SWEET IDLENESS – ON THE RESISTIVE PRACTICE OF MLADEN STILINOVIĆ
The Western/capitalist comprehension of work is based on an individualist conception of society, in which the subject strives for happiness and the immediate satisfaction of her/his desires. To attain this goal, the individual has to be as efficient as possible so that as much as possible can be produced and as many as possible can partake in the outcome (and fulfill his/her wishes). It is in the logic of the system that only a few will be able to reap the fruits of their labor, i.e. to enjoy the privileges of laziness.
The communist/socialist conception of labor is more complex and goes all the way back to Hegel’s theory on the relation between master and slave; the metaphor of man being anchored in the world through work originates here. According to Hegel, real change in the world cannot happen via the master, as he is condemned to faineance; only the slave works, so via working he can transform the world. Socialism has made the Hegelian concept the foundation of its theory of the subject: the capitalist idea of subjectivity as individuality does not exist; man becomes a human being only by relating to his surroundings and in relation to others. The working subject constitutes the community.
Work only becomes a disease (Karl Marx) when it is divided up – being set in motion by industrialization (even though the principle of splitting responsibilities is among the oldest organizational forms of mankind, of course) and it is a matter of fact in the capitalist differentiation of labor. The division of labor alienates the worker because s/he is not identifying with what s/he produces anymore.
What work is exactly, though, is under constant debate, and the question has been answered differently by various communist theoreticians. Marx, for example, coined the well-known phrase “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” (1875) , and therewith implicitly introduced the exception to the rule: that there might be someone who is not able to find work that suits his ‘need’; someone for whom the common notion of work is not applicable – thus, what he wants to do in life might take on a hitherto unknown form. As work is an irreducible category in socialism, this type of activity, of any kind whatsoever, still only functions within the realm of work. It then becomes possible that idleness might still be work in the socialist sense, an improbable but particular case that the Croatian artist Mladen Stilinović implemented for his project “Artist at Work” in 1978.
Stilinović lived in Zagreb – in bloc-free Yugoslavia – at a notable geopolitical distance from the ideological communist center of the Soviet Union. Contact with the West was customary, as Western radio and television could be received, and travel restrictions were laxer than in other socialist countries. Art and culture enjoyed a relative freedom, so he was surrounded by a circle of like-minded friends and colleagues with some of whom he founded the “Group of Six” artists’ collective (197579), which relocated its activities onto the street; and they termed their manifestations ‘exhibition–actions’.
By the end of the 1970s, the project space Podroom and, afterwards, the PM gallery were the meeting point and showcase for the art scene in Zagreb. Withdrawal and an insistence on an autonomous space for art was a common concern for artists, while topics such as ‘absence’ or ‘emptiness’ subtly subverted the ideologically-charged environment which enforced (political) conformity.
For his action “Artist at Work”, which resulted in a series of eight photographs, Stilinović impersonated the cliché of a slacker: instead of presenting himself in an overall or work clothes in his studio (as Jackson Pollock had famously done in the 1950s - and therewith ultimately coined the image of the artist as a ‘producer’ of work) Stilinović went to bed in bright daylight, fully dressed in his everyday outfit, with the camera as his witness. The photographs are mundane black and white images of the artist either with his eyes closed, hands under his head, staring towards the ceiling, or turning his back to the camera. They breathe an air of boredom, deliberate solitude, and unproductiveness.
“Artist at Work” was brought out just two years before Tito died, in 1980, and the political situation was already becoming increasingly precarious. As Stilinović oftentimes adapts the political/social situation to the living and working conditions of the artist and of the role of art, this project can be interpreted as a comment on the increasingly precarious circumstances for artists in Yugoslavia at that time. Sleeping as a resistive practice against absorption in daily politics...
Another, more general approach, is to examine the project as a universal statement on the role of the artist in socialism. Other than in capitalism, where art occupies a special position, the artist here is allocated a function within the state that he serves, as is any other citizen. He is a technician who applies his craft – i.e. painting, sculpting – to contribute to the implementation of socialist goals. On this note, “Artist at Work” can also be understood as a symbolic intervention against his being ‘taken over’ for the sake of the community.
Against the background of the dialectics of work and its unknown ‘other’, as elaborated above, Stilinović’s intervention also allows a third reading in, one which exceeds individual fulfillment and specific political commentary and concerns itself with the blind spot in socialist thought and system: laziness. If laziness is not only non-work, but indeed a different kind of work, then what is its function?
To pursue this question, it is fruitful to examine a later work, the manifesto “The Praise of Laziness” (1993) . Its title and direction of impact are adopted from the Russian suprematist Kazimir Malevich and his text “Laziness – the real truth of mankind” (1921) , who himself referred to the first socio-political critiques of conceptions of labor in modern societies from the late 19th century; one of the first explicit texts on laziness is “The Right To Be Lazy” (1883) from Marx’ son-in-law, Paul Lafargue. Both criticize the capitalist notion of labor, though the former creates a hypothetical alternative in a socialist state to come, while the latter originates from the time of the Bolshevist revolutions and thus is able to compare the realities in capitalist and socialist systems. When Stilinović drafted his version more than half a century later, Yugoslavia had just collapsed and Croatia was at war, so the context of origin of this artwork is fundamentally different in relation to the previous “Artist at Work”: he insists on an own place for art and the artist, and now explores laziness out of the exceptional situation of being caught between the ‘East (socialism)’ and the ‘West (capitalism)’ , with neither having entirely abandoned reference to the now-deceased system nor having found a place in the new.
It therefore comes as no surprise that Stilinović indicates an urge to give reassurance to his artistic identity in light of the fundamental turnabout he is confronted with, and that he conceptualizes ‘work’ and ‘laziness’ as an amalgamation of capitalist and socialist understandings. The manifesto sheds light both on his references (Duchamp and Malevich) and on his prior and current horizons of experience, and it suggests an essential relationship between art and laziness.
Confronted with an acceleration of capitalist takeover, Stilinović naturally fears the loss of the free space that the absence of a commercial art system had provided. He is not interested in conquering the gallery or museum system now - he considers them “matters of no importance”, or “insignificant factors.” The danger of being absorbed by the capitalist system is clearly sensed: “Artists in the West are not lazy and are therefore not artists but, rather, producers of something.” As a counter concept to this target-oriented understanding of art that has merged with the system, Stilinović reintroduces laziness as “the absence of movement and thought, dumb time – total amnesia. It is also indifference, staring at nothing, non-activity, impotence. It is sheer stupidity, a time of pain, futile concentration.” He insists on a different conception of art that will still deserve its name (the art that is ‘produced’ doesn’t deserve it ). Art would have to be something that doesn’t fuse with the systemic structure but an entity that maintains a differing mode of existence within it.
Having declared that he feels torn between former East and present West, the underlying question here is: what is the point of reference for his notion of art and laziness, thus which conception of ‘work’ is Stilinović referring to here?
The intuitive response from today’s ‘there is no alternative’ point of view (as introduced by the conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s) would of course be: the capitalist one – and that is probably also how Stilinović’ work is mostly interpreted today. In this case, the artist’s insistence on unproductiveness would be a refusal to strive for a (his) personal well-being through work; rather, he abandons the proffered profit to devote himself to the pursuit of happiness and the pleasures of idleness. The horizon of this non-compliance would be an individualist conception of society.
If we assume, though, that Stilinović’ argument continues to be built on a community-oriented subjectivity like that of socialism - in which one’s position in and towards a society is defined by what one is doing in it - then laziness doesn’t necessarily have to be understood as a negation, but turns into something that is directed, i.e. it is something that is yet to come. “Artist at Work” and “The Praise of Laziness” wouldn’t then be conceived as projects of self-assurance - they are aimed at an audience and exchange.
In this sense, the intervention for “Artist at Work” creates a communicative environment instead of it being a couple of pictures enclosed at home; and although “The Praise of Laziness” isn’t explicitly addressing one or more particular individuals, it clearly demands a response.
Laziness now reaches out from the dichotomy of ideologies and tends to correspond to the fertile discussions of the Greek polis; it is work and non-work at the same time; it is that which cannot be conceptualized by the system. It has no use, though it is essential.
Laziness and art are the same side of one coin, whose other side is the prevailing form of government. To relinquish oneself to laziness is equivalent to devoting oneself to art, because art is, in capitalism, what laziness is in socialism: they both mark the space of the exception within the system.
If being an artist who is essentially lazy is what anchors Stilinović in the world (his ability and need), then we must understand this pursuit as his way of relating to his living to the community. In an intuitive way, Stilinović advocates the artist’s role as a preserver of the ‘other’ space of society; and this is the ‘work’ he contributes, leading to a possible transformation.
To visualize this maxim, a perhaps more fitting image than the one of the artist in bed is the tradition that he and his wife, Branka Stipančić, installed a decade ago together with a group of friends: they meet every Sunday for a ‘Stammtisch’ (German for ‘cracker-barrel’) at a Café next to the market to chat and discuss the pressing questions of the present.