BY FRED DEWEY
What are artists and writers to do when, all around them, a total assault on reality, and our capacity to learn from and respond to that, is being waged? Can cultural institutions and practices stand up to this and answer? What would they respond to? What would a cultural response to conditions be? Events and structures have left the space of appearance and the people’s capacity for spontaneous response weakened, suggesting our existing models of culture and cultural practice, theory, and critique are utterly inadequate. The senses of the people as a whole are under attack, and new thinking and practice to respond to this are called for. What would a culture be, when society strikes to the very roots, burning them out? What are the roots that are in danger? Something more than discourse, description, and dissemination would seem to be needed.
Culture, when it is firm, can protect the artist and writer’s free capacity to speak to all that matters, however they might see it, along with the people’s ability to experience this, safe from force, command, open disruption, or dissuasion. Culture’s concern with thought-things and imagined-things, with the people who make them and most importantly that they can, demands a space to take care of, preserve, and protect artistic and critical life and its artifacts and contributions. We need refuge for the depths of worldliness, to secure our capacities to answer the world we are in. Under favorable conditions, art and politics, though distinct, would support this. Art, at its best, fills a space, to materialize our full possibility to understand, hold, and reflect our depths, to help them appear and be thought, imagined, and judged. Politics, in its proper form, would protect such a space, so all of us, a people who have the right to conduct and govern all our affairs, could indeed understand and think what is happening. But our concepts and principles of culture seem unable to foster this in any lasting way. It is as if we would have to unlearn everything we have been taught about culture, and start anew, for it to ever gain its crucial potential.
Culture, were it solid, would mediate and arbitrate between art and politics, helping us build up our understanding and protect response. When art and politics are undone, however—and in ways we still barely understand—culture has little to safely mediate and arbitrate. It is overwhelmed, and cannot offer resistance to the ungrounding of our senses and world that is such a signature of our times. Writers, artists, and institutions, if they basically go along with society and try merely to make the best of a deadly situation, end up unable to communicate and protect facts, cannot lend them significance and cannot establish, no less protect, truths in the public realm. In the end, something occurs that no one considered could ever happen. Culture, or what we are told is culture, is unable to give us what we need to understand and respond, in thinking and imagination, to the world we are in. The life of the people loses its capacity to answer conditions. Culture, concerned only with objects and activities and our relation to them, cannot build this capacity. It becomes a handmaiden of regimes, distracting people from conditions and making the steering of people from facts its goal. Culture becomes a thing to consume, rather than something that helps us to understand and respond. It has less and less to do with who, what, where, and when we are, and what might bear on and clarify this. It ends up as one of the prime collaborators in regimes, helping enlist the people in, and convince them of, ever-shallower representations. The only choice is to join in on the general assault on reality.
In culture, as everywhere, institutions have their own history and bias in presentation and activity. But whether the institution is established or „alternative,“ cultural institutions in the U.S.A. have been battered by an accelerating, three-decade assault—first from the right, in defunding and demonizing anything controversial or testing, paving the way for domination of so-called „market“ forms and calculations, then from a left that argues, again and again, as if sealing the deal, that economics and the social can protect us. The result is demographic, statistical, economic, and social reductions of every kind. The cultural realm no longer is allowed to mediate and arbitrate but is, as it were, over-ruled. Culture is reduced and neutralized, using terms and descriptions that buttress the attack on our non-conforming senses and capacities. Falsehoods and miseries are no longer answered and almost no longer can be thought or grasped. Mere production continues to grow and expand, as thinking, imagining, and judging give way under it.
This points to a conjoint cultural and political question. How might the artist and writer be safe enough so they can challenge society, with all its prejudices and reductions, in a far-reaching way? Is this only a matter of free expression, or something deeper and more consequential? How might such challenge be embodied, be given life, remain grounded, and be protected? What would the culture of such a space look like? To think of culture only as objects and the people making and disseminating, and worse, as things, images, and sounds to consume, hides the concerted assault on appearance and reality. Production can grow and expand, but cannot fundamentally challenge. For objects and people to be safe in their full freedom, to answer and respond, demands a culture concerned with something other than mere reproduction and society. Culture is distinct from social activity and reproduction. On a certain level, to have enduring meaning, culture may need to resist the social and reproduction. It may need to openly challenge the automatic character of production, disseminating, and categorization, to resist the reduction of our world to bits and functions. And here, our theories of what culture is are little help. We can only ask questions. Would not a real culture hold out, for all of us, the possibility there is more than what we are handed or make? Would it not need to answer the assault on reality, on appearance, and on the capacity to learn about this? Culture, if it is to mediate and arbitrate between art and politics—if it is to answer and make sense of things and answer our real conditions—must go into the world, help it to appear, and protect appearance as it is, so that response to what is so can be real. Society cannot do this, for it rests precisely on disconnecting us from our reality, on reducing us to social functions and positions. Society, in the end, without a strong challenge from culture, becomes the motor of the assault on reality and our capacity to answer that assault.
A Cultural Response to the Crisis in Appearance is an excerpt from The School of Public Life published by Errant Bodies/Doormats (Berlin, Los Angeles). Reprint courtesy of the author.