Photo: John MacDougall/Getty Images

What can WE do?

The international artist in the age of resurgent nationalism


Around this time last year, when the refugee crisis in Germany reached a state of emergency, my Berlin-based community haphazardly mobilized. I say “Berlin-based” because we’re part of the notorious international culture class. We typically have the means to travel when we want, and our passports usually allow us to. Most of us are not German citizens. All of us speak high-level English. My particular community within this larger demographic is also proficient in what has been called International Art English, because we spend a lot of our time making, talking, and writing about art.

Our mobilization in the face of this humanitarian crisis took two forms. One was to move our bodies to the places where bodies were urgently needed: we boxed clothes and food and carried them to the office of social affairs where asylum applications were being processed, which had become a hideous holding pen for those waiting in endless bureaucratic purgatory. We handed out water bottles, we sorted through donations, and we activated our networks to find emergency housing for families who hadn’t yet been able to register for shelter beds. We showed up.

The other thing we did was to have a lot of discussions about what people like us could really do to help. We congregated in apartments, Facebook groups, and art galleries, and asked each other again and again what we could do about this terrible situation—the implication being that we artists and intellectuals have special knowledge, capabilities, or responsibilities that others do not.

Certainly there are plenty of things artists and intellectuals are well-equipped to do. These include making and criticizing artwork, imagining and constructing new kinds of communities, finding ways to have fun in unlikely times (this is not trivial), constructing meaning out of seemingly meaningless situations, championing subjective experience, and, as one of my artist friends recently said: generally expanding the range of human expression.

But being well-versed in the discourse of contemporary art does not necessarily equip you to secure long-term housing for a family of Iraqi asylum-seekers who speak no English or German. I, for one, quickly realized that my time would be better spent handing out socks than doling out misinformation. I did a lot of research and listening to others with more experience during that period, but in terms of strategies of long-term engagement in Berlin my knowledge remains very fuzzy. This is not just because I don’t have an MA in social work—it’s also that I’m a privileged foreigner who, after six years of getting freelance work visas through sheer trial and error, still knows little about how such things work in Germany.

By December, the gallery meetings had mostly fractured and then petered out. Many conversations had become rather bitter: like all do-gooders, art people are prone to infighting—a phenomenon sometimes known as the splintering of the left. In those conversations nobody seemed to agree on what we could do beyond handing out socks. But above all, it was just impossible to keep the meetings going regularly. Nobody was in Berlin consistently enough.

Immediately after the US election results came in last week, washing a wave of rank panic over everyone I hold dear, the discussions started right up again. What can we do??? How can we artists and intellectuals respond to the rise of nationalism everywhere, including Germany? There must be ways that we can resist! In order to sound inclusive, we remind each other that “non-art people” are also welcome to come.

There are very good reasons for banding together into tight communities in times like this. We need to construct and maintain support networks. At its best and most inclusive, an art-world gathering can create a safe space for those who are unsafe expressing themselves in other contexts. The art world is still disproportionately dominated by the same demographics that have power and visibility in most parts of society (the white guys get all the museum shows), but we are in fact very diverse, and diversifying. That’s why, if we are having meetings about what we can do, we should first and foremost be using them to discuss who we are. What voices are missing in our spaces? How we can advocate for those of us who are at risk? In what ways can we be as inclusive as humanly possible within our own networks first? Change starts at home.

This would be acting locally in one sense. But few people I know in Berlin are “local” in the other, classic sense of site-specificity: staying and being active in one place for a protracted period of time. Over six years of living here, the only place I show up every day is my inbox. Berlin has a long history of being a hub rather than a docking station, which is both why it’s so inventive and freeing and why people based here have trouble with political engagement. While the privilege of free and constant movement and communication across borders is one of the greatest gifts of our time, it has also depoliticized us by divorcing us from long-term local engagement with the highly specific concerns of specific places.

The art world, like most socio-economic spheres, is globalized, but in very narrow ways. We exist in pockets of mostly urban areas, and those pockets connect directly to other pockets via travel and wifi, with an often uniform set of cultural principles and hierarchies extending across them. In our quest to be internationally inclusive we have become (or always have been) highly exclusive of those who don’t already have access, who aren’t already mobile. Those people who, for instance, don’t profit at all from the gentrification we bring to neighborhoods, no matter how great the exhibitions we put on there are. (As one community activist in Los Angeles put it: “We are still waiting to see an example of where an arts district didn’t displace a community.”)

So why, exactly, are we having our own meetings in galleries, when there are countless open meetings happening across Berlin, run by people who might know more about organizing in Germany than a lot of us do? Why not just show up to a meeting of the Left Party, or the Pirate Party, or those Antifa who are still around, or the student union, or the after-school tutors, or the climate change lobbyists? Is it because our paltry knowledge of German language and culture would become humiliatingly obvious? Is it because we don’t know how to talk to people who don’t speak Art? Is it because we feel like we have an exclusive claim on radical thought? Is it because these meetings are ephemeral and will not likely be taken up and canonized in the cultural archive—because they are not compatible with our lifestyle aesthetics? Or is it just because we might be held accountable for showing up to the next meeting instead of EasyJetting to Basel like we’d planned? Most people I know are intelligent, educated, compassionate, curious, and generally woke. What systemic values of the art world prevent us from acting locally?

I recently discovered that a community center in my own neighborhood holds regular meetings where residents gather to barbecue and discuss everything from overcrowding in public schools to legal aid for those at risk for eviction. I’ve never been to one of those meetings. I always tell myself they’re not for me—I don’t have kids, I can’t vote here, I don’t know how to help. I’m not really a neighborhood resident, am I?

In the wake of the election results, much has been written about the isolationism of liberal elites. Their echo chambers, their filter bubbles. Their shock at the realization of how racist, sexist, ableist, and phobic so many Americans are—and the subsequent expression by many who are always affected by power imbalance that they are not at all surprised. Elitism takes many forms. In my life, it expresses itself partly in my isolation from the city where I have implanted myself.

Places like Berlin (of which there are few left) are not just filter bubbles but also space-bubbles that allow us the freedom to generate our own, floating, idiosyncratic cultures, and to theorize the structural change on a massive scale that will someday, I hope, dismantle systems of oppression from the most basic, atomic level. But this does not disallow us or relieve us of the responsibility to do work on the short-term and the micro-scale. As philosopher Susan Neiman said in an interview last week: “I don’t think that there’s ever a point when it’s right to give up on thinking about things properly. What I do think is that theory alone is not enough to break the tyranny of global neoliberalism, which has this amazingly wonderful ability to adapt itself and to co-opt things and people.”

To activate ourselves politically in this capacity is going to require reassembling our own value systems on the atomic level too. That includes the ways in which we evaluate career success and prestige according to how many international biennales we attend. That includes how we treat marginalized members of our own communities. That includes how we choose to live in the cities where we live. If we don’t reorient our own value systems and priorities, authoritarianism may deconstruct them for us. History has shown that free travel and communication are as precarious as they are precious. Even the internet is no sacred institution—there is no reason to assume that Twitter internationalism will infinitely prevail over manic nationalism. In fact, they are probably flip-sides of the same coin that will eventually meld into one.

In his 1942 memoir The World of Yesterday, Austrian writer Stefan Zweig described the manifold ways that the optimistic cosmopolitanism of artists and writers fed directly into Fascist nationalism in the period between the first and second world wars. Believing borders would eventually become irrelevant (and imagining something like the EU), he and his friends traveled constantly during the late 1920s and early 1930s, pretty much inventing the concept of the international arts career as we know it today. “I was writing, my work was published, my name was known in Germany and Austria and to some extent further afield. […] As a man easily able to travel and full of curiosity, I was present at many artistic events now considered historic. But anything unconnected with the problems of today pales in importance when judged by our sterner criteria.” Having spent so little time living or working in his native country for a decade, Zweig had no idea how nationalist it had become until it was too late.

At the time his memoir was published in 1942 (in Sweden, where his work had not been entirely banned), Zweig, who was Jewish, was living exiled in Brazil. In a freakishly short period of time, he’d gone from one of the most celebrated writers of his generation to someone without a passport whose books were being burned. “We thought we were doing enough if we thought in European terms and forged fraternal links internationally,” he wrote, “stating in our own sphere—which had only indirect influence on current events—that we were in favor of the ideal of peaceful understanding and intellectual brotherhood crossing linguistic and national borders.” (Italics mine.) Needless to say, Zweig’s own sphere was dominated by white men. White men who thought talking to each other about the world they hoped for would create that world.

I know, this is not 1942. Information travels in the internet era in completely different ways. Political organizing through digital networks is a totally different task. We based-in-Berliners will not solve anything but moving back to our passport countries in droves. But again: travel, international exchange, and the very concept of a cosmopolitan art career are all subject to change. Asking what we can do is just asking what we can do without also upending our own sanctioned definitions of success, without questioning our own lifestyle politics or the premises upon which our existence depends. “I had lived a politically cosmopolitan life to change all of a sudden,” said Zweig. Europe changed it for him.

The first thing I did on November tenth (I spent the ninth wallowing and crying with friends) was to sign up for a volunteering shift at the clothing distribution center for asylum seekers near my house. I do this every few months; it’s entirely selfish. At the distribution center, I perform a set of tiny, concrete actions: hand in bucket of socks; socks in hand of woman who needs socks. This is not me overturning power systems or confronting structural violence. Neither has it “humbled” me—which is another way of saying I think I should be congratulated for it. It is certainly not a significant step towards prolonged local engagement; it is low-accountability and it does not demand new skills. It is simply an activity where, for three hours, I am a human who lives in Berlin before I am an international arts professional. It reminds me of the order those things go in.

We don’t need more art that looks “political.” Making art is and will always be an inherently political activity—not because it serves a political cause, but because it is not a means to the end of any particular ideology. The main thing we can do as art people in the face of oppression is to continue the essential acts of making and talking about art. And while doing that, like any community we can work much, much harder to make space in our conversations and institutions for as many perspectives as possible—to make the art sphere, which is after all one facet of an unjust society, as inclusive as humanly possible. In case it’s not clear: this is a task for the entitled, the established, the white.

A friend of mine who is an art person and also happens to be a brilliant activist recently told me that she worries “the scariest thing for an artist is to feel like any other body doing labor.” That is, a body doing labor that can’t be accounted for under the rubric of cultural capital. A body doing labor that is unspecialized, labor without an aesthetic basis. A body doing labor that might be completely invisible or irrelevant to the art world.

I have spent the last days examining myself and my community for this fear, and I’ve found it. This fear needs to be immediately confronted and dismantled. Although the art machine, like neoliberalism in general, is very good at extracting value from all activities, artistic communities need to resist the imperative to mobilize as an aesthetic practice—and just focus on mobilizing in parallel to those practices. Rather than asking what we can do as arts people, we need to be asking what we can do as humans. As a side effect, this will probably lead to the making of more relevant, challenging, and engaging art.