Reading Response – Sylvia Sasse and Inke Arns on ‘Subversive Affirmation’

Sylvia Sasse and Inke Arns’ text on subversive affirmation detail the history and meaning of the term as well as its contemporary enactment, thus tracing the development of this technique of subversion as art practice from Soviet-era groups to its involvement with Western politics. Subversive affirmation is a form of art practice which according to Sasse and Arns developed in Soviet countries as a form of underground art practice. This form of art relies on techniques of mimesis, mimicking and hyperbolizing the strategies of dominant ideologies in order to expose their true meanings. Interestingly they point out that what socialist authoritarian states fear most is not skepticism of their policies but fanatics who take such ideologies to their full extents; “the enemy is the fanatic who ‘over-identifies’ instead of keeping an adequate distance” (448). This strategy of hyperbole – of mimicking socialist agendas as in nationalist speeches or posters depicts the shadow meanings of the governing policies and the absurdity often involved “by bringing to light the obscene superego underside of the system” (448). Subversive affirmation relies on tactics of affirmation that mimic government as well as nationalist rhetoric in order to embody the true meaning of the vision presented by these bodies. It is necessary to produce the intended awareness and confusion amongst the audience for the affirmative subversion to remain in character – that is it must present itself as truly affirming what it is in fact critiquing. This mode of artistic practice relies on audience involvement through actively experiencing the subversive affirmation as affirmation, thereby getting its full affect. Displayed as reality the practices of such collectives raise active responses from their audiences as to what they saw including anger, frustration, confusion and most interestingly the need to question whether this is reality.

Dan Mladosti NK

Dan Mladosti

From displaying the problems of empty collectivism and hyper nationalism to engaging the public with issues of commercialism and far right politics subversive affirmation is a strong activist practice with a history of its members getting in trouble with authorities. The early production of these tactics as art practice were formed out of necessity for an alternative art practice and a need for freedom of expression, of a public response to the authoritarian state within which ideologies policed both body and ideas. Indeed, Arns and Sasse bring up the question of how such an art practice which acted as a response to socialist regimes could be employed in Western contemporary societies. Though the political landscape of Western societies may not be so openly dictatorial the need for subversive affirmation is just as great I would argue. The forms of ideologies and control employed in these societies are the more insidious because of their undercurrent status and therefore need an equally subtle subversion in order to be actively displayed. Though I think using the strategies of the ideologies one wants to subvert works as a clever and powerful tool in the examples provided by Arns and Sasse, I wonder whether, like they point out, there is a concern for public response to misunderstand the intentions of such subversive affirmation as simply affirming the status quo due to its reliance on mimesis. This strategy of activism relies on a self-awareness to occur within the public prompted by hints of discord throughout the otherwise affirmative works. This sort of engagement seems to be a form of intervention art that disrupts the status quo through subversion and mimesis rather than didacticism and blunt opposition. I wonder whether the public will be prompted to action through these works and whether they would be knowledgeable on the art of self-reflexivity and critique that will enable them to understand what such collectives and the movement seeks to do rather than sensing a problem but not being able to pin point where it lies.


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