Recent developments seem to bring artistic and activist practices closer together – at times even refusing to acknowledge any difference between the two. Increasingly, it seems, ethical and moral claims exert pressure on art – not only in terms of its content but also in terms of its authorship and the conditions of its production and presentation. The connections between art and society; art’s attitude towards the social sphere; the functions that one intends to assign to it; the alliances it has to enter into. These are issues that cultural workers and cultural institutions alike have to face, not least in view of hashtagged movements such as #metoo and #blacklivesmatter. Expressions of solidarity as well as efforts for inclusion and diversity try to counter the long complicity and entanglement with a colonial and capitalist past and present. In view of the climate catastrophe, the cultural industry pushes for sustainability. We asked the German dramaturge and performer Max-Philip Aschenbrenner how he sees this situation and what ambivalences such a socially committed art might produce. He updated and critically expanded a text for us that appeared in the anthology Allianzen in 2018. His speculative (pre-)history of art urges us not to forget that art not only has to repeat what everyone already agrees on, but that beauty and enjoyment are also to be found in the superfluous, the unnecessary, and the wasted. From this perspective, as Aschenbrenner points out, art ought not only to emphasize its connection with the constructive practices of care, it must also not forget its relation to the destructive energy of the weapon.
Once Upon a Time…
…There Was Humanity
The ethnologist Margaret Mead, whose extensive field research on the sex and love life on Samoa was the primary catalyst for the social liberty movement of 1968 in the intellectual/academic milieu, is said to have described the difference between human and non-human animal as follows: no animal, except for the human, has ever mended the bone of another, regardless of whether that other belonged to its own or a different species. For non-human animals, to break a leg means no longer to be able to forage for food and to flee from predators. Simply put: life would be over. Broken bones heal on their own, of course, but to make sure that they reclaim the exact shape they had before the break: is this what ignites the original spark of humanity?
Bones were first mended in today’s Sudan. Around the same time, other humans left the first non-representational, abstract paintings on a wall in the Southern tip of the Indian subcontinent – that is, the first according to what art historians have been able to unearth so far. This first artwork consists of three half circles and three connect lines, each of which split off at the end. While the Europeans in Lascaux or the Pyrenees drew stags, doe, or mammoths on the walls, mostly using their own blood, the painted objects from the subcontinent – made from plant-based materials, no less – demand interpretation.
In one place, one human sets the broken bone of another; in another, different humans paint objects on walls. Is this the origin of art? Or was it the hunter who, after an unsuccessful outing returned with empty hands, tried to exonerate himself to his hungry family with such a virtuoso narrative performance, lit up by the flickering fire, that everyone forgot about eating so that suddenly something completely different was happening? Or was it the shaman, a social animatrix, who called on the others to join her in dancing in circles until it finally started to rain? Or was it the mother who made her child go to sleep by the rhythmical, harmonized cooing of her voice? The authorship of the first artwork will forever be unknown, but this much we can say: painting, acting, dancing, and singing derive from life itself, from everyday experiences, and from the longing to share these experiences with others, to find a suitable form for it, and to transform it into beauty. But why did it happen in the first place, the painting, acting, dancing, and singing? And why did humans first engage in these practices around the same time they began setting bones? One can only speculate.
A striking commonality between the painting, singing, and bone-mending of early humans is that they belonged to the sedentary part of their respective community, that is, they practiced their craft within it. Although they had not yet developed a form of spoken language, and with it the fault lines along which they would split off into different local cultures, the moment of sitting down, of coming to rest, of being in the world, of remaining still in one place, causes something to thrum in their beings – and this primary thing still has not relinquished its grasp on humanity. It is the desire for and the necessity of luxury – not in the sense of profligacy, but luxury as time set aside for that which does not arise from immediate need – at least at a first glance.
The first cults of these sedentary people almost exclusively worshipped goddesses, at least as far as their painted remnants suggest. The care work in and around the cave, the cultivation of the fields and the vegetable plants, appears to have been held in higher regard than the work of hunting and expansion going on at the same time. Is it banal yet feasible to think of the cave community as organized along gender lines? While the women bake bread, water the crops, keep the fire alive, and paint abstract shapes on the walls, the men sit in small groups beneath the trees in the forest, waiting for the next mammoth to come along. Being thus occupied, the men naturally and frequently got bored, cold, and lonely. To stave off this misery, they think up competitive games like football, capitalism, and war while they scratched each other’s balls. Meanwhile, the women manage the cave and procure most of the food, take care of the children and livestock, and defend the cave against intruders. And as if this wasn’t enough, they also invent art, just like that…To what extent are humans animals? How much paternalistim can we retroject into 45.000 years of human history? How much speculation can history bear, and at what point does a story turn into something dead serious?
… There Was Politics
A few thousand years later in the Peloponnese, in a time when Western humanity experimented with a form of so-called democratic civilization, the relationship between social life and the arts is fundamentally different. The stage of the amphitheater was at first only populated by the mythical choir. Neither original texts nor staging concepts have survived. What science knows has been received second- and even third-hand. The obvious function of the choir was the representation of the state as community on the stage. Its real purpose, however, was to emplace this community in relation to those people and things that were not part of the state, that refused to be integrated into the lofty construct of democratic structures: spirits and nature; the dead and unborn; the banned and foreign; the pre-, post-, and non-lingual. The state defined and organized the community of the living. It was a community of those who spoke about what they held in common. The processes and procedures negotiated in this speaking, however, also impact those absent and unrecognized, those lacking a language to participate in the debate. And for this reason, they fought for a place in the midst of the community. Politics is nothing other than the redistribution of authorship in the process of community-formation.
Visiting the theater meant to participate in a complex ritual. First, the priest bathed the spectators – mostly consisting of people that did not really fit into the municipality of Athens or its neighboring cities: the insane, nerds, and criminals. Then, they were required to follow a particular diet, to engage in sports, and to let themselves be massaged before they were allowed into the theater to witness a performance. Tragedies taught fundamental social values, but the crucial aspects of the events were their melody, rhythm, and the dramaturgical sequence of events. The theater was informed by the conviction that the experience of singing and dancing had an ameliorative effect on unfit citizens. Depending on what source you look at, the first protagonist steps forth from the collective of the choir around 400 to 300 BCE. He is wearing a mask and embodies the thought of, but is not yet, an independent self, because the new conception of the individual was still thought in relation to the community. It would take a few more hundred years before the protagonist saw himself confronted and conversing with an antagonist.
The community of the choir distinguishes itself from its predecessor in the caves in another regard: its artists, actors, authors, and dramatists all are men. Koodiyattam, the traditional dance theater of Southern India, which developed around the same time as Greek tragedy, also was exclusively performed by men, as is still the case today. In Malayalam, the language spoken by the descendants of the first abstract painters, “Khalari” refers to the place in which Koodiyattam originated. This holy place is a depression in the landscape where, protected from prying eyes gazing across the plain, Kalarippayat and Marma Kalari are also practiced aside from Koodiyattam – that is, a martial art with a complementary healing and medicinal practice still popular today. The Khalari, a communal space bringing together destructive, healing, and artistic energies, can be thought in terms of Margaret Mead’s understanding of the first mended bone. And here is yet another, hitherto unmentioned artefact from the earliest days of human artistic activity; the first object clearly made for harming another human: the weapon. The first traces of healing emerge in tandem with the first traces of war, and, taken together, they leave the first traces of art?
This is to say that what this text discusses are three different but intrinsically connected forms of transformation management; forms that channel the same energy in order to either destroy other energies, to harmonize with them, or, in the case of art, to unsettle and manipulate them to such a degree that a perceptible but not life-threatening change occurs in the energy potential, which is neither harmonization nor destruction. Perhaps that’s the reason theater audiences are often frustrated, because now they are only allowed to watch when they’d rather see the people on stage sacrificed on an altar. At the same time, it is exactly in this shift that an alternative way to reorganize society without the murder of the inassimilable reveals itself. The trace, which this text follows, does not only reveal the history of the Western world as one of caves and bread, but also as one of the imaginary struggles between heroes and saints, between hero worship and the cult of saints.
… There Was Magic
In the early writings of European culture, which begin to form themselves in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, art usually appears as a synonym for magic – to be understood in the most literal sense. Art, like magic, is the knowledge of the manipulation of symbols, words, and images in order to initiate a change in consciousness. The actual language of magic pertains as much to writing and art as it does to supernatural events. The bardic tradition of magic is not only higher and more terrifying than that of the wizards and priests; rather, its power transcends both. True, a priest has the right to conduct sacrifices, to banish, exclude, and rape children; a wizard can cast a curse, cripple hands, and cause children to perish in the womb. The linguistic and conjuring power of the bard, however, can wreak destruction in a much more fundamental way. A good satire and its narrative do not simply change the way a person is seen in the eyes of their closest friends and family; it will also outlast them by years and centuries, revealing their pitiful and absurd existence to new generations long after their death.
Theater follows this structure of invocation and demonic possession until this day, much more so than any other art form. In the Korean cultural sphere, in which 극장 (Gugdschang) refers both to the concrete content of a performance as well as the space in which it takes place, one encounters a remarkably beautiful figure of thought. 그분 (Gbun) is the authority that makes a decision, that conjures a difference and newly organizes energies. It is neither personal nor communal, neither a property of the subject nor the social. It arrives, acts, and disappears as quickly as it came. It uses the body it finds, speaks through the mouth that opens for it, looks through the eyes that receive it. “He,” as the term can (very) roughly be translated, is that which everyone shares without it belonging to anyone. It is what everyone agrees on without it having been suggested. It is that which counts at the end without having known when and where it began.
Looking back at Greek tragedy and Koodiyattam, one can work out another difference with the help of 그분, which can be further developed in aesthetic-magical rather than cultural or geopolitical terms. While the object of tragedy always is an external and fateful circumstance that requires a reaction, for example the murder of a parent, the botched wedding of a friend, or the rape of a sister, Koodiyatam deals with the internal: an attitude, an agentive force, a motivation. It is one of the few forms, perhaps even the only one of traditional stagecraft, in which the actors do not play for the gods but become gods themselves. A typical performance lasts from nine to twelve days. Nothing much happens for the first two: a fire is lit, music is played, a curtain is brought onto the stage. At one point you see two fingers brush along the curtain’s edge. Then you’ll barely have to wait another day for the first character to appear.
In his In his Phantasiereiseführer (Fantasy Travel Guide) published in 1925, the German-Hungarian founder of film studies Bela Balazs claims that an Edenic feeling of time in itself arises only when one forgets the date and no longer can tell whether it’s Monday or Tuesday. Only then do we quit the narrow chambers of the day to emerge into the wide-open halls of the house of time. To transform duration into presence, time into space, therefore, is not metaphysical or esoteric wishful thinking; rather, it is a central technique of the time-based arts. Presumably everyone has felt this magic at one point: perhaps while binge watching a new season of a favorite series or at the end of a night of raving when the morning suddenly arrives. Because art’s purpose is not to give the audience what is wants. If the audience knew what it wanted, it wouldn’t be the audience. It would make art itself. It is unavoidable, however, that artists sometimes give the audience what it needs even if the audience usually only realizes this in retrospect – when time resumes its usual place in the narrow chamber of the everyday, when suddenly it’s 7 am on the concrete parking lot outside the warehouse, or when the battery of the computer has run out after the ninth episode. This moment cannot be devised, neither by the artists nor by the audience. 그분 decides for himself when he appears.
… There Was Democracy
Instead of the people who paint, sing, and dance, it is those who do not create themselves but believe that it should be done that increasingly crowd into the foreground of this text. Who are these people? Did someone at some point say to one of the first painters: “You’re so good at that. Why don’t you stay here and continue painting half circles and lines on the wall? I’ll go and take care of your vegetables and will bake a bread for you.” And was this person the first spectator, the first human audience of art? How should one imagine the beginning? If one shifts the long view of our speculative history a few thousand years towards the present, one can continue to think the cave, the origin of art, in terms of its magical-social dimension; as a moment that allows us to push the question about the relationship between art, war, and healing even further.
This development has tumultuous consequences in the middle of the nineteenth century. It’s a good moment to pause and refocus. The virtues of perseverance, industry, discipline, and competitiveness, as well as the outsourcing of labor to the colonies, had started to pay dividends in the West. This allowed the newly formed bourgeoisie to enjoy their just invented leisure on the just invented weekend. In those years, a typical Sunday in a given European or American metropolis could have looked as follows: you start with a visit to the world’s fair and its human zoo, continue on to the panorama of a freshly painted scene from a recent war against some primitives, and then treat yourself to some cake and coffee in a tea room. Later, at the opera, you listen to Wagner’s demigod Siegfried singing about how his aunt is the only woman that makes him hard, and after a multi-course dinner dessert is served alongside a real Egyptian mummy. If someone happens to find an amulet or ornament among the bandages, they get to keep it as a souvenir. The mummy’s cleared off the table with the dirty dishes.
Prompted by recently rediscovered writings of philosophers like Plato and Aristoteles, who had a great deal to say about the representational arts as core elements of a democratic society – as described above – the bourgeoisie enthusiastically engaged in excavating the actual spaces in which these ideas had been invented from their sandy tombs. The new political program of bourgeois democracy was to be confirmed and stratified by as many artefacts as possible. But one of the first archeological findings already left the newly enlightened citizens speechless. Beneath the volcanic ash of mount Vesuvius, the frescoes of Pompeii did not show any men engaged in philosophical discussion, watching dramatic performances, debating politics, or even just reading books – in short, anything that would have confirmed the cliché of a superior master race, of a superior sex, a superior class. Instead, they saw people with cocks the size of arms fucking each other, women, children, and animals.
These artefacts and paintings, for which the term pornography was coined, disappeared as quickly as they had been dug up and were stored in a gabinetto segreto. Until the middle of the 1960s, first on the behest of the king and then Mussolini, only married men over 40 that belonged to the aristocracy or the bourgeoisie were allowed to see the items that still are in the collection of the national museum in Naples. The first museum of art history, then, had a clearly defined and homogenous audience: the quintessence of a white, heterosexual, cis-gender male of the upper classes. He is the only being in a position to make sense of Pompeiian pornography. At the same time, everyone else is defined too, namely those that do not belong: women, children, foreigners, proletarians, queers.
The interplay between invented categories of class, race, and gender as categories for a taxonomy of humanity, which was used as the basis of the heteronormative Western societies of the nineteenth century, and the invention of democratic nation-states and its associated logic of identification culminate in a third movement: the invention of framing. Historical excavations and world’s fairs are performances as much as Koodiyattam or Greek tragedies. They exclude the irrational, the unsaid, and the invisible in order to conjure it in a bowdlerized and harmless version. The Western world burned its witches and hid its magical and sexual knowledge in locked cabinets only to reintegrate them in the form of indigenous peoples or traditional art from the colonies, in the figure of the femme fatale and the bearded woman, and as spirituality and esotericism – all now seen from a safe distance. It has turned the rest of the world into a museum; it turned the world into art.
The peep-box theater of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries allows for this principle to be seen in an even more acute light, both historically and philosophically: one citizen, together with the citizens of the audience, feels sympathy for another citizen on stage, and in doing so, he ultimately feels sympathy for the state. Because the state is not only he, the citizen, but also his father, friend, business associate, that is, every other white, heterosexual cis-gender man from the upper class – granted that both believe they are referring to the same history. This parallel development of love for one’s brother and one’s country is connected to one other crucial inventions of the time – democratic society – and as such remains a fundamental figure of thought in the Western world today. By consciously confusing the two meanings of representation in the sense of speaking for and acting as if, remixing both modes depending on context, the hypocrisy of its paternalistic society makes itself close to invulnerable. All humans become brothers, and everyone is equal, as long as they are not sisters, queers, aliens, or etc.
This principle soon would spread across the globe like wildfire. To join the democratic men’s club, Manila (the Paris of the South Sea), Buenos Aires (the Paris of Latin America), Cairo (the Paris of the Arabic region), and Manaus (the Paris of the jungle) needed their own theaters in the heart of their new representative metropolis. These city centers had already been equipped with electric lighting, trams, and imposing building facades erected to showcase the wealth of the internationalizing bourgeoisie. What constitutes the idea of the human differs from person to person, as much as the conception of what defines the relationship between the individual and society, and both in turn differ in their material manifestations. An intercultural dialogue always begins with what people in a given dialogue have in common. What they have in common, however, does not have to be universal. Once enough shared things have been identified, there will always be more to be discovered. It wasn’t just a field of economic, social, and religious management strategies – derived from Anglo-American, French, and Spanish influences – that began spreading itself across the world in the nineteenth century. Colonialism’s true potential is unleashed at the subcutaneous level at the theater, in the sphere of art, in which it can project its desires and lusts deeply into its citizens by way of emotion and imagination.
…There Was Humanity 2.0
If one takes a look at regions in which an agrarian tribal culture directly developed into data-based consumer societies without passing through the stage of the literary bourgeoisie, one will notice that the contemporary aesthetics usually deemed universal – whether they were produced in Bangalore or Bujumbura – follow the political program of the colonial societies these aesthetics more often than not explicitly criticize. This is a direct result of exporting the concept of framing. The dramaturgical structures in global circulation at the moment all adopt a classical, Aristotelian emotional logic: almost everyone accepts the idea of Western theaters and gallery spaces. If language comes into play, non-translatable concepts are intentionally excluded or glossed over in surtitles. These are simply symptoms of the persistent dominance of the bourgeois theater as a machine of colonization. Neither the black box nor the white cube are neutral spaces; to the contrary, white skin glows in front of a black wall while Black skin can barely be seen or not at all. Conversely, a white person can comfortably fade into the surroundings of a white cube and spectate art works as if from within a hiding spot – otherwise you’d be rather obvious.
Another current trend brings this problematic into relief, one that has been pushing towards the center of art and its practices and debates since the 1990s: community art, socially engaged art, activist art, dialogic art, social practice, and sculpture. The specter goes by many names. Instead of creating objects and experiences, situations are generated. In place of entities defined in temporal and spatial terms, long-term processes are organized, their beginning and end usually remaining vague. Spectators and recipients are turned into collaborators. The crux at the heart of the matter, the fact that each of these collaborative and collective practices, aside from their historical and idealistic political determination, are always connected to a accumulative gesture is glaringly obvious: it monetizes a space that hitherto operated outside the logic of exploitation, that used to be liberal and free. It is not just the artistic personality that turns into a role model for the flexible, mobile worker capable of adapting to every situation. The participants also partake in an exercise of self-exploitation. The politically conservative countries in Europe identified this state of affairs before everyone else. The question, “what can art do for our society?”, is as likely to be asked by a conservative, white, male, cis-gender politician as by an artist’ collective from Yogjakarta that teaches math to marginalized girls. Or you could find it on the poster of a queer all-inclusive event organized in a decrepit industrial space used in the little time left before it is demolished.
… There Was (Con)Solitude
In Greek tragedy, the experience that produces knowledge through a sudden shift in perspective is known as anagnorisis. It was written on the faces of the traders at the stock markets when the subprime bubble burst in Asia in 1997 and at the start of the global financial crisis in 2008. These alphas, of whom 90% were male and and 75% percent Caucasian, realized in that moment that they were no longer needed – not because most of them would immediately lose their jobs, but because they got a first taste of the fact that the algorithms they had created no longer had a use for them. The artificial intelligence of global data exchange had completely taken over the processes which the traders thought they controlled with as little as the click of a mouse. In this light, the crisis actually was a crisis of trust, as was often said, but it wasn’t humans who had lost trust in humans; rather, it was machines, the kind we call software now, that retracted trust from humanity. The men who no longer sit beneath trees but on real estate portfolios and who chase their prey on the stock market do not seem to differ much from their ancestors.
Is art capable of rekindling our trust in trust? In spite of ubiquitous algorithmizing, art seems not yet to have lost its original power. It seems to be at its best when it lies, when it isn’t trying to imitate or represent reality, and when it is not framing the real, political, and social as art. The current climate does not help: the stock market functions according to rules as magical as those of physics, politics, and the weather forecast. Yet, that only means that art’s potential is so much greater. In Belle du Jour, the real Fritz Lang, who is playing Fritz Lang under the eyes of Jean-Luc Godard, says: “When culture is the rule, art has to be the exception.” If one recalls that art’s original power derived from dealing with the superfluous, the unnecessary, with excess, and not in the management of the necessary or that which is pressing, immediate, and needing to be done, one ceases to wonder why it was the white guy in the furry cap and face paint during the storming of the Capitol who became the icon of the American presidential election and not his counterpart: a young woman of color and poet, who did the right thing in the same spot only two weeks later. The difference between art, on one hand, and healing/destruction, on the other, the dialectic always created by bardic art, its permanent switching between war and care, has arrived in the present.
The question, then, is not how art can reconnect to the logic of care and cultivation, to its origins in the cave, but how it can re-establish this connection without denying its inextricable ties to war and violence and its origin as a weapon. Art is allowed to inflict hurt, and it should; art is allowed to be harassing, incomprehensible, yes, even hurtful, and it should. Art’s sanctum is not a safe space. It is a space of violence, anger, and recalcitrance. If it was not, then schools, hospitals, law courts, and psychiatric institutions might as well be art spaces. Artists ought to travel as much as they can. Ideas have to be exchanged. Different perspectives have to circulate. Let the bananas and shrimp, the engineers and bankers, the industrious recipients of grants who always do the right thing stay at home. What we can expect of them is clear anyway. Art ought to squander its material, the resources it needs, without a guilty conscious; it ought to destroy and burn, not recycle and compost them. Let’s close down H&M and Ikea or stop printing programs, posters, and flyers to save costs and counter this waste of paper!
If art manages to reterritorialize the dominion of abundance, the irrational, the unnecessary, and the impossible, instead of reproducing and painting it in pretty colors – to say things that everyone agrees on anyway – then art might succeed in re-establishing the superfluous and unnecessary as beautiful. Then it could also point out once more that there really is enough for everyone, that budget cuts are not necessary everywhere, and not everyone has to sacrifice something. The latter is only a dumb idea shaped in the manly hands that still would prefer to sit under the trees and scratch each other’s balls while they neglect to chase a mammoth. Was that what the first painter wanted to express with the three semi-circles and the three lines? “Yes, the world is a cruel place. Yes, the weather sucks, and, yes, there won’t be anything for dinner again tonight, but screw it! The main thing is, it’s beautiful, at least sometimes, just for a moment. Not always, true, but when it is, enjoy it! Look, three lines, they split off at the end. I just thought of that. Sick, right?”
The collective management of art’s resources common today, be it on the federal level of the international community or the state, and the diversification of public and private funding, and the so-called de-hierarchization of funding bodies, of the theaters and museums at the level of the administration, is the wrong path. It leads down the same path taken by the bourgeois theater of the nineteenth century, the world’s fair, and Greek tragedy: collectives such as newly-born nations, a city state, or a representative parliament will inevitably favor identity, the subject, and the particular as its topics. Because that is the nature of their desire: it is that which they lack. Individuals, however, long for solidarity, for what they have in common with others; for that which they need but cannot describe and so put into words, thoughts, and magical processes. If they manage to gather this diffusive energy, and will be lucky enough to be visited by 그분, then this moment will truly be the only one in which something like the new can occur. This might provide a basis of an art that reaches beyond itself. Once again: it is not art’s function to give the audience what it wants. If the audience knew what it wanted, it would make art itself. Sometimes, however, artists give the audience what it needs – that suddenly someone thinks to paint a semi-circle and three lines on a wall, and to split off the lines at the end, and someone else saying: “You’re so good at that. Why don’t you stay here and continue painting half circles and lines on the wall. I’ll go and take care of your vegetables and will bake a bread for you.” Sick, right?