Skip to main content
Read page text

Page Text



Liberation is not deliverance – Victor Hugo’s spoiler is worth reviewing today. Are we designed to remain in chains? Is that why we accept the ‘soft’ norms and rules that keep us in check? Are we wired to embrace servility, our better selves compromised at every turn? For it seems that in this day and age – our age – so-called ‘liberation’, so-called ‘freedom’, is a chimerical dud.

Slavoj Žižek points to a ‘systemic violence’ built into systems, a violence infrastructural that is designed to keep us in check. This state oppression not only manifests itself directly, but through “more subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of dominance and exploitation.”

What, then, are we to make of protest? Can it still work, or is it a belated and hapless attempt to right and insuperable wrong? The optimists amongst us would certainly contest this view – and so they should – for to assume oneself caught in a fatal and hopeless snare is to give up the ghost.

As Wilhelm Reich bracingly reminds us, “Only the liberation of the natural capacity for love in human beings can master their sadistic destructiveness.” The question, however, is whether we still possess a ‘natural capacity’. What is left of our humanity? Is there enough fuel in the tank to override our ‘sadistic destructiveness’?

Mark Zuckerberg has come up with a manifesto which, he hopes, can build the world “we all want.” It’s the ‘we’ that bugs me, the collective ‘want’. While after Paul Gilroy I believe in a ‘planetary humanism’ I remain suspicious of any grand and ennobled human collective. Any attempt to achieve it – which was the reasoning behind the Enlightenment project – has come to nought.

eludes us, why feelings have been reduced to emoji, joy replaced by manic glee.

The tension built into our lives, the continued agitation, is the crux that shapes our fate. Liberation is just another ‘nothing burger’ – an indigestible and putrid thing, idea or action. Or is it? Is there still some way in which we can halt what seems inevitable?

Ken Loach, the director of I, Daniel Blake thinks so. Loach’s withering indictment of the British government’s ‘conscious cruelty’ is an indictment that is widely applicable. It is the violence built into systems of power which must be overcome. And it is with this realisation in mind that we must figure out the role of the artist and the art world. The Grenfell Tower inferno, which took the life of Khadija Saye and over one hundred other souls, some still nameless, typifies this systemic neglect and cruelty.

Contra Zuckerberg’s crazed fantasy that Facebook can become a new ‘church’, it is precisely the Church – the fetish of some divine sanctity and immunity – which we must thoroughly challenge. After all, is this not the very fantasy which still afflicts the art world – the vainglorious belief that art is immune and transcendent?

Ai Weiwei cuts to the chase. “My definition of art has always been the same,” he says. “It is about freedom of expression, a new way of communication. It is never about exhibiting in museums or about hanging it on the wall. Art should live in the heart of the people. Ordinary people should have the same ability to understand art as anybody else. I don’t think art is elite or mysterious. I don’t think anybody can separate art from politics. The intention to separate art from politics is itself a very political intention.”

One of the great architects of that project, Alexis De Tocqueville, noted that “To live in freedom one must grow used to a life full of agitation, change and danger” – which is where we find ourselves today. Steve Bantu Biko also recognised the problem built into freedom. “The revolutionary sees his task as liberation not only of the oppressed but also of the oppressor,” he noted. “Happiness can never truly exist in a state of tension” – which is why wellness

However, while I share Ai Wewei’s democratic instinct, I don’t think we need to junk the existing spaces that embrace art. Rather, we need to reconfigure these spaces – wrench the stench of the church out of them. This is the spirit that drives A4, the Bag Factory, and The Centre for The Less Good Idea. This is the optimism that shapes Robin Rhode’s explorations in geometry and Beth Diane Armstrong’s morphing sculpted forms.



Skip to main content