Art is a matter of the heart and cannot be misused for a purpose
With this newsletter, I would like to respond to a recent appeal by two schoolgirls from the Bäumlihof School Basel, who approached artists to help with a project. Johanna, 14, and Anna, 15, describe themselves as art enthusiasts and would like to draw attention to the "contradictions of today's society" in an art exhibition they are organising. It will be about "issues like climate change, racism, sexism, etc." They want to "make people think" and say: "Art is a wonderful way to do this, because it sometimes says more than words."
This is an idea that delights me as it shows initiative and practical action, something increasingly rare in an increasingly one-sided digitalised school system. This is why I am motivated to write and provide inspiration or even contribute ideas.
For the "wonderful" in art that the two girls speak of, they probably had special personal experiences. More or less consciously, their artistic ability opened the way to phenomena in their world they had not perceived before and therefore felt and interpreted as miracles. Art can indeed lead us to such elementary experiences. Its trait of always showing people the other, the possible, beyond the factual, the everyday, broadens our senses to an experience that leads us beyond the narrowness of everyday life, thereby stretching it and giving us a feeling of ever newly acquired freedom. Art successfully conveys the miracle of freedom because freedom is inherent in the human core. Sensuality and reason, imagination and intellect are inspired by freedom towards a centre which lies in man himself/herself and from which he/she forms his/her subjective freedom. Art is a matter of the heart. That is why it is not made by nature, but by people for people. Artworks are always testimonies and confessions of freedom. The character of the infinite is inherent in them, which is why we have the so-called "internal infinity of a work of art". Artworks can be experienced infinitely by an infinite number of people and, like the pupils, it can be experienced as something wonderful. That is why even very old works of art still have an extremely vivid effect on us.
Therefore we can say art is made by people who are aware of freedom and is always a testimony to that freedom. The relationship between people who look at art and the work itself must remain free and not be influenced by anything. Freedom must prevail without coercion, such as shock experiences, which many contemporary artists enjoy playing with. This is a completely wrong approach, because shocking constricts.
I will return to these crucial points towards the end of this essay.
Johanna and Anna deliberately want to relate art to society in order to attract people's attention. Perhaps they have a message?
In this regard, one fact is certainly interesting: in the structures of modern social life, art is normally granted almost no space and thus no power to participate. Our society is determined by purely economic thinking in a materialistic and not idealistic way. Freedom, however, is an ideal. Material, in contrast, a measurable value. A proliferating art market has also imbibed art with this purely materialistic ethos and drastically curtailed its capacity for wonder.
If the healing creative forces that could flow from art into society are not called upon by society, then it is astonishing that dictators who want to exercise power and rule over the thoughts and actions of citizens, first and foremost persecute artists. The artists are thrown into prison, their works removed or burned. All of a sudden, art and artists are significant, for precisely the reason I explained earlier: artists and works of art are always confessors and professors of freedom. They are resistant and cannot be appropriated for any purpose. By their independence, they provocate and expose dictators. It is no coincidence that the heyday of freedom is also always the time of great artistic progress or, to put it differently: a dictatorship highlights the most disastrous form of dealing with artists and their works with bans and abuse of art. Nevertheless, even dictators do not want to do without art; on the contrary, they want to adorn themselves with artworks in pomp and glory. That is exactly when something happens: art is raped and its freedom removed. It is assigned a purpose, it must serve propaganda and, to this end, obey a dogma. This is known as the "aesthetic fall from grace". Everything is now subject to an ideology, a program, quite specifically to serve a purpose, to lend the deceptive appearance of splendour to unfreedom and power.
This example demonstrates how wrong it is to impute a purpose to art, no matter what it may be. A work of art is not available for instrumentalisation. It cannot be exploited. It cannot be appropriated for something. The moment a work of art conveys a slogan, it is no longer a work of art, but a programmatic text. This can be an advertising text or, as mentioned before, political slogans. It is therefore essential that a work of art is always free of any purpose. The forms that are increasingly appearing in contemporary art, characterised by purpose and intentions, cannot of course claim to be art. The only purpose of art is its purposelessness. This is contrasted with something quite different, namely the meaning of a work. Meaningfulness will open up to the senses of the recipient, the viewer, as something that speaks from freedom and can therefore be experienced by each person in their own personal way. This experience is always unique in a free subject.
There is a famous in-between position, that is, ambivalent things. One I would like to explain is the always difficult matter of an altar. Someone who looks at an altar, a believer, for him/her the altar is a ritual object in the context of the liturgy. It serves the purpose of presenting the revelation of the Bible to the faithful through painted or carved images, such as in the magnificent winged altars of the Gothic period.
An art enthusiast visiting a church, not interested in religious revelation, sees the altar as a work of art. So an altar can be a pure work of art, without purpose, for one person; for another, the altar has a purpose – when it is not a work of art but a ritual object. At one and the same moment during a service, when people are praying before the altar, tourists can appear to enjoy the artistic character of the work of art, while for the others praying before it, the altar is not a work of art, but the manifestation of revelations of faith.
Thus an altar can be both: an aesthetic object or a ritual object. Ritually, it serves the purpose of liturgy and devotion. Aesthetically, it is completely free of this, able to be experienced and interpreted. This does not mean that one or the other is a devaluation, but simply a different determination. It has to be clarified, especially in the case of sacred art, whether it is a ritual or an aesthetic object for the individual. Interesting: an altar loses its ritual character when it is brought into a museum, into a special room. Then it is only an aesthetic object. So we see it also matters where a work of art appears.
This example of the altar leads us out of a possible dilemma that our art-loving students may see approaching them in their well-intentioned idea to use art to point out contradictions in society. This may unintentionally impute a purpose to art and thereby devalue it. On the one hand, the altar does indeed fulfill a purpose, but at the same time it also fulfills something else, pointing beyond the pure purpose into the free forms of the art world. It stands out in that it is also able to convey a supra-religious artistic meaning.
This process, which may not be easy to understand, can also be illustrated by our colloquial language. We have language with which we communicate. It has an objective form for this purpose. At the same time, however, it is also possible to shape our language into a poem that stands out from everyday language and takes on a different, an objectified higher art form. So, just as both possibilities (and others) are inherent in the altar, these varieties also live in our language, and others, for example in the form of song.
Art forms are always elevated forms, but not in the sense that they have no character of reality or are even worthless. Their value is simply different. And out of this difference from the normal, they can have a wonderful, surprising or even beautiful effect on us and also open up new world views.
If you want to address social issues, like Anna and Johanna, then you must give this sociological intention a supra-sociological meaning that points beyond the social, just as our poem points beyond everyday language. If you don’t do this, the debate gets stuck in superficial and manipulated slogans, presents our everyday life once again, only now enhanced with the aura of an exhibition. Its products show society how it likes to see itself: Art misused as an applause instrument!
I assume that this does not meet the expectations of the students. It would certainly be too little for them in relation to their ideals. Rather, they want to use art to hold up something like a mirror to society, in which a kind of unmasking of contradictions is supposed to take place. Accordingly, it is ultimately about showing works of art of socio-political relevance. Attention: is it possibly about a purpose?
Extreme caution is now called for, as a look at the 1960s and early 1970s shows. Then the consciousness of youth in particular was shaped by the effects of the brutal Vietnam War and a capitalist worldview. Universities in particular developed into hotbeds of fierce rebellion. Now, suddenly, artists were asked to what extent their work could take responsibility for shaping the existential relationships that people in a society enter into with each other.
These initial questions quickly turned into tough demands. They sought to imbue art with what was suddenly prescribed for all human activities in general: to show responsible action by emphasising socio-political relevance in one's own actions and, of course, also in the works of art. Art should now refrain from being a servant of beauty, of beautiful life, especially of the rich who could afford it, all on the backs of an exploited working class. Art must now recognise the hard facts of a society seized and misguided by the desire for profit, make this the subject of its work and thus no longer stand on the sidelines, but directly collaborate in the necessary process of enlightenment about societal aberrations. For example, the Vietnam War could no longer be ignored in art; a working class seemingly paralysed by assembly lines needed new nourishment from a liberated attitude to life; goods needed to be distributed more fairly, etc. and immediately. Committed art had to direct its attention to all this and much more if it finally wanted to act responsibly, i.e. in accordance with the true conditions of life.
The tendency of the spokespersons at the time to think in closed systems with authoritarian practice in the name of a unified collective was in reality a deprivation of freedom of the worst kind. There was no room for art. The proclaimed so-called realities, which were taken unilaterally from empirical data, logically collapsed after a few years.
Art never turns to such craziness. Rather, it is suited to grasping the living change of reality through contemplation and to directing its gaze into the depths of the reasons for life's existence. Only in this way does it grasp its fundamental significance. It opens up not only the fullness but also the depth of the world. This only, however, by way of internalisation. It always fulfills free will by expanding and exploding the understanding of reality that currently prevails. Art virtually transcends the prevailing concept of reality and in this endeavor it is not only unavailable to any ends directed at it, but also irrefutable, for it allows the eternally human, the eternally worldly and the eternally creative to emerge from all that is given.
Inseparable from the visionary depth of the power of art in us humans is also art's reference to perfection. Through its power of form alone we experience what a "whole" is, translated into our everyday language, what wholeness means. Only through an artistic formation of our emotional life can we experience and gradually learn to understand what wholeness is in the sense of something unique and perfect. Just as every human being.
Now a misunderstanding must not arise, namely the view that art has nothing at all to do with reality and no relationship to reality. This is not the case at all, for it is material reality from which art draws its occasions and motifs. Both should always arise precisely from an inclination towards the world. The appearance of a work is also bound to the reality of material. Likewise, through its connection to matter, it is also subject to transience. However its spiritual content lives on and the power and determination with which it appears remain boundlessly immaterial within the soul.
Art has always reacted in its own way to social crises, which have always existed. For example during the time of plague, wars, poverty and worldwide slave trade, the murder of the Jewish people. Art derives its meaning from the original understanding of the Greek word "crinein". This means something like parting, turning, in the sense of change, something new makes its way through death and ruin. Thus, the crisis is not the total end, but a metamorphosis, a transition where the old dies and the new wants to begin. Art has even developed its own genre for this, the "apocalypse". In it, doom, death and destruction are shown, but always with a light of the future, hope, infinite love, which is also contained in creation and always remains.
Theater literature also developed its own form, beyond the representation of the tragic into a new openness: the tragicomedy. In order to clear the mind of guilt, hardship and death by means of a grotesque, usually rationally uninterpretable, cheerful ending of the play.
Now returning to the beginning, where I explained how art never only depicts the given, the factual, but also always shows the possible, the other. If it did not do this, it would only be a re-creative action and not a creative new form. Then it would not be art, but, to put it bluntly, only a copy of what already exists. In this respect, looking at art is always also a practice of understanding the other, and in understanding the otherness of the other. And understanding the other and their otherness naturally leads to a better understanding of oneself. Understanding the other is the best protection against aggression. This highly topical subject reveals contradictions in society. If this possibility of art is no longer taught in schools, if art lessons are largely cancelled or altered, the creative power of art for living in peace and harmony with others is renounced. The same applies to sport, by the way, when it is deprived of the character of play and only measurable performance is important.
But let us return to the art genre of the apocalypse and its inherent light of the future. It does not show us a reverie or even an illusion of a beautiful and perhaps better world. On the contrary, it quite concretely incorporates a second reality alongside the doomsday scenario, which mustn’t be suppressed. This can be explained as follows:
The existence of all creation, our world and every human being in it, is based on the law of moving equilibrium. Movement is the principle of life. The origin of eternity and infinity is the moment, the instantaneous point of equilibrium. Since this is so, logically, the same potential of hope, love and faith exists simultaneously with death and perdition. However, we must lift ourselves up to the realisation of these three ourselves, and to do this we must develop enormous creative powers. First and foremost, we need the will to insight and an education. Only our own efforts open up the necessary powers of knowledge of hope, faith and love.
We do not need to strive for death and destruction, indeed for the emergence of evil, for they always present themselves, they literally infest us, take advantage of our laziness and wreak havoc. This tendency can be easily explained by a journalistic motto: bad news item is good news, because it increases sales.
No one should rely on the help of the state, which could put a stop to a terrible event. For a state cannot develop morals on its own. At best, it can enact regulations before laws, which by their very nature do not spring from within man, but from his intellect. These are external instructions for action and never a matter of the heart.
So, to conclude, I would like to wish Johanna and Anna's laudable project success. I hope they will receive works by artists for their exhibition that not only reflect the one-sidedness of our everyday life, but contain something more, something that points beyond it and reveals the other reality of a pacified world that also exists in concrete terms.
© Sibylle Laubscher
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