Sunday, 29 May 2005

Exteriors after Mondrian

I went to the Barbican today and saw an exhibition called Colour after Klein. The bottom floor was famous contemporary artists doing their thing, very formal and conceptual. The top floor showed me a revelation, a video documentary by this European artist called Anri Sala about an Eastern European city (Tirana, I think) where the artist-mayor had had the buildings painted in these bright primary colours, abstract designs almost like Mondrian in places on a city-wide scale. So what? Well the mayor was very interesting. He was trying to revive and give some sense of civic identity to this very poor, very brutalised place that had suffered from 70 years of tyranny. He made a comment about trying to turn this from a place where people had to live, to a place where people chose to live. He described the colours as a way of creating the first steps towards a democracy. In fact, he used the phrase “an avant-garde of democracy”.

To go back to my previous entry about culture, the idea of culture as not just a brute fact about people, but as something with a moral purpose, has been discovered before. As I mentioned the 18th century was very articulate about this, but another time which I had forgotten about was the start of the 20th when artists developed the concept of the avant-garde. The avant-garde led and others would eventually follow. This could be applied within, but also beyond, the sphere of art. So strangely enough here was this fellow on the very outskirts of European culture – I mean, Albania, FFS – and the ideas that made sense to him were those of the daring arrogant modernists. In fact, his conception of democracy was explicitly artistic. He raised, and dismissed, the idea that the way to colour a street was for each person privately to choose his own favourite colour and then to have “some kind of golden mean”, which would of course turn out to be “grey”. Now that is just the idea of democracy that one strand of modern political science has embraced – a way of aggregating people's preferences. And it does indeed, in the best case, lead to a kind of grey middle-of-the-road moderate median voter party, or so the theory runs.

The other strand of thinking about democracy that is currently fashionable is “deliberative democracy”, the idea that coming together in a debate can change people's preferences. I am a little sceptical of deliberative democracy, but that is for another day. The important thing for the moment is to note that the deliberative democrats are usually very egalitarian, usually explicitly egalitarian. It's all about debate in which everyone gets a say and everyone must be listened to, sometimes even people who don't actually have logical arguments must be listened to because otherwise it would be oppressive. (Okay, I am compressing a fairly intelligent argument into a caricature.) But if we look at the shape of current democratic polities, realistically the debate is going to be vertical not horizontal, between political leaders in the pulpit and the public on the ground, and perhaps even more stratified than that – between political leaders and cultural elites (avant-gardes) and the masses. As a way to think about this, the idea of the leader as artist has something to recommend it.

Of course that idea has a long and rather questionable history. It tends to be linked to futurism and to Fascism, maybe Communism too, with forebears in Machiavelli and Rousseau. (Leo Strauss wrote on this topic, I think.) But you don't need to go that far to see the potential dangers of thinking in this way. Another interesting comment by this mayor was that the painting was a way of undoing not only the brutalising effect of communism, but also the “brutal” way in which individuals in the apartment blocks in these streets had added bits on to their dwelling places – balconies and so forth – without respect for their neighbours. This seemed to evince a lot of contempt for ordinary people and their selfish little desires – it reminded me of Le Corbusier designing his “machines for living”, and then the inhabitants doing shocking things like installing window boxes, or hanging out their washing. And indeed the colours merrily spilled from one house and flat to another, which you could see as bringing people democratically together, or you could see as violating their desire for a space they could call their own. We did not hear during this documentary from any of the people in the coloured flats.

But then the mayor may well be right: after all political science and politics exist because, in the presence of externalities, individuals cannot always work things out satisfactorily on their own. I am tempted to say that culture and cultural leadership is a specific strategy which is suited to some times but not others. At the same time I am aware that the original debate, at the end of the 18th century, between “institutionalists” and “culturalists” was one in which “culture” was developed at least partly as an excuse by incumbent elites who did not like the challenge of Enlightenment to reform their institutions in order to make them more rational. This is much the same debate that I believe is now going on between the World Bank and IMF and their critics, and indeed between the American hot gospellers of the democratic way and those canny country specialists in the State Department and the Foreign Office (and probably their equivalents in every government) who make much play of their knowledge of the special unique facets of each particular people. So to make the case that culture matters, and cultural leadership needs to be nurtured, seems like an interesting research topic.

Here's the Colour After Klein web page. You should go if you can, it's pretty cool. I do think that the engagement of Anri Sala's work showed up the boring formalism of the established Great Late C20 Artists though.