On the ethical responsibility of the creatives
— Johannes Rauchenberger
May art and creative output be sufficient unto themselves? Do creatives also owe society a service or return service? What connections are there between the paradigms of the modern mesociety, in which self-optimisation, self-functionalisation and efficiency maximisation are idealised and subjected to an exploitation logic and creative output per se?
Art, so it would appear, has recently, if not earlier, lost the pathos of its hard fought-for, in some cases merely simulated, autonomy. It finds it either necessary to justify itself or at least to consider its specific contribution in these uncertain times. A glance at the current state of cultural life in Austria already reveals that no artistic director, no opening speaker, can afford to design a programme or draft a ceremonial speech in which there is no reference to the present situation with its evident crises. On one end of the scale is Angela Merkel’s historical comment, made in September 2015 in the wake of the sudden influx of refugees, that “We will manage”, to which even a year later, the “steirischer herbst” (“Styrian autumn”) festival, in its tradition of exhibiting politically advanced art, referred in an almost truculent way. At the other end – yet again – the aesthetic counter-programme of art religion from the spirit of the Romantic age, which was presented at the opening ceremony of the Salzburg Festival by Konrad Paul Liesssman precisely with a view to our contemporary problems – and as distinct from them: Friedrich Hölderlin’s poem “To the Fates”, which ends with the words “more isn’t necessary”. The work of art, the 28-year-old Hölderlin assures us, might remain, despite all the horror and broken idealisms (from Napoleon and his legacy through to today) that accompany it.
More is necessary
To whomever we direct our supplication: to the gods of art, the market, the spirit of innovation or the creator themselves, the fact that “more is necessary” in this world of art is something that admittedly almost everyone must acknowledge who has made art a profession. Ultimately, we have to earn our living. And today, that means that we have to position ourselves. We have to attract attention. We have to network. We have to also communicate the innovative output that we have just produced. This is the cycle that is known as the “art operating system”. Where is there any place in all this for ethical responsibility? Is the highest value ultimately given to what Wolfgang Ulrich called “Victor’s art”¹ – art that has successfully asserted itself in the system of the markets? Art and money have always been more closely interconnected historically than we like to admit. And yet: the individuals who have been driving up the prices in recent years look somehow old hat in light of the current challenges we are facing. Despite the helplessness of aesthetic activity, it must therefore be said that more is necessary, precisely in the field of art.
Naturally, the difficulties that are currently so often the subject of debate can be set against an imperialist backdrop, as the Chinese star artist Ai Weiwei did in the summer of 2016 in front of the Upper Belvedere, where he installed lifejackets used for refugees in the Mediterranean in the shape of a lotus flower. But the same can also be expressed with “clothes for a freezing soul” (the title of a very small, modest artwork made of knitted wool by the Viennese artist Daniel Amin Zaman). Fundamentally, the theme – despite the hierarchical difference in the value of the art – is the same. The subject is salvation, pure survival. Or at least the survival of the soul in cold conditions. The tragic refugee crisis – with 65 million people fleeing their homes every year – which has only really penetrated our awareness over the course of the past year, the stirring up of fears and the sense of our own insecurity in our wealthy, comfortable lives demand answers from all of us. This also includes art – indeed to an even greater degree. The sea change in public opinion in recent months has shown how easy it has become to publicly disseminate hateful, brazenly simplistic views. How subtly we promote a radicalisation of opinion by permitting such expression. And how quickly historic changes can occur.
Against the logic of usefulness
Until now, we have been engaged with an entirely different matter: beyond this breach of authorised language standards, which has been manifest since the outbreak of the refugee crisis in Central Europe – Emergency situation! Maximum limit! – another process has already been developing, over a far longer period, which can be described as the spread of a subtle, apparently self-evident, but above all all-pervasive logic of usefulness. This logic has already been penetrating through to the last corner of our existence for a long time: the attention parameters in the form of online rankings and access figures, the “likes” with their value scales, but ultimately also economic usefulness. To put it directly: neoliberalisation in the form of (self-)exploitation, (self-)optimisation, (self-)functionalisation, efficiency maximisation, etc. We live in a strangely ambivalent world, in which we learn to think in terms of “me, me” and to voluntarily subordinate ourselves and allow ourselves to be exploited. And the saddest element of all this is that creatives are putting themselves at the forefront of this development. Because they have to in order to survive – indeed, in order to be noticed in the first place. The antagonistic forces are therefore not only to be found in others, but by all means within ourselves.
But how to escape them? What strategies must we develop, or to use neoliberal diction, what strategies must we apply, in order to avoid being quickly pulled back into the all-consuming system? The exploitation of all criticism is also a new phenomenon. At least, it takes the sting out of its tail. Equally, the compulsion to innovate takes the depth away from what really is novel (Boris Groys). Unlike in former times (and shockingly, again in current, illiberal political systems among our direct neighbours), almost everything can be expressed in art in western societies. Here, artistic freedom is a hard fought-for (!) ultimate asset. But for how long? Its pathos of former years has vanished. It has long been domesticised and degraded as a plaything of the economy and compulsive innovation. What use is criticism, and how can injections of innovation help, when they are ultimately regarded either as a playing field for a small number of dutifully publicly subsidised institutions or artists, or are forced to subjugate themselves to the all-encompassing logic of usefulness? The decisive driving forces of our society are elsewhere. Or they mercilessly exploit the energy of the creatives for their own purposes – assuming that they are of use in the first place.
Being unavailable is a characteristic that art has now lost. In this regard, religion, of all things, must be taken into account, from which art has quite rightly emancipated itself. Religions usually have gods. And in former times, art was only too happy to depict them. These gods still have their place in theatre. There, they are objects of projection for human passions, but are somehow more powerful than humans. They play with the art of human activity. But with their disappearance, criticism of them has also vanished. And there is one activity from which art above all may not cease: the criticism of false gods – even those that relate to art itself. This also entails taking a critical look at the respective perceived gods of the current times, such as the god of innovation. Every social force wants to see it – before immediately appropriating it.
Unavailability was once presented in one great narrative by the monotheistic god: he alone decided what was right – and not the golden calf. This scene depicts the sharpest criticism of idolatry. The god in this story binds morality to himself as an entity. It becomes an unconditional matter of the heart that this morality be acknowledged in the form of commandments. This is a new phenomenon, as stressed by the religious expert Jan Assmann, who otherwise tends to criticise monotheism with its latent tendency to violence. At the same time, he points out that the virtues of such a “human obligation” have an astonishing consistency across all religions and societies. They are: love of fellow man, justice and tolerance. Compassion. In light of the battle zones currently being drawn in our societies, with their radicalisations and fundamentalisms, we can certainly agree with Assmann by referring to them as “weapons”. Or, in light of the diminishing presence of the gods in our societies, the principles of ethical action have been considerably stripped down. Those who still take to heart the bright sides of the religions, state art, and the arts overall, deserve our encouragement.
Johannes Rauchenberger, born 1969, MMag., Dr., curator, art historian, culture publicist, theologian. Since 2000 head of the “Kulturzentrums bei den Minoriten” culture centre in Graz, lecturer in art and religion at the Universities of Vienna and Graz. Numerous exhibitions, most recently: “Im Kampfgebiet der Poesie. Text+Bild im Widerstand” (“In the battle zone of poetry. Text+image in resistance”, with B. Pölzl, Verlag Bibliothek der Provinz 2016); numerous publications, most recently: “Gott hat kein Museum. Religion in der Kunst der beginnenden XXI. Jahrhunderts” (3 vols., 1120 pages, Schöningh 2015).
1 Wolfgang Ullrich: Siegerkunst. Neuer Adel, teure Lust. Berlin: Verlag Klaus Wagenbach 2016.