Art Is Not a Mirror, It Is a Hammer!


Talking about the anniversary of the Communist Manifesto, the dominant type of criticism says that today, after the failure of the socialist revolutions and collapse of so called “real socialism”, the Manifesto is nothing but a small booklet among all the other books in the large library of the world, just part of the world’s cultural heritage. In the opinion of such critics the reduction of the Manifesto to a literary phenomenon is the worst thing that could happen to it, as if even total oblivion, some kind of damnatio memoriae, would be better, or at least a more appropriate fate!
So, today, who is afraid of that little book?
Our curators could easily provide one answer – when, during the preparation of the exhibition they approched a rather famous East European curator, their presentation of the project and call for cooperation was meet with shock! How could they even dare to think about an exhibition on the Communist Manifesto? Don’t they know that communism, inspired by that book, was responsible for millions of deaths, Gulags, decades of totalitarism…?
Oh, well, yes, of course, we all know that rhetorics very well.
After some recent anti-war rallies, Italian Prime-Minister Silvio Berlusconi denounced the Communist participation in the marches for peace:
“Those flags are red because they are stained by the blood of 100 million innocent victims. I think that putting them together with the flags of peace is a real blasphemy against peace”.
But, we must ask, wouldn’t those lost lives, all those dead, be killed once again, really lost, really dead, only if we accept that the whole Communist Manifesto was nothing, worthless, a piece of shit, even if most of its pragmatic demands now represent the commonplace settlement of the liberal-democratic order itself?
Not only do those liberal critics wrongly equate the so called real existing socialism of the Eastern European countries with the communist idea [Marx is not Lenin, and Lenin is not Stalin], but, answering to such criticisms, we also have to remember that manifestos as such, as “genre”, are literary phenomena!
The idea of writing artistic, and for that matter political manifestos, is characteristic of the modern/istic period, especially when related to “historical avant-guardes”. Artists, as well as those critics and theoreticians that talk about manifestos, concieved of them in two ways: as a part of literary history [for example, avantguardist manifestos about painting that are in no way normative for the production of their paintings]; and as direct explications of “set of rules” for artistic creation [such is the recent case of Dogma 95], and in that case the understanding of the manifesto enables us to “correctly” understand, explain and talk about certain artworks. But such division is bit academic. Even if we accept the idea that, for instance, Futurist manifestos about painting, pastasuta or music… are “just pieces of writing” and that they are not normative for Futurist painting, cooking or composing and performing music, they stand in some relation towards other painting, cooking or music practices, they have influence on new generations that have somehow to count them in [or out, for that matter] of their work.
It coud be seen as a kind of mystery how it was possible for “such a small book” [as Com. Manifesto], to have such large impact on the lives of so many people, but only if we forget that the “mystery” of an art-work lies not in creating some formal aspects of the object/text itself, but in the act of communication, in opening up a field of possibilities. Those possibilities lie not in the effect of sublime enthusiasm created in some distanced, passive reader/viewer [as if there are any “distanced”, “passive”, “disinterested” viewers in the first place], but in its Truth for an engaged, passionate, revolutionary subject.
It is precisely as text, as literature, as cultural artefact, as a piece of political writing, that the Manifesto had revolutionary agency. Especially today, we should be ready to go beyond the old distinctions between arts, high literature, journalism, theory, political writing and agitation towards the celebrated Marxist thesis of the unity of theory and practice. If Freud and Marx have taught us something, it is exactly the idea that there are no strictly separated spheres of economy, culture and politics, where one realm simply “determines” another.★
Political economy and cultural revolution are not oxymorons and the tension between aesthetisation of politics and politisation of aesthetics is today raised to even higher level than in the age of Walter Benjamin, because the means of “technical reproduction” – new electronic, digital and old “mechanical” media – have developed and acquired new and even more power in our “society of spectacle”.
So, today the real question is not why at certain times manifestos manage to produce “effects in reality”, but what has happened to our understanding of arts, our idea of culture, our idea of politics, our “horizon of possiblities”, that all cultural artefacts fail to aspire to such effects all the time? What has happened to us as subjects, as active political agents?
As Slavoj Žižek says, if today the Communist Manifesto appears as “just another book” that seems to belong to a different epoch to which we can no longer properly relate, instead of reading this fact as the proof that the Communist Manifesto is outdated, one should, perhaps, risk the opposite conjecture: what if that is a sign that there is something wrong with OUR epoch? What if the fact that we experience Communist Manifesto as irrelevant, “out of sync” with our postmodern times, imparts the much more unsettling message that our time itself is “out of sync,” that a certain historical [and certainly utopian] dimension is disappearing from it?
Now, the Communist Manifesto is not relevant today because we should dogmatically stick to its word [about proletarian revolution etc.], but because there is a utopian spark in it worth saving. In the same manner as more meaning lies in subsequent readings of Antigone than in what Sophocles “really wanted to say”, the true meaning of the Communist Manifesto is in what generations have read and written into the text, and what they have managed to take out of it for themselves, their visions, hopes, plans, ideas and ideals…
So today, the true meaning of Communist Manifesto for us lies not in its heroic past, nor in its past failure to actually produce a new, better society and a more just, more human social system, but in what can we make out of it today, and tomorrow. It can be judged in the capability it offers to our cultural-social-political imagination and practice to go beyond the current debilitating limitations of liberal-democracy and the capitalist order.

★ “…if, for Lacan, there is no sexual relationship, then, for Marxism proper, there is no relationship between economy and politics, no “meta-language” enabling us to grasp from the same neutral standpoint the two levels, although – or, rather, BECAUSE – these two levels are inextricably intertwined. The “political” class struggle takes place in the very midst of economy [recall that the very last paragraph of Capital III, where the texts abruptly stops, tackles the class struggle], while, at the same time, the domain of economy serves as the key enabling us to decode political struggles. No wonder that the structure of this impossible relationship is that of the Moebius band: first, we have to progress from the political spectacle to its economic infrastructure; then, in the second step, we have to confront the irreducible dimension of the political struggle in the very heart of the economy.” [Slavoj Žižek, Repeating Lenin, Arkzin, Zagreb 2001]


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