Stuckists demonstrate in London outside a contemporary art show demanding art that is “alive”.

Hassan Khan: In part (I) of the interview you discussed the sources that sustain different models of art practice and related it to various conceptions of universality. How does the model of universality that you elaborated on actually translate into the experience of our hypothetical Ethiopian graduating art student?

Bassam El Baroni: So he or she graduates and chooses model # 1 (Fine art), and somehow believes in the individual as a source of the universal, the problem is that the model itself has been rendered dysfunctional to a certain extent and non-compatible with the idea of the archive. Under the greater governance of multiculturalist ideology and the need for “knowledge production”, model # 1 (Fine art) is only in practice as form, style, and romanticism. As Badiou says the question of contemporary art is how not to be Formalist-Romantic, so Fine art can only be those two. How not to be Formalist-Romantic can be understood as how not to make art that simply finds and configures different formalisms and aesthetics in order to repeat the same existential substances of art history i.e. death, sex, the body, spirituality, and beauty.

If, on the other hand, they choose model number # 2 (Contemporary art), then on some level they must feel that they are sacrificing their individuality, because their individuality can no longer be the source of universalism in contemporary art because they have to use ‘the archive’. If he or she graduates and does not choose model # 1 (Fine art) it automatically means they have accepted to feed the nucleus and core that “invites what it perceives as identities, cultures, and particularities to formulate a “plural” universality. The problem is that this core has to define them as identities, cultures, and particularities first in order to allow them to form its center …”

To some degree artists around the world have to make this choice, this is what all the new or “progressive” art academies say in Germany or the UK are about, resolving this choice before you need to make it, making it a non-choice, embedding the idea that the current type of universality is the only type imaginable in a way. Making you as a student perceive of art history and the general history of humanity as an archive first and foremost. Ok I think I can use the example of Jeremy Deller’s project called “It is what it is: conversations about Iraq.” However, before I get into the example, I think I need to point out the difference between two terms: ethics and morals. Generally speaking, morals delineate the individual, while ethics stress a social system in which those morals are applied. Model # 2 (Contemporary art) is ultimately an ethical-aesthetic regime and its scenarios can be detected in how the artist positions himself.

Deller’s project is not naively multicultural at all, its a solid project that brings in Iraqi’s living in the United States to talk about their very particular experiences in different Iraqi locales. He has created some sort of set for the whole project with a real bombed Iraqi car and a banner in English and Arabic with the title, ‘It is What it Is’ … but the main objective of the project is to expose the public to these accounts by real Iraqi’s, travel with them to various American cities so that people to get in touch with these real stories and interviews between Deller and the Iraqi participants. Of course, as Jacques Rancière said, “there is no reason why the sensory strangeness produced by the clash of heterogeneous elements should bring about the understanding of the state of the world, no reason why the comprehension of the state of the world should bring about the decision to change.” This is exactly what is often overlooked in projects by artists functioning within the discursive wing of contemporary art. Deller understands this point too, hence the title “It is What it Is”. But, the question for me is, if it is what it is, and we are in this position of being moderators who are accommodating the limits of the system, the limits and boundaries of “knowledge production” under the banner of the multiculturalist order, what is the next step? This is not the same as wanting to change the system, but it’s the question: can there be anything constructed that gives the artist a chance at formulating something that can surpass this system?

Jeremy Deller, It is what it is: Conversations about Iraq, installation view at the New Museum, New York, 2009. Photo by Carolyn Wachnicki. Courtesy New Museum.

Hassan: Sure – I understand that. But I still would like a more concrete answer based upon what Deller is doing – what is the problem there? What kind of understanding of art does it propose? And why is that something to be potentially pessimistic about? And how is that translated in other (maybe less sophisticated and aware) practices? And finally why is it attractive? What is its market? And how does that market operate?

Bassam: I think the problem here is that Deller is fully aware of the fact that an artist can exhibit a thousand Iraqi stories in the US and it still would not change anything. Yet he still carries on and exhibits them! Thus he understands that his work is the applicator and accomplice of a certain ideology, the multiculturalist ideology that uses the very idea of difference as a currency while claiming that it supports dialogue and a shared humanity. In fact the more you emphasize particularities such as the ones in this project the more you come to emphasize difference. Despite what may be good intentions, will such an artwork ever really make me ‘know’ about Iraq, or is it a case of accumulating more information which in turn itself becomes the value of the work? Information is not knowledge, in order to reach a state of knowledge you need to make a lot of effort towards constructing systems that lead to it. I think this deliberate confusion between information and knowledge is at the heart of a certain part of the art market where information is sold as knowledge. It asks us to sit down, relax and enjoy information instead of inviting us to construct knowledge. Thus the perception of history as an archive, the deceptive mechanisms of multiculturalism, and a rather flat example of ‘knowledge production’ come together in this work that perhaps lays bare the whole mechanism of contemporary art’s claim to universality. This is why I chose this work because it’s sophisticated but to the extent of bordering on a kind of irony.

The problem is exactly that, the casualness towards being part of this ideology. For me there should always be an uncomfortableness and restlessness towards this ideology. The economy these projects function in started very naively in the Reagan-Thatcher era. Now many of these art projects are so developed that they actually understand the details of how this economy works and the moral codes related to the etiquette of humanism, the what to do and what not to do, but they still submit to the same ethical system, this is the shared factor between such a developed project as Deller’s and say the work of … Farhad Moshiri

Hassan: Interesting – may you please explain what Deller and Moshiri share?

Bassam: Both fully submit to the same value system. Deller takes on the role of democratic bringer-together, an archivist of case studies, he understands the dangers of ethnography and stays clear by taking on this kind of objective curatorial role, but the roots to the value system are already there in the mere fact that this act of exhibiting the stories is proclaimed as art. One cannot imagine that if, for example, an Iraqi scholar would have organized such a series of events, that he/she would have called them an art project, the question is also if this is art because the person who organized this stream of particularities happened to be an artist or vise versa?

For Moshiri, the particularities, the ethnographies, the direct link to the idea of defined otherness is not as subtle because his position is that of the artist as an individual creator of objects, but the problem is how can you create objects in the second trope of universalism, i.e. ‘multicultural universalism’, without completely giving in to, and being swallowed up by that huge nucleus of plurality that I described as something that formulates itself by creating a necklace of particularities, identities, cultures and so on. Obviously, Moshiri’s work is in the belly of this nucleus. Perhaps, Deller is more careful because if he produced something like Moshiri’s work it would be viewed as inauthentic work produced by an Orientalist. But, this nucleus is always waiting for the art student after they graduate.

Farhad Moshiri, Shukran, installation, 2011. Courtesy of the Artist and The Third Line Gallery, Dubai.

Hassan: Aha, so let’s simplify for a second and see what that art student can consciously choose. Actually, what do they choose in our context and what’s problematic about that?

Bassam: Ok. I doubt that in most cases these choices are made on a conscious level, rather I think they are offered through the lens of ideology that blurs and distorts issues and facts, making these choices functional on a more unconscious level in most scenarios.

But generally speaking, the first route he or she can select is to be a fine artist. Since this route’s universality is dysfunctional what it can generate is dead art i.e. art void of any functional universality. In Europe this also exists but strangely enough it is sometimes seen as ‘alternative’ or ‘underground’ or whatever, it becomes a lifestyle choice, this has to do with its original links with the idea of the individual as the medium for the universal. For example, the originally UK based, but now expanded movement called Stuckism promotes what it calls figurative art in contrast to conceptual art. In the movement’s manifesto we read “It is the Stuckist’s duty to explore his/her neurosis and innocence through the making of paintings and displaying them in public, thereby enriching society by giving shared form to individual experience and an individual form to shared experience”, this is formalist-romantic art portrayed as the authentic mode art should function in. Anyway, in other contexts such as those of Egypt, Ethiopia, Paraguay, and Azerbaijan, for example, fine art is the dominant practice in terms of numbers and general perception of what art is. The aesthetics of these practices are asking the opposite question of Badiou’s contemporary art, they are asking: How do we become Formalist-Romantic? The problem is that the question has already been answered numerous times so your answers can only be ghosts, shadows of art already produced in Europe in the past five centuries.

Another option is to take the second route of becoming a contemporary artist who uncritically emphasizes the particularities of their perceived ‘identity’, the particularities of gender, religion, history, state politics etc. This relates to the Moshiri example I gave earlier. Some artists, even well known ones, start off working critically with these particularities but end up being consumed by the particularities that they are trying to address. The case of Yinka Shonibare is a famous case well written about by thinkers such as Olu Oguibe. Although Shonibare is British by birth, many artists in Africa and Asia ring similar bells in terms of how they perceive the contemporary in relation to the concept of identity.

A third option is to practice as a contemporary artist who understands the mechanisms of the dominant ideology and its emphasis on particularisms. The plan becomes how to negotiate a methodology where you are dealing with particularistic material in a kind of semi-objective way, not assuming that it makes up your identity but that somehow you remain outside of it (the archive). Artists such as Rabih Mroué have perfected this route and are sometimes very interesting. The only problem with this route is that it adheres more or less to the idea of the dominant ideology as a necessity that one must comply with, even if critiquing it, the critique becomes the fuel that the system burns to expand its conceptual territories.

Yinka Shonibare, Diary of a Victorian Dandy: 17.00 Hours, C-type, 1998. Collections of Peter Norton and Eileen Harris Norton, Santa Monica, California. Image courtesy of the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, and James Cohan Gallery, New York. © The Artist.

Hassan: So briefly put what do you think connects all three routes? To be simplistic what is the problem we are dealing with exactly?

Bassam: The problem is huge and complex, you are right in thinking that it actually connects these three routes. Let me ask you, how many times have you come across someone from the art world – usually someone who has a substantial amount of influence – stating the idea that there are no places or cities that can be considered the centers of art at an international level any longer, that during modernism these centers were Paris, London, New York, but that now we have biennials in Asia and all over the planet and that artists are coming from disparate corners of the world and in some instances are representative of mixed cultural heritage and so forth. The point I would like to suggest is that while the era of modernism and iconic art centers/cities could be seen as indicators of imperialist practices, ranging from the dismissal of other so called “cultures” to colonization, the era we are taking part in at the moment is, of course, highly imperialist in nature. The imperialism of today is about structuring a strong global environment where everyone can participate but where the results of this participation are to an extent shaped and predicated by this environment. The terms ‘Globalization’ or ‘Glocalization’ in art and culture refer only to this structural environment. Imperialism is no longer then an enemy or a culture outside of us but the actual environment we have to adapt ourselves to in order to produce something that has some form of capital and power. You can actually call this “the market” if you like.

This environment was forged through processes that came of age in the 80’s and 90’s such as the multiculturalist agenda in the arts, Reagan and Thatcher’s liberalization of the arts economy, and the gradual restructuring of art academies to cater more efficiently to this new horizon. This new type of imperialism is an internalized imperialism and not an externalized one, since the ethics that make it up must be engaged with on some level in order to guarantee adaptation to the environment. We are all creatures of this imperial environment at varying levels, it’s our ability to be fully aware of it, to be highly and rigorously aware of it, but not allow ourselves to participate in it by simply being cynical or ironic, that distinguishes an interesting practice from a less interesting one, to my mind.

Hassan: Well, if we are, as you say, creatures of this construct, and you interestingly reject the cynical and ironic, what other productive, and critical possibilities remain for the practitioner?

Bassam: The difference between the route of Fine Art and the other two routes is that it still understands the imperial as an external other and maybe because of this and other factors, like the difference between the catalog and the archive I discussed earlier, cannot adapt itself to the environment. When I mentioned bio-politics earlier, I was referring to Ideologies that – in rhetoric – position themselves outside of this environment because it’s much easier to say to those you want to make your followers, our enemy is so and so and our identity is clean-cut and not contaminated with this imperialism – in such discussions this is always hinted at but not fully formulated as an argument. But in reality this imperialism is in the very air we breathe. The only valid question to put forth is what positions do we take in light of understanding this?

So while the new imperialist environment is what regulates people (bio-politics) and hence artists on a global scale, a different sort of bio-politics is also used to keep ancient institutional structures in countries such as Egypt in a condition where “art” is constantly produced but lacks the essential aesthetic and sociopolitical characteristics that would enable it to function effectively outside of a certain closed context. Bio-politics always take the shape of an environment made of supporting institutions, e.g: faculties of fine art, palaces of culture, a fine arts sector producing events, penetration of the media imaginary on what an intellectual and an artist is, should and should not do. It’s only when the specific understanding that these environments produce becomes the position of the majority, the public imaginary or the collective idea of what art is and isn’t that one can call them bio-political practices. A political system will invest in maintaining this bio-political order even if its rhetoric is no longer a valid position at an international level; this on some level is instinctive and unconsciously nurtured, because the opposite of this would be a very difficult complete rebuilding of a system that already has a popular and specialized imaginary and conscious voice.

This investment in maintaining an unproductive status-quo is also to some extent what we are witnessing on the international level where the institutions are being critiqued while the ideologies that produce the institutional structures and its vast network are never thoroughly interrogated. Arts management and curatorial courses are churning out graduates who can critique the institutions but very few of them can critique the ideology that produced these institutions. If this were to happen consistently and on a large scale, it would mean the whole system and network would have to change.

This is bio-politics at a global level, the one practiced at a local level is about acting out clichés of ideas, forms, sensibilities, and identities, creating this infinite period of intermission, putting a freeze on the system, and I can see the global system coming closer and closer to this same territory where the three routes converge, I think. One way out of this bi-polar dilemma of failed old local systems and failed current international systems can be found in the idea of a reformulated well-structured universality, something that needs to be desperately brought to the drawing table on both a local and international level.

Left, Frida Kahlo, The Broken Column, 1944. Collection Museo Dolores
Olmedo Patiño, Mexico City, © 2007 Banco de México Diego Rivera &
Frida Kahlo Museums Trust.

Right, Chris Burden, Trans-fixed, April 1974, Venice, California.
Courtesy: Locus+Archive & Chris Burden.

Left, Sami Mohammed,Sabra and Chatila, 1983. © Sami Mohammed
from the artist’s website (an example of fine art in the Middle East).

Right,Kim Richardson, Psychic Surgery, 2010. © Kim Richardson
(an example of Stuckism)

Gunter Brus, Transfusion, 1965. © Günter Brus, Photo: MUMOK.

Image Commentary: Death and the body defying its natural limits, taking on extreme thresholds of pain is a popular reference in fine art practice brought in from the scripted catalogue of art history, of course this strain goes all the way back to portrayals of the crucifixion in ancient art but in more recent times one can trace its significance back to Van Gogh’s self portrait with a cut off ear through to some of the performance art of the 60s. In this image trail we see how this persona takes varying forms from Modernism to present day fine art, an example being the Stuckists who believe that most contemporary art (although they call it conceptual art) is “dead” while their art is alive. Most contemporary artists and curators would think that stuckism is something along the lines of naive art. The division is really more about how one perceives art history, either as a catalog of artistic characters and personas one has to insert oneself into or as an archive that can be used to produce ‘knowledge’, positions, or criticisms.

Hassan: And is there any hope? Is there a fourth route that you can be productively optimistic about in some sense?

Bassam: The fourth possibility is the most difficult one to demarcate for the young artist beginning a career. It involves the question, how do you work under this system as a matter of fact – a certainty which is the reality we function in, and yet escape as much as possible, validating it as a complete necessity – how do you accommodate it while trying to subtract yourself from it at the same time? Very little art being made today can actually be categorized under this route, it’s good that this discussion is with you Hassan because some of your work, I think can be categorized under this umbrella. Generally, this route is related to the ‘Theory of Applied Enigmatics’ that I recently developed with Jeremy Beaudry, all this is still being formulated and generated, so it’s hard to be more specific.

Hassan: I’d like to return to the partial object of the fine art tradition and let’s be specific here, in Egypt. What kind of problems does it reflect? The tradition of Fine Arts in the Egyptian context reflects a way of dealing with the perceived imperial other, class formation, the publicly endorsed concept of a national identity. These issues still have resonance, are still alive today, and thus the tradition of fine art is still alive not as a response but as a product. Can you explain that concretely? What the problems are – how was it historically constituted – how do they persist and what does that produces?

Bassam: I don’t think it’s so difficult to trace all this back to our post-colonial thinkers like Taha Hussein. If you look at the thinkers who used to generate the discourse of the ministry of culture in recent years, people like Gaber Assfour, you can trace a direct link to the French Enlightenment, where the cultured individual takes responsibility for refining the ethics and senses of the people and the world he is living in through his developed intellectual individuality. The only aspects of this cultured individual model they seem to question is what this culture is made of, where it comes from, and what it aspires to. But there is an inherent absence of questions of power and governmentality from this discourse because it was the very same discourse Europe used to shape and ‘civilize’ its people, leading all the way to the current system where all paths lead to the same hegemony of capitalist partial-democracies. In Europe this discourse has not been surpassed altogether but remains in the deeper roots of the system where it has a lighter grip; here it is very strong because it is kept alive as it is and has not been reformulated into something that actually generates a constantly adapting system. When you are in art school here this is the ideology and value system that you receive as a de facto position.

Rufino Tamayo, Heavenly Bodies, 1946, Oil with sand on canvas, Guggenheim, Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

Said Al Adawi, Stripping, Oil on Wood, 1968, © estate of the artist .

Image Commentary: Rufino Tamayo once said “Do not set out to make Mexican art, or American, Chinese, or Russian art. Think in terms of universality”. Yet, his work today is looked at as one of the cornerstones of Mexican modernism. What was the source behind what he called universality? The scripted catalogue of art history was one source. But the other was his own individual sensibility that reacted to the direct context he experienced and tried to represent this context in visual terms that could identify its rootedness while at the same time surpass the context’s physical and material presence to produce an individual metaphysical presence. We also find the same mechanism at play in some works by the late Egyptian artist Said Al Adawi, and many late modernist works by artists from the so called periphery. We are still able to detect in these works a universal presence; however I think producing this type of universal presence is no longer possible. The demise of the “catalogue” as a reference point meant a perceived and imagined limitlessness of possibilities in terms of reference, stimulation, and source material. However the “archival” sensibility does not gel well with the idea that one can surpass the informational realm of the archive as arts main source. That one can attempt to transcend the archive to a reality beyond what is perceptible to the senses, in a sense the archival and the metaphysical cannot coexist easily. Rather than the metaphysical, the dominant archive state of mind prefers the sublime which is based on the ability to convert something of inferior significance into something of higher worth and meaning. The sublime is to the archive what the metaphysical was to the scripted catalogue.


Published on May 9, 2011.