A reflection on Art, Beauty and Glitter-bombing by Leonidas Martín
Beauty is difficult. The other day I went to a contemporary photography event, the kind of thing where two or three artists and critics show works and have discussions on the same topic, in this case, “beauty”. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that the top billed artist pronounced the word “beauty” more than 200 times during her presentation. According to her, every last thing portrayed in her photographs was beautiful. The flowers, beautiful; the girls, beautiful; a knee, simply beautiful — oh, and an elbow, too; hands, feet, everything, just beautiful, beautiful. I left there a little disconcerted, thinking about something Plato said more than two thousand years ago: “Beauty is difficult”. No doubt it is, and from the looks of it, it’s going to stay that way for a long time to come. Once I got home, I made something for dinner and put on the TV to watch the news. During a press conference, Mario Draghi was announcing some new European Bank monetary policies when, all of a sudden, a young woman jumped up on the desk and shouted, “End ECB Dictatorship!” and dumped an envelope full of confetti on Draghi’s head. I thought to myself, “now, that’s Beautiful!” — the good kind of beauty. I’m going to try to explain why.
To begin with, this action was beautiful in the same sense as how the venerable Russian formalists associated beauty with what they called “estrangement”, or defamiliarization. For those guys, the everyday was what dulled our perceptions, made us numb to the freshness of life, and so art should therefore manage to come up with ways to interrupt that. It was an all or nothing question: either everything that, until that moment, had been normal had to become strange, or it wouldn’t be beautiful. Provoking a new outlook was necessary, a new perspective that raised the difficulty of the world, and our perception along with it. And this could only be done by art (and literature). OK, so now let Vladimir Propp or any one of his buddies come and tell me that this isn’t precisely what this girl has achieved with something as mundane and automatic as the European Bank and its infamous monetary policies.
What she did, this Radical Butterfly — as she calls herself on Twitter — is also beautiful in another sense, resembling what Artaud made reference to when he said that “reality is a convention that can be altered”. Her intervention, full of circus and theatre, was a clear show of what each individual is, or could become — a powerful social actor. To achieve this, you need only perform an action similar to hers, a sign, a gesture capable of disrupting the usual programming. Her bird-like hop, the confetti falling on Draghi’s bullish neck, the shirt with the slogan “End ECB Dick-tatorship”, all of this serves to remind us that anyone is capable of presenting proposals about their own conditions and about the alternative means we can take. A complete classic of the avant-garde of the last century.
And speaking of art history classics, we can’t forget that this intervention had to do with revealing, disclosing, unveiling appearances. As much as the world has changed since the days of Dada, one thing remains certain: a society’s order is never completely assured. For this reason the activity of every artist — every good artist — has been and always should be to increase disorder; that is to say, increase that which reveals society to be in the process of constant transformation. And that’s exactly what this girl did when she showed up there unexpectedly and, in one fell swoop, dismantled the unity offered by Draghi, offering a hint that it’s just an image. An image created by those who declare that “this is how things are, and this is how they’ll always be”. Her confetti attack tells the story of a world ruled more by discord than by the daily display of false consensus staged by the directors of the financial entities and the politicians that back them. Our heroine knows full well that to accept this discord is to accept that everything could be different, and that’s why she laughs.
The value and social importance we give to art today comes in large part from the Renaissance. That was when we began to appreciate beauty as a means of social affirmation, signalling the rank and prestige of the powerful, and also pointing out their opposite: the losers. From that moment on, things like elegance, taste and exquisite composition came to be genuine political strategies. And so was born the theatrification of power as we know it today, performed daily by Draghi and company. Their suits, the language they employ, the spaces in which they move, their cars — all parts of a world of appearances that, with the help of the media, aims to take hold of our emotions, reaching the very depths of our beings and influencing our every action. You can see how this applies, for example, in how we unquestioningly accept another turn of the neoliberal screw: more labor flexibility, more deregulation, more layoffs, more naked competition, the crisis holding us in a perpetual state of shock. In some way, the Butterfly’s action broke this spell and dropped the appearances, using the same trick as neoliberalism – seizing emotion to influence the actions of the observer. We see that everything can be different. We need not drown in the eyes of power; power can also be drowned in ours. And that is beautiful.
When she jumped up on Draghi’s desk and threw the confetti, when some scowling old coots dragged her out of there as she laughed her head off, and when the whole world was watching at the same time, what happened is that our own butterfly created what I like to call a “common literary body”. It’s got to do with creating patterns, images and collective ideals through which to act creatively against the discord around us. This highlights the social and political role of beauty, and its efforts to make space for freedom in the tight-assed world of appearances. This girl’s action is one of those images in which a society learns to see its own reflection, a reality reconfigured to renew our lives and destinies as a community.
Last but not least, this action was beautiful because we’ve fallen in love. In reading comments written by hundreds of people, it’s clear that this intervention has opened up a shared emotional space, a mental plane where many seem to be seeing glimpses of how the enslavement to the European Bank could be replaced with the reasons of the heart that neoliberal reason has ignored. I like this girl. I like how she looks like a bird making her place in the world. I like her shirt and her falling-down pants and pointy shoes that look like they might shoot sparks at any moment. But most of all, I like what she has done, because for me it perfectly represents what I think an artist is: someone less interested in counting the casualties of war than in reviving the wounded. Beautiful.
Article translated by Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel – Guerrilla Translation
Images by Reuters, modified by Comando Suricato