Before our culture wars „cultural Cold War” (term coined by George Orwell in 1945) wreaked havoc: Moscow won, its socialist realism has defeated its rival – Nazi realism; another giant, USA, is a new country, considered a country without culture. In the middle School of Paris (Ecole de Paris), international, believes in a free cooperation between cultures – when the state withdrew from arts management, it is not too concerned about geostrategy. The new war is primarily semantic: the Russian „against fascism for peace” is answered by the American „for freedom of culture” – this slogan, more consensual and positive, will win and remain the winner.

Pigeon of Picasso vs. Pollock’s dripping

The United States are belatedly implementing communist strategy: they will also have their publications, their conferences, their seemingly independent, so reliable, institutions, like the Congress For Cultural Freedom, founded in Paris in 1950 by (unoficcially) CIA, that funds it. The Congress collaborates with private foundations or musea, like MoMA, organizing travelling exhibitions of American modern art since 1952. Americans chose abstract expressionim (born in Europe): no narration or figurativism, no references to the national past, suitable for everyone as expressing universal inner states. Pollock’s greatness and energy fits modernity. Ironically, promoted American painters are leftist (as are the critics who support them: Greenberg or Rosenberg), suspected – McCarthyism obliges – to be communists, and overseas, CIA brings them to Forefront in order to turn European leftists away from communism. It was easier to discourage plastic artists from travelling to Moscow: socialist realism, called academism, did not fuel competitive spirit among Western avant-gardists, much less in Picasso, who was, after all, a party member. Dicouraging from travelling to Paris was based on a mix of pop-art. with art originating from Duchamp, as did Rauschenberg (not too loyal) winner of Biennale in Venice in 1964. This i show New York „stole the idea of modern art from Paris”. Duchamp art, from ready-made to performance, contains features of conceptual art: idea, intention and discourse are more important than form. Art expressed through craftmanship, striving for Beauty, becomes archaic or even ridiculous: destruction by making unpopular is a constant element of culture war. Progressive argument will be able to propagate through the Duchamp movement, containing transgression that merges with American concern about crossing borders: conquest of the West, the Moon, later crossing gender and human species boundaries (LGBT, speciecism…). This last goal fits in with the idea of questioning western civilization, dominated by the white man, initiated on college campuses (Stanford), pursued by French Theory, the mother of gender studies. Culture considered from a perspective of a class, ethnic group or gender transforms into multiculturalism, as befits the end of modernity (Lyotard and Fukuyama), and the dawn of the postmodern era: grand mythic narratives (revolution, progress) are replaced by storytelling, influencing voters, buyers or spectators. The identity is tolerated only as folklore or in a „disneylanded” form – in favour of cultural tourism. It was the mid-1970s that the term „contemporary art”, a buzzword that sells even better than the military and committed avant-garde, emerged. Its most important representative is Marcel Duchamp, French emigrant in the USA, apolitical and a witty dandy, the inventor of ready-made, the pioneer of performance in which, dressed as a woman, asks gender questions; master of word games and chess – after all, culture war is based on semantic strategies. His principles of meaning reversal, assimilation, recontextualization (the meaning of the work changes depending on the context) makes it a Trojan horse, capable of knocking out the host: the „Fountain” is its pioneer. Duchamp does not create anymore, he decided about art, transforms skills (craftsmanship) into informing, that is a base of a belief, that „it is art indeed”, the art of the contemporary world.

The new hostility

If CIA works on influencing overseas, inside the country there is NEA agency, created in 1965, State-subsized, but relatively independent.

It gives priority neither to high culture (threatened by mass culture) nor to the avant-garde, which prides itself on Duchampism (though about a more democratic and popular culture -folklore, then in the 1970s graffiti, hip-hop, rap...), present in prisons, schools, urban ghettos.

In 1980 the Congress imposes „cultural diversity”: appreciation of art and culture of ethnic and social minorities (Black people, Latinos, Indians). Feminists, gays and lesbians quickly recognize themselves as communities and sexual minorities: with them, contemporary art[1], with its Duchampian element of crossing borders, returns with greater force. The actual „culture wars”, where the word culture refers not so much to intellectual heights as to lifestyle, begin.

The crisis breaks out in May 1989, when religiuos societies protest against André Serrano’s photography, depicting crucified Christ, covered by the „beautiful” light with shades of orange, that turns out to actually be urine: it is „Piss Christ”. The culture has its origins in worship, and Christianity, especially Catholicism, with two thousands years of paintings to be redesign, creates space for transgressive movement in art. Senators and members of the House of Representatives protest against NEA, who have funded this work. In March of 1989, Mapplethorpe exhibition, funded by NEA, was cancelled for fear of riots, but the photographer died of AIDS in March: artists and intellectuals, under the influence of emotion, boycotted the museum in protest against censorship. Other works dedicated to AIDS patients drag down the NEA director, who, despised, will end up caught in the snare of the subversion/subvention cycle: every scandal makes transgressive artists more popular. However, this ambivalent game of rewarding transgressive art in order to (attempt to) deceive it has served as a model for the cultural policies of many countries. No holds barred: Serrano, not admitting to have committed blasphemy, sued a pastor for the fact that in order to campain against „Piss Christ” he distributed photocopies of the work without paying copyright royalties. „Culture wars”, started in Washington, spread across America, including a lot of institutions, universities, libraries, foundations, etc. Ten years of demonstrations (and counter demonstrations), petitions (and counter petitions), and a plethora of lawsuits, among them the „NEA4” (4 queer artists and gay activists, stripped of grants due to "obscene behavior") trial. After a victory in the first instance the lawsuit will be dismissed by the Supreme Court in 1998: decency, respect for the faith and values of the American public is what can count on the allocation of public funds. If private money is free, in a multicultural society the state should be able to deal gently and respectfully with its (over)vulnerable citizens.

Thanks to globalization, firms Americanize, human migrations bring diversity, New York becomes an „intersection”: taggers, rappers, dancers, etc. travel, thanks to embasies, more and more often abroad. This "soft power" leads to a uniformity of cultures, a mosaic in which contemporary art (from the dark side of McCarthyism to the glamour of Koons), taking many forms, is the right reference point, brought to the fore as more scandals or high-market financial records occur, while the masses are reached by derivative products. From now on Parisians know New York artists better than the local ones.

Oficially diversity is an enabler of creativity, weakening the identity of those suspected of nationalism and therefore war. Practically, non-Duchamp art stands in the way of globalization, because brings meaning, values, identity, friction harmful to mercantylism, removing all brakes on the mobility of people and goods. When, after the pig and in a contrast to it, Wim Delvoye tattoos the back of a man whose (by contract) tattooed skin will be cut after his death as an exhibit, the artist sends the message that humans are commodities just like any other.

This global culture, the mainstream, the inexorable direction in which history is moving, makes all traditions unfashionable: the National Museum of Art and Popular Tradition in Paris, left unattended by the Ministry, is closed in 2005. This ethnological museum, dedicated to the old France, rural and artisanal, can only be populist and backward. Today the buildings of the former museum depend on, being a real symbol, Louis Vuitton foundation, a collector of international contemporary art. American agents were replaced by international economic-financial-media networks that support contemporary art. The cross-border economy is made up of interconnected rhizomes, soaked in life-giving money - a "conductor" is unnecessary there. Cultural cold wars became blurred, their outline is everywhere and nowhere. World „Soft power 30” ranking by Portland agency classifies 30 countries according to their submissiveness to global ideals. In 2019 the worst students are China (27th position) and Russia (30th), as they use local potential to resist globalism or play a double game, preserving their own culture but embracing contemporary art. Poland is 23th in this ranking. France is 1st one[2].

The great artistic career is supported by chains: postcolonial (Kader Attia) or feminist ones (Kiki Smith), etc. The engagement is more important than the work itself, or even is the work itself. Activism is no longer political, but social: feminism, racism, discrimination, gender studies, climate and migration crisis, etc. monopolize attention at the expense of life's most pressing needs (the degradation of French hospitals has only been exposed because of COVID-19). Beyond the content itself, culture wars are dangerous because of ever-recurring attack targets: worship (for Venice Biennale in 2015 a church was transformed into a mosque by a Swiss artist), to which the legacy joins. These wars look backwards: artists who practice contemporary art love to enter into a "dialogue" with the art of the past. It is enough to compare ambiguous Matthew Barney (born 1967) with Girodet (1767-1824) to conclude that his work „Endymion” does not derive from romanticism, but from the homosexuality or bisexuality attributed to the artist (no other evidence). Great people should update customs. The notion of memory, primarily emotional and communal, displaces the memory of history, a rational discipline based on widely accepted evidence. In a society torn by culture wars the truth disappears, it is replaced by a consensus or an „alternative truth”. You can now only talk about meaningless topics or have fun – hence the success of the word arty, combining art and sexy. Culture wars have the character of fun, attracting the young, their third target. School groups are sent to exhibitions that introduce young people, in good humor, to relativism, the deconstruction of values, and the pleasure of shifting meanings. The exhibition title „Infamilies”, organized by FRAC Lorraine (a state institution) combines two words: infamie (viciousness) and famille (family). The judgement is parallised by the holy „freedom of speech”. Such freedom for a long time protected artists, for whom pedophilia was a praiseworthy rebellion against the moral order, suffice it to recall the contemporary art star Claude L'évêque, recently accused of raping minors.

What to do?

Never attack from the front: outrage will be censored, become an attack on the dignity of the artist, art, etc. When the „Dirty corner” (Vagin de la Reine) was devastated in Versailles by hooligans, Kapoor, for his own benefit, depicted himself as a victim. In a cultural war, concepts and slogans are weapons that social networks are fond of. But it is necessary beforehand, under threat of exchanging one alienation for another, to deconstruct the deconstruction, to catch it in its own traps, understatements and contradictions[3]. The contemporary art prides itself on feminism. Thus why are women, the majority in art schools, only 7 of the 100 most popular artists in 2020? Why, after Me too and Duchamp’s statement: „for a female, man has a urinal and he is content about it”, his fallocratic urinal still remains a world icon? Blocks of ice in Paris to plead the cause of the climate? What about the carbon footprint after that happening? The trawler where 800 migrants died, refloated at a high price, was exhibited at the 58th Venice Biennale as a symbol of guilt of "a failing Europe": in front of the wreck, visitors drank Spritz. Aren't migrant aid associations skeptical of the cocktail of art, entertainment, finance and human rights? Edouardo Kac fights genetic manipulations by creating a fluorescent rabbit, and at the same time, contemporary art loves to practice what it denounces: then only the evil can fight the evil? Orlan sculptures her own face with surgically implanted humps on her forehead: „I am that woman himself and that man herself” – says the artist. Faced with the current malaise of the masculine/feminine, the more art flirts with the clone, the augmented man, the cyborg, the less the industrial substances that disrupt the functioning of the endocrine system will be blamed (despite a significant increase in precocious puberty among young), because the results are already culturally assimilated, and transgenderism, genderfluid or transhumanism are depicted as the rise of mankind.

Finally, condemnation of the „cultural appropriation” as stealing from another culture (forbidding whites to talk about the subject of slavery etc.) dynamites the notion of culture which is as much borrowing as inheritance. The „cancel culture” debunks in packs the statues of great people who do not respect "our" values. It is an iconoclastic anachronism, which, from intimidation to emotion, manages to make people accept an occultation for a liberation. These latest avatars of the culture wars are leading to a Kafkaesque world, or to civil wars.

Christine Sourgins

Historyk sztuki i eseistka. Specjalizuje się w krytycznym badaniu sztuki współczesnej i jej implikacji filozoficznych, społecznych oraz religijnych.

[1] Contemporary art. should mean the art of all contemporary people, but often this term means only conceptual art originating from Duchamp (for clarity, the word "contemporary" in this context will be italicized to indicate this meaning). The dominant contemporary art has financialized.

[2] Les USA de Trump sont 5éme.

[3] Ch. Sourgins, « Les mirages de l’Art contemporain », La Table Ronde, 2018

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