Eugen Rădescu: Fordism. Post-Fordism and attempts to reposition art in globalization

Ion Grigorescu, Electoral meeting, 1975, b&w-photograph, 120-x-200-cm. Courtesy of the artist and Bucharest-Biennale 4.

Ion Grigorescu, Electoral meeting, 1975, b&w-photograph, 120-x-200-cm. Courtesy of the artist and Bucharest-Biennale 4.

Postmodern society has not relinquished the major themes of ethics, as a moral, economic and cultural perspective. On the contrary, the new, complex and hypertechnological context raised new aspects of these topics for debate. The ethical realm of contemporary society expanded to new subjects that are discussed extensively and from various angles, either formally or informally: charity, bioethics, political correctness – political language codes – abortion, sexual harassment, euthanasia, fight against drugs, etc. There is an increasing talk about the revival of values and of the spirit of responsibility. The emergence of environmentalist, feminist and ethnic movements, the new social movements, as well as the new movements in contemporary art – which are of particular interest for this paper – stir a debate over the fundamental problems of man and society in the 20th century – a century that can undoubtedly be referred to as a century of extremes. Postmodern ethics itself, global and omnipresent in all types of discourse, share this feature of the epoch, too. The individualism of these times is displayed without inhibition, often ostentatiously. At the same time, however, the existence of thousands of associations, alliances, foundations and organizations clearly shows that people are aware of the need to establish new (even though minimal) forms of cohabitation, of survival, as defeatists would say, of efficiently managing the heritage of past generations.

There are two opposite tendencies acting in the cultural and economic globalization. One stimulates immediate pleasure, consumption, entertainment, and explodes into excess: drugs, pornography, bulimia for objects and media programs. Lacking any limits and transcendence, the obese postmodern man embodies the individualistic cult of the present and the escalation to extremes in the absence of rules.

The other tendency is the rationalization of time and of the body, the “professional” approach to everything, the obsession for excellence and quality, for wholesomeness and hygiene. The hedonistic society does not capture energies in the form of pleasures, but they are utilized and standardized, diversified, presented in the rational norms of physical built and health (Gilles Lipovetsky, 1996).

Consumption is moderate, pleasures are short, enhanced, worth seeking for, attempts do not matter.
The postmodern hedonism is no longer transgressive or dilettantish, but managed, functionalized, reasonable.

Ford. Fordism

In 1925, there were 24,565,000 automobiles registered in the entire world. Of them, 19,954,000 were in the United States and only 2,676,000 in Europe. In other words, ratio was of 1 automobile to 5.6 Americans, compared to 1 automobile to 49 people in Britain or to 54 people in France, a fact that made A. Siegfried say that “the automobile is the most visible sign of the American wealth.” The success of the automobile in the United States had several major causes,
- the huge geographical area of the country;
- the richness in natural resources demanded by the automotive industry;
- the development of certain mechanical industries;
- a relatively large population;
- the skills of an American technical middle class, etc.

However, the most important element was probably the fact that the automobile seemed to fit very well with the American cultural values and with a certain type of social behavior.

The assembly line led to the advent of a new industrialism, referred to as “Fordism” by A. Gramsci. Basically, Fordism was a capitalist system of mass production and consumption implemented in developed countries, which facilitated a sustained economic growth rate from 1945 to 1970. In 1973-1990, the economic growth slowed down significantly in these countries.

Characterized by close connections between governments, trade unions, employer unions and the international capital, the system was controlled by the state.

In the ‘70s, Fordism turned into post-Fordism, with the following characteristics:
- global competition,
- flexible production systems,
- flexible organizational structures,
- niche markets and niche production of dedicated goods,
- segmentation of consumers based in lifestyle, as well as on their standardized cultural model,
- declining trade unionism,
- selective individual consumption, depending on personal needs and selective choice,
- an extended managerial elite and flexible specialization (George Toma, 2005)

Globalization (as a term extrinsic to Fordism and post-Fordism) refers to an extensive process of worldwide integration and dissemination of a set of ideas more or less related to economic activities and to the production of goods, boosted by the liberalization of international trade and capital flows, the acceleration of technological advancement and the information society. A rather controversial concept, globalization is subject to two approaches: a positive one, focusing on the benefits of uniformity and of internationalization of societies, and a negative one, blaming globalization for the loss of individuality of a nation or community.

In the specialized literature, “globalization” is used with various meanings, economic, political, social or cultural, revealing a concept that captures the historical process of deepening and expansion of a system of interdependencies among nations, civilizations and political communities.

In the globalization period, the cultural dimension is often mistaken for the culture of media, audiovisual technologies and means of communications through which cultural representations are transmitted. Media culture means alienation through consumerism, democratization and even mediocritization of consumption. Culture can be global, too. Global culture is artificial and formless, as it is, in fact, a fabricated culture, outside history.

However, cultural globalization is a highly dialectical process, in which globalization and localization, homogenization and fragmentation, centralization and decentralization or conflict and creolization (mixing) do not exclude each other. They are inseparable sides of the same coin. The cultural change is not only a story of loss and destruction, but of development and creativity. Even though the interconnections among the old forms of diversity are lost, new forms of cultural diversity arise.

Cultural democratization

Democracy, in the modern acceptation, involves the participation of all citizens. Briefly, it consists in granting a certain level of decision-making power to people who are not ready to face the responsibilities involved and not even really interested in exercising power. Democratization in politics occurred in the early 20th century and was one of the main catalysts of the world wars. The democratic decision-making has always been fundamentally inefficient and even became its own enemy in the mentioned political context. Soon, cultural democratization arrived, too. Like in politics, a sphere that it encompasses (in the wider, ethnological meaning of culture), the expansion of the phenomenon is largely determined by the new forms of access to information. Obviously, there is also a reverse reaction, i.e. and elitization of culture (in the narrower sense this time), but this only worsens the situation. It is no surprise that the democratization of culture originated in the country of democracy. Of the three political systems that fought for supremacy in the 20th century, the only one that preached the returning to nation (although in a devious way) was defeated in WW2 and strictly banished. Interdiction remains a taboo in contemporary politics, whose present relevance was demonstrated by the recent events in Austria. The representatives of the WW2 winn- ing systems chose an internationalist approach to culture: the USA, for historical reasons, and the USSR, for ideological ones. It is sufficient to mention, as a proof, the names of these statal entities: the United States and the Soviet Union. Moreover, the two states have never been major cultural groundbreakers. The situation at the beginning of the new century looks even gloomier. While on the social plane the collapse of communism was long-awaited and auspicious, in culture, the situation of the freed countries worsened (excepting the cultural elites, for which the freedom of expression is relevant). In popular democracies, this field was not democratic either and, as a consequence, culture, although strictly controlled, did not have the time to become vulgar, compensating, to some extent, for the evils of the initial communist internationalism through the national communism of the latest period. Thus, the beginning of the century has only one cultural winner – the American democratic internationalism, whose declared altruism is, in my opinion, not very sincere. The weapons used in the battle have improved and expanded their range of action. There is a tendency towards cultural homogenization, which means the loss of identity, even if only cultural. I do not mean to promote a deterministic picture of the relationship between politics and culture, in which one would strictly follow the evolutions of the other, but one cannot fail to note that the military winners have imposed, in most cases, their cultural model, too. The model was imposed either intentionally or not and for selfish or altruistic purposes. Preestablished plans are inherently related to the historical period opened by the French Revolution. Two questions arise: is it worth fighting to keep the identity? and, if yes, how? The first question can only be answered from an ideological standpoint. Therefore, all I can do is state my belief: it should be tried. The alternative to homogenization is the national culture. The situation is sensitive, for several reasons, either European or specific to Romania. National culture is very hard to define (if anyone can see a point in attempting such a definition). The pursuit for purity cannot yield any result. The current state of amalgamation of various cultures can almost justify the positions that completely deny the existence of any reality to fill in the concept of national culture. I think, however, that a certain specificity has never ceased to exist. The theoretical attempt to detect and date influences is bound to fail by irrelevance, as it ignores the mythological dimension of this specificity. The most effective way to destroy a myth is to try to grasp it using the instruments of reason. A myth should be lived. A myth should be taken as it is. From a cultural point of view, it is a sure source of inspiration, validated by the passing of time. I cannot see a way out of the crisis through interbellum-like cultural associations or through government policies (although they can play a certain role), but through the creative action of individuals who become aware of their cultural responsibility.

Art and politics. The beginning of a reasoning

In our current situation, when, on one hand, we are amidst of some accelerated attempts to direct the globalization movements (e.g. the “war against terror”) and, on the other hand, we see how difficult it is to combine the artistic experiment with political comment, it could be relevant to take a look back to the previous attempts to use art as a tool for approaching the topic of social inequality and for continuous controversy in the public debates. Focusing on what was traditionally described as one of the “golden ages” of wild art, particularly the ‘60s, we note that the difficulties related to the “crossbreeding” between artistic experiment and political commentary or between the art object and the political subjects, which we are currently facing, were equally present in that early period, too. I will briefly over-view in the following paragraphs the Situationist International (SI), the Artist Placement Group and the Art Workers’ Coalition, which, back in the ‘60s, tried to get involved in the formulation of political topics and to break away from the institutional structures of art, moving towards a wider cultural or political practice. Jacques Ranciere (2011) highlights the relationship between art and politics, primarily viewed as two separate entities, without any clear connection between them, excepting that both are forms of disagreement. Politics is a process that simultaneously denies each foundation on which it is built. It is the dilution of the boundaries between what is political and what can be assigned to the sphere of the social and of private life. What is unique in Ranciere’s approach is the attempt to introduce the equalitarian effects of art and politics in theory – a thing never done before. Ranciere introduces the politics in the sphere of radicalism, just like Chantal Mouffe (2000), criticizing the notion of consensus, which tends to shrink the public sphere, instead of giving it space to manifest itself. By resorting to consensus in politics, two aspects suffer an extreme reduction: one refers to the citizens, who become “population”, a subject with a sole identity, while politics is managed by professionalized persons – politicians or government experts. The disagreement concerning politics and art is based on the contradictory logic according to which the distribution for political participation and artistic practices is made. The disagreement in Ranciere’s view is not based on the difference between “friend” and “foe”, used by Carl Smith, then by Chantal Mouffe (1985), among others, but he sees political action as a breakaway from the social, hierarchic order, inventing new manners of being, of seeing, of expression, new subjectivities, new forms of collective enunciation.

In “Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthe-tics”, Ranciere focuses on art’s power to promote creative and transformative action. His conceptualization of art and politics emphasize the potential for destruction of the forms of domination, based on the tendency of seeing art as the promise of a new world for individuals and community. What Ranciere wants to point out is that the freedom of art, seen as the freedom of the aesthetic, is based on the same principles of equality as political demonstrations. He distinguishes three regimes of art: the ethical one, in which art does not have any autonomy and the artistic images are used depending on their usefulness for society, the representational one, in which art means imitation, and the aesthetic one, the only one able to generate inno- vative action. The aesthetic regime is autonomous and creative; it overthrows restrictions, creating an artistic equalitarianism – hence, the possible resemblance to the overturning of political and social hierarchies. Each work of art must have a story with a moral, social and political significance, based on a system of meanings and focusing on action (Ranciere, 2010, p. 15).

On institutional criticism. Criticism by art

The very term of “institutional criticism” seems to point to a direct relationship between a method and an object, where the method is the criticism and the object is the situation. In the first wave of institutional criticism, in the late ‘60s and early ’70 – much celebrated and categorized by the history of art since then – these terms were apparently defined in an even more specific and narrower way; the critical method was an artistic practice and the institution concerned was the institution of art, in particular, the art museum, but also the galleries and collections. The institutional criticism took many forms, from art works and interventions and critical writings to artistic political activism. Nevertheless, in the so-called second wave of the ‘80s, the institutional fra-mework expanded, to some extent, to include the role of the artist (the subject performing the criticism) as being institutionalized, as well as the investigation of certain spaces (and practices) exterior to art. Today, both ways are themselves part of the institution of art, seen as art history and education, as well as general contemporary art practice, dematerialized and post-conceptual.

Why do we speak of institutional criticism in art today? The answer is very simple: because we (still) believe that art has an intrinsic power to criticize. Of course, we do not refer here only to art criticism, but to something more, that is, to the ability of art to criticize life and the world beyond the boundaries of its own realm and, by doing this, even to change both of them. However, this also includes a certain degree of self-criticism or, more specifically, the practice of critical self-reflexiveness, which means that we expect (or, at least, used to expect) the art to be aware of the conditions making it possible, which usually mean the conditions of its creation (Buden, 2002). These two ideas – the awareness of the conditions of possibility and the awareness of the conditions of creation – point to two major domains of the modern criticism: the theoretical do-main and the practical, political one. Kant was the one who launched the interrogation considering the conditions making our knowledge possible and who expli-citly understood this interrogation as an act of criticism.

From this point forward, one can say that modern criticism either is critical (that is, self-reflexive), or is not modern.


• Jean Baudrillard, “Strategiile fatale”, Po-lirom, Iasi, 1996, p. 31-40

• Gilles Lipovetsky, “Amurgul datoriei. Etica nedureroasa a noilor timpuri democratice”, Babel, Bucharest, 1996, p. 68

• Johnson E. A. J., Kroos H. E., “The American Economy. Its Origins, Development and Transformation” Prentice-Hall, New Jersey, 1960

• Antonio Gramsci, “Americanism and Fordism”, essay, Prison Notebooks. • Joana Breidenbach, Ina Zukrigl, “The Dynamics of Cultural Globalization. The Myths of Cultural Globalization”, Research Institute for Austrian and International Literature and Cultural Studies, 1999

• Benjamin Buchloh, „Conceptual Art 1962–1969: From the Aesthetics of Administration to the Critique of Institutions“, in October, No. 55, 1990, pp. 105–143 • Julia Bryan-Wilson, „A Curriculum of Institutional Critique“, in Jonas Ekeberg (ed.), New Institutionalism, Oslo, OCA/verksted, 2003

• • Jean – Jacques Gleizal, “Arta și politicul”, Meridiane, Bucharest, 1999

Eugen Radescu is politologist (specialized in moral relativism and political ethics), cultural manager, curator and theoretician. He writes for various magazines and newspapers. He curated Bucharest Biennale 1 with the theme “Identity Factories”. He is co-editor of Pavilion magazine and co-director of Bucharest Biennale (with Razvan Ion) and the chairman of the organizational board of Pavilion and Bucharest Biennale. He lectured at Art Academy – Timisoara, La Casa Encedida – Madrid, Calouste Gulbenkian – Lisbon, Apex Art – New York, etc. He recently return from a residency at Apex – New York and published the book “How Innocent is That?” at Revolver Publishing – Berlin. He is presently working on a new book on moral relativism. Lives and works in Bucharest.