In: Everyone Is an Artist. Cosmopolitical Exercises with Joseph Beyus.
K20 Kunstsammlung Nordhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf. Exhibition Catalogue, 2021
In her book The Force of Nonviolence Judith Butler deconstructs the myth of individuality in enlightenment origin stories, including the idea of a violent ‘state of nature’ where everyone fights for themselves, which supposedly preexists the social contract. While these narratives uphold an idea of the normative human being as already a (male) adult who never needed support, Butler notes that what is erased from the picture are the relations of interdependency that are necessary for sustaining life. Instead of being born as independent, we are born as helpless creatures into a world defined by radical dependency, a state that never leaves us, but rather intensifies through our lives. This interdependency is not only material (as we need others in order to feed ourselves and find shelter) but also psychic, as our sense of self is constructed in relationship to another through ongoing processes of projections and identifications. Fields such as phenomenology have expanded the notion of co-constitution to the realm of cognition and perception: the sun gives us light, pheromones give us smell, gravity gives us weight. Existence is not a war of everybody against everybody but a dance of intimacy, affect and response to the ways in which we are connected to other living beings, to matter, energy, and time.
In the traditions of aesthetics, form is understood as the fundamental quality of art, and the practice of an artist as that of doing and making forms. The focus on form, however, actively dismisses the artist as someone who has special expertise in their work: what is to be evaluated is only the impact of the work and the semiotic resonances it activates, not the artist’s intentions. Centering form, however, misses an essential aspect of art. While it is true that often the work carries meanings beyond the artist’s intent, that is not because the artist was merely passively channeling meanings of the world into the work. Instead, this channeling is active, and requires its own skill. To be able to make work requires a certain openness where one cultivates a closeness to the world. A skill not of crafting and carving but of surrendering, letting go, reflection, of exposure instead of extraction. The practice of art is a practice of intimacy and dialogue with the world, a heightened, intentional sensitivity to the bodily, emotional and physical bonds that both connect and constitute us. This practice is the real techné of the artist. Before any doing and making, art is being, a certain way of being.
The defining characteristic of industrial capitalism is the way it isolates and fragments our lifeworld. Live connections to land, to community, to family, to our more-than-human kin are cut off and replaced by a cult of individualism on the one hand, and cruel dependency on megastructures we have no agency in on the other. The cult of individualism peaks in the figure of the artist as a unique entrepreneur of their own life, owning the copyright to their creativity as their personal capital. In the absence of communal bonds, the critical voice of the artist becomes yet another sellable commodity in the economies of spectacles and identities. Thus, anticapitalist resistance in art is not possible only through means of criticality. What is needed is resurgence of community, solidarity, belonging and relationality not only as the end, but also, and importantly, as the means of art practice. This requires reviving an ontology of art that doesn’t start from the emergence of forms, not even social forms, but from relationality as a fundamental quality of all life. Art practice is not cultural production but an expression of this relationality, and the relations we attune to through art are not only social: our relationships to eternity, to earth, to matter, to energy, to the divine are equally central to our existence. Further, art is not a field of production that has to justify itself to society: it is a need, and as such it is an end in itself, the same way other deep bonds are ends in themselves. We need access to this intimacy, this connectedness, this openness and resonance, not only with each other but with existence itself.
What is crucial is that we all have a need and the capacity for this way of being. The praxis of art is not, and should not be considered, something only for those labeled artists, but for everybody. And the practice of art can’t be a characteristic of solely humans, because it was never only human to start with: the practice of art is connection with the waves and formations and meanings of the more-than-human world, and it would be arrogant to think that other creatures who live in the web of life would not experience it in their own ways.
James Baldwin ends his essay “The Creative Process” with these powerful words: “Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.” Baldwin argues that ethical engagement and fighting for justice are the task and obligation of an artist living in an unjust world. Underlying this is an acknowledgement of a fundamental relationality at the heart of society, but also of the intimacy, closeness and attachment of that relation. Further, the freedom being called for is not a freedom from others, nor freedom over them. Instead, it is a lover’s freedom: a freedom for self realisation through and together with the other, a freedom to be vulnerable and open in the relations we are given over to. The task of those of us who are dedicated to the practice of art, is to build a lifeworld where it is possible for everybody to exist in this open vulnerability that makes intimacy with each other and the world possible.
Judith Butler: The Force of Nonviolence. Verso, 2020.
James Baldwin: The Creative Process. In: Creative America, Ridge Press, 1962.
Ongoing conversations with artist and activist Jenni Laiti and her upcoming text Taide on vapaa, kun me olemme vapaita (upcoming in 2021)