Jörg Scheller

Why the Hornsleth Uganda Village Project threatens what it affirms

If it is possible to state something about the development of western art since 1945 in general, then it might be the thesis that art has moved from an – alleged – outside to the inside. Typical of the era which we call classical modernity was a drive towards the utopian, the esoteric. It sought power on the inside just because it claimed to be the "other", the outside, the great difference, the healer, the messiah. Franz Marc or the Futurists dreamt of warlike art and artlike war, of destruction as a great hygiene for the collective spirit, the ever symbolist futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti dreamt of chaos re-entering the sphere of crusted human existence, a technologized version of chaos, however.
Malewitsch promised the entry to a superior suprematist sphere behind the canvas of his "Black Square", the Surrealist movement reclaimed the wild, untamed spirits of the unconscious, attempting to free the "Es" from the domesticating hands of the "Ich"; even in the early Romantic period of the nineteenth century the Nazarenes ("the first moderns", as Beat Wyss states in the catalogue to the exhibition "Religion Macht Kunst – Die Nazarener" in Frankfurt, 2005) demanded the renewal of life – political, religious, social sphere included – through religious art. They literally moved to the outside, namely to the monastery San Isidoro near Rome, but continued to influence the inside, staying in contact with and working for King Ludwig I.
Generally speaking, classical modern art defined itself as the outside healing the inside. Chaos instead of order, religion spiritualizing the materialistic dead, transcendence as a viagra for immanence, otherness lending its helping hand to the carnal profane. Artists proclaimed their work autonomous, transcendent and different, only to offer its difference to the realm of the inside. The relationship between immanence and transcendence was reciprocal yet the transcendent aspect was evidently favoured. After 1945, at the latest with the rise of Pop-Art, this era ends. In his book "Der Wille zur Kunst", Beat Wyss speaks of the shift from the will to power to the will to art, of the genesis of nominalist modernity.
Although even modernist, Greenberg-acclaimed artists like Barnett Newman once again sought transcendence and mystical experience through art, the great vector from '45 to our present days is that of art giving up its claim to otherness, of art moving to the centre, of art entering the age of affirmation. Media turning into messages, artists employed in companies as a desirable creative disturbance, art adapting its cultural techniques to those of the société du spectacle, art as psychiatric therapy, art as investment, art as a materialist status symbol, art as a tourist attraction, the world changing into its own museum (as claimed by Boris Groys or Jean Baudrillard)... all news.
However, it is naive to believe that at any given previous period art in fact had played any other role. It was not art itself but the approach to art, the rethorics about art, its self-assessment, hopes projected, dreams materialized, healers sought after, in short: the real artwork always has been the discourse about art. Art as the genuine otherness, art as the outside is a myth of discourse – which does not imply that it was ineffective or "untrue". On the contrary. Myth has always been the most effective way to create truth. Myths are not true. But they become true anyway.
Money and metaphysics
Now what has all that do with Kristian von Hornsleth's Uganda Village Project? First of all, there is a historic link. Although nowadays most artists attempt to valorize their oeuvre by claiming its unique innovativeness, its a-historic subjectivity, its ironic position towards tradition; although the current posthistoric ideology – still - despises the "old" turning its face towards compliant dreams of future, the evidence is clear: The Hornsleth Uganda Village Project is simultaneously located at both sides of the permeable historic border – at that of classical modernity, intertwining life, art and politics, and at that of nominalist modernity, giving birth to worldly coolness, affirmation and immanence, rejecting the idea of redemption of the inside by the outside. It applies basic methods and techniques of economy and principles of free trade without restraint just because it no longer believes in the genuine transcendent otherness of art. The relation to classical modernity is no longer based on belief, hope, tradition. It is a playful relation, an intertextual approach, a paradoxical means to integrate history separated from its historic nature.
The third side that the Hornsleth Uganda Village Project occupies and also redefines is that of the realm of postmodernism. Leslie Fiedler's dictum "Cross the Border - Close The Gap" is reanalyzed not in terms of closing the gap between "high" and "low" but in terms of overtly, self-evidently closing the gap between the exchange of commodities and the sphere of art. Art moves to inside. If the global crystal palace proves to be large enough to shelter the entire cosmos, including money & metaphysics, is yet to be resolved.
The traces have been laid. Ignoring them does not prove their non-existence. Derrida's and the poststructuralists' most salient legacy is the understanding that every text written is not written by a single author but also of all authors having preceeded him. No author is a genuine subject sailing its own territorial waters all alone. There's always pirates setting sails, too. Every author is an author of authors. Branding is one of the best examples of the authorship of authorship.
Concerning the Hornsleth Uganda Village Project, on the one hand we might thus track the traces of a Beuysianian soziale plastik or of a Vostellianian declaration of life as art, both late (even too late) representatives of classical modernity rather than of nominalist modernity. On the other hand we might think of a postmodern act of de-centering and of provocation, of a melting pot of diverging entities, of a renaissance of "anything goes" - branding people, branding countries, branding life, branding art, Erweiterter Kunstbegriff until discourse crumbles, bursts, explodes. Kant's Interesseloses Wohlgefallen seems to disappear behind a cloud of culminating culture, the demand for a fundamental difference between art and economy in the tradition of the philosophy of German Idealism seems to vanish finally.
Capital vs. Capital
But there is more and there is contradiction laying in wait. We might also detect a position inspired by the age of enlightenment: art as the helping hand, art as a bridge between cultures, art as a means of contact and communication, art as a common denominator of the human race as such, art as an aesthetic of existence, life itself as a slumbering artwork, which the freemasons symbolized as the "rough stone" to be hewn by the artist.
Proceeding on this assumption, the Uganda Village Project would quasi-automatically imply a critique of the mechanisms of capitalism and capitalist power. By re-contextualizing and thus distancing and contrasting these mechanisms in the sphere of art, one could argue, it reveals their true effects, it unmasks false rethorics of capitalist ideology. Most prominently it thus would expose the effect of turning existence into a commodity. The critique of popes and kings turns into a critique of the present capitalist aristocracy which is attempting to abandon profane, carnal life to rise to the crystalline, abstract sphere of capital.
However, it should not be forgotten that it actually was the age of enlightenment which gave birth to capitalism, to the age of the inside. And never was the link between art and capital factually broken. For instance, even at the time of the Lebensreform around 1900, when European artists, philosophers, authors, vegetarians, nudists, feminists, musicians, anarchists sought the "third way" between capitalism and communism, capital was needed to create islands in capitalism. In 1900, the Belgian industrialist Henri Oedenkoven founded together with feminist Ida Hofmann und the brothers Karl and Arthur Gräser a cooperative of vegetarians, nudists and freethinkers in Ascona, Switzerland, called the "Monte Verita".
Of course the area, an entire hill, had to be purchased first - an investor had to invest capital to abolish capital. And of course also Guy Debord's radical thinking was financed by a wealthy publisher, a man of capital. Now it is Hornsleth cooperating with investors in the sphere of art – yet overtly and unashamedly. However, this essay advocates the thesis that there is one major difference between the Hornsleth Uganda Village Project and the critique of the abuse of power as coined by the age of enlightenment, one major difference between the age of enlightenment and the age of affirmation which shelters Hornsleth's work: The critical methods of unmasking and exposing, as developed by the age of enlightenment, today are no more effective, no more valid, no more useful.
Peter Sloterdijk has portrayed and outlined eight of these methods in his "Critique of cynical reason": the critique of revelation, of religious illusion, of metaphysical mock, of idealistic superstructure, of moral mock, of transparency, of natural appearances, of private appearances. So the most effective critical method of the age of enlightenment was to tear down the masks. To reveal that pigs dwell under robes, that hypocrites sit on the thrown. The age of enlightenment provokes established powers by attempting to prove their inner illogic, their bigoted mentality, the incoherence of semantics and rethorics. For instance, Kant's groundbreaking approach to philosophy was to outline that neither metaphysics nor sheer positivism are able to define or prove a proper basis of their thought systems. Kant's proposal was that although we cannot prove the existence of God, we nevertheless may and even must believe in him. And if there is no such thing as an ontological "good" to be found neither in heaven nor on earth, the solution is that all human beings should behave in a way that benefits all other human beings. He too could have invented the Nike-slogan: "Just do it."
This is the great difference. Hornsleth is not interested in unmasking anything. He collects and plays with masks already thrown onto the floor. The age of enlightenment and its critique could only succeed as long as there were less representatives of the cynical version of reason as there are today. Nowadays almost everybody, at least those in leading positions, secretly or overtly believes in the constructivist, mask-like nature of truth, reason, morals, mankind, and in the cold, neutral power of markets. The globe sways to "every cop is a criminal", the Rolling Stones' early jam on Hegel's dialectics.
Everything is true, as Baudrillard pointed out. War results in peace and peace is the earliest phase of war. Peace is unendurable. Postmodern theory – and ideology - postulate that truth itself is a construction and although there are strong signs that we are re-entering an era of essentialism (both economical, cultural and religious), we cannot hide from the postmodern insight that throughout history it factually was possible to perpetually construct and re-construct truth. Even essentialism now is of constructivist nature. So it is no longer shocking that pigs grunt under robes, that presidents lie, that the real turns out to be the mask of the real, exchangeable, polymorph, adaptable; that the nature of art and the nature of money overlap, that the roles we play indeed are roles, that the distinction between actor and character is no longer valid, that history is a product of mankind and mankind a product of history, a closed circuit – "there's only man to do it right" says a line of the British pop-group Faithless, but who is man and what is right? And who are Faithless anyway?
The Light Is Everywhere
Humanism and enlightenment – just like democracy in Derrida's opinion – at least in some respects are auto-immunizing, self-destructive. Our culture, may it vaporize or not, has aligned chaos and science (as Norbert Bolz outlines in "Die Welt als Chaos und Simulation"), art and culture, money and art, Es and Ich, God and mankind, outside and inside, everything pulled into the bare light. Metaphysics is on the rise again but only as one competing power among others, providing instruments for structure and order, for all times having lost its numinous qualities (which of course does not account for the individual "mystic" believer).
Where is the darkness to flee from? Where is the liar to accuse? Where is that good old devil to seduce us? Is Hornsleth a devil? Is he the seducer? Waiting at the crossroads of art and trade, promising riches for sold souls? If Hornsleth is the devil, then the devil has always been human. The only thing that frightens us is that there are no more things left to frighten us but ourselves, no more lies to pillory. No we create new devils via mass media to keep the fire burning, to keep us in motion. The fear of the outside, of otherness, of the foreign has changed into a fear of the total inside – even terrorists wear Nike-sneakers, study at universities, write emails. They are not the outside – they are the inside. The terrorists have become what they terrorize. The light is everywhere.
Is the Hornsleth Uganda Village Project scandalous? An attempt to provoke the goodly-hearted? Jean Baudrillard has pointed out that even scandal and the denunciation of scandal are no longer possible in a system of simulacra, simulation and self-referentiality because it only serves as a pretext to pretend that morals still is valid and strong within the sphere of capitalism (which it is not). Watergate was no scandal and it today is no scandal that member of US-congress Mark Foley writes indiscrete emails to young male employees – it is just one thing a man can do among other things a man can do, no more, no less. This is the darker side of Pico della Mirandolas speech "on the dignity of man" in which the author claims that everybody is the sculptor of one's self.
And the Hornsleth Uganda Village Project is no scandal either. Provocation or scandal only make sense in a system built on essentialist thought, on a sytem based on a center, a system not capable of adapting to critique. Capitalism also could be interpreted as an essentialist system – but its essence and its dogma are inclusice, not exclusive. This is of major significance. It incorporates its enemies. It is like a vampire – perfectly undead, immortal, not killing the victim but turning it into a vampire, too.
Capitalism does not simply exploit or destroy – it transforms, plays with and feeds on what it haunts. In one respect Guy Debord was right: In the newer société du spectacle there is no centre any more. No emperor left to poison, no Bastille left to storm. We are living under the condition of an "integrated spectacle". The vampires no longer draw back in their graves or gloomy towers, they no longer fear the light. The Hornsleth Village Project is deeply rooted in the age of affirmation, not in the tradition of enlightenment.
As outlined in the first paragraphs of this essay, it applies the gestures of the age of enlightenment as well as those of classical modernity (which could be considered as the evil twin of the age of enlightenment) on the one hand, but just as structural, playful elements feebly reminding of their semantic tradition. On the other hand, its dominant aspects are nominalist and affirmative – in some respects reminding of the methods of the banker Muhammad Yunus who recently received the Nobel Peace Price for his successful attempt to improve the living conditions of the poor inside the capitalist system, inside its logic, inside the realm of its rules and codes.
As the German art historian Wolfgang Ullrich outlines in his book "Mit dem Rücken zur Kunst", it even could be argued that modern art just because of its affirmative character is now more powerful than ever – it finally has arrived in the banks, the offices, the villas; it is customarily used as the background for official photographs of politicians and entrepreneurs. It has become a powerful player on the inside. And yet this is what makes it threatening to what it affirms.
The new spirit of destruction
Why? Why should this affirmative play with expectations, with tradition, with history, with economy, with art and culture turn out to be threatening to the established order? Why is the Hornsleth Uganda Village Project a menace to the global village with its market square and its ever busy traders? Luc Boltanski's and Ève Chiapello's brilliant sociological study "The new spirit of capitalism" provides an answer. The authors argue that in fact it was the ambitious critique of capitalism and the critique of the dominance of economy that served as the motor for capitalism.
Because of its ever critical counterparts, the bourgeoisie had to re-invent capitalism and its justifications again and again. Without touching the nature of capitalism, its spirit was perpetually being justified and redefined - the face of capitalism changed from family-like enterprises which offered protection to groups based on the ideology of pure performance and competence to global groups worshipping the idea of total efficiency (McDonaldization). The nature of capital and –ism remained the same. Capitalism integrated critique as a sort of supervisory board, as a seismograph for collective mood, it changed not only its masks and its ideologies, as Boltanski and Chiapello stress, but also allowed critique to produce some real and factual effects, for instance on the conditions at workplaces.
Thus adapting without changing, it managed to survive its lack of morals by admitting changes in its structure to a certain degree. The most prominent critic of capitalism and the bourgeoisie was art - the self-proclaimed outside, the otherness. But what happens when critique falls silent or when it becomes playful? What happens when everything moves to the inside? When affirmation takes over? Systems based on dynamics and innovation that ossify, that lose their outside, tend to implode (Baudrillard).
The Hornsleth Uganda Village Project, just because of its affirmative approach, connotes a new level of critique - the absence of critique, which paradoxically is most dangerous for capitalism. The new spirit of this critique is silent, secret, clandestine, it is a silver tongued devil, a snake, a charmer, it nods its head and shakes its soul. What we experience right now is not necessarily the triumph of culture, capitalism and economy over art, the triumph of the total inside. What we experience might as well be the countdown to the implosion of the inside. The Hornsleth Village People, without knowing it, have put their fingers on the red button.
Jörg Scheller, born 1979, art historian and journalist, Stuttgart, Germany
This text was published first time in the book, The Hornsleth Village Project Uganda, FSP, Copenhagen 2007
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