Exhibition / 52-Hour-Lab
Thomas Macho
“faire l'âme monstrueuse”
Produktionsstrategien der Angst
in der künstlerischen Avantgarde

Jean-Baptiste Joly
The Artist’s Fear of Her-/Himself

Nikolaus A. Adams
Space Transportation and Dual Use
of Aerospace Technology

Dennis Farber
Fear is Just Another Word
for Someone Left to Please

Christofer Hierold
Carbon Nanotube Sensors

Petros Koumoutsakos
Computing: An Indispensable
Friend or Foe?

Maren Rieger
Dealing with Fear—
Keep Your Distance

Photo Gallery

Jean-Baptiste Joly
The Artist’s Fear of Her-/Himself

In a wonderful text introducing this symposium about the artist’s fear of her-/himself, Isabel Mundry and Philip Ursprung describe quite precisely and in a very appropriate way this particular phenomenon of fear; depicting the artist’s necessity to be recognizable, the necessity to find his/her own position amongst the other artists: “The fear of establishing an artistic identity, which is too narrow or too open, too easily exchangeable with others or too far outside of conventions, is therefore always present during the careers of artists.”

Their description of the artist’s fear is observed from outside, in its relation to an outside world that is made of competitors, critics, and specialists, from people in the art, music or literature business who decide about the artist’s careers. With this brief introduction, I will explore the definition of the artistic work itself and would like to look at the fear of the artist from inside, not only in its relation to the exteriority of the work. Thus, I will use an old fashioned concept of political philosophy developed in the Renaissance by Niccolò Machiavelli and Jean Bodin—the principle of sovereignty.

What is the work of an artistic author made of, or to formulate it differently, what kind of aesthetic, historical, or mental tools should he/she have appropriated for him-/herself to be an artist? Or, again differently said, what should he/she have learned in an art or music school to be considered an artist?

After many years of experience and observation at Akademie Schloss Solitude, after several discussions with teachers and pedagogues of art and music schools, and finally in a long and fruitful mail exchange with the French philosopher Catherine Perret, who was our guest in 2006, we can consider that an artist of any artistic discipline has to master four different elements:
- The knowledge of materials includes knowledge of physical materials such as wood, stone, concrete, paper, and colors and an awareness of other material contexts that influence artistic creation such as words, images, musical scores, history, the urban environment and the artist’s own biography.
- Only the application of techniques in working and thinking—skilled craftsmanship and the learned use of tools—enables the use of existing materials, whether in writing, musical composition, film, or painting.
- The conscious use of traditions, which includes knowledge of what others have done and the artist’s decision whether or not to see him-/herself in this or that artistic tradition, enables the student to position him-/herself in relation to existing aesthetic practices.
- The choice of medium, through which third parties come in contact with artistic work, generally stands in direct connection to material and technical decisions: painting implies presentation in an exhibition (though not only there), a text is materialized and turned into a medium in the form of a book (though not always), a musical work is performed at a concert (though not always), and so on.
In addition to these parameters, you have all the subjective elements, psychology, memory, perception of the outside world.

What an artist learns in an art or a music school is to consciously combine these necessary elements in his/her own production. By doing so, he is determining a territory made of his own choices concerning material, technique, tradition, and medium. These different elements give shape to this territory that makes it different from other territories built by other artists and recognizable from the outside. Material, technique, tradition, and medium are not fixed. They can move, but they maintain a recognizable territory with moving frontiers, depending on the choices of the artist and his perception of the outside world.

As long as he/she is a student, teachers can help him/her to build his/her own territory, they can intervene, give advice, evaluate, ask for changes, etc. During his/her studies the art or music student alone does not decide on his/her own production, but also gets support and somehow depends on the institution that also protects the artist.

One can say that every artwork is the product of decisions taken exclusively by a professional artist (no longer a student) on the territory he/she has shaped for his/her own work. Since the Renaissance this definition of decision-making on a defined territory corresponds to what political philosophy calls “sovereignty.” The power of the king/the sovereign on his own territory is, according to Bodin, absolute and solitary, ultimate and tolerant. “The law”, Bodin writes further, “is the command of the sovereign using his power.” [1] The sovereign judges the meaning of words; he is the only one to define what we call just, unjust, good or bad, yours or mine. The existence of sovereignty is based on a myth founding the historical advent of the law. God (the higher authority) no longer establishes the authority of the law in this territory, only the sovereign. By explaining this notion of sovereignty I have tried to use images and examples, which can be easily transposed to the world of art and on the territory of the artist.

In the 1950s, Georges Bataille wrote a crucial text about the notion of sovereignty in the arts and about the sovereignty of the artist. This text can be read as a prolongation of his literary experiments about literature and the bad or as Thomas Macho explained in his lecture, about the necessity of “making the monstrous soul.” For Bataille, a sovereign life begins when the necessary has been provided and the possibility of life is unlimited. The sovereign, like in political philosophy, consumes the surplus of good productions. To be sovereign means to enjoy the present time with nothing else in mind than the present time, the moment where suddenly the impossible becomes reality. “If we live sovereignly the representation of death is impossible, for the present is not subject to the demands of the future. [… ] To live sovereignly is to escape, if not death, at least the anguish of death.” [2] Through sovereignty the artist looks at the risk of death like a game, not like a distress.

I would rather suggest to consider the fear of the artist as a fear of loosing the sovereignty she/he has conquered through hard work. This loss of sovereignty can happen because her/his own territory is endangered (after Bodin) and she/he is loosing control on it. Or in Bataille’s meaning, the artist’s fear of her-/himself would be due to the fact that she/he is not able to reach the level of sovereignty where she/he can escape from the distress of death through her/his own art production. These are some of the ponderings I wanted to express as a kind of introduction to our debates.

[1] Jean Bodin: “De la Souveraineté,” in: Les six livres de la République [1580]. Paris 1983 (Translation by Jean-Baptiste Joly).

[2] Georges Bataille: “The Schema of Sovereignity,” in: Fred Botting, Scott Wilson (eds.): The Bataille Reader. Oxford 1007, pp. 313–320, p. 317.


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