Imitators. – A: “What? You want no imitators?” B: “I do not want to have people imitate my example; I wish that everybody would fashion his own example, as I do.” A: “So?”–
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science.
It seemed like a dawn but it is still the middle of the night. We live in a time before deconstruction, dominated by the constant need of authority figures. School and university discipline is merely a symptom of a greater disease.
A non-evaluative process
“What we do is never understood but always only praised or censured.”1 In other words: everything is either good or bad; is a yes or a no. The space between “yes” and “no” is left unexplored. We do not want to know why someone did something the way they did. We simply praise or censure, and by doing so we perpetuate the already existing values and never depart from the well-established framework.
To understand, according to Nietzsche, is to go beyond the agreed values; to analyse or to grope in the dark. Regardless of the outcome, to understand is to be actively interested in the here and now; to emotionally, intellectually and sensually penetrate your surroundings – and yourself. The process of understanding is based on observation and empathy, and as such it excludes evaluation. It is about listening and feeling; it is the sense of the multi-layered, ambivalent and non-binary interdependence between yourself and the rest of the world.
A luminous body
Being a part of the information society, it is not easy for us to experience the world without questioning its value. We find it difficult not to assign specific meanings to the incoming impulses because we got used to perceiving the reality as a collection of brief, informative messages. The yoga techniques, more and more popular in our culture, are one of the solutions; by implementing a yoga practice, we could learn how to develop the sense of interdependence between ourselves and our surroundings. Another possibility, although not so different from meditation techniques, is to open up to the outside through a sensory experience, and realize that what we feel is different from its cultural interpretation, from its assigned informative meaning; it would be an attempt to have a first-hand experience that is above the information level. As a result, we would probably feel bewildered, which in turn would stimulate our thoughts, help us breathe deeper, and bring us closer to life. In fact, it would make us think with our entire body:
[…] The knowing subject occupies the entire body – the luxurious headquarters of broad and complete knowledge – founded and based on the sweetness and competence of the senses, knowledge attuned to its limbs and to the world, toned-down and pacified, ready to agree, delivered from resentment, consenting, a luminous, transparent, vibrant, spiritual, flexible, quick, lively subject body – a body that thinks.2
For now, such a body may only exist in art or as a subject of theoretical speculation. It does not mean, however, that it is unreal, that it is a sci-fi project, that it has to be conceived or conceptually designed. Not at all – it is already here, simply waiting to be updated. Before it can exist in a society, a lot of deconstruction and illumination has yet to take place.
As it appears, we are the deposits of the revolutionary potential. It reveals itself in our bodies, illustrating the usefulness of the concept of history.3 In fact, it all starts in our bodies. As they get illuminated with feelings, they reveal the inner stirrings of the past; they can also get illuminated with shame and hatred – it happens every time we experience injustice in the present.4 Following Walter Benjamin, I would say that the future is not very interesting; it is an empty time with a flexible structure, which makes it a fertile ground for all sorts of ideologies. Let’s revolve around the past and memory – not the one freely constructed by historiographers but the tangible one; the past that is written in everything that exists here and now. Let’s revolve around the mists of history by standing in the front row of our own past that is closest to us, hidden in our bodies. There lies the true source of the different, the original, the unique. But then students would usually say: “no, I cannot show that, it won’t fit in, I’ve done it just for myself.”
There will not be many illuminations as long as the artistic and academic circles stay preoccupied with praising and censuring instead of understanding. Let’s look at the latest critical reviews or the concepts formulated by museums and galleries; how many of them try to truly understand a given artwork, to penetrate its form and structure, to ask what is different about it or where does it come from? Critical writing is usually meant to verify if the form of a given piece complies with the consensus. In this way you can save time – understanding is an unprofitable investment.
At the same time, a debate is raging over the exhausted artistic autonomy, over the exhausted form of abstract expression that has been the basis of art and its capitalist circulation for more than 100 years. For all this time, the abstract form has been mindlessly replicated without questioning its grounds or, more importantly, its origins. Since abstraction, minimalism and reductionism are on the verge of exhaustion, we might need to take a radical step back to restore some of the limitations.5 If the present-day circulation of art fails to encourage any critical reflection, perhaps it should become a university’s responsibility, at least for now, to revive such “thinking bodies” which act in their entirety, which hold enough potential to start a revolution, which believe in their own strengths and lack ressentiment?
Bewilderment and discussion
“A continually creative person” – as it was put by Nietzsche in the surprisingly clear and only partially pompous The Gay Science – “[…] one who simply lacks the time to reflect on himself and his work and to make comparisons, one who no longer has any desire to assert his taste and who simply forgets it, without caring in the least whether it still stands, or lies, or falls – such a person might perhaps eventually produce works that far excel his own judgment, so that he utters stupidities about them and himself – utters them and believes them. This seems to me to be almost the norm among fertile artists – nobody knows a child less well than its parents do – and it is true even in the case, to take a tremendous example, of the whole world of Greek art and poetry: it never ‘knew’ what it did.”6
In this way it would be possible for a work of art to regain its position from over 100 years ago when the concepts of abstraction and the autonomy of art had just begun to crystalize (and which later ran out of steam in the capitalist processes); the position of a tangible object, not alienated but belonging to this world, the position of a physical body surrounded by other bodies.
What else could we do to broaden the scope of art? We could introduce changes to the university programs by adding a category of art based on unpredictability, on the on-the-spot meanings formed through discussion; it is necessary if we want to create situations which will be worth understanding, and not only “praising” or “censuring”. That kind of art would be so interesting, intriguing, and incomprehensible that we would have no other option but to rely on its analysis, penetration, and feeling. Discussion and non-evaluative observation would become a medium that would accentuate our radical inequality and, at the same time, lead to a greater understanding of both the different and the interdependent.
The above excerpts are taken from the collection “Odszkolnić Akademię” [“To de-school the Academy”], ed. Marek Wasilewski, Poznań 2018.
1 F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, New York 1974, translated by Walter Kaufmann, fragment 264.
2 M. Serres, The Five Senses. A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies, London 2008, translated by Margaret Sankey and Peter Cowley, p. 326.
3 Cf. W. Benjamin, On the Concept of History, translated by Edmund Jephcott et al., fragment XII, in: Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938-1949, Cambridge 2003.
5 Cf. K. Stakemeier, Entgrenzter Formalismus. Verfahren einer antimodernen Ästhetik, Berlin 2018.
6 F. Nietzsche, op. cit., fragment 369.