Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The crushingly boring centrepiece at the Venice Biennale

The Venice Biennale is, according to most accounts of it, an exhibition of the latest in contemporary art. But this year it appears to have taken contemporary art to new and unheard of dimensions.

Apparently, the aim of the biennale this year is to enquire into “how art reflects the nature of our imaginings”.

So far, so good.

But then come all these indigestible phrases about “atomized space” from which to create a “molecular space”.

Beginning to sound somewhat dodgy?

Well, it gets much worse.

It takes imagination of the tenth power to make the centrepiece of the biennale this year the - wait for it – continuous reading by professional actors, over a period of seven months, of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Apparently this will allow us to create an “interpretive concept” through which “to reflect on these incredible times”. The ultimate aim, apparently, is to move from a state of continual transition to a state of harmony, where presumably things have settled down to allow us to experience heavenly bliss.

The first thing to say about this is that it must be crushingly boring to listen to seven months’ worth of continuous reading of Das Kapital, whatever truths it may or may not articulate. I mean even Shakespeare will not pass that test.

But next, I somehow doubt that even Marx believed that we will end up in a state of harmony, where all struggles will cease. He was, after all, an admirer of Hegel.

Since contemporary art is now being appropriated in the service of politics, it is worth recalling that Marx was an avid reader, and among his favourite authors was Balzac.

It may have been more appropriate to use some of Balzac’s masterpieces to explore the dilemma of continual conflict resulting from our natural tendency to exploit. It would have certainly been more entertaining. Whether Balzac could pass the test of continuous reading over 7 months is, however, another matter.

For in Balzac’s pages one will find that it is not only the bourgeoisie that exploits the proletariat; rather, exploitation is part of our constitution, our neurobiological make-up.

In Balzac’s pages, the rich exploit the poor, but they also exploit each other. The poor do likewise. Women exploit men, and men exploit women. And that most extraordinary creation of Romanesque literature, Balzac’s Vautrin (who, Balzac tells us, is like a vertebral column that runs through three of his most famous novels) exploits everyone in his efforts to dominate society.

The will and capacity to exploit, and dominate, is part of our neurobiological constitution.

 Marx understood this well.

In The Communist Manifesto (Chapter 1), he writes that “the bourgeoisie is itself the product of a long course of development, of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and of exchange”; he well understood that “it [the bourgeoisie] was an oppressed class under the sway of feudal nobility” and how, with increasing power, it turned oppressor.

And of course, exploitation being in our very nature, whenever the opportunity presents itself, the exploited become the exploiters. Doesn’t the communist revolution show this admirably?

Perhaps a rendering of Balzac’s Harlot High and Low would have been a better choice when appropriating art in the service of politics. It would certainly have been a lot more entertaining.

So, as far as I am concerned, it is a big “Ciao” to Venice this year.