Lecture: Unworking; Act of Resistance or Defeat? (2015)

Carel Willink, a Dutch magical-realist painter, wrote an essay in 1950 on the subject that painting found itself in a critical moment. In the text, he fulminates against modern, abstract art and criticizes abstract-expressionists for not having any traditional métier or expertise. In 1986, the unknown realist painter Gerard Jan van Bladeren, who had read the essay by Willink, felt that something had to be done, an act of resistance to wake up the art world. He walked into the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and attacked the abstract painting Who’s afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue, by Barnett Newman. With a Stanley knife he cut four horizontal and four vertical slits in the canvas. For the restoration, the piece was send to an American firm called Goldreyer. After four years, it appeared not restored but fully repainted with three layers of opaque alkyd – a type of paint used mostly for window frames. And not with linseed oil and a brush, but with a paint roller. The director of the Stedelijk Museum called the painting handicapped, and all resulted in a long court case until the expenses became too high, and the city of Amsterdam had to give it up. A settlement was created, and Amsterdam was not allowed to be critical about the restoration any longer. In 2010, the story was brought up again. The final conclusion was that the new layer of paint did differ from the original one and also that Goldreyer had painted two layers of varnish on top of the red paint, again with a paint roller. When van Bladeren, the cutter, is released from prison, he is still obsessed with Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue. He believed he had created a masterpiece through destroying it and after hearing of the restoration, wants to reinstall his work. In 1997, he returns to the Stedelijk, but the painting is nowhere to be found. However, he notices Cathedra, another work by Newman, and attacks this one instead, again with a Stanley knife. This time he creates three long horizontal and two short vertical incisions. Destroyed abstraction is the best art there is, he believes. Afterwards, not only the instigator was accused, but the victim – modern art – as well. The action was interpreted as an artistic critique on museums that were reactionary for still installing this type of paintings. There were speculations that the value of the painting would even increase because of the damage done. ‘It is a turning point in the history of modern art’, so it was declared, ‘it should remain on the wall in its current state of destruction’.

Who’s afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue

Lunacharsky said in 1920: ‘I could sketch only with a couple of strokes the peculiar zigzag line of the relationship between revolution and art that we have hitherto observed. It has not been broken off. It continues even further.’ (Revolution and Art). The bizarre story of Who’s afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue, is one of many, but this one is peculiar. The destruction was received as a political act of resistance with an artistic meaning, but it could’ve also been an artistic act of resistance with a political meaning – seeing that both parties were found guilty, the museum because of its curatorial decisions, and the cutter for obvious reasons. In Chantal Mouffe’s agonistic model of democratic politics the divide between art and politics doesn’t exist. The aesthetic strategies of the counter culture are exploited by neoliberalism. Artistic critique is an important element of capitalist productivity, even though any critique is neutralized by capitalism. Mouffe doesn’t make a distinction between the political and the artistic, but sees an aesthetic dimension in the political and a political dimension in art. The core vibrant of democracy is the agonistic struggle between different hegemonic projects. It can’t be rationally resolved, for it defines the configuration of power relations around which a given society is structured. The agonistic model allows for possible transformation, and the public space is the arena where a confrontation between different hegemonic projects takes place, without any possibility of reconciliation. Critical art inspires dissent, and therefore represents an important dimension of democratic politics. It makes visible what the dominant consensus tries to obscure. Artistic activism is when an artistic practice tries to give a voice to all those who are silenced within the framework of the existing hegemony. However, Mouffe does not believe that artistic activism could, on its own, bring about the end of neo-liberal hegemony. It has to be linked to the political fundaments of society. ‘What is needed, therefore,’ Gerald Raunig notes ‘are practices that conduct radical social criticism, yet which do not fancy themselves in an imagined distance to institutions; at the same time, practices that are self-critical and yet do not cling to their own involvement, their complicity, their imprisoned existence in the art field, their fixation on institutions and the institution, their own being-institution.’

Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf

The first one of the following texts is by the Dutch playwright Gerardjan Rijnders, it is the summary of one of his plays called Liefhebber, freely translated into Lover. The second text is an extract from Philip Roth’s The Humbling.

1 The theater critic, called Lover, comes home after another highly disappointing performance. He has decided to never go to the theater ever again, to not write any reviews any longer, no Ibsen, no Brecht and no Shakespeare. He’d rather go to China, Chili, Bali and Mongolia. He’d rather have cancer; he’d rather be death. But never will he ever see another show. He blames the theater for not having any relation with real life drama, there is drama everywhere, except on stage. He starts ranting about the contemporary theater-theater. The so-called art-theater, that has nothing to do with reality. He sees himself as a socially engaged being, a little sentimental even. But not even him the theater can thrill. While continually furious about a reality that he compiles out of newspapers, radio and television reports, Lover does not see the real life drama that is happening in his own living room. His son Peter drinks from a vase, eats the flowers, burps, farts, masturbates, takes a heroine shot, smashes the television and the radio, fucks his mother, strangles his mother and kills himself. Lover does not react to any of this, and has decided to call the editor to resign. Whether he actually does that is left open.

2 He’d lost his magic. The impulse was spent. He’d never failed in the theater, everything he had done had been strong and successful, and then the terrible thing happened: he couldn’t act. Going on stage became agony. Instead of the certainty that he was going to be wonderful, he knew he was going to fail. It happened three times in a row, and by the last time nobody was interested, nobody came. He couldn’t get over to the audience. His talent was dead. All that had worked to make him himself now worked to make him look like a lunatic. He was conscious of every moment he was on the stage in the worst possible way. In the past when he was acting he wasn’t thinking about anything. What he did well he did out of instinct. Now he was thinking about everything, and everything spontaneous and vital was killed – he tried to control it with thinking and instead he destroyed it. It didn’t pass. He couldn’t act. The ways he could once rivet attention on the stage! And now he dreaded every performance, and dreaded it all day long. He spent the entire day thinking thoughts he’d never thought before a performance in his life: I won’t make it, I won’t be able to do it, I’m playing the wrong roles, I’m overreaching, I’m faking, I have no idea even of how to do the first line. He would hear the cue coming closer and closer and know that he couldn’t do it. He waited for the freedom to begin and the moment to become real, he waited to forget who he was and to become the person doing it, but instead he was standing there, completely empty, doing the kind of acting you do when you don’t know what you are doing. He could not give and he could not withhold; he had no fluidity and he had no reserve. Acting became a night-after-night exercise in trying to get away with something.

Both anecdotes play with the notion of the defeat and the retreat. Lover could be seen as the one who retreats because of a lack of reality. Whereas the actor is defeated by reality; awareness makes him incapable to act. However, these notions are not fixed. The retreater retreats because he is defeated by what he had such high hopes for, in this case the theater. What happens in the background is of no importance for his defeat. The defeated actor as a result retreats fully from acting, and as the story unravels, ultimately kills himself.
The retreat is often mistaken for a passive act of self-alienation, just look at all the strategies – disengagement, boycotts, not-working, un-working, un-authoring; via exit strategies, through withdrawing, functioning in the margins etc. But it does not necessarily include abandonment of the political and the social, nor an escape from cultural blind alleys. The retreat could be an act of resistance. According to the supporting text of the program The Retreat at Documenta 13, it holds the possibility to be a ground for politics and the politics of aesthetics, since the process of production at the center of the social owes its potential to the act of refusal. Politics and art are triggered by a force that always starts from a choice – choosing to do or not to do. However, how far can one retreat before falling of the edge? How many loopholes can one find until the resources run out? How far can one stretch the retreat until it becomes defeat?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Edward Albee)

HONEY: (Apologetically, holding up her brandy bottle) I peel labels.
GEORGE: We all peel labels, sweetie; and when you get through the skin, all three layers, through the muscle, slosh aside the organs and get down to bone…you know what you do then?
HONEY: (Terribly interested) No!
GEORGE: When you get down to bone, you haven’t got all the way, yet. There’s something inside the bone…the marrow…and that’s what you gotta get at.