At Tate Modern’s Starr Auditorium (a glamorous name) a hob-knobbing crowd convened to launch Anthony Downey’s new book ’Art & Politics Now’. The event was chaired by Elvira Dyangani Ose. As Downey said in his introduction, there seems to be something ‘now’ about ‘Art & Politics’, and you know yourself that you too have been asked repeatedly to teach under this title in the past few years, and as like never before. Not only new courses but even new departments of ‘Art & Politics’ have sprung up, and so it seems to be a response to a current need.
Nevertheless, for you the two have always been inextricably linked. Whether you start with Walter Benjamin, Heinrich Wölfflin or Clement Greenberg, art is ultimately people and people are politics. Even the most escapist of abstract painters, eager to distance themselves from politics and demonstrate their passion for art, art and nothing but the art, become, despite themselves, ‘political’ even in their attempt to disavow any politicism.
You recall a day, in a seaside town to which you had traveled hoping to escape London’s competitive pressures, there to cultivate an innocent and untainted approach to art as a way to conduct your masters degree, and yet you hesitated and, after several hours of indecision on a railway platform finally took the train back to London to pick up an offer of a very different kind of masters degree because you had to concede, in the end, and after much difficult soul searching, that the artist in you was more fundamentally motivated by responsibility than by any desire for freedom and pleasure.
Sharing the Starr Auditorium stage with Downey and Dyangani Ose tonight was Renzo Martens, controversial, even slightly notorious and strangely charismatic. You wrote about his film ‘Episode III, Enjoy Poverty’ back in 2009 and still regularly travel around its moral Mobius strip with your students. Downey concluded his introductory talk by saying that the political art of today that interested him and which came to shape his book was that which accepted, acknowledged and confronted the contradictions into which any artist is drawn who aims or claims to make ‘political art.’ Martens is a prime example.
‘Episode III’, along with his current venture the ‘Institute for Human Activities’ repeatedly demonstrates that no-one is external to the political problems they might aim to represent or assist, a conundrum that seems at first to render us powerless and position-less, and yet, without confronting this dilemma we pursue any political goal only under a delusion and often in a state of piety and unconscious narcissism. Hence Martens’ projects quickly become philosophical as much as political. His behavior in ‘Episode III’ was described by one reviewer as “Socratic” due to the way his probing vision ironically exposes the delusion, piety and narcissism of professionals ostensibly ensconced in solving the monumental problems of poor African nations by means of various kinds of aid.
There is also something Nietzschean about going through a barrier of ethical impossibility, staying with a position or project that is apparently untenable, to thereby occupy an unprecedented, perhaps ‘superhuman’ ethical space that is ‘Beyond Good and Evil.’ Nietzsche described a problem for the enlightened in becoming disgusted by the unenlightened world that they consequently behold, including disgust at their own part within it, a disgust that is capable of devouring us unless we find a solution. There are moments in ‘Episode III’ when Martens melodramatically -and yet apparently sincerely – announces to his mobile video camera both his own impotence and his own inevitable narcissism. It reminds you of the moment in Zarathustra when a man who has been entered, entrapped and encircled by an uroboros-like serpent bites the head off the serpent to set himself free.
In ‘Episode III’ we saw babies die of malnutrition on impoverished coffee plantations, tonight Martens presented images and ideas gleaned from a Unilever palm-oil plantation in the Congo where workmen earn less than thirty dollars a month. He reminds the Tate audience that Unilever is the very company that sponsors Tate’s series of grandiose Turbine Hall installations by art luminaries such as Bruce Nauman, Tino Sehgal and Doris Salcedo. He also shows us pictures of the Unilever products in his own bathroom (soaps and shampoos.)
Martens’ modest Institute (which he blatantly refers to as part of a “gentrification project”) is little more than a roof in the Congolese wilds adorned by a sign proudly declaring ‘Critical Curriculum’ (“…the same as Goldsmiths” he quips.) It attempts to use art as a way of allowing people living and working on Congolese plantations to access different thoughts, to meet different people, encounter different possibilities and even to make art that is for sale in Europe – Yes, Yes, the inevitable irony quickly becomes almost as problematic as anything else about the situation, but Martens, rather than baulking at his own quasi-neo-missionary role chooses to stumble on even at the risk of a kind of moral disaster. He encourages those attending the Institute to become artists by making self-portrait busts that are then 3D-scanned and remade in Europe from cocoa to be sold at a 7,000% mark-up as works of art which are also Belgian chocolates. You can almost hear the audience wince at the distaste but as Martens suggests, it is better to go close to the source of this endemic and intrinsic global immorality and there work through its grotesque juxtapositions, than to play , safely and ineffectually with it from the distance of a Sunday supplement photograph that merely aestheticises, represents and distances it, thus enabling us to perversely ‘enjoy poverty.’ The necessary proximity means not only going directly to the Congo’s plantations but also going to the art world, the dealers and the market where luxury chocolate, luxury bath-time products and luxury art all sustain an outrageously divided global capitalist consumerism that clearly depends on unacceptable inequalities for its much vaunted ‘growth’ and ‘development.’
What is most valuable perhaps about bringing Martens and Downey together tonight is the implication that ‘now’ art and politics may be being forced together in newly urgent ways, as the heinous socio-economic crimes upholding extreme wealth and maintaining extreme poverty are made increasingly visible, due to the new availability of ready information, images and knowledge from which vested interests can no-longer hide.