Art in the subjunctive
An exhibition as a program of action
The way art has been produced and received is still dominated today by the idea that "artness" is composed of the particularity of an object's qualities. These qualities are seen as the effect of artistic craft, and the resulting object is defined as the "work". Proceeding from the fact that the "artworthy" qualities of the object are objectively its own, so to speak, the true work is in the end considered timeless. In accord with this is the expectation that the works guarantee art's presence by their mere existence and make it immediately through their aesthetic features. Should art still not become manifest, the viewer's cultural background or the work's quality is called into question.
The qualities of works of modern art are essentially judged according to whether they result from artists' decisions that fulfill the criterion of being of the highest IMPROBABILITY. These surprising, improbable qualities are attributed to the artist's free and individual CHOICE of ideas, materials, forms and colors that enhance the art object. Such a choice demands from the artist an extraordinary amount of SELF-DETERMINATION, which in turn is crucial to the authenticity and uniqueness of the works. Their originality is seen as a one-of-a-kind and unrepeatable expression of the AUTONOMOUS artist's personality and, additionally, of the autonomy of art. Who can doubt that the acquisition of aesthetic autonomy, which is the central theme of the following text, is the motivating maxim as well as the cultural core of the entire development of modern art?
When art is seen as the specific existential presence of material created by grace of artistic craft, it is quite clear that the only suitable way to assimilate it is by intent OBSERVATION or meditation. As long as this restriction is valid, aesthetic autonomy is exclusively restricted to art and the artist. For, the viewer of a painting can admire, despise or ignore the artistic autonomy without this at all empowering his own possibilities for self-determination IN ACTUALITY nor (at best very indirectly) IN GENERAL. A direct transmission of autonomy through the artwork's qualities would only be possible according to the creed of the medieval mystic: "You become what you see." However, without the assumption of such a miracle, the mere viewer can in no way realize artistic autonomy and make even improbable decisions on his own - unless he himself takes up painting.
The continuing bourgeois glorification of art to a mere SYMBOL of autonomy and the consequent rejection of the general right to self-determination emanating from life's reality is just what the masters of modernism consciously counteracted from the beginning. Since Romanticism, continual forms of "open works" in Umberto Eco's sense have been developed that increasingly appealed to the IMAGINATION of the viewer. By means of this deliberate expansion of art reception to include the more or less improbable fantasies of the viewers, their actual participation in artistic autonomy has steadily increased. But also when reception is no longer limited to the improbabilities materialized by the artist, viewers can continue to simply choose and decide within the realm of the MIND without any of it becoming concretely real. The viewers' aesthetic self-determination continues to be merely fictitious and not factual, no matter how much the artworthiness of the works also becomes dependent on the viewers' unforeseeable activities and no matter how much it is no longer adequately defined by material qualities.
In the art of the Sixties a vital evolutionary step came about through the acquisition of aesthetic autonomy. The feeling that the artistic possibilities of crafting improbable material have been exhausted and rendered trivial has led to an extreme dematerialization of art. An attempt was made to make art more independent of the aesthetic QUALITIES of the objects and to allow it to be transformed into the EXPERIENCE of those at the receiving end. Once the "objects" are conceived for the ACTIVE PARTICIPATION of the viewer, they lose their status as "works" and become work-tools. The usefulness of the "objects", like all artistic work, is judged as to whether through them it becomes more probable that the viewer's decisions to act attain improbability. Also if "improbability" is only one of the (if not sufficiently aesthetic) conditions necessary to the art event, the viewer's decisions have in any case become essential to this event. With their (in principle) inexhaustible possibilities for action, viewers now also function as improbability-generators, so that the role of artists and their works is made relative.
From being a special existential form of material, art has developed into a specific modus of the mind for making choices directed at improbable decisions on the action to take. The widespread materialist reification of art and the consequent primitive practices of its commercialization have long since been bypassed. Instead of serving as a mere SYMBOL of autonomy that only conceals autonomy's absence in society, art could long since have become a MEDIUM of autonomy and offer the public the possibility to experience aesthetic self-determination. For this to be the norm, however, the focus of aesthetic practice would no longer be the - in any case questionable - autonomy of art or of the artist, but that of autonomy THROUGH art. He who seeks to acquire self-determination (a self-determination that Peter Sloterdijk conceives in this age of modern media to be an increasingly significant "INTENSIFICATION OF CO-PARTICIPATION") exemplarily through art, cannot forego the active participation of the "public" beyond mere viewing.
Owing to fear of the de-stabilization of art's former values, of its character as a product or even the destabilization of the still existing power structures in society, today's powerful economic interests massively protect the traditional work-centered form of producing and viewing art. Too, there are other problems, which do not make it any easier to impose the standpoint that art has a future as a medium for making participation possible. By authorizing the public to take aesthetic action, a feature that accompanies the dematerialization of art, art is transformed into a pure FORM OF POSSIBILITY. Compared to the traditional definition of a work, it exists only in the subjunctive as an "art without qualities". In so far as artistic materializations are more a necessary condition than the visual embodiment of art, art's primary value lies in being something like aesthetic potential.
Although the work-quality of Michael Dörner's works is not absolutely excluded in favor of their mediating function and although, in taking them in, the borderline between fictive and factual activity is more played on than strictly preserved, yet it is just the theme of their tense relationship that shows an affinity with the concept of the "intensification of [the public's] co-participation". As with all art in a subjunctive mood, the usual form of presenting works in an "exhibition" has proven also for Dörner's to be utterly inadequate to empower an actual EXPERIENCE of aesthetic self-determination rather than to merely convey an IDEA informatively, cognitively or suggestively. Instead of functioning as an object-fixated machinery by which art pre-fabricated elsewhere is simply reproduced and consumed, the exhibition needs to be STAGED as a program to involve and activate the public.
When the public does contribute and act, the point is not to fulfill a certain objective intended by the artist. Aesthetic action does not correspond to the type of act that is instrumental and goal-fixated. It is more a primarily process-oriented and COMMUNICATIVE activity that is aimed at observing its own effectuation as well as the complexity of the situational and personal givens. Thus the important thing here was to set up the exhibition in space and time so that suitable occasions and conditions for communication processes could come about by a corresponding installation of objects as well as by an intervention of persons. The aim was to transform the sterile, art-preserving form of the standard exhibition into a medium for generating communication.
According to Niklas Luhmann, communication takes place as a "processing of selections". This factor renders it just as unavoidable for every communicating person to make continuing and factual decisions and take actions as it does for him to constantly refer to possible addressees of his communication. Thus in planning the exhibition, it was not as important as usual to make optimal provisions for the egocentric auto-communication of artwork viewers, but to offer the best conditions for the social INTERACTION between the participants. All considerations and efforts were hereby concentrated on how to maximize the MOTIVATION for the public to participate. For, only when there is actual communicative action going on is it at all necessary for decisions and selections to be made and, dependent on the degree of self-determination and improbability, aesthetic qualities are exclusively able to emerge. Otherwise everything would remain completely in the realm of virtuality.
This new ambition to actually bring in the public may astonish, since the art of the Sixties so failed in its concepts for activation that have been discredited as utopian. But the crucial difference to the earlier attempts lies in the fact that a conscious link to worldly interests (like eating and playing or astrology and psychology) is involved now, which art had considered taboo up to date. What is furnished here is a concrete framework, integrated into life's reality, that does not belong exclusively to the world of art. As a result the public need no longer feel insecure or inhibited when from the beginning it is exposed to the comprehensive pretension of having to make or understand "art".
Occasions that arise from familiar worldly contexts MOTIVATE us not only to action as such but simultaneously make this action accessible and give it a drift that overcomes one's usual reticence. In order not to disappoint one's own and others' expectations, there is nothing left to do in such situations but participate. He even communicates who tries not to take up any position at all and becomes an activist when a public exhibition is transformed into a private living space. Above all, however, it is LUST (banned by avant-garde art) that comes into play under the relevant appealing conditions and operates as a great attraction. In this way the possibility of aesthetic self-determination can in principle be realized as the core of art for everybody.
Translated by Jeanne Haunschild
"Wechsel im Konjunktiv" was the title of an exhibition by Michael Dörner, Jörg Rode und Günther Rost in the Vera Munro Gallery, Hamburg 1988.
Michael LINGNER has worked as an artist / theorist in Hamburg since 1973. He has been a professor for art theory since 1986 at HfbK (Hamburg Art College).
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