Let’s start with a compelling quotation: “Art must be directed against what it is conceived out of, and accordingly it becomes uncertain to the core.” This uncertainty highlighted by Adorno – this perplexity – brings us here to speak of a hypothetical death of the Spanish Republic. And we are to speak of a republic in a museum whose name is “Reina Sofía”. This contradiction has kept us away from the Ateneo, where this event had been due to take place. A traditionally republican venue that must have refused to take part, for reasons I am unaware of. These coincidences and polarities lead us to a strange paradox characteristic of death, poetics, symbolism and their destruction. We should not forget Blanchot’s reference, with Hegel, to the crusaders’ awareness that when they found the Sepulchre it would be empty. Moreover they knew that they could only release holiness from such emptiness. And this is also a question of ascertaining what crusade contemporary Spanish art is engaged in.

Considering the poetics expressed by contemporary art in terms of absence and presence is equivalent to acknowledging that artistic endeavour is not something that goes on habitually. Though artists are not mere executors of their work, we believe that, as creators of states, they belong increasingly in spheres linked to the reality of the artwork itself and to our valuation of the importance of its complex configuration. We may say that there is a dissonance between what is projected and what is achieved, between what is accomplished and what is forgotten. A distance similar to that occupied by a thought aware of its inherent impossibility. A flag as a symbol of an absence and as a focal point for a digression from the state into which Spanish art has evolved: a Spain not accustomed to elucidating the events that occurred during the Franco regime, busy wiping out the memory of those who did not share that single universal destiny and who experienced only indifference, silence, death and exile. So we find ourselves before the capacity of denial of a flag whose threads weave a poetic view of the very absence of the ruins of a political system cancelled out by haste and pardon. States of transition towards the return of a caramelized monarchy with subtly altered functions.

Adorno points to the importance of this destruction in art. Paul de Man propounds a definition of poetic thought in relation to its negative activity. This question concerns not only the flag’s intellectual and historical aspects but also – and importantly – its symbolic nature. Iconoclasm understood as one of the elements that establishes a poetics of forthcoming destruction, a contradictory presence: an anti-symbol. In a traditional sense, the iconoclasm shown by this flag is the prohibition of a still image linked to a form of fiction. Beyond is the very impossibility of representation, for what it seeks to show is prohibition itself and an inability to accomplish a work that begins and ends in itself. Iconoclasm is a matter of dissonance, mutation and polarity. And it is aimed at a negative, neutral and non-present space: a black flag of the Spanish Republic that seems to speak of the period from the end of the 2nd Republic to the advent of today’s democracy. This flag was not made in Munich by chance. Those speaking here are also younger than forty.

Like its very aesthetic and formal appearance, this blackness coincides in a metaphorical perplexity linked not only to the state of art but also to the political, economic and sociological situation in Spain. This denial vis-à-vis a certain situation leads to a revolt against emptiness which inevitably gives rise only to a linking of art and its negativity. It is a place of disaster, both for the possible presence of anything artistic in its materialization and in its formal aspect. In this respect the case of this sort of platonic conceptualism has to do with the expulsion of artists and poets from the city because their actions are regarded as false and fictitious, as not real. This is the traditional verdict meted out to negative art, wherever artists/poets are regarded as feigners or liars. But it is worth linking this work to the distinction between rebels and revolutionaries: ascertaining whether the aim is to accept the rules of the game albeit without conforming, or to seek a utopian change of order with a total transformation. What is plain to see is that melancholy and a manipulation of what is regarded as the norm in the world of art form the objective that leads to a disappearance akin to the dismantling of an artwork and the salvaging of a tradition that has been located in something called postminimalism.

It was precisely Baudrillard who pointed to the coexistence in art of a logic of disappearance and reconstruction, linking its effects to a consideration of art as a market and the market as art. A realistic aesthetic turnaround that is not capricious but that rather expresses an affinity: the art market is a work of art. It is in this interior capitalist process that Baudrillard points to the coexistence of two types of market. First, where valuation is traditional and items are bought and sold according to a real value. Second, a speculative market where a transaction is a gamble and valuation is uncontrollable. Where all is appearance. And it is not surprising that this same speculation applied to a symbol somehow destroys that market value, postulated as a limit. In any event, this flag was sewn in Munich.

The title has a background. España Negra is a book in which the painter Darío de Regoyos and the Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren asserted that the Spanish flag should contain black stripes or silver shields, referring to the state of a country plunged into illiteracy and famine. It is odd that they should have written this book on their way to the Prado while the disaster of 1898 was taking place. In the case of this flag, which is now a poster, there is also a denunciation of the state of Spanish democracy, heir to the Franco regime and its last death rattles, struggling in the utopian Spanish separation of the republic and the consolidation of a constitutional monarchy with the King as figurehead. So this banner offers not the promise of a longed-for Third Republic but rather an affirmation of its cancellation: Spain always black. Complicated designations are thereby established where we have to choose because it is no longer a matter of slogans such as “fatherland or death” or republic as against monarchy. It is a matter of raising the awareness of the demos, the people, against the kratia, the established authority – established in the Spanish case in a more or less civilized way, but continuing a Spanish tradition dependent on representation. In the case of this current monarchy, it is clear that its role corresponds, as a representative of a modern, changed, progressive and ideal Spain, to a reality that is satisfied with itself. It is the image of the events that have culminated with celebrations centred on the King and the birthday of the Prince, who has also reached the age of 40. And this black flag sewn in Munich is really an anti-symbol of all this: a symbol that reacts against it; that is why we say that this black flag is transformed into a symbolic object. Its impossible presence points towards a form of behaviour whose concerns shift between giving a good impression, imposing silence and mourning realistically, in the knowledge that the latest attacks on the King and Queen’s image are no more than an assault on their symbolic position in what may be called a patriarchal than a paternalist state. As is rightly said, with the Republic and Azaña, Spain ceased to be Catholic. What we want to show, staying with this black anti-symbol, is that conception cancelling the premises that existed under the auspices of a more or less democratic Republic. In this connection we should not forget the series of executions that took place throughout Spain from 18 July 1936, at the end of the 2nd Republic. A violence in which it has been shown that 16,000 people were killed just in the province of Madrid. This flag should also speak of mourning for them. A self-referential symbol that speaks of the confinement and terror that also took place in those countless lockups in Madrid, notably including, oddly enough, one set up at the Círculo de Bellas Artes.

Returning to the inherent darkness of this ensign, standard or pennant, it may be linked, as Slavoj Zizeck says, to a concealment. Because in the same way that pictures of Kenyans stabbing and killing their fellows are shown openly, highlighting the full brutality of that horror and violence, we can in fact barely imagine the fate of those who died at the World Trade Centre or here in the environs of Atocha: they are people who were killed but there is no trace of the 6,000 victims, no blood or dismembered bodies; there is no blood, only despair. This darkness is precisely the elevation of what is real: a confinement which, via a representation, in the sense of pictures in newspapers or on CNN, seeks to cancel out the reality of a fact such as the violence of states and the terror which springs, as Derrida says, from their very constitution. Derrida identified the attack on the community made on 11 September as something that takes place in democracy. If Stockhausen claimed that it was a total work of art, Derrida asserted that the attack was something that had been allowed: “Terrorists,” he says, “are sometimes American citizens, and those of 11 September may have been so for some; they were, in any event, helped by American citizens; they stole American planes, they flew in American planes, they took off from American airports.” It goes without saying that that same darkness was present at the attack in Atocha. So nihilists are no longer the old romantic terrorists, or today’s masked bombers. In today’s nihilist and destructive reality they are also states that vigilantly monitor public health, but what they conceal is the power of those who are strongest. And the closer we are to the strong, the more security we are offered.

Why should we be surprised by that unexceptional violence in the place that allowed the planes to take off with terrorists of US nationality, despite their origin? Why should we be simplistically surprised by that violence and not remember what has been going on in Spain since the early 20th century? Isn’t Spain dark enough for its non plus ultra thresholds to be still appreciable? In this impasse we find Spain’s black constancy, a darkness present as a place, as topos. Consider for example the exhibition next to this room called La noche española (The Spanish night), which continues to show an image that fails to correspond to the Spanish reality of illiteracy and famine, which continues to dig up the least appropriate clichés, based on the significance of gypsies or manual workers in popular imagery or on the effigy of a Spanish woman holding a gun. And whose title and subtitle coincide with this Spanish period, from 1865 to 1936.

For after nearly 40 years of democracy in Spain it worth looking at the influence that art has had on today’s society. An impossible undertaking and, indeed, finding one’s place in it is a never-ending task. If we consider the transition from the late Franco regime to democracy, we see that this influence really is important for various reasons, either because of the joy felt after Franco’s death or because that outdated political, economic and cultural system was collapsing. What has this to do with the dark state of Spain in those times? Though it is true that, politically, we were not in the situation of the post-war years, nor of the 50s or 60s, the Franco regime clearly sought to obstruct the expansion of what may be called the “cultural industry”. What were the main areas in which artists and intellectuals needed to act? What relationship was there between what was called “highbrow” and “lowbrow” culture and a Spanish society finally leaving behind 40 years of dictatorship so as to mature back into a democracy? Really it was a matter of showing commitment to a way of thinking that was to radically confront that power founded on censure and political repression and which, from a strongly ideological perspective, was to lead to what could be referred to as the modernization of a black country seeking to achieve democratic status.

What were the Spanish cultural industry’s main difficulties as from the 60s? They were simply determined by censure and the control of teaching and educational syllabuses, a highly restrictive and repressive policy that continued to show that the cultural fabric was largely dominated by politics – a process that is a historical constant in Spanish art. If there was some space for an apparent Spanish democratic openness it was because Franco and his subordinates had already addressed the problem directly in the 50s and 60s, as evidenced at the Alexandria, Sao Paulo and Venice biennials, where the work of some artists was displayed so as to put on a show of openness, including that of Antonio Saura, Manuel Millares, Rafael Canogar, Juan Genovés or Darío Villalba – regardless of their subsequent positions contrary to the regime – and even Antoni Tàpies, who in 1973 brought out an odd book called El arte contra la estética (Art against aesthetics), which moreover showed a considerable conceptual confusion, asserting that the ideas involved in social, political, conceptual or participatory art should show a practical ideology. What we mean to say is that in those times of transition, art’s political dependence was inescapable, either as a result of ideology confronting the Franco regime propounded by the exiled Spanish left or in culture manipulated by the official organs of power.

In this respect, a review of Spanish art in the 40 years of dictatorship should show, for example, that the more politicized new conceptual tendencies were sidelined by the success of a new realism, less concerned about the critical aspect of society and the appropriateness of aesthetic propositions emerging abroad – “en el extranjero”, that very Spanish term. We mean that there is a very direct link between the rise of a certain type of art as opposed to the incipient offerings of Isidoro Valcárcel Medina, the Zaj Group or the incursions into conceptual art made at the cultural events known as “Encuentros de Pamplona”. In reviews of recent history these circumstances have been constantly underrated by many critics who have rather devoted their efforts to attaching more importance to a pictorial or sculptural tradition than to the emergence of a conceptual art in opposition to such tendencies. We shall not repeat here that, to date, whenever Spanish conceptual art has been studied, what is shown is the clumsiness and systematic silence of certain artists who in those times were also struggling in their own way by denouncing the state of Spanish politics.

For example, an “enlightened” Francisco Calvo Serraller casts a cold eye over the Spanish conceptual reaction in relation to the art becoming established internationally. His view of the 70s in Spain tends to assert that it was a period of introspection and purging, though in definitely odd terms: a parenthesis. This is surprising because we do not believe that this period should be seen as a time of aesthetic uncertainty, especially given that the art gaining ground in those years came from artists who had already been active for a decade and in some cases for two, as in the case of Luis Gordillo. Victoria Combalía, for example, goes so far as to say that Spanish conceptual art come into existence in 1971 in Granollers. And after locating its field of action in Cataluña and asserting that its origin lies in Tàpies and not in the Zaj group, she dismisses conceptual exercises prior to that date as mere antecedents.

What was at stake was the continuance of an artistic practice that the conceptualists regarded as superseded, and the utopian option of breaking away from the commercialization of art. It is also true that Spanish artists were not sidelined all that much during the Franco regime, as may be seen from the influence of Dalí, Miró, Tápies, Chillida or Hispanic informalism in the 50s. A blackened Spain that allowed earnings that the regime approved of, but without contributing to the works’ aesthetic value or helping with state acquisitions or the organization of major exhibitions. As we know, foreign policy was different – witness the list of Spanish representatives at the successive biennials in which Spain took part during the Franco regime. The cynicism with which certain artists such as Tàpies now systemically shrug off their collaboration with that regime is insulting. This ambiguity of the political authorities, shifting between permissiveness and tolerance and the suspension and prohibition of certain initiatives directed at the public, characterized the intrusions of those who in those days saw communists on all sides; such is the case, for example, of Carrero Blanco and his differences with González Robles.

Another issue and a symptomatic factor, as Simón Marchán Fiz suggests, is the removal of Art History from high school education in 1975 by the Ministry of Education and Science, just when the art gallery market was starting to open up, leading to the emergence of the art centres and museums that exist today. If Calvo Serraller in the 80s considered that the early conceptual attempts were little less than vain attempts to escape from an irreversible situation, what is certainly true is that the advent of democracy was anything but a time of parenthesis or purging. The differences established between practices in Madrid and Barcelona – the aspiration to art that would not lose sight of the course followed outside Spain – may explain all of the economic, political and sociological movements both in society and, by extension, in the processes marking the country’s modernization going on in those initial times and which continued a commercialization of Spanish art that had been a constant since the Franco regime. Art and politics have always gone hand in hand, and artists, critics, gallery owners and politicians have taken advantage of this in equal measure.

Returning to our subject, we may say that this flag depicts an obstruction, pointing to the preclusion of a future political system. Under this flag both sides are neutralized, and the very death of a changing image is cancelled. A country where the flag has changed several times and which has an anthem with no words bespeaks of itself its capacity for negation. And also its baroque nature, for in that darkness an iconic treatment continues to be given to matters concerning not only the meaning of artworks but also their technical capacity. This is not a matter of considering this cloth as if it were a mere textile product, for the material depends on what it expresses: a black flag that underlines the darkness of flags. It is a matter of keeping sight of the idea of a flag as a textile and a text in which not only ideas but also contrasting opinions are woven. It is a device that helps us to remember and a work that belongs to our shared memory. As when the Republican flag was raised at Auschwitz, evoking those who disappeared there, now it is brought in its black version to a museum whose regal name corresponds to the protection of the arts and letters, a monarchy that cannot escape its light and dark sides and before which many art sympathizers will now kneel. A black flag of the Spanish Republic sewn in Munich.

Let us end briefly by summing up: a flag of the 2nd Republic in a museum called Reina Sofía. A symbol of an absence, a blackness that corresponds to the relationship of art and politics in contemporary Spain. A darkness that also appears in our monarchy: the reign of representation that must be laundered. A flag that speaks of an obstruction of conceptual art tendencies as opposed to a less politicized art, from the Franco regime and probably from Spain’s democracy. A confinement that should not be a final end.

At the start we quoted Adorno: “Art must be directed against what it is conceived out of, and accordingly it becomes uncertain to the core.” This uncertainty led him to say that after Auschwitz there could be no poetry, though subsequently he had to correct himself. Santiago Sierra claimed precisely that “after Auschwitz we can do little that is not poetry.” This poetic revenge over those who, setting out in Munich, built up the Nazi party, is what caused this flag to be sewn in that city. An endgame that has led us from the promise of a republican democracy to a democracy under a constitutional monarchy. And where, as María Teresa León said, “the history of democracy is written in white ink on blank paper.”

In an email Santiago Sierra says:

The pointers here are those that the flag brings into play in relation to the past and present of egalitarian ideals in Spain. Bringing together elements such as embroidery, the place of embroidery, Bavarian Marianas Pinedas, the connotations of colour, with respect to mourning and libertarianism, the origins of a monarchy installed by means of death and a 40-year dictatorship, the survival of those who disappeared and the ditches they died in. The survival of indifference. The state that speaks of memory with monarchical exaltation, streets, hospitals, museums, international awards, etc. The nearby reminders of what our new monarchy entailed at world level. The recent attempts to silence dissension. Well, this flag has a lot in it; it’s potent as an anti-symbol – I don’t know if the photo does it justice... Also it’s my finest work and it honours our dead grandparents.

Black Spain and its counterpart, blackened Spain.

I think that’s roughly what it’s about and tell me if I’m forgetting anything.

Good health and freedom to you.