ask23 > Lingner: Enabling the Improbable. *

Michael Lingner

Enabling the Improbable. *

Aesthetic Action from Conception to Reality: Clegg & Guttmann's Open Public Library

One of the many positive aspects of Clegg & Guttmann's "Open Public Library" projects is that the public can participate in them uninhibited by any art-related requirements. The motivation to become involved is not based on some special "artistic will"; rather, the widespread need to have books without being forced to buy them is quite sufficient. This "artless" form of access is feasible because the objects Clegg & Guttmann create do not possess any qualities specific to art: none which the artists intend, and none which the public can recognize. The initial emphasis lies on the extra-aesthetic utility value of the work as a library, and this is what shapes people's attitudes towards it.

Clegg & Guttmann's project appeals not only to those interested in avant-garde art but also to those interested in education in general, and moreover lends itself to being combined with any number of other ambitions; this systematic double and multiple coding constitutes a major aspect of their work The fact that the project presents itself not as pure art but rather as "integrating a variety of taste cultures simultaneously" (1) and is, at the same time, a kind of sociotope for microscopic examination, as such arousing lively interest among sociological researchers. As early as the pioneer project organized by the Kunstverein Graz in 1991, students observed the work from a sociological standpoint and drew up a report to document it. For the Hamburg project, an extensive study has further been prepared implementing the methodology of empirical social research.

Due to sociology's pronounced affinity for the project and this science's unresolved "positivism controversy", this discipline may well run the risk of excluding the specific values of the object of its scrutiny while believing itself to be an external "objective" observer. Empirical social research is always in danger of overlooking its own involvement and the ramifications of the way its preformulated questions and standardized approaches interfere with the very social processes it is attempting to investigate. Hence reservations that this type of academic influence could "endanger the artistic aspects of the projects" (2) - a fear also voiced by a substantial number of those interviewed - are by no means unfounded.

One can neither assume that a project such as that conceived by Clegg & Guttmann constitutes a social system nor even less so that it is art with a fixed dimension from which one can proceed as from a given. In post-ontological, multi-coded art concepts, neither the work itself nor the material characteristics lent to that work by artistic formation can be construed as a basis upon which aesthetic quality can be objectified as a fact or upon which the work can define itself as art. Rather, one must proceed from the "self-evident fact that nothing pertaining to art is self-evident any longer." (3) If art is no longer morphologically recognizable as such, the art issue can no longer be ignored. Sociology - and with it all other disciplines concerned with these issues - cannot avoid differentiating between certain phenomena from their own vantage points. In doing so, they must perforce take on "tasks approximate or analogous to those of the artist." (4)

When it comes to the problem of differentiation arising from the dematerialization of aesthetics, institutions specializing in exhibiting art are all on an equal footing, so that there is no reason to rely on their purported ability to distinguish differences. If art is construed not as a specific form of material existence but rather as a specific selective process of the intellect, the art-related disciplines are charged with formulating aesthetic differences in the medium of language and - for instance in the case of sociology - with introducing a distinction between aesthetic and other social behaviour. What was valid for the phenomena of conceptual art, i.e. that "without [...] discussion [...] they are pure and simple 'experience'" and "only [become] 'art' when they are placed in a context with art," (5) applies unequivocally to Clegg & Guttmann's "Open Public Library." Debating this issue with the intent of positing an aesthetic distinction constitutes the nucleus of art theory. Given this artistic self-conception, the leading issues in the theoretical debate (which cannot be treated exhaustively here) are as follows: I. The historic distinction between Clegg & Guttmann's concept of art and their context in art history; 2. The philosophical distinction between the potential modes of action within the "Open Public Library" and other modes of action.

Whether or not the distinctions arrived at here are sufficiently relevant in artistic terms - or sufficiently integral in aesthetic terms - is a question to be assessed both theoretically and pragmatically. This increases the probability that those actively participating in the work can actually succeed in making this type of distinction. After all, the ultimate aim of formulating aesthetic distinctions is not to make hierarchical assignments of value or to demonstrate an awareness of scientific methods. The public's reaction is the important thing: that it benefit from the expanded perspectives created by the added artistic dimension and the actual aesthetic qualities. Following the end of the ontological definition of the work of art, it is this aspect which will determine art's future evolutionary potential.

I. It is particularly illuminating to view the evolution of modern art as a process of increasing autonomy that coincided with the artists' own intentions. The French Revolution constituted an essential prerequisite for liberating art from its feudal and religious fetters, for it finally served to shatter the entrenched secular and intellectual supremacy of the aristocracy and clergy. Yet the freedom art gained, a freedom soon anchored in law by bourgeois constitutions, simultaneously signified the loss of art's former economical and ideological framework and robbed it of any extra-aesthetic utilitarian functions. Instead of also being an altarpiece or a monarch's portrait, it came to exist only as art, valued only for the specifically aesthetic qualities which it discovers on its own and presents as art.

Hence the process of autonomy runs parallel to the separation of the aesthetically beautiful within the realm of freedom from what was regarded as existentially indispensable. The attendant detachment and isolation of the aesthetical was substantiated in theory by Kant before it existed in fact. In his "Critique of Aesthetic Judgement," Kant demonstrates that the qualities formerly united in art - the sensual, the pleasurable, the cognitive truth, and moral goodness - can be distinguished systematically from aesthetic beauty. Thus the increasing autonomy of art was also bound up with a growing independence of the aesthetical, which now became a whole new form of human experience.

One essential characteristic of the aesthetical, according to Kant, is that neither as regards judging it nor as regards producing it does any a priori, universally valid and positive rule apply. In order to artificially reproduce the aesthetic beauty that Kant still finds in the contemplation of nature, the artist has but one choice. He is forced to adopt a negative strategy namely that of avoiding all sensual stimuli, all rational knowledge and all moral principles, something F. Schlegel already succeeded in doing by ennobling the hideous during the Romantic period. There was no way to avoid a situation whereby the artistic decisions necessary to create aesthetic beauty conflicted with convention while dismissing the claims, interests and expectations of society. Thus the autonomy of art presented a challenge to the artist's own self-determination - a phenomenon which, at bottom and in formal terms, may be viewed as a quite hazardous and above all highly improbable undertaking.

In modern art, one can discern a great variety of strategies for achieving autonomy. Based on the interpretative model proposed here, these are strategies enabling certain improbabilities that are restricted by changing paradigms. One particularly significant - though seemingly paradoxical - approach is rooted in an intention which, initially latent, becomes quickly apparent and increasingly conscious: that of forcing the autonomy process to a point at which the work even ultimately exhibits a tendency to be independent of the artist himself Already in the early phases of autonomous art, the intended multiple meanings (as evidenced in P. O. Runge's romantic masterpiece "Vier Zeiten"), intentional uncertainties and empty spaces (as reflected in Cezanne's late aquarelles) rendered the works dependent on the subjective conditions of their reception. In a formal sense, their calculated semantic and syntactic openness made surprising artistic decisions possible, promoting unpredictability in the reception process. What was perceived as the work was no longer determined exclusively by the artist.

Later explicit deliberations by the artists clearly relativized their claim to being the sole creators of the work. What those associated with the Bauhaus meant when referring to colours having "a life of their own", when speaking of "functionality" and "justification of materials," is something Kandinsky sums up by saying, "It is not the artist, but rather his instrument and his material which should dictate the picture." (6) Even more significant and far-reaching in its consequences was the decision to relinquish responsibility for the actual genesis of the work. In his ready-mades, Duchamp made random constellation the axiom of artistic production, as did Breton his surrealistic stimulation of chance by "purely mental automatism." (7) Only much later did this originally literary idea find adequate visual expression in the art informel painting of the fifties (as exemplified in the work of Wols and Jackson Pollock).

In any case, the introduction of chance as an aesthetic paradigm made it all the more evident that artists had surrendered their exclusive role as sole originators of particular improbabilities. The concept of the creative genius is untenable where artistic practice becomes a conceptual activity that drafts an abstract plan, according to which it seems probable that certain improbabilities will become reality.

The tradition that artists, with aesthetic intent, merely conceive of and initiate something improbable yet afterwards allow that something to develop autonomously, i.e. independently of any decisions they might make, persisted in an even more radicalized form in the Process Art of the sixties. There the developments traced above reached an ultimate climax which at the same time constituted a critical turning point constituent to the prehistory of Clegg & Guttmann's project. Although Process Art did at first succeed in vastly expanding art's potential horizons without forcing arbitrary and artificially aesthetic improbabilities, yet the technique which became known as Process Art - i.e. allowing materials to interact and generate self-shaping works - was quickly exhausted because the materials used could undergo only a limited number of potential changes.

By the mid-sixties, this situation gave rise to the idea (nowhere more clearly illustrated than in the biography of F. E.Walther and his works (8)) no longer to limit the public to mere observation of art objects but instead authorize the public to interact with the work. The self-active role ascribed to the public by the artists not only represented a continuation of the ideal of autonomy, but is, above all in principle, inexhaustible. This enabled the participants in F. E. Walther's "Work Set I," for instance, as well as in the Happening and Fluxus movements, to figure as constant generators of the improbable. Naturally this required that the lay participants as well as the artists who conceived of the objects for performance, aimed at an aesthetic dimension and, by avoiding the probable (as determined by sensuality, rationality and morality), actually made decisions to act improbably. The fact that the aesthetical is a specifically human type of experience enabled the amateurs and artists both to mutually multiply the number of potential improbabilities.

Ranging from the emphatic transfer of authorship of the "work" thought of as immaterial up to the playful invitations to "join-in", there were various attempts to involve the public in the process of artistic production up into the seventies. Although these endeavours largely corresponded to the Zeitgeist and its paramount cultural and political demands for the integration of art and life in particular and a radical democratization in general, the public could not be moved to "act" in the art sphere. In retrospect, one must admit that "the gap between the artist and the public [remained] unbridgeable." (9) At best, participation took place where artistic "action" could be coupled with political or therapeutic aims and (mis)understood as "demonstration" or as "sensitivity training". Yet since the desired reforms in the political and private sectors did not ensue, the art world in particular - which had harboured very high hopes - was brought rudely back down to earth. That shock allowed the revival of established painting traditions in the eighties to appear as less of a retrogression.

The sixties saw artists conceive activities - and the latter's objectified manifestations - that were keyed to a "self-determining" audience. To date, however, the majority of these projects have not been put into practice; they were merely presented and received as ideas. Symptomatic for this is F. E. Walther's explicit relegation of the performance objects to a state of storage which, contrary to the original intention, could in fact exist as its own "Work Form" (10) provided that the primary issues were the idea and its historic survival. Declared a "storehouse" in their own right or merely exhibited in the traditional fashion, all of the objects originally destined for use have now been reduced to symbols of possible action. This diminishes a once-epochal concept to a seemingly unredeemable, utopian ideal. It can only be represented externally for the public; internally, it has at best been merely preserved for the art world.

In this mood of resignation following the end of the "thirst for images" and its empirical failure, Clegg & Guttmann were among the first to risk yet another attempt at putting the idea into practice. Alone the fact that - and the way in which - they devoted so much effort under today's conditions toward rendering self-determined involvement on the part of the public truly practicable (11) instead of confining their realization to the restricted context of art defines their clear and fundamentally distinct position within art history. Hence one can understand why Clegg & Guttmann believe it is so essential to "emphasize [...] that [they] regard the project not as a revival of the (somewhat naive) works of the sixties." (12) Rather, they apparently believe in the possibility and necessity of further developing that which others - with a view to the public or the art world - hold to be extremely improbable or in any case naive.

II. Clegg & Guttmann approached their project from a thorough familiarity with tradition, a fact readily evident in their decision to choose the book as the centrepiece of their "Open Public Library". Leading artists of the sixties had discovered the book as an artistic form; their concern was with an "art immediately involving the observer" which "demanded from [the observer] an advanced, active form of participation." (13) Being an "integral component of our everyday communications system", the book - as opposed to the panel painting or the mounted sculpture - was not associated a priori with any "specifically aesthetic or artistic quality" (14) but was instead culturally established as an unprivileged tool of labour. Because the book demanded unmediated haptic and mental involvement from recipients and automatically imposed a temporal structure, it appeared uniquely suited for the desired processes of action.

As early as 1967, the pioneering theorist of conceptual art, Joseph Kosuth (under whom Clegg & Guttmann studied), realized an exhibition project (15) that pointed more clearly in the direction of the "Open Public Library". Kosuth had asked fifteen conceptual artists to lend him their favourite books, ones they judged to be particularly important, to use as part of the exhibition. Kosuth's aim was to illustrate how the elementary act of selection itself already constitutes a means of personal expression which, in artistic practice, possesses a significance of its own that warrants exhibition. Whereas here the selection was still conventionally performed by the artists, in Clegg & Guttmann's "Open Public Library", it is the public whose choice is important and who decide whether to take out and/or add books.

To ensure that the "Open Public Library" functions as an instrument for establishing personal preferences, it is essential that the people involved surrender their status as observers and take on active roles. The probability that this will in fact happen is much higher than in all the other concepts from the sixties which were abstractly aimed at art. For in the library project, definite parameters for involvement are supplied which stem from familiar contexts within the everyday world and which are not aesthetically defined from the onset.

This coupling with a commonplace interest, formerly regarded as taboo in "pure art", can simultaneously act as a magnet exerting a pull beyond that of motivating active involvement alone, (16) it is also capable of providing initial access and pointing the way to certain types of action. Although in the case of passive experience all the various opportunities remain in principle available, any real decision-making - for which, without any motivation from the world of everyday life, neither an aesthetic interest nor any true participation can ensue - requires active involvement. It is in fact mandatory.

Where participation in the project necessitates decision-making and action, this takes place under the unusual condition that the use of the library is not subject to any institutionalized, i.e. predictable, control mechanisms or sanctions. This unique situation creates a constellation whereby the sensual needs, rational objectives and moral norms - factors which normally dictate participants' actions in such a context - can lose their accepted, absolute validity and, as criteria in the decision-making process, even be suspended. In order to make orientation possible in this socially undefined vacuum and to do justice to the need to get involved, all of the participants are ultimately enabled to generate other factors for their decisions. Alone the absence of other determinants finally forces each individual to discover and develop his own preferences, i.e. to tune into his own personal criteria for decision-making which are, in the broadest sense of the term, aesthetic ones. The more consciously these criteria are reflected and applied, the higher will be the degree of self-determination and improbability. In this way participants' actions based on such decisions can come to possess an aesthetic quality otherwise reserved exclusively for artists and their work.

In contrast to (passive) experience, each and every action taken will alter the given condition of a system. Such changes determine the initial conditions for subsequent decisions and action, meaning that everyone who acts is also perforce communicating. The "Open Public Library" is designed as a system organizing these very processes of communication, in that it initiates them, provides a common object as a point of reference, keeps the process in motion and regulates the expectations of those participating. As opposed to the classical concept of art, communication does not take place as contemplative reflection on the work but rather evolves as a social process between the various participants who interact verbally about the objects and actively via them.

It is characteristic for the "Open Public Library" that it constitutes a closed system, since it is comprised of communications which are totally self-referential. What is communicated within the system is confined exclusively to what has already been communicated there; each individual can refer actively to what was previously done. This self-referentiality quickly lends the system a sophisticated complexity, and the communicative actions defining it become subject to an ongoing process of self-organization. The structural unpredictability inherent in the unique dynamics of these self-organized activities is further intensified by the circumstance that each action can be characterized as aesthetic, i.e. as "devoid of meaning, even amoral in a cultivated form", (17) which renders it, in turn, highly improbable. So it is that Clegg & Guttmann's "Open Public Library" not only enables the improbable to become more independent of the artist than ever before, it succeeds in doing so by putting self-organized action into practice to a degree far surpassing the "self-action" of man and material that was achieved in the sixties.

* I am indebted to Niklas Luhmann for the title - "Enabling the Improbable" - and the conceptual approach of this essay, as well as for his many insightful remarks in a non-artistic context: see for instance Niklas Luhmann: "Soziale Systeme", Frankfurt/M, 1984, p. 218 ff. and p. 514.

(1) This is the definition of multi-coding as posited by Ulf Wuggenig and Vera Kockot "Kunst im Stadtraum. Die 'Offenen Bibliotheken' von Clegg & Guttmann in Hamburg", in: "Perspektiven", Wien, issue 8, 1993, p. 47 ff.

(2) Ibid., p. 48.

(3) Theodor W. Adorno: "Ästhetische Theorie", Frankfurt/M. 1971, p. 9.

(4) Martin Warnke: "Ästhetik. Eine Kolumne", in: "Merkur", 5 / 1984.

(5) Joseph Kosuth: "Introductory Note by the American Editor", in: Paul Maenz and Gerd de Vries (eds.): "Art & Language. Texte zum Phänomen Kunst und Sprache", Cologne 1972, p. 103.

(6) Jelena Hahl-Koch: "W. Kandinsky. Die erste sowjetische Retrospektive", in: "Kunstchronik", issue 8, 1989. p. 419.

(7) Andre Breton: "Die Manifeste des Surrealismus", Hamburg 1968, p. 26.

(8) Cf. Michael Lingner. "Kunst als Projekt der Aufklärung jenseits reiner Vernunft", in: Michael Lingner (ed.): "Das Haus in dem ich wohne. Die Theorie zum Werkentwurf von Franz E. Walther", Klagenfurt 1990, p. 42ff.

(9) Margarethe Jochimsen: "Kunst als soziale Strategie", in: "Kunstforum International", vol. 27, 1978, p. 74.

(10) Cf. Franz E. Walther "Lagerform = Werkform", (exhibition cat.) Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen, Düsseldorf 1990. (11) In line with Breton's tenet "One would only attempt to practise poetry. Is it not our task the task of the artists who live from it, to lend greater currency to that which benefits us most?" In: Andre Breton, op. cit, p. 21.

(12) Clegg & Guttmann: "Entwurf für eine 'Open-Air' Bibliothek", in: "Durch", (published by Grazer Kunstverein) Graz, 6/7, 1990, p. 136.

(13) Germano Celant: "Das Kunstwerk als Buch", in: "Interfunktionen", no. 11, 1974, p. 81.

(14) Ibid., p. 83.

(15) Joseph Kosuth: "Non-Anthropomorphic Art", (exhibition cat.) Lannis Museum, New York 1967.

(16) Haim Steinbach undertook another attempt to solve the problem of non-participation - a problem that had dominated the art of the 1960s - without recourse to motivation when he sought to stimulate the activity of his recipients by means of "a series of conditioned reflexes." Cf. Heim Steinbach: "Interview mit E. Sussmann", in: "The Binational", (exhibition cat.) Cologne I988, p. 191.

(17) Karl-Josef Pazzini: "Zu Martin Zülch: 'Zauber und Entzauberung'", in: "Kunst und Unterricht", No. 184, 1994, p. 8.

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