Boris Buden

What is political in the art of Milovan DeStil Markovic?

Let me start with a rhetorical question: Is Markovic’s art political? The answer is quite easy: Yes, it is. More troublesome, however, are the questions of why and how.

A typical explanation of the political meaning of Markovic’s art is given in terms of the so-called politics of representation. In short, Markovic’s art is political insofar as it makes visible what is socially underrepresented, that is, what the given power relations have made invisible. His Homeless project is usually understood as the best example of such a politicization of art. In this project, he makes text portraits (based on interviews) of homeless men – a group of poor people from the margins of our modern, developed society that is synonymous with social exclusion and public invisibility – and presents their life stories in the public space. These are presented both in galleries and, in the form of large billboards, in squares and on important buildings in seven different cities on four continents: Berlin, Belgrade, Tokyo, London, etc. In this way, as we are supposed to believe, Markovic helps first the homeless people. By giving them voice and so making them heard in the society that has forgotten them, he literally lifts them up from the invisibility and powerlessness of their marginalized existence. On the other side, he helps the entire society as well. By means of his art, he makes society aware of its exclusions and injustice, thereby supporting demands for social reforms and political improvements. We can therefore say that Markovic’s art is political as it tries to influence given hegemonic relations with the objective of making society more transparent, more tolerant and more inclusive, which ultimately means more democratic.

This interpretation seems to explain perfectly why Markovic’s art is political. But one could cynically object that it doesn’t tell us why then it is still considered art.

Although completely missing the target, this objection gets directly to the point: It is precisely because of its political nature that we can identify Markovic’s works as art. Let’s try to explain that. Contemporary art is considered as art primarily by its belonging to a separate sphere of life and not by specific features allegedly inherent to authentic artworks. In other words, an artefact can be identified as art inasmuch as it occupies a realm of autonomy where it falls under purely aesthetic criteria. This doesn’t contradict the political nature of art, as so many believe. On the contrary, art can always become political due to its ability to expand or transgress the boundaries of its own autonomous sphere and enter into – or interfere with – other spheres of social and political life.

But this move of artwork from a world of its own outwards must always be retraceable. This is the case in Markovic’s Homeless project, which operates, so to say, as a sort of two-wheel drive – both in art galleries and “outdoor” in urban space, that is, simultaneously in its own, separated public space, which can always claim an obvious autonomy of art, and in what we understand as public in political terms.

It is therefore extremely important not to mistake this “dualism” of Homeless project for any kind of hesitation on the part of Markovic in politicizing his art. He never cuts the umbilical cord of his artwork with the autonomous sphere of art, but not because he is anxious about dissolving art in politics and so losing his artist identity. It is the other way round. He insists on the organic bond of his artworks with the separate sphere of art because his understanding of art, and therefore his artworks, is truly political.

To understand this means, above all, to overcome something we may call the fetishism of content; in other words, a belief that the political nature of art lies in its – to use an old-fashioned expression – tendency, in what it wants to achieve in its social and political reality. In the case of Homeless project, this is the intention of

helping the poor, of making visible what the existing power relations have made invisible before, of including the excluded, of improving social life; in short, of deepening, broadening or simply pushing forward the existing democracy.

If this was Markovic’s true intention, or rather the final “tendency” of his art, then one cannot avoid the question of what is actually political about it. What is political in helping homeless people, in making their problems publicly visible? Why, for instance, is there in this context no mention whatsoever of class relationships, or of any tensions or conflicts between the excluded and the included?

The answer is clear: we (mis)take the alleged tendency of Homeless project for an authentic politicization of art because we have already mistaken today’s liberal concept of consensual democratic politics for politics as such. This is the reason why any sort of moralistic trash can be so easily recognized as an authentic and even subversive political statement and why, by the same token, anyone insisting on an antagonistic, conflicting notion of politics can be declared ideological, totalitarian and historically obsolete. It is exactly in this power to decide what is political and what is not political in social life or art that the existing hegemony shows its strongest expression.

If we want to subvert this hegemony in our reading of Milovan Markovic’s art, we must suggest a completely different formula of its political meaning. His art becomes political not by its tendency, that is, in the intentional content of its public intervention – which is in the case of Homeless project the act of making poor, marginalized and excluded people more visible – but on the level of seemingly pure artistic creation. What his art makes visible on this level is not social exclusion but the forgotten, or more accurately, suppressed, possibility of a different public space. This is actually the “function” of the large billboards with the excerpts from the life stories of the homeless people. They are not exposed in the public to transmit some social or political message, but to reframe our sensibility of the public space, which is today, in a profoundly totalitarian manner, completely

subjected to capitalist domination. That is, it is literally crippled to serve only one purpose: the commodification of everything existing, and, accordingly, to serve as political apologia of this commodification. Homeless project shows us – makes visible – that this is not the ultimate reality and does so by using exclusively artistic means. It is therefore worth repeating that Markovic’s project has no social function whatsoever precisely in terms of what Adorno once wrote, namely, that the social function of art is to have no function. Homeless project is pure art and exactly as such, it is also political. This obviously means that we can understand its political meaning only on the ground of its aesthetic logic and Markovic’s own artistic development.

In his earlier works from the ‘90s – in the so-called transfigurative works – Markovic was dealing with the problem of portrait (Lipstick Portraits and Selfshaves). His “solutions” to this problem are often understood as a sort of symbolic sublimation of the figurative. According to this interpretation, in portraying famous women as simple lipstick colours, Markovic changes the original appearance into something more noble: its symbolic essence. I strongly believe this is completely wrong. The women Markovic portrays – from Hillary Clinton to Madonna, from Vivienne Westwood to Catherine Deneuve, etc. – are in their original appearance nothing but symbolic images. They are the pop icons of our time and precisely as such, they already incorporate the highest form of modern “noblesse.” In his portraits, Markovic reduces the aura of these pop icons to its essence, which is by no means a noble symbolic image, but, on the contrary, its most trivial and cheapest element, the fetish object of lipstick. There is nothing Markovic sublimes in his lipstick portraits. He profanes instead, in the best tradition of modern art and modernity in general. He has done something similar in his Selfshaves. The auratic idea of the Veronica’s shroud – not only the most symbolic and the most noble, but literally the most divine idea of an authentic portrait – he reduces to its most trivial, and at the same time, most realistic, element, a DNA sample.

To profane, as we have learned from Giorgio Agamben, means actually to restore to common usage what was separated into the sphere of the sacred. To say it simply, it means to give humans back what heaven had alienated from them before. He understands that profanation is also an act of liberation of the means from the ends to which they were attached before, and sees in it the political task of the coming generation.

In his art, Milovan DeStil Markovic already belongs to this generation. This means that he is neither a social worker nor a political propagandist, but a true artist indeed. So if you want to understand what is political in his art, first take his art seriously as art.

Giorgio Agamben, Profanierungen, Suhrkamp, 2005
Jacques Ranciere, The Politics Of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, Continuum, 2004

First published in Markovic: Transfigurative Works, Nurnberg, Verlag fuer Moderne Kunst, 2006.

Boris Buden is a writer and cultural critic in Berlin. He studied philosophy in Zagreb (Croatia) and received his PhD in cultural theory from the Humboldt University, Berlin. In the 1990s he was editor in the magazine Arkzin, Zagreb. His essays and articles cover topics related to philosophy, politics, and cultural and art criticism. Among his translations into Croatian are some of the most important works of Sigmund Freud. He is co-editor of several books and author of Barikade, Zagreb 1996/1997, Kaptolski Kolodvor, Beograd 2001, Der Schacht von Babel, Berlin 2004, Uebersetzung: Das Versprechen eines Begriffs, (Translation: The Promise of a Concept), Vienna 2008. Zone des Uebergangs, Frankfurt/Main, 2009.