Lost Ground

It is a narrow staircase only, and a short one. Three steps to go, two, one – the way to climb up to her is as short as it is leading through a dark space. Even the very moment before I turn around the corner I am not even aware of the fact that she is there, just the second I move the head up I look in her face and sense the impossible. – A placid, warm breath, touching my face, adulating gently my neck and resting on my shuoulders and I am looking into the eyes of this woman.

It is nothing like short meeting in the coffee shop near the train station – the encounter of two travellers, eternal tourists and the modern travellers’ life as jigsaw as I mentioned it when I wrote about the visit in Copenhagen. And nevertheless there is something that reminds me of that sweet encounter.

– Yes, a placid, warm breath, touching my face, adulating gently my neck and resting on my shuoulders and I am looking into her eyes, she is looking into my eyes: Pallas Athene.

It is not only the nearness I feel, the imagination of being physically tapped, the experience of naturalness. It is also something of the eternal tourist – though now not moving in space but in time – the goddess as an authentic Time-Traveller’s real wife. It is an all-embracing feeling with its own dynamic: the paradox of losing control emerging from the feeling that this single existence is real part of the universe of space and time. One of the innumerable single existences without which the world would not be the very same reality that it is and at the very same time one of the innumerable single existences that actually cannot make a real difference, a moment that cannot shape reality. Captured by the genius of Gustav Klimt.

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Perhaps it is in particular when facing Klimt – and some of his contemporaries – that it is easy to forget about academic classifications. Perhaps one can go even a step further: it is difficult to think in terms of classifications although and because one is permanently confronted with academia. The famous dispute which developed around the faculty paintings went far beyond the topical issues on the spectacular debates of the time – for instance the one on medicine. And the other equally provocative on philosophy.

Trusting many sources about his life, Klimt had surely been an enfant terrible of his time. And as two major reasons the following may be brought forward: first, entering the world of arts had not necessarily been what he heard at his cradle. Second, one may say especially as Klimt has been – enfant terrible – a most pronounced representative of true, unbribed academy. In this respect being enfant terrible had been so different from expressing his anger and concern in a helpless scream – the provocation depicted in Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream. Gustav Klimt had been looking for radically questioning the conditions of the time. It is not least the difference between lament and accusation that marks the difference between the two.

Munch once said:

One should not paint interiors peopled by reading men and knitting women. One ought to deal instead with living human beings capable of breathing and feeling, suffering and loving.

And probably his most famous piece – The Scream is a paradox expression of this. On the one hand we feel the instant message: the devotion to this sujet. We can see the immediacy of the artist being directed towards and guided by these ‘living human beings’. Nevertheless, the fact that Munch could bring this immediacy to the fore is based in grasping the paradox, namely depicting a being that is pushed to the margins: somebody who is facing the situation of loosing ground, of suffocating because of not being honestly allowed and able to

breath and feel, suffer and love.

Feeling and suffering is limited to and compressed into a scream – diffuse, unknown by way of it’s origin and direction. And as much as it is such real person, it is hindered by the fact of one-sidedness, or even more so: in-sidedness.

In which way ever, it is obvious that the viewer is a most important part of entire account: accused, beseeched – but always only in this perspective of a self that lost ground, that misses anchoring: de-rooted as the soil is poisoned.

All this is not least part of a socio-economic situation that can be characterised by a very similar pattern as we find it today: middle classes, reasonably secured in – or at least: feeling reasonably accommodated by – a now stabilised capitalist system (the early stage of industrial capitalism had been now at a stage that can be considered as consolidated) had been increasingly becoming aware of the fact that this capitalism had not been a threat to the living of industrial workers but also to their own position and also to the life of society: alienation can be seen as the foundational principle of the life perspective especially for many of the privileged middle class strata and in particular of the Bildungsbuergertum[1]. An important point in this context is the emergence of some form of – for the time – new inwardness, using Egon Schiele’s words: the quest to

Work from the heart. – And you have the chance to ‘imbue your work with spirit’

and the opening towards new options, suggesting – in the words of Baudelaire – that

Modernity (der neue Stil) is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent …

In particular Baudelaire’s statement is telling as it allows to understand the permanency of transition, the presence of change which we can only understand when we understand ourselves as fundamentally social beings in the deepest meaning: part and parcel of history in the strict sense – recalling another time Goethe’s words

He who cannot draw on 3000 years is living hand to mouth.

For me, this feeling of being genuinely part of history is so poignant when looking into Athene’s eyes, that I write later in a mail to Joe, a friend of mine

Had been in the Historische Kunstmuseum today …, just unbelievable !! Yes, even after all these privileges of seeing and experiencing so many things that are sealed for so many people, I still can be impressed by many things; but I didn’t believe that I would stand another time in front of a fresco, very close to crying (the other time that this happened is nearly obvious: Picasso’s Guernica – while writing it comes to my mind: in both cases standing alone there: the small Peter from a tiny Irish village, being confronted with history, so to say: squeezed by this monumental existence, the nightmare Karl had been talking about.[2]

All this has, however, another dimension too – the 3,000 years Goethe refers to, still being important as score of historical consciousness, are at this point in time increasingly a matter of the immediate presence: for people like Klimt and Munch compressed in a blink of an eye, and moreover: rather than being a matter of intellectual reflection but as matter of actual life, emerging from the inside. With this, it is of course something that is extremely difficult to handle: the felt isolation and indolence stands against the objective socialisation and fluidity.

Even small details of a technical kind are emerging as important – condition of the new style even if only by allowing change to happen and reinforcing it. In 1841 the tube had been invented, making it easily possible for the painter to move away from the studio, capturing landscapes, capturing – we may remember Edvard Munch’s words –

living human beings capable of breathing and feeling, suffering and loving.

It had been a move that allowed the artist to work not only by imagining people who are capable, but who are actually doing it. Moving out of the studio, thus, had been a step towards moving inside of people’s life. And furthermore it allowed moving inside the own impression – the artist now being encouraged to express the immediate impression. We may remember what had been said on another occasion, looking at a

fast stroke with a brush in paintings like that of a tree, just Over In An Instant

When quoting Sean Seal’s words earlier it had been to highlight the factor of time: compressing time in such fast strokes as means of capturing historical reality in a condensed way. And the same can be said now for space.

In this way we may extend the look on Gustav Klimt and Edvard Munch by claiming that this is by and large true for an entire new generation of artists: the Impressionists as masters of spaces, timespaces and spacetime in entirely new ways – and opposing what the great Vasari claimed, saying ablout paintings that they are

laid on flat with most simple strokes of the brush and having but one light, shows but one aspect

(Vasari, Giorgio, 1550: Lives of the Most Eminent Painters Sculptors and Architects ; here quoted from the Internet-version)

There had been another technical development, opening arts for new ways: the invention of photography, seriously beginning in 1820s. ‘Exact depiction’ now being easily possible meant loosing ground for ‘realist’ paintings. Basically two answers had been possible. The one had been the emergence of a new realism, in the extreme case much later put on firm feet by Bert Brecht in his theory of theatre and developed under the term of Verfremdung, i.e. disassociation. Cum grano salis this can be said for much of early realism even of artists as Munkácsy Mihály that had been looked at earlier. On the other hand we find the Impressionists, breaking with reality in the strict sense and moving forward – in economic terms: moving beyond assemblage. Of course this had been a complex development, full of contradictions. But in any case the Impressionists can also be seen as very early avant-garde of a new mode of production.

Avant-garde – a complex and surely tricky issue. Looking at the economic developments this new mode of production had been characterised by an escalating separation of exchange value from use value. In some way, the reality as such lost meaning: it had been only a construct, assembled as matter of actual production; but in addition assembled by the ongoing social construction. Issues as fetishism, consumerism, alienation, isolation and the like come immediately to mind. And at the very same time, this emerging hedonist person comes now increasingly only into being by relating to the social and inorganic environment.

One indicator for this is the emergence of ‘social actors’ or as it is nowadays frequently itemised in social science: agency. Émile Durkheim still concentrated on the fait sociale. If we see such social facts, undeniably existing as presented in Durkheim’s study Le Suicide (1897), it had been very much a passive reflex, something like the supposed move of the lemmings: an activity initialised by some unknown impulse, a mass, acting unconsciously, a direction that seems to be determined by an external and eternal law. Of course, this needs to be qualified as Durkheim had been interested in detecting this ‘unknown impulse’. Actually his analysis had been driven by the conviction that cause of action and its direction can surely be detected – and changed.

In any case, this interpretation of the social fact changed completely – and this happened in historical perspective around the same time, literally before Durkheim published his major works (Le Suicide [1897]; De la Division du travail social [1893]). Karl Marx and Frederick Engels – in thinking and social practice – emphasised the emergence of the social actor. Karl Marx’ made this point clear in his famous work on Poverty of Philosophy with respect of the development of the class struggle.

Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests. But the struggle of class against class is a political struggle.

(Marx, Karl, 1847: The Poverty of Philosophy Answer to the Philosophy of Poverty by M. Proudhon; chapter two).

Brought to the point: the individual proletarian is not more than a commodity; the proletarian who is consciously and actively relating to others, being in this way part of the class, is not only gaining power as part of a larger entity but also gaining power over him/herself, developing as real personality.

Coming back to Munch on the one hand and Klimt on the other we find the difference between them on this abyss: the first confronts us with a scream, expressing helplessness and equally leaving us helpless, shocked and uncomfortable – but uncomfortable also the poisoned ground on which we stand seemingly does not allow to move. Klimt, however, offers a look back and Athene’s demand to stand up and change – we may even hear her using Marx’ words from the 11th thesis on Feuerbach:

Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.

(Karl Marx 1845: Theses On Feuerbach)

And with Klimt we can probably say: the new interpretation is a matter of change. Isn’t this the message of the most contested paintings Klimt’s – the infamous ‘university paintings’? Isn’t it indeed his active contestation against a society which Sigmund Freud would see as mostly oppressive super ego, at least as controlling instance.

We find again a parallel with today, the matter of precarity as it had been briefly mentioned earlier. The bewilderment of a class that is not as privileged as the working class at its outset. There we could see a class

free in the double sense, that as a free man he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand he has no other commodity for sale, is short of everything necessary for the realisation of his labour-power.

(Marx, Capital I: Chapter 6)

And freedom in this double sense also meant that this freedom would inevitably be linked to the potential of bursting the fetters which are strangulating the further development of the means and mode of production and with this the further development of humankind.

The class we are looking at today may at some stage develop that potential – but for this it will be necessary to properly understand the new terms of freedom: it is now a class of which the freedom is limited, a class that owns in some way part of the means of production, namely the productive force of knowledge and science.[3]

*****

The other day, on the train to Vienna, I had been reading a book about the intellectual foundations of our time: Christoph Fleischmann writing on Gewinn in alle Ewigkeit which I received for review. What makes the book especially interesting is not what it says but what it systematically fades out, although stating the opposite: These intellectual foundations are actually only the offspring of the societal development itself.

One crucially important point going hand in hand with this development is a further step in the development of the individual – further, after it’s ‘invention’ in the course of enlightenment, now emerging in the form of hedonistic obscurity.

Imagine you go to the theatre – but nobody is there: no spectator, well two only. Already at the entrance I had been surprised. Asking for the seat, the usher showed around the corner:

It is right on the stage.

And the stage had been where people had been sitting, following the performance of two people who acted in the room where usually the spectators would sit.

Crusoe, who objected his father’s wish and order, had been centre-‘stage’: the adventurer and explorer of early capitalism. Opposing the boredom of the world in which his father lived and which the young Crusoe rejected as Leitmotif for his future. Capitalism of that time had been still very much trade capitalism, going hand in hand with craftsmanship and based on a principle that we may classify as ‘linear circularity’: simple perpetuation, or simple reproduction, as Karl Marx defines in chapter 25 of the first volume of The Capital:

As simple reproduction constantly reproduces the capital relation itself, i.e., the relation of capitalists on the one hand, and wage workers on the other

And although Marx speaks of wage workers, it is wage work also in a very simple way, at least initially still part of the patriarchal mode of regulation. It had been a phase of temporary stability and self-content reaching its own limits. At least for some time society could do without growth: the previous era had been a phase of consolidation, especially marked by the given productive forces being ‘sufficient’ for the permanent reproduction on the given level. However, new forces emerged, potentials not least coming up against the background of increasingly open borders: as much the given system depended on nothing else than the continuation of a circular movement of trading activities, it has been also a system that inherently pushed beyond it’s own borders: looking for the extension of trade. Capitalism as industrial capitalism only lurked around the corner, hesitantly showing up. The hesitation of the historical forces coming to the fore expressed in a short outcry of the maturing Crusoe, asking himself[4]

Am I not doing the very same what my father asked me to do – and what I rejected as way of life? Is my life not very much nothing else than the perpetuation of the same? Progress being hidden behind a seeming move?

And indeed it seems that the progress is forged: growth as matter of linearity that is caught in repetition – extended reproduction, growth needed only in order to maintain itself. And the period is at the very same time characterised by a drive towards overcoming the circularity, unfolding the circle and transferring it towards a new accumulation regime. The temptation had been initially to write a push towards a new mode of production – and although there would be some justification for it, it is probably more precise to speak of a new mode of production. The development is at its very core about the change towards a substantial development of the productive forces and the fundamental shift of valuation – in some way we may interpret it as the final redemption of the finally hegemonic chrematisticsthe from the original oikonomia. It is the definite shift towards an imperialist strategy – exchange, i.e. trade not primarily annexed to the core of the production of use values. Instead production is now annexed to the realisation of monetary values on a globalising market. In this light, bridging the different developments is easy: Defoe’s piece had been first published in 1719 – and with this date one may say it stands at a rather meaningful border of the economic culture and the ways of thinking – both reflecting each other. For the development of literature we find the 17th century marked by the writing of travellers who had been interested in scientific explorations; later the 18th century saw the writing of travellers that had been guided by their very private and romanticist ideas.

Paradoxically production for its own sake is now gaining a much more pronounced position – it is about the emergence of productive, or later industrial capitalism. And as such it is surely the definite abolition of trade capitalism. However, the paradox is that this is also a shift towards a system that generates value only by realising the product on the market. Already here it emerges as trivial truth that

today’s entrepreneurs … produce increasingly products and services that are not essential for humankind.

(Clemens, Reinhard, 2011: Ehrbarer Kaufmann und Silicon Valley …; in: Spangenberger, Michael: Rheinischer Kapitalismus und seine Quellen in der Katholischen Soziallehre; Muenster: Aschendorf, 69-75; here: 75)

Of course, this looks different for the actors on that initial economic stage. On the one hand they are genuine explorers, oscillating between the imperialist mission – seeing trade of pearls against little glass globes even as bliss for a people that had been seen as inferior; on the other hand it had been seen as matter of exploration – again in the spirit of a mission though now coined by an honest search for a better life. The imperialist arrogance and equally the social-romantic apotheosis are not least an expression of the debasement of a new class: the increasing accessibility of nature went hand in hand with the decreasing direct control. And in particular the privileged strata suffered specifically from alienation. However, in their case not so much in the understanding it had been presented by Karl Marx, writing in the first volume of The Capital in the second chapter on alienation

In order that this alienation may be reciprocal, it is only necessary for men, by a tacit understanding, to treat each other as private owners of those alienable objects, and by implication as independent individuals.

In actual fact, this alienation can be seen as condition for the class developing as class for itself – insofar as the reciprocity is broken open.

But here and now we are concerned with a process that leads on the contrary to the alienation of individual’s from their own class – a needed process of self-distancing. The adventurer, the romanticist, the bohemian – all in their own way helplessly screaming, in desperation looking for securing their privileges.

Romanticism meant not least that the commitment to truth had been somewhat limited, taken over by the ideas of yearning and daydreams, imaginations of some form of a better life, a vision of life rather than its sober analysis. The novel clearly emerged to novelty in the understanding of an act of creation that emerged from voluntarism, the German term for novel: the Roman shows clearly the Zeitgeist: upheaval, braking out of the given frame of time and space had been the underlying the search for a new world.

At least everybody who had been following literature on Orientalism, in particular inspired by the works of Michel Foucault and Edward Said, will be well aware of the fact that this search for a new world had not by any means been a peaceful undertaken. This may be the case for naïve proposals à la Rousseau. But the real romanticists had been characterised either by another naivety: namely the wrongly ‘projective perception’ of the other as natural, genuine, pristine …; or it had been the adventurism of a Robinson Crusoe.

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I finally look back – the last weeks and month: the teaching on painting and economic thinking.

Wolf rejected, on the INKRIT-Gramsci conference during one of the adjunct workshops that there had been any arts before commodification. But doesn’t art first and foremost concern the art of life, l’art de vivre et vie avec l’art? Isn’t arts first and foremost the increasing freedom in every day’s activity even if it is fundamentally the production of life – Engels had been already quoted with the words

The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view, the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in men’s better insights into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange. They are to be sought, not in the philosophy, but in the economics of each particular epoch.

It is surely not freedom for everybody – and in this way we may even say that commodification actually even sublimely suppressed arts, only allowed its development in a fenced area, outside of society, distant from real life.

Being back to Vienna, I am getting in its own way aware of it – visiting Bizet’s Carmen. This time I’m not going to the Wiener Staatsoper but my feet bring me to the Volksoper – to be more precise not my feet; I am comfortably brought there, Marcella safely driving the limousine through the city. I doubt that it is purely my mood, or the fact that it is the first time that I experience this place; I doubt that it is just the light-heartedness of this early summer evening, and the frivolous attunement I take with me from the earlier chat; and I doubt that it is this appealing sweetness of the clichéd Spanish-gipsy sex idol of the time anticipated when going there. Be it as it is, for some reason I feel a special flair around this place, the people being more vivid, showing more openness towards a new experience. And in several ways it is a new experience for me too. Leaving other things aside, the newness initially shows when the conductor arrives: a woman, obviously from somewhere in Asia – and as I am looking on the orchestra pit, I see from her gestures and behaviour that she is surely also socialised in that tradition. Those who are familiar with such events know why it is remarkable: it surely stands against the traditional patterns of a male and western dominated arts-world. I know that it is a ‘new trend’ that shows up on this occasion, surely only a small germ, but … – and by the way, the but is later confirmed when I visit Het Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, enjoying Simone Kermes, together with the Concerto Köln under the direction of Mayumi Hirasak.

– Back to that evening in Vienna, there is something else that catches my attention – reminding me of the time when I lived for a short while in Florence. And also reminding me of the visits to opera houses in Riga, Vilnius and other places of ‘that part of the world’, those countries that strived for building up socialism. It is peoples’ opera – not by way of panem et  circenses, but as joy- and playful, and also critical concern of the people. Even as performed art, it has an additional dimension to it: the active part of the recipient who is in some way ‘depicted’ but who is with this very same act of depiction the actually and real performer. – Only later – already back home in Budapest, reading in the programme booklet I bought that evening in the Volksoper – I find a confirmation, though the crossing of boarders is now projected into Bizet’s piece itself. Leo Karl Gerhartz, looking at the theatrical reality, contends

As in the score of Carmen most different moments are set side by side, the production at the Volksoper of Bizet’s opera understands itself as (theatre) clutter, a space for many different things to meet, to clash and to confront each other: emotion (truth) and theatre (presentation, pathos and ordinariness), solemnity and entertainment, surprise (impact) and atmosphere (charm), opera and revue, cabaret and opera.[5]

(Gerhartz, Leo Karl, 1993: Theatralische Wirklichkeit; in: Luc Joosten/Christoph Wagner-Trenkwitz: Georg Bizet. Carmen. Programmheft; Wien: Volksoper; 28-31; here: 31)

This occurs to be so very close to the idea of adventurous travelling. Another example of the movement of and between space and time and body?

As it is well known, the famous formula Albert Enstein’s reads E=m2. A little less known may be the meaning, namely that it presents not more and not less than the equivalence between mass and energy. And though we don’t have to enter the detailed discussion of it (good excuse, isn’t it? I have to admit huge difficulties if you would ask me to do so) the following can be safely said. It all hints towards the historical struggles between time and space, being caught between circularity and linearity. It is a variation of another theme: generating meaning in a reflexive process, finding it in oneself and ‘projecting’ it on the world stands on the one side; on the other side we find generating meaning by referring to the world as it is. Of course, this is in some respect not a contradiction. We can see it more as matter of different weighing of the components within the process of relational appropriation as it had been frequently presented on earlier occasions.

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We may leave this to later though – later in time, in a compressed time of overlapping developments. Developments from Impressionism, ‘Klimtism’, ‘Munchism’ to Cubism, in the perspective of Russian avant-gardism with their cubo-futurism, developments that occasionally seem to be so far away from the popular gusto, and nevertheless claiming itself to be closely linked to the working class, and specifically to Bolshevism. Indeed – and you may feel some repercussison to what Munch said:

Clear the old trash from your hearts!
The streets will be our paintbrushes, the public squares our palettes …

(Vladimir Mayakovsky: An Order to the Art)

The way to move forward as

… life has invaded art, it is time for life to invade art.

(Ilja Zdanevich/Mikhail Larionov, 1913: Why we paint ourselves)


[1]            Surely not simply translatable as highly educated middle-class as it is frequently suggested.

[2]            Obviously referring to Karl Marx’ The 18th Brumaire

[3]            There had been already in the 1970s an exploration of the development of science/ knowledge as immediate productive force – reference

[4]            The following is not literally quoted.

[5]            reading from the context it is in the last instance most likely meant operetta.

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  1. […] …. – even visiting the imperial places as the museum of history of arts – a specifically lost ground which, by the way, hosts also a beautiful collection of Pieter Bruegel’s the older works –, […]



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