30 April 2021

Karen Kurczynski—Jorn on Functionalism as Totalitarian

Kurczynski, The Art and Politics of Asger Jorn

p. 34—on "collective creativity" and the "open work"
Given the context of Jorn's extra-painterly concerns in the early 1940s, the idea of openness implicit in the indeterminate compositional process also takes on social and political dimensions. Openness to the new would become one of Jorn's central artistic themes. He argues in Held og Hasard that curiosity about the new and unknown is the beginning of all aesthetic activity.
Is this orientation indicative of a moral purpose per se? Only by way of analogy/metaphor/mimesis/poiesis/etc. Where it takes hold at all, it is necessarily only at a distance from so-called Everyday Life, or at least this is so in this case because the result is an artwork. As an artist by vocation and calling, Jorn can model "openness" in the way he goes about his work, but he usually won't succeed in communicating per se to this effect, nor does the fact of his modeling seem likely to get over to much of anyone outside of the social world immediately surrounding art and artists. This is of course all well and good until KK would attach greater pretensions.
Jorn did not intervene to save them; in fact, he writes that the quick and inexpensive painting techniques and temporary lifespan of the murals were important aspects of their meaning. More broadly, the emphasis on the social experience over the finished work exemplified the way the collective practices of Cobra anticipate contemporary Relational aesthetics. Jorn believed that the role of artists was to inspire by example, through their embrace of a creative life, rather than either to create finished works which would only end up decorating the homes of the wealthy, like a painter, or to redesign the everyday lives of the working class, like a modern architect. ... The Bregnerød murals attempted to redefine "painting" from a noun to a verb, considering painting a process of redefining a space, transforming it into something at once more social and more artistic, in a new holistic statement that was simultaneously personal and collective. (83)
All of this begs all of the same questions as do so many later bubblings-up of "Relational aesthetics," itself a rather oxymoronic/contradictory turn of phrase, and most clearly so by the logic of its most vociferous supporters. If "social experience" is paramount, why pursue it through an activity which indeed results in, if not necessarily a "finished" work, certainly some kind of work? Does such a choice of vehicle not indicate that there is something about the process of creation, whether or not this process has clear starting and ending points, which facilitates the specific type of social experience desired? And if so, how could the fate of the work be quite as trivial a matter as such theorists would insist? It seems not merely illogical but actually fully disingenuous to have designated a destination while subsequently insisting that the journey is the priority. Of course who knows what scenarios could arise spontaneously; but as far as both internal logical consistency and empirical resonance, Debord's theory of the supersession of art and its absorption into Life actually seems to me to have quite a bit more going for it. As does, IMHO of course, Modernism writ large, which is perfectly transparent in its internal logic, aims, social role, etc., perhaps without much empirical resonance in the Everyday realm (which is of course intentional).

Needless to say that "inspir[ing] by example" as against "decorating the homes of the wealthy" is rather over-reductive and quite the false dichotomy.
Despite his interest in architectural murals inspired by Léger and Le Corbusier, Jorn rejected the emphasis of those artists on designing a complete socialist environment, which he felt only led to the rationalist plans of Functionalism. He critiqued the notion of design creating a new modernist lifestyle for its technocratic and authoritarian tendency. Jorn argues that, "we need an art that is living, a part of itself," adding that the most useful goal for artists is to attack the artistic establishment that prevents the working classes from understanding their own creative potential. (83)
The terms "technocractic" and "authoritarian" serve to highlight the concealed power differential between the designer and the end user. This much, I think, is worth granting and ruminating on (and possibly even connecting to, say, the current design-driven power dynamic in the Music Production/Distribution sector, where those thought to possess privileged knowledge of packaging methods exert strong gravitational pull on the scarce revenue streams while content (let's understand this usage of that word as a double-usage, as in the classical duality Form-Content AND the internet-oriented sense of a Content Producer) generators are, as they always have been but not always for the same reasons, the last to get paid). All of that having been duly noted, granted, ruminated upon, etc., the concealment of such power dynamics is only sometimes, or only partially, attributable to power's own interests/objectives; in the case of Functionalist design, I would say they are concealed in part because they are unavoidable. It is indeed perfectly accessible to the rhetorical "working classes" to paint murals on the walls of their apartments; it is rather less accessible but not insurmountably so for them to produce and distribute their own sound recordings; but it is scarcely possible for them to design and build the apartment building, the audio editing software, or the Internet themselves; and much more to the point, neither is it necessary for them to do so, unless they experience a Foucauldian level of anxiety over the fact that the specialists in design and construction of each of these items hold, it is true, some modicum of power over them. And so, again having granted the mere fact that such dynamics do in fact exist, it is a long way from there to technocracy and authoritarianism, these sorts of terms representing (or they did before people began throwing them around carelessly) a sort of total-ness of top-down power, complete with mechanisms of accountability which flow in only one direction. Obviously I need to brush up on architectural functionalism, because it seems from a distance that it could not possibly have risen to this level.
...Jorn produced so many more murals in private settings throughout his life; the Kindergarten and Bregnerød house were the exceptions. Unlike the 1930s murals of Le Corbusier, his were meant to inspire in the broadest possible sense, rather than to instruct or to enforce social ideals upon a population. For this reason, the gestural nature of both sets of murals was essential to their message of free expression. In rendering personal expression at a public scale, they broke down the strict opposition of public and private space, countering the ideals of public order inherent in the architecture with a seemingly chaotic organicism. The unprecendented combination of automatic drawing, popular motifs, and dynamic monumental imagery at Bregnerød created an aesthetic tension that suggests the mutual interdependence of collective space and personal expression, the situation Nancy describes as "being singular plural." (84)
So, the Direct Path of "instruct[ion]" is eschewed in favor of "inspir[ation]," ostensibly similar to Eu. Rousseau's opposition of intellectual understanding and emotional realization, of just telling a student the answer versus optimizing conditions for them to arrive at the answer themselves. There is indeed much to be said for this idea, but there's no disputing that it progressively loses its appeal as the scale of interaction is increased, i.e. as the range and quantity of distinct outcomes vis-a-vis individual social agents eventually increase enough to become intractable. Hence if a word as strong as "enforce" is occasionally (or, uh, perhaps all too frequently) appealed to, this reflects the necessity of both reductionism and brute force (hopefully merely of the rhetorical variety) in any mass-/macro-scale communication; these are the techniques which yield tractable outcomes. The theory of "free expression" that is presented here forfeits this tractability in exchange for liberation, but not for progress; or not UNLESS one believes in an exceedingly optimistic human nature which simply needs to be unleashed without being told where to go or what to do. More likely it will go everywhere all at once. Is this a bad thing? Perhaps not, but progress will not be achieved via chaos, which theorists of the latter tell us illustrates a certain Sensitivity to Initial Conditions, which is to say the rich get richer.

Perhaps those of us living now can be thankful that Jorn and others thought to pose an alternative to the comparatively naive First Wave progressivism of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet where we go from here is as unclear as ever: the enforcement-inspiration opposition presented here really only marks out the poles of a spectrum, both of which have well-known flaws and limitations. Having learned this much, we may deploy one or the other strategy and hope to learn more about the strategic deployment of each. It is nonetheless hard to imagine resolving the central problem: you can't tell people what to do, and you can't expect them to figure it out for themselves.

Questions of scale arise more specifically as the passage continues. These muralists "broke down the strict opposition of public and private space" by "rendering personal expression at public scale." Seriously?! Just because this act, for instance, highlights the public/private distinction, displays a certain irreverence for it, invites consideration of its nature and implications, in no way necessarily encompasses as well the fait accompli that is related here. In fact the modifier "public" is a rather strange one to apply to the concept "scale," since both physical and intangible objects of all scales comprise the public sphere. As such, a "personal expression" made "public" can have all manner of implications rather independent of its physical scale. Concealed by this rhetorical maneuver is the potential that such ostensibly well-intentioned public displays of personal work reach various absolute statuses at various absolute increments of physical size (and perhaps also, but not necessarily, "scale"). Hence, the general principle enumerated here is quite suspect, and the specific case of "murals" is not exactly an ideal exemplar. The theory runs aground via the same oversight as in the previous case of "enforcement" versus "inspiration:" the sender of communication (in this case the artist) does not exert perfect control (nor anything approaching it) over its reception by any particular individual, or not unless (to recapitulate the previous issue) a degree of simplification and/or reduction is embraced which artists are generally loathe to even consider (and certainly Jorn's larger oeuvre as related throughout this book would give the impression that this sort of truly populist compromise was not in his vocabulary).

[from a notebook, 2018]

1 comment:

Stefan Kac said...

Raoul Vaneigem
A Declaration on the Rights of Human Beings (2001)
trans. Liz Heron (2003)

pp. 80-81—"There are no better bases for the creation of destiny than animal impulses which are endlessly refined and diversified as mankind's nature becomes more human."
p 117—"The truths of the heart are never the truths of power and its mercantile seductions. ... Nothing of what man and woman confess or conceal when restored to their natural pleasures is likely to fall into tyranny."
p. 93—Unhappiness leads people to inflict harm, bliss wishes for everyone to be happy. There is nothing to compare with the propagation of happiness in the fight against frustration, repression, repression's eruption, the feeling of envy, resentment, fear and the impulse to prey on others—the causes of all crime."

Here are the Optimist-Essentialist moments which particularly jumped out, or at least those which did so after it first became crystal clear that this was an unmarked, unnamed, more-or-less-hidden premise which therefore demands marking, naming, revealing, should the full literal thrust of the work be made explicit.

It seems to me that happiness per se occupies too exalted of a place here, not just by my standards but by RV's own. I would substitute something like Self-Actualization, the ultimate "bas[i]s for the creation of destiny," source of the ultimate "natural pleasures," the ultimate antidote to "frustration," "repression," etc. This substitution reconciles the incongruous emphasis in these pages on the secondary effect "happiness" with the emphasis throughout on opposing pairs of primary ingredients.

[from a post-it, 2018]