Who Needs A World View?

September 12, 4-6 pm


“The idea that someone in chains, muzzled in a hole in the ground in the company of worms, might in no way be prevented from thinking whatever he likes, may well console those who see being in chains as an unalterable destiny. In reality, people muzzled by the economy can only think freely if they can free themselves in thought, that is, from the economy. And they can only do this if their thought changes the economy, in other words, makes the economy dependent on it…. The recognition that thought has to be of some use is the first stage of knowledge.”

Bertolt Brecht, “Who Needs A World View?” (c. 1930)

How should we know what to do about the world economy? How can artists and intellectuals intervene across the diverging scales of contemporary politics?

Liberal democratic society has only two measures of value, and therefore only two standards for organizing its collective decisions: profitability and popularity, calculated on the markets and in the media. This formula has given rise to extreme consumerism, predatory business elites and populist political leaders who draw on ethnic and religious identifications to pump up their individual images. What has disappeared in the spectacular splash and the aggressive national posturing is any kind of collective project, such as the industrial modernization projects on which so many Leftist artists and intellectuals collaborated in the early twentieth century. The question we face, as artists and intellectuals, is how existing forms of cultural production and distribution can be reconfigured, in order to help generate egalitarian aspirations after the current bankruptcy and collapse of the exclusionary liberal formula of market-driven, media-centered democracy. How can new values of solidarity and reciprocity become visible in thought, serving as measures and standards for vitally needed changes in reality?

This panel asks about a view of the world, which is essential to any collective project at contemporary scales. Yet this cannot be a static or univocal “world picture.” It would be futile to resurrect the industrial utopias of modernism, or to remain content with scattered snapshots of oppression and resistance, mere gestures of hope and rage. Postmodern fragmentation must be overcome, not by going back to monolithic disciplinary structures but instead by creating long-term frameworks of understanding and action. What’s lacking are ways to coordinate disparate modes of perception and expression, so that situated acts of showing and saying can become pathways into sustained processes of collaborating and doing, both within existing communities of value and across the boundaries of language, class and historical experience. Art is a way to crystallize perceptions and memories, to express desires and ideals and to open them up to transformative debates. It is a vector of denormalization and liberation, for sure: but it is also a symbolically effective arena for the negotiation between individual freedom, small-group autonomy and social planning in complex societies.

The question, therefore, is not whether art should be interventionist, but what kinds of interventions it can perform, at what scales, where and why and how and with whom. To overcome the cynical view of large exhibitions as spectacular malls for the sampling of “world flavors,” or as global popularity contests with an underlying profit motive, will require many kinds of work on the aesthetic, ideological and organizational levels. Only at this price can artists and intellectuals even aspire to contribute to collective projects, and to find more trustworthy ways of measuring their success or failure.

Over half a century ago, Brecht put the question bluntly: Who needs a world view? Today the answer could be this: Anyone who stops to think about the immense challenges that await us over the next half-century.

Participants: Meltem Ahiska, Bassam El-Baroni, Charles Esche, Marko Peljhan, Irit Rogoff; moderated by Brian Holmes


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