Populism. A Dialogue on Art, Representation and Institutions in the Crisis of Democracy

A Conversation between Chantal Mouffe and Didier Eribon

8 June, 2017 - 7:00 p.m.
Free admission until full capacity is reached
Nouvel Building, Auditorium 200
Organized by
Museo Reina Sofía

In recent years, the museum confederation L’Internationale, made up of Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven), the Museum Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen (Antwerp), the Moderna galerija (Ljubljana), SALT (Istanbul), the Museu d’ Art Contemporani de Barcelona (Barcelona) and the Museo Reina Sofía (Madrid), has been investigating the instability of the current geopolitical and ecological configuration of the contemporary world, striving to activate the values of culture and international collaboration as potential resistance. What single contribution can museums and cultural institutions offer to counteract the crisis hitting the current globalised and fragmented society? How can research, dialogue and the difference between cultural institutions be devised constructively to forge long-lasting ties between different communities? The upshot of this line of work is the advent of the public programme Dialogues, a series of conversations programmed in different member museums, and the touchstone of this activity.

Dialogues invites eminent thinkers, artists, activists and cultural workers to debate four theoretical strands: Who is speaking? Representation and non-representation on (art) policies today; What is right? Populism in an era of post-truth; What needs to change? Transformations and institutions’ futures; Where is the South? Knowledge and epistemology from the Global South. Revolving around the first two axes, and gaining momentum towards the third, this conversation approaches the term “populism”. If there is one conclusion that can be drawn from the writings on this notion, then it involves at once an unsatisfactory definition and becomes the target of the most compounded attacks, at the same time as it evokes the most imaginative possibilities of representative democracy and its institutions. Political theorist Chantal Mouffe and philosopher Didier Eribon do not seek to define the term as a universal category, but look to present two opposing concepts of it, and, ultimately, explore the relationship it bears with the space of representation and the mobilisation of culture and the museum institution.

At one end, Chantal Mouffe upholds that liberal democracy proceeds from two conflicting ideas: liberal freedom versus equality. The confrontation of these two incompatible traditions means that political space is, in her words, an “agonistic” place. In recent decades, the predominance of financial capital has been so absolute that it has displaced and cancelled out the antagonism of these two historical options, and in this post-political setting Mouffe asserts that rethinking such frontiers is essential; not so much between left and right, but between the oligarchy and the society dispossessed in this process. Art and its institutions, in their capacity of collective representation, play a key role in this tract. At the other end, Didier Eribon wholly rejects the new binary opposites between those at the top and those at the bottom, scotching their uniformity in the excess of a complex and diverse social body, and maintaining a return to the notion of difference and the critique of the place of enunciation (those who speak and from where), characterising the so-called cultural wars from the 1970s. Both authors will, first and foremost, present these two positions before debating them.


Chantal Mouffe. Philosopher and political theorist. She is a professor at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster, and has been guest professor at Harvard, Cornell, the University of California, Princeton, and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. Between 1989 and 1995 she was director of the College International de Philosophie Programme in Paris, and is the author of a range of noteworthy publications, translated into multiple languages, on the space of democracy linked to the fight for pluralism. Her numerous essays include Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, with Ernesto Laclau (1985),On the Political (2005) and Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically (2014).

Didier Eribon. Philosopher and sociologist. As a lecturer at the University of Amiens, he is the author of Michel Foucault (1992), the most complete intellectual biography on the philosopher to date, Reflections on the Gay Question (2001), A Moral of the Minority (2004), Escaping Psychoanalysis (2008), and Return to Reims (2013). Moreover, his work is an example of dissident prose, understood as a confrontation between the canon and the norm.