Your Economy is Not Our Economy, Your Politics are Not Our Politics, Your Culture is Not Our Culture, Your Land is Not Our Land, Your Lives are Not Our Lives. That Much is All We Really Know, Don’t We?…

by Charles Esche

Toril Johannessen, Greed and Desire in Genetics, 2010-11, screen print, 76 x 56 cm, Courtesy of the artist

These are oligarchical times. There is deepening division. A self-reproducing elite has liberated itself from the anchors of nationality and geography and floats away in its superyachts and private jets. Its members have taken control of the democratic imperatives of old, owning the systems that the remaining population fondly imagine still represent them. The emancipation of the new underclasses has ceased to be a goal of public democratic policy. The offer of greater spending power is contingent on personal debt. The state ceases to be for, by, with or from the people; yet it seems no one has any idea what kind of new relationship with the state might be possible—so the oligarchs fill the vacuum and use the state for their own ends.

Toril Johannessen, Revolutions in Time (detail), 2010-11, screen print, 76 x 56 cm, Courtesy of the artist

The waves of liberation from the late-eighteenth century until the 1980s, while far from smooth, offered a sense of a historical trajectory that painted liberty, equality and solidarity as the expected destination of humanity, despite all the diversions. Now, the world has come under the spell of new myths, ones that propose the goal of humanity to be individual satisfaction, wealth, leisure, entertainment, anything but a collective striving towards a common goal. All in the name of keeping the elites in power and the masses busy.

Of course, these elites are not new. They have always been around—waiting in the wings. Just look at the former Soviet Union where the urge to oligarchy emerged the day after the end of perestroika. Or the United States, where the reborn oligarchy strives to overturn every last provision in the New Deal that built the basis of their wealth in the first place. Maybe oligarchy is in the human gene. If so, the task of civilisation, both free market and communist, Muslim and Christian, has historically been to keep the urge to oligarchic rule in check. They never made a great job of it—but each has mitigated its effects when well applied.

Toril Johannessen, Hope and Reality in Political Science, 2010-11, screen print, 76 x 56 cm, Courtesy of the artist

Now, we don’t seem to even bother with the checks, or with the civilisation idea much. Instead individuals are invited to be masters of themselves, shaping their bodies and personalities to charm the disinterested gaze of that privileged class that has already left for orbit around the earth. The population hopes for recognition and assumption. Yet I can’t quite imagine what we are for them—amusing curiosities, evidence of their success, a piece of shrapnel in their arse?

Fukayama’s easy cliché “the end of history” served the oligarchs well. That’s why it became famous. And now, through the process of detachment by which the oligarchs became free of a specific place and a surrounding people, the victims of the system of the expropriation and concentration of wealth are imagined to be no longer history’s concern. In this, for the first time in a while, the South of our little European sub-continent is ahead of the North. The challenges that now overwhelm the Mediterranean countries and impoverish their states as well as their peoples will resonate upwards and onwards. The social democratic state that the North so proudly founded is crumbling. Already much has gone, yet its inhabitants cling on to the ruins that are left, seemingly unable to imagine what state they would be in without a state. National citizens have become receptacles of state services—open, empty vessels waiting to be filled. The lack of political agency or any kind of imaginative reaction in the North is shocking. Yet there is still no model of how to respond. Is the state’s withering positive or negative? Is it a strong state that’s needed, a paternalistic state, a democratic state, anarchy? There’s a paradox here that makes oligarchy stronger because it has no real competitor. No one has yet formulated a vision of state and society or “state and revolution” that matches our current experience. It’s disappointing at least, given the urgency.

Toril Johannessen, Chance, Faith and Destiny, in Astrophysics and Space Science, 2010-11, screen print, 76 x 56 cm, Courtesy of the artist

And disappointing too, I have to admit, is the art that is produced today in much of Europe. To label it complacency would be too kind. Art in general has ceased to be radical in a meaningful way. It ceased to offer an alternative, imaginative reality that could be built out of the shadows of today. Instead, it retreats far too often into personal fantasy or quirky observation. When I first chose to be with art, I wanted it because it did things differently. That was my fantasy. But now it does what is expected of it. Art and artists play the game—whether it’s decorating the oligarchs’ waiting rooms or offering celebrity distraction to the masses. Isn’t it obvious what artists are going to do even before they do it, nowadays? Cultural life needs to become more unpredictable, more disturbing, more agonistic than ever, especially given the conditions of oligarchic stagnation. It is art’s burden and responsibility. That I even articulate this though has the seed of an optimistic thought behind it. I still believe art can live up to its transformative promise and radical history. I believe it because I know change will come and history (art or social) has not come to an end … it is just resting for a while, or maybe, after what we know from Wikileaks and all, I could say that someone has her finger on the pause button.

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