PRINT January 2006



A SPECTER is haunting Europe—the specter of populism. In 2003, when curators Lars Bang Larsen, Cristina Ricupero, and Nicolaus Schafhausen were first making plans for a group of exhibitions dealing with the question, Europe was just reeling from the rise and murder of the populist right-wing Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn. By the time their “Populism” project finally appeared in various European venues last summer—the endeavor featured coinciding group shows in Vilnius, Oslo, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt—populist movements in opposition to (and sometimes within) traditional political parties had become even more prominent voices of dissatisfaction within mainstream politics. During the past fifteen years, the technocratic projects of New Labor, Gerhard Schröder’s Neue Mitte, and the “purple” coalitions in Holland and Belgium all sought to blend the welfare state with neoliberalism, hoping to end class antagonism through economic growth and social services, in an attempt to realize a kind of postpolitical state. This dubious utopia has now been shattered by the new populists, whose rhetoric is similar whether they are “officially” left- or right-wing: The new German Linkspartei and the Front National in France both campaign against immigrants taking away jobs from “our people”—although it should be added that the Left still largely abstains from the anti-Islam agenda espoused by right-wing politicians like Fortuyn.

Among artists and intellectuals, reactions to this populist upsurge have often taken the form of moralistic and snobbish condemnation. “Populism” tried to go beyond such automatic reflexes by thinking through, and thereby beyond, contemporary populism. An important part of the project was The Populism Reader, a collection of essays accompanying the show that sought to address productively a moniker notoriously polymorphous and difficult to define. As philosopher Dieter Lesage writes in the volume, “The usefulness of a term with different meanings resides in the fact that it may hint at family resemblances between different phenomena called populism.” This sense of underlying connections nevertheless poses challenges to the exhibition format: There remains a need for the analysis of the word’s various usages, their similarities and differences; without this, an exhibition risks becoming as arbitrary as the enumeration of animals in Jorge Luis Borges’s famed Chinese encyclopedia. Unfortunately, the incarnation of “Populism” in the temporary quarters of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum (the project’s largest venue) came rather close to this sense of disarray. While the exhibition contained convincing works, these were rarely grouped in illuminating constellations, and more often than not individual pieces drowned amid a sea of artistic meta- and counter-populisms. Perhaps this was the fault of sheer ambition: Seeking to address a sociopolitical phenomenon, “Populism” was both more and less than a good art exhibition, seeming to demand critical responses beyond the usual art-review format.

One of the best works in “Populism,” Julika Rudelius’s Economisch Primaat (Economic Primacy), 2005, is a two-channel video projection showing Dutch businessmen delivering monologues in a generic office space. They extol free enterprise and at various points attack “parasites” who live off the welfare state. These are populists in suits: elitist populists. To paraphrase Ernesto Laclau in the Reader, populism must always construct a populus by creating an enemy for “the people” to oppose. Members of the upper class or the intelligentsia therefore can be part of “the people” if they are against this enemy—for instance, against immigrants or against the politicians who do not do anything about them. That populism and elitism are not mutually exclusive was demonstrated in an exemplary manner by Fortuyn, who was not only openly gay but also insanely posh, a member of the privileged class. In contrast with Fortuyn’s right-wing populism and its strong xenophobic elements, the men in Economisch Primaat more or less limit themselves to what can be called “market populism”—another term, borrowed from American author Thomas Frank, that regularly appears in texts by essayists in the Reader as well as by the “Populism” curators themselves. Market populism identifies the “free market” with what is good for “the people”; hence, those who work with and for the market are the true representatives of the people, defending their market from state interference, protectionism, and parasites.

In the context of European policymaking, neoliberal market populism has been used to extol the virtues of private initiative in culture and, more specifically, to propose the “real” culture industry as a model for its high-art cousin, which has largely been dependent on state sponsorship. In the 1990s, the pressure to meet targets, expand audiences, and attract alternative funding increased steadily, the logic being that art must be legitimized by popular demand, by the market. Pop culture, meaning industrial mass culture, is presented as the norm. And deviations from this norm—difficult, critical, “unpopular” cultural practices—are considered evil. However, the claim that pop culture is truly democratic and popular is open to debate, since it is after all created by an elite of specialists. In this respect, Phil Collins’s hilarious video of Bogotá-based fans of the Smiths doing karaoke versions of songs from the band’s 1989 album The World Won’t Listen is highly interesting: The Smiths have always attracted fans who were disillusioned with mainstream pop culture, and by the look of it, these Latin-American youths—who perform in front of an incongruously sunny photograph of what seems to be a tropical beach resort—are no exception. One of the posters used to advertise the Smiths karaoke event (the video comprises recordings of individuals who responded to the artist’s open call in Bogotá) reads, “Hang the DJ,” a phrase from the song “Panic,” in which a DJ’s music is attacked for saying “nothing to me about my life.” In some ways, the Smiths and their original following constitute a depoliticized, poppy version of the late 1950s and early ’60s folk revival, which denounced commercial pop culture as being precisely antipopular, imposed on the people—the folk—by the specialists of spectacle. Of course, the Smiths were themselves a British pop phenomenon; they were an “alternative” product on the attitude market of youth culture. Yet within pop culture, they urged their teenage weltschmerz constituency to regard pop as an enemy, “popularity” being nothing but a drab, imposed conformity. That the allegedly popular may in fact be a product imposed on consumers by ruthless, ever-subtler marketing strategies is a lesson worth recalling—both for cultural producers and fine artists alike—amid today’s populisms.

The curators have explained that their project sprang from concerns about contemporary European populism’s “oversimplified responses to complex situations,” its unfounded nostalgia for a more orderly past, its refusal to redistribute wealth, its racist and anti-intellectual rhetoric, and its willingness to sacrifice the European Union—the main political project of postwar Europe, now seen by many as the ultimate postpolitical, bureaucratic-technocratic monstrosity—to neonationalist sentiments. Populism, then, is considered the enemy here; even when it is not racist, it is usually protectionist and backward-looking. But what if, as Laclau argues, politics without populism is unthinkable? If he is correct in his assessment that “no political movement will be entirely exempt from populism, because none will fail to interpellate to some extent ‘the people’ against an enemy, through the construction of a social frontier,” then the failure of the postpolitical utopia means that populism is here to stay. It may seem a glum prospect: Is the political scene in Europe to be a perpetual stalemate between various populisms, some of which use Islamic fundamentalism to create fear among their followers, while Islamists themselves engage in a related game by interpellating not “the people” but “true believers” against the decadent Western enemy? Is Europe to become dominated by the likes of Theo van Gogh—the Fortuyn-friendly filmmaker and columnist who used to rail against Jews before he discovered a more fashionable enemy in Muslim “goat-fuckers”—and his Islamist murderer, who frenetically stabbed van Gogh to death in broad daylight?

On the other hand, if the current populist tendencies can be seen as attempts to repoliticize European politics, perhaps the question should then be whether another form of repoliticization is possible. To this end the concept of “the people” needs to be redefined. Against the populism of exclusion, an inclusive populism should be defended, a populism identifying the people as those excluded from “the people” as defined by the dominant populism—a montage-people full of internal and external contradictions, rather than a phantasmatic seamless whole. Such a populism would go beyond the nation-state fetishized by today’s populists. In The Populism Reader is one attempt at developing such a populist and political alternative—the “transnational” multitude-populism espoused by Brian Holmes (although this form of populism, while not elitist, will no doubt have a hard time becoming popular). And in the exhibition “Populism,” there was another glimpse of such a possible populism offered to the relatively homogenous audience of contemporary art, in the form of the shabby shack housing Erik van Lieshout’s video Awakening, 2005, a hallucinatory odyssey through Rotterdam’s overlapping right-wing, gay, immigrant, and drug scenes. Here was the main strength of Larsen, Ricupero, and Schafhausen’s project, and something of its legacy when it comes to considering art’s relationship to contemporary culture and politics: “Populism” could easily have turned into another exercise in elitist populism, positing an enlightened, cultured, and tolerant “us”—the art world—as the true representative of the people against the rabble outside. Thanks to a few decisive artistic and theoretical contributions, “Populism” became something much more productive.

Sven Lütticken is an art historian and critic based in Amsteradam.