A crisis of values stalks this issue of Afterall. Or, rather, a series of crises stalks these pages — ones that originate at different times and places but collide not only here but also in our contemporary world at large. Appraisals of artists Renzo Martens, Park McArthur, Artūras Raila, Lav Diaz and Andrzej Wróblewski are interwoven with contextual essays that complement and extend their artistic concerns with an examination of the ethics and exclusions of contemporary art. While the media that is addressed in the writing is radically diverse — from painting to film to institutional formation — the sense of a deep questioning of the values that should or can be promulgated within, alongside or entirely removed from the art world is consistently maintained. If there is a single point of departure in this issue, then it is (again) the monumental failure of communism to offer a way forward for modernity. This failure crops up in Ekaterina Degot’s comment on the Berlin meeting of ‘Artist Organisations International’ earlier this year: ‘between the revolutionary mood of the set and the general depressive-as-usual tone of the presentations — between ideal and reality, if I may — there was an interesting gap, a telling disjuncture, so wide that it is impossible to bridge in one swoop’. A similar disjuncture, one that extends the formal into the ethical realm, is also found in Wróblewski’s fascinating pictorial and personal struggles with the new order that was imposed on Poland after the end of the World War II. Indeed, perhaps the reason Wróblewski is emerging into international artistic view at precisely this moment in time is because his work and his life resonate so closely with contemporary experience.
As grandchildren of the communist catastrophe, the other artists brought together in these pages seem to be searching for a different, but related, set of values to Wróblewski’s ‘discredited “former communist”’.1 These values might offer some resistance to the decadence and increasingly obvious corruption of the global order, but their crisis is precisely in their incapacity to point to an elsewhere, let alone bridge the gap in a single swoop. While they might critique and act against, they are not in any condition to replace or wreck the existing order. Raila, McArthur, Diaz, Martens, but also the troubling dOCUMENTA (13) project in Kabul, the ambiguous echoes of historical pan-Arabism in works by Samah Hijawi and Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme as discussed by Andrew Weiner, or Jonas Staal’s, Ahmet Öğüt’s and Tania Bruguera’s projects as referenced by Sven Lütticken, all appear then to be suspended mid dive across Degot’s unbridged canyon. They swing between the values they want to leave behind and the construction of a reliable landing ground on the other side.
The struggles of these artists to occupy this vertiginous territory is admirable and important for a visual art field that might otherwise slip into helpless complacency and compromise. Their projects point out ways in which art’s modernist legacy, and above all its attraction to dissensus and deviance, can be renewed in contemporary times. They also serve as seismographs of an even more profound crisis of values in the wider society of which they are so much a part.
This broader crisis is perhaps best understood through looking back at one of the political figures that has shaped the former West’s value systems over the last two decades. In 2007, Tony Blair wrote an important text called ‘A Battle for Global Values’ for the US magazine Foreign Affairs. In it, he retrospectively tries to justify the ‘War on Terror’ that he had continuously waged in different functions since 2001 (and which continues today). He starts his exculpation of his order to invade Iraq not by setting out his global values as such (they are apparently too self-evident to need explication), but by explaining how they can successfully be defended:
We can win only by showing that our values are stronger, better and more just than the alternative. That also means showing the world that we are even-handed and fair in our application of those values. We will never get real support for the tough actions that may well be essential to safeguarding our way of life unless we also attack global poverty, environmental degradation and injustice with equal vigour.2
It is hard, at least for me, to read these words without a great dose of cynicism. The failure of ‘global values’ to tackle poverty, climate change and injustice, or simply to be even-handed and fair, is so utterly profound and its consequences so evident in the work of Bruguera, Diaz, Öğüt, Martens, McArthur, Raila, Staal and others that it is barely worth articulating. Equally, the personal credibility of Blair, as a failed world statesman and current advisor to Kazakhstan’s president-for-life, is beyond laughable. And yet, it is still possible that Blair’s political position is the most practical and ‘realist’ that the world has to offer at this present moment. After 1989 and the catastrophe of communism’s failure, after the unimaginable tragedies ensuing from the War on Terror, after the blatant exploitation of a financial crash engineered for the benefit of the global super rich, after the financialisation of European democracy at the expense of Greece — after all that, there is still no credible alternative value system that has seized the initiative from the neoliberals.3
No wonder this issue of Afterall is riddled with a crisis of values. The bridge between here and where most of us might want to be is simply too long and its construction too hindered by so much self-interest. And yet, amidst the wreckage of ethics that marks the long, drawn-out end of modernity, the beginnings of a response can be found in the work of the artists analysed here. While the link to Kabul might have been little more than a marketing exercise on the part of Documenta, the routes and bridges to the invisible non-citizens of the former West and the visibly exploited subjects of the rest of the world are slowly being surveyed and sketched. Probably we should not expect much more of art or politics today. The sense of suspension, the urge to leap and the uncertainty about where to land characterise the present state of contemporary global culture and society; only ‘the worst /Are full of passionate intensity’.4
I doubt this state will last long and we should therefore embrace its potential. Looking at the art that has been produced so far in the twenty-first century, it is difficult to see it as other than transitional, but the direction of change that it enables is going to be of crucial significance to what will follow. Whether the current synchronicity of so many ethical collapses heralds some profound new realisation is impossible to predict. In the meantime, producing an art full of genuine tension and inconsistency, an art that acts out and simultaneously touches on real situations in the world, an art that is neither obedient nor responsible, does seem to me to be an appropriate response to the condition we all find ourselves in at this moment.