The cancellation of Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B in London and the critical squall that has blown up around it in the SA and the UK, reminded me of Sigmund Freud’s odd undertaking as the midwife of psychoanalysis. Freud asked an artist friend to do a series of drawings demonstrating how Moses in Michelangelo’s epic sculpture, ended up in the pose he’d held for 400 years. The drawings are nice, like a horror movie where the corpse starts to move. Unlike Bailey, Freud allowed that Moses was a feeling, thinking human being before he was incarcerated in the marble tableaux.
As Freud’s animation tells, the Commandment Tablet had slipped from Moses’ arm as he stiffened in his big chair. Apparently, when Michelangelo found him, Moses had suppressed his visceral-Id in favor of his intelligent-Ego, or more his born-to-lead-Super-Ego. In short, Moses the Leader hadn’t lost his marbles by throwing them at the newly liberated children of Israel, even though they’d gone back to messing around with idols while he was up on the mountain getting concrete instructions from God.
Freud had set about in The Future of an Illusion to show that religious superstitions - now non-Globalized Others - had no future in the March of Civilization - now Global Capitalism and Contemporary Art Marketing. Oddly, according to Freud, the March would come at the cost of repression to the Civilized. They’d probably miss exotic-erotic passions and daily survival anxiety, and would have to dream them up at night, or go look at them in museums.
Civilized Thinking, particularly through psychoanalysis, has developed the incredible ability to turn oppressors into victims, as we’ve just witnessed in the Oscar Pistorius trial. What happened inside Oscar’s head has become far more important than what happened to Reeva’s body in the toilet. Remarkably, the trial judge accepted the defense argument that Reeva’s death was merely a logical consequence of Oscar’s justifiable paranoia about die swart gevaar (the black danger).
Despite Freud’s strident claims to be unpacking illusion once and for all, not once did he acknowledge that this wasn’t Moses at all, but a skillful human resemblance hewn out of a huge block of marble by Michelangelo and his co-workers.
Perhaps Freud, like contemporary art critics, was not as interested in unpacking illusion as he was in repackaging it as a more refined and exclusive version of Humanism and Civilization, to stay ahead in the illusion game? The marble was something only a bunch of twitters would pay attention to; they hadn’t a clue about History or Art.
Instead of understanding Bailey’s Super-Ego rerun of colonialism in Exhibit B, ignorant Moses-is-marble-recognizers might see instead a group of black actors being subjected to rather degrading conditions of exposure for 2014, apparently with no artistic say in the reconstruction of these tableaus to do with their own cultures and histories. Visitors might even enquire about the actors’ conditions of employment since, unlike sculptures, these museum figures could answer back, director permitting of course.
Dumb marble-recognizers seem to rely more on their eyes than their brains when they’re having an art experience. The ignoramuses in London treated the actors in Exhibit B as real people, and referred to live chat networks rather than contemporary art discourse, can you believe?
Ivor Powell wrote in the late 90’s that in post-modernism meaning had become just another art material. Marble or actors who cares? Bailey and his critical supporters, like Freud, assume the Super-Ego still has important work to do, adding nuance to Critical Thinking, the contemporary benchmark of Global Morality.
It all goes back to the early 70’s when the US State Department declared that History had ended; all was now understood and could therefore be determined and manipulated. The US State Department was probably just putting on a brave face. They’d just scurried out of Vietnam with their choppers between their legs and were trying to brush a lost war under the carpet. Who cared about the Vietnamese anyway; they’d missed their chance to be part of History.
Nevertheless the message was clear. History was no longer a contested and modern process of human aspiration, but instead a Theatre of Illusions where the main players were already cast in a new Western drama set to run longer than the Mousetrap. The aspiring could count themselves lucky to occasionally get a walk-on part if someone got sick or bored, or something exotic was needed to add spice to Western staples.
Post-modernism offered a convenient marriage between the extensive ethnographic containments of 19th Century European Knowledge, and the later assertions of 20th Century Psychoanalysis that what went on inside Civilized Heads was far more important than what messy people did in their tacky reality shows.
In post-modernism, History became a sophisticated and well-articulated assertion of entitlements that played out in the arts and in neo-liberal economics. In this New World Order, the rich got richer and could write-off their donations to NGOs dealing with art and uncivilized problems. Superstitious governments clearly didn’t have the wherewithal to cope or even to have a vague idea.
Modernism in industrial South Africa had been truncated by apartheid in 1948, so post-modernism was a perfect fit. Ethnographic containments were legislated in black townships, and psychoanalytic entitlement became a way of life in the white suburbs. The Civilized Mind reached its zenith in the suburban house, a gorgeous obsessive-compulsive enclave protected by security companies. At no point were the Civilized required to engage with any other kind of reality, let alone treat it as aspiring. It was a perfect place to have Liberal anxiety attacks.
Living on the inside of your head is a difficult habit to break, with or without Facebook. It’s harder yet when a fully secured edifice is constructed to sustain the occupants’ delusions that they are valuable Civilized Minds wired to the Social Democratic State of Mind up north.
When ’94 presented an alarming opportunity for SA’s post-modern Civilized to at last open their gates and participate in SA’s 92% aspiring modern, the shit was bound to hit the fan.
After ’94 the Civilized reaction in SA has been to press the panic button labeled Freedom of Speech, relying on a helpful operator up North to understand breaches of our trying-to-be-Western (?) Constitution, and offer back-up.
However in the predominantly immigrant town of London, these delusions are harder to sustain when realities and aspirations are biting back. In this Great Library of the Civilized Mind, it turns out that these realities are no longer prepared to be taken off the shelf, flipped through, then put back again, no matter how convincing the librarian. They’re having their ’94 moment.
A lot of white South African artists, borrowing from their Western counterparts, still treat art and images as fait accompli, a reference system like Filofax that by its very nature dwells on repetition and stereotype. Stereotype is the identikit UNWANTED, as seen on CCTV outside the gate.
Nailed on the wall outside the post-modern edifice, just above the CCTV, a sign proclaims These Premises are protected 24/7 by Freedom of Speech International.
However, venturing out of the gate and down the road a bit, for sake of argument to Soweto, there are other signs that begin to dislodge the premise that Freedom and Speech are welded together in Civilized Perpetuity.
For instance there’s one saying, Freedom wasn’t Free, and urging young township people to vote. And all around the sign in Soweto there’s very little Speech but a lot of people speaking freely without worrying anymore whether their papers are in order like their parents once did.
Before SA had post-modern, we first needed to have modern. Let’s face it; we didn’t really have modern except an exclusive version that gave the small Afrikaans population an opportunity to enter the middle class by force in the latter half of the 20th Century. So SA artists, like other ordinary citizens, now have a similar opportunity in the 21st Century that the Constructivists had in 1916 Soviet Union, to descend into local streets in search of our modern.
In the modern, images are earned, not used. With Martha Graham, the dancer is the dance, not just an instrument sustaining old spectacle. The modern has always been and will always be a negotiated territory to do with human aspirations and the future. That’s what makes modern so exciting and also so terrifying; it has little to do with Civilized Entitlements or Inherited Super-Egos kept alive on life support machines plugged into an aging Europe.
The shit is bound to hit the fan more often in SA as we make a modern country at last.
Rodney Place October 9th 2014.
Rodney Place is a trans-media artist who lives and works in Johannesburg