Calling into Question Yesterday’s Position

 

 

Georg Schöllhammer in an interview with art historian and critic Helmut Draxler

 

 

Georg Schöllhammer

 

 

 

Georg Schöllhammer: The occasion for this talk is formed by your three recent publications.[1] I find that they can be read in parallel because they arose out of a conflict situation that describes a certain historical moment very well. One of them, »Gefährliche Substanzen« (»Hazardous Substances«), is a large-scale study of art criticism, in other words an attempt to rescue an anti-idealistic art criticism from its own partisans and to inscribe the motif of critical art in a contemporary discourse that is cognizant of the dialectic concealed in this discourse. The book is called »Hazardous Substances,« I believe, because it is about the mixing of the great motifs of a universalist paradigm and its dissolution in the avant-gardes of the 1960s and 70s, about their recontextualization since the 1980s.

The second book is dedicated to the work of Fareed Armaly, whose appearance on the Cologne scene at the end of the 1980s shook up a great many things, and who brought new constellations to the playing field with his discourse contexts. Among other things, the book makes the attempt to inscribe the motifs of a substantially local practice and a substantially contextual practice in a paradigm of critical art that has turned its attention to completely different motifs since the 1990s. It wonderfully describes how the new essentializations that have gained entrée in the art world through the anti-globalization movement or the discourses of the Italian operaists bristle against the actualities that critical art began in the 1980s to take as an occasion to reflect on certain motifs, in formal terms as well.

This is why it’s probably no accident that the »Shandyism« exhibition was the result, grouped as it is around a similar motif – on the one hand a group exhibition and on the other a thematic exhibition that does not deny being a group exhibition. It is also very important for this exhibition that it is about a motif of many-layered recontextualizations of the paradigm of form.

You once said that, as an art historian, you grew up in an atmosphere in which breaking open a very specific paradigm was crucial, and that new forms of discourse constantly became significant for you but never offered you the opportunity to bring together and interrelate the diverse »piles.« What kinds of »piles« were they? And how are the three books related in your eyes?

Helmut Draxler: The fact that the three books have come out at the same time is the result of a few coincidences. The Armaly book, for example, was delayed a bit due to financing problems. In the »Substance« book on the other hand, an essay from 1987 is reprinted. I had presented it at the time in Vienna to 400 art historians, and they all reacted with silence. That’s why I thought I had better write it all down again in order to reassure myself of what I actually wanted to say back then. I had the feeling that something had been left behind, and that is surely one of the »piles« you mention.

In the meantime I have done many other things than just art history – I’ve curated exhibitions, participated in political projects and delved intensively into psychoanalytical questions. It was always also a question of searching – for example about calling into question yesterday’s position and taking it a step further, ultimately about being as radical as possible. This gesture produces energy, but can also easily lead one astray. Suddenly, at the end of the 1990s, I then had the feeling that my story consisted only of a bunch of loose ends and that I had to bring them together again more coherently. There is also a theoretical problem behind this, namely with regard to the form in which one can appropriate what is political in a more or less subjective way. Part of the argumentation in »Hazardous Substances« claims that there is a certain element within common notions of the political that aims at a suspension of one’s own right to »politicalness.« And that this is the case insofar as art and politics are taken to be essential units that serve – by all means reciprocally – as project horizons for something that is rigorously denied as part of one’s own field of endeavor. Now, art and politics do indeed represent different social fields, but they also deal with similar things. They are both about power, and they are both about symbolic and real capital, which is handled very similarly by both. This means that there are multiple overlaps between art and politics, and I think that the kind of access we were seeking in the 1990s, namely to reduce the whole thing to an either/or proposition, was in itself problematic. The reason it was problematic was because it presumes a separation of the two areas or conceives this to be possible – and such a separation does not in fact exist. What is actually interesting here is how the two areas overlap and how this is where the exchange between the symbolic and the real takes place. And it is from this basic constellation that the three books developed more or less in parallel, again and again cross-referencing one another.

Schöllhammer: Something the three publications have in common is their plea for a radical pause, for a recontextualization of terms or aesthetic motifs within their own logic in order to gain control over the reciprocal instrumentalization between the two spheres and not to presume a pure here and a pure there. This is also probably the reason for the recourse to the 18th century. Why »Tristram Shandy«?

Draxler: I find the moment of the pause very significant, and it is also tied together with many of the discourse forms of recent years – I’m thinking here for example of Bartleby’s »I prefer not to«, i.e. it’s better to do absolutely nothing rather than to contribute to the accumulation of goods, as Alain Badiou calls it. But I don’t find that so great either – to do nothing in the emphatic sense. On the other hand, there is a logic that is also at work within the critical and political discourse, which in principle consists of nothing more than reproducing the discourses within the established art world or within academic worlds, where very specific production ideals are maintained. We all take part in this all the time. These production logics are by now extremely well-honed, and too little energy has been put into reflecting on how these discourse machines or production machines – to put it in slightly Deleuzian terms – actually work. This is why the »Substance« book in the end pleads for a slight dilettantism; not for a true dilettantism, but for a dilettantism that asks how one can deal with this kind of production logic, one that drives toward more and more production, toward an even better functioning within existing specifications. The question thus arises of how one can make room for at least beginning to call into question these logics.

I think that the decisive argument – and this is where the »Substance« book intersects with the »Shandyism« topic – is precisely this element. »Shandyism« starts where the question arises: What is really happening here? What am I really doing here as exhibition visitor? Can I even distinguish the object being displayed from the form in which it is presented? Which production form is this display based on? What meaning is being generated? That is what I found very interesting about »Tristram Shandy,« in other words: Are we still acting like the pharmacists who pour one potion into another to derive the next one from the resulting admixture? Is that the form of production? Or is there a pause in which the interruption is made productive so that something new can emerge? A space that is perhaps not directly occupied by institutional or discursive logics and in which a categorical uncertainty can reach out in search of something else.

Schöllhammer: It’s like Uncle Toby, who doesn’t grease the door hinge so that it continues to squeak, meaning he can keep track of the actuality of the door. I found the exhibition so intriguing as well because it casts doubt on the great experiments, also including the quoting of »Tristram Shandy« itself, as an empty reference thing or precursor of Modernism. The exhibition is clearly bound up with a production space that has a great deal to do with the Secession – for example it picks up on the grand thematic exhibitions that took place there. On the Wittgenstein show for example, which, like the other exhibitions, became part of institutional history and can comment on itself. Or the shows of the works of Michael Krebber and Christopher Williams, which appear as motifs in the exhibition architecture. One method that comes into view here seems to be a move away from all abstractions in an effort to illustrate how one can set up this field for oneself, and how a possible field for such a discourse should look at all. In this sense »Shandyism« was for me also a model for how one can go from abstraction to a very concrete practice.

Helmut Draxler: That’s an interesting point, one that has preoccupied me for quite some time. How can one avoid succumbing to the illusion that one is really dealing with a White Cube, i.e. a neutral space? Of course every White Cube is also an historical space, a very specific historical space that is informed by many different things. It’s not so »bad« that one has to get rid of it at all costs, but the question is how we can work with it, how we can address it as a condition to which we ultimately owe our own resources. The many references to other exhibitions create this kind of opportunity to show this space in historical terms, to juxtapose our own history and authorship with other histories and authorships. The exhibition thus attempted to create a kind of multidimensional frame of reference within which the individual elements are always embedded in several different systems of reference at the same time, i.e. in the institutional situation, the architecture, the wall design, the hanging etc., from which a categorically uncertain status of the objects therein necessarily ensues.

Another important point in »Shandyism« was for me simply to pursue the fantasy that one evolves while reading a book like this – although the incredible abundance of secondary literature available for a book like »Tristram Shandy« of course tends to cripple any attempt at originality. I haven’t even read one tenth of it and it would be utterly impossible for me to now all of a sudden undertake a serious survey of »Tristram Shandy« research. I would have to immediately become a specialist. And that is exactly what this is not about. Instead, one must avoid this kind of specialist status and take on the thing from one’s own position, one of the dilettante. To enter into the expert discourse, into the professionalization, is something I have in fact experienced in most cases as a dead end. For example in the 1990s analysis of urbanism, which was very important to us, or of genetic engineering, where people said: »We as laypersons are getting involved in this! That’s a key point in the confrontation. Especially because we don’t know much about it, it’s important to raise our voices and undertake these projects.« However, this led to people becoming experts themselves in no time, to them learning all about the discourses and then doing projects only on that one topic – causing something vital to be lost. I wanted to address this important point. And to do it with the presumption of taking on a subject like »Tristram Shandy«, a classic of modern literature with so many thousands of pages of bibliography, and to say: Okay, we will look at this as a model for our own way of approaching things. What do I select? What do I find good? Which arguments do I develop to go with it? Which frame of reference can I build? It’s a matter of departing from the randomness of the incredible amount of information that’s out there and developing a specific desire. This is something we have always been able to learn from certain artists. Fareed Armaly, for example, is also present in this way in the »Shandyism« exhibition even though he didn’t actually participate, namely as someone who infected me with his enthusiasm for Jack Goldstein and Robert Frank.

Schöllhammer: One might say that out of knowledge of the ambivalences and the necessity of developing a thesis in such a small exhibition space a singular format was born that goes against the conventions. Or that goes against the conventions using the conventions of the anti-conventional. There are after all conventions of anti-conventionalism, and exhibitions are unfortunately full of them today. By contrast, in both the book and the show there seems to have been a continual effort, such as in the format »Monet as postcard« to think again and to ask what is already there in terms of medialization. This is both a very subtle critique of curatorship – the subtitle after all is »Authorship as Genre« – and an attempt to reconquer the author’s position for the curator as well as for the artist, while at the same time indicating the mediatedness of all of them. This appears to me to be one of the great accomplishments of the exhibition, that this is not only attempted based on a thesis, but also dialectically spread out before us for comparison and contrast. This is also evident in the layout, from the choice of typeface to the very fine differences in line breaks, the alternation between color and black-and-white images and reference pictures within a text, and between what could have been a curatorial argument and what the reality of the exhibition actually was. In this connection I would be interested in whether this type of curating – which you after all haven’t done for the last ten years – also arose as a reflection on present-day curatorship. As a method of curating as authorship.

Draxler: There are in fact relatively few critical analyses of the production mode of curating that are not simultaneously an expression of precisely this production mode. On the other hand, it was also always important to me to point out that this identity as curator is not the only one for me. As a medium for coming to terms with my sources, teaching for example works much better for me than curating. The knowledge I have acquired lends itself to varying production forms. This is the way to avoid the attitude: I am now a curator and travel around the world selecting the best, the crème de la crème – something Yvonne Rainer already referred to in the 1980s as »separation of cream.« This has always been a very important concept for me, one that embodies the institutional logic. If I’m a curator and claim to show the best of the best, then I also accomplish something because I select something and make it available to the public, but at the same time I embody it and can no longer differentiate myself from the logic of this function. Nor can one simply affix the cause of institutional criticism to one’s banner like a label. If you take it seriously you are forced to reflect on your own institutionalization as well: How do I function in such structures? Even progressive media can often not achieve this, and within our own discussion context as well major debates arise time and again concerning to what extent one’s own career or the position from which one is speaking must, or can, be incorporated into the matter at hand.

That is basically the difference from a political gesture in which the problem is always sought in the others, producing so to speak a politics of indignation, which by all means also has its place sometimes and can be important in its own right. But this represents only one side of politics. The other side is of course: How do I navigate this field? What new hierarchies do I create? In which power relationships do I inscribe myself? And how can I handle these? This is where I think it is very, very important for the curatorial position to at least try to keep things a bit more open. Something we also attempted with the »Shandyism« exhibition – for example by having some of the participants act as subcurators of a sort and develop their own small or micro exhibitions within the overall setting. It was to be a model that runs riot a bit along the fringes. It is ultimately not aligned on total control, but rather on the existence of a structure in which an exchange is possible and within which those involved should also feel quite comfortable.

Schöllhammer: If one looks slightly beyond the boundaries of the field, this also describes the schism of a general production logic, something we all suffer under. Not only the decisions in the art field are made exactly in this form. It is a nice motif both in »Shandyism« and in your theoretical position to say that there is absolutely no way out of this totality and this contradiction. We can’t simply oppose and take a critical position to it. Our only chance is to bear with the inner contradictions and institutionalized contexts we are forced into. Could you imagine doing something like this in a museum for example?

Draxler: To be honest, no. I think that on the museum level it’s all about completely different forms of working. I am more interested in carrying this logic into other fields again, for example into the analysis of the field of politics, of psychoanalysis, etc. I think that many interesting psychoanalytical models have been developed over the past few years that call into question in an interesting manner a way of thinking based on polar oppositions. That’s why I would sooner wish to bring my approach back to that, or into the political arena, where it would have to be more about the concrete forms taken by the political rather than only about the content being articulated.

This can be seen for example in a thinker like Slavoj _i_ek, for example in his works from the late 1980s such as »The Sublime Object of Ideology« – which is precisely about this way of breaking open entrenched discourse logics. But when he continually demands this radical break, the »great leap,« then I can follow him only with great difficulty. The fact that he brings up strong theses for discussion is related to the needs of the theoretical field of discourse. Therein can also be found a certain form of politics, and I think it’s important that we take a much more critical view of this. Which formats are being negotiated there? In this connection, art institutions can be very interesting places. But it would be important – and this is a major problem – not to land again exclusively in this one field, which would make many possibilities for referencing problematic again.

Bringing the varying bits of discourse information together is difficult because the point of departure, the art field, like every other social field, has its own logics. That makes it very difficult to enter into other spheres. The question is: What would this kind of transfer look like? How can one address things to make sure they also have an impact elsewhere, and how can one avoid the bottlenecks that result? This is the main challenge for me, to make sure the discourses don’t get stuck somewhere, and that they give rise to a model for the new institutionalization. Transferring the level of an art space like the Secession onto the museum plane is in my opinion not a very promising endeavor. It’s more interesting to ask: How do things look in other areas? How can one attempt to bring a productive dilettantism into play there as well? And what chance does one have to become visible there as well through these efforts? The problem of course is that the art scene places exactly those resources at one’s disposal needed to do such things. Other areas don’t. They are not just sitting there waiting for someone to come up with some sort of crazy project.

Schöllhammer: I understand your reply as saying that paradigms that have already been conquered once have subsequently been abandoned again, as in psychoanalysis for example. This field appears overall to have degenerated into a social-technological configuration, although it could still prove quite helpful. Why is it that these transfers from here to there are so difficult, and why has a sharp-edged, woodcut-like, materialist critical figure become so attractive, as witnessed for example in the anti-globalization movement? Looking at the history of the left wing, it has usually been softer than it is now, and much more was possible in art as well than is the case today.

Draxler: That is in fact the decisive motif around which this revolves. It has to do with our postmodern, deconstructive, discursive/analytical access from the 1980s. That was so fascinating because it was theoretically always right on a certain level, because it was able to avoid the essentialization of categories or at least make them more fluid and was able to vanquish its opponents relatively easily using a certain vocabulary. As soon as one has digested Derrida a bit, that’s not much of a problem. But the question naturally remains of where Derrida himself ended up, a criticism he often has to deal with: What form of practice is deconstruction anyway? How can one make deconstructive practice itself productive again? And doesn’t it tend toward a total depoliticization – something Derrida was often accused of? Or does the radically specific quality of the intellectual stance not, as in Foucault, lead to very obscure objects of enthusiasm, for instance the Iranian Revolution? Isn’t a universal intellectual like Sartre, who went along with the whole panoply of political madness down to the last Maoist splinter group, somehow always on the right side by contrast? I believe that these questions are not at all easy to answer, that these varying positions have to be reflected on to a greater extent, especially when it’s a matter of taking a deconstructive stance in the political sense. But of course also when it’s about avoiding such a stance and taking instead essentializing positions in favor of the multitude, such as Negri and Hardt do, which has a great mobilizing effect. This accomplishes a great deal politically when the multitude is organized as spontaneously as possible and when all those who want to work institutionally in some way actually only present an obstacle to this. What are the argumentative and the political implications on the one side and where on the other side – comparing this would in fact be very exciting. In contrast, I find it extremely unsatisfying when, for purely tactical reasons, a claim is laid to a concept of political education and things are demanded that in my opinion have an unbelievably self-propelling quality and whose consequences cannot really be foreseen. That’s why I think that one has to ask how the analysis might be conducted in order that the various pros and cons of the respective discourse figures remain clearly visible, while people nevertheless are able to exchange information.

This was also the main problem for me in the »Substance« book: How can one formulate a criticism of anti-idealistic left-wing theory; how can one criticize it and pursue its dead ends without immediately ending up in a conservative position? This is done time and again by the conservative side, referring to the »illusions of the left« and so forth. But it is even more difficult to face the fact that there is actually something to this criticism. There really are things within the left-wing self-image that are pretty stupid, whether in the peculiar brand of self-assurance or discursive naiveté or in the way people tend to overlook their own contribution to creating the »evil« Other. And yet one must make an attempt at a form of differentiated criticism, and do so on the level of what is ultimately a solidarity-based critique – which introduces here an essentialistic mega-category. It’s a case here however of elements that we can by all means deconstruct again ourselves, and which nevertheless represent threshold values based on which we can ask what the point would be of a pure deconstruction. In this respect, the stance taken by the statement and the social setting from which I speak are decisive factors. That’s why the »Hazardous Substances« do not by any means aim at abolishing the anti-idealistic aesthetic. It’s not about saying that Peter Bürger was simply wrong, but about asking under what conditions the theory of the avant-garde was formulated and what can be derived from it today. How could one formulate it today? – that is in a sense the aim: carrying on theories of this kind and developing them further. And trying them out in practical terms in different cultural and political settings.


The text is based on an interview conducted on the occasion of the presentation of the catalogue for the exhibition »Shandyism – Authorship as Genre« on September 3, 2007 at the Vienna Secession. Our thanks to the Society of Friends of the Secession.

 

 

   

Translation: Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

 

1 Cf. Helmut Draxler, Gefährliche Substanzen. Zum Verhältnis von Kritik und Kunst, Berlin 2007; Helmut Draxler, Die Gewalt des Zusammenhangs. Raum, Repräsentation und Referenz bei Fareed Armaly, Berlin 2007 (both books were published as part of the PolYPen series by b_books); and Helmut Draxler (ed.), Shandyismus. Autorschaft als Genre, catalogue for the exhibition of the same name at the Vienna Secession and at Kunsthaus Dresden, Stuttgart 2007 (Verlag Merz & Solitude).

 

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