Note: I first encountered the notion of becoming dexterous in the activity of power and love from Adam Kahane’s book Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change. He drew inspiration from Martin Luther King.
“Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic change…. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites—polar opposites—so that love is identified with the resignation of power and power with the denial of love. Now we’ve got to get this thing right. What [we need to realize is] that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.”
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Where do we go from here?”
I came across Kahane’s outlining of the need for facilitators and leaders to balance power and love when I was still a maturing practitioner in the fields of dialogue, conflict resolution, and leadership development. The simplicity of this polarity-that-must-not-be-a-polarity provoked the kind of “aha” that is exhaled when a cognitive frame slips easily into some slot of experiential being. While Kahane builds his developmental model for the integration of power and love with a kinetic metaphor of movement – a narrative development from falling, through stumbling, walking, and culminating with the intensely hopeful phrase of “stepping forward” – I absorbed his and MLK’s insight in terms of language. My dialogue and conflict resolution work was fundamentally about communication and a colleague used the phrase “bilingual in the languages of power and love” and that phrase found its perfect slot in my being of words. Now, as I have shifted into being a writer, a new kind of trader in words, I find myself viewing and understanding the balancing of power and love as a whole body effort of kinetic, emotional, and verbal actions (and stillness) in relation to others.
When I first encountered it, the beauty of King-to-Kahane’s model of power and love was immediately relevant to every relationship in my life, every situation in which I made choices about assertion and reception, assertion and empathy. It gave me permission to be, consciously and often delightedly, both powerful and loving: as a parent, a spouse, a friend, a colleague, a boss, a subordinate. In some cases, the choices and balance were easier and more obvious than in others. Looking beyond myself, looking for ambidexterity with power and love in our leaders, I found that the larger the scale, the more diffuse and tertiary the relationships, the higher the stakes in terms of gain and loss, the more complicated and difficult the balance. In fact, for leaders of large, complex entities, it is not just one balance, it is many little (often counteracting) balances, except in the core of the single person. The greatest leaders develop and maintain that ambidexterity deep within themselves despite inevitable imbalances in particular relationships and actions.
Of course, I’m thinking and writing about this because we are in the midst of a crucial election in which we will choose a leader whose actions will shape the lives of millions. The European Union is already struggling with the desperation and pathos of numerous refugees, the aggressive nativism of longtime residents, and the shape-shifting enmity of diversely disaffected peoples who are recruited, or drawn by, a reactionary cult that calls itself Islamic. In this context, today’s March 22, 2016 attacks in Brussels heighten the will to power in both ordinary people and in leaders. More than ever “love” feels anemic and “power” risks abuse and reckless escalation. As people closer to us – in distance and cultural formation – are killed cruelly, those who have been similarly killed in Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, so many elsewheres, become even more faceless, and yet responses – balancing power and love – to any one of these acts of violence must be articulated with responses – balancing power and love – to all the other places and people affected by related acts of violence. In the midst of global outrage and the lengthening grief of real people, I find myself asking: are European leaders marshaling their whole bodies and full brains (brain stem, limbic brain, cerebral cortex) for ambidexterity with power and love?
And what can we do to allow and encourage our own leaders, our not-too-distantly-to-be-new-President, to do the same?
The Miami debate was largely a good one for Sanders and largely poor (or at least mediocre) for Clinton who was asked the tougher questions, got on the defensive, and made disingenuous, counter-productive attacks on Sanders. She’s been better. So has he. Her best response at the debate got no play from the media that I’ve seen: her direct, personal response to the Central American woman with five children. She sounded genuine (I think she was) and hit all the right notes, directly acknowledging the woman’s courage in speaking and her commitment and struggle in taking care of her five children on her own, and responding to the woman’s question about reunification in a personal way – sympathetic, related to a policy frame, but without over-promising. In contrast, to my ear, Sanders got the family relationships mixed up and sounded like a distant savior who would solve all such problems of all such people.
The above was one of three things that stood out for me at the debate. The other two were videos: one a video that Clinton mentioned, the other a video that was actually shown and discussed. The video that was named is a supposed Koch brothers’ video that supports Sanders. Clinton raised it in a clumsy way that suggested that Sanders and the Koch brothers are in cahoots in some way. Of course he is not, and I am assuming she knows this. If this video does exist and I have seen nothing to suggest that it does not, the more significant question is why are the Koch brothers behind such a video? Well, of course, because at this point they want to suggest that Sanders is better than Clinton. In the long run, does anyone think that the Koch brothers care, that they would prefer Sanders to any of the Republican candidates? Of course not. Which brings me to the second video, the one of Sanders talking about Cuba and Nicaragua. Leave aside, for the moment, whether you support his ideas or not, and ask why the Koch brothers are not showing this video. Now, even if you agree with Sanders’ ideas, do you think that more than fifty percent of the U.S. electorate will buy those ideas?
Holding the above question, consider a recent headline from The Nation which says that the way that Trump can defeat Clinton is by attacking her from the left and from the right. If Trump and Clinton do end up becoming the nominees, Trump may try that, but for the most part the left (even those who dislike Clinton) will close ranks against him. It is now that Clinton is being effectively hammered from the left and the right; The Nation’s headline is simply extrapolating from what is happening now. Meanwhile Sanders is being (largely) supported by the further left, supported or getting a pass from the center-left (many of them Clinton supporters like me, but who like or at least don’t dislike Sanders), and mostly ignored by the right. If Sanders becomes the nominee, we know that every rock in his life will be turned over. Trump’s phrase, “our communist friend,” will become more virulent, with interviews and speeches quoted and televised as evidence. The right will easily be mobilized against him. The left will unify behind him. Videos like the one on Cuba and Nicaragua will be used to sway the center – the big question is how large is that center? And will the Republican nominee re-fashion himself enough to appeal to that center?
Both Clinton and Sanders are flawed candidates. Clinton is clumsy-to-disingenuous from time to time (not always, but sometimes with more unnerving frequency than other times); an incrementalist who is mostly quite comfortable with status quo institutions and laws, though she believes they could be better; and a foreign-policy hawk (who, if she is in office, I hope will be tempered by more sensible advisers and the legislature and public holding her accountable). She has these flaws, and, over the last twenty or so years of ambitious political efforts, has become an easy and favorite target, both through her own making and through the efforts of political adversaries. So every mistake she makes is hugely amplified, while Sanders’ mistakes seem minor in the light of his more inspiring aura of revolutionary change and genuineness. Sanders is selling a populist fantasy, one that provokes and inspires change in many wonderful ways (I do think his campaign has the potential to be a game-changer in U.S. politics!), but his political range is very limited, his legislative record is stunningly incrementalist (much stronger in amendments than bills; apparently only three of his bills were passed, two of which were for changing names of post offices), and his knowledge of foreign policy is limited and naïve (admittedly his foreign policy naiveté could lead to a freshness; I’m just not sure he has the strategic suppleness to leverage the freshness).
Of course, I will support Sanders if he becomes the nominee, but I do worry that he would lose to the Republican candidate. Before the Miami debate, I had worried more that, as President, he would not be able to deliver on his promises. After the two videos, I am worried about his electability.
An aside: I would love to see a Clinton-Warren ticket, and I was rather appalled at the way Sanders’ supporters excoriated Warren for not endorsing him before the Massachusetts primary. I’m not sure Clinton is risk-taking enough to do it, and I’m not sure Warren would want to do it, but if they could work together, they could push U.S. policy-making into very interesting new territory.
Thomas Hirschhorn A Ruin Is A Ruin
Galerie Susanna Kulli, Zurich, Switzerland
January 27, 2016 – March 31, 2016
A few weeks ago, in the middle of February of 2016, on my day off work in Zurich, I went to the Galerie Susanna Kulli to look at Thomas Hirschhorn’s collages on A Ruin Is A Ruin. I walked from the Hauptbahnhof, the main station, down a “military” road and past ordinary, tired buildings. A few steps led into a small gallery. Immediately before me was a large, undulating piece of cardboard, presenting a striking foundation of ruins from which an isolated ruin rose and gave way to a wasteland. A message in awkward orthography proclaimed what at first looked like: A RUIN ISA RUIN. Almost immediately I turned away from the large poster, putting my initial, peripheral view of more posters behind me, and turned to the collection of simulacra and writing under the glass of a small display case next to the entrance. In Hirschhorn’s terms, I turned from the art to the information.
Hirschhorn is explicit about his aims in his writing and interviews. “Affirmation,” in the manner of Warhol, and “truth…that refers to nothing other than itself and asserts itself as a form.”
His Ruins posters are layered, acquiring a three-dimensionality from both the vertical and lateral pasting of images, as well as from the building of the poster with a bottom and a top and an architecture that leverages height. Most of the posters have letters, usually words, usually including Ruin, in one case an overlapping RR, unavoidable persiflage of a monogram. The coda is provided on a small scrap of cardboard, in size a fraction of the large posters, on which is pasted the image of an indisputable ruin, accompanied by an honestly handwritten (uneven, with mistakes scratched out) text from Derrida: “… And then I would love to write, maybe with or following Benjamin, maybe against Benjamin, a short treatise on love of ruins. What else is there to love anyway? One cannot love a monument, a work of architecture, an institution as such, except through the experience, itself precarious, of its fragility: it hasn’t always been there, it is finite.” While the Derrida quotation and Hirschhorn’s Ruins collages both exclude people, connecting this exhibition to Hirschhorn’s earlier work on Ur-Collages (his collages presenting beautiful and ravaged bodies) leads me to suppose that love, loving people, also requires fragility, finitude.
“A ruin is a form,” Hirschhorn says, and quotes Gramsci, “the content of art is art itself.” In a very ordinary way, I would propose that the content of art is also what it is not, what it excludes. In that sense, Hirschhorn’s A Ruin Is A Ruin exhibition both excludes information and surrounds itself with Hirschhorn’s own words, the Derridean coda, and layers of ancestral rubrics. So each poster is a form, “a truth… that refers to nothing other than itself,” and my delight with his work arises from the question: what is it not?
The question what (each poster; the exhibition as a whole) is not implies a relationship to what it is not. In my encounter with the exhibition in Zurich, I found myself noticing four relationships: to information; to discursive and disciplinary context; to physical/spatial context; and to the agency of the viewer.
I have written above about the relationship to information: both its deliberate exclusion, and its being hugged close via the coda and rubrics with long genealogies. This relationship to information merges with the relationship of the art to discursive and disciplinary context. In his interview with Sebastian Egenhofer on the occasion of his 2009 exhibition of Ur-Collages at the Galerie Kulli, Hirschhorn plausibly rejects (his own) consideration of “the public sphere of the art scene,” and, most understandably, even trivially, sees his work in relationship to that of Piet Mondrian, Andy Warhol, Martha Rosler, Caravaggio – a few of the artists explicitly named. His A Ruin Is A Ruin, interpellated by a Derridean coda, is also fundamentally present through its distinction from and location relative to other works (and subjects) in “the public sphere of the art scene.”
Walking away, the relationship of the exhibition to physical/spatial context becomes evident, as I observe the slow dissolution of the urban landscape from the reserved, classically bourgeois buildings around the gallery to browning sidewalks that took me to a tunnel that stepped me through staccato colors out into an area of subsidized housing where I found walls with rounded, nature-sci-fi murals, Journey through the Jungle, all of this far from, and related to, the beautiful Altstadt and the heartbreakingly lovely contradictions of the Chagall windows in Our Lady’s Church. Hirschhorn’s ruins were there, then, in the middle of that geography with its particulate, too-big-for-one-telling histories.
The collages in A Ruin Is A Ruin have a seductive beauty. Only one contains an obtrusive human (dis)figure, and that highly stylized. But this exhibition’s antecedent in the same gallery, Hirschhorn’s Ur-Collages, contained works that each displayed images of glossily beautiful humans and ravaged bodies – dismembered, flesh, entrails, blood. The gallery assistant, Anna Vetsch, who will one day run a gallery or museum of contemporary art, showed me photographs of that exhibition and warned me that they would be hard to look at. Remarkably, the images of that earlier exhibition did clarify my attention to the current Ruins exhibition, and, yes, the images were difficult to look at. I did not want to look at the disfigured human bodies; and I was not interested in the fashion photographs to which they were attached. I was curious about the compositions, but didn’t want to look at them. And then I read Egenhofer’s interview of Hirschhorn in which Hirschhorn says: “I am astonished time and again when viewers say, ‘I can’t see that,’ or even worse, ‘I don’t have to see that’ or ‘I don’t want to see that.’ That is an incredible thing to say, that is an exclusion of the other, and it is pure egotism when someone claims that he has the option of not seeing. Of not seeing the world as it is. That is an incredibly luxurious thing to do, a self-segregation, a turning away from the world that I will never understand.” So when Hirschhorn challenges the agency and choices of the viewer with his Ur-Collages, we can only suppose that, with his Ruins collages, he is also challenging the agency and choices of the viewer. His works ask – When you turn away from the Ur-Collages what do you look at? When you look at the Ruins collages, what are you turning away from?
Contrary to Hirschhorn’s apparent intention, the truth of his work is not simply in the art itself. Perhaps there was only one moment of that truth when I viewed the exhibition, the moment when I walked in and glanced at the first poster before turning to the information encased in the glass. Perhaps there was a moment of truth for each work, a truth that became available in a brief liminal pause, during which the image hung separate, preceded and followed by inevitable captivity to context and information. The longer truth is that Hirschhorn’s work caught my attention, led to this writing, and will “hold up” because it must be seen within its larger contexts, which are specific and granular around this art, today, but schematized by the form of the work in ways that make contexts of other times and places relevant and questioned.
A note about the photographs: All the photographs are taken by me with my iPhone. The photo showing some of the works in the Ur-collage exhibition is of a page in the booklet containing Sebastian Egenhofer’s interview of Thomas Hirschhorn. The booklet is available for 18 euros at the Galerie Susanna Kulli, which organized the interview and has published the booklet (bi-lingual in German and English). The last photo shows a keepsake collage that I created on a photocopy of the review of the exhibition in a Zurich newspaper.