BY Jörg Heiser in Opinion | 23 SEP 19
Featured in
Issue 206

In Times of Crisis, Is Art a Salve or a Distraction?

Should we be enjoying ourselves as the world goes to hell in a handcart?

BY Jörg Heiser in Opinion | 23 SEP 19

On a recent family holiday, on an otherwise joyous afternoon, a question occurred to me: what kind of strange fun was it that I was actually having? We were visiting the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek and had a swim in the sea before wandering up the grassy hill, populated with sculptures by Henry Moore and Alexander Calder, to explore this first-rate museum, which is housed in a former villa. It was there that we came across the brilliant colours and in-your-face energy of Asger Jorn’s Døddrukne danskere (Dead Drunk Danes, 1960). The work’s title simultaneously plays on a line from William Shakespeare’s Othello (1603) and a remark made by US President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the year it was painted. The latter had described Scandinavia in general, and Denmark in particular, as a region of ‘sin, suicide, socialism and smorgasbord’: a characterization geared at denigrating the gender equality and welfare state politics that Scandinavian countries were advancing at the time. Four years later, without Jorn’s knowledge, Døddrukne danskere was selected for the Guggenheim International Award in New York and awarded $US10,000. However, Jorn, who detested the very idea of art prizes and competitions, replied with a furious telegram to the museum’s president, Harry F. Guggenheim: ‘Go to hell with your money, bastard. Stop. Refuse price [sic]. Stop. Never asked for it. Against all decency mix artist against his will in your publicity. Stop. I want public confirmation not to have participated in your ridiculous game. Jorn.’

The presentation of the first Guggenheim International Award to Ben Nicholson in 1957. Left to right: James Johnson Sweeney, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation; Ben Nicholson, artist; Harry F. Guggenheim, former president of the Board of Trustees, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation; and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Courtesy: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York © United Press Photo 

Both Eisenhower’s statement and Jorn’s telegram are very much of their time – yet they’re also very much of ours, too. At a rally in 2017, President Donald Trump talked about ‘what happened last night in Sweden’, an unfounded suggestion that a disastrous event somehow related to immigration had taken place. Jorn’s telegram recalls the recent protests against patrons, sponsors, trustees and employees at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Serpentine Galleries and elsewhere. The artists involved in these protests share Jorn’s determination not to be the pawn in someone else’s game of symbolic representation and, like Jorn, they do so at a time of increasingly unhinged and dangerous politics.

Speaking of which: also on show at the Louisiana was ‘Homeless Souls’, a group exhibition that included works by a dozen or so artists addressing expatriation, exile and post-migratory distress. In a video by Erkan Özgen, Wonderland (2016), a 13-year-old deaf Kurdish boy, who had survived atrocities committed by ISIS in Kobanî, Syria, mimes the brutal events he witnessed – a performance that, even though I had seen it at the 2017 Istanbul Biennial, left me once again speechless. Another powerful work was Kara Walker’s Rift of the Medusa (2017), a monumental collage that takes its cue from Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818–19) and transposes it to a contemporary society in shambles.

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After visiting the museum, we had another swim, which I enjoyed almost as much as the first one, although my mood was a little darker. A cynic would deride as hypocrisy this commingling of leisure with a glimpse of capitalist disaster and political crime – and they might extend their derision to the art on display. (It’s like the joke doing the rounds: ‘What wine pairs best with living in a dystopian nightmare?’) During times of political crisis – which is almost always – it is, of course, not wrong to do joyful things; but how can you do so without becoming ignorant or complacent? And is political art by definition ineffective if it’s on display in a white cube in a beautiful museum?

While I reject the puritanical logic of sin and self-flagellation, I cannot deny the obvious chasm between joy and disaster. Yet, it’s not the artists’ responsibility to bridge that chasm – it’s mine. I need to relearn how to enjoy old paintings and swimming in the sea without constantly fretting. But I’m also aware that this does not entitle me to ignore what’s going on around me – for example, the disturbing fact that Denmark’s Social Democrats won this year’s general election on a starkly anti-immigration ticket.

Bridging the chasm between joy and disaster isn’t easy. It’s a bit like wondering about the colour of the socks worn by someone who has just shot their own foot. But perhaps that’s precisely what art and its reception has in common with states of emergency: what stays in people’s minds after a traumatic experience is the seemingly irrelevant or absurd detail. (This is Quentin Tarantino’s formula, incidentally.) Yet, it is also through these kinds of details that art can reconstruct memory from oblivion. Which is not to say that any kind of cultural production lends itself to that role; much harder to tolerate than people enjoying a swim or visiting a beautiful museum is the stuff that feels thoughtless, sloppy, phoney and thus complicit with the appalling state of things. It will be instantly exposed.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 206with the headline ‘Strange Fun’. 

Main image: Asger Jorn, Døddrukne danskere (Dead Drunk Danes), 1960. Courtesy: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.