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SAVE THE LAST DANCE FOR ME?
On 12 July 1789 Camille Desmoulins famously jumped on a café table outside the Palais Royal in Paris to incite the assembled crowd to take up arms because King Louis had dismissed Jacques Necker and it was therefore to be feared that those reforming the French state were about to be massacred. Brandishing pistols Desmoulins announced he would not let the police capture him alive. The insurrection that followed led to the storming of the Bastille two days later, and ultimately to full blown revolution.
To accompany his neon sculpture "Ici on Danse", Ian Hamilton Finlay employs a printed quote from Camille Desmoulins about the festival held on the site of the Bastille one year after the fall of the prison:
'While the spectators, who imagined themselves in the gardens on Alcinous, were unable to tear themselves away, the site of the Bastille and its dungeons, which had been converted into groves, held other charms for those whom the passage of a single year had not yet accustomed to believe their eyes. An artificial wood, consisting of large trees, had been planted there. It was extremely well lit. In the middle of this lair of despotism there had been planted a pike with a cap of liberty stuck on top. Close by had been buried the ruins of the Bastille. Amongst its irons and gratings could be seen the bas-relief representing slaves in chains which had aptly adorned the fortress's great clock, the most surprising aspect of the sight perhaps being that the fortress could have been toppled without overwhelming in its fall the posterity of the tyrants by whom it had been raised and who had filled it with so many innocent victims. These ruins and the memories they called up were in singular contrast with the inscription that could be read at the entrance to the grove – a simple inscription whose placement gave it a truly sublime beauty – ici on danse'.
So both the current Tate Modern Level 2 exhibition "Here We Dance" and the Hamilton Finlay piece it features take their titles from this historic slogan (one in the original French and the other in English translation).
The period of the French Revolution between September 1773 and July 1774 is known as The Terror. This was a time at which both the very real threat of invasion by foreign monarchs who were opposed to the flowering of popular sovereignty in Europe, and power struggles within Republican ranks in France, led to the mass execution of those condemned (sometimes wrongly) as enemies of the people. Desmoulins was one of a number of figures guillotined during The Terror who'd played an active role in whipping up the Republican fervour that led to his own death. He was executed at the beginning of April 1794 but the culmination of The Terror came at the end of that July, with the condemnation of its leaders Maximilien Robespierre and Louis de Saint-Just (a bust of the latter occupies a key place in Hamilton Finlay's major work. his garden "Little Sparta").
The French revolution was successful and Desmoulins, Robespierre and Saint-Just, are now regarded as heroes by many people – but had the repressive French monarchy survived they might have gone down in history as terrorists. Karl Marx would have had something to say about that, and in places he might be productively misread as doing this. Take, for instance, the opening to "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte" (1852):
"Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historical facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce… the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95…. Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, St. Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time – that of unchaining and establishing modern bourgeois society – in Roman costumes and with Roman phrases.…."
The twentieth-century saw its fair share of pseudo-revolutions – and many were conducted as neo-classical campaigns replete with Roman salutes; in 1922 the Italian fascists even marched on Rome as a means of persuading the local political and industrial establishment to transfer state power to them. The murderous tragi-comedy of fascism was a much later and more cancerous product of modernity than the French Revolution, but the growth of nationalist sentiment which accompanied both has often played a role in the politics of terrorism (the world of the 'urban guerrilla' is addressed directly by Gail Pickering in her contributions to "Here We Dance" and echoes of it are to be found in a number of other works in the show).
Richard E. Rubenstein assesses the political consequences of pre-9/11 terrorism in his book "Alchemists Of Revolution: Terrorism in the Modern World" (1987): 'Compare the Nazis' sanctification of their terrorist forerunners with the Bolsheviks' insistence that leftist terrorism, however understandable, had always been a mistake... the historical evidence suggests, terrorism is rarely effective as a mode of class struggle. On the contrary, its use by the partisans of a mixed movement generally signifies either that a serious mistake of timing has occurred or that nationalist impulses have replaced social-revolutionary expectations.'
Although it wasn't included in "Here We Dance", the endless re-screening of Johan Grimonprez's scratch video "Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y" (1998) in galleries and at festivals demonstrates a desire on the part of the art world to deal with terrorism as an issue. Precisely because Grimonprez's work is neither analytical nor particularly linear it is well suited to gallery installation. The American company Other Cinema have issued "Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y" on DVD and pitch it with the following promotional blurb: "Buckle up for DIAL H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, the acclaimed hijacking documentary that eerily foreshadowed 9/11. We meet the romantic skyjackers who fought their revolutions and won airtime on the passenger planes of the 1960's and 1970's. By the 1990's, such characters were apparently no more, replaced on our TV screens by stories of anonymous bombs in suitcases."
By the 1990s the image of the terrorist had been appropriated by artists such as Matthew McCarthy of The Molotov Organisation, who did things like run into the toilets at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London to install a 'guerrilla exhibition' circa 1999, as well as pelting the painting "Larger Than Life" by Angela de la Cruz with bananas when it was on display at The Royal Festival Hall in 1998. Art terrorism was a popular media term that fell out of use after 9/11. The appeal of terrorist images to a certain type of artist is obvious. Currently describing himself as a 'gold card anarchist', fashion millionaire Toby Mott used to be a member of the now defunct Grey Organisation and in this capacity he was involved in various actions against cultural institutions. The best known Grey Organisation stunt took place in 1984, when its members painted the windows of all the art galleries in Cork Street grey. Mott isn't nostalgic about his days as an art terrorist: "I wouldn't do what we did in the eighties again. Everything has changed since then, it would be pointless. A lot of people today, like those responsible for messing up Tracey Emin's bed at the Tate, are just wanting in on the art world. That isn't interesting. But I'm all for bringing down bourgeois idols. If there is a point to what people do, then I'm all for it. Destroying art works misses the point, it just provides work for someone making a replacement or replica."
Gail Pickering's contributions to "Here We Dance" were as far removed from art terrorism as it is possible to get. The performances in which she recites the actual words of terrorists among other things, bring to mind "Generation Terror", a 2002 BBC documentary by Ben Lewis. In this programme the German Red Army Faction (RAF) and those who combated them each get to speak in their own voices, and are thus revealed as mirror images of each other. The political incendiaries of the RAF clearly believed themselves to constitute an elite who had the right to lead and shape the world, their self-image of having risen above the common mass of humanity was a vanguardist delusion they shared with top state officials.
Many western urban guerrillas of the 1960s and 1970s claimed they were fighting the organised-for-profit ways of the capitalist world, but beyond the greater destructiveness of regular armies, there is little to differentiate the methodology of terrorists from that of the military-industrial complex they allegedly opposed. Indeed, national security services have been implicated in much nineteenth and twentieth-century terrorism, and nowhere more so that Italy. For example the 1980 Bologna train station bombing which killed 85 people was initially blamed on left-wing terrorists, then far-Right activists were convicted for the atrocity, with members of Italian military intelligence receiving legal sentences for maliciously impeding police investigation into the case.
Although the fascist sympathies of the avant-garde Futurists clustered around F. T. Marinetti are well known, the far-Right extremism of Italy’s leading Dadaist has elicited less comment from art historians. Julius Evola (1888-1974) was no more than a fringe member of Marinetti's Futurist movement, but his extended correspondence with Tristan Tzara and involvement with the publication "Revue Bleu" placed his poetry and visual doodles at the centre of Italian Dadaism. Finding the avant-garde insufficiently elitist for his aristocratic tastes, from 1923 onwards Evola switched his attention to esoteric studies and the ideological development of fascist politics. Evola was savagely anti-Semitic and championed a form of traditionalism grounded in what he called pagan imperialism. Because Evola viewed Germanic Nazism as ideologically inferior to his equally barmy brand of racism, he was often side-lined in far-Right circles prior to the defeat of the Axis powers; but after 1945 he became the high priest of Italian neo-fascism and inspired the terrorists convicted of the Bologna train station bombing to take up arms.
Back in the 1960s the group Action Against Cultural Imperialism (headed by one time Fluxus artist Henry Flynt) picketed New York concerts by the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen because they viewed him as racist and reactionary, but it was the opinions this musician expressed about the 9/11 attack that finally led to a spate of concert cancellations. When asked about the destruction of the Twin Towers, Stockhausen replied: "Well, what happened there is, of course - now all of you must adjust your brains - the biggest work of art there has ever been. The fact that spirits achieve with one act something which we in music could never dream of, that people practise ten years madly, fanatically for a concert. And then die. (Pause.) And that is the greatest work of art that exists for the whole cosmos. Just imagine what happened there. There are people who are so concentrated on this single performance, and then five thousand people are driven to the afterlife. In one moment. I couldn't do that. Compared to that we composers are nothing."
What Stockhausen was fumbling with in this statement was the concept of the sublime, a notion that found its best known exposition in Edmund Burke's "A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful" (1757). Burke defines the beautiful as well-formed and pleasing, with the sublime by contrast having the power to compel and destroy us. The shift from an aesthetic taste for the beautiful to a preference for the sublime is often viewed as marking the onset of Romanticism. Later, in his best known book "Reflections on the Revolution in France" (1790), Burke stupidly denounced the French Revolution as a revolt against tradition, and this tract earned him the posthumous reputation as the founding father of modern British conservativism.
While an attraction to the sublime does not invariably mean a post-Romantic artist has a right-wing political outlook, there does seem to be a relationship between these two things that goes beyond mere coincidence. That said, Ian Hamilton Finlay doesn't necessarily fit into this schema; he presents the French Revolution in a positive light although he is clearly most attracted to those elements connected to The Terror, which can be viewed as its sublime aspect.
The "Here We Dance" exhibition as a whole is neither sublime nor beautiful, and if I had to pigeon-hole it in an aesthetic category I'd opt for comic picturesque; the way it depicts the movement of bodies through states brings to my mind the slow trudge of a deep sea diver along an ocean floor. The show left me wondering when we'll finally move beyond contemplation of the festival held on the ruins of the Bastille and instead kick off our shoes to dance on the grave of the state. I don't mean here just the grave of the British or the French state, but all states. Our movements will no longer resemble a slow motion replay of something that's already happened, they will be free flowing. Throwing off the chains of national borders and the onerous restrictions associated with citizenship and the state, we will enjoy a world of ever growing ecstasy in which the distinction between 'mine' and 'thine' no longer exists.
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