If an eye for an eye is the motto of revenge, it can also be bad advice. On 29 April 2022, a white nationalist attacked Asger Jorn’s 1959 painting The Disquieting Duck (shown above in Jorn’s form). Jorn’s ‘modification’ (also ‘disfiguration’) was on display at the Museum Jorn in Denmark. Lex talionis: just as Jorn ‘disfigured’ a pre-existing nineteenth century style idyll, so too Jorn suffers disfiguration.
An obvious interpretation is that a Danish painting is reclaimed by a Danish nationalist for his own cause—he affixed his own likeness and signed his name in permanent marker. In the rush to exploit an increasingly excluded populace and the last remnants of a near exhausted natural world, capitalists, their managers and fascist proxies advise us to ramp up the competition for goods on an ethnic and national level.
Jorn thought very differently. He believed competition should be playful. As a member of the Situationist International (1957-1972), Jorn emphasised creativity in a non-exploitative cosmic journey (see tapestry below). The idea is familiar from anti-militarism. The demand that borders should not be defended is by nature transnational, so as to not leave anyone vulnerable to invasion. A demand that has been raised by rebellious soldiers as much as those that oppose war from the outset. So ended the First World War in 1918—a direct result of the refusal of both German sailors and soldiers, and their Russian counterparts, to go on amidst their revolution against war and capitalism. Indeed, this refusal was also widely present on the so-called victorious side, among which soldiers and workers had engaged in strikes and mass mutiny. Beyond an end to hostilities, we glimpse a new world.
Thus, to defend Jorn’s modification/disfiguration as a ‘national treasure’, as has Jacob Thage, the museum director where the painting hangs, is not only inadequate, it plays directly into the nationalist rhetoric of its attackers (a second fascist filmed the attack, both being part of current far right organising).
The Disquieting Duck is not simply a thing to be passively contemplated or revered as a transcendent value—a practice and value moreover, that were roundly rejected by Jorn throughout his life. In keeping with his explicit revolutionary outlook, The Disquieting Duck presents us with a profound and striking intuition, namely that we can reclaim from idylls and elsewhere a common raw creativity.
The modification of a bucolic canvas by Jorn is particularly piquant given that if we succeed in overthrowing capitalism, we will need to creatively repair the damage already done. Indeed, the formal slab of paint over the “realist” idyll is also the content of the painting. One can intuit the relationship between this form and content and extend that to questions of the modification and repair of present social-historical “idylls”, whether capitalist hellscapes or imaginary, eutopian impulses in the present—i.e., the desire for something other and better.
On the other hand, the fascist closely grasped and used Jorn’s technique of modification to delete a true idea of a common creativity and replace it with a false one of national creativity. In a word, Jorn was recuperated. By disfiguring The Disquieting Duck, these fascists want revenge on Jorn’s way of thinking. For the rest of us, it’s just more bad advice. Jorn’s cosmic journey is aborted, leaving behind a sordid and empty claim of ownership, along with a snide dismissal of what is possible beyond an obsessive and acquisitive hatred. Nothing to see here folks: the arts have already become focussed on different identities asserting themselves. Here as elsewhere this involves a claim to having been silenced—even if in the case of the white nationalists such a claim is just another falsehood.
As we have discovered to our cost, nation states and market competition requires pollution, global warming, and zoonotic viruses. These are not so-called “freak” side effects, nor simply the outcomes of “immoral” business people nor “evil” states. For instance, the unleashed viruses are the direct result of the exploitation of the biodiverse biomes that previously contained them. Such exploitation is necessary under capitalism. Necessary because, if one group of capitalists backed by a nation state does not exploit in this, and the other ecologically destructive ways mentioned, they will be rapidly out-competed by others that do.
Today, the consequences are even more dire. Potential world and nuclear war is added to the climate catastrophe as the competing blocs of global capital are insatiably driven to catch a lead on each other. Whether under the flags of liberalism, fascism or state-socialism, all of these market capitalists seek to undermine solidarity and the social conditions of life. If we don’t act soon to defeat their increasingly warlike machinations, that nightmare of the Twentieth Century that we dreamed was over will finally be realised: universal destruction. This ain’t rock and roll, this is genocide.
Instead of disfiguring Jorn, we must reconfigure him. The only realistic way to confront the immense problems ahead is interlinked groups formed to favour the creative imagination as liberated from market strictures; groups that are embarking on the long voyage to a world beyond capitalism. These groups will also have to stand up to fascists—become antifa—to show the fash the true meaning of an eye for an eye.