Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the nation-state. Recent events have made it hard to ignore the idea of nationality, which most people experience throughout their entire lives, except for refugees. How are we linked to people with whom we share a passport? Is nationality just the coincidence of being born in the same corner of the planet? Is it about acquired experiences and qualities, such as history, language and customs or pride, resilience and humour? Or is nationality just a matter of how quickly (if at all) one gets through passport control? Does it even matter, if one is living abroad?
Such speculations pale alongside other current attempts to define what it means to belong to a nation-state. Financial markets rate countries and their citizens according to their ability to pay off their debts. Populist parties treat national identity as an ultimatum for immigrants: assimilate or leave. Even recent manifestations of mass behaviour – mass displacements (Japan), mass mourning (Norway), mass protests (from Greece to Tunisia) and riots (England) – were often drawn back into national tropes, from Japanese ‘stoicism’ to British ‘moral decline’. It’s as if nationality were the only way to grasp the actions of a large group of people, who are then judged as good or bad citizens, depending on who is judging. But the appeal to good and bad forms of national identity can make a leader’s speech eerily resemble a terrorist’s rant. Prime Minister David Cameron has bemoaned how British society ‘incites laziness, that excuses bad behaviour, that erodes self-discipline’, while Anders Behring Breivik, before his attacks on 22 July, criticized not only Norwegian ‘multiculturalist traitors’ but also his ‘super-liberal, matriarchal upbringing’ because ‘it completely lacked discipline’.
This tendency, whereby debates about national identity shift from the descriptive to the prescriptive, is one reason why artists are inclined to be wary of them. Although they are often funded by the state, many artists remain allergic to exhibitions such as ‘German Photography of the 1990s’ or ‘Canadian Painting Now’. The artist is funded by the state, not to promote its agenda and identity, but to prevent and to check its excesses. The former defines propaganda; the latter, political art. Censorship is the artist’s pyrrhic victory, banning her work while proving its necessity. A sense of national identity can flourish in the pavilions of the Venice Biennale, but without the chauvinism. Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s deployment of former members of the US Olympic team as part of their project ‘Gloria’ at the US Pavilion this year seems to suggest where nationalism belongs: at sports matches.
The Holocaust provided the most horrific example of what can go wrong with the nation-state. Bureaucratic measures such as registering the address and religion of every citizen can serve to facilitate mass murder. State benevolence appears as the exception; violence, the rule. A French World War I veteran, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle described this possibility long before World War II in his story ‘Le Déserteur’ (The Deserter, 1934) about a soldier who deserts the French army in 1914. The unnamed character lives as a stateless bon vivant wandering around South America; he sees nationalism as a ‘mania’ and ‘madness’, inevitably leading to war: ‘I like the People a lot less than individuals, and in another way. A People is not a person.’ Reading the story in 1935, Walter Benjamin wrote that he had ‘amazingly discovered a description of [his] own political stance’. But Drieu – once close to the Surrealists – later became a socialist and a fascist who supported the Nazis and the German occupation of France, before committing suicide in Paris in 1945.
In a way, Drieu’s confusing path from promoting statelessness to collaborating with the Nazis reflects the confusion of today’s political spectrum. If so many different forces – banks, politicians, terrorists – are vying to define the terms of national identity, it may be time for artists to join the fray. Back in September 2010 the art editors of the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, Claudia Kammer and Herien Wensink, noted that, ‘Art is not yet really taking action against [Geert] Wilders’, the leader of the populist right-wing ‘Freedom Party’ (PVV). The article opened by quoting two unnamed artists who claimed that Wilders ‘doesn’t inspire’ and ‘is too absurd for something to be made out of him’. As Moosje Goosen wrote in her comment piece ‘A 7.3 Billion Road to Nowhere’ on the frieze blog, Wilders’s party played a starring role in slashing arts funding. Dutch artists inspired him to make a speech depicting them as ‘greedy-guts of state subsidies’ and ‘lazy gluttons on the public money drip’.
Political art – with the artist both checking and preventing state excesses – may be too late to save Dutch arts funding and even the rest of us. Perhaps what’s at stake now is not a particular political regime – left or right – but the nation-state itself, which is crumbling under pressure from many quarters: financial speculation, neo-liberal privatization, natural disasters … Political art is difficult when the political, public realm is disappearing, along with funding. But fighting for the nation-state in a productive way today – without propaganda, jingoism and hatred – may be like defending aristocratic titles after the revolution. Maybe a revolution has been taking place right under our noses. At the moment we can see only the violence left in its wake, not the new regime.