February 22, 2024   4 mins

Earlier this month, the Russian dissident artist Andrei Molodkin announced that he would seal a number of masterpieces — including a Picasso, Rembrandt and Warhol — in a safe designed to destroy them with acid were Julian Assange to die in prison. As expected, the art world was outraged; one critic in The Guardian dismissed it as “a pathetically banal stunt for our shallow times”.

Such reactions bear witness to our shallow times. They focus on the similitude of the gesture with others (from Dada to Banksy and some “eco-vandalists”), while ignoring the crux of the matter: the fate of Assange. Molodkin is not performing an act of modern art — he is trying to save a human life. Nor is he alone in this. Behind the WikiLeaks founder stands a collective of artists and patrons animated by a profound insight: do we have the right to enjoy great works of art while ignoring the horror from which they emerged?

In his essay, “Theses on the History of Philosophy”, Walter Benjamin wrote: “There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.”

The act of Molodkin’s collective heroically makes visible this barbarism. It is desperate and brutal, of course, but what if it is the only way we can raise awareness about what goes on in HMP Belmarsh? The true question is therefore: why is Assange such a thorn in the side of the knaves of our political establishment? And the answer is: because he is not a fool like the majority of the critical Left.

“He is not a fool like the majority of the critical Left.”

In his “Seminar on the Ethics of Psychoanalysis”,1 Lacan makes the distinction between two types of the contemporary intellectual, the fool and the knave. In short, the Right-wing intellectual is a knave, a conformist who refers to the mere existence of the given order as an argument for it and mocks the Left on account of its “utopian” plans which necessarily lead to catastrophe. By contrast, the Left-wing intellectual is a fool, a court-jester who publicly displays the lie of the existing order, but in a way that suspends the performative efficiency of his speech. Today, after the fall of Socialism, the knave is a neoconservative advocate of the free market who cruelly rejects all forms of social solidarity as counterproductive sentimentalism, while the fool is a postmodern cultural critic who, by means of his ludic procedures destined to “subvert” the existing order, actually serves as its supplement.

A joke from the good old days of Really-Existing Socialism perfectly illustrates the futility of fools:

In 15th-century Russia, a farmer and his wife walk along a dusty country road. A Mongol warrior on a horse stops at their side and tells the farmer that he will now rape his wife. he then adds: “But since there is a lot of dust on the ground, you should hold my testicles while I’m raping your wife, so that they will not get dirty!”

After the Mongol finishes his job and rides away, the farmer starts to laugh and jump with joy. The surprised wife asks him: “How can you be jumping with joy when I was just brutally raped in your presence?” The farmer answers: “But I got him! His balls are full of dust!”

This sad joke revealed the predicament of the period’s dissidents: they thought they were dealing serious blows to the party nomenklatura, but all they were doing was getting a little bit of dust on the nomenklatura’s testicles, while the nomenklatura went on raping the people. Is today’s critical Left not in a similar position?

Our task is to discover how to go a step further. Marx’s 11th Thesis on Feuerbach held: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Our version should be: “Critical Leftists have hitherto only dirtied with dust the balls of those in power; the point is to cut them off.”

This is exactly what Assange did. To cut a long story short, Assange is our Antigone, for a long time kept in the position of a living dead — isolated in a solitary cell with very limited outside contact and no conviction or even official accusation. He is just waiting for extradition, as the snare around his neck is gradually but inexorably pulled shut.

In the case of Assange, time is on the side of the US and UK: they can afford to wait, counting on the fact that the public interest will gradually dwindle, especially due to other global crises that dominate our media (the Ukraine and Gaza wars, global warming, the threat of AI). What is happening to Assange is thus increasingly reported on the margins of the mainstream media: the fact that he sat in solitary confinement for years was just part of our lives. Assange is thus the victim of the new apolitical neutrality.

Assange should be mentioned whenever we are tempted to praise our Western democratic societies with their human rights and freedoms, or whenever we criticise Muslim, Chines, or Russian oppression: his fate is a reminder that our freedom is also seriously limited. Assange is thus the victim of a new apolitical neutrality. We no longer care for him, his imprisonment increasingly met with indifference.

Some liberals criticise Assange for focusing on the liberal West and ignoring the even greater injustices in Russia and China, but they miss the point. WikiLeaks, after all, also exposed many documents that bear witness to the horrors outside the liberal West. However, these injustices are highly visible in our media — we read about them all the time.

The problem with the West is that we tend to ignore countries with even greater injustices (suffice it to mention Saudi Arabia, which is definitely worse than Iran). Sometimes we feel free because we ignore our unfreedoms, while in Russia and China people are fully aware of their unfreedoms. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”(Matthew 7:3). Assange taught us to pay attention to the plank in our own eyes. More precisely, Assange taught us to see the hidden complicity between the planks in our eye and in our enemy’s eye, to discover the solidarity and parallels between our opponents. For our own good, we should not allow him to fall into this darkness of invisibility.

And if you still think Molodkin’s gesture is wrong and counterproductive? OK, but then don’t lose time analysing it as an artistic gesture and instead search for more efficient ways to help him. In this situation, nobody with a clear conscience has the right to engage in distanced aesthetic judgments — our fate is at stake.

  1. Jacques Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, London: Routledge 1992, p. 182-183.

Slavoj Zizek is a Slovenian philosopher, author and cultural theorist. His most recent book is Too Late to Awaken.