Staying in the same class: learning as a criterion for progress without alienation
Text presented as part of exhibition
Art researcher Magdalena Radomska, based on the texts of Giorgio Agamben, John Baldacchino, Antonio Gramsci and Marek Lagos, proposes to rethink the category of progress through the artistic strategy of learning.
In his book "Marks. Praca i czas" ("Marx. Labor and Time"), Marek Lagos, relying on the texts of Karl Marx, postulated the need to "pay attention to the socio-ethical aspect of the evolution of social life and raise the question of progressivism precisely in this context". Pointing to the oppressive nature of the category of progress assigned by the capitalist narrative, he argued that "progress as a category that sets the arrow of time in history" should be rethought "as a movement towards the abolition of alienation".
Preserving the category of progress and, therefore, intentional procedurality, and at the same time challenging its former criteria and premises, seems to be the essence of the artistic strategy of unlearning – unlearning. Here we are not even talking about the problem raised in the book Art as Unlearning: Towards a Mannerist Pedagogy (Art as Learning: Toward a Mannerist Pedagogy) by John Baldacchino, who defines art as a key factor in unlearning constructs "by which we deceive ourselves into believing that we have succeeded in democratizing knowledge and, with it, society". Indeed, as the authors of the book Considering Class: Theory, Culture and Media in the 21st Century argue, democracy is often a concept that hides the primacy of class divisions, but in practice it is a narrative, which does not allow their isolation and, consequently, problematization. At the same time, education based, even declaratively, on democratic criteria too often becomes an instrument of class advancement, with the result that the culture that is the result of such education (including cultural education) is the culmination of this process and is in the sphere of meant for the elites. The point is not to stay in the same class, not to replicate it, but to evolve and move forward.
The concept of unlearning, defined as an artistic strategy, can function successfully as a measure of progress, understood, according to Lagos, "as a movement towards the abolition of alienation" or as a figure of resistance. At the same time, learning is also a passive distortion of material or social matter, allowing artists to come into contact not only with their own agency, but also with impotence, distancing from which, as Giorgio Agamben argues in Nudity, just deprives the possibility of resistance. Therefore, it is not only about defiantly and stubbornly remaining in the same class, but also about seeing that the reverse side of the promise of class advancement is exploitation, and that the promotion itself serves not to abolish, but to maintain class division, an elitist role. art and its reification in the form of capital accumulation.
© Anna Baumgart: Winners of the Sun, 2013. © photo by Raman Tratsuk: Domie, Poznań, 2021
If there can be – and there is – the practice of learning, then it takes the form not of a process, but of labor, which can be inalienable to the extent that it preserves class consciousness and protects itself from reification in the form of capital accumulation. A vivid illustration of the work of learning, opposed to the process of education, is a scene from the film by Anna Baumgart, shown as part of the exhibition , or rather, a scene from Vladimir Mayakovsky's film The Young Lady and the Hooligan, filmed a year after the October Revolution. The fragment used by Baumgart depicts a school classroom with people of all ages, from boys to men in their prime. The plot of the film shows the love story of a bully for a teacher, and it is easier to understand if we assume that this is a love story for a revolution. This explains why Mayakovsky, already an adult at that time, in the role of the main bully, is shown as a schoolboy in love. This also explains the presence in the classroom of a person with facial features reminiscent of Karl Marx. It is this class model of education, which rejects the belief that technological progress that is transmitted from generation to generation is identical to progress that guarantees a linear increase in knowledge from generation to generation, instructs us to remain part of the class, without succumbing to the delusion that we can – or even should – leave his. It is the notion of revolution that is underestimated in Baldacchino's work when, referring to Columbus, he argues that learning is an effective way to break out of the vicious circle of knowledge and discovery, in which the structure of knowledge determines what it is. I understand learning as something similar to the category of "event" by Alain Badiou, who argued that by creating the conditions of one's own existence, the event always remains possible.. Its essential independence from favorable conditions, and therefore from the structure that conditions it, allows us to identify it with a Marxist action that interferes with the base, that is, socio-economic and labor relations, and not with the superstructure in the form of a history of visual forms or existing artistic conventions..
One might wonder about the utopian nature of the artistic practice of unlearning, but this question is, in essence, tantamount to a question about the temporality of models of development based on capitalist and, as Lagos argues, alienating criteria of progress, and the temporality of work based on the preservation of belonging to a particular class. The latter also takes the form of linking learning practices with Antonio Gramsci's (and used by Noam Chomsky) notion of an organic intelligentsia, which Gramsci characterizes as rooted in and working for its own social class in order to assimilate and ideologically struggle with a group of traditional intellectuals and, therefore, with latent class division immanent in science. Organic intelligentsia or organic artists are precisely those who do not move from class to class, they remain in the same class, working to eliminate the alienation of their own labor.
Magdalena Radomska is a post-Marxist historian of art and philosophy, associate professor at the Institute of Art History at Adam Mickiewicz University, director and founder of the Center for Studies in Eastern and Central European Art and the Piotrovsky Heritage. She is a member of the Polish and Hungarian sections of the International Association of Art Critics, editor of the magazine Czas Kultury, member of the All-Polish trade union Inicjatywa Pracownicza.