Catastrophe Fedor Blaščák

On the marginalia of the attack of September 11, 2001, the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen remarked: “What happened there is, of course—now all of you must adjust your brains—the biggest work of art there has ever been. The fact that some minds achieve with one act something which we in music could never dream of, that people practice ten years madly, fanatically for a concert. And then die. And that is the greatest work of art that exists for the whole universe … I couldn’t do that. Compared to that, we are nothing, as composers.”

Intelligent work on this reflection will clearly be based on the assumption that, as far as the terrorists were concerned, they were more concerned with an overthrow of our symbolic order by the simplest of means, and not with the lives of the innocent victims (even if they had counted on them in advance). Those people were simply unlucky to find themselves in a situation which—as well as its political consequences—radically changed the history of art itself, according to Karl Stockhausen.

The Avant-Garde

We do not know what urged Stockhausen to improve so pressingly the understanding of the artistic avant-garde in connection with this public execution. Performing an execution as a particular kind of show is, after all, something we have known for a long time. It has long been as much a part of the repertoire of the forms of public life as an act of terrorism today. In the distant past there was human sacrifice to the gods, the crucified Christ, and the gladiators; in the Middle Ages, the martyrs and the Barefoots, later on the pogroms, the Holocaust. We can put together a long list of historically chastised innocents. To be plain, I think the effort to note certain artistic ambitions as the background of their executions ceases to be interesting at least in two cases: (1) if we have some sort of experience with art and we know it is not a life threatening activity; (2) if we include in the description the actual fate of the executed. The question is therefore, whether it really is necessary at this stage “to adjust our brains” and to begin to share a similar understanding of the artistic avant-garde, in which art merges with life, at least as a symbolic wrongdoing with (mass) murder. Has the time come for a new sensitivity, in which talk of dead bodies can be interpreted in any other way than as news of a tragedy or a crime?

In this connection we should remind ourselves of Stockhausen’s opinion when distinguishing between the aesthetic of art and the aesthetic of political actions (including terrorism): “Political acts tend toward appropriation, but in art it is the opposite, we surrender ourselves to its authority.” If we now link the interpretation of a terrorist attack (in the sense of an effort to disturb symbolic order) with the opinion that the artistic process is a matter of self-sacrifice, the remark quoted at the beginning of this essay acquires a particular meaning. Perhaps no one could surrender themselves in a more startling way than a suicide bomber. And, taken retrospectively, what else—in the minds of the terrorists—could be more dominant in the symbolic order of Western civilization than the towers of the World Trade Center?

We will not go on discussing whether we should accept Stockhausen’s interpretation of the meaning of the attack on these buildings. Discourses about morality with a clear result in advance are successful enough anyway. We will devote ourselves as to why such a reflection can have any sort of meaning at all (as for example that given above). The debate will thus be about the linking of art with the real world, so the following reflection will concern the artistic avant-garde and its evaluation.

Marcel Duchamp

The aestheticizing of the everyday is today a classic (avant-garde) strategy. The way it is expressed naturally belongs to the artist’s experience. Apart from that it is, if necessary, quite easy to use this tried and tested tactic of publicly honoring an (originally) nonartistic object, idea, or event—for example, by placing it in a gallery. Duchamp’s original move in this direction was austerely ironic. As with checkmate. Ready-made objects in galleries ultimately assaulted the established idea of the function and the (higher) value of art. They cast doubts on a whole number of assumptions regarding the creativity, talent, craftsmanship, and spirituality of a work. Turning to the everyday emphasizes a certain temporal aspect of the work. This in turn links its product with the specific (conscious) intention of the artist and likewise places the craft side of the process of creation to the forefront. The American hero of conceptualism John Baldessari later captured this motif by saying that “to be an artist does not in any special way distinguish one from an electrician or a plumber; it is simply just work.” With the difference that the artist (unlike the electrician) is allowed to do what he likes. Not even in Duchamp’s case was it about the innovation of a traditionally shared visual language—he did not repair something that was damaged. It was about a completely new vocabulary—he brought something new. This was the only way he could succeed in newly defining the relationship between the artist and the audience. On the side of the artist, by emphasizing his cognitive intentions; on the side of the audience, by recognizing it is not dull, so that visual pleasure is not everything that can be absorbed under the heading of art. He thus extended the field of their mutual treatment and so doing he loosened their relationship. The psychology of the relationship between the artifact (the object), the audience, and the environment in which this relationship takes place was what interested him. Proof of this is his interest in exhibition design, and for example his work Étant Donnés, which took him 20 years (1946–1966) to create. In this connection, one can ask the question as to whether this unusually long gestation of a work of art really shifts the emphasis to the process of the treatment of an artifact as a craft, or whether it does not rather undervalue the origin of works dated by the birth and death of the artist. In any case, avant-garde art threw doubts on whether the artifact was a finished product which—without regard to the artist’s method of thinking, form of presentation, or presence of the public—maintained its own status. Since then art has visually gained a whole spectrum of forms; very varied media gradually became its bearers (readymade, installation, environment, happening, antihappening etc.). It can have the nature of a proposal (project-art) or of a resolution of certain philosophical, technical or other issues (manifesto, object-happening). It has to be recognized that in these cases art is not even a question of a specific aesthetic experience. The audience completes the work of art by its interest, by its awareness of the contexts (even those that are nonartistic). The machinery of cognitive claims comes into play. Conceptual art originates. Without such claims being recognized an attempt can be hardly distinguished from an error. Everyday life together with the biography of the artist has comfortably settled in the gallery; in the case of some artists, art can perhaps be seen in almost e ach of their steps (Gesamtkunstwerk). But why do we want to aestheticize “everything”? With every new “contraption” in a gallery, the original strength of Duchamp’s irony is, little by little, lost. That is why today it is not enough to ironize, especially when there is not much left for doing so. It seems that the lords have already dined and now would like something more solid (Stockhausen).

The aestheticizing of everydayness as an artistic strategy has already been cocreating a form of art for a hundred years; its expansive nature has primarily contributed to its extension. The “boundlessness” of art means that (if it comes to it) art can even be cleaning one’s teeth (Kaprow), bumping into people in the street (Kovanda), or on white painted “felt” (Filko). The work of reason protects the aesthetic experience from being doubted. If an artist in a manifesto declares white painted “felt” to be an expression of “crossing the boundaries of the material world in the direction of the infinite space in which our thinking develops” (Filko, Laky, Zavarský—White Space in a White Space, 1974), how could we respond to it? Maybe we do not agree, but there is no way to show it to be mistaken. Because that which the artist himself understands is guaranteed by his own life or work. How could we tell him he does not understand what he creates? Anyone can create that which he can identify—and thus, somehow understand. The nature of the subject toward which he directs his interest may be annoying for us. We may consider some sorts of art trivial—for in evaluating art, the subject of the artist’s interest becomes decisive because of the absence of any other criterion of an equivalent caliber by which the artistic work could be evaluated.


I maintain that while artistic strategies which go in the direction of linking art with the real world do not contain any problematic places, it seems that their critical evaluation does. By that I do not have in mind only that type of problematic quality which, for example, Stockhausen’s remark presents us with. The mark of the problematic quality in evaluating avant-garde artistic strategies is also represented by the obvious fact of lasting controversies with regard to the “correct” understanding and interpretation of these works.

We end therefore with an analysis of the basic distinction between a new (artistic) creation and a (critical) interpretation of the given. We start out from the assumption that avant-garde art is in the first place a question of deciding (the will). When someone says “I am an artist and I am responsible for it,” then he becomes an artist. It looks simple, but it is not. We should not forget that responsibility comes into play with the results. We are responsible for our actions; to have ideas is not enough, everyone has those. The artist moves in a space of systematic freedom in the sense of independence from any sort of system (artistic program, media, aesthetic theory, market, public, and so on). He can, so to speak, do everything. And whatever he makes or proclaims to be art, indisputably remains art—for the reasons mentioned above. However, this systematic freedom ends beyond the boundaries of art (and the artist’s responsibility for it). The linking of responsibility with a work of art indicates that the “boundlessness” of contemporary art cannot mean that there is some sort of absolute willfulness. The artist likewise moves in the field of “meaning formations,” and communicates with the public, so in his/her case too it must be a question of an activity controlled by certain rules. Its distinctiveness is however that he/she is expressing (showing) the rules to which he/she is at the same time subject. In passing—if at the present time (and at first glance surprisingly) art is ever more remembered in connection with science, so the similarity of the two, with regard to results completely different spheres of human creativity, relies on this basis. The difference counts on the one hand on the measure of explicitness and exactness of expression (formulation) of given rules, and on the other hand on distinctive demands on their validity and the “cadence” of the output connected with it. Whereas in science it concerns first the capacity of the rule to generate new and interesting results—and their general acceptance by the community on this basis—in contemporary art the acceptance and following of traditional rules is rather a mark of the “infertility” of the artist. Perhaps that is why the community of artists, unlike that of scientists, reminds one more of a “society of solipsists.” The task of the critic of art (the scientist in the field of art and aesthetics) is to interpret the results of this incongruous alliance so that they can be included in a common, generally accepted, story of the history of art. It therefore also shapes certain rules (of a genre or historical nature, of an evaluation of the aesthetic appeal of colored surfaces etc.) with respect to the classification and evaluation to which subsequently they are subjugated in the course of their application. The subject here is the interpretation of a given artistic substratum; the aim is the stability (general acceptance) of the exposition. The point of the thesis that an artist can—so to speak—do everything but the critic cannot, is the difference between the stabilized nature of interpretational feats and the dynamizing nature of uncovering of new and distinct points of view—the subject of artistic interest. That is why I maintain that artistic production does not contain any problematic places, while its evaluation does. In the field of criticism and evaluation we are (epistemically) threatened not so much by moral hazard, as by the unleashing of basic distinctions according to the dynamizing model of artistic production—for example, that which Stockhausen anticipated when he challenged us to adjust our brains, because he confused the difference between symbolic wrongdoing (rubbish in a gallery) and mass murder (a terrorist attack).

The fact that adherence to traditional distinctions and aversion toward the instability of the meaning of concepts in the field of criticism is becoming “avant-garde” bit by bit is a lesson being taught us by postmodernity.