Europe and Its Others Boris Groys

In recent years we have been hearing European politicians say over and over that Europe is not just a community of economically defined interests but something more—namely, a champion of certain cultural values that should be asserted and defended. But we know of course that in the language of politics “something more” as a rule means “something less.” And, indeed, what European politicians really want to say is that Europe cannot and should not expand unlimitedly, but should end where its cultural values end. The concept of culture defines de facto the self-imposed borders of economic and political expansion, for the scope of the applicability of European culture is thus more narrowly defined as the area of European economic interests. Europe will thereby differentiate itself in relation to Russia, China, India, and Islamic countries, but also with respect to its ally the United States, and at the same time present itself as an internally homogeneous community of values that possesses a specific cultural identity to which those who come to Europe should conform, thank you very much. The question I would like to raise here is not whether such a differentiation, such a definition, of European cultural values is desirable or not. Rather, I would like to ask how exactly are European cultural values defined by European politicians today, and how successfully? Second, what interests me is what effect this demand for Euro­pean cultural identity has on the arts in Europe.

The desire to situate one’s own culture in an international comparison is surely completely legitimate. The question is simply how well this attempt succeeds in Europe’s case. Now, as a rule, European values are defined as humanistic values that have their origin in the Judeo-Christian legacy and in the tradition of the European Enlightenment. European values are generally thought to include respect for human rights, democracy, tolerance of the foreign, and openness to other cultures. To put it another way, the values that are proclaimed to be specifically European values are in fact universalistic, and one could rightly demand that non-Europeans respect them as well. Therein lies the entire difficulty that inevitably confronts those who would like to define European cultural identity by means of such values or analogous ones: namely, these values are too general, too universal, to define a specific cultural identity and to differentiate it from other cultures. On the other hand, the catalog of these values is too meager to do justice to the immense wealth of the European cultural tradition. The discourse on European cultural identity has been circulating this paradox for decades now. On the one hand, this circulation evokes the feeling of an enormous intellectual dynamic, but on the other the corresponding discourse remains in the same spot the whole time. The project of defining the particular cultural identity of Europe by appealing to universalistic, humanistic values cannot succeed, if only because it is incoherent on the level of simple logic.

Every logically coherent definition of a cultural identity presumes that other cultures are different but of equal value. If, however, the particular European values are defined as universal humanistic values, that can only mean that other non-European cultures must be considered antihumanistic by nature, that is, as inherently inhuman, antidemocratic, intolerant, and so on. In view of this diagnosis, it is clear that the European cultural and political sensibility is necessarily ambiguous. To the extent that human rights and democracy can be recognized as universal values, Europeans, as champions of such values, feel morally obliged to push them through worldwide. In the process they find themselves, quite rightly, confronted with the accusation that they are pursuing an old European policy of imperialist expansion under the guise of defending and championing human rights. To the extent, however, that human rights can be recognized as particularly European values, Europeans feel obliged to protect themselves within Europe, that is, to isolate the European cultural sphere and defend it against the antihumanistic aliens. Hence European politics oscillates between imperialism and isolationism—mirroring the particular-universal character of the values that it wants to assert as its own.

Quite clearly such a particular-universal definition of European culture places other cultures under immense pressure to justify themselves. Either they are supposed to prove that they have already Europeanized to the point where they have assimilated the universal, humanistic values, or they are sup­posed to prove that they have their own humanistic traditions whose origin does not necessarily lie in the Judeo-Christian tradition but rather in the Buddhist, Confucian, or Islamic tradition. Both strategies for justification, however, are condemned to a situation where the humanistic values are ter­ritorialized in the European cultural sphere from the outset. This territorialization is also a burden for Europeans, because as a result they feel they are compelled to characterize non-European cultures as antihumanist, which seems to contradict their humanistic approach right from the start. They can, in fact, only do this if they no longer believe in the universal dimension of these values and are prepared to accept them as specifically European. As a result Europeans who define themselves as champions of humanistic values feel embarrassed for two reasons: on the one hand, they feel obliged to push these values through worldwide, if necessary by force, which in fact contra­dicts the humanistic ideal, but on the other hand they tend to doubt the universality of this humanistic ideal to the extent that they conceive these values as merely particular to Europe.

Consequently typical Europeans oscillate between fantasies of omnipo­tence and a chronic inferiority complex. As soon as they assert humanism as a universal truth, they seem to have the world at their feet, because they embody all of humanity. As soon as they conceive humanism as a specifically European value, however, they see themselves as weak, unfit for combat, easily hurt, unprotected, surrounded by a sea of human rights violations, injustices, horrors—abandoned and defenseless in the face of the antihumanistic alien. Their own humanism is transformed from the highest value to a structural weakness, the crucial disadvantage in the wars between cultures. Because the dominant discourse on European identity asserts both things—that humanistic values are universal and that they are particular to Europe—the European psyche is incurably torn between moral superiority and paranoid fear of the other. I cannot say to what extent this inner turmoil benefits European politics, but without a doubt it is the best possible precondition for European art.

The fate of European humanism is deeply connected to that of Euro­pean art in at least two respects. First, in keeping with the dominant conven­tions of the European understanding of art, only that which is made by human hands can be considered art. Second, works of art are ultimately distinguished from other things only in that they are exclusively contemplated and interpreted, but not practically used. The taboo against using the work of art, against consuming it, is the basis of all European art institutions, including museums and the art market. The fundamental maxim of humanism that the human being can only be viewed as the end and never the means already suggests that European humanism sees the human being as first and foremost a work of art. Human rights are in fact the rights of art, but applied to human beings. Indeed, in the wake of the Enlightenment, the human being is defined not primarily as a mind or soul but as one body among other bodies, ulti­mately as one thing among other things. On the level of things, however, there is no concept other than the concept of art that would permit one to give precedence to certain things above all other things, that is, to lend these things a specific dignity of physical inviolability not granted to other things.

That is why the question of what art is, is not, in the context of European culture, a question purely specific to art. The criteria we use to distinguish works of art from other things are, that is, not dissimilar from the criteria we apply to distinguish the human from the inhuman. Both processes—the rec­ognition of certain things as works of art and the recognition of certain bodies, and their postures, actions, and attitudes, as human—are inseparably con­nected to each other in the European tradition. Thus it comes as no surprise that the concept of biopolitics, which Michel Foucault introduced into the discussion of recent decades and which has been further developed by other authors, especially Giorgio Agamben, had a critical undertone from the begin­ning. To understand human beings as a kind of animal—more precisely, as livestock—is, almost automatically, to belittle their dignity. That is also true—indeed, especially true—when this understanding makes it easier to take better care of the bodily well-being of this human animal. Human beings can only be truly dignified if they can be conceived as works of art—or better, as works of art that they themselves produce as artists. This concept of the human being is the basis of all humanistic utopias, all of which understand individual human beings, and ultimately the community, the state, as works of art. So the question arises: what are we ready to accept as art, and what criteria do we have for accepting certain things as such? For it would seem that only answer­ing that art is the site of becoming human will permit us to see what human beings really are—that is, those human beings who are granted human rights and can be considered the subjects of democracy.

We know, however, that if we formulate the question in this way, we will not get a clear response to it. Especially over the course of modern art, all of the criteria that could clearly distinguish the work of art from other things have been called into question. One can say that European art has rigorously pursued the path of its own deculturalization. All of the traditional mechanisms for identifying art that are deeply anchored in European culture have been critically questioned and declared inadequate. One after another, waves of the European avant-garde declared to be works of art things that would not have been identified as such previously. This was not, as many think, a question of expanding the concept of art. It was not the case that in the course of the development of art an increasingly more comprehensive, more universal concept of art was formulated, under which the earlier, partial concepts of art might have been subsumed. Neither was it about refuting or overcoming old, supposedly outdated criteria for identifying art, nor about replacing them with other, new criteria; rather, it was about the diversifica­tion, differentiation, and multiplication of these criteria.

Sometimes a thing was declared a work of art because it was beautiful, sometimes because it was particularly ugly; sometimes aesthetics played no role whatsoever; certain things are in museums because they were original for or, conversely, typical of their time; because they record important historical personalities and events, or because their authors refused to depict important historical personalities and events; because they correspond to popular taste, or because they reject popular taste; because they were conceived from the outset as works of art, or because they only became such by being placed in a museum; because they were particularly expensive, or because they were particularly cheap, and so on. And in many cases certain works of art are found in museum collections only because they ended up there by chance, and today’s curators have neither the right nor the energy to eliminate them. All of that, and much more, is art for us today. The reasons that we have available to recognize something as art thus cannot be reduced to a concept. That is also why European art cannot be clearly differentiated from that of other cultures. When European museums first began to evolve at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, they accepted works of art of both European and non-European origin—once again on the basis of the analogies, oppositions, similarities, and differences that connected all these objects. Our understanding of art is thus determined by the many rhetorical tropes, by the numerous metaphors and metonymies that are con­stantly crossing the boundary between our own and the other, without elimi­nating this boundary or deconstructing it. All of the reasons for recognizing something as a work of art are partial, but their overall rhetoric is unmistak­ably European.

This rhetoric, as we well know, was repeatedly applied to the area of the human as well. From Flaubert, Baudelaire, and Dostoyevsky, by way of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, to Bataille, Foucault, and Deleuze, European thought has acknowledged as a manifestation of the human much of what was previously considered evil, cruel, and inhuman. Just as in the case of art, these authors and many others have accepted as human not only that which reveals itself as human but also that which reveals itself as inhuman—and precisely because it reveals itself as inhuman. The point for them was not to incorporate, integrate, or assimilate the alien into their own world but, con­versely, to enter into the alien and become alien to their own tradition. That these authors, like countless others in the European tradition, cannot easily be integrated into the discourse on human rights and democracy, need not, in my opinion, be demonstrated here. Nevertheless, these authors, perhaps like no others, belong for just that reason to the European tradition, because they manifest an inner solidarity with the other, with the alien, even with the threatening and cruel, that lies much deeper and takes us much farther than a simple concept of tolerance. The work of all these authors is an attempt to diagnose within European culture itself the forces, impulses, and forms of desire that are otherwise territorialized in foreign lands. Hence these authors have shown that the truly unique feature of European cultures consists in permanently making oneself alien, in negating, abandoning, and denying oneself—and doing so in a way more radical than that of any culture we know has ever been able to do. Indeed, the history of Europe is nothing other than the history of cultural ruptures, a repeated rejection of one’s own traditions.

This certainly does not mean that the discourse on human rights and democracy is inherently deficient or that it should not be entered into. It merely means that this discourse should not serve the goal of differentiating European culture from other cultures, as, unfortunately, happens more and more frequently today. The others, the aliens, are correspondingly identified primarily as those who necessarily lack respect for human rights and the capability for democracy and tolerance if only because these values are con­sidered specifically European by definition. Thus these aliens, as soon as they arrive in Europe, are sent down the infinite path to so-called integration, which can never lead to its goal because the public avowal of European values by aliens is inevitably suspicious, can always be interpreted as lip service that conceals the true, inner conviction rather than revealing it. Aliens today are asked not only to accept outwardly the catalog of supposedly European values but also to “internalize” them—a process whose success can never be judged “objectively” and hence must remain unfinished for all eternity.

If the discourse on human rights and democracy can bring no justice to aliens, then this discourse is also unjust in relation to the true European tradition, because it, as we have shown, ignores everything that does not fit into this discourse. This “accursed” part of the European cultural tradition is thus ordinarily dismissed as “mere art.” The tendency in politics to treat art as one of the pretty irrelevancies and to ignore its political relevance is well known. This tendency has even significantly increased today, which is espe­cially implausible, because we now live in a time in which most information is communicated by visual means, including political information. Precisely in connection with the debates over political Islam, which have become acute recently, the role of the visual has increased. Politically explosive problems are ignited almost exclusively by images: Danish cartoons, women behind veils, videos of Bin Laden. Islamic fundamentalists address the outside world primarily through the medium of video—despite Islam’s supposed hostility to images. But even a much simpler example demonstrates what it is about today: when the question of multiculturalism is discussed on the TV, the visual is inevitably of a street in a European city dominated by passers‑by whose skin color differs from that of the “original” European population. This gives the impression that culture here functions de facto as a pseudonym for race. As a result, simply transferring a certain discourse into the visual makes it racist—even if that is not explicitly intended. Thus the dependence of today’s politics on the images with which it operates is obvious.

It is part of the traditional repertoire of European art to depict oneself as a dangerous, cruel alien. Thus Nietzsche presented himself as an envoy of the Übermensch and Bataille as a champion of cruel Aztec rituals. This tradi­tion of presenting oneself as an evil outsider began at the very latest with Marquis de Sade and developed during black Romanticism and its cult of the satanic into one of the major traditions of European art. And it was not always restricted to art. Already in the 19th century there were many artists and intellectuals who not only had sympathies with terrorism but actively participated in terrorist activities. The fact that a few children and grandchil­dren of immigrant families from Islamic countries who have grown up in Europe profess a radical, fundamentalist variant of Islam is often interpreted as a sign that these young people were not adequately integrated into Euro­pean culture. But the question arises whether it is not in fact a sign of the reverse, that they have integrated themselves outstandingly well into Euro­pean culture—but precisely into the tradition within that culture that calls for “living dangerously.” If the tradition of European culture and art is under­stood in its full diversity and internal contradictoriness, the question of who is integrated into this culture or not takes a completely different shape. Those who are ready to see the cultural heritage of Europe in its entirety will notice that it is enormously difficult and almost impossible to escape this legacy and do something genuinely non-European, genuinely alien to European culture. The power of European culture is precisely that it is constantly producing its other. If there is anything at all that is unique in European culture, it is this ability to produce and reproduce not only oneself but also all the possible alternatives to oneself.

Of course, in recent times we have heard the lament that European art has since lost the ability to violate cultural taboos, to transcend the boundaries of European cultural identity, and to influence political life and public awareness. The underestimation in our time of the effect of art on the public conscious­ness is related above all to the fact that art is identified first and foremost as the art market and the work of art as a commodity. The fact that art functions in the context of the art market and that every work of art is a commodity is beyond doubt. The work of art is, however, not just a commodity but also a statement in public space. Art is also made and exhibited for those who do not wish to purchase it—indeed, they constitute the overwhelming majority of the audience for art. Typical visitors to a public exhibition do not view the art on display as commodities, or only rarely so. Rather, they react to the tools by means of which individual artists position themselves in public space as objects of observation, for today everyone is obliged, one way or the other, to present him- or herself in public space. In the process the number of exhibitions, biennials, triennials, and so on is growing constantly. These numerous exhibitions, in which so much money and energy are invested, are not created in the first place for those who purchase art but rather for the masses, for anonymous visitors who will probably never purchase a painting. Even the art fairs, which are primarily there for buyers, are being transformed more and more into events in urban space that attract people who do not wish to be buyers. In our time the art system is well on its way to becoming part of the very mass culture that for so long it wanted to observe and analyze from a distance. And it is becoming part of mass culture not as the production of individual objects that are traded on the art market but as an exhibition praxis that combines architecture, design, and fashion—just as the guiding intellec­tual figures of the avant-garde, such as the artists from Bauhaus, Vkhutemas, and others had predicted as early as the 1920s and 1930s. But does that mean that art today has become completely identical with mass culture and has completely lost its ability to transcend its boundaries and thus to reflect on itself?

I do not believe so. Mass culture—or let us call it entertainment—has a dimension that is often overlooked but is extremely relevant to the problems of otherness or alienness. Mass culture addresses everyone simultaneously. A pop concert or film screening creates communities of viewers. These com­munities are transitory; their members do not know one another; their com­position is arbitrary; it remains unclear where all these people came from and where they are going; they have little or nothing to say to one another; they lack a shared identity, a common prehistory that could have produced common memories they could share—and despite all that they are communi­ties. These communities recall the communities of those traveling on a train or airplane. To put it another way, they are radically contemporary communi­ties—much more contemporary than religious communities, political com­munities, or labor collectives. All those traditional communities emerged historically and presume that their members are linked to one another from the outset by something that derives from their shared past—a shared lan­guage, a shared faith, a shared political belief, a shared education that enables them to do a certain job. Such communities always have specific bound­aries—and they close themselves off from all those with whom they have no shared past.

Mass culture, by contrast, creates communities irrespective of any shared past—communities with no preconditions, communities of a new type. This is the source of their enormous potential for modernization, which is so often overlooked. But mass culture itself is usually not capable of reflect­ing on and developing this potential fully, because the communities it creates do not sufficiently perceive themselves as communities. The gaze of audience members at a pop concert or a film screening is directed too much forward—at the stage or the screen—for them to be able adequately to perceive and reflect on the space in which they find themselves and the community of which they have become part. That, however, is precisely the sort of reflection with which advanced art is concerned today, whether installation art or experimental curatorial practice. In all these cases objects are not exhibited in a certain space; rather, space itself becomes the major object of perception, the true artwork.

Within this space the body of individual viewers takes up a certain position, of which these viewers are necessarily aware, because by reflecting on the whole space of the exhibition, they feel compelled to reflect as well on their own position, their own perspective. The duration of a visit to an exhibi­tion is necessarily limited—and that means that the individual perspective of the viewers always remains partial because they lack the time to try out all the possible positions and perspectives that an exhibition space offers them. Viewers of an artistic installation that demands of them an all-embracing gaze at the entire space of this installation do not therefore feel up to the challenge. Today’s art of exhibitions and installations is not, however, directed at indi­vidual viewers who observe individual works of art one after another but rather at communities of viewers who can take in the whole room simultane­ously with their gaze. Art today is thus social and political on a purely formal level, because it reflects on the space of the assembly, on the formation of community, and does so independently of whether an individual artist has a specific political message in mind or not. But at the same time, this contem­porary art practice demonstrates the position of the alien in today’s culture in a much more adequate way than the standard political discourse does. Because I as an individual cannot take in the whole, I must necessarily over­look something that can only be evident to the gaze of others. These others, however, are by no means separated from me culturally: I can imagine them in my position, just as I can imagine myself in theirs. Here the interchangeability of bodies in space becomes evident—that interchangeability that deter­mines our civilization today as a whole. The familiar and the alien are constantly exchanging places—and this global ballet cannot be stopped at will, because this constant exchange of places offers the only way to distin­guish the familiar from the alien that remains open to us.


Boris Groys, “Europe and Its Others,” Art Power, The MIT Press, Cambridge 2008, p. 173–182.