rather on the systematic permissiveness in areas of selling and buying products and entertainment, coupled with increasingly intrusive interventions into the functioning of individual lives and their relations with others.

The anxiety which precedes this systematic dismantling of the existing structure reveals itself precisely through the most permissive form, entertainment. The big Hollywood studios are busy producing super hero flicks as fast as the public can consume them. What these movies show however, no matter how good or bad the movies actually are, is what in Zizekian terms would be called a reality more real than itself. In them situations are dire, crime is rampant, corruption widespread, and who else can clean up but the superhero endowed with special powers? This is our Buzludzha monument. The reigning ideology is that no matter how bad things will get, things will get back to normal in the end, due to the self-organization of the system (the system produced figures like Batman, a millionaire bent on fighting evil precisely so that he can continue to make money so that he can fight more evil). Just let capitalism do what it does best and the rest will work itself out, everything is fine. We should obviously let corporations police themselves, because they have a vested interest in keeping the system that sustains them running.

The superhero, I argue, is the latest in mythological appropriation with a specific function to teach moral lessons. The hero is a presenter of the values of the state, he’s strong, just, omnipotent and omnipresent. He keeps the functioning of the state running at peak performance. But this is where the notion “more real than reality itself” comes in. What we are dealing with in actuality is a play of appearances. On the screen it appears that things are terribly wrong, and so they are in real life but compared with the violence on the screen they are meager, and that they can be set aright with a minor intervention by the hero (the state), which is an obvious mistake. The simplicity of the operation on screen is what makes it seem more real than this reality we find ourselves in. This I think is one of the great tragedies of the modern American revolutionary spirit. We are increasingly plunged into a conservative view of the world mediated through Hollywood cinema and “reality” television, while the real documentary images which should inform us of the horrors out there are kept away from the public eye in order to manufacture the consent needed to sustain the power structure. Of course we are given just the right amount of violence to keep us in the right amount of anxiety, mostly about murders committed by lone gunmen or some disenfranchised minorities, car crashes and the like, but too much violence, especially as perpetrated by the paternal state (increasingly however this type of violence is perpetrated by corporations) abroad and sometimes when the state is directly implicated with state terrorism, has the capability of sparking the correct negative reaction against the state itself.