There is a strong tradition of protecting art even when it offends the majority of people

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PL Professor Caroline Levine's is discussing with Teodor Ajder on the margines of the newly published Polish translation of her book "Provoking Democracy. Why We Need the Arts".

Teodor Ajder: You claim that "Provoking Democracy is about Why We Need the Arts". However, one could also say that first of all it is a book on trials of arts and artists. It is about the courts of law and order, is it not?

Caroline Levine: It's about the relationship between order and disorder. How much disorder-rebellion, offensiveness, experimentation, shock-is valuable or desirable in a democratic society? I was surprised by two things in my research: first, that the law in Anglo-American contexts has been remarkably accommodating of artistic disorderliness, and second, that the most rebellious artists have often relied on organized institutions to create, disseminate, and even to protect their work from popular outrage. In both cases, there's a strangely sustaining relationship between order and disorder.

I am sure your ideas will find a fertile ground here in Poland, where the debate on the artistic subversion and dissent is quite actual. And I don't mean only the continuation of Dorota Nieznalska's files, that you mention in your book. Additionally, more and more institutions, not just the art-related ones, show an openness to self-criticism. Also, in the last couple of years since the first English edition of your book, the statuses of some more recent court cases you have discussed in the book evolved quite a lot. The Polish translator updated in the footnotes some of the facts regarding the Nieznalska case, for example. So, did you consider to revise your book for a future republication in English, or perhaps, did you consider to write a forward for the Polish edition of your book?

I am very interested to hear that there's lots of debate and art-related change in Poland. Sadly, I don't speak Polish, so it's hard for me to keep up with events, but I'd love to hear more. I was excited to hear that a Polish edition of my book was in the works, but I never thought to write a new preface: that would have been a smart idea! Controversies over art objects are happening all the time, and I'd love to keep revising my understanding of art and democracy with new cases in mind.

You say that the Anglo/American Judicial system rather helped avant-garde art than harmed it. Yet, in some other parts of the book you do say that many art works have been destroyed, and artists have been arrested. So, where is the truth? Can you give us some statistics on the won and lost cases by artists?

Art works have often been destroyed by non-democratic regimes: fascists, Soviets, and the Taliban. What surprised me while I was doing my research was that in the past century, in Britain and the US, in particular, artists have been better protected by the courts than by the public. Often people will strongly object to a work of art and demand its removal, but in many cases the law will protect them. Artists are always complaining about the power of the courts to suppress them, but the courts have been surprisingly hospitable to outrageous art. In the most famous trials of works of art-James Joyce's "Ulysses", D. H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover", and Allen Ginsberg's "Howl", the "Sensation" show at the Brooklyn Museum, Robert Mapplethorpe-the artist or publisher was acquitted. I didn't do a statistical study, and don't know of one, but I very much wanted to know why the law protected art works that the "people" often wanted suppressed or destroyed.

You are often critical and ironical about the artists you write about. You say they seem to be sometimes hypocritical and selfish. You cite Jessie Gray, who says that artists sometimes behave rather like politicians, and that usually the ones in power have more to say. Usually, the power in the art-world is in the hands of "a small, but very organized clique, that includes galleries, curators and critics, which exercises a strict control in the art-world. They write about each other, recommend and promote each other reciprocally, divide among themselves the grants and subsidies and so on. It seems that you would agree with this statement, but cautiously you shielded yourself with somebody's else's name. However you don't say the same things about the people who reside in courts. How about them? Is, in your opinion, the judiciary system similar to the art world in this respect as well?

I'm not as critical as you think! I am fascinated by a certain tension in the art world: on the one hand, artists since the avant-garde see it as their main mission to test the limits of prejudice and convention, to see in startlingly new ways; on the other hand, they can't work outside of established institutions, such as museums, publishers, universities, and the state. I don't see artists as hypocritical, but I see them caught in this tension. Sometimes when they suggest that they themselves are above or outside the law-like Jeff Koons-I think they're wrong, and wrong in a way that hurts the arts. They'd be smarter to work with the tension rather than to pretend it doesn't exist. But I don't think that they are hypocritical or selfish. I really want to defend artists! As for the judiciary, I'm sure they're flawed in every way, but they do have some good arguments for why we should protect art works, even when we don't particularly like them.

You are quite tough even when you talk about the media. If I understand you correctly, you insinuate that the freedom of speech in the democracies is rather an illusion?

Freedom of speech is not a pure freedom: it's a freedom permitted and governed by institutions, including television stations, newspapers, the law, and the state. But it's still a precious freedom-one of the most valuable-and I would argue as strongly for it as I possibly can. In the US where I live, the media is in a terrible state-funded by ideologues. Money flows into political messages from the wealthiest, leaving most people's voices out of the conversation altogether. Sometimes the state can foster inclusion, and I'm in favour of that. So I don't see freedom of speech as something pure and absolute, outside of other social structures. It has to be nurtured and sustained. Support for the arts is part of that. Artists who test the limits of what we know and understand don't always make a profit, but they often help us to see the world in new ways, and I would like my government actively to support them, even if the market does not, as part of a society that recognizes and welcomes dissent.

When you write, that in the past few years, democratic societies from all over the world regularly have proved that they are very much eager to completely shut down exhibitions and silence artists in the name of the majority, did you mean to say that this was happening less in the Anglo-American culture compared to other countries?

Anglo-American societies are constantly showing themselves eager to shut down exhibitions and silence them in the name of majorities-we see it all the time. What I didn't realize is that the state often protects the artists even when the people are outraged and wanting to silence them. I don't think this is true everywhere, but I don't know as much about the whole world as I'd like! In France and Germany and much of Scandinavia there is much more public support for the arts, including fairly outrageous artists, than in Britain and the US.

You've mentioned the case of the „Cow project" started by a number of inhabitants of Los Altos Hills as a protest against the closing down of a local school. You write that not just lonely individuals can create controversies, that art that emerged on the social ground can also trigger anger and provoke destroyers. My question is, what in your opinion are the minimum requirements for a collective initiative, a group protest, to be called an art-work?

I used to look for absolute definitions of art, but my research persuaded me that art is a social field defined by a lot of different participants, who are always arguing about the boundaries. That argument is productive-it allows us to keep asking what belongs and what doesn't-but it's not the same as identifying a deep or essential quality of "art-ness". So, my answer is mundane, I'm afraid: initiatives get to be called art works if some of those who speak publicly about art agree to call them art.

You mention that during the war, Brecht, Feuchtwanger, Remarque, while in the US, couldn't meet to commemorate the book-burning day in Germany, because they were considered to be „internal enemies", „people not to be trusted". They were prohibited to travel farther than 5 miles from their residences, to leave them after 8 PM, or to express themselves in public. Were they treated better than other internal enemies? I know that some of these „internal enemies", of Japanese origins, for example, had to be moved to special camps.

Yes, Brecht and the others were treated far better than Japanese people in the US at the same time. What was ironic for these writers was that they were trying to celebrate freedom of speech and weren't allowed to travel from their homes to do so. That's why I included them in the book.

You claim in the book that up to now, every time an artist confronts the law, a certain avant-guard-specific discourse, a certain line of defense is put into action. This is going on since the beginnigs of avant-garde art, in the second part of the XIX century, that had coincided with the first prohibitions of pornography by some courts of law. Didn't the avant-garde began earlier, though? I would claim that avant-garde art had been there long before that, that it started with the very first artistic disputes, to the first rebellious artists and competition between them. But probably, what happened in the second part of the XIX century was that the courts started to be, indeed, more clement with the artists, or common people in general. Would you agree with that?

I disagree with the claim that the avant-garde goes back many centuries. It was a historical phenomenon: a series of movements that took shape in the late 19th century. There were certainly artists who competed with one another or shocked or offended authorities before that-we might think of Michelangelo or Goya-but the avant-garde movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Symbolists, Impressionists, Cubists, Futurists, Dadaists) were self-conscious groups of artists who saw it as their central mission to reject conventional approval and success. Unlike artists of the past, who had had private or Church patrons, the avant-garde was responding to the new landscape of mass culture, where ordinary people were the major consumers of culture. Specifically, they responded by rejecting anything comfortable or soothing, thereby carving out a historically new role for art. This is what has earned artists the reputation of elitism. But you can see it differently-as deliberately challenging the people to broaden their tastes, to feel uncomfortable with difference and newness and dissent. I myself think that broadening is valuable for all of us, even when we don't enjoy it.

You do give examples of when judges merge with the crowd and renounce the values of the caste of the judges, but you don't talk about artists who critisize, as citizens, the tyranny of the courts, although you do mention that these kind of people exist as well. Is the court a taboo, beyond criticism, in the Anglo-American culture? Why didn't you write about these cases as well?

Artists are always complaining about the courts. It is certainly not taboo to be critical of the law or the courts in Anglo-American culture. Much of the system is a disgrace.  D. H. Lawrence always talked about the "censor-moron," and we're used to thinking of the courts as heavy-handed and ignorant when it comes to the arts. That's why my research surprised me. I expected to find ignorant judges making bad decisions about art, and instead I found them almost consistently siding with the most startlingly experimental artists. I wanted to figure out why, and that's what led me to write the book.

Do you still hold today the position, repeated a number of times in your book, namely that Anglo-American courts treat avant-garde artists with extraordinary mercy?

Mercy, not exactly. But there is a strong tradition of protecting art even when it offends the majority of people, yes.

Which of the two systems is better then? the American one, that charged Dennis Heiner, who smeared white paint over Chris Ofili's "The Holy Virgin Mary", with a conditional discharge and a fine of 250 dollars, or the Anglo-Saxon court that charged Vladimir Umanets to 2 years in prison for putting his name on a Rothko painting?

Great question! Heiner did a terrible, terrible thing. It's exactly this kind of defacement by the public that shows what people in democracies will do to art when it offends them. This is part of why I wrote the book: we think of democracies as free societies, but people will often try to destroy art works in the name of democratic majorities. The Umanets case is different: his defacement is in the spirit of the avant-garde, not to suppress art but to create more art. He certainly drew attention to his own movement! I have to say that I'm not much of a fan of defacing art in any context, but I certainly have more sympathy with Umanets and would have given him a lighter sentence than Heiner.

Caroline Levine, „Od prowokacji do demokracji”, Wydawnictwo Muza SA
Caroline Levine, „Od prowokacji do demokracji”, Wydawnictwo Muza SA