Is it OK to Punch a Nazi (Art Gallery)?
The art-right are on the rise and even the deep, market-reflexive complacency of the London artscene shows signs of being ruffled. How on earth did reactionaries get a foot hold in galleries and educational institutions, what were people thinking?, asks O.D. Untermesh, and how does the fascist aesthetic of our moment work? Most of all – how can it be opposed?
Among all of the difficult practical questions that might occur to us right now, none is more likely to produce in us such a pronounced feeling of metaphysical disorientation as the question of how to stop fascism. The general tendency is at present too complex for there to be any one straightforward answer, if only because the main driver of fascist tendencies globally has such bewilderingly various sources of support. Practical responses need to begin by breaking the question down into something more immediately conceivable, such as, how do we oppose fascism in our scenes of activity and communities; or, how do we make our spaces of speech and association fundamentally inhospitable to racists, anti-feminists and nationalist-authoritarians (and therefore more hospitable to their victims)?
The question loses its last bit of vestigial abstraction when it becomes clear that fascists have been organising in our immediate locality. This week a tremor of disgust passed through a large community of London artists who realised that they have shown at, collaborated with or visited a Dalston project space, LD50, that was at the same time, and within a single framework, programming a series of ‘artistic’ talks on ethnic nationalism and race biology. The artists concerned had been unwittingly conscripted into the rebranding operation of a fascist ideology whose ‘evolution’ in relation to Nazi race theory bears roughly the same fucking relationship to the evolution of a bad odour from the general vicinity of Winston Churchill. Whether it would be more correct to say that fascism had grown up within this art scene, or that the art had merely been reduced to a decorative detail in the larger fresco of fascist ‘normalisation’, has nothing to do with our immediate practical situation and is in the last instance besides the point. The point now is, How do we stop this from ever happening again? Or in slightly more words it is: once we have made practically certain that the LD50 gallery is closed permanently and that the people who live in its vicinity know exactly what it was doing – once this has been achieved, how do we reconceive our own art to ensure that it never again serves as a conveniently indeterminate incubator for those who would gladly destroy us, our friends and neighbours and comrades, along with any latent possibility of a genuinely open and revolutionary culture or emancipated society?
What follows is self-evidently not a complete answer. It is a couple of scattered suggestions. All are open to revision or criticism. They are some ideas presented in the spirit of trust and of openness and exclude no reply except from those whose whole outlook is a justification and reinforcement of exclusion.
1. The form of fascism is infinitely adaptable but its content is as ossified as any other prehistoric creature with a bag-like body, a huge mouth and no anus. The practical corollary of this fact is that fascists have no means of developing their ‘philosophy’ other than by attempting to associate it with things that people don’t yet imagine to be directly responsible for ruthless mass murder, like v-neck sweaters, anime, preening Youtube soliloquy, frogs and coffee shops. The reactionary purpose of this endless bricolage of degraded materials makes clear that any contemporary art whose intended ‘satire’ on a mediatised culture occurs principally by way of a replication of blockage and excess needs urgently to reassess its own content.
2. The website of LD50 provides a useful overview of the enemy culture. It aestheticises the theses of inane paleoconservative stockbrokers like Peter Brimelow not by humming them to the tune of the Horst-Wessel-Lied or by painting dimples on their Goebbels but by a kind of calculated imprecision. In the visual culture it promotes, a 2D ball of flame blurs into a pastel wash which blurs into a cartoon Andrex puppy which blurs into a Cross of the Knights Templar. A Swastika dissolves insensibly into a stock photo of a rainbow or the Fonz. Unicorns go by. DNA helices unspool with a Peroni by the canal.
Casual observers of the work are meant to consent to its constituent elements under the auspices of their formal disorganisation. This disorganisation is reassuring because (a) it is immediately familiar from the formal disorder of the great majority of ‘satirical’ art described above, and (b) is not really imprecise or disordered at all, but only a kind of studious formal notation of the consumption habits of the producer, within which framework any middle-class wide receiver on the conveyor belt of private views can safely be expected to feel right at home. Probably they can drink several more Peronis while it goes on the in the background and still feel latently persuaded that the work is an interesting kind of commentary on the innate authoritarianism of mass spectatorship, or an illustration of Jacques Ranciére’s neo-Kantian review of the causes of gastroenteritis, or a provocation directed against the right-thinkingness of ‘liberal’ artists who after all probably haven’t evolved yet and who even if they were to definitely wouldn’t speak to a White Working-Class Person without a phalanx of armed guards to bear them up, as they waved lazily from their cork-lined sedan chair.
The first lesson that we can learn from this is that the majority of contemporary modes of visual disorder are in fact absolutely formulaic and are usually trying to hide something. Transformative art is more likely to make an enormous effort to be clear about how hard it is not to keep yourself hidden.
3. The next lesson that we can learn from this is that our capacity to make intelligent political and aesthetic evaluations is distorted by institutional environments of latent or manifest competitiveness. Art which simulates disorder so as to make the simplest political and aesthetic judgement torturous and confusing, or which ensures that anything that might resemble an animating purpose or orientation is drowned out beneath a great foghorn of pseudo-ironic whale song – this art flourishes in a situation of paranoid reception.
(Anyone who wishes to know whether their own cultural scene is in the grip of this paranoia should conduct the following thought experiment. Imagine that someone in your community (person A) points out to you that a third person (person B) has been using their platform to promote Nazi eugenics. If your immediate response is to say that you never trusted person B but that things are very complex and that person A should probably examine their motives, then the answer is yes.)
4. The idea that things are always so complex (and all variants thereof) is an intellectual mystification of a pre-existing situation of competitiveness. It turns the acknowledgement of the simple from a source of basic human solidarity against reaction into a source of anxiety and self-doubt in the face of loss of distinction.
5. It would be possible to argue that the dissolution of fascist symbols into a larger flux of anachronistic text and visual elements is reactionary only in the sense that the former conceal the latter, or because placing Pepe the Frog next to (e.g.) the Andrex puppy or a pixelated image of an elf indicates an indifference to the larger historical significance of the uses to which Pepe is now put. But the argument from disproportion misses the deeper receptiveness to fascist attitudes of much visually overloaded, deliberately obsolescent or backward-looking contemporary visual art, since the tendency of artists working in this mode to conceive of the past in terms of relentless nostalgia for a fantasised world of undamaged safety or protection (symbolised in old video games or TV advertisements), is perfectly continuous with the tendency of white nationalists to fantasise what was in fact a history of imperial aggrandisement and class struggle in the terms of undamaged communal integrity and social cohesion. In other words, in contemporary visual art, the larger the pixels, the narrower the range of historical intelligence.
6. By contrast, the more fully self-organised and the more hostile to the marketplace of personal reputation a culture becomes, the easier it will find it to identity and to root out fascist tendencies.
7. Fascist artists are likely to proliferate over the next few years with traditional organic fecundity. The tendencies will be crypto and overt, technicist and pastoral, cyborg and social conservative, they will speak ‘from the left’ or they will claim to be apolitical, they will have great plans or they will be nihilists, they will emit notes of irony to perfume their racism or they will let racism waft insensibly into their irony. The dizzying variety of aesthetic tendencies will replicate at the level of the genre the formal overloadedness of the ideal-typical work of conservative post-internet art, and it will match the diminished attention span of an artworld whose own art of the deal is now defined by the principle that it will buy absolutely fucking anything. There are good reasons for this hyperactivity, just as, in yet another domain, a proto-fascist president has in his own terms good reason to proliferate with seemingly organic fecundity an endless series of hateful executive orders. Put simply: for those whose politics revolve around the defence of an historically regressive form of domination like the capitalist nation state, frenetic activity is the only possible means of simulating real historical dynamism. And just as with any other grotesque farce in the Rabelaisian tradition, the farce of national protectionism that Trumpism represents will lead to no more progressive development in art or politics than an unprecedented new growth in innovatively trapped wind.
8. The fact that that trapped wind needs to be kept in its place is only another way of saying what anyone with a head clearer than Trump’s latest IRS filing ought already to know perfectly well, which is that today the opposite of a progressive anti-fascist culture is not ‘reactionary modernisation’, ‘neo’-reaction, or any of the other 100% euphemisms in which Nazis and interested middle-class professionals might like to dress it up for the purposes of their latest funding application. That hardly reassuring dichotomy is itself now a thing of the past. It is out of date, because at the point at which world politics becomes just another means of instinct gratification for a single narcissistic Führer-magnate – which is to say, right now, and with equal effect in Washington, DC, and the London Borough of Hackney – the opposite of a progressive anti-fascist culture can only be an explosively scatological nuclear winter.
ABOUT LD50'S REACTIONARY TURN:
The LD50 gallery in Dalston, London last year ran this series of talks featuring 6 high profile far right reactionary speakers:
NICK LAND on
MARK CITADEL [as virtual avatar]
'Christianity, Progressivism, and the Occidental Soul'
BRETT STEVENS [as virtual avatar]
‘The Black Pill’
PETER BRIMELOW on
Imigration, Ethnicity and Economics
IBEN THRANHOLM on
The Sanctuary of Traditionalism in Russia and the West
Dr PETER SAUNDERS
‘Epigenetics and Evolution Theory’
screening: The Monk and the Honeybee (1989)
Dr FLORIAN PLATTNER
‘Can we enhance memory?’
screening: TransHumanism ( h+) / Genetic Modification of Life (2010)
(hosted by Goldsmiths university)
Dr SILVIA CAMPORESI
‘CRISPR Genome Editing Technologies: Which possible futures?’
screening: Gattaca (1997)
ABOUT THE SPEAKERS
The talks programme mixes straight up fascists and reactionaries with other innocuous seeming figures with no known right wing affiliation or convictions.
Peter Brimelow is hardcore fascist: https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/individual/peter-brimelow
As is Brett Stevens: https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2011/07/26/american-blogger-praises-oslo-shooter
Mark Citadel seems to be part of the 'Return of Kings' manosphere blog, so is clearly another reactionary voice. (‘Return Of Kings is a blog for heterosexual, masculine men. [...] men should be masculine and women should be feminine.’ – to quote their own philosophically self-undermining self-description.)
Iben Thranholm is a proponent of racist, anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant, homophobic and misogynist politics. She routinely discourses on the need to resurrect strong ‘european' gender binaries and ‘strong men’ to ‘protect women’ from 'male immigrants' who she presents as a violent sexual threat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GaOLgy3YKtA
Nick Land: One can split hairs by saying that Nick Land isn't a white supremacist and is just into eugenic selection for intelligence so we can survive the coming AI singularity. However, a close reading of his recent writing reveals he just doesn't like immigrants and black people. He likes Asians because they are deemed to be smart and polite, and he likes Japanese because they've resisted immigration. Racism is an aura around all his other pronouncements.
The first three named speakers in the talks series – Peter Saunders, Silvia Camporesi, and Florian Plattner – are all reputable scholars. The topic of epigenetics (Saunders’ subject) is a hot button one for the new biological racists, because it shortens timelines over which evolutionary change can potentially happen, meaning that changes in historical time can have significant effects on human populations. This is usually used to argue that evolution within NW European populations has led to the wonders of the Enlightenment and enhanced IQ, while everyone else are just cousin-marrying knuckle draggers who are resistant to democracy because they haven't selected for non kin altruistic behaviour. The fact that HBD (human biodiversity) proponents use and sometimes misuse epigenetics doesn't mean anyone talking about it is necessarily fascist.
Considering the rest of the line up, however, it seems these figures fulfilled a kind of legitimating function for LD50’s project. Openly reactionary speakers could enjoy credibility by association with reputable academics. However innocent, they became tools in what appears to be a conscious and extended attempt to promote extremely reactionary ideas by introducing them, uncritically and indeed enthusiastically, to an art world and art educational context.
The live streams still available on the gallery’s blog testify to LD50’s gushing reception of and advocacy for racist, white supremacist, misogynist and homophobic views. If we can learn one thing from the above, it is the need to stop assuming everything programmed by small or large galleries is at worst ‘exploratory’, ironic or even critical – either an intellectual provocation or contribution to ‘discussion’. This programme appears to have been part of a wider far right push to infiltrate academic institutions, and to normalise and promote extremely reactionary ideas.
THE ART OF ENTRYISM
As well as the talks programme, LD50 also mounted a gallery show, 'Amerika'. Dedicated to the so called alt-right, and featuring wall to wall Pepe memes, kek, 'neoreactionary' esoterica, and misogyny, the same structure of plausible deniability allowed some at least to view the show as a kind of enquiry into a cultural phenomenon rather tha a direct act of political infiltration. Any illusions about the disinterested or critical ambitions of the gallery have been dispelled by the recent public revelation of the gallery's politics. A brief review of the gallery's blog reveals a show brimming with sympathy for affluent white male mass murderers of of women and muslims, but nothing that would pass for actual critique – let alone the visceral disgust this material evokes in those who side not with abstractions ('free speech') but human victims of violent oppression.
A similar standard of fascist entryism is seen in artwork still displayed on the gallery's website: a pseudo-critique of consumerism by replication (look, Taylor Swift!) exuding a will to distinction and superiority, at the same time functions to run fascist ideas (text by Hitler) and symbols (the Afrikaner white supremacist flag) past the un/knowing art consumer:
Some further background and analysis from the Horrible Gif blog's piece on the LD50 debacle:
'LD50, a small project space in dalston junction, had some exhibitions of questionable taste and arrangement in recent months. The alt-right exhibit it staged using scavenged parts of the aesthetic and philosophical matter online wasn’t immediately partisan on the surface. It could have been bad satire, it could have been one of those things many adult-child digital artists do where they incorporate the very thing they critique. Obviously the depraved chasm which 4chan and allotments of reddit are located in is morbidly fascinating, to someone who feels they’re on an important media archaeology tip even moreso. Despite the Hitler quotes coupled with anime motifs and other bizarre conflations of alt-right imagery, the show itself didn’t offer a concrete position. This is a commonplace exhibition model that allows “racy” subject matter to be presented with critical immunity, because the art moves to within a viewers praxis. More often this is used with cultural appropriation, where a white artist will extract reference points and framing devices from culture they do not belong to and situate the art itself on the intersection of their gaze, etc etc. So the art is about the white gaze on other culture, that way it removes itself from, at best, being accused of ignoring postcolonial theory or, at worst, just being mildly racist. Very meta though, and you can extract 2000 words from meta quite easily. With the benefit of hindsight plus a screenshot of a private fb conversation, it became obvious the curiosity with the alt-right wasn’t coolly detached in the LD50 show. Given the social media output of LD50 runs along moaning lines about the apolitical nature of net artists and glib rejoinders to political/social occurances, strangely they might have found the blazing political net art they were looking for… just the bad kind of politics. HEY, bad is a construct in art that is irrelevant after postmodernism and pop art, so who is to say it is bad? It’s just neo-reactionary. Sounds like the working title of a group of Final Fantasy rebels. These dodgy politics weren’t always so clear, even in that classic uncertain/ironic way, so it’s possible it was a slippery slope slodden down.
As said in the beginning of this longform rant, the social media microdramas of the art cottage industry aren’t very interesting in themselves beyond the sorry online appearances of calculated hostility and contrived artjoke acumen. But with artist Sophie Jung posting in a public way a ‘call-out’ to a curator of a gallery holding quite dodgy fascist views, the fallout is more interesting than the usual bruised/inflated egos or comment flame wars. The gallery itself has responded by “archiving” the post and all the comments on the main page, as doxing (a strategy of online shaming perfected by the alt-right) bait to sentient pepe memes and twitter eggs. It’s an obfuscatory and aloof reaction, one that shows particular acumen to online psychological skirmishing. Take away the veneer of irony and you see only a few slimy individuals toying with repugnant ideas that most good artists would give no merit, even as illusory discourse.
Is it right to call out someone by posting private convos? Well, check the gallery events and talks - they were pretty public (albeit small and within purposely obfuscating platforms) call outs to those neon genesis authoritarians. A lighter discourse than “is it ok to punch a nazi?” but no less annoying. Of course the answer is yes. Do you argue the inverse that the alt-right should be given platforms? Do you agree with the BBC giving airtime to UKIP but not the Green Party, who have existed for longer/have more members/more elected MPs/have actually run a fucking area of the country? Logic has associations, and while you can spin them away, we fucking see you. The alt-right would legislate for the structural, hidden bureaucratic violence against non-white/foreign people but it is not OK to punch them? They’d happily punch you. It can be so easy if it doesn’t affect you, or to think it wouldn’t, to think that exposing their bullshit is better. Hindenburg thought Hitler wouldn’t be as evil when he finally was given power, the tories seemed to think appeasing the UKIP types was the best way to keep themselves in power. Fuck m9, punch tories AND nazis if you can get away with it. Yeah, if you can back it up, calling people out on something as basic as nazi sympathies is OK. Why did it take so long to be called out on? The alt-right are super zeitgeisty right now and net art dorks are into that because it can be processed into smug “political” diatribe and gestural academica. Things within the art gallery mechanica are afforded un-anchored critical protection at least until the management are revealed to think the muslim ban is fine.'