Matter and Discourse

Andreas van D├╝hren/Daniel Kurjakovic

AvD: Referring to the traditional distinction between art and culture, and stating that this distinction has almost vanished – can you imagine some merging of social patterns with art in a way beyond standardization, but leading to some new creativity?
DK: I'm not sure whether there is a long tradition of distinguishing art from culture – and whether we should consider it a very profound one. You may refer to a certain dialectical relationship between art and culture, especially between the artist and the establishment, apparently developed with a bourgeois concept of art, that is, as something exterior or beyond. But this concept, being questionable anyway, has been somehow enacted over a rather short period, let's say, the 18th and 19th century. Of course, it was that period in history when a certain notion of art had been elaborated according to the very same establishment; so, we would have to ask the artists of that time, whether they agreed on that distinction – as they might have also questioned the then contemporary concept of art. After all, almost every artist considered himself being in some kind of conflict with society – even if they had been successful, in this sense, established themselves. In other words, it's difficult to make that distinction, you're referring to, with some sufficient objectivity.
AvD: Which is difficult with any tradition.
DK: Exactly.
AvD: At least, we can state that »a certain dialectical relationship between art and culture« had been developed on one side, though this might have worked as an excuse; and as this side, the more or less bourgeois society, set some crucial conditions for making art, it definitely influenced also the concept of the artist. And I assume that we can agree on the observation that the concept of society itself has changed quite dramatically over the past thirty years. Especially the tendency towards total contextualization – even if it's mainly fueled by technology – has reshaped society in a way which, we might say, doesn't leave any room for alternatives.
DK: But here, again, you seem to restrict yourself to a certain concept of alternative, though it might be a noble one, that is, an idealistic-utopian notion of some other side, as if society is kind of doomed to limit the possibilities of art, always setting borders the artist would have to trespass. Instead, I think we should imagine a society that requires – and offers – any possible field within its own structures, because those structures may support and confirm the same ambitions which for a long time had led the artist into some exclusive realm, or made him take a task, formerly called »avantgarde«. Also, that notion of the other side has all too often been enacted merely in a sense of a reverse, if not with a reactionary attitude, only suggesting some ideal which, of course, was always a lost one. I think we should take seriously our own observation, that society has been reshaped, as you put it, and that this seems to be not so much a dramatic turn than something going on, working out and figuring out itself. And the difference between this process and those evolutions and revolutions the history books tell us about may be a higher degree of voluntary participation and, by that, of consciousness. Citing you again – »fueled by technology« – I'd say that the internet, despite of its dangerous or silly effects and side-effects, has definitely created a huge space of reflection – for any individual as well as for any community with a considerable consistence. And what you were insinuating, when you used the phrase »total contextualization«: that this huge space will become something like the ultimate dystopia almost inevitably, to me seems as if you wanted to insist on the dark side of something we ourselves are capable of developing in more than one direction.
AvD: I admit that I'm skeptical, but also that what you just described offers an optimistic interpretation: that any utopia, taken seriously and considered with all its consequences, would have to be imagined as some state of mind quite similar to that huge space of reflection, not necessarily turning into a totalitarian organization – only that, what makes good sense for an individual: freedom doesn't need anything beyond anymore, becomes a rather frightening status quo for the majority of people, when there is no way out. But, even imagining that futuristic society as a perfectly well organized one, I would assume that art, instead of being suppressed, might just vanish, simply because such a society would also be a perfectly cultivated one; it wouldn't need any distinction between culture and art, so it wouldn't need art anymore.
DK: But you know quite well that this consequence you're drawing refers to the premise of a society characterized by profound contradictions which couldn't be solved without any external field, a society in conflict with its own consciousness, or with any consciousness truly reflecting on it. Now, if we state that art has developed to a point where it has become clear that it is not capable of solving any problem of society in some external field, or on some higher ground – and that society, on the other hand, shows less and less need for art defined by that kind of task –, then it becomes also evident that this society, in some shape to come, might not abandon art but reshape it in a way that art would have to be redefined just in correspondence with society – which it has always done, by the way, only that a particular definition had been valid for such a long time that we had become perhaps all too accustomed to it.
AvD: This sounds like an utopian concept, too; it's just a different one, more appropriate to a different premise: that there may be some society without contradictions – which would mean: a society without criticism, without checks and balance, without independent institutions ... Of course, in a non-democratic society, art has no choice other than fitting the cultural system, which itself has to suit the current doctrine of the government.
DK: So, you don't accept the possibility of a society capable of integrating every form of creativity, without overruling it, that is, without denying the specific legitimation of art?
AvD: This is the crucial point, indeed. We should try to figure out that specific legitimation or – and this would be my turn – the specific combination of motives, whatever makes an individual producing something we both would mutually consider being an authentic work of art. Because, we may easily agree on many artists being important – from Giotto to Warhol, David to Beuys; but we might disagree on who represents an art supposed to be relevant in terms of art merging with society, or with a form of culture representing society in the future: someone like Thomas Hirschhorn or rather Damien Hirst.
DK: I appreciate your including David into your kind of Panthéon. But first, I'd like to know more about that combination of motives.
AvD: You don't really want me to give a portrait of the artist ... But what might be significant is that each of those motives I'd have to name – a certain disposition for conceiving the environment as a whole while being oversensitive towards the detail, an extreme need for expressing oneself, in order to figure out that self in relation to others and because of a basic sense for differentiation, some restless capability of learning, working out and turning one thing into something else, the equalization of beauty and precision, not to forget an overload of energy and some pleasure in revolting and objecting – seem to imply that very tendency towards transgressing and transforming, in one word: non-social. Not that this defines the artist, only that it remains an undeniable element. And there is something very simple, belonging to art: the irrational, merely phenomenal, which is hardly a virtue acknowledged by society.
DK: As far as I understand, you insist on a concept of art as something categorically different, whereas I'd like to hang on to the idea of art as something elaborated, refined, achieved – so, definitely we're talking about quality, something more, an increase of intensity, if you like –, but achieved within the same field in which society itself is developing all the time, anyway, and with the same means and tools: one along with the other.
AvD: In this sense, you suggest society as a piece of work, a work of art.
DK: Why not?
AvD: Because this to me seems nothing but a glorification of politics.
DK: It could also mean that one should professionalize politics to a degree which would make it equal to some piece of work.
AvD: But so far we have not seen any politician using the same means and tools, the same methods or practices we expect to see with an artist – except for those politicians we are used to call »dictators«.
DK: I'm afraid to see you stuck in some contradiction: trying to save that concept of the artist as a guardian of utopia, while denying the possibility of a successfully transformed society. And this would rather save that concept as some excuse, or an alibi, for not transforming the concept into reality.
AvD: This seems to be a brilliant objection. But I'm not advocating the status quo, concerning society, I'm actually pointing out a predictable development of society, only with the consequence of art being dispensed. And I even try not to judge – as if we had a choice: this process will continue, only that I foresee a corresponding contradiction you might have to struggle with, that if transforming society into some Eternal Noon on Cythera turns out to be successful, we won't need art anymore. Of course, we would still need curators – we might call them MC's then.
DK: You are in love with the worst case. What if you had to imagine that successful transformation – restricting yourself to some set of possibilities, as given today, and without referring to Cythera or any Shangri-La?
AvD: This would require some fundamental rewriting of a script which had been put into action since the 70's. So, instead of encouraging me, considering the future, you're asking me to get nostalgic. But, again, I'm not pessimistic. Just to please you, I can assume a society so well-organized, highly elaborated, balanced and refined – in one word: cultivated on behalf of the majority –, that creativity would not have to compensate for suppression, frustration or self-destruction anymore; but then this creativity would inevitably be framed or directed by and kept in tune with that very system which produced this immanent or inherent creativity. So, this I would consider cultural activity, perhaps at its best; but this activity would have the rather distinctive – and immediate – function of supporting that current society. Not only that we wouldn't need art anymore, it would have to be banned. Okay, but this is a vision well-known and very old, and as we haven't seen anything like that having brought into force yet, we don't have much of a reason for being confident in this respect. At least, you should tell me where you find any significant move in that direction.
DK: I do see the merging of media, featuring the every-day communication as well as entering the artist's arsenal, and an increasing importance of participation, turning what has been strictly understood as the beholder into some co-producer – both tendencies defining more and more pieces of work, and not just as special effects or some gimmick, but inspiring even the artist's original conception; and I consider this being a true progress, not only for the sake of some cultural upgrade but in terms of state of the art.
'd have to ask whether this progress you observe is leading to a society totally – and sufficiently – defined by culture, by that becoming almost a piece of work itself, almost in the sense of Soziale Plastik, replacing any particular form of art, or if such society will still provide all the conditions for those particular forms. Concerning the latter possibility, I already made a few objections – or expressed my doubts: Once more, I really think that society, the way it is about to develop more and more openly, shows a tendency towards undermining, denying, rejecting several of the essential features of the artist. So, even if you were able to kind of innovate that image of an artist, you probably would have to do that according to the same progress of society which you observe, or anticipate rather optimistically – basically one justifying the other. And this would confirm the first possibility I suggested; finally, there wouldn't be much of an alternative.
DK: On the level of terminology – or of mere logic – you may find it easy to prove right your rather pessimistic vision. But there is also a level of particular steps and movements, attempts and effects; not all of them point in one or the other direction. Perhaps it is already a certain mode of development you are insisting on: a strict interdependency between enlightenment and integrity, claiming the individual as an enacting force within a concept of history which leaves almost no other option than perfection, instead of chaos – or one kind of perfection, which is supposed to represent the truth, with the other one being just a fake. And I tend to believe that there are also forms of diversity, which we may feel uncomfortable with at some state but which can turn out to be quite productive, especially in offering, and even working out, several alternatives, actually dealing with the principal of alternative. I'd assume that you can agree on the artist being a specialist for conceiving alternatives. So, this to me seems to be some realistic view on what we can expect from a society, developing in a way which integrates art into culture »more and more openly«, by that changing art indeed, but not with the result of art being suppressed or vanished. And art always developed according to society in some way and to some degree – sometimes more in terms of science and technology, sometimes more related to political, also religious movements. That relation is part of the same concept you were referring to when you pointed out the distinction between art and culture – and has to be kept in mind not only as some threat, also as a chance.
AvD: I sympathize with that notion of the artist as a specialist for alternatives; I do question that there is a tendency towards some higher acknowledgement for this notion. At least I see the danger of mistaking a huge diversity for a broad scale of possibilities – as if five warehouses on one main street could compensate for a couple of smaller stores, each of them offering particular goods of fine quality. But I'm definitely not playing mass culture against the happy few. It's rather that I see standardization on a level of mediocracy, veiled by diversity and more and more supported by governmental forces, with an increasing discrimination of those forces and qualities which I think still have to be connected with creativity – with freedom, after all. And I don't see myself sticking to mere logic when I observe a succeeding generation having lost very particular capabilities – not only concerning art, but any profession –, therefore compensating a deplorable insecurity with an almost insane imposture. And in this sense it's only logical that imitation and fake is ruling the art world as well as the whole cultural system.
DK: I see, and I have to agree to some extent: First, there is a danger of imitation – being content with the current and looking for immediate recognition; and indeed, we can state that diversity – basically a result, or a side-effect, of globalization and, we may say, some over-excited networking – more or less inevitably leads to a certain equalization, most likely on a lower level ... but, lower, compared to what? – obviously compared to an exclusive state of the art. Instead, and again, we may imagine a different – differently defined – and not necessarily lower state of the art, fed and kept through participation and, by that, unfolding more of its inherent possibilities, conceptions, even techniques. So, it's just that I'd like you to shift the accent on the promise and to hang on to this for a while, instead of pointing out the dark side with every step we take.
AvD: The way you combine that specialization in alternatives with the idea of a flourishing diversity, insinuating a harmony of terms as a mutual interest, as if state of the art and state of the union will finally share the same Halo – how could I withdraw from this Super-Bowl of arts and crafts?  But, if I may name two contemporary artists – without commenting on their artistic potential, but who both gained some special attention this year: Franz Erhard Walther and Damien Hirst: According to your vision, Walther would be the model, Hirst would become a random figure. The thing is, that Hirst is the richest visual artist in history so far; and you don't make that much money without a kind of plebiscite, that is, the confirmation by society and its ruling cultural system – unless as a criminal, of course.
DK: I dare to say that even the criminal, if he became that successful, would in some respect reflect certain mechanisms we'd have to consider representational; also, that there is something arrogant-anarchistic about the strategies Hirst had induced and enacted over the past three decades, which we might understand as the attitude of an outcast-as-conquerer – an attitude which, in its destructive impact, I find at least immoral. But, that was not your point. You questioned the probability of a society – within the near future – appreciating the very kind of an artist I envisioned as the one embraced by the same society I – optimistically, as you might say – anticipated. Yet, we can easily agree on calling our state of affairs »decadent«, only that you don't want to share my expectation of something constructive coming out of this current overload with delusion and disappointment – that the reign of tricksters might implode quite soon, making place for what I'd like to call »creative responsibility«.
AvD: Now I can say I am quite comfortable on that level of terminology, trying to imagine the artist as the responding performer, almost a medium fully aware of what it is doing, enacting the positively relevant concepts of society – in that sense doing commissary work without being put in conflict with the principle individuality the artist would still have to save, for the sake of the same creativity he is supposed to invest into this grand enterprise. But this vision, at the same time, points out first the people as the sovereign – which would be just alright in terms of democracy –, but then also the government as the true designer, with the artist being not much more than its assistant – which would still be Okay, unless that assistant wants to become independent, a designer of his own, because there might be some disagreements on the right concept, for example. So, immediately there would be a conflict not only concerning concepts; it would be a matter of power. And there would be little doubt about who is the boss, don't you think? That particular artist – not willing to participate by all means anymore – would find it rather difficult to get other clients; perhaps he would not even find a job as a waiter.
DK: You're driving at Shangri-La, turned into the all too well-known anti-utopia – again, I may say.
AvD: I'm afraid, it's your vision which most likely will repeat a narrative – as you'd call it – which, indeed, is an old story.
DK: But you yourself just coined a wonderful expression when you imagined the artist as the responding performer, and I think it would need nothing more than twisting that in another way, so that responding would not mean that the artist followed some direction given by society; instead it would mean that the artist would reflect on any state of affairs and offer formulations, in the most general sense, which could help society take a more and more constructive direction. We know that this is what artists have been doing all the time, basically – though this might have been only a side-effect in most cases, and the artists of the XV. century would have described their main ambition much differently –, only that, by taking that side-effect more and more seriously, the artist might become a true sovereign, whereas he had been a more or less well-paid agent of delusion, veiled as idealism: an entertainer, mainly. Finally, the artist might really become an expert for alternatives, offering works in terms of suggestions. The crucial difference, in this understanding of what you imagined with your expression, would be that those alternatives would not be considered, and discussed, in some future – with fame or oblivion deciding on the work's relevance – but within a current state. This is what happens already, only so far the measurement is given by the market; and this has to change. Because, serious alternatives for state of affairs can hardly be acknowledged within this kind of forum: money does not fuel the incorporation of a new society.
AvD: And what, according to that plot, would replace the market? Or, what would then have to replace idealism?
DK: I can only envision that other kind of forum, with its main function of discussion – something we both are working at right now, for example.