Truths that Don’t Hold

A Bitter End for Idealists under High Imperialism

On June 21, 2004, 24 hours after the opening of the Eastern Alliance exhibition in Berlin, a work by Ivan Vosecký was removed on the request of a transnational corporation. The lettering, “Kill Them All,” put on the top of the Lichtturm in Oberbaum City, Berlin, was not directed against any group of citizens or other subject. The text-installation was a sequel of a critical social series that the artist has been working on for several years, and which had already been presented in many institutional and public premises. Although the work of Ivan Vosecký is not a postmodern visual sport and solicits no sweet deluge of emotions from the viewer, the Berlin reaction came as a big surprise. In a metropolis that presents itself with pride as the center of European culture, such censorship is a sign of nascent schizophrenia. Or perhaps those traditional principles of propriety are emerging again, where unwritten rules apply and conservatism serves as a hypocritical cover for higher, more selfish interests.

And yet at issue was an effort at pure idealism. Who could imagine nowadays that an artwork could have the power to chastise the world. That would be an idealist found only in today’s art world. Idealism has been gradually forsaken by a pragmatic and seemingly liberal society. It can no longer be simply called western, because it has gained ground in Southern Africa as well as in the East of Europe. Pragmatic society showed up idealism so much that it is afraid to even let its feet get wet, and serves little more than intellectual or pop-culture hyperbole. Idealism fights with pragmatism in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries with more realistic combat strategies. We have forgotten that the conflict between idealism and pragmatism started two thousand years ago; one overstuffed empire lost out in the end. The pragmatics of the present day are the offspring of the idealists of that past: Christians. We have inherited what is left of that. When a European says “I am an idealist” today, the translation is simple: “I can earn money for a new car.”

Let’s forget all those accumulated condemnations of idealism that relegate their propagators into ghettoes, madhouses and re-education camps. Shall we try to look at our world idealistically, and go through the junk yard of ideas and see whether there might be some idealist living in seclusion?

The Civilization of Spoiled Property Owners

Although by no means a conspiracy of educational institutions, western society, including post-communist countries, has not succeeded in educating a democratic public, but instead property owners. These are people who believe in possession with some transcendental relation to it and visa versa. Perhaps you can remember what our teachers told us: “If you won’t study, you will be stupid and poor.” Most Czechs carry a nursery rhyme from a Czech elementary school primer: “Ema has a bowl. Mum has Ema. Daddy has a car.” While these are just comic comments, the underlying issue can be discussed more seriously. Not all rich people are clever. Ema has a bowl because she is holds it in her hands, and there is no other verifiable relationship. Mum doesn’t have Ema, she simply her daughter who, once bored by chores, runs away from home.
Dad is sitting in a car that he probably has financed through a leasing company. Even if Dad bought it with cash, he can’t prevent any future flood from taking the car for a ride. To learn how to become an ideal owner one need only look through civics textbooks, in the constitution or at the flyers of both big and little companies that thrive on usury. For people this results in much frustration, unhappiness or maybe a little short-term contentment, but only of a lesser sort than, say, masturbation.

I want to emphasize that I am not speaking about power of the sort that emerges from property accumulation, such that for lesser beings is like ejaculation – that’s for a separate discussion. Rather, at issue is buying a TV, the delight of owning a credit card, traveling in your private transportation, and other things we long for. There is nothing wrong with these more or less practical things. The strange thing is that we want to have them for ourselves. But if we are educated that the aim life is ownership, we should not wonder why those who lack something try to take it from us.

Private and Public Happiness

But we keep wondering and saying: “How can it be that in our democratic conditions there are still unhappy people? We have so many fundamental rights and liberties.” This doesn’t work universally. Today we have to distinguish where we want to exercise these rights and freedoms. Our democratic world has two basic spheres: the public and the private. In the present day the former is devoured by the latter.

Countries with clumsy, expensive and weak administration tend to give way to effective and strong corporate administrations. Read: the international financial and property system. The first can hardly manage itself, let alone property, and the other one assumes this role with glee. Representatives of the first lose motivation and the other have too much of it.

On the ground of the corporations and within reach of their interests there are other rules. Mostly they have nothing to do with the culture of behaviour and democracy. In the fear of the financial recourse the public sphere adjusts itself to these rules. As a person who spent nearly a half of my life under socialism I can say that the conflict with the corporate interest recalls in me very unpleasant thoughts. Just like then, you can nothing but lose until the equilibrium changes.

The End of All Big Ideals in Culture

The opportunism of many artistic activities often borders on conscious mendacity. There is fear that radical opinions will fail in an environment limited by its source of finance and complicated theoretical shallowness. Consequently many artists are limited to mere intellectual puns and involuntary exaggerations. But those only serve as a back-door escape from “clever and smart” critiques. Contemporary criticism and curatorial practice makes light of formal modernism but fails to realize that it tends to highlight artwork that could serve better as dead weight.
Ivan Vosecký is in no way a calculating esthete, and he doesn’t premeditate the results of his activities, once he is sure the gesture is correct. One of the great fathers of German philosophy, Nietzsche, has already said, “Nobody but the maker knows what is good or bad.”

Shortly after Vosecký’s sign was removed, the author issued a statement: “This text is intentionally universal. It doesn’t say who, to whom, or why. It is aimed against violence and killing altogether. For me it has the value similar to “Make peace not war.” Instead, it potently provokes questions and doubts appropriate to the schizophrenic tendencies of our time. In that is its strength. I don’t understand how anyone can relate this text towards himself, if not those who feel responsible for killing. For that an old Czech saying applies: “The wounded goose is the one who cries the most.”

Demonstrations belongs on the street, the critique in newspapers and money in our pocket. Fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin wall, that oft proclaimed spirit of free Berlin has long evaporated. Just like many other European cities Berlin has become a tourist magnet consisting of commercialized art squats, museums of various forms of suffering and uprisings, or spiritless parties or arties so free one’s head spins.
But beneath that nice cover, there is a community that has accepted those unwritten rules considered appropriate for a very obedient citizenship and not as a contract of any real social interests, but doctrines dictated by the international corporations. The average citizen is scared by a looming economic crisis that these corporations concocted for with their greediness.

German society failed to properly calculate the investment into the construction of new administrative buildings. With an ambitious and ecstatic vision that Berlin would become a new world capital bringing a windfall profits from high-income rentals, huge business centers were put up, and they are remain largely empty.

This has been going on for a few years, and many investors are on the verge of breaking down. Many of them are attempting to deal with the situation in their own ways, more or less conceptually, but with unsuccessful and confused results.
One of the crowning achievements of these attempts is a law obliging the government to subsidize developers for the rental money lost from these vacant spaces. As a consequence of aggressive lobbying, developers are in such a good situation they don’t need to lower the rents. While the law continues to milk the government’s treasury, German economics buffers this with blood-sucking taxes. As a result only foreign companies can afford the rent. If American companies were to rent out the bulk of Berlin’s luxury vacancies, Germany would then forgive any war, however cruel, in some faraway country.

A Europe Full of Heroes

Overheard talking in bars talking about Americans, Europeans are full of wrath and resolve to prevent its expansive politics. Accompanied by big mouthed gestures of its politicians Europe has found its role as an advocate for peace. Unless it costs something. It is sufficient that a secretary of an American firm relays how the bosses are offended by some vaguely tangible sentence written on the outside of the facing building, and the European bucket and brush in hand rushes to get rid of the sign.

In the evening the same person offends American students in a coffee house or swears at the news about Iraq. And he falls asleep feeling like a hero. Given the power of multinational corporations, any classic form of manifestation of disapproval would completely toothless. As long as the demonstrations are on the streets, protest petitions are written and as a result a few politicians utter something critical so as not to lose face, no responsible individual has to take the basic changes personally.

Could that European employee resign out of conviction from a company that openly supports foreign military intervention or participates in the disgustingly corrupt post-war business in victim countries? Is there a headquarters that would refuse to do business with such a company? Is any European government that would deny that sort of tax relief that initially attracted it? No way. It will only put more energy into ensuring that the emerging embarrassing heroism doesn’t discourage rich empire’s taste for European goodies.

Umelec Art Mag

This article originally appeared in Umelec Magazine. Get a copy...

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