True excellence generally appears in situations without intention or premeditation. Excellence appears out of nowhere, has presence, and is permanent. That is what happened in the conversation between Bazon Brock, professor emeritus of aesthetics and cultural exchange, and Journalist Michael Köhler on January 2, 2021. The conversation was broadcast by Deutschlandfunk on the program "Kultur heute" (Culture Today) in the open-format series "Innovationsmotor Kultur" (Culture as an Engine of Innovation).
Bazon Brock, who was born in 1936 and studied philosophy, German literature, and political science in addition to training as a dramaturge, has intervened in German cultural life since the 1950s. With Marina Sawall, he currently runs an office in Berlin that is known as the "Denkerei/Amt für Arbeit an unlösbaren Problemen" (Thinkery/Office for Work on Unsolvable Problems).
It could be argued that nothing Brock states is without intention or premeditation, and this is naturally true. However, no one can predict what may happen when two sharp minds engage in conversation. This is why we are providing the space here to allow this conversation to be savored again.
Michael Köhler: In the late 1950s, as a professor of aesthetics and self-declared "artist without an oeuvre," Bazon Brock participated in Fluxus events with the painter Wolf Vostell and Joseph Beuys. In 1967 they founded the Deutsche Studentenpartei (German Student Party), known as the DSP, based on the idea that even more than every person being an artist, every person is a student who wants to learn. In the context of our open-format series on innovative culture and culture as an engine, I asked Brock, who is an art theorist, about the situation of the arts under corona conditions in which all premieres, exhibitions, theater and opera performances are streamed, disembodied, and dissociated. The artists cannot perform and work as they normally do—is that the future?
Bazon Brock: No, is not the future of the arts; it is only the future of the interaction of signs. However, we know that the word must become flesh in order to have energy to be transmitted. While transmitting signs is a purely mechanical process, reading and interpreting the signs requires embodiment—and those who do not embody their own spirit will end up a psychiatric ward, will appear beside themselves in several figures, or are already dead.
MK: What is in store for us in the future? A very cursory look back: at dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012, there was Tine Seghal, who won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale a year later. Or jumping to 2019, you'll recall that the prize went to Lithuania for an opera performance, “Sun and Sea,” a critique of Western consumer lifestyle, including travel, climate change, and the extinction of species, set on an artificial beach. Or since 2011 there has been an artist collective that calls itself “Forensic Architecture”—that is, it even has forensic in the title. Are the arts completely taking leave of the conventional concept of a work of art and establishing a sort of office that spies on reality?
BB: Yes, that is perhaps what weak characters are secretly yearning for. Just like children dream of being the head secret service agent for M16, to name a famous British example, or to be a big-time agent. That is apparently what these artists who no longer have the energy to define themselves of their own accord as individuals use to establish their success.
That is the crucial detail: those who only work within a collective must leave the arts and the sciences, because you can only be an artist or scientist as an individual, and not as the member of a cultural collective. If the cultural collective authority is in effect that of the church, bishops, military, unions, banks, etc. it means the end of art and science.
There are many advanced cultures with incredible achievements that never possessed art or science. The ancient Egyptians, the Greeks, the Persians—none of them knew about art and science. Although individuals could have purely technical abilities as engineers, there was no autonomy due to authorship, which is necessary in the art tradition of western Europe. The interesting thing about the Western development is that, starting in the fourteenth century in western Europe, there was a new authority on the agenda, outside of the church, outside of the royal court, military dictatorship, or citizenry: the authority of the individual as an author. These individuals as authors used their authority to promote the entire development of technology and all sciences in the West. These were all achievements of individuals that were then absorbed by the collectives.
MK: A sort of Leonardo principle perhaps?
BB: Yes. Conversely, nothing had ever worked at all. The Chinese had a vastly superior culture, but no individual expression as authority by means of authorship. The West had advanced the world with first-rate achievements for six hundred years because it had recognized the authority of individuals as artists or scientists. That is over now. The philosopher Hegel predicted this would happen—
MK: —calling it the end of art—
BB: —the termination is so to speak due to the weakness of individuals. They were worn down by the temptations of the capital market. In the capital market, art market, or science market, you can only be successful if you bow to the demands of the collective. This is the situation today: when you are applying for a research grant, you have to tell the financial backer what the results of your research will be. That is totally ludicrous, because research is about examining things you don't know, and thus what you cannot predict.
In other words: the capitalist market has finally triumphed over all concepts of art and science. Now all we have is the collective ideologies of the banks, the major investment firms, and the technology companies—and that is the end of the West. The triumph of China is unavoidable. Europe, the triumph that was brought forth by the Western world has taken leave, and artists are going along with great aplomb. That means that artists deserve to lose significance, because they themselves have voluntarily waived bringing their individual expression to the fore in relation to global circumstances. They feel safe when they work for a kindergarten, for the church, or for the good of the public. They feel noble and magnificent, because they represent the collective, because they have gotten the money from them. They have not noticed that by doing so they have given up themselves. That is the situation today.
MK: Are you appealing for a liberal strengthening of authorship, or is it too late for that?
BB: No, it is never too late. There may be alternatives, in the sense of spin-offs, that then might gain influence. You could say, for example, that we are now in an era in which nothing can happen beyond the awareness that is borne by capital and guided by investments. What are art and science without the market? At that point there was the idea of inventing a new sort of sensory orientation for artists and scientists. That was the idea of the academy that has been around since Plato's time, of course, but was now implemented in a new way. An academy is an association of artists and scientists who have mutually availed themselves as creators of statements and recipients. In other words: a society of artist and scientist that are sufficient in themselves because they are encountering their peers in the truest sense of the word.
Painters were educated in the academies by showing them what other painters had painted. That means that confrontation with the achievements of painting was the decisive means of orientation for those who wanted to become painters. Thus it was neither success on the market nor success in public—you couldn't even commit to wanting to be successful on the market, because it was about the thing itself! You could only evaluate the thing, if you understood something about it. And so, painters painted for other painters, because they had the competence to say what had been stipulated as painting. In science it was exactly the same: if you were an astrophysicist, such as Newton for example, you worked with regard to others who wanted to [work in astrophysics], or cosmology, no matter how they were motivated. That made the work of scientists and artists so successful that the concept of an association of scientists, an association of artists—that is, of an excluded association of individuals, the associations of loners—was recognized as the worst form of creating a society. Even today, the famous outsiders, the individualists, are the real pillars of society. For if you have a developed personality, you do not fear the competition from those who are even better. All small-minded people always fear the competition of the better ones because they believe that they can only exert their own superiority when they step on the others, those who are not as good as they are. Good people always want to be informed by better people, and they orient themselves on them. This resulted in us at the university in Wuppertal begging the ministry to only appoint people who are better than we were. In other words: Wilhelm von Humboldt's principle of developing the arts and sciences was: only those who orient themselves to be better than themselves are somebody. We have to stop orienting ourselves on the market, on success, on prices, on agreeing with the culture section of the newspaper, etc., and return to the idea of an association of scientists and artists.
MK: Does that mean that in the future we should take art seriously as a system of communication, Professor Brock?
BB: No. it isn't a system of communication; it is a form of developing problems. Naive people believe that it is a matter of solving problems. Specialists know that problems can only be solved by creating new problems. A shortage of electricity cannot be solved by changing to nuclear power—because the problem of the disposing of the radioactive waste is a much larger problem than the shortage of power. In other words, problems have to be presented in a way in which they cannot be recognized as principally unsolvable problems. Because if a problem can be solved, then why not just solve it? There's no problem at all. Specialists know, also in medicine: ask your doctor or pharmacist about risks and side effects. That is the best way to phrase it. Problem solving is about creating new problems. So it is really a matter of recognizing how to deal with problems that are unsolvable—and that takes guts, brains, and reason. The real job of artists and scientists as authorities on the subject of authorship is to vehemently advocate this.
MK: Innovation though the individuation of the artist. I have been speaking with the art theorist Bazon Brock.
Transcribed by Charlotte Kuhn
Edited by Bazon Brock Marina Sawall, and Stefan Becht