Walter Benjamin: Writings After Death
By Rachel WetzlerApril 21, 2014
Recent Writings by Walter Benjamin by Walter Benjamin
IN JUNE 1986, Walter Benjamin stood before an audience at the Cankarjev Dom in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and delivered a lecture on a set of recent paintings by Piet Mondrian, each dated between 1963 and 1996. “The first thing that could appear extremely unusual to us is the very presence of these paintings,” Benjamin announced:
If we even believed for a moment that, by some miracle, it was possible to obtain original Mondrian works for this occasion, we would soon be puzzled by the data we find on the pictures themselves. If you take a careful look at them, you can see that they really do carry Mondrian’s signature, but that the dating seems a little strange to say the least.
Presented with paintings bearing impossible dates, Benjamin continued, the only logical conclusion was that these were not original Mondrians at all, but copies. But why paint a copy of Mondrian, particularly one that so obviously announced its inauthenticity? These were not forgeries intended to trick the viewer, nor another artist’s homage, but ambiguous objects that eluded any conventional art-historical classification. To paint such a copy was senseless, Benjamin insisted, but perhaps this senselessness was the point.
Benjamin asked the audience to consider what might happen if one of the Mondrian copies were to be displayed in the Museum of Modern Art, inserted into the chronological narrative of modernist painting manifest on its walls. The original would remain with the works of the 1930s and ’40s, but the copy would be hung with contemporary art of the 1980s, so that in visiting this hypothetical exhibition we would first confront the original and then, several decades into the future, its echo.
And suddenly we feel the earth beginning to shake under our feet […] We immediately realize how our beautiful edifice of history, change, progress, is being shaken from its foundations and slowly but surely collapsing. With horror we watch paintings, sculptures, all those masterpieces of our civilization crashing down together with the edifice. But, what is happening with our picture? The second Mondrian picture? It is completely still. It practically hovers in its non-existent place, as if it isn’t touched by anything going on around it.
The Mondrian lecture was presented in conjunction with an equally strange exhibition, purportedly a restaging of the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art in New York, better known as the Armory Show, a version of which had appeared several months prior in Belgrade. Announcements for the exhibitions advertised the work of many of the most prominent artists of the 20th century, from Matisse and Picasso to Carl Andre and Joseph Kosuth. That such significant works would be exhibited together in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia seemed in itself unlikely; even more suspect was the fact that the exhibition materials insisted that the show was taking place in New York in 1993, and that it had been organized by the dead Russian avant-garde painter Kazimir Malevich. Like the Mondrian paintings accompanying the “Walter Benjamin” lecture, the objects on display were not modernist masterpieces at all, but obvious copies, appended with preposterous dates: a Carl Andre floorpiece was labeled 1905, Matisse’s Blue Nude to 1997.
Over the past three decades, variations on the Belgrade Armory Show have been restaged again in different forms, contexts, and locations, most notably with The International Exhibition of Modern Art—Armory Show 2013 serving as the official representative of Serbia and Montenegro at the 2003 Venice Biennale. They are also linked to a series of related projects that have emerged in several cities since the early 1990s, including the Salon de Fleurus, a recreation of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s Paris apartment, which opened in an apartment in New York’s SoHo in 1992; the Museum of American Art in Berlin, founded in 2004, whose displays are based on the history of the Museum of Modern Art, particularly the traveling exhibitions organized under the auspices of MoMA’s International Program of Circulating Exhibitions in the 1940s and 1950s; and the Kunsthistorisches Mausoleum, which opened in the basement of a Belgrade apartment block in 2003 with permanent displays dedicated to H.W. Janson and Herbert Read, authors of the influential art history textbooks History of Art (1962) and A Concise History of Modern Painting (1959) respectively. Like the Armory Show exhibitions in Belgrade and Ljubljana, these projects are all presented as authorless, with Walter Benjamin serving as their de facto spokesman. Each takes canonical events, institutions, and figures from the history of Western modernism as their subjects, presenting painted copies in lieu of “original” works, and foregrounding the processes by which the authoritative narrative of what we call modern art was formed and disseminated.
The new book Walter Benjamin: Recent Writings 1986-2013, recently published by New Documents, collects 15 essays, interviews, and lecture texts by “Benjamin.” Like the “Mondrian ’63-’96” lecture, the earliest inclusion, the majority were originally written to accompany presentations of these “authorless” works. On the one hand, the book might be seen as an attempt to contextualize the Benjamin project as a whole, outlining the underlying theoretical framework guiding the various exhibitions and their aims. Yet it offers more questions than answers: what exactly do we make of a book of “recent writings” by a long-dead writer? The book becomes another node in the network of misinformation constructed by the various exhibitions — an unclassifiable, unruly copy hovering outside any definable category — and its essays reflexively comment on themselves as much as their ostensible subjects.
“Kazimir Malevich” and “Walter Benjamin” are often described as pseudonyms for the “anonymous” author of these projects, but “pseudonym” here is imprecise: it isn’t only the names of these figures that have been borrowed but their identities as well. Just as the “Malevich” who staged the exhibitions in Belgrade and Ljubljana in 1986 claims to be the very same Malevich who inaugurated Suprematism in Petrograd in 1915, the “Benjamin” who wrote the book’s essays is, according to the author bio, the same one who wrote “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in 1936.
Nor, for that matter, are these figures exactly “anonymous.” Though no individual or group will accept the role of author of these projects, the circumstances surrounding their production aren’t totally unknown. The one constant is the Serbian ex-artist Goran Djordjević, active in Belgrade in the 1970s and ’80s, whose practice was similarly devoted to producing painted copies of iconic modernist works. Djordjević’s last exhibition under his own name was in 1985, later described as the moment at which he “stops producing authorial work in the field of art.”
Djordjević freely admits his involvement in the “Armory Show” and its offshoots: his name is listed in the credits of virtually every presentation, typically as the “technical assistant;” he acts as the “doorman” of the Salon de Fleurus; and he has written about and publicly discussed the projects under his own name. At a January 2013 lecture hosted by e-flux in New York, for instance, Goran Djordjević invoked Gertrude Stein by appending a nametag to his shirt for the duration of his talk. As “Benjamin” describes in one of the book’s interviews, “I assume that people involved in these projects take on roles such as ‘doorman,’ ‘technical assistant,’ ‘volunteer,’ etc. because unlike ‘artist’ or ‘curator’ these are non-creative roles.” What Djordjević specifically denies is intent, renouncing creative authorship as a concept that has outlived its usefulness.
The distinction isn’t just semantic: Djordjević’s refusal to be the author of projects that all point back to his hand reveals just how much we rely on the concept to make sense of the world. All of the evidence indicates that Djordjević painted the Mondrian copies, and wrote the “Benjamin” essays, but without his affirmation, they remain mired in doubt; we are left, as he writes in “Mondrian ’63-’96,” only with the questions.
To claim the name of a dead cultural hero is a coy obstruction. In presenting an impossibility as fact, however, Walter Benjamin: Recent Writings makes clear that it plays by another set of rules, eliding the boundaries between historical fact and fiction. Appropriately for a project centered around the copy, the book’s texts often repeat themselves: though presented as discrete essays and interviews, their ideas bleed together, returning again and again to the same subjects, and occasionally lifting passages encountered earlier nearly verbatim. The hypothetical exhibition described by Benjamin in “Mondrian ’63-’96” thus acts as a kind of mise-en-abyme, articulating the circuitous structure of the entire book.
That art history should be treated first and foremost as a story, a subjectively constructed narrative that orders diverse phenomena into a coherent vision of the past, is the first major thesis of the essays in this collection. Somewhat more polemical is the second thesis: that this story is one we should abandon, along with art itself.
Both the exhibition projects and the texts in the book highlight decisive moments in the historiography of art history, the points at which the narrative of art coalesced or changed course; as “Benjamin” writes, they “are looking not so much into the narrative itself but rather into the process of how the narrative was made.” The first of these moments is the birth of the encyclopedic museum, specifically the “Musée Napoleon” assembled by Vivant Denon at the Louvre in 1802. When Denon, the Louvre’s first director, assembled all of the pillaged world treasures from Napoleon’s imperial conquests into a single collection, and arranged them by period and school, the objects on display assumed a new identity, occupying a category newly invented for them. Stripped of whatever heraldic, monarchical, or religious function for which they were originally conceived, the objects in the Louvre were reinscribed as “artworks,” aesthetic objects from which authors can be identified and oeuvres constructed. As “Benjamin” points out, once moved from the cathedral to the museum, the protagonist of a Renaissance “Last Judgment” is no longer Christ, but Tintoretto.
If, as pseudo-Benjamin suggests, Denon’s Louvre inaugurated the “art story” by creating the conditions for modern art’s emergence as a category of exemplary objects intended for visual contemplation and public display, Alfred Barr Jr.’s Museum of Modern Art invented the modern artist. Barr’s museum abandoned national schools as its organizing principle and replaced it with a stylistic genealogy, a chronological narrative charting the successive purging of content toward pure form. The artist, here, is conceived less as a product of his time and place than as a figure whose fundamentally unique vision enables him to cast off the staid accretions of academic tradition in pursuit of the new. It is difficult to imagine today how radical it might once have seemed to see Dutch De Stijl and Russian Constructivism framed alongside one another as “siblings,” mutual descendants of Cubism that give rise to the Bauhaus in Germany and serve as ancestors for the then-contemporary geometric abstraction of the 1930s. For “Benjamin” this is precisely the point. Barr’s infamous family tree of modernist form, constructed in 1936 to accompany the landmark exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art at MoMA, didn’t just become the template for the museum’s own galleries, but the dominant narrative of how modern art took hold.
MoMA inevitably looms large in Benjamin’s story, as do several of its important precursors. In addition to the Cubism and Abstract Art exhibition and the International Program of traveling exhibitions of American Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s and ’50s, the book’s essays — and the displays at the Museum of American Art in Berlin — address El Lissitzky’s idiosyncratic exhibition design for the “Kabinett der Abstrakten” at Alexander Dorner’s Landesmuseum in Hannover, a formative early influence on Barr, as well as Marcel Duchamp and Katherine Dreier’s “Société Anonyme,” founded in New York in 1920 to collect and promote modernist art. Likewise, Gertrude Stein’s apartment salon is positioned by “Benjamin” as a kind of proto-modernist museum, the place where many of the seminal works of the modern canon could first be seen alongside one another.
For pseudo-Benjamin, this is perhaps most importantly a narrative of international exchange, a chronicle of how the center of culture shifted from the capitals of Europe to America: in the first decades of the 20th century, initiatives like the Armory Show and the Société Anonyme imported the best examples of “advanced art” from Europe to educate provincial American tastes; in the aftermath of World War II, the process is reversed, when MoMA sends the American avant-garde on tour to Europe with its International Program for a similar lesson. “Benjamin” repeatedly emphasizes that Barr’s vision of modernity is an American-made fiction about European art, ironically one that is retroactively taken up by Europe itself after the war to define its own cultural patrimony.
It is significant in this regard that the projects by “Benjamin” and “Malevich” originated in Yugoslavia. With its checklist of “greatest hits” of modern art, the 1986 “Armory Show” functioned less as a recreation of a particular, historic exhibition than a consideration of the cultural situation it generated, one in which virtually every modern art museum takes the framework proposed by the original Armory Show — and codified by MoMA — as its model. However, for many of the young Yugoslav artists, MoMA was about as accessible as Shangri-La. Commenting on the Belgrade and Ljubljana “Armory Shows,” Serbian curator Branislav Dimitrijević wrote that “the aggressive display of copies of famous works of art reminded us of the evident impossibility to view the originals in local museums.” While the exhibition reads as a kind of generic display of “modernism” from the perspective of the West, comprising examples of the sort of work found in virtually every major art museum — a Duchamp readymade, a Picasso still life, a Jasper Johns flag, a Judd stack — these works were all but inaccessible in Yugoslavia, and an exhibition collecting all of them in one place inconceivable. For the majority of Yugoslav artists and art enthusiasts, the “originals” only ever existed as copies, poor reproductions in textbooks and magazines.
The canonical story of modern art was one from which Yugoslav artists were doubly marginalized, neither represented within it nor able to even fully experience the works it venerated. From this perspective, the notion that MoMA’s modernism presented a universal history of artworks embodying universal values was as absurd as the suggestion that a dead philosopher could rise from the grave 40 years after his death to deliver a lecture at an alternative gallery in Ljubljana.
By now, much of this is familiar territory. In the years since Walter Benjamin’s first posthumous appearance in 1986, the narrative of modernism put forth by Barr and the underlying ideologies that shaped it have been picked apart by artists, historians, and theorists from every conceivable angle, and only the very naïve continue to believe that the museum is a neutral container and its contents objectively selected. It is tempting to view these projects as yet another iteration of ’80s appropriation art, which similarly employed the copy as a means of savaging modernism’s overvaluation of heroic individuality and originality; or institutional critique, which emphasizes the mediating role of cultural infrastructure in establishing and enforcing hierarchies of value. What distinguishes “Benjamin” and the various projects with which “he” is affiliated from Sherrie Levine or Hans Haacke, however, is that its approach is eschatological rather than critical.
According to “Benjamin,” “the artifacts shown at these exhibits [the Museum of American Art, the Salon de Fleurus, the “Armory Show”] and the exhibits themselves are not works of art. They are rather souvenirs, selected specimens of our collective memory.” They occupy what he describes as a “meta-position” in relation to art and art history, constituting a form of ethnographic display that treats the “art story” as a dead paradigm, an episteme whose moment has passed. In the future, he argues, we will view Mondrians and Picassos as “desacralized” artifacts of a past culture, much in the way that museum-bound triptychs, tribal masks, or classical statuary have been transposed into “art” in the present. “To be an artist today is like being a priest at the time of the emergence of natural philosophers. It is an obsolete category. There is nothing to be said any more from the first-person discourse.”
For “Benjamin,” the value of the “meta-position” is that it enables us to view modernity from the outside, with the dispassionate eyes of a non-believer. “For me,” pseudo-Benjamin writes,
art exists only in the “story of art,” primarily as art history and art museum […] In other words, art is an interesting social phenomenon that one can and should observe from an ethnographic perspective, like religion. To study religion you do not have to be a believer — indeed, it is better if you’re not.
Critique, he argues, doesn’t go far enough: it chips away at the façade, but leaves the foundation in place. The mistake of appropriation artists like Sherrie Levine, Sturtevant, Mike Bidlo, and, even Goran Djordjević, he writes, is that “they didn’t understand that a copy is not a goal but a vehicle that could enable telling another kind of story, one that is not based on originals and even doesn’t belong to the art universe.”
The copy is best understood, according to “Benjamin,” as a “memory” of the original, which at once preserves the past but lives in the present; it retains none of the aura of the original — the distancing authority that attests to its singular place within history and tradition — but instead moves freely, unbound to any predetermined role. “Memory,” he writes, “is by nature the antithesis of what is remembered; on the other hand, it may be the only way the past can be actualized, brought into the present so that it becomes alive again.” As with the Benjamin of 1936, the copy destroys art as it had existed, but the result isn’t tragedy, but liberation.
In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the “original” Benjamin argued that the capacity to produce a perfect copy of an artwork through photography and film had fundamentally altered the very idea of an original, offering the potential to shatter traditional hierarchies of cultural value and the relations of power that they reflected and reproduced. The later “Benjamin” similarly believes that the copy is the vehicle through which an existing cultural paradigm can be disrupted, but offers an implicit corrective to the philosopher’s optimistic faith in technology as the means through which it might be achieved. From the vantage of the late-20th and early 21st centuries, in which every assault on the traditional parameters of art have been recuperated by the market and the museum, “Benjamin” argues that the authority of the original is first and foremost a matter of authorship, probing the logic of the modernist artwork inaugurated by Duchamp. The readymade produced an ontological shift in the definition of artwork, from a category of objects based on material, structural qualities — paint on canvas, carved marble, molded clay — to one defined by a performative utterance on the part of its maker: an artwork is something that an artist claims to have authored. The cult value of the modern artwork lies in its connection to the authorial genius — what makes a urinal or a bottle rack more than just a mundane thing. By contrast, “Benjamin” or “Malevich” (or Djordjević) creates paintings that are not artworks, because they have no author, and thus no authority; they’re just things.
In the book’s last essays, “Benjamin” hints at the broader implications of the project, in which the history of modern art is addressed as a metonym for the history of modernity in general, or rather, for the teleological view of history that shaped and was shaped by modernity. The exhibition projects are framed as a “probe” into the future, hypothetical explorations of a paradigm that hasn’t yet been realized or defined. In allowing ourselves to view art history from the outside, “Benjamin” suggests that we could also begin to view an alternate vision of society, in which the foundational values of the contemporary political and social imaginary — democracy, capitalism, private property, unique identity, chronology — are no longer necessarily constitutive.
For “Benjamin,” the “meta-position” established by the unauthored, unauthorized copy enables us to view a historical narrative less as an inviolable totality than as a malleable fiction, transforming unique entities — people, objects events — into characters in a play, capable of being reprised at any moment. “We could understand Walter Benjamin as one of those characters,” he writes. “It is a role that can be played by anyone.”
Rachel Wetzler is a New York-based writer and a PhD student in art history at CUNY Graduate Center.
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