Helen Molesworth

THE STUNNING RISE OF NATIONALISM, populism, and fundamentalism has roiled the world. It is tempting to imagine that we are witnessing just another rotation of political modernity’s cycle of progress and backlash. But we can situate the undoing of the demos in democracy’s longue durée while rejecting the false comfort of the idea that what’s happening is not new, that we’ve seen it all before. How did we get here? How did we create the conditions for Trump, for Brexit, for Mosul, for a daily sequence of devastating events, whether shootings or strikes? Is shock, that quintessentially modernist avant-garde strategy of instigating mass perceptual—and therefore political—change, somehow more prevalent than ever, albeit in radically transformed ways? Does shock, in fact, go hand in hand with apathy and desensitization?
Art must confront these shifts in experience and form. And so Artforum asked curator HELEN MOLESWORTH, activist TARIQ ALI, and political theorist WENDY BROWN to reflect on the year in shock: on the sudden reaction, the surprise turn, the violent wake.

Patrisse Cullors and Tanya Lucia Bernard lead the Black Lives Matter forum “What Is Contemporary?,” Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, July 7, 2016. Photo: Casey Winkleman.

MY EARLY-1990S LIFE involved reading a lot of theory in graduate school accompanied by near-compulsive listening to Jane’s Addiction. This meant that while I was at home reading, lyrics like these hung in the air:

The TV’s got them images

TV’s got them all

It’s not shocking

Every half an hour

Someone’s captured and

The cop moves them along

It’s just like the show before

The news is

Just another show

With sex and violence

Meanwhile, in my seminars, there was much talk of modernism and modernity and, therefore, of shock: shock as a modality that allowed us to understand everything from the destruction of bodies on the killing fields of World War I (Dada collage), to artists’ responses to the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (from AbEx to Gutai), to the effect of technologies on bodies both individual and politic (the trauma of modernity’s speed, from the train

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