PRINT December 2021


View of “Illiberal Arts,” 2021, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. Photo: Studio Bowie.

THE TITLE “ILLIBERAL ARTS” is meant to stop you in your tracks—and it does. First, it puns on the “liberal arts,” those humanistic disciplines that are regularly described as experiencing a crisis, both within academia and beyond. Curators Anselm Franke and Kerstin Stakemeier embrace this crisis, and for good reason. Following Black radical thinkers ranging from C. L. R. James to Sylvia Wynter, they recognize that historically, the definition of the human (and consequently the content and conduct of the humanities) has excluded the experience of most people who don’t conform to white, European, masculine norms. Franke and Stakemeier made two further moves in this ambitious exhibition, also signaled by their title. One was to recode the term illiberal. Though in colloquial American English liberal suggests a left-leaning, permissive political orientation, it is historically linked to the association, elaborated by the seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke and many subsequent political thinkers, of a man’s freedom with his possession of property (I use the masculine gender advisedly). Liberalism and its privileged institutional form, democracy, are conceptually and practically inseparable from a market economy founded on actors defined by the ownership of their own labor and by their drive to accumulate private property. The autonomy of such actors is tied to “possessive individualism,” as influentially theorized by political scientist C. B. Macpherson. In contrast to liberal market-oriented democracies of the post–World War II period, the term illiberal has typically been applied to authoritarian states of the “second” Communist world and its sphere of influence. Franke and Stakemeier collapse this geopolitical dichotomy dating from the Cold War—liberal democracies versus illiberal authoritarian states—by asserting that, on account of its objectification of human life through imperial conquest and slavery, not to mention the extreme income inequality that results from free (i.e., liberal) markets, illiberalism exists at the core of liberal societies. (The term neoliberal is, I think, meant to indicate such a condition.)

The twenty-seven artists and groups in “Illiberal Arts” each explore, in quite distinct ways, how to make art while avoiding wielding one’s own identity—or anyone else’s—as property.

What does this terminological collapse have to do with art? The answer to this question constitutes another bold move by the organizers. The modern practice of art, they argue, epitomizes possessive individualism, and pace the many romantic art-historical accounts that find the history of modernism and contemporary art replete with heroic critiques of capitalism, the figure of the artist, in the curators’ view, is the very archetype of liberalism (or neoliberalism) owing to its close association with independence—or, in avant-garde terms, its autonomy. Franke and Stakemeier have therefore placed themselves in something of a double bind, since they want to see the world of art as a repressive infrastructure for enclosing artistic labor as property, while as curators they implicitly celebrate, or at least consent to publicizing, the art world’s cultural legitimacy. This double bind leads to some rather convoluted prose in various contributions to their ambitious catalogue, but however inelegant the language used to explore it, the problem is a real and very pressing one. Its clearest statement is in the curators’ introduction to a useful and comprehensive free brochure available to exhibitiongoers: “The practices that are here being placed in relation with one another materialize the illiberalism at the core of modern liberality as a series of ruptures of modern property forms.” In other words, if we cut through the jargon, what unites the twenty-seven artists and groups included in “Illiberal Arts” is that they each explore, in quite distinct ways, how to make art while avoiding wielding one’s own identity—or anyone else’s—as property. Some critics have argued that we are currently experiencing a return to identity politics, but “Illiberal Arts” demonstrates how urgently we need to rethink how claiming an identity slips almost imperceptibly into a form of exclusive property in oneself. The politics of this moment—rife with nativism on both the Right and the Left—calls for the collapse of modes of self-possession that fuel identity politics. It calls for a kind of abolition of property in oneself through a set of aesthetic strategies identified in the exhibition.

In my opinion, the success of “Illiberal Arts” thus lay in the several models of aesthetic self-dispossession its artists offered to a museumgoer’s contemplation and experience. In a short review, I cannot fully enumerate these. I will briefly propose four aesthetic procedures explored in the exhibition that, to again cite the curators’ statement, “materialize the illiberalism at the core of modern liberality as a series of ruptures of modern property forms.” It’s important to note that these categories are mine, not those of the curators, and that the works arrayed in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s lofty, light-filled space were by no means gathered into forced categories. My own list is a means of making visible the underlying logic of an exhibition that might to many viewers have seemed confusingly heterogeneous in its practices.

Karrabing  Film Collective, The Mermaids, or Aiden in Wonderland, 2018, digital video, color, sound, 27 minutes.

1. ART AS A FORM OF INFRASTRUCTURE. In their catalogue essay, the curators write, “With Illiberal Arts . . . we no longer wish to treat art as a civilizational accomplishment . . . but rather seek to open it up as a contemporary infrastructural site: a site from which artistic forms enter into social commitments that do not build on their property rights.” With regard to exhibition design, I take this to mean that an artist’s works will not be gathered together alongside ostensibly related projects and slotted into groups described by wall labels. Such clustering was often interrupted in Anne Imhof’s powerful installation design, consisting of four parallel fence-like screens that spanned almost the entire width of the exhibition space and served as the supports for much of the art in the show. These leaky “enclosures” were too high to feel grounded (one could easily see other visitors under them) but too low to reach the ceiling. As Stakemeier puts it in the brochure, “Imhof’s horizons sever our bodies from the chest up.” They also flooded the eye with many works of art at once, overlapping with one another in receding layers as one entered the space, articulated by its rank of transparent fences. There could be no self-possessed masterpiece in this prison house of art.

2. THE HUMAN AVATAR. Thomas Eggerer’s Corridor, 2020, is a history painting without history. In a tour de force of compositional ingenuity, a multitude of protesters, dressed alike but embodying an encyclopedic range of postures, bear blank placards. These are not so much self-possessed humans as vivified human hieroglyphs. Eggerer paints the desire for politics in the midst of its collapse into poses. One of the most haunting aspects of the painting is that its figures could equally plausibly belong to the Left as to the Right.

Steve Reinke, An Arrow Pointing to a Hole, 2019, 2K video, color, sound, 27 minutes.

3. THE HUMAN UNBOUND (EXPANDED OR COLLAPSED). In The Mermaids, or Aiden in Wonderland, 2018, the Karrabing Film Collective, composed of about fifty members of the Belyuen community of Australia’s Northern Territory, apply their distinctive improvisational techniques to evoking a world where ancestors act alongside the living. This expanded experience of the human is pursued in a different direction by Steve Reinke in his video An Arrow Pointing to a Hole, 2019, in which he describes his sense of self ecstatically dissolving into “a particularly robust florescence of my microbiome. My guts, my guts were humming. They have been humming ever since, and I mostly do whatever they say.”

Mikołaj Sobczak, Witch Trial (Salem), 2018, acrylic on canvas. Installation view, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. Photo: Studio Bowie.

4. TRAVESTY OF THE SELF. Mikołaj Sobczak’s Witch Trial (Salem), 2018, in which a drag queen attempts to exorcize Trumpism, or Jordan Strafer’s misogynist horror shows enacted on the uncanny figures of dolls (e.g., PEP [Process Entanglement Procedure], 2019), exaggerate human qualities so that they extend beyond any individual self. In different ways, in these works, femininity is set loose from a biological ground—it cannot be fully claimed as the property of a man, a woman, or even a doll; it is a kind of erotic force that both channels and attracts violence.

Jordan Strafer, PEP (Process Entanglement Procedure), 2019, two-channel HD video, color, sound, 15 minutes.

I can provide only this brief sample of the powerful ways that the artists included in “Illiberal Arts” deflate or pulverize possessive individualism by reducing the human to an avatar, relaxing its boundaries through portals to a spirit world on the one hand or the microbiome on the other, and by weaponizing identity attributes like gender in ways that exceed—that in fact travesty—the assumed proprietary link between these traits and oneself. But I can’t help feeling skeptical too—especially on reading the following exceptionally lucid statement by Larne Abse Gogarty, published in the catalogue in a conversation reflecting on the exhibition’s premises that otherwise reads as a tortured parody of current art discourse:

In my experience of working as a teacher of art history and theory in an art school, it’s not something that preoccupies the artists that I’m teaching. . . . People just suggest stuff for the students to look at: Do you know this painter? Do you know this film? And you know, some of these conversations just seem really boring for the student when they’re just getting this endless stream of references and they don’t seem to take them up or give a shit about them.

Jordan Strafer, PEP (Process Entanglement Procedure), 2019, two-channel HD video, color, sound, 15 minutes.

This description accords with my own limited experience of art-school critiques, as well as with the wider experience of friends who teach in art schools (nor is it unknown in art-history Ph.D. programs). It seems to me that the “illiberal arts” represent another kind of change: a shift from a practice of art in which an artist imagines how their work may be inserted into an art-historical genealogy that precedes and will continue after them (a way of thinking that seems to have lost ground since the advent of Conceptual art), as opposed to a contemporary ethos in which the genealogy for a particular work or practice is generated from the art object as a legitimizing configuration of references that need not have any historical logic or rigor beyond the artist’s own justifications for it. In other words, rather than the artwork’s being defined by its position within a historical discourse, it generates its own ahistorical universe of references. From this perspective, each artwork is a machine for producing narratives rather than a historical artifact, an archive rather than a document. We might call this practice an “illiberal art”—a resistance to testing one’s historical project against those of others, or even sometimes against historical facts. It is this illiberalism (not so different after all from the epistemology of “fake news”) that we see flourishing in Hungary, or Russia, or Hong Kong, or within the American Republican Party. Franke and Stakemeier have made an unsettling exhibition true to a moment in which it can be difficult to parse the difference between Left and Right, politics and capitulation. But it is even more impressive that they linked this condition to an array of aesthetic procedures. They assembled a group of artists who refuse to take “the human” as given, but rather probe and excruciate its topologies to demonstrate how artificial a category it actually is.

David Joselit is professor of art, film, and visual studies at Harvard.

Jordan Strafer, PEP (Process Entanglement Procedure), 2019, two-channel HD video, color, sound, 15 minutes.