Rewolujonisci Wpadaja na Oranzade
(The Revolutionists Stop for Orangeade)
An artist and a critic meet at a sidewalk café to discuss a project. It’s a breezy spring afternoon in New York; the sun warms the café tables. They order cappuccino and Perrier. The artist announces, “I’m going to have a piece in the “Last Judgment” exhibition in Warsaw in 2000. Dozens of artists from all over Europe. The millennium. I’d like you to write an essay for the catalogue.”
“I’m sick of the millennium.”
“It doesn’t matter. So am I. I’m doing a piece on modern revolutions and political thought, from 1776 — you know, it’s absolutely wrong when Europeans think the age of revolution started in 1789, it started with the Revolutionary War in America — until the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s not about the millennium. Millennium! Fin-de-siecle! End of modernity! End of history! These slogans are a joke.”
“Exactly,” replies the critic, “ten years ago all these same seers didn’t have a clue that communism was about to collapse right up until it happened. Millennium!”
“Predictions are safe — elections, stocks, History, it doesn’t matter — no one remembers what the predictions were.”
“Millennial thinking has a bad history.”
“The Nazi’s Thousand Year Reich only lasted twelve years.”
“And fifty million people died before it was over.”
“Stalinism may have killed another twenty million in search of Utopia.”
“We don’t know how many Chinese communism killed. It’s still going on. So, what’s the piece called?”
“THE HISTORY OF WESTERN POLITICAL THOUGHT FROM THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION TO THE FALL OF THE BERLIN WALL.”
The artist gives the critic a little help. “There will be four pictures on the wall, miniatures that you have to look through a telescope to see, and each one reproduces an image from one of the revolutions. You know, an engraving of the first battle of the American War for Independence —”
“The shot heard round the world.”
“Yeah, then Delacroix’s Liberty Guiding the People, then a famous socialist-realist thing of Lenin assuming power—”
“Ten days that shook the world.”
“Right, and finally a photo of the Berlin Wall being torn down.”
“It’s a question of how to read the sequence.”
“Well,” muses the critic, “it’s striking that the Lenin picture is pure kitsch, especially compared to the Delacroix. And to the fall of the Wall if you’re using one of those amazing photos where the Wall is covered, on the West’s side, with brilliant graffiti. In 1968 we both would have thought 1917 was the genuine revolution, the American and the French mere bourgeois prefigurations.”
“It was the most important,” the artist shoots back. “Stalin transformed the Revolution beyond recognition.”
“I probably would have been a Menshevik,” the critic says.
“I’d have been purged without even getting to see the first five-year plan.”
They both fall silent slipping into reveries about May 68. Each privately summons up the swelter of revolutionary iconography whose various meanings once melded into a single vision but are now a knot of ambiguities — Lenin addressing the masses, Trotsky murdered, students marching in Paris, tanks rolling into Prague, Red Guards in Mao jackets and Mao caps streaming through Beijing. The images vacillate between heroic myths of the 60s — Lenin at the Finland Station, Trotsky in Coyoacan, Mao on the Long March — and the last decade’s stirring counterimages of the fall of the Wall, the Velvet Revolution and the students in Tiananmen Square.
It’s impossible to know where their reveries take them. They don’t say anything. The artist and the critic reach back to very different cultural and political roots. They both came from Republican families, but the term means rather different things in Spain and Iowa. The artist grew up in a leftist family in Barcelona, reading Marx-Lenin-Trotsky as an adolescent and listening to tales of the Spanish Civil War at the dinner table. He left Franco’s Spain in his early twenties to pursue his art with some freedom. He went to Chicago. The critic grew up two-hundred miles west of Chicago in a conservative small town and found his first political enlightenment as a teenager at the local Andrew Carnegie public library reading Thomas Paine (atheist and democrat), Clarence Darrow (the lawyer who defended anarchists, socialists, anti-creationists and various psychopathic murderers) and James Baldwin.
The artist and the critic don’t share their reveries. After all, they’re looking for common ground. The artist breaks the silence.
“Well, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks and May 68 aside, let me finish telling you about the piece. There are the pictures and the telescope, but the center of the piece is three objects: a Mercedes and a rock, and held between the rock and the Mercedes’ bumper is an egg.”
The artist nods.
The artist nods again.
“And an egg?”
The artist nods again and punctuates his affirmation with a gesture of his hand that seems to say, “Perfect.”
“What is the meaning of the egg?”
The artist smiles.
The critic smiles back and asks about the Mercedes. “You’re going to have the actual car in the exhibit?” He’s seen an installation of the artist’s which used a wrecked motorcycle, and knows he is planning to curate a car exhibition in Barcelona built around a dozen or so exquisite vintage Pegasos, which the Franco regime had designed and manufactured to show Spain’s claim to modernity.
The artist describes the brand-new Mercedes he will use, and the critic takes this diversion from the quandary of interpretation as a chance to cultivate the common ground, for he and the artist both love cars. So for several minutes, as traffic streams down Fifth Avenue and the shadow cast by the Metropolitan Museum cools the cafe, they talk about the gadgets in the latest Mercedes, the new BMW square-backed roadster and recent events in Formula One (the racing series they most discuss) and Nascar (the one they most love to watch). The critic talks F1 and Nascar while busily scanning the back of his mind for thoughts on THE HISTORY OF WESTERN POLITICAL THOUGHT FROM THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION TO THE FALL OF THE BERLIN WALL.
Finally he has the courage to ask, knowing it’s pointless, even inappropriate, “So, why an egg?”
The artist replies, “If the car moves a fraction of an inch closer to the rock, the egg will break; if it moves a fraction of an inch back, the egg will fall and break.”
“Okay, but what is the egg? What does it mean?” The critic regrets this question as soon as he asks it. All advantage swings to the artist.
“It’s not for me to say.”
“Of course,” replies the critic. “Try this. The egg is held up between the rock and the car, but at the same time it is what holds the car and the rock apart. Rock and car. Nature and culture? The egg — its shape is a zero — is the nothing that separates and relates nature and culture. No, too structuralist. Too logical. Ah, wait. The egg is an embryo, the gestation of life, the world’s most basic source of protein. And its shape is not a zero, but the oblong shape of the earth, the planet. The egg is organic life.
Hesitating ever so slightly, the artist says, “Interesting. What I intended doesn’t matter. It’s all a question of what it suggests to you, or anybody else that sees it.”
“Of course, but I think this is key. There is something of Heidegger in this. Earth and World. Think about it. The Mercedes epitomizes the West’s will-to-production, its World. Yes, and the rock — which otherwise is inexplicable — is Earth. Earth and World. And between them hangs life itself, a hair’s breadth from falling or being crushed.”
The critic is very pleased. He summarizes, “A Mercedes, a rock, an egg precariously held between them.”
The artist ponders a moment, thinking perhaps of Heidegger the reactionary and Nazi Party member. “I’m not sure I’ll use a rock. In Barcelona, I had the egg held up between a racing car and a model of Charlemagne’s throne.”
“Charlemagne’s throne? Power, the unification of Europe. The rock gives it a completely different significance. The rock is crucial.”
“I just don’t know whether I’ll use a rock.”
“You’re kidding. I’ll need to know.”
“It’s impossible. The essay is due before I can decide. I have to see the space and find out whether I can get a rock the right size and shape.”
The critic listens to the air escaping from his Heideggerian balloon and orders another round of cappuccino and Perrier. The traffic flows by, the air is getting chilly. He goes back to thinking about the history of Western political thought. Heidegger fits that too, of course, his ecological foresight and his horrifying enthusiasm for the Third Reich and unrepentant silence on the Holocaust.
The artist offers a remark, perhaps to reassure, perhaps to unnerve, the critic. “Look, the whole point of a piece like this is that the particular elements can change and, with them, the possibilities the viewer sees.”
The critic understands this and nods politely.
This scene doesn’t actually happen. The conversation doesn’t take place. Artists and critics don’t meet at outdoor cafes anymore. They email each other, use cell phones to leave messages and occasionally send faxes. The critic nevertheless is left to respond to THE HISTORY OF WESTERN POLITICAL THOUGHT FROM THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION TO THE FALL OF THE BERLIN WALL. He writes the following under the title:
Francesc Torres’s installation eschews any Last Judgment. It invites us to back away from millennial thinking. Our appointment with the millennium is far from being an ultimate crossroad of History. It is a fluke of the calendar. The only global significance of Y2K is in the dubious problem with computers; otherwise the year 2000 is millennial only in Christianity’s timekeeping. The West and the world are in fact entering the new millennium — or is it just a new century or new decade or no more than a new year? — without apocalyptic fears or hopes. We carry, instead, inherited problems and unsolved dilemmas.
The four tiny pictures seen through the telescope present the iconography of modern revolutions, America 1776, France 1830, Russia 1917, Berlin 1989. Is the revolutionary heritage exhausted or fulfilled after two and a quarter centuries? Or is it neither exhausted nor fulfilled? Such are the questions evoked by this artwork, which refuses to furnish answers but instead intrigues us into thinking.
The early 20th-century avant-gardes, from Futurism to Surrealism, boldly imagined that artistic vanguards and political vanguards meshed and together announced a radical break with the past. Torres’s installation seems to repel any such programmatic design. Revolution is, at the end of the 20th century, a part of our actual history rather the dream of a future beyond history. The title suggests it’s time to reflect on the history of revolution itself.
Western political thought has always oscillated between the project of imagining revolutions and, on the contrary, the retrospective task of interpreting revolutions. The imaginary architects have included Rousseau, Marx and Lenin. Among the belated interpreters are Hegel, Tocqueville and Arendt. For the former, revolution is a more or less conscious project; for the latter, it is a blinding mixture of necessity and chance whose outcomes never coincide with its intentions. I don’t know whether Torres allies with either attitude. But by questioning the relation between political thought and revolution at what feels like the end of the era of Western revolutions, 1776-1989, he leans toward the attitude of a Hegel, for whom historical wisdom like the owl of Minerva always takes flight at dusk, rather than the visionary stance of a Marx or Lenin.
The hallmark revolutions have never achieved the reality of what they promised and envisioned. The American Revolution instituted modern democracy in the name of the “people” and declared that all men are created equal, but the American polis erected itself on the foundations of a slave economy. The American Revolution did not aspire to genuine universality until a century later when the 14th Amendment finally swept aside race and national origin in defining political rights and citizenship. It took another century, until 1965, for the 14th Amendment to actually be implemented and undo the apartheid that still governed a large part of the nation.
It was the French Revolution which created a role for the masses in modern political life. For the first time the “people” meant everyone. But that inaugural moment in 1789 opened deep fissures between the bourgeoisie and the masses, conflicts that roiled French society for nearly two centuries through the revolutions of 1830, 1848, 1871, down to the revolt of 1968. Francois Furet may have been right to declare that “the Revolution is over” as late 20th-century French democracy solidified political and social institutions giving both the bourgeoisie and the masses their due. But such a creation, a democracy of capitalists and the people, remains an ill defined and unrealized possibility in societies throughout the world. So, too, the defining challenge of American democracy — the creation of a multiracial, multiethnic, religiously diverse citizenry — remains an unfinished task in the United States itself and a source of crisis and violence in other nations on every continent.
One current of American political thought today interprets the arc “from the American Revolution to the Fall of the Berlin Wall” with self-satisfied ease as the first and the final triumphs of America’s own brand of democracy and free enterprise. According to this “end of history” view, the ideological ambitions of the French and Russian revolutions — liberie, egalite, fraternite or the achievement of social equality — were mere illusions that have finally fallen away, leaving the historical field open to representative democracy and liberal capitalism. Surely this particular brand of millennial thinking has in ten short years been thoroughly discredited as a peculiarly American illusion. Since the collapse of Soviet communism, the creation of democratic states has been supplanted by the resurgence of all manner of nationalisms, fundamentalisms and ethnic cleansing. The invisible hand of the free market has exacerbated the antidemocratic trends as much as it has fostered new possibilities of freedom.
In the political thought of 1917, the Russian Revolution believed it was continuing the French Revolution and overcoming its limitations. One look through the telescope at the kitsch image of Lenin in power next to Delacroix’s inspired Liberty dispels that illusion. The fall of the Wall in 1989 commemorated the crumbling of the system communism actually created, from its Gulags and Stasi informants to its party hierarchy and stifling bureaucracy. Today, however, the economic and political rubble of the former Soviet Union tragically mocks the luminous rubble of the Berlin Wall. The “end of history” ideologues in the West sounded Gabriel’s trumpet too soon.
The free market unleashes new forms of wealth and new forms of poverty. The end of tyranny spawns new tyrants and old tyrants in new clothes. The promise of democracy never assures the realization of democracy. Western political thought has yet to answer to the ongoing ordeal of universalism and democracy. Freedom and equality have always been the twofold demand of democratic aspirations, and they have also always been conflicting, often irreconcilable aspirations. Western political thought deludes itself in believing its values have become triumphant after two centuries of revolutions, revolts and revolutions overturning revolutions.
Our era is without apocalyptic hopes. As for apocalyptic fears, they probably no longer lie in the threat of nuclear destruction but rather in the slow-moving, perhaps inexorable destruction of the environment.
A Mercedes, a rock and an egg: The rock is perhaps the earth we inhabit, the inorganic substratum of nature, the lifeless geology without which no life forms could exist. The egg is the organic stratum of nature, human and nonhuman, the life forms on which we survive and the life form which we are. What then is the Mercedes? A Mercedes is consumer society’s quintessential achievement: the luxurious necessity, the necessary luxury, vehicle of every imaginable dream of wealth, status, speed, mobility. It is an emblem of our World, in Heidegger’s sense of the term, the will-to-production, the economic-technological velocities, by which we sustain our life on Earth. The car protectively holds the egg against the rock, and at the same time threatens to crush it.
That human life is at once sustained and threatened by human production is a paradox that was unthinkable to the first theorists of capitalism, Adam Smith and Karl Marx. And it never crossed the minds of the thinkers of democracy. Yet today that paradox is so commonplace, so constantly in the back of the mind of even those who deny the danger, that it has almost become a cliché. We are perhaps drifting, ever so slowly, ever so inexorably, into the fatalism of clichés. From revolutionary dream to dimwitted fatalism — that perhaps is the arc to which Western political thought will succumb unless it reawakens to its unfinished, burdened, precarious history.
As they sip their second round of cappuccino, the critic is still unsettled by the question of the rock. But he sees the outlines of his essay emerging. “You know, it all turns on the paradox that the egg is at once protected and threatened by the Mercedes — the economy and technology sustaining life and threatening it.”
“I don’t see the ecology theme.”
“You don’t?” the critic blurts out. “How else to get at the paradox?”
It s the paradox of the whole Western political system,” the artist replies. “The welfare state protects, the corporations threaten. But it s all the same system. Your interpretation doesn’t get at that. Citizens aren’t citizens anymore, they’re dependents. At that point, freedom is out the window.”
“I thought you said what you intended doesn’t matter.”
But is that what you intended? The Mercedes is the political system?”
I’m not speaking as the artist now. I’m speaking as a viewer.”
Not wanting to appear exasperated, the critic challenges the artist. I don t see how your ‘view’ gets at the transformation of citizenship.”
“It’s the car.”
“No,” the critic protests. “The car suggests consumer society and powerful corporations.”
The critic mulls this over. “Citizen Mercedes?”
“No. Prime Minister Mercedes and Citizen Egg.”
The critic laughs, “But it’s not necessarily what you intended?”
“Irrelevant. It’s just what I see.”
“I’m sticking with ecology,” the critic replies, and then changes the subject. “You know, I think the importance of what you’re doing comes out in the fact that this is a work about revolutionary thought, but you don’t put it forward as revolutionary art.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the historical avant-gardes thought their innovations in art announced some new era, politically, socially, technologically. It was all of a piece for them. But today, like in your work, the significance of art lies in its skepticism, its questioning, its sense of history’s ambiguities and dilemmas. We need art that is critical, not visionary.”
“Not really,” the artist replies. “I don’t think art is that important anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s simply failing to play what has been its most important role in the 20th century: to be a political instrument for the transformation of society, reality, the world, you name it. We’re being politely asked to go back to decorating the spaces of power. Here, decorate this bank lobby. There, decorate that museum space.”
A pause ensues.
Finally the critic says, “I’m thinking about the four pictures. Will you definitely use the Delacroix?”
“Great. It provides a fascinating twist. I’m sure most people associate the image with 1789. But it belongs to the July Revolution of 1830, and I’ve read that Delacroix was not simply creating an evocative image of Liberty and revolution — which is how we now respond to it, as a part of the iconography of modern revolutions — but was criticizing the bourgeoisie’s appropriation of 1789 to further its own more limited goals in 1830. He surrounded Liberty on the barricades with the rabble not the bourgeoisie. The painting was a criticism of revolutionary iconography as much as an instance of it.”
“It’s T.J. Clarke’s argument about the painting. In the context of your piece, it raises the whole question of art’s critical versus its iconographic relation to revolution and politics. That only comes out in 1830, because the politics and the art have to respond to 1789. Delacroix is perfect.”
“Maybe it would be better to use an image from 1789.”
The critic asks the waiter for the check. As they wait, he is trying to recall some line from Wallace Stevens about revolutionaries and orangeade. The artist insists on buying. They go their separate ways. It is dusk, and each is sunk in a reverie about modern revolutions and political thought. Neither thinks about the millennium again.
POSTSCRIPT. A few months after this essay is completed, the artist and the critic receive word that the Polish government has not provided the promised funding for the Warsaw exhibition. The show is canceled. The organizers apologize, but explain that they have enough money to publish the essays written for the catalogue. The artist never assembles his installation of pictures, telescope, Mercedes, rock and egg. The essay, translated into Polish, appears in “The Last Judgment” — a catalogue of commentaries without artworks.
POST POSTSCRIPT. This original English-language version of “The Revolutionists Stopped for Orangeade” (with the Postscript) was scheduled to appear in the fifth issue of Venue, the literary magazine founded and edited by the author, but the publisher shut down its entire arts and literature division when the issue was in pageproofs. Just as the installation was not mounted in Poland, the essay did not appear in English.∞