The Fall of Greatness: Toward an Aesthetics of Co-(re)production

Cecilie Ullerup Schmidt*

Abstract

Public reception of artistic inquiries into Danish colonial legacies insistently focuses on singular authorship, quality and visual representation. In public discourse, I argue, collectively uttered needs for decolonization are willfully ignored. Through an analysis of the aesthetics of reception and its entanglement in post-enlightenment onto-epistemologies of separation, I demonstrate how the “carceral frame of the art work” (Moten qtd. in Harney et al.) is upheld in both art criticism and in the infrastructures of the arts. However, informed by practices of BIPoC artists’ collectives, I will describe and theorize a current changing conception of production in aesthetic theory. Moving from the Kantian heritage of isolation, interiority and exclusion, I suggest instead to think with the conception of an aesthetics of co-(re)production (Kunst, “NT”). This shift to co-(re)production changes the conception of what an artwork is, namely not an action or an object produced through freedom by one artist, but an imprint of interdependency, a socio-aesthetic structure woven between history, infrastructures and people. Perceiving artistic production as interdependent challenges a racial grammar otherwise inherent in the tradition of Western aesthetic theory. 
Keywords: artists’ collectives, Anonymous Visual Artists, aesthetics of production, Bojana Kunst, co-(re)production, Denise Ferreira da Silva, Marronage

Hunting Down the Author, Looking for the Object

On a grey November day in 2020, a plaster cast bust of the Danish king and founder of the art academy Frederik V of Denmark (1723–66) was removed from its pedestal rising above the heads of the students at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and thrown into the harbour. The action—later framed as happening by the artists themselves—was carried out by Anonymous Visual Artists, a group that made its appearance for the first time to the Danish public. The aim was—in line with many effigies torn down from the public space in the context of Black Lives Matters (BLM) protests in 2020—to raise awareness of the invisibilization of the Danish colonial past and its continuous consequences for BIPoCs in and outside the academy, in and outside Denmark. The happening was documented in a video by the artists, along with a written statement below the images: “. . . solidarity with all the artists, students, and people all over the world who have had to live with the aftermath of Danish colonialism in the US Virgin Islands, India, Ghana, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Denmark.”[1]

A plaster cast of a bust of King Frederik V (1723–66) was sunk in the harbour of Copenhagen in November 2020 by the group of Anonymous Visual Artists. The original bust was made by Jacques-François-Joseph Saly in 1754, but the plaster copy is a more recent replica from the 1950s. Photo: Courtesy of Anonymous Visual Artists and Katrine Dirckinck-Holmfeld, 2020

In Denmark, the appeal to engage with Danish colonial histories has in the past years been led by BIPoC students, artists and cultural workers in collectives such as Feminist Collective with No Name (FCNN), Marronage and The Union—Cultural Workers Union for BIPoCs in Denmark.[2] Yet, their collectively organized appeals have not reached broader media attention. It seemed now, after years of collective and very persuasive, constructive and educative attempts to raise consciousness of continuing colonial rationales in Denmark, a happening that would lead to the destruction of the colonizer’s head could maybe finally raise broader public attention. But instead of generating a public debate on decolonization of artistic education and Denmark’s relation to its role as colonizing nation in the U.S Virgin Islands and in Greenland (and its repercussions in Danish asylum policies), the reception in newspapers and on social media condemned the happening as both vandalization, iconoclasm in line with Daesh and the Taliban, and was judged by art critics and fellow artists as an imprecise and non-edifying work of art.[3] The interest in engaging with the aims of the happening was considerably small,[4] and calls for the police to act were quickly made by right-wing politicians as well as the social democrat Minister of Culture, Joy Mogensen (Dreyer; Henningsen).

Public debate focused on the view that artists had been destroying cultural heritage and vandalizing another (dead) artist’s artwork—a cast from around 1950 made in plaster worth around €5.000, it turned out, and of which there were more copies in the archives and so it could easily be reproduced. This heated discussion involved an accusation by journalist Poul Pilgaard from the newspaper Weekendavisen that the academy was the victim of harsh and damaging identity politics.He decided to publicly name four BIPoC art students who—according to the journalist—could possibly be involved in the happening. As a reaction to this hunting down of BIPoC students, the teacher, artist and postdoc researcher Katrine Dirckinck-Holmfeld from the academy publicly took full responsibility for the group action, possibly in order to protect students from further accusations. She was instantly expelled from her position at the art academy where the rector Kirsten Langkilde stated that “[t]he Art Academy can accommodate all opinions—but not all actions” (Langkilde). When expelled from the position in the academy, Dirckinck-Holmfeld also lost her grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation for her research on the legacies of Danish colonial archives.

The urge for public interest to identify the persons behind Anonymous Visual Artists, and not accepting a collective and de-personified authorship behind the action, was striking. As Dirckinck-Holmfeld took the responsibility for the happening and was held accountable for vandalism by the police, the desire for solidarity beyond the kingdom of Denmark was “drowned.” Instead, the reception of the acclaimed authorship was met by colleagues with infantilizing, personifying mockery.

Artists in the Danish theatre scene—until then quiet—found now a possibility to attack the confirmed and assumed artist personae behind the happening. Dirckinck-Holmfeld’s presentation of the happening’s decolonializing invitation, explained, in rather academic vocabulary, on public television, was imitated sarcastically by Danish playwright Line Knutzon and the actress Paprika Steen on an Instagram video series with more than 15.000 views.[5] A satirical trio of actors, Platt-form, made a music video performing young, hip (and racialized white) fine arts students posing in a shabby basement and throwing small puppet statues in a bowl of water while identifying with both the Taliban and Mao Zedong and shrilly claiming to be “the radical left wing.”[6]

The debate has given rise to threatening rhetorical ammunition imported from the right wing[7]: scapegoating and hunting down personified “perpetrators” and insistently avoiding the questioning of colonial repercussions by linking the attention to the Americanized and all-too-sensitive “identity politics.” What is missing in the public debate is a greater discussion of what it would actually mean to decolonize the academy. A crucial question is whether artistic practices can change the foundational rationales of the art institution, when they materialize in the classical category of the artwork, building on a hermeneutic understanding of soloist authorship and the artwork as expressing the artist’s interiority.

“We need new institutions, not new art,”  performance artist Coco Fusco recently stated (2020), pointing towards the overproduction of artworks in unfortunate and precarious infrastructures. If performance art has always been concerned with the embodied implications of the political—personal questions of the gendered, racialized, classist subject at the centre for structural analysis—then a shift can be observed moving from working on and pointing towards the personal as political to operating on an infrastructural level. How can (not subjectivities but) structurally formed collective identities be performed and renegotiated through new ways of organizing? And will decolonizing suggestions formulated collectively be perceivable in a wider public in Denmark?

In order to understand the attempts to change institutions collectively and from the bottom up, I suggest moving the scholarly focus from an aesthetics of reception to an aesthetics of production. The cultural analysis thereby shifts focus from concrete artworks to infrastructural performance in itselflooking at the (re)organization of production within the arts as an artistic practice in itself, and thereby provincializing the analytical interest in artistic content, themes and expression.[8]

In recognition of the contributions made by the collective organization of BIPoCs in the Danish art scene, and situated as a racialized white scholar in Cultural Studies and Performance Studies in Denmark, I will analyse how the aesthetics of production is profoundly interdependent and engaged with necessary affective labour and care work. Informed by practices of BIPoC artists’ collectives, I describe and theorize a current changing conception of production in aesthetic theory, moving from the Kantian heritage of isolation, exclusion, distinction and abstraction as rationales in aesthetics of production, towards an aesthetics of co-(re)production (Kunst, Artist at Work).

This shift from an aesthetics of reception to an aesthetics of co-(re)production fundamentally changes the conception of what an artwork is and challenges lines of demarcation inherent in the tradition of Western aesthetic theory. Instead of giving attention to the artistic object and its origin in the artist’s genius, so distinguished from others, the relations and dependencies of the artwork become central to the very understanding of art. In an aesthetics of co-(re)production, art is seen as a social structure woven by history, institutions and people. My argument here is influenced by Black feminist theory, as I interrogate the iteration and privilege of interiority (da Silva, Toward; “Material Aesthetics”) as racializing implication in the conception of the artwork itself.

All the Work Done

It is no wonder if artists, academics and activists concerned with Danish colonialism, Denmark’s participation in transatlantic enslavement and the racializing repercussions today, are suffering from a certain fatigueand articulation of afro-pessimism.[9] The three Caribbean islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John were Danish colonies for over 250 years and Denmark was–with engagements in the transatlantic enslavement triangle—the seventh largest slave-trading nation worldwide. In 2017, the centenary of the sale of the Danish West Indies was marked with several exhibitions, performances, publications and conferences. The many “edifying” artworks from 2017—this is a term the critics would later call for as the bust was sunk into the harbour, meaning works that are constructive and inviting for further conversation—have not led to any radical change in Danish public identity.

The major narrative is still that Denmark is part of a “Nordic exceptionalism,” meaning that Denmark, before others, set the enslaved free and is still, although it is costly, benevolently helping Greenland’s small nation to survive through some semi-colonial ties.[10] Despite the brutal history of the Danish slave trade from 1673–1863, and despite the recent documentation of the forced adoption of Greenlandic children in the twentieth century, there have been no official apologies nor paid reparations from Danish governments. The centre-liberal government in 2017 chose not to financially support any memorials in the centenary year of the sale of the Danish West Indies. Ironically, two sculptures have been donated from the U.S Virgin Island to Denmark as gifts in order to remind the public that “we are here because you were there.”[11]

Many artists are continuously contributing to the decolonizing attempts in the Danish art scene from positions across genres: both regarding the colonies in Greenland and the former Danish West Indies, but also through critiques of transatlantic adoption and the everyday racialization of descendants of immigrants. Some examples include visual artists Jeanette Ehlers, La Vaughn Belle, Emil Elg, Jane Jin Kaisen, Pia Arke and Jessie Kliemann, and authors Yahya Hassan, Maja Lee Langvad and Niviaq Korneliussen.

“We are here because you were there” Stuart Hall famously stated in a BBC documentary in 1978. The quote is repeatedly cited by a group of racialized Black performers on stage, facing the tribune with the audience in a small theatre, Får302, in Copenhagen. The scene is part of the performance Into the dark, directed by visual artist Jeanette Ehlers in 2017. Photo: Søren Meisner

Most significantly, a large number of BIPoCs have organized in collectives across media, activism and art: UFOlab, Marronage, Feminist Collective With No Name (FCNN), (Un)told Pages, A Seat at the Table, Andromeda and The Union—Cultural Workers Union for People of Colour. These collectives have—through performances, readings, zines, self-made media platforms, artist-driven spaces, book stores, festivals or artists’ organizations—acted as rewriters, confronters, archivists, caretakers and healers of Danish cultural memory. These works can, each in their own right, be seen as “edifying” as opposed to destructive, as was the critique of the “bust happening” in the sense that they are suggestive and constructive. Why have all the “edifying” practices of the collectives not reached wider media attention? Does the Danish media public need the signature and personae of the single artist in order to have a scapegoat, so that a discussion on the artist personae can overshadow public unwillingness to deal with colonial amnesia?

In a conversation on collective organization and strategic separatism in BIPoC artists’ collectives, FCNN member Dina El Kaisy Friemuth explains why appearing only as a group is a way of protecting themselves after exiting “the white castle,” as she names the art academy in Copenhagen: “I needed to organize. I needed to get some people with me, because it’s really tough to do political work, and when you do it alone it really like [sic] crushes you.”She further explains the experience of racial violence and what it means to be “crushed” publicly by exemplifying it with the sudden death of the Palestinian-Danish author Yahya Hassan (1995–2020), who had been subjected to massive media attention and embroiled in a scandal for his critique of both Danish structural racism and domestic and psychic violence in immigrant families:

We just saw that you had a really big loss in Denmark, a person who has been crushed . . . you get so much shit when you talk about these things and you need to have a community around you, . . . a safe environment and somebody who has your bag.

El Kaisy Friemuth

What El Kaisy Friemuth argues here is that the public Danish discourse can be intimidating for BIPoCs to engage in, and even deadly, when individual artists become scapegoats for racist defence of the realm. We can see her argument as a specific need amongst BIPoCs to be organized and represented in groups in order to be less vulnerable and structurally isolated as minoritized and racialized non-white individuals.

A recurring motif in Black aesthetics is how to work against structural loneliness (Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely; Just Us) and organize as many—in plural (da Silva, “Hacking”)—or as assembly (Harney et al.). The organization of bodies in artists’ collectives, counteracting the individuation of the artist and (national) lines of demarcation within the infrastructures of the art world, can be seen as a strategy in order to escape what Fred Moten has also termed “the carceral frame of the art work” (Harney et al.).

FCNN News is a media platform by Feminist Collective with No Name (FCNN). Photo: Maja Theodoraki

To be organized as many, particularly as BIPoCs, has turned out to be crucial in Denmark: by being in plural it becomes obvious that the single BIPoC artist is not “too sensitive,”  having an individual problem, but that the experiences of racism in Denmark are structural and the ignorance towards colonial repercussion seems willful. Claims of structural racism and colonial amnesia in the Danish public are often met with the accusation of “policing” with the agenda of identity politics,[12] and the demands for anti-racist work and decolonizing actions are neglected. The Danes are, according to scholars in Nordic colonialism, holding on to the so-called “hygge-racism”[13]: a defence of normative “colour blindness” and the ways in which Danish racist heritage is preserved as only cosy, retro-cultural reminiscences of times where people were less conscious of their vocabulary and artifacts.

To be critical towards “hygge-racism” is often perceived as an attack on free speech. Similarly, when discomfort is uttered by academics, criticizing the use of colonial vocabulary such as the n-word or the e-word[14] in children’s books, the media in Denmark presents it as “censorship.” Unlike other former colonizing nations, Denmark has not reflected publicly on its continuation of “white innocence” (Wekker). Rather, Denmark has defended its right to be ignorant by continuously drawing borders and identifying who really belongs to the “good” old nation state.

Artistic Authorship Draws Borders

In recent years, we have seen rich examples across fine arts and performance art of what has been named instituent practices (Raunig) or extra-institutional alliances (Rogoff). The terms cover artist-run institutions which offer an alternative institution to political institutions. They are NGO-like, however located within the arts, and try to criticize governmental policies–often on immigration and asylum–by founding new institutions and taking direct action. They suggest supplementary or restorative politics by supporting conditions for refugees, changing education or making alternative parliaments. They can be seen as institutional critiques of subjection and governance in governmental institutions, but also as artistic answers to ignorant continuations of colonizing patterns and responses to austerity policies within the arts. These non-governmental, artistic practices are mostly durational and unfold in close exchange with social movements.

In a recent article, art theorist Verónica Tello suggested revising the relations in the production of these institutions. Tello’s examples are The New World Summit (Jonas Staal), Institute for Human Activities (Renzo Martens), Immigration Movement International (Tania Bruguera), The Silent University (Ahmet Ögut). In a Danish context a comparable institution would be Trampoline House (Morten Goll and Tone Olaf Nielsen, 2009–20), which was an artist-run community centre for refugees and asylum seekers in Copenhagen. However, despite commoning, democratizing and collectivizing aspirations—and also being perceived as such—not all artists initiating refugee-integrating art spaces, decolonizing summits and temporal institutes of anti-racist justice have distanced themselves from the idea of artistic authorship and ownership. As Tello has argued, there is an asymmetric division of labour between the ones owning symbolic capital (the artists) and the ones accumulating it (the rest). In other words, the iterations of authorship produce symbolic capital and draw invisible borders even within anti-authoritarian art institutions.

Distinct from the above-mentioned instituent practices founding alternative institutions in order to supplement politics, other artists’ groups are more explicitly identifying as collectives and working explicitly with an erasure of the artistic signature. A canonical example is Guerilla Girls who work under anonymous identity since 1985 by wearing identical gorilla masks in order to draw attention to structural invisibilization of women artists. Amongst the Danish BIPoC collectives I mentioned in the introduction, Marronage operates without a credit list and The Union—imitating the form of a union—has members, but no authors, directors or initiating artists. It has, however, been an ongoing struggle for collectives in the areas of fine arts, publishing and performing arts to resist infrastructural requests for both hierarchies and solo authorships (Matzke; Schmidt, Everybody Counts). The economy and fetishization of single authorship haunting even collectivizing attempts is embedded in post-enlightenment thought and, as I will show, is part of a border-drawing onto-epistemology that is foundational in modern racial grammar.

Drawing a border between “the artist and the rest” by identifying the artist by their exceptional abilities is a founding rationale in aesthetic theory on artistic production. In his Critique of Judgement, Immanuel Kant concentrates mainly on aesthetic judgement which means he develops primarily a concept on the reception of the artwork. Yet, as he needs to differentiate artworks from other objects, he develops a short theory on the production of the artwork: that production is only a concern when it comes to distinguish art from other things. It is the production carried out by the artist that makes art exclusive, something other than nature, science and crafts. Kant’s definition of the artist as a genius is clear and concise. In four paragraphs, from par. 46 to par. 50 in Critique of Judgement, he promotes the genius as a natural talent producing original artworks. The most central premise for an aesthetics of production according to Kant is that before art comes the genius:

Genius is the talent (or natural gift) which gives the rule to Art. Since talent, as the innate productive faculty of the artist, belongs itself to Nature, we may express the matter thus: Genius is the innate mental disposition (ingenium) through which Nature gives the rule.

Kant par. 46

The crucial circumstance, or condition, for art is the genius. Not money, not time, not social relations or institutions, but natural talent precedes the possibility of art. It is an idealist, not a material condition. It is a conceptualizing capacity, not a conditioned privilege. The Kantian promise of talent is transcendental, ahistorical and knows no political context. It is enhancing genius as an expression of interiority, something that is produced by a spirit independent from material, historical and worldly support.

The motif of the spirit is central to the concept of the artist as a genius. The spirit animates the soul to create (Kant par. 49). The spirit allows the artist to have intuition, or aesthetic ideas, representations made up by the imagination (Einbildungskraft in German). The artist is able to imagine aesthetic ideas and then pass them on as representations which “go beyond the limits of experience” (Kant par. 49). Beyond reason, the imagination of the artist genius creates representations that communicate more than words can express. Therefore, the work of the artist genius is exemplary and does not spring from imitation (Kant par. 46).

The exclusivity of the artist is the base for an individualized and bourgeois artist subject: without class and gender, “beyond” power relations, colonial hierarchies and exploitation. The history of aesthetic theory keeps repeating how the artist needs to be isolated—whether in nature, or in their studio–from the disturbing reality as if dependency only corrupts the otherwise “pure” channelling of truth.

Methodologically, Kant defines artistic production from what it is not, through the technique of exclusion. By that, he draws a formalist line of demarcation between what Black feminist Denise Ferreira da Silva has termed interiority and exteriority. Da Silva finds this distinction between the inner and the outer, the interiority and the exteriority, a central distinction in the ontological construction of universal man, a decisive division in what could be described as the racial grammar of post-enlightenment thought. Interiority is an ontological descriptor of “modern man,” preceding any materiality or context (Toward 25).

But under which circumstances does the artist emerge as a genius? Kant is not much concerned with the context, the relations or the infrastructures of the artwork. Besides the explicit disturbances such as the need for money and mechanical reproduction, both circumstances hindering “freedom,” a lot of other conditions within the production of art are not mentioned. According to Kant, art is—unlike the works of scientists or craftsmen—“production through freedom” (par. 43). In Kantian aesthetics free production is the act of imagination. When creating from interiority and out of pure imagination, the artist becomes ontologically detached and isolated from material surroundings, historical context and local sociality.

Looking back on the border-drawing rationales through the lens of Black feminist theory, we can align Kantian idealist aesthetics of production with what da Silva has called interiorized poesis: a productive force that comes from the rational mind. In her book Toward a Global Idea of Race, she unfolds how, in canonical post-enlightenment philosophy, “universal reason produces human difference” (4). The production of the transparent spirit, the interiority without historicity, is found in the writings of Kant and Hegel. For da Silva, the production and stressing of interiority—the self-actualizing Spirit—of the subject is central in post-enlightenment onto-epistemology as “the portal to self-determination” of the modern, Western subject (25). The praise of interiority is dependent, epistemologically, of an other, the exteriority of global thought, which da Silva detects as the racial. The transparent “global” and very racialized white subject was and is thus still, following da Silva, constructed on a logic of exclusion. And as long as the logic of exclusion continues, racialization and border-drawing reside in modern grammar.  

Returning to the instituent practices of artists, there is a discrepancy between the intention (and reception) of commonality and community across refugees and other citizens, and then a border-drawing and exclusionist grammar residing in the credits. How can such political artistic practices attacking the European border regime uphold a grammar of exclusion?

 My suggestion is that when an artistic work requires more than a single (spontaneous) action, it is dependent on infrastructures of artistic production. The infrastructures of artistic production require and uphold the soloist signature as well as further border-drawing rationales: when funding is applied for, an authorship must be recognizable; the habit of art institutions is to present solo exhibitions of individual artists; next to the artist’s name in the exhibition a code of their country is put; the national cultural policies support to the nation state’s own citizens.

Through da Silva’s analysis of raciality in modern grammar we can say that the infrastructures of artistic production uphold and require the interiorized poesis. In other words, lines of demarcation are foundational in the infrastructures of production. But also, the habits of reception of an artwork are longing for the individual to reincarnate and perform the idealist artist’s spirit. Art reception—whether in the appreciation of the beholder at the museum, written by newspaper critics, academics or in public debates—is often identifying individuals to “blame,” honour or “understand”; an aggressive example of how insistently the public media hunt down the artist is made evident by the journalist Pilgaard investigating who the artists behind the bust happening might have been, guessing their identity to be BIPoC students. Hence, infrastructures across artistic production and reception, actors in cultural policy, circulation and critique, defend both onto-epistemological and national borders; they perform a politics of accusation when they require the continuation of authorship, even when artists suggest interdependent and solidary ways of organizing anonymously and beyond interiorization.

An Artwork Requires a Judgement

Anonymous Visual Artists have defined the dismantling of the bust as a happening and thus inscribe it into the context of political and publicly scandalous happenings in modern art history (Stockmann; Deadline). Past examples of such happenings are Danish artists Lene Adler Petersen and Bjørn Nørgaard’s ritual sacrificing of a horse in order to raise attention to the victims of the Vietnam War (Copenhagen, 1970), or performance artist Ulay’s stealing of Hitler’s favorite painting and the rehanging of it in the living room of a Turkish immigrant family (Berlin, 1976), or—recently in Offenbach, autumn 2020—the trio Frankfurter Hauptschule’s stealing of the sculpture Capri Battery by Joseph Beuys and bringing it to the ethnographical museum Iringa Boma in the former German colony of Tanzania as a symbolic act of restitution. Thus, Anonymous Visual Artists have claimed kinship with other political happenings in art history rather than in the obvious relation of the BLM demonstrations and its activist overthrowing of statues of colonial and imperial history in the spring and summer of 2020.

Frankfurter Hauptschule: Bad Beuys (2020)

By aligning the work to art history (Deadline), Anonymous Visual Artists might invite interpretations of the happening as an artwork, thereby unintendedly opening a door for the public debate to ignore the explicit suggestion of decolonization and memorialization. Instead of paying attention to the political inquiries of the artists, the discussion of the happening amongst artists, academics and critics have broadly centered on whether this was a good or bad work of art, whether it succeeded or not, whether it was to the point or imprecise, instructive or destructive.

According to critic Lone Nikolajsen, writing in an editorial of the Danish left-wing newspaper Information, the happening had “failed” and was blamed for being “naïve,” framed by an “imprecise, pompous fashionist language,” when referring to how Dirckinck-Holmfeld presented the happening in an interview in the news program Deadline or in the newspaper Politiken (Nikolajsen). Its reception has generally deemed the action as infantile, however it has not recognized what students are, namely that they are studying, and that it is their right to experiment (and fail) while posing engaged and critical questions.[15] It is worthwhile considering whether art critics in Denmark lack a mode of analysis that could break with the question of quality and border-drawing rationales of good and bad art, success and failure, real art or imitation.

The very claim of the action being an artistic happening is drawing on an artistic tradition that blurs the line between art and activism, rather than repeating the invitation to others to draw borders, namely to judge. But the mode of separation in aesthetic theory has its repercussions and leads us back to a reoccurring misinterpretation of Kant, namely mistaking aesthetic, reflective judgement with a moralist judgement.

In Critique of Judgement, Kant suggests that aesthetic judgement is disinterested, that it has—as Jean-François Lyotard has put it—“no knowledge of its end” (4). However, there seems to be a desire in critique to judge whether an artwork is likeable or not, whether the artwork succeeds or not. But this way of judging is not an aesthetic judgement, in the sense that it is not reflective, as Kant suggests, but rather a moralist judgement.

The act of throwing the bust into the harbour had a very outspoken aim, interest and purpose stated in the video which was to trigger a public reflection on Denmark’s colonial past. Therefore, it might be right to ask whether a claimed artwork with political intentions can be met with a disinterested, reflective judgement at all.

I propose that the aesthetic strategy of the happening can be understood as an invitation—or provocation—in order to generate reflection and take action by re-membering Danish coloniality. The questions then follow, as they did in the media: did the happening start any reflection? It started a debate about the artwork itself, but not much reflection on the colonial past in the mainstream press.[16]

This makes me wonder whether the happening could even animate an ability to pay attention to colonial continuities in the Danish public, and whether the happening is to blame for the fact that too few people accepted the invitation to reflect. Can the discussion on good and bad artworks, on whether an artwork succeeds or not, prevent public debate from actually transgressing the border of art and non-art, and engage in a revision of Denmark’s historical memory? It seems that the moralizing discussion on “good art” and the upholding of its scapegoated artist genius can be a kind of border defence in the Danish public debate in order to avoid confrontation with colonizing, racializing and minoritizing continuities: safe discussions behind the white and segregating walls of the art institution.

Towards an Aesthetics of Co-(re)production

Beginning with the public debate about a happening calling for a revision of Danish colonial amnesia and how it ended up becoming an ignorant discussion about the artist personae and the quality of an artwork, I have analysed how the need of a singular artist subject and the moralist judgement of an artwork are upheld in the infrastructures of the art world. This separative exceptionalism can support scapegoating critiques of “identity politics” and moralizing judgements in public media debates, hindering a reflection on colonial repercussions in Danish contemporary public culture. The continuation of traditions within aesthetic theory, focusing on interiority and working by rationalities of separation and exclusion, support the inability to pay attention to—or maybe willful ignorance of—collectively uttered critiques and calls for a decolonization of Danish self-understanding and cultural memory. However, being aware of the scapegoating and “witch hunt” on artists’ personae,[17] the collective and possibly even anonymous organization among artists is a necessary protection as well as constituting an affective, caring infrastructural support for BIPoC artists in Denmark. This is important in the Danish context, where no anti-discriminatory guidelines or complaint channels are implemented by the state in the cultural sector.

The organization of artists’ collectives without signatures of the single artist confronts the Kantian border-drawing rationale between interiority and exteriority, a rationale resonating an onto-epistemological separation and mode of exclusion that is, following da Silva, to be found throughout post-enlightenment thought and in the racial grammar of modernity—a grammar that segregates artists from non-artists, quality from activism, members from non-members of the nation state and racialized white people from racialized black people. Rather than categorizing and aligning the work of all collectives across compositions of BIPoCs, of racialized Black or racialized white art workers, I suggest to conceive of such collective endeavours as a demand for revising aesthetic theory: how collective practices stress an urgency to leave border-drawing and violating assumptions of authorship and enclosed artworks as we know them, and instead promote to start from interdependency.

Marronage and allies reading their manifesto at the National Gallery of Denmark, 2017. Photo: Rine Rodin

In recent years, feminist and Black scholars have suggested paying attention to dependency and relationality, including both people and infrastructures. Socio-aesthetic arrangements of “the many” are for example theorized through the figure of the circle (Glissant), the assembly (Butler Notes; Harney et al.) and the plenum (da Silva, “Hacking”). What we can learn from these socio-aesthetic arrangements is that they are made out of necessity—not freedom—and they stem from interdependency.

Leaning into all the work done by feminist scholars on relational poetics, reproduction and care work, art theorist Bojana Kunst has recently suggested the mode of co-(re)production (“NT”).She did so in a context of thinking about sharing the care work with children when working as a precarious artist, often between nation states and unstable cultural economies. She traced concrete practices of redistributing time, economy and responsibilities among artists and the institutions they inhabited.

The attention to interdependency and redistribution is central in the practice of Marronage and in these concluding remarks I present this as a perspective of how authorship and individual ownership can be undermined. The collective Marronage is formed around lived experiences and the consequences of being racialized in Denmark; their practice recalls Danish colonial legacies. Marronage identifies as a feminist, decolonial collective, but not one of artists; however, they appear in art institutions and sometimes write about art (“The White Gaze”). Besides publishing books, texts and zines, Marronage has a production practice informed by the differentiated and precarious working conditions of the collective’s members, alternating the distribution of money and time: they pay fees according to needs internally in the collective, redistributing means from the collective to external allies, and scheduling working hours according to parental care work (Marronage and Diaspora of Critical Nomads; Marronage, “Conversation”). Thus, the group is founded on a recognition of interdependency and the attention to relationality is woven into the fabric of their ways of producing.

Thinking through the category of co-(re)production suggested by Kunst, I hesitate as a racialized white scholar to bluntly apply this to the aesthetics of production that is suggested by BIPoC collectives such as Marronage, FCNN or the Union. The Black position cannot and should not be aligned and compared with other precarious positions such as the non-black worker, the non-black queer or other postcolonial subaltern subjects (Marronage and DCN 29). Marronage stress that their work is not a muster of any collective: “Our work cannot be separated from the ones exercising it, nor that world in which it is carried out. Consequently, we work consciously on how our identities as racialised non-whites get a substantial importance in relation to the work we do in Marronage” (Marronage, “Enquete” 58). Albeit informed in their practice by a quotidian concern with the distribution of work and money under precarious conditions, they are most importantly occupied by (and with) affective work as racialized non-white persons living in Denmark. The BIPoC collective is also a social space for sharing grief and vulnerability, a space of support and a hindering from being “crushed” as a personification of the racialized non-white, as expressed by El Kaisy Friemuth from FCNN.

Instead of ending this text by concluding on “the right way of crediting” and organizing as an (artists’) collective, or even suggesting to pin out new standards for “good” quality, I hope to have taken the invitation by Anonymous Visual Artists seriously: to revise our common, theoretical grounds and detect the foundational racial grammar in the infrastructures of the arts. When all statues fall and white sugar castles are dismantled, the infrastructures of the arts will also have to face a fall of greatness. Starting from an aesthetics of co-(re)production changes not only our understanding of how many voices, bodies and interests are contributing to the interdependent production of artworks, but also how the infrastructures of the art world and the supposedly distanced beholders and critics of the artworks are co-(re)producing who can be seen and what work has to be done.


Endnotes

[1] The Danish language video was released here.

[2] The three collectives mentioned here all work explicitly with decolonizing agendas but are different in their practices. FCNN (2016– ) comprise artists Dina El Kaisy Frimuth and Lil B. Wachmann and filmmaker Anita Beikpour. With several collaborators FCNN is continuously producing, amongst others, the artistic media platform FCNN News, which broadcasts alternative “news” on Danish asylum policies, the Danish “ghetto act” and underrepresentation of BIPoC and queer artists in Danish art institutions, as well as on other issues. Watch their three episodes here.
Marronage (2016– ) is a BIPoC separatist collective of decolonial feminists. They practise resistance through writing, organizing events and curating. Marronage politicized the centennial marking the sale of the former Danish West Indian Islands by producing three magazines on Danish colonial legacies. See also.
The Union–Cultural Workers Union for BIPoCs in Denmark (2019–) is a separatist platform appropriating the identity of a union in order to specifically raise awareness on the study and working conditions and mis/underrepresentation of BIPoC cultural workers in Denmark. The organization is still in its beginnings and includes some of the members from FCNN and Marronage as well as art students, journalists, artists and other cultural workers. No official website is launched yet but a facebook site is active here.

[3] For a thorough overview of the reception in English, see Prija (2020).

[4] Examples are Danbolt and Skovmøller 2020, a special issue of the online journal Public Square and also a petition supporting the action and the artists, signed by 900+ artists, curators, academics and students from higher education in the arts. See here

[5] See playwright Line Knutzon’s Instagram video here.

[6] The two reactions from colleagues from the field of theatre show not only a lack of solidarity with a colleague taking responsibility on behalf of younger students, but exposes how the culture in Danish theatre is afraid of historical references and “academization”; that is, an academic reflection and language in the arts. See, on Facebook, Platt-form, “En buste I en havn,” 22 Nov. 2020.

[7] See also Danbolt and Skovmøller (2020).

[8] I define infrastructural performance as a structure-challenging artistic form (Schmidt, “Infrastructural Performance”). Infrastructural performance is part of a broader movement of what Judith Butler has termed assemblies: groups which are not mirroring broader structures, but performatively renew and produce “ideals of equality and interdependency” for larger contexts (Butler, Notes 137). Infrastructural performance is, in the case of FCNN, Marronage and The Union, an organizational practice that is in itself an artistic statement; the composition of bodies with their lived experiences and inherited memories is the message, so to speak.

[9] I here refer to afro-pessimism as a term suggested by Frank B. Wilderson III describing a pessimism based on the realization that Western modernity is based on anti-blackness. Wilderson was giving a lecture in Copenhagen in 2018 which instigated the collectives Marronage and Diaspora of Critical Nomads (DCN) , amongst others, to start working more consciously to understand anti-blackness in Danish society and to consider the relations between BIPoCs and Blacks in and across their respective collectives, see Marronage and Diaspora of Critical Nomads 2020.

[10] See for example conversation (in Danish) by Farhiya Khalid and Elisabeth Löwe Hunter on Danish exceptionalism.

[11] The quote has been used throughout different works of visual artist Jeanette Ehlers, amongst others, in a scene in the performance Into the Dark (2017), where a numerous group formation of Black performers stood facing the tribune with the audience in the relatively small venue Får 302, reciting “we are here, because you were there” several times while looking at the predominantly white audience.

[12] The Danish newspaper Politiken has a discussion of “identity politics” as something imported and overwhelming, disturbing jovial gaiety like stereotype national costumes at parties at the universities, demanding a less white curriculum—a “moral compass” possibly threatening the freedom of speech in Denmark, see here.

[13] The Danish term “hygge” covers a jovial, cosy and conflict-free way of being together. Scholars preoccupied with the Danish jovial way of being racist are for example art historian Mathias Danbolt and PhD in African American Studies Elisabeth Löwe Hunter.

[14] “e-word” refers to the Danish (former) use of “eskimo” for Inuit people (indigenous people in the Arctic, particularly from the former Danish colony, Greenland). In the summer of 2020 the word was publicly debated particularly in relation to a popular ice cream carrying that name.

[15] Having analysed in my PhD research the economization and measurement of time in artistic education, I would like to suggest a short contextualization on the engagement of the art student in 2020. The engagement of art students’ political queries has in recent years been structurally reduced due to the temporal shortening of higher arts education within the framework of the Bologna Process. Additionally, students are being trained to become more individualist in their study trajectory, collecting their own ECTS points and passing solo-assessments. I wonder then, why the rectorate is not publicly appreciating the anti-individualist concerns from the anonymous group including students. 

[16] In an academic and activist context, an issue of the online journal Public Square was dedicated to the happening and brings in positions from both artists and theorists in the U.S Virgin Islands and Danish art historians, art critics and artists, both positions racialized as Black, BIPoC and white. In that sense, my academic contribution here as a scholar, racialized as white, from Cultural Studies and Performance Studies by no means stands alone or is original. See also here.

[17] Writer, critic and PhD student Frida Sandström recently traced a Scandinavian legacy relating witch hunting with the hunting down of the anonymous artists. See Sandström (2020).


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*Cecilie Ullerup Schmidt (PhD University of Copenhagen) is an assistant professor in Performance Studies and Cultural Studies and deputy director at The New Carlsberg Foundation research centre Art as Forum, based in the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen. Her research examines how social, temporal and economic conditions both politicize artistic work and shape forms of living, particularly in cases of artists’ collectives. She has published in journals such as Nordic Theatre Studies and The Drama Review and is the co-editor of the Danish journal Peripeti – Journal of Dramaturgical Studies.She has been teaching and directing the theoretical strand at the BA Dance, Context, Choreography at the Inter-University of Dance at the University of the Arts in Berlin from 2011-2016 and has a background as a performance artist in the duo Chuck Morris with Swiss choreographer Lucie Tuma. When necessary, she is curating smaller formats or founding schools, latest CURRICULUM – Public School of Performance Art in Denmark. C.u.schmidt@hum.ku.dk

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