No shadow without noise

-Raimar Stange

Raimar StangeIn the context of your project Les Messieurs d’Avignon you speak of the »bad boys of Modernism, « who »cannot be imagined apart from their chronological and spatial settings, yet they stand in a difficult and contradictory relation to any stringent model of progress, which following an officially glossed-over understanding would be referred to as Modernism«. Can you explain that a little, perhaps also with one of the »bad boys« as a concrete example?

Michael Kunze — The word »bad« is of course not meant in the sense of a moral judgment. It refers rather to the hair in the soup, the necessary disturbing factor in a system that is all too harmoniously thought out. If need be, in any case here a jab is built in against any self-righteous and stubborn good-person paradigm of the 1960s; that has for over 40 years now determined the mainstream of a Western Modernism. The contradictions, historical errors, and ideologically determined lies about life, which in no small measure characterize this dominance, are today at issue. I believe that for the next few years and decades, a shift in paradigms will be proclaimed, one that calls into question and evaluates anew the whole course of Modernism in the twentieth century’s second half, in the radical sense of Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil. What a good person calls »bad« awakens sympathies, and the other way around.

       A good example of a troublemaker in this context is Martin Heidegger. Due to his involvement in fascism, he is, of course, persona non grata, but it is he who carries a considerable part of modern thought from Sartre to Derrida on his back! This irritating fact is obstinately fought from the politically correct side, and the more that it is fought, the more dangerously their own foundations totter. The troublemaker can never be damned without endangering one’s own tranquility. The connection functions for better or worse, and the crack in the apparently godly plan does not allow itself to be hidden in the long term.

RSTYou address, as I understand it, a terminology of progress and enlightenment, in which – Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno wrote this in 1947 in their Dialectic of Enlightenment particular »bad«, irrational mo ments and so forth are rationalized away. This is then paid for by progress and enlightenment, with a loss of what they called the »connection to truth« and, to cite Horkheimer/ Adorno again: the »progress turns into a step backward. That the hygienic factory space and all that belongs to it, Volkswagen and sports palace, bone-headedly liquidates metaphysics would be all the same; but that they themselves become a metaphysics, an ideological curtain, behind which the real unhealthiness assembles, is not all the same«. Would your picture series in this sense be some thing like a piece of engaged counter-Enlightenment that tries to push aside this still-dominant ideological curtain of the all-too-clean?

MK — A part of the announced paradigm shift definitely has to do with that. However, I mean that Horkheimer/Adorno assess the cultural phenomena too conventionally. Nietzsche’s critique of the Enlightenment and the morality that belongs to it got much further and appears to me more contemporary than all that critical theory has to say about that. But nevertheless, Horkheimer/Adorno bring a decisive metaphor into the debate: at the origin of Western man, between myth and Enlightenment, stands Odysseus, who allows himself to be bound to the ship’s mast, in order not to be conquered by the sirens yet to at least hear them. The self-binding of Odysseus as the first act of a European Enlightenment here means the disempowerment of the mythical natural powers, which already contains the germ of alienation from oneself and the world, which European mankind since then has had to pay for his stratagem. At the same time, here for the first time not only a rational distancing comes into play but also an aesthetically motivated distance from the threatening natural powers. The unbelievable density of this parable, which actually contains all the components whose oppositional tension ultimately leads to the world-dominating European »Western« mankind, is hardly to be resolved. Rationalization of the myth, domination over nature, technological emancipation, alienation from the originating powers, the separation of the individual from society for an aesthetic »spell« – all of these are the Ur-motifs of an initial European identity formation and umbilical separation from Asia. Until today, thought has been occupied with either loosening Odysseus’ bonds or actually again lashing something more substantial: how could one free Odysseus without his in fact again becoming a victim of the myth? How could his bondage be in part of another nature, in which his being kept away from the source of his longing would actually be taken up again? Are his bonds of gold or of iron? What in his distancing from the power of nature is illusion? What in the seductive power of the sirens’ song remains irresistible? Where does the beautiful separate itself from the threatening?

       Adorno/Horkheimer stick obstinately to the consequences of the so-called »delusional context,« as the bondage of Odysseus brings with it as its underside the first enlightening impulses. In order to escape the danger of new myth-formation in alienation, Adorno sees as an exit only obstinate negativity. I hold that to be a weak solution. Nietzsche, in contrast, pleads at this point for an intensification of the aesthetic distance from the sirens’ song, which for him proceeds along with a fundamental critique of the entire Judeo-Christian moral system. Nietzsche sees in this intensification the freeing of a new »superman« type, one who ignores the up-until-now post-tragic value system. The turbulences hidden in this interpretation are a theme that in my opinion hits a nerve of our time and ties the Messieurs d’Avignon together as representatives of another Modernism in the twentieth century. With a new understanding of these contexts, something can be decided upon for the future.

RSTYour »bad boys« thus represent something like a gallery of »aesthetes« who have artistically and intellectually experimented within your framework of »turbulences «. Why – of course as a bass player, I noticed this right away– are there visual artists, philosophers, film directors and writers but no musicians? Would not Richard Wagner or Jim Morrison have been somewhat interesting in this context? And why are there not any »bad girls« with you?

MK— Concerning the bad girls, the whole work has in any case to do with a complicated opposition between the sexes: the women stand in sunlight and the men operate in shadow. Probably an intended reversal of the beloved feminist fighting position. Almost all the protagonists named here have a »women problem« in some fashion, from Nietzsche till Houellebecq. The sole place in which a relatively natural engagement between man and woman takes place is the kiss in the park in Antonioni’s Blow Up—reckoning with the fact that this scene is the starting point of a surrealistic murder. The man lies dead on the grass shortly afterwards, and the woman (who assumedly set the murder in motion) for strategic reasons becomes the lover of the photographer, who despite his photographs does not have a clue.

      In the list of the threatened messieurs were Richard Wagner, Jim Morrison or Frank Zappa, to named as well, but there were simply technical limitations that demanded a concentration on images and texts. One cannot approach this encyclopedically in any case. And I do not see any »aesthetes« at work anywhere here. This word that actually does not say anything (the adjective, in contrast, still useable) has in any case been poisoned by an unhealthy and all-leveling distortion of the term since the 1960s, thus a context which I hold to be obsolete. The »aesthete« is clearly here a negatively loaded term in opposition to a politically integral, socially critical, democratically fundamentalist, anti-bourgeois educational, cosmetically revolutionary vanquisher of the art-and-life boundaries – what a lot of nonsense!

RSTOK, then let’s talk about »the aesthetic«: you paint your Messieurs d’Avignon once as pure or simple (copied from a photograph) portraits and sometimes like a narrative- complex-loaded gathering. Can you say a few words about your artistic strategy? And do you not fear (in an era of so-called painter-hype; women do not appear there either) fumbling your way into »the painter pitfall« – in that you unwillingly satisfy the fascination of many observers with the long-admired »royal discipline« of painting in stead of focusing their interest on the conceptual essence of your work?

MK — Painting as an old medium among the new media, and as a possible meaningful corrective of newer media, is in itself neither inherently negative nor positive, king’s discipline neither here nor there. The generally negative valuation of painting originates, on the contrary and always, out of an outmoded consensus of the last 40 years, involving when the ideologization of all cultural domains was fabricated and, among other things, the blockheaded typology of the aesthete (who of course found painting good). One cannot say often enough that all the evaluation standards and the dogmatic patching up, which stem from this phase of a Modernism become »official,« are to be rejected. One must call all of that into question, as fundamentally as possible.

      Nevertheless, you are, of course, right when you speak of a »pitfall«. These pitfalls exist for all artistically valid media, and I would rather call them self-referential pitfalls or formalism pitfalls. These exist likewise on the basis of an officially modern paradigm, namely on the basis of a mistaken maxim that the highest form of relation is a relation to itself: thus »form is content,« »the medium is the message« and so forth. That is nonsense and nothing but idealism in a stage of desperation. In terms of images, that only leads to a desert, like the similarly motivated architectural desolation (»ornament is a crime«) under which we have to suffer since the 1960s and ‘70s. It is typical that the connection between »art and life« becomes an ideal precisely at this summit of blindness and pseudo anti-aesthetic terminological confusion. Speaking against this context is valid today for all media, as well as for painting. Painting, which only wants to be delicious and to satisfy itself, is superfluous. Decisive, in contrast, is the inclusion of a textual level, which leads beyond and out of the formal boundaries, expressed old-fashionedly as »content,« which refers to something other than the medium and the self. Painting must again be a means and escape from the pitfall of the purpose-bound. Only when employed can a medium prove its worth, not just in relation to itself. Only then can the appearance-image be, as far as I am concerned, virtuous and celebratory – as in the case of old painting was selfevident. But if the textual level remains empty, I prefer Minimal art. In the case of the genealogy presented here, painting serves the interpretation of a programmatic total idea: the photographic material on which it is based, which in the painterly execution experiences major interventions, could not without this execution deliver anything that would be adequate to production of the foreseen panorama. Precisely because of its historically deep roots, the medium of painting – which has at its disposal just these very roots – is the suitable medium.

RSTI fully share your critique of a self-referentially empty formalism. If one only sees the works of Tomma Abts or Anselm Reyle, only abstract »hotel-picture painting « (Adorno) is produced, and exactly because these works reject any sort of connection with a (critical) societal praxis. This was also still the explicit program with the formal abstraction of early Modernism, to which the formalism of our time refers only hypocritically. It is always worthwhile in this context to reread, for example, the revolutionary writings of the Bauhaus. You in any case reject a connection between »art and life« as falsely understood idealism. Why?

MK — The complex that here reveals a fissure in the consciousness of European-influenced contemporaries does actually make a correct point, and that has been a topic at least since the bondage of Odysseus. In fact the manner in which this matter is taken literally in the course of later Modernism has led to the terminological aporias discussed here. These contribute to the disintegration of the whole paradigm and also to all the embarrassing pocketing and inconveniencing of a presumed public in need of animation, whereby an actually present tension is reinterpreted as infantilism. Seen like this, the whole essence of the art of the 1960s and ‘70s was a single, broad-reaching exhortation to contact-crawling. I would set against this what Nietzsche declared »the pathos of distance,« or what Gottfried Benn demanded: »Keep yourself distant from the next person!« One can in this sense not distance oneself enough! It has here exactly to do with the opposition to that so repeatedly rejected by me, the socioculturally-broughtabout consensus of the late Modern mainstream. At the same time it nevertheless has to do with a part of Modernism itself that is not able to lose its shadow. Vertical, hierarchical structures focused on difference meet up with horizontal, equalizing structures. Starting from this point, one can return to the source of such controversies, the bound Odysseus, overlooking that Odysseus does not have himself bound to the mast to have fun but rather to survive. It is not possible to simply untie his bonds, and then everything will be OK. They are the conditions of an intensified perception. And the most insurmountable distance possible is the requirement for the whole situation’s transformation. The distance is therefore not only to be maintained but exaggerated to the extreme.

      So it is not only a lack of respect when an artist wants to interactively push me back into my skin in order to free me from my prison. It also has to do with a completely false evaluation of each forcedly aesthetic attitude: the close consideration of a picture by Raphael is interactive, too. »Art and life« are separated only for the ideologically confused. One only needs to attend a Wagner opera in order to realize that the public there is as carried away as another public at a heavy-metal band performance. The sole difference is this: the one is more physically demonstrative than the other.

RSTWhen I was speaking of the relation between art and life, at that point I thought (as in the Bauhaus example) of a »reference (of art) to a (critical) societal praxis «. This is something in opposition to cuddly interactivity (for example, with Liam Gillick, Rirkrit Tiravanija, or Santiago Sierra). In light of your work, then, how would an adequate getting-oneself-involved look? You are also playing (self-aware, I think) with quasi-forbidden fruit, that is with the people you are portraying’s having been accused (Martin Heidegger, Ernst Jünger), more or less correctly, of a closeness to fascism. Should this polemic moment simply provoke the viewer, or is something else behind that?

MK — Naturally I exaggerate and generalize in the name of beloved polemics, and as always what must prevail is – all exceptions confirm all the rules! Whether someone in a museum offers me a back massage or if one earnestly social-critically puts the gallery under water, they both really belong in the established interactive entertainment circus – there I see only a gradual distinction but no principal one. Thus no self-reference, no cuddling and never a submerged gallery! What then, actually? Perhaps my attempt to intervene in the societal begins first where the whole context (in which, for example, these three possibilities appear almost without alternatives) is to be called into question. It has to do with undermining a self-understanding whose absolutism meanwhile stands in a contradiction to a relativism that is maintainable no longer than it internally promises. The motor of this self-understanding is a subtly equalizing grinding mill, which gradually dissolves all the differences between people and cultures until the world has become a single piece of chewing gum that looks the same everywhere. For many, this end of all maturity and evolution, this final gray pulp, may appear to be inevitable – yet critique must nevertheless be possible here. That then has altogether to do with designing a Modernism »beyond Karl Marx and Coca-Cola«. What could still at the beginning of the 1960s have a rebellious effect under the illuminated logo »Pop« has increasingly accelerated an identity-less consumerism, and the sought-after dictatorship of the proletariat would finally be replaced (for example) by the creators of »Germany seeks a superstar«. Here the maxims are realized that 40 years before had provided for social explosiveness: anyone can do it! Anyone is allowed to! No one needs talent. You only have to dare! But what comes out of this can only be a kind of karaoke for cripples, the ‘68er paradigm paired with maximal tune-in figures. The laborer to be freed, held for so long to be the key to world history, did not actually turn out after his freeing to be the longedfor mixture of Socrates, Jesus Christ and Jim Morrison but rather a prosperous Dieter Bohlen.
       To deliver arguments to all these contexts – with picture, text, film, whatever – is in my opinion the sole possibility for making an appearance as critic in today’s society. What then in individual instances is provocative will be decided by parties and by details. The gallery that has been walled in, in contrast, actually provokes no one and also does not critique anymore, as it fulfills long-held expectations.

RSTI also believe that the hopes expressed by the art and crossing-over of the 1990s have unfortunately remained hopes. I also find understandable that »simply only pictures« appear in order to act as alternatives. But, and thereby with my last question to return concretely to your work, has this strategy not already been absorbed by the bourgeois art market some time ago, and thereby likewise robbed of its critical sharpness?

MK — The question as to medium is simply indifferent, because it always goes in a circle. The sought-for crossover of the ‘90s was perhaps the last phase of an equalizing impulse, within which the framework-exploding and border-crossing have become congealed. The framework has not framed for quite some time, and the borders within multi-culti monotony also do not delimit any more; empty negation can then only bring with it a displacement of the »art for art« problem.

If one means to be serious about critique, then only content alone can play a role. In my case, the cleaning out of a paradigm become tedious can begin with pictorial programs but also (it’s all the same to me) with a protective salve, a mass hypnosis or the Marquis de Sade’s canonization by the Catholic Church. However! Perhaps it has to do with winning back a stronger European identity, with »cultural struggles« (if that word were not already so damaged) – a bit more binding of Odysseus and somewhat less of Dieter Bohlen. The cities must then become gigantic mausoleumlike formations, with columned halls between which airplanes fly, with antenna-laden offering cups, from which pillars of smoke rise into the stratosphere, with Olympic gods between the levels, with wooded gardens at dizzying heights, which already stand in the evening light when dawn is breaking at the foundations, in the air the traces of a Dionysus who has returned from Asia after humanity has finally shaken off the hostage of Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheism, together with the whole incurable redemption morality. No ceiling height under 10 meters in any house, the entrances carried by Atlases of granite the art antiquified and nevertheless playing upon the whole psychological scale, for a long time gone the muddle-headed ideals of the French Revolution – Freedom? Impossible! Equality? A catastrophe! Brotherliness? Not as long as there is still evolution! Worldwide, teaching English will be replaced by ancient Greek; instead of sociology and ethics, tragedies will be studied. Science and technological progress will not have limitations put on them in any way, W-Lan in the entire Milky Way; Piranesi-like views through triumphal arches that disappear in the clouds, behind which new worlds again wait to be conquered, and still further distances that want to be invented, and so forth. That would really be crossover! A clue as to my own fetters is also given: as long as I do not have more means at my disposal, I am thus forced to produce my programs on small canvases. I would gladly rather take on large construction projects, where millions of workers and machines would be employed day and night. – Yet all of this must not come true, it would already be enough if several perspectival extensions show small irregularities, which probably will be contained in an insignificant moment in a diffuse future. What can be called »art« in all this is not important.
The conversation took place via email in December 2006.