Apology of the Work of Art
The Langenlois Work of Art speaking
(In August 2011 I undertook the assignment to present myself and perform as a work of art made by the Icelandic artist Katrín I. Jonsdottir Hjördisardottir Hirst at an exhibition in Langenlois, Austria. The following text is an apology for that work of art, performed during the exhibition.)
As I was boarding Flight OS 9762 from Reykjavik to Vienna last Tuesday at 23:50, I underwent a transfiguration. From being quite a normal person living in Reykjavik I became a Work of Art, conceived and fashioned by the Icelandic artist Katrín I. Jónsdóttir Hjördísardóttir.
In this performance I would like to tell you, how this transfiguration has affected my life and my relationship with art, with the artist who has become my author, and with myself.
As I said, I used to be a normal person living in Reykjavík, a happily married father of two grownup children and a professor in the theory and history of art, teaching in various public institutions. Suddenly I succumbed to the same fate as the Greek hunter Acteon, who was punished by Diana for surprising the goddess of the wild game and the Night, bathing naked in the moonlight, and was transformed into a stag, an immediate pray for his own hunting dogs which killed him instantly.
As Acteon had spent his whole life looking for wild game in nature, my life has been dedicated to looking for myself in works of art, and helping my students to do the same. One of them was Katrín, the artist who now has conceived me as a Work of Art. She was an enthusiastic and dedicated student, I remember. And here I am, helpless like Acteon, transformed into the object of my lifelong desire.
I must admit that this has been a problematic, if not a traumatic experience.
From being a relatively self-confident but passionate hunter of objects of art, I had become one myself; a problematic experience that arises many questions: who are you anyway? I asked myself on the plane and I repeat that question here and now, arrived in Langenlois in Austria. If you are no longer yourself, but a Work of Art, conceived by one of your old students, what is a Work of Art anyway? What are its characteristics and how does it relate to its author and the world?
I would like to start with the question of the author, who bears the responsibility for my present and problematic situation. Who is she to declare herself the author of myself as a Work of Art?
The figure of the author or the artist in contemporary art has become an ambiguous one. At first the artist declares his deepest and absolute identity with his creation, or at least his parenthood; then he leaves it like an orphan to the cruellest aesthetic judgements of the world, as I am inevitably experiencing at this moment. Morally, I find this hardly acceptable.
First, I would take up the question of Identity and the question of relationship with my author. There I would like to propose an indecent comparison: Myself and Mona Lisa by Leonardo. We see in Leonardo’s famous work an example of an ideal identity of the artist with his subject. Mona Lisa is not only an image of o woman of uncertain origins; she is an absolute part of her author, like taken out of his own body and mind. Here it becomes absolutely impossible for us to discern between the author and his work. As you may know, Leonardo once said that the painter always painted himself. Standing here in front of you as a Work of Art by Katrín I. Jónsdóttir Hjördísardóttir, I must confess that I don’t feel anything of my author in myself. She is completely detached from her art-piece as such, from me as the content of her Work of Art. Although I am not demanding from my author the same intimate relationship as Mona Lisa has enjoyed from her author ever since she became this famous Work of Art, I must admit that I feel absolutely abandoned to my own destiny by my author, and I know that you, my dear visitor, will never be gratified with the same feeling of intimacy and identity confronting my presence here, as you have found confronting her marvellous and mysterious image. Wherein lays the difference?
Leonardo felt an absolute commitment to his subject; it never occurred to him that he could in any way demand or practice moral, virtual or physical freedom from his subject through his own superiority as the genius he certainly was.
This is not the case when we look at contemporary art, where the artists leave their products in complete abandonment to the so called “aesthetic judgment” of the public, under the pretext of artistic freedom, absolute subjectivity of the artistic creation and the absolute superiority of his genius, rising himself above the content of his art as a superman, gifted with superhuman power and committed to nothing but his own liberty and absolute subjectivity.
When I left my author at the airport in Reykjavik, I asked her what she wanted me to do. “You are completely free of doing whatever you want”, she said. “I am enjoying my freedom as an artist, and as I am now aspiring to become a scholar, and I consider you to be a distinguished one, so I have chosen you to be my Art-work, representing myself at this exhibition.”
I have to admit that the respect she was showing my scholarship did not help me in any way in fulfilling my duty as her Work of Art.
During the four hours flight into the darkness of the night, crossing the North Atlantic ocean, I sincerely considered my duty on this commission, and I discovered the irony of my destiny, being locked in a limbo in between an obsolete idea of the content of the work of art as an undistinguishable part of its author, and an eventual futuristic dawn or rebirth of a possibly completely new kind of art, based on commitments I had no possibilities to grasp.
I came to the conclusion, dear visitor, that either I am a Work of Art without content, or I am a Work of Art subject to your “aesthetic judgment”, not for my possible values as a human being, but for the vanity of your aesthetic taste. Or rather, I realised that I was both at the same time, because by depriving myself of my content as a human being and transforming me into a Work of Art, I had become an incarnation of the fatal destiny of contemporary art, trapped between the futility of “aesthetic judgments” and the belief in “absolute freedom and subjectivity” of the artistic genius.
As a Work of Art, I cannot but express my deepest suspicion towards your “aesthetic judgments”, dear visitor, subjects as they are to the absolute relativity of taste and of beauty in itself.
At the same time I can’t but express my deepest suspicion towards the artistic freedom of my author, of her absolute subjectivity and of her romantic idea af the artistic genius, for example her arbitrary choice of being whoever she wants. Those romantic ideas have no better foundation than aesthetic taste in general.
Leonardo was not obsessed with taste at all; I guess he never took that concept in consideration, because it didn’t exist in any serious contemplation on art until the birth of romanticism, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Taste became an issue in the artistic discourse only with the schism between the artist and the content of his work, with the idea of absolute subjectivity and freedom of the artist and the absolute superiority of the artistic genius, ruling above his subject as well as his audience. As the subject matter of the Work of Art didn’t matter anymore, -as is the case with me standing here in front of you – the only choice offered to you, dear visitor, is to identify not with me, but with The Other that I have become, which is, I suppose, as unfamiliar and alien to your self-conscience as it is to mine. The viewer is thus condemned to identify with his own alienation in a contemporary Work of Art – or reject it as if it was aimed at his auto destruction.
I already mentioned the irony of my destiny as a Work of Art. Irony is the most important weapon of the artistic genius, but it is also a fatal one. The French poet Baudelaire was one of the inventors of this weapon. He said that “laughter is provoked in the artist by the consciousness of his own superiority” which is also a declaration of the ambiguity of all things. “The artist is never an artist except for the condition that he is a double person, capable of being himself and another at the same time, and never to ignore the double nature of all things.” This doubleness, this ambiguity, inevitably provokes our laughter, and I realised, my dear visitor, that this was my primary mission in this artistic event: to provoke the laughter of my absent author, imagining my confrontation with you, and to provoke your laughter in front of my presence here, as a kind of a clownish representation of the tragic conditions of contemporary art.
But my author’s laughter, dear visitor, which rises from her conscience of superiority in front of the content of her art, could become a boomerang, as it hits her own subjectivity and unveils the double nature of its content. The author, who is rising herself above the content of her art like a God of creation, and leaves her product for the pure aesthetic judgment of the world, without any concern or commitment for its moral content, is at the same time attacking the principle of her own creation, the above mentioned principle of unity and identity of the artist with the content of his Work.
As the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has said, the artist has become “a god that destroys himself”, or quoting Hegel, “ein Nichtiges, ein sich Vernichtendes”. No need to mention, keeping in mind my comparison with Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, the idea of irony and auto-destruction was something that never entered Leonardo’s mind. Like taste, irony was an invention of 19th century romanticism, and has ever since become the auto destructive power of modern and contemporary art.
Those two elements, irony and taste, were followed up by the romantic idea of pure beauty, subject to aesthetic evaluation of the viewer without any concern for its content. With the words of Agamben: “If the artist is now looking for his certainty in a definite content or belief, he is lying, because he knows that pure artistic subjectivity is the essence of every single thing; but if he looks for his proper realty in this subjectivity he finds himself in the paradoxical situation of having to find his real essence exactly in what is inessential, his own content in what is only form. He is therefore experiencing a radical schism: and outside of this schism in him everything is a lie.”
As I am standing here, dear visitor, as a Work of Art, I am a living testimony of this radical schism that has characterised contemporary art for more than a century, as if it was in a permanent state of possible extinction. But art can not die, on the contrary it is constantly living its impossibility to die, constantly and restlessly looking for new rules, new values, for possible new ties with reality that have been obscured or lost. Art has reached the end of its metaphysical premises and tries desperately to grasp a new connection to the real. As a Work of Art I can with all modesty claim that I have with my presence here exposed many of its former values: body, structure and form that can be subject for aesthetic judgments. But my principal mission here, dear visitor, is not to humiliate myself before your aesthetic judgments like in a beauty contest; my mission here is first of all to expose the above mentioned schism, the gap created in the history of art between form and content, between subjectivity and the ambiguity of irony, between art and the real.
What is this space in-between, this limbo that I am experiencing here in front of you? It is an empty space; I am a Work of Art without content, a destructive gesture, searching desperately for the real, for positive values that seem to have vanished in our times of calculating technology. With the words of Agamben once again: “the essence of nihilism coincides with the essence of art at the extreme point of its destiny, where both see the destiny of man as nothingness. And while nihilism is secretly governing the course of western history, art will not leave its never ending sunset.”
Langenlois, 13th of August 2011,