THE SALON OF REJECTED CATEGORIES
What makes capitalism so irresistible is its ability to constantly rejuvenate. It can present as new and innovative all that is aged or decrepit. Complying with the law of modern biopolitics, we ourselves are deprived of the right to get old. Even our bodies are obliged to perform attractiveness, and vitality. Media encompass us with role models of those young and healthy, talented and creative, optimistic and successful. Coaches incite us with stimulating mantras and imperatives: Work hard! Stay young! Think positive! Be yourself! Express yourself!
Contemporary art is the plastic surgeon of transnational capital, endowing its destructive actions with youthful freshness. An artist now goes on the forefront of market reforms, denying the conventions of the past, living on innovation and keeping new ideas flowing in corporations.That’s why initiatives, supporting “young art” — consciously or unconsciously — are promoting the same neoliberal values, which themselves criticize: spirit of renewal, career and commercial success, work capacity and productivity, an obsession with a healthy lifestyle, positive thinking, creativity and sociality inclusion.
Nevertheless, behind the facade of suspenders, botox and layers of BB-cream, the pandemic crisis unraveled a genuine state of a feeble social body, suffering from prolonged depression, helplessness of the medical system, anxiety and fear of failure, alienation and loneliness. For this reason, the discussion panel of the 7th Moscow International Biennale for Young Art will cover categories often rejected by mainstream contemporary art. Themes chosen include ageing, negative thinking, failure, social awkwardness and illness, while the main protagonists of the papers are the new “wretched of the Earth'' — the senior, losers, sick, silent, skeptics and pessimists.
I. Apology of Age
Despite the increase in life expectancy and the aging of the population, the culture industry is still getting younger or even infantile. Even contemporary art feeds on all the young - the energy of renewal, the denial of the canons of the fathers and the discovery of new names. Initiatives like the Moscow International Biennale for Young Art, on one hand, fight against institutional gerontocracy, but at the same time — through a reference to the biological age — reinforce a systemic ageism. Even within the institute of art we face a certain division of people into contradictory generational groups.
In fact biologists still cannot figure out the cause of aging, doctors do not agree on when this process begins and sociologists do not give a clear age criterion. Despite the hegemony of the cult of youth, nowadays in developed countries the "third age" is considered by many as its most productive stage. The history of art confirms this with many examples of authors who created major works in senior age. But at the same time, the aging process goes to the other extreme, becoming a profitable resource for the silver economy, coaching, and medical services.
As part of the biennale's discussion program anthropologist Tim Ingold will question the existing three-part system of generations where young people occupy the position of the rulers the world, sociologist Anna Shadrina will explore how social institutions and standards create ideas about the later stages of life and artist Ekaterina Muromtseva will talk about the historical exclusion of older artists from the institutional context and share her experience of interaction.
II. Tyranny of Positive Thinking
Neologism “happycracy” defines a society that is governed by a positive mindset and imperative to enjoy. Popular psychology teaches us to defeat negative thoughts, while positive education — to suppress negative thinking as incompatible with development of entrepreneurial skills. Positive vibes — is a marketable commodity of service economy, while smiling worker signifies client-oriented approach and commercial success. The very condition of happyness is produced today by the entire industry: from star coaches, training and online-maraphons to manuals and motivational quotations. Those who are unable to develop emotional intellect could resort to psychotherapy and serotonin reuptake inhibitors.
Nevertheless, despite such an emanation of happiness, the mere statistics testifies to a progressive increase in depression and number of suicides even in prosperous countries. Compared to Kulturindustrie, media and social networks, art remains one of the last “free ports” emancipated from the tyranny of everything positive. If negativity was the key category of modernism (for instance, distorting recognizable patterns), then the last thing that contemporary art could ever be accused of is the emotional serving of its public. As “master of negativity” Theodor Adorno once claimed, art’s positivity contains in its opposite, as if art “art wanted to prevent the catastrophe by conjuring up its image.
III. Epic Fail
Age of heroes with a capital letter are in the past; the notion of genius and grand gestures followed to oblivion. However, displays of strength have been replaced by successful career imagery, entrepreneurial skills, and status consumption on Instagram. “Self-made man”, an individual who has achieved financial prosperity or high symbolic status with his very own efforts, became the main role model of modern society. Even the life cycle now should embrace an ascending order – in the form of constant career growth, wage growth, accumulation of social capital. And not only men are subjects to that system. As the philosopher Nina Power rightly noted, "the demand to be an 'adaptable' worker, to be constantly 'networking', 'selling yourself,' in effect, to become a kind of walking CV is felt keenly by both sexes in the developed world”.
Thus, human subjectivity becomes indistinguishable from an employment record fueled by personal ambitions. Unsurprisingly, the cult of success generates a variety of anxiety disorders tied with fear of failure, social apathy, and age-related crises. However, it is perhaps failure or weakness that conceals in itself emancipatory potential. In particular, the so-called “Antisocial queer theory”, which challenges not only the fulfillment of prescribed gender roles, but also integration, adaptability and conformity. Contemporary art that replaced modernism and avant-garde, took a more critical stance towards macho gestures.
IV. The Art of Social Awkwardness
The ability to communicate is placed at the heart of modern ways of "non-material" production. In post-industrial countries a wageworker is no longer someone, working at the machine, but a master of communication, moving from one Zoom meeting to another. Networking and social capital are considered to be essential attributes of a career success and the number of Facebook friends or Instagram followers is becoming a new currency. Such communication is getting instrumentalized and therefore ceases to be a form of a disinterested interchange. As the philosopher Paolo Virno wrote: “There is no one more unhappy than the one who discovers that his relationships with other people, in other words, his ability to communicate, his language skills are reduced to wage labor” (Paolo Virno, “A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life").
Despite the demand to be responsive and outgoing, we are noticing a proliferation of autistic disorders, social phobia and social anxiety. Social media, messengers and dating apps give an opportunity to block, ghost and ban, while lockdown and social isolation seem to leave communication without any physical presence. At the same time the rejection of communication was an important characteristic of modernist art: it was silence and inexpressibility that began to define art from the end of the XIXth century. At the other extreme there are modern performative and participatory artistic practices that allow the creation of alternative language systems or some non-verbal affective ways of interaction.
IV. The Splendor and Miseries of Illness
Illness and morbidity unveil a paradox of the letter and life experience, poverty and wealth, visible and invisible. In the final meeting from the cycle of discussions "Salon of Rejected Categories", philosopher Havi Carel, medical historian Anna Mazanik and cultural researcher Lera Kononchuk will discuss a topic that has unexpectedly become the central theme of 2020.
Despite the strict statistical classification of illnesses, an individual anamnesis can be radically different from systematics. As philosophers believe, medical practice produces several versions of bodies: both the patient's real body and the protocol diagnosis itself. And the physiological description often comes into conflict with the patient's subjective phenomenological experience.
Since all people, regardless of their status, are susceptible to illness, we are used to seeing it as a great equalizer. Being ill reduces a person to his "bare life" or biology — the immune system, genetic predisposition, etc. However, in reality, access to quality health care and drugs, as well as access to certain lifestyles, reduces both the risk of illness and increases the chances of rapid recovery. Historically, illness was perceived in the mass consciousness as the fate of the poor or as a curse for the rich; some illnesses received a public response, others — bypassed.
Finally, illness can be viewed as a manifestation of the philosophical difference between the virtual and the actual. Some diseases have a vivid visual manifestation and therefore became an object of art, falling under the category of "uncanny", "traumatic" and "abject". Others, on the contrary, are asymptomatic or undetectable and require different ways of representation.