“The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin,” an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York, is a heady romp around the mind of Walter Benjamin, the Jewish philosopher associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory. In tribute to Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, a thousand-plus-page examination of modernity begun in 1927 and published after Benjamin’s suicide in 1940, the exhibition transposes works of contemporary art into a structure inspired by Benjamin’s unfinished masterpiece. The result is an example of theory in action, calling on art, text, and concept to create a show resembling what the poet/artist Kenneth Goldsmith called, in one of his wall annotations, “a web without a spider.”
Last Thursday evening, before an audience of around 100 in the museum’s auditorium, curator Jens Hoffman moderated a talk with Boris Groys, a professor of Slavic and Russian studies at New York University, and Michael Taussig, a professor of anthropology at Columbia and the European Graduate School in Switzerland, on the subjects of Benjamin’s life, philosophy, and relevance in the present day. The three engaged in a conversation that was much like the philosopher himself—serious and playful, looking forward and backward through time for hints to truths of the present.
“Benjamin’s inability to complete his masterwork was a form of failure that was inescapable, even required, under the condition of modernity he described,” Hoffman said in his introductory remarks. “The structure of his highly unorthodox philosophical inquiry acknowledges and mirrors the necessarily fragmented and incomplete project of knowledge-production.” The conversation then abandoned the pretext of a linear narrative and instead wandered from topic to topic, from the magic of the child’s imagination to Marxism to whether or not New York City is dead.
Following the curator’s opening remarks, both Groys and Taussig attempted to summarize Benjamin’s work in ten minutes each—a difficult task given Benjamin’s significance and, no less, both professors’ notoriety for dense and complex lectures at their respective institutions. Groys focused on Benjamin’s place within intellectual history and his answer to the “question of the fate of contemplation in the context of modernity.” To Groys, The Arcades Project represents Benjamin’s effort as an inveterate flâneur to “combine vita activa and vita contemplativa in a new way. Movement and repetition become mediated and combined,” he said. The flâneur, at once dispassionate and highly sensitive, adopts a contemplative disposition and also mobilizes it.
Taussig favored a more sampling-oriented approach to Benjamin, as “it’s practically impossible to encapsulate or catch this wiggling fish, this work that has so many sides to it.” With the help of two volumes loaded with Post-it notes at the lectern, Taussig noted that he might read The Arcades Project and its cultural criticisms as a movement toward awakening from the spell of the consumer mythos of 19th-century Paris—and maybe from the spell of history itself. Benjamin’s conception of history, said Taussig, is coupled with an awareness of technology and a resistance to using archetypes, or static concepts, to understand an ever-changing and permeable modern world.
Sitting down after the intros with Taussig and Groys in front of a slideshow of the exhibit—which, curiously, did not surface very often in the conversation itself—Hoffman prompted a discussion between all three with a question as to how Benjamin’s critical eye might react to contemporary New York. Groys suggested that, unlike 19th-century Paris and its already outmoded culture of the arcade, New York is not quite dead yet and thus is ineligible (for now, at least) for critique of the kind that Benjamin leveled. Taussig followed with the notion that Benjamin’s work might be more suited to “Buffalo, the Rust Belt, and people who voted for Trump. That’s death,” he said, “and that’s dying.”
Taking up the theme of dying, Groys pointed out that perhaps the logical conclusion of Benjamin’s work is the eventual obsolescence of the city itself and remarked that, in a way, The Arcades Project celebrates what he termed “a culture of death,” mirroring the mission of the museum in its fascination with the past.
Taussig countered by drawing a distinction between regarding art made in the past and celebrating a culture of death, to which Groys provided the example of Marcel Duchamp as an example of a modernist who confused and entangled the two. “I do not see this as anything to do with death,” Taussig argued. “If anything, this is a response to oncoming death in the name of life!”
Talk then veered into a discussion of twin tensions in Benjamin’s work—anarchism and “messianism,” as Taussig put it. After a discussion of what Groys called “ontological weakness” in Benjamin’s work, a comment from the audience brought the discussion back down to earth: a woman in the front row asserted that it is Benjamin’s relationship to fascism and the Third Reich that is of particular importance in our era. “I totally agree with you,” said Taussig. So did Groys.
As might be inevitable on the subject of Benjamin, the conversation had a tendency toward the intensely academic and the arcane. But considering him in the context of the present breathed life into a formidable thinker whose work can make a reader, as even Taussig admitted, “put down his essay and completely forget what you just read.”