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Guest contribution | Community as a small utopia of art

mumok insider

“The word ‘communism,’” wrote philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, means in fact nothing more than the “desire to discover or rediscover a place of community.” What Nancy describes is in large part telling for contemporary art after 1989, because community and collectiveness denote an ideal of artistic practice that refers to shifts in the narratives of social emancipation and a return of utopian motifs in art since the nineteen-nineties. Nancy raised two interesting points: the foundation of communism in the community—the communitas—and its idiosyncratic temporality. In fact, utopian thought has frequently been about describing a place of social authenticity and non-alienation that would overcome society, which is felt to be anonymous and cold. When the word “communism,” as Nancy says, refers to community, it is, therefore, not a matter of simple substitution: collectivity on a small scale does not simply replace the great social utopia, as envisioned in socialism. Rather, it would have always been the real utopia. In any case, history teaches us that communism was understood too big when referring to society as a whole—as Marxist thinking would have it. In fact, it is more about a small collective that exists in the here and now of the present, as a nucleus of the whole, as a particular community of the free and equal. This community does not include everyone—yet; it is rather found in the tense realm between the universality of its claim to liberation and emancipation and the limitations it sets.

However, the community also possesses an idiosyncratic temporality. As Nancy writes, it links a present utopia with a coming and a past one. The collective of the free and equal is the projection of a future, the anticipation of a future world, whose seed exists in the here and now and is able to guide our actions. But this community is also a past one, not only historically but structurally: the imagination of what is lost, not just as a failed revolution but more encompassing, as mankind before its alienation, as the pure state of nature, as the Garden of Eden, as a culturally and religiously persisting topos of a past innocence. Of course, there is no way back to this past, rather a way “back forward”: via the actualization that realizes anew the past in a future form of life.

It is a pertinent aspect of the 2010 film marxism today (prologue) by Phil Collins that he observes the transformations of utopian thought after 1989 from a perspective that considers the shift in what communism, emancipation, and freedom mean. In doing so, Collins ostensibly addresses the detachment of Marxist thought from ideology and its reassignment into the scope of theory, as a methodology of critique. Socialism in the former GDR is depicted here not via linear, historical narratives but by means of the subjective experience of three female protagonists: teachers who taught Marxism-Leninism are portrayed twenty years after the fall of the very system they taught. The question raised regarding the relevance of Marx, also through the contrast between historical archive material and the more recent interviews with the teachers, relates less with what a communist social utopia in socialist countries might have actually looked like and more with the potential of the critique of capitalism, which motivates today’s revival of Marx’s writings.

What does it mean, then, when the community appears as an actual place of utopia—and what does it mean when it is realized in contemporary art? Art takes on the great social narrative of liberation and emancipation and salvages it; it becomes a place of local and temporary reconciliation. Its communities are a response to the present structures of alienation; at the same time, its particular claims create space for difference. If the post-1989 boom of collective and community-oriented art practices signals an actualization of utopian thought, then at any rate not only as compensation for the impossibility of any large-scale utopia. In view of the ecological crisis, the pandemic, and wars, artistic practices of community are nevertheless so interesting today, because they do not simply spell out collectivity and solidarity in a self-sufficient way—as “mere” utopia—rather they design models of togetherness that would spread into the social relations beyond art. The small utopias of art are no closed-off islands; they swim in the oceans of society. For of course, the diagnosis that “something is missing,” as Brecht said, is to be understood as a call for emancipation and freedom for everyone. Ultimately, utopia remains a universal idea.


Sebastian Mühl


Sebastian Mühl is an art theorist, researcher and curator. 

marxism today (prologue) (2010) by Phil Collins is still on view until November 6, 2022 as part of the exhibition Collaborations.