Joseph Beuys in Context
The German artist and the global predicaments of art after 1945.
I want to thank Mia Lerm Hayes for the invitation to speak this afternoon and for the labor of gathering us here in Dublin to remember and think about the life and work of Joseph Beuys. I've been impressed by the careful and large spirit of the contributions and discussion today. I feel a need, though, before beginning my remarks, to echo a comment made earlier by Nigel Rolfe. I simply find it impossible to speak in this forum without first acknowledging the global crisis of democracy and justice we are now living through. A commemoration like this one risks becoming an offensively indulgent academic exercise, if it ignores this context out of discretion or collegial good manners; to do so would be to acquiesce to the normalization of an utterly repugnant and unacceptable state of affairs. This would be especially true, it seems to me, of a symposium dedicated to the memory of an artist and teacher who placed a vision of direct democracy at the center of his project of "social sculpture."
I clearly don't have time this afternoon to characterize our contemporary crisis in detail, or to catalog the crimes being perpetrated even as we speak by allegedly democratic states, in the name of a permanent, preemptive, dirty so-called war on terror. But any such characterization or catalog would have to include - beyond the appalling bloodshed and destruction inflicted daily on the people of Iraq and other countries in the Middle East, beyond even the sickening images of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo and the disclosures of a global network of secret prisons and "torture flights" - the generalized degradations that follow from a cynical production and exploitation of public fear. I mean the diversion of public money and resources to the war machines and the steady militarization of everyday life, the criminalization of dissent, the erosion of habeas corpus and the most basic civil and political liberties, and the massive and unprecedented expansion of state apparatuses of surveillance and control - all of which block our ability to think and deliberate critically together and cripple our collective capacity to rein in governments acting against our will and to hold to account those who have conceived and implemented these policies.
All of these "security" measures are of course aimed only in part at real "terrorists"; they will be turned cynically, and indeed already have been, on all those who contest, oppose, or even criticize the given order, including those who struggle for social justice and emancipation, for ecological sanity, for a world without war, oppression and exploitation. It's afact that in the United States today, Quaker peace groups are once again being spied on by state intelligence services. From that, unhappily, much more must be inferred. It's not enough that neo-liberal policies have returned us to the naked, undiluted capitalism of the nineteenth century. The global enforcement of these policies is running roughshod over - when not openly wrecking - democratic institutions and the rule of law and is provoking fascist tendencies everywhere. With regard to arbitrary power operating without effective oversight or accountability, we've regressed decades overnight. Already in February 2003, when in the largest linked demonstrations in world history more than 10 million people went into the streets to reject the invasion of Iraq and were ignored for their trouble, this constituted a serious crisis of global democracy. Three years later [in early 2006], these degradations of daily life are being normalized into a permanent security regime, and we quite clearly are not doing enough to contest and stop it. This reality unhappily falls like a chill shadow on everything we say here today, whether we acknowledge it or not.
Beuys in the Global Post-1945 Context
In my previous work on Joseph Beuys, I proposed a materials-based reinterpretation of the artist's sculptural production. I argued that Beuys's use of historically charged materials - in particular his use of stone, felt and fat as media for visual allegories - must be seen as part of an under-remarked labor of mourning. This labor deploys a sublime strategy of "negative presentation" to evoke the Nazi genocide. My research is easily accessible, and I won't tax you with a repetition of what's already been published.1 What I instead will try to do today is to situate Beuys within a larger historical context shaped by the catastrophic events of the mid-twentieth century - even if only in a very abbreviated and schematic way. To do this, I'll be leaning on two notions that I find indispensable for grasping both the promise and the peril of art that tries to remember historical traumas. These are "mourning," a term from the psychoanalytic tradition, and "cosmopolitics," a more recent theoretical construction. I'll explain and develop these two terms as I go along.
Beuys, it is helpful to remember, did not work in a vacuum. He belonged to several, primarily European artistic and political networks, and as individualized as his work may be, it still should be located historically within these larger networks and cultural streams. It is one of these networks that I want to sketch now, in order to begin to place Beuys's memorial production in its post-1945 European and global contexts.2
Auschwitz and Hiroshima as Qualitative Events
Generally accepted estimates tell us that between 50 and 60 million people were killed in World War II, of which the majority, by a factor of 2:1, was civilian. Beyond the sheer scale of death and devastation involved, the legacy of that war includes two qualitative and massively traumatic events of violence - two officially perpetrated genocides we have come to refer to by the place-names Auschwitz and Hiroshima. It's worth noting today that both were deliberately inflicted by states on non-combatant civilian populations. In plain language, they were acts of terrorism. One was perpetrated by the Nazi state against Jews, as well as Sinti and Roma communities, homosexuals, communists and active dissidents, and was a standing threat directed against all potential opponents. In the other, the US state indiscriminately attacked the civilian inhabitants of two Japanese cities, after Japan's defeat had become imminent and that nation had ceased to pose any urgent threat to the United States. But it, too, was meant as a threat directed at all potential rivals and opponents in the postwar period, the Soviet Union in particular. The monopoly on the nuclear weapon didn't hold, and we all became the objects of its terror.
Why should these two events of violence be called "qualitative?" They are qualitative because they change, in an irreversible way, our understanding of humanity and its future prospects. Wars and genocides are nothing new in history, of course. But in both Auschwitz and Hiroshima the technical means and political will to carry out genocide have reached the point where we are all placed under threat. Henceforth, once these capacities or potentials have been irreversibly realized and demonstrated, no one is safe, anywhere, from the instrumental reasons of state. In this, the real differences between the Nazi regime in Germany and the liberal democracy in the United States, the divergent motivations that shaped the decisions in both cases, cannot reassure us. The matter here is the historical realization of two qualitatively new powers of state violence. Auschwitz has demonstrated what can be done when the techniques of Fordist production and accounting are used to industrialize mass murder. Hiroshima showed us that science in the service of the war machine has already, in a terrible fait accompli, produced weapons whose destructive capacity effectively will have no limit on earth. The future can no longer be for us what it heretofore was; in this regard, it is - and we are - changed irreversibly. Henceforth the future will be in radical doubt, in that our beloved notions of progress - the assumption or hope that our lives will improve steadily, and perhaps even automatically, with the increase in knowledge, technology and productive power - will no longer stand up to scrutiny.
Now, this is not to say that we all have fully and consciously grasped these consequences, even today. I have just summarized these meanings with the advantage of enormous hindsight and a half-century of collective critical reflection. None of this was clear in 1945, and even today the meanings of these two events remain partially understood, often obscured and frequently still contested. This will be no surprise, if we think of Auschwitz and Hiroshima as massive and globalized traumas humanity has inflicted on itself. Trauma, we're told by psychoanalytic theory, is too painful to assimilate as normal experience. Trauma triggers numerous defensive psychic operations the aim of which is to prevent this pain from coming to consciousness, where it would have to be confronted before being coped, processed and interpreted. Traumas typically remain repressed memories, which continue to produce effects unconsciously. Mourning - and this will be my first, working definition - is the process by which traumas and the losses they signify are brought to consciousness and critically reflected.
Understandably, few wanted to know in the years immediately following 1945 that more had happened during World War II than the awful and all-too obvious death and destruction required for the Allies to defeat Germany and Japan. In the general and euphoric relief in the wake of war's end, few wanted or would have been able to know that the real disaster fundamentally would be ongoing. Awareness that our understanding of humanity and our relation to the future would now have to be different was generally repressed from consciousness. In its place was, for the "winners" of the war, the manufactured optimism of commodified capitalist prosperity, and, for the "losers," the hard tasks of reconstruction. Soon the Cold War and its simplified ideological constructions of the enemy would take over the place of reflection.
The idea that in some basic and terrible way we all may have lost the war would not begin to emerge into public consciousness until much later and even then would remain slow, hesitant and uneven. Before this knowledge became conscious - and as part of the process by which it gradually became conscious - it produced unconscious effects in the form of symptoms, namely anxiety and "acting out." My claim - not really so controversial, after all - is that art and culture is one field or site where this anxiety was first expressed and acted out, in ways that later could begin to become conscious. In other words, in the artistic mourning or processing of Auschwitz and Hiroshima after 1945, we can see and trace the process by which these genocidal catastrophes slowly emerge into public consciousness and become objects of reflection and debate.
Art as a Practice of Mourning
I'm not claiming that artists were necessarily the first to mourn and wrestle with the deeper meanings of Auschwitz and Hiroshima. It's well established that Theodor Adorno was among the first to explicitly open up this problem. His early reflections, published in 1951 in the essay "Cultural Criticism and Society" and in Minimal Moralia, would eventually be developed into the powerful philosophical meditations that end his Negative Dialectics (1966).3 For Adorno, Auschwitz was merely the "first sample" of the genocidal potential of capitalist modernity itself. That is, of a globalized social totality in which the passage to the "real humanity" of classless society has been blocked, West and East, and in which relations of domination hold the majority of people in a condition of intellectual and political immaturity. In such a condition, people's awareness of their actual powerlessness is generally repressed, but builds up as a collective rage that eventually seeks genocidal expressions.4
It was Adorno, too, who saw that art initially would not be able to address this ongoing disaster directly. Art, we could say, first registers this disaster by rejecting its own traditions. "After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric," as Adorno famously first put it.5 The implicit prohibition on lyric poetry here is, synecdochically, a statement of a predicament shared by all the arts. To go on making art in the traditional ways, as if nothing had happened or changed, is now understood to be defective, inadequate, in the worst case obscene. In a series of texts produced in the early 1960s, Adorno looked to Samuel Beckett's Endgame as a model for an art that evoked the catastrophe obliquely, "negatively," sublimely - without, as it were, pronouncing its name out loud.
The dissemination and reception of Adorno's critique in the early post-1945 period remains largely unexplored territory. Adorno concerned himself mainly with music, literature and philosophy. He largely ignored or in any case showed no close awareness of contemporary visual art, and his aesthetico-ethical strictures implied a rigorous image ban. Nevertheless, visual analogues of negative poetry, literature, and music can be found and mapped. Indeed, I want to suggest that parallel to Adorno's developing reflections - roughly between 1951 and 1966 - the problem of the real historical catastrophe is first acted out and gradually brought into consciousness in visual art. Not every artist, obviously, was concerned with this problem. But those who were formed a distinct stream of cultural activity that at times functioned as informal networks in which innovations circulated and were built on collectively. This is where I want to locate Beuys.
We can recognize the emergence, over the course of the 1950s and 60s, of two distinct streams of experimentation in the visual arts, two directions or ways of responding to the traumas of mid-century. Each stream represents a mutation in the tradition of history art. The first is constituted by the move beyond the traditional art object and the leap into performativity. The second formed around the discovery and investigation of negative presentation in sculpture. Both streams of practice - both mutations in postwar history art - begin as unconscious, largely blind responses. This is an important point. Working through repressed trauma is a slow and uneven process, and typically a messy one. In this case, the new human potentialities revealed in Auschwitz and Hiroshima amount to a crushing strike at human dignity and self-worth - one that threatens radically to disenchant the narcissistic ground of the myths of progress. All the psychic defenses are mobilized against this insight: all the forms of avoidance and resistance, displacement and acting out. Every movement toward understanding is made only against strong resistance and is immediately subject to reversal and regression.
Acting out - a symptomatic way of avoiding the repressed by displacing it into repetitive forms of behavior - is I think best grasped as an early phase or opening in the process of working through, rather than rigidly opposed to it. This helps us to see how art can function as a relatively privileged field for the initial processing of these kinds of collective traumas. In strictly psychoanalytic terms, acting-out is an unconscious manifestation of resistance. But art of course is never completely unconscious: it has often enough mobilized the unconscious and its contents, but only by subjecting them to some degree of conscious, formal control. So some kinds of art can be thought of as a practice of acting out that is partially conscious and that incorporates elements of a more critical working-through: "playing-through," we could call it. "Play" may at first seem an inappropriate category for grasping responses to qualitative events of genocidal violence, but the fact is that it's not always possible to confront these events directly. Playing with them symbolically - artistically - is way of first approaching and liberating repressed material.
The Performative Stream of Post-1945 Art
This becomes fairly clear in the first stream of postwar art in my schema. The shift in focus and practical emphasis from object making to performativity is at bottom a way of acting out, performing, playing through the fact that history has imposed new conditions on art - that things can't go on as they have done. Not at first, but later on, artists begin to understand consciously what the historical sources and implications of this change are. In this stream, Jackson Pollock is of course a key initiating figure. But we would also have to recognize Lucio Fontana, Shozo Shimamoto and the Gutai Art Association. With Alan Kaprow, Fluxus and the Vienna Actionists, this performative mutation gradually becomes fully conscious in the early 1960s.6
I want to suggest, then, that when Lucio Fontana pierced and cut through a stretched canvas, as in his Concetti spaziali of 1949, the year the Soviet Union first detonated an atomic bomb; or when Shozo Shimamoto stabbed through a ground built up from painted and glued layers of newspaper, as in his Holes series in the same year; when Saburo Murakami in 1955 punched and kicked his way through a series of large panels made from blank paper mounted on painting stretchers; or when Shimamoto blasted paint onto a canvas with a cannon in 1956 - all these gestures of symbolic violence are a way of acting out and playing through the content of Adorno's propositions about the impossibility of art after the disaster. They are ways of symbolically "destroying" traditional painting - or of rehearsing or restaging its historical destruction. Similarly, when in Woodstock in 1952 (the year the United States detonated the first hydrogen bomb), David Tudor premiered John Cage's 4'33", performing as it were a structured refusal to play notes on a piano and in effect subordinating traditional music to the ambient sounds of everyday life; or when in Düsseldorf in 1962, Nam June Paik slowly raised a violin above his head, then brought it smashing down onto a table top; or when in Wiesbaden later the same year, Dick Higgins, George Macunias, Benjamin Patterson, Wolf Vostell and Emmett Williams destroyed a piano in their performance of Phillip Corner's Piano Activities; or when Raphael Montañez Ortiz attacked a piano with an ax in 1966 - these gestures are basically performative assertions that the time of traditional music is over.
Now, obviously this kind of iconoclasm is nothing new under the sun - or in the tradition of the artistic avant-gardes. But it would be wrong to simply reduce all these actions to the category of repetition, even if repetition is clearly in play here. The meanings of these performances are generated by the post-1945 context, and it is there that they must be sought. Nor will it invalidate my claim to point out that some of these actions took place before Adorno published his sentence on poetry and Auschwitz or that none of these artists ever read a word of Adorno (I have no idea whether or not that's the case). I'm not arguing that they are direct responses to Adorno, nor am I very interested in assigning priorities or constructing definitive narratives on that basis. These performative experiments are early, largely unconscious artistic responses to new historical conditions to which Adorno, too, was responding. This can be read between the lines in the texts and manifestoes in which some of these artists struggle to express their sense that a certain historical period and artistic tradition has now definitively ended: Fontana's Manifesto blanco (1946), Jiro Yoshihara's Gutai Manifesto (1956), Ortiz's Destructivism manifesto (1962), or for that matter many of Pollock's statements7 all express a conviction - if a still confused one that cannot match the rigor of Adorno's critical formulations - that history and art with it have in some crucial sense gone beyond the point of no return.
The process by which these first performative responses develop into practices that are fully conscious of the historical conditions they are responding to takes place over the course of the 1950s and 60s, in parallel to and to some extent in dynamic interaction with critical public discourses and interventions that directly grapple with the meanings and legacies of Auschwitz and Hiroshima. In the early 1950s, for example, an anti-nuclear peace movement and culture had emerged around the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; in 1955, a petition of the World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs collected over 30 million signatures. In the same year in Europe, Alain Resnais released his 31-minute documentary film Nuit et brouillard, a major early reflection on Auschwitz. Over the 1950s, then, information and critical reflections on the historical disaster were steadily entering the public sphere, and these gradually have a visible impact on artistic practices.
In the performative stream of post-1945 art, trauma often first appears in a very individualized form, as in Kazuo Shiraga's 1955 action Challenging Mud or Jim Dine's Car Crash happening from 1960. And Beuys clearly has his place in this stream. Indeed, "show your wounds" would be a suitable slogan for this whole direction of artistic mourning as performative playing-through. But I would credit Wolf Vostell with bringing performativity to full post-1945 historical consciousness with his happenings You and Never Again, both from 1964. In You, a "dé-collage happening for Bob and Rhett Brown," Vostell transformed a property in Great Neck, New York, into a hellish and chaotic environment overloaded with colored smoke flares, naked bodies, burning television sets and 400 pounds of raw beef and bones. Entering spectators were quickly forced to become participants in the experiential happening installed around a swimming pool and tennis court. Photographs show "audience" members, some in gas masks, massed in stringy enclosures that are unmistakably visual echoes of barbed wire and concentration camps; other spectator-participants appear to be wallowing in the mud beneath a spreading pall of orange smoke.8 Without ever naming Auschwitz or Hiroshima, Vostell constructed a simulated ordeal that exposes and rehearses the integration and normalization of historical catastrophe within the naturalized structures of commodified everyday life.
Negative Presentation and Post-1945 Sculptural Practice
The second mutation in post-1945 history art is the discovery and investigation of negative presentation in sculpture. Negative presentation is a way to refer to something without showing it. A "positive" presentation depicts something by representing it directly: a conventional portrait painting, for example, or a documentary photograph. A negative presentation, by contrast, evokes its referent without any direct, positive depiction: a photograph of a person's shoes or personal items, for example, rather than a photograph of the person. It's a strategy of indirection, a way of evoking rather than invoking. Since Kant, who uses the phrase in the Critique of Judgment, negative presentation is associated with the sublime. We could say that it is a mode of the sublime that will turn out to be both fitting and effective as an artistic practice.
Arguably, sculpture has always involved the use of negative, as well as positive, forms and volumes. But what is new in the post-1945 period is the way artists discover how to withhold the human body from positive representation and use this absence to evoke and remember - in short to mourn - the victims of genocidal violence. "Discovery" might be the wrong category here, but there is in any case a more or less systematic investigation of the possibilities for using negative presentation in art in this way beginning around 1959. The initial impetus for artistic research in this direction apparently comes from the character of the photographic negative. From 1949-51, Robert Rauschenberg and his wife Simone Weil made a series of prints by positioning a naked woman on large sheets of photo-sensitive blueprint paper and then hitting these with light. The result was a form of nude in which the silhouette of the body appears white on a blue ground. This may have stimulated Yves Klein, who in 1960 began his anthropométries, in which blue paint is applied to the bodies of nude models who are then brought in contact with canvas. The resulting "paintings" are positive images, in the sense that the body is directly, if crudely, represented: we can think of these as positive portraits painted without the mediation of brushes.
In 1961, Klein veers off into negative presentation in a canvas titled, suggestively, Hiroshima. Here, he has placed his nude models against the canvas, and applied blue pigment around them. When the United States detonated an atomic bomb above Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, the blast left a number of negative silhouettes of human forms on various walls and steps around the city.9 Klein has reproduced this effect, and indeed his silhouettes are also very similar to some of those made by Rauschenberg and Weil. But by this very precise gesture of attaching the place-name "Hiroshima" to his negative evocation of human bodies, Klein shows us that he has grasped the potential of negative presentation as a mode of alluding to historical violence. At this point, we can say that this practice has become historically conscious. That is, the artist has grasped the link between a direction of formal experimentation and specific historical traumas.
In the same year, Klein made a series of "fire paintings" with a flame-thrower. In some, he brought the wet body of a nude model into contact with the canvas before hitting it with flame. Since the wet parts of the canvas were relatively protected from burning, the resulting image appears to be the ghastly trace of a body in fire - a holocaustal reference that could allude equally to Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Obviously, these experiments in negative presentation are linked to what we could call the ontological status of the trace. The capacity of the trace to "testify" to a prior presence is in fact an aspect of all artistic mark-making: all mark-making has a "negative" dimension, in that every mark also indirectly generates a narrative of its own origin - the narrative of its own making. Pollack's drip paintings, for example, generate the narrative of the performances by which the artist applied paint to the canvas. But here, with Klein in 1961, we have evidence that this always at least latent link between event and trace has become a tool to consciously evoke and remember historical catastrophe.
This story of how negative presentation unfolds in painting after 1945 is important, because in the same years - 1959 to 1961 - one of Klein's colleagues, Arman, traces a similar trajectory of discovery in the medium of sculpture. It's worth noting that the efficacy of negative presentations - their capacity, that is, to successfully evoke a referent without direct, positive depiction or invocation - is largely a function of how well established the corresponding positive images are in the public sphere. Negative presentations depend on the general public dissemination of the positive images they indirectly refer to. Only to the extent to which such positive images become known and consciously or unconsciously recognizable can they be assumed and discarded. Without needing to be shown, they will then function in context as the referents for negative images. In the example of Klein and painting, we've already seen that the human body can be assumed in this way: because we are intimately familiar with the human body and all its possible forms, artists are able to present it negatively. And in sculpture, too, the body can be evoked in this way. In the four versions of Beuys's 1983 installation The End of the Twentieth Century, the similarity in scale, form and material between the manipulated basalt columns and ancient portrait mummies and stone sarcophagi is enough for a successful negative presentation of the human body. On one level, at least, these installations need to be read as a jumble of corpses, the aftermath of a massacre or genocide. Indeed, because the human body is the object of political violence and terror, because in the end it is in and on their bodies that the victims of history must bear all the traces of their pain, terror, torture and destruction, the body will always be the basic reference for all artistic mourning, all artistic modes of remembering historical trauma and disaster. And this is of course central to the way performative practices conditioned on the physical presence of performer's body produce their effects.
However, what Arman discovers - again, if this word is really the right one, I'm open to alternatives - in 1959 is something different. He sees that it is not necessary to refer to the human body pictorially, as it were, through positive or negative allusions to its form, shape, silhouette or scale. Working with the idea of the trace, negative presentations can be even more indirect. By 1959, Arman had become very interested in garbage as an archive of discarded items. He explored this idea through his sculptural poubelles, or vitrines or boxes filled with selected refuse. (It goes without saying that we're dealing here with an expanded, post-Duchampian notion of sculpture and object making.) What Arman was becoming sensitized to is the capacity personal objects have to retain their links to the people associated with them. So, the artist could make a number of witty and auratic "portrait" poubelles of his friends and Paris dealer by constructing collections or archives of items that function as traces. Even a person's trash can testify to their real historical presence.
In the same year, 1959, Arman begins making accumulations, or serial collections of the same or similar object, typically arranged in wall-mounted vitrines. Benjamin Buchloh has suggestively interpreted this principle of "serial multiplication" as a "record of the actually limitless expansion and repetition of object production" that terminates, as it were, the utopian object-aesthetic of Dada and Surrealism.10 But I think Buchloh goes too far in discounting the specificity of the historical references and titling of some of the accumulations. As we'll see, only the context of the cultural struggle to grasp the deeper historical meanings of genocidal violence can account for this. But first we need to make a brief digression.
The film I mentioned earlier, Alain Resnais's Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog) from 1955, is a landmark in the public dissemination of positive images of the Nazi genocide in Europe. It's true that similar images - Margaret Bourke-White's photographs of the liberated camp at Buchenwald, for example, had long been in circulation. But film is an especially effective and powerful medium of dissemination, and Resnais's documentary combined these images with a moving voice-over narration that locates them historically as objects of an urgently needed critical reflection. Nacht und Nebel, a German-language version written by the poet Paul Celan, was released in 1957, right at the time Beuys was working on his proposal for an Auschwitz memorial. So the impact of this film is significant: it contains and disseminated the positive images that would become the basis for the first negative presentations of Auschwitz in post-1945 visual art - and in the sculptural work of Beuys.
Specifically, there are several sequences in Resnais's film that visually document the so-called Canada warehouses of Auschwitz, where the plundered personal property of the murdered victims was sorted and stored. These images are a depressing testimony to what happens when the rationalized Fordist factory is retooled for state-directed genocide. It isn't enough to murder the victims and reduce their bodies to ashes. Every piece of personal property from which value can be extracted, and every commodifiable by-product of the bodies themselves, must be collected, sorted and quantified. This last extended even to the victim's hair and body fat - a fact, documented in Resnais's film, that did not escape Joseph Beuys, as he began to struggle with this history in the late 1950s.
This, I'm convinced, is how we have to view at least some, if not all, of Arman's accumulations. The collections of dentures (La Vie à pleines dents, 1960) and eyeglasses (Untitled, 1961) are very probably evocations of the pulling of gold teeth and plunder of property practiced systematically in the Vernichtungslager, or killing centers. One is tempted to say that they are reconstructions, conscious or not, of images from these sequences of Resnais's film. Whether or not Arman fully understood these references in 1959, works and titles over the next few years show us that he had certainly made these links by 1962 at the very latest. A 1961 accumulation of insecticide pumps (the "Fly-Tox" brand-name is prominent) is possibly a bitter allusion to Zyclon-B, the toxin used in the gas chambers; the origins of its title, Tuez-les tous, Dieu reconnaîtra les Siens, are certainly to be found in historical massacres; a contemporary translation popular among US military forces during the Vietnam era renders it "Kill them all, let God sort them out." But with Village of the Damned, a vitrine stuffed with standing dolls of children from 1962, and Birth Control, an accumulation of similar dolls packed tightly into a tin box from 1963, there isn't much room for doubt about it. These works almost certainly evoke the deportation and murder of Jewish children under the Vichy regime.11
With Arman, then, negative presentation in sculpture becomes a way of evoking the horror of industrialized genocide through the serial display of its byproducts, and this mode of evocation derives its specificity from the visual evidence of actual practices at Auschwitz. Arman also participated in the symbolic demolition of traditional music I mentioned earlier. In 1961, a year before Paik smashed a violin in One for Violin, Arman began a series he called colères (rages), in which he "made" sculptures by violently destroying emblematic bourgeois cultural objects, typically musical instruments and especially auratic stringed instruments with rich varnished or patined wooden surfaces. In this year he made colères from a destroyed violin (Mama mia!), bass (NBC Rage) and mandolin (Colère de Mandoline). He will also silence musical instruments by cutting them apart (so-called coupes) and reducing them to cinders through fire (combustions). The specificity here is that Arman recuperates the remnants of these cultural demolitions: the events of violence are converted into a mode of sculptural production. (Beuys, too, will take part in the Fluxus attack on traditional music, for example in the Infiltration Homogen for Grand Piano from 1966.)
In the line of sculptural negative presentation, another key figure of course is Daniel Spoerri, who begins making his tableaux pièges, or "snare pictures," in 1960. These sculptural snapshots of meetings and meals made by turning tabletops and so forth into ad hoc reliquaries seem to hover somewhere between memento mori and memento vivere. The operative principle is, again, the evidentiary and testimonial aspect of the trace: the event is presented negatively by the traces and relics it leaves behind. In this light, Arman's colères begun the following year are a radicalization that puts the focus on events of extreme violence.
What begins to emerge, then, are the outlines of a kind of generalizing attack on the forms of traditional art and culture after 1945. The response to the global violence of World War II and, within it, the qualitative traumas of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, takes the form of hostility and symbolic violence directed against traditional culture. This attack can be seen in all the arts across the board and corresponds to or correlates with Adorno's pronouncements on the impossibility of traditional lyric poetry after Auschwtiz. The cultural skepticism and pessimism formulated by Adorno is radicalized by some artists into a kind of insurgent practice of symbolic sabotage and demolition. In Paris already in late 1940s and early 50s, Isidore Isou and his "Letterist" collaborators were again relentlessly purging poetry of words and meaning, rapidly reducing high literature to the performance of astonishing roars, clicks and gurgles. François Dufrêne's amazing crirythmes of 1958 are exemplary here. In comparison, Paul Celan's development - following the famous but still-traditional "Todesfuge" of 1952 - of a memorial poetry painfully generated through the literal torture of language and syntax appears less extreme and radical.12 In 1951, Isou's Letterists turned to film and declared "the destruction of cinema." The following year, Guy Debord made his infamous anti-film Hurlements en faveur de Sade (Howlings for Sade), in which the images are reduced to blank white and black screens.
All of this (barely) sublimated cultural violence reaches some kind of peak around 1961, a year that saw Spoerri's Les Lunettes noires in Copenhagen, Niki de Saint-Phalle's Shooting Gallery in Paris, Piero Manzoni's Artist's Shit, and "The Doom Show" by Boris Lurie and the March Group in New York. Without being overly-reductive - without claiming that all of this complexly diverse activity can be completely explained as a single unified cultural response or univocal meaning - it seems clear enough to me that on a deep level these practices have to be understood as responses to the predicament of art and culture after Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Or, to put it in the loose psychoanalytic register I have been using: whatever else all of this may have been or means, it is also the work and play of mourning. Benjamin Buchloh's chracterization of this period as one dominated by "a dialectic of silence and exposure" - a dialectic, that is, between "the repression of catastrophic historical experience and its opposite, the rapid development of a new culture of spectacle and consumption" seems to me very sound.13 But I find his conclusion - that "the repression of historical experience, the silence on the subject of history, is almost total in the works of the visual neo-avant-garde from 1958 to 1968"14 - to be grossly overstated. This dismissive judgment simply fails to grasp the diverse ways many artists struggled with the legacies of mid-century - in a period that was shaped as well by an accelerating process of re-politicization driven by struggles of national liberation, decolonization, and social revolution outside the capitalist core of the world system.
This is the larger - global as well as specifically European - context in which Beuys needs to be located. These are the two streams, the performative and the negative, to which he belonged, and these European networks around Nouveau Réalisme and Fluxus are the ones that decisively shaped the direction of his work.15 Arguably, his most important contributions were to the development of negative memorial forms of sculpture. Beuys consolidated the early experiments in negative presentation and developed them into forceful memorial installations. The culmination of this development is surely the 1985 installation Plight, with its walls of felt columns evoking the murdered and plundered victims of Auschwitz and its silenced piano testifying to art's helplessness before the eruptions of genocidal violence. These techniques of negative presentation would be used by Christian Boltanski, Anselm Kiefer, Rachel Whiteread, Jochen Gerz, Horst Hoheisel and others and indeed by the 1990s had become the dominant institutionalized mode of memorial art.
To speak more restrictedly of the German context, I would like to take this opportunity to correct a shortcoming in my previous work. By positioning Beuys as the central figure in this memorial "project" (if this is the right word for it), at least in the visual arts in postwar Germany, I unjustly tended to elide other artists working in this direction. I certainly failed to recognize or do justice to Wolf Vostell, who worked in the same streams and networks as Beuys and arguably did so with a higher degree of historical and political consciousness. I've mentioned Vostell's happenings You and Never Again, from 1964. Already in 1958/9, Vostell had created an environment called Schwarzes Zimmer (Black Room), which included an object-assemblage called Auschwitz-Scheinwerfer (Auschwitz Searchlight); this was a rare and early invocation of the Nazi genocide through a combination of titling and oblique sculptural allegory. Among other citable examples, Vostell's 1970 happening T.E.K./Thermoelektronischer Kaugummi (Thermoelectronic Chewing Gum) negatively evoked the victims of Auschwitz through an installation utilizing thousands of heaped forks and spoons and two walls of barbed wire.
Mourning and Cosmopolitics
My claim, then, is that both of these mutational streams of post-1945 visual art - the move to performativity and, slightly later, negative presentation in sculpture - are moments in the history of the cultural processing of twentieth-century trauma. They are artistic registrations and cultural aftermaths, as it were, of the collective disaster. They belong, in short, to the work and play of mourning. If this is right, then the question must immediately follow: with what result? Adorno had already argued that Auschwitz was proof that cultural had failed to improve humanity or transform it in such a way that barbarism is durably overcome. Art has always coexisted with the very worst, generally accommodating itself without much protest, and this is the main indictment against it. Art, it will have to be said, has proved to be just as powerless and ineffective in its attempts after 1945 to process and mourn the disaster. The power of art to intervene into everyday life remains extremely limited - very slight indeed. The social effects of such interventions are indirect, complexly mediated by institutions and nearly impossible to assess reliably. The problem - again, as Adorno had already noted - looming behind Auschwitz and Hiroshima is ultimately one of social relations. This problem could only be addressed through radical social transformation, a global reorganization aimed at neutralizing relations of domination. That daunting practical political and material project obviously is far beyond the capacity of art. Indeed, we live today with the consequences of our collective failure to solve, in a non-catastrophic way, the impasses and blockages of traditional revolutionary theory. But that unrealized historical project remains, for me at least, the only real alternative to despair and resignation.
My provocation today is to suggest that it is precisely to this conclusion that mourning must rigorously lead us. Mourning the shared, global catastrophe of Auschwitz and Hiroshima can only mean processing these events all the way down to the social and historical conditions that continue to make such genocidal eruptions possible and probably even inevitable. As Sigmund Freud theorized it, mourning is the process of withdrawing libido from a lost love-object. Classically, this lost love-object is a person, and mourning begins when the lover is ready to accept the reality of the loss of the beloved. But the love-object can be anything: a fantasy of power, purity, or virtue, for example, or a too-flattering self-image. Narcissistic wounds, if traumatic enough, also must be mourned. In that case, mourning becomes a self-critical process driven by a determination to face the truth of a situation. Jacques Derrida has in the last decades emphasized the interminable character of mourning: this testing of and adjustment to reality, or construction of a more adequate perspective on reality, is ongoing.
Psychoanalysis, we know, can be a very disciplinary, even politically reactionary practice. In the worst case, psychoanalysis becomes a tool of power aimed at disarming those who would resist their apparent fate. It is such a tool, wherever it merely facilitates, in the name of maturity, the adjustment of individuals to the social given, to the political and economic status quo. The US version of psychoanalytic practice famously has been criticized on such grounds. However, psychoanalysis can become a radical practice, if its procedures of reality-testing are pushed beyond a restricted application to individuals and are forged into collectivized tools of ideology critique. In a politically radicalized reconstruction of the project of psychoanalysis, mourning would become an interminable labor of social (self-)critique - a continuous project of real enlightenment. This is the direction the Frankfurt theorists attempted to push it. Brought to bear on our collective traumas, mourning would seek to go beyond the pain and loss of the individual victim or victim group and try to grasp the deeper social realities shaping and over-determining historical disasters and blockages.
To mourn Auschwitz and Hiroshima would require processing the structural barbarism that made both events possible - and that therefore link these events beyond all their obvious differences. This I know is controversial linkage, but I'm convinced it is an inescapable one. Both genocides are products of Western modernity and a capitalist world-system that reduces everything to exchange-value - or "fungibility," as Adorno liked to put it - and that has disastrously come to be dominated by instrumental reason. This is the sense in which Adorno warns us of the "perennial catastrophe" that continues unabated in the present. (And this is not to dismiss the disastrous crimes, traumas and repressive nightmares of "really existing socialism" under Stalin, Mao and others. Quite clearly, these bureaucratic regimes were not the needed revolution or passage to classless society; for reasons that are still debated but crucial to grasp, they reproduced in different forms the same global logics of domination.) More than any facile mouthing of formulas such as "never again," politicized mourning would be a renewed commitment to a global reorganization of social relations, a real transformation of the conditions that made Auschwitz and Hiroshima possible and that threaten us all, at every moment, with similar recurrences or worse. Anything less than this would be a failure of mourning - mere melancholic resignation, a self-assuaging form of indulgence. And this re-linkage to a revolutionary horizon obviously parts company with an academic trauma industry that protects itself from this kind of radical demand.
I want to underscore two aspects of this politicized notion of mourning. First, its interminable character. Mourning is not something that is pursued for a little while, and then is accomplished and done with, in order to declare victory and go back to business as usual. The crimes and traumas of genocide are not put to rest so easily, and any attempt to put them to rest should be resisted. Mourning, in this sense, would have to be a process of self-critical transformation: a constantly renewed commitment and vigilance that on a practical level opposes any return to or accommodation with business as usual.
Second - and this is relevant to the cultural and artistic expressions of critical remembrance - the task of mourning is to keep pressure on the points of greatest resistance, in the psychoanalytic sense: on those points, that is, in which the need for reality testing and radical change is most stubbornly repressed, avoided and denied. These points are not static and unchanging. They are constantly shifting in response to unfolding history. It follows that the strategies and tactics for keeping pressure on these points of resistance must also be dynamic. They must be creative and flexible, in order to keep the critical project moving and to overcome or bypass obstacles. This is how art and culture can make modest but real contributions to a collectivized labor of mourning and transformation - of mourning conceived as no less than an open-ended process of transformation. To repeat, any such contributions sited within the "affirmative" institutions of art cannot be more than circumscribed critical mediations. But in this regard every form of criticality in every site of relative autonomy is welcome as a needed contribution toward cumulative shifts in public awareness and consciousness.
But, again, mourning can't end in such gestures. Its logic is to merge with processes of radical and enlightened social transformation. And this is why the most politically conscious artists sooner or later reject the constraints of institutionalized art and relocate their practices within everyday life itself; the avant-garde is a vector of politicized exit or breakout from the art institutions, in order more effectively to merge the best impulses of art with social movements and struggles.16 Here, it must be said, the anti-capitalist cultural guerrillas of the Situationist International were far more decisive and exemplary than Beuys. The need for dynamic strategies that keep pressure on shifting points of resistance also helps us to see, against Adorno this time, that negative presentation should not become an absolute ethico-aesthetic imperative. If contexts shift, such that negative strategies become an institutionalized default position or formula for the production of discrete, dignified memorial art, then a shift back to more direct and confrontational strategies may be called for. I've argued elsewhere that a shift away from negative presentation became necessary as soon as it became institutionally dominant and hegemonic over other approaches to representing history.17
In closing, I want briefly to bring in the second notion in my title, that of "cosmopolitics." It is the link I've been making between politicized mourning and enlightenment that makes the notion of cosmopolitics necessary. If we can say that mourning belongs to the project of enlightenment, then we will also have to go further than that and qualify this statement, because the concept of enlightenment, as necessary as it may be, also needs the rigors of self-critique. Theoretically, enlightenment aspires to be reasoned self-liberation from prejudice and the progressive attainment of autonomy - collective as well as individual. Historically, however, we know that the Western Enlightenment underwrote European colonialism and the construction of the capitalist world system. Despite its fine promise, the Enlightenment was always entangled with the racist violence and primitive accumulations of Euro-American modernity and its colonial and imperial conquests - a traumatic history that the people of these islands know something about. So we need to bring our critical resources to bear, in order to distinguish between the promise of enlightenment and the historical and contemporary instrumentalization of that promise. The same holds for the promise of human rights, a legacy of the Enlightenment that is often hijacked as cover for self-serving military interventions.
The task is to grasp situations both historically and globally. Cosmopolitanism, we will remember, belongs to the Enlightenment project. As formulated by Kant and others in the eighteenth century, cosmopolitanism was a tolerant openness to other traditions that promised to tame national, cultural and religious rivalries and lead us to the perpetual peace made possible by the globalization of reason. "Cosmopolitics" is a neologism - I'm not sure who coined it, but it has been used by Derrida, Daniele Archibugi, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, among others - that plays critically on this tradition; it invokes the promise of the enlightened tradition of cosmopolitanism, while at the same time confronting that tradition with its real historical functions and complicity in violence. It acknowledges what is worthy of being rescued from this tradition without forgetting its past entanglements in systemic domination. So, as it is invoked today, the notion of cosmopolitics points to the deep historical backgrounds and continuing systemic asymmetries of power behind neo-liberal globalization and its current wars of enforcement.
A cosmopolitical - as opposed to a traditional cosmopolitan - perspective would recognize the emancipatory content of universal values while at the same time understanding that Western values have become globalized at gunpoint, as it were. Universalizing forms of Western - that is, modernist, capitalist - rationality also must be historicized. To carry out this operation is eventually to see that any adequate justice would have to take into account the conflicting demands of the universal and the singular, general and particular, collective and individual, global and local. It can never be just enough to let the universal overwhelm the claims of particular communities; nor can particularist or identitarian demands justly deny the common ground of the universal. Every event of justice would need to find its way through this "ordeal," as Derrida calls it, each time developing its own standard from the concrete givens of singular situations.
In the attempt, something like real enlightenment is hopefully salvaged. A cosmopolitical analysis would be able to distinguish, for instance, between the mourning of Auschwitz and official, instrumentalized pseudo-mourning (Wiedergutmachung in German). It would be capable of grasping the attacks of September 11, not as the "evil" of enemies who fundamentally "hate freedom," as the official propaganda declared, but as belated blowback from the Cold War "Great Game" and from a neo-liberal model of coercive globalization that destructively overwhelms local cultures and traditions and holds the planetary majority in a debtors prison while vacuuming away their natural and social wealth. Mourning and cosmopolitics, then, go together. They are names for the critical processing of our failure up to now to realize the promise of human possibilities by organizing our social relations on the basis of cooperation and mutual support and enrichment, rather than the race to the bottom of the capitalist war of all against all. Art can contribute modestly to the realization of this end by helping to dissolve the points of blockage and resistance. In the context of post-1945 reconstruction and the official optimism of hyper-commodification, artistic efforts at a memorial playing-through must be seen as form of criticality. Today we need to remember that the aim of such critical gestures is to link up with the real movements to profoundly change our world by seeking a collective passage beyond the ruinous cycles and wars of capitalism.
1 See my "Joseph Beuys and the After-Auschwitz Sublime" in Joseph Beuys: Mapping the Legacy, ed. Gene Ray (New York: DAP and Ringling Museum, 2001) and included, with an added postscript, in Gene Ray, Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory: From Auschwitz to Hiroshima to September 11 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
2 By this I'm trying to correct a deficiency pointed to by Benjamin Buchloh, who very fairly criticized my previous work on Beuys for being too monographical and insufficiently comparative in focus. See Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, "Reconsidering Joseph Beuys: Once Again," in Ray, ed., Joseph Beuys: Mapping the Legacy, op cit.
3 Theodor W. Adorno, "Cultural Criticism and Society," in Prisms, trasn. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1981); Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 1974); Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton (New York: Contiuum, 1973).
4 Adorno's words from 1959 are always worth rereading: "That fascism lives on, that the oft-invoked working through of the past has to this day been unsuccessful and has degenerated into its own caricature, an empty and cold forgetting, is due to the fact that the objective conditions of society that engendered fascism continue to exist. Fascism essentially cannot be derived from subjective dispositions. The economic order, and to a great extent the economic organization modeled upon it, now as then renders the majority of people dependent upon conditions beyond their control and thus maintains them in a state of political immaturity [Unmündigkeit]. If they want to live, then no other avenue remains but to adapt, submit themselves to the given conditions; they must negate precisely that autonomous subjectivity to which the idea of democracy appeals; they can preserve themselves only if they renounce their self. To see through the nexus of deception, they would need to make precisely that painful intellectual effort that the organization of everyday life, and not least of all a culture industry inflated to the point of totality, prevents. The necessity of such adaptation, of identification with the given, the status quo, with power as such, creates the potential for totalitarianism. This potential is reinforced by the dissatisfaction and the rage that very constraint to adapt produces and reproduces." Adorno, "The Meaning of Working Through the Past" in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), pp. 98-9.
5 Adorno, "Cultural Criticism and Society," in Prisms, op cit., p. 34, trans. modified.
6 I'm glad to acknowledge my debts here to the fine and path-breaking essays in the exhibition catalog Out of Actions: Between Performance and Object, 1949-1979, ed. Paul Schimmel (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998).
7 All of these can be found in Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, eds., Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).
8 Vostell's sketch for You, a translation of his "score," and numerous photographs are included in Allan Kaprow's massive anthology Assemblages, Environments, and Happenings (New York: Abrams, 1966).
9 Klein reportedly saw one such stone during a visit to Japan in 1953. He in any case saw Fumio Kamei's film about this stone, Ikite-iteyokata (The Shadow on the Stone) in 1956. Sidra Stich, Yves Klein (Stuttgart: Cantz, 1994), p. 179.
10 Buchloh, "Plenty or Nothing: From Yves Klein's Le Vide to Arman's Le Plein," in Buchloh, Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2000), p. 270.
11 Buchloh acknowledges some of these references, as well as the importance of Resnais's film, but then dismisses them as "interpretative projection," in order to insist that Arman's object choices point first of all to a principle of infinite commodification and that postwar visual art fails to break the official historical amnesia. Ibid., p. 274, my italics: "Without wanting to falsify the inevitably limitless choices of Arman's object aesthetic [...], one cannot help but see that some objects in Arman's warehouse are more prone to interpretive projection than others: his accumulations of dentures, reading glasses, and gas masks, even those made out of the hands of puppets, seem to echo the accumulations of clothing, hair, and private objects that Alain Resnais had recorded in Nuit et brouillard[.]"
12 Both Isou and Celan were displaced Romanian Jews whose families and childhood communities were devastated by the Nazi genocide.
13 Buchloh, "Plenty or Nothing," in Buchloh, Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry, op cit., p. 259.
14 Ibid., pp. 261-2.
15 The links between Paris and Düsseldorf are well established. To take just one telling example, Galerie Schmela mounted a solo exhibition of Arman's poubelles and accumulations in Düsseldorf in the summer of 1960.
16 For the development of this thesis, see my "Avant-Gardes as Anti-Capitalist Vector," Third Text, vol. 21, no. 3 (May 2007): 241-55; "On the Conditions of Anti-Capitalist Art," Left Curve 31 (May 2007), pp. 89-95; and "Critical Theory and Critical Art Theory," Linksnet.de (July 2007), online at .
17 See my "Conditioning Adorno: 'After Auschwitz' Now" in Ray, Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory, op cit. 13
This text began as a talk at a symposium on Joseph Beuys held in Dublin in January, 2006. It is forthcoming in Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes, ed., Beuysian Legacies: Art, Culture and Politics in Ireland, Europe and the US (LIT, 2008), in the series European Studies in Culture and Policy, eds. Ulli Kockel and Máiréad NicCraith.