February Blog: Chromotones II
On the 9th of December I gave a talk on Decolonial Research Day at Wolverhampton University that I would like to share with you in three separate blogs. One was published in January, the next one is published now and the third one will be published in April. In the first part I considered two distinct periodizations of socially engaged art with reference to Grant Kester (2015) and Oliver Marchart (2019). Now I inquire into what Massimiliano Tomba’s (2019) method of decolonizing modern history might reveal about those attempts at periodizing a field of socially engaged art, in addition to introducing Massimiliano Mollona’s (2021) notion of Art/Commons. In my third blog, I’ll muster the notion of Art/Commons to ask how Tiffany D. Pogue’s (2009) account of the Bois Caiman ceremony of the Haitian revolution may reconfigure what Oliver Marchart calls the “long Davidian moment”. I recognize that there are obvious limitations to decolonial recontextualization, reconceptualization and reimagining in my blogs, for instance my use of sources, that are predominantly white and male, but also more generally, as these are for me early steps in the discursive terrain of decoloniality.
Beyond the Long Davidian Moment
As you might remember from my last blog, Oliver Marchart (2019) has offered an attempt at periodizing political art under the notion of “the long Davidian Moment,” predicated on the tradition of the French revolution when painter Jacques-Louis David “crossed the line between art and politics by becoming a member of the Jacobins and a political deputy under Robespierre”. (16). It is this “foundational moment”, Marchart tells us, that repeats itself with every instance of artistic activism since the French revolution.
This is where I would like to call upon Massimiliano Tomba ́s (2019) decolonization of modern history. History, as Tomba demonstrates in his argument, is not singular, it has a variety of different trajectories that he suggests we might approach chronotonically [“chronos” meaning time, and “tonos” meaning tension] exploiting the “friction generated by the sliding of different temporal layers”. (10). In effect, Tomba interrogates various historical revolutions, such as the French revolution, through other revolutions, for instance the uprisings of the slaves of Santo Domingo in 1791 and 1793, radicalizing “the French Revolution by realizing its universality and postulating the full emancipation and citizenship of the African American slaves.” (18) Furthermore, “the uprising of women and the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen of 1791,” (18) as well as the insurgencies of the Sans-culottes and the Enragés – all of which have been excluded from canonical histories of the French revolution. And instead of asking about particular personalities, he looks at the collective documents of these different revolutions, taking seriously the anonymity of radical democratic action.
If we now turn to the Davidian moment we can see where it falls short as a foundational moment for politically and socially engaged art. It is male, it is individualized, it is white and securely located at one of the important metropoles of Europe, Paris. What indeed, would become of such a moment through a chronotonical reading? It is after all, incredibly difficult to imagine, that a particular difference between the French revolution, and the revolution of African American slaves in Haiti – the indigenous name given to the French colony after its independence in 1804 – hinges on the fact that there were no politically or socially engaged artists in the society of African Americans in Haiti at the time, just because there was not a functional differentiation, or a line in the sand, between art and politics that the insurgent artist needs to overstep. To nominally prioritize, in this way, the exceptional value of modern Western art, seems to me unfounded.
At this juncture, I would like to invoke the argument of Massimiliano Mollona in his recent publication, Art/Commons (2021). The Art/Commons is precisely the expressive and symbolic production one finds in every society; “the reproductive gestures and rituals that re-introduce movement and openness into fixed and static human institutions … and socialize knowledge and emotions” (28). Through the lens of Art/Commons the notion of a long Davidian moment becomes redundant, because it predicates all politically motivated art production on a particular event that is Eurocentric, and tightly interwoven with the rise of art markets and modern capitalism, as well as one particular artistic medium which is painting, tying insurgent art to a legacy of representation and abstraction, instead of to the experience of indignation, opposition, disagreement and disavowal of oppressive power (as well as the ability of people to creatively express and subordinate such power through the symbolic mustering of knowledge and emotions) that is found in all known societies.
Kester Grant H. 2015. “Editorial.” FIELD: A Journal of Socially-Engaged Art Criticism 1 (Spring). Visited 8.12.2021 at http://field-journal.com/issue-1/kester.
Marchart, Oliver. 2019. Conflictual Aesthetics: Artistic Activism and the Public Sphere. Sternberg Press.
Mollona, Massimiliano. 2021. Art/Commons: Anthropology beyond Capitalism. ZED.
Pogue, Tiffany D. 2009 “Bois Caiman.” In Encyclopedia of African Religion. Edited by Molefi Kete Asante and Ama Mazama. Sage.
Tomba. Massimiliano. 2019. Insurgent Universality. An Alternative Legacy of Modernity. Oxford University Press.