A New Art for Dark Times

If Trump heralds a new world order, the critical models of contemporary art must also be reinvented. We need a communist poetics, a poetic principle for the political struggle.

Demonstration against Trump.
One many demonstrations after the American presidential election, this one in Los Angeles.

“Poetry always says what is essential”, states French philosopher Alain Badiou in his lecture ’Poetry and Communism’ (2014), where he asserts a fundamental link between poetry and communism: “a tense, paradoxical, violent love of life in common.” What, then, is essential? Badiou speaks here about communist poetry from the time of the Spanish Civil War (Neruda, Brecht) which, he argues, shows us that the essential aspect of communism is not “the ferocity of a state, the bureaucracy of a party or the stupidity of blind obedience.” Rather, what poetry shows us is that the idea of communism is “the compassion of the simple life of the people afflicted by inequality and injustice”, as well as a vision of rising up and a “projection of the riches of the life of all.”

The fundamental link between communism and poetry would not extend to all poetry. Rather, it means that there would always exist a poetry that shows us the misery and horrors of oppression on the one hand, and the struggle and collective thought, on the other. Such poetry exists because it must exist, because it says what needs to be said. Poets are the ones who strive to articulate the essential by means of language, who try to say what language seems unable to say, but must nevertheless be expressed: not a violent or monstrous demand, but one of compassion, struggle and community – “the eternal patience of the oppressed of all times.”

Alain Badiou, The Age of Poets, Verso Books, 2014.
Alain Badiou, The Age of Poets, Verso Books, 2014.

I read Badiou while the result of the US presidential election was announced to the dismay, anger and sorrow of many – and to the joy and reassurance of others. What we got was a hateful, violent, protectionist and racist American president, who has been carried to office by a popular movement with sufficient force to go against the political, media and financial establishment; the American capitalist elite. Many believe that we have now entered an entirely new era, and that Donald Trump’s victory heralds the definitive end of the old world order (1989–2016), where liberal democracy and global capitalism reigned in unison without any significant political alternatives.

Exactly what new global order will replace the old one remains to be seen. The world is no longer governed with the notion of a predetermined historical progression by the shared power of the political oligarchy and global capitalism, as Badiou noted in his lecture at the University of California the day after the presidential election. Thatcher’s old thesis that neoliberalism is the only solution is no longer valid. What is certain, though, is that the era of political mass movements is back. No matter how the situation unfolds in the United States, Europe can now expect the definitive breakthrough of UKIP, the Freedom Party, the National Front, the Sweden Democrats and all the others who will be galvanized by the success of the American, nationalist extreme right at the polls.

Does art have a role to play in the new era? Many would argue that there are more pressing issues. Yet if what Badiou says is true, that poetry “always says what is essential,” this is a politically valid question. At last week’s conference on art criticism in Stavanger, Norway, it was implied that aesthetic criticism after Trump would be like poetry after Auschwitz. What is returning from the past at full force, however, are of course the 1930s. During the vast political and ideological crisis of those years, artists, poets and writers were part of a many-headed, international resistance in which the defence of the Spanish Republic was “the historic event that most intensely mobilised all the artists and intellectuals of the world” (Badiou). The struggle against fascism also gave rise to some of that era’s great masterpieces of art, such as Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and Picasso’s Guernica (1937).

It must be understood that the end of the old political order, also marks the end of the order that many critical positions in the field of contemporary art have taken as their fundamental condition. Contemporary art as we know it emerged as an integral part of the globalised era, with its liberal hegemony and almost metaphysical belief in global capitalism as a system with no end, and no exterior. Just as the liberal political establishment now needs to rethink their models of explanation, no-one can doubt that established critical positions and political attitudes within art must be rethought on an equally fundamental level. The entire post-Marxist, academic notion of an educational art that would develop our critical understanding of the capitalist system from an enlightened position, now seems obsolete. Contemporary art needs a more profound and totalizing vision than the critique of capitalism.

Why? Because the present crisis is not merely a crisis of global capitalism, such as the financial crisis of 2008, but a more comprehensive ideological crisis, a total disorientation of the entire liberal-capitalist order with its historical claims. To many observers, the deficiencies now made painfully visible in this system are nothing new. What is new is that they are staged on the level of the world, from the position of its most powerful government office. Power is no longer distributed between finance capital and the political oligarchy in accordance with the model that was supposed to last forever. A popular rising was possible, after all, in the guise of the authoritarian and anti-democratic movement and its new leader.

Those who now wish to abandon art in favor of direct political action can of course do so, and those who choose to seek refuge in the academy can do that. Political resistance must be offered at all levels. However, art is not limited by the choice of one political position over the other, and what is important now is to enable modes of artistic expression that can expose contemporary life in its most vulnerable, precarious and contradictory form. If this new epoch truly ushers a turning point in history, it also represents a crisis for the human subject, and her trajectory. What we need now is therefore an art that can truly take on the role as propaganda for a new and more decent life, for the political ideals about equality, solidarity and life in common. 

In this respect I propose a closer look at Badiou’s idea of poetry as a gift to language, which is given to all as a common good. This community, communis, would be the fundamental reason why poets are communists. And in the name of such a community we would return to the most primitive aspects of the poetry that must exist, and which is able to express and give voice to what is essential. What is essential? That which shows us the lowest point of life – the grief, the pain, the oppression – and gives us the power to raise up from that position, striving towards higher pursuits. It is at the level of poetry that art could contribute to the idea of a universal community for all, and to point the way for the political struggle that now needs to be mobilised.

If contemporary political philosophy has sought to reactivate the principle of communism beyond the left’s “long night of introspection and penance”, as identified at the seminal conference The Idea of Communism at Birbeck Institute in 2009, art, as well, must find its way back to the symbolic expression of true political emancipation. Just as we need an idea of a better life, we need a principle for a greater art. That is why I would propose, as the new times clash and break with the old, a new communist poetics for contemporary art. There would be no program for such a work, only an open, poetic principle that would be essential for the great challenge and struggle that now lies ahead.

Pablo Neruda.
Pablo Neruda, poet and communist.