Degrees of separation

The Editors

Ettore Scola, A Special Day, 1977. Still from film, 106:00 minutes. Public domain.

December 6, 2023

In their recent open letter, curators Manuel J. Borja-Villel and Vasıf Kortun protested that “culture and cultural institutions have become a battleground, which the illiberal forces are ready to conquer.”1 The removal of the bulwarks protecting culture from political interference means, they continued, that “what was once a site for experimentation and autonomy is becoming a site of control.”

Recent weeks have provided ample evidence that the erasure of those lines separating a society’s culture from its economic and political systems leaves it vulnerable to them. Art’s function as a “liminal space,” in Victor Turner’s formulation, depends on it being partly if never wholly insulated from those expressions of power. It is instead an arena in which conventions are temporarily suspended so that citizens are free to dispute the terms of the social contract without fear of reprisal. New ideas are tested and marginal or suppressed subject positions given a platform. If culture is to change a society’s hierarchies rather than merely reproduce them, then it must act from a position external to them.

It follows that collapsing that separation can serve the status quo, whether or not that was the intention. We are faced today with the spectacle of artists being punished for failing to adhere to a set of views enshrined in set phrases and conventions. The right to creative expression is made contingent on the broadcast of public statements resembling those drafted for multinational brands by teams of corporate lawyers. Rather than getting drawn into battles fought on someone else’s ground, the imperative might be to reject the fundamental terms of the argument and propose new ones.

These crises might be the natural conclusion of the presumption that a work of art is coextensive with the identity of its maker, the instrumentalization of art as vehicle for the communication of rote political positions, and the confusion in online culture between telegraphing a position and embodying it. Culture is left subject to the same protocols and constraints that govern a heavily surveilled and fanatically policed public discourse. Artists including Anaïs DuPlan and Candice Breitz have used the unwelcome publicity generated by the cancellation of their shows to establish forums in which these issues can openly be discussed. These admirable attempts to create spaces for discussion are characterized by their endorsement of the idea that language is not degraded by a speaker’s failure to be precise in their wording so much as by a listener’s unwillingness to engage constructively with the sentiments underpinning it.

To hold that culture is political only when sloganeering is to ignore the fact that even the most oblique work of art is conditioned by the social life that produced it. In recent weeks e-flux Criticism has published reviews addressing issues of self-determination and occupation, the saturation of popular culture with images that normalize racial injustice, the militarization of disputed borders, the return to Indigenous communities of land, the relationship of physical landscape to violent social history, and any number of other subjects that might seem to shed light on the horrors now unfolding on our feeds. That these reviews were commissioned weeks in advance of their publication might instead illustrate how art can alert us to the contexts that also produce our politics. We hope that this month’s program will continue to provide a space in which to reflect upon, debate, and reimagine those contexts.


Manuel J. Borja-Villel and Vasıf Kortun, “A Letter from Manuel Borja-Villel and Vasıf Kortun regarding Documenta 16,” e-flux Notes (November 23, 2023),

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December 6, 2023

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