In the framework of The Art and Capitalism Conference, Chelsea School of Art, July 2013, organized by Dave Beech, philosopher Martin Wooster responded to Asger Jorn’s Value and Economy. In the next post or posts he will also be answering some questions that the text below raised with me.

A healthy society has a reflexive capacity to be both inwards to the mind and outwards to culture as it unites the two human tendencies of the artistic and the intellectual. After Nietzsche we might look upon this as an activity with a capacity to transcend the instinct for self-preservation, the essential mark of a withdrawn life, but also to bring performativity and what is most precarious together as a creative act by its very exposure to the vulnerability of others. Asger Jorn finds something of this in the peculiarly Scandinavian temperament that unites a union of the popular and the celebratory, work and festivity. Yet we find our modern world to be increasingly dominated by the propagation of work without quality and entertainment without value.

If we consider modernity and its enlightenment concept of politics to be an ongoing crisis of attentiveness and of which the changing configurations of capitalism continually push attention and distraction to new limits and thresholds then one of the best ways to navigate such a condition might be in terms of a historical dialectic of boredom and distraction. In this respect we should understand boredom as offering a unique opportunity to explore something like a suspended awareness within time, as a kind of ‘any-time whatever’, in which to distract from the bad immediacy of distraction and think and perceive in a new way. Of course this is only made possible by constructing a new relation with space through new creative qualities of labour able to honour properly the forgotten language of contingency – all that is most frail, vulnerable, unintelligible, unknowable and unrepresentable in political thought. For Jorn such vertiginous forgetfulness, unbound as it is from any presupposition and whose problems are truly philosophical in that they embody conflict, dilemma and paradox necessitates that art has a privileged role to play for no other reason than that idleness lies at its root, being the very precondition for all creative work.

If art has a crucial role to play outside of organized capitalism and its wish to manage and regulate perception, of which we can view the military-entertainment complex as a carefully staged management and maintenance of boredom, the military wing outwards, the entertainment wing inside, then perhaps its task is to maintain boredom differently without having to bite the feed that powers all distractions.

How are we to practice a properly critical art towards culture? Obviously any such practice involves taking up a stance unafraid of the culture industry and its growing solidified operations and attitudes validated by prevailing forms of rationality. To give culture back a properly experimental renewal as opposed to that blind consumption in a fragmenting world also requires that history no longer be afraid of coming to terms with its own non-historical layer. But our world of which Mark Fisher says, ‘all that is solid melts into PR’, resolutely refuses this task. Instead we remain governed by on-line survey’s, continuous surveillance and are ever more dominated by the form of the commodity, equally an object of the state as the supermarket, at best we are consumers, at worst we are terrorists.

According to the argument proposed in Marcuse’s book, One Dimensional Man, we have been conditioned to approve of aggression only in its ability to steer erotic and destructive instinctual energies into socially controlled modes of thought and behavior. Under such conditions tending to absolute submission, the crises we experience, whether political, economic or cultural are always considered to be bad deviant malfunctions to a technically governed order rather than openings to the inner contradictions that exist beneath appearances. Just as our individual symptoms betray a vital part of who and what we are and therefore remain essential if we wish to perceive the possibilities of a freer and happier life. So it is necessary that we problematize and creatively explore rather than repress them as inconvenient obstacles to an ever smooth social functioning. When we have the courage to look into the origin of things as Jorn does in seeing not identity, unity or purity but rather the laceration, the multiplicity and the alteration of something that never corresponds to that which it declares to be, we discover that in itself freedom is not just but has to be be positively affirmed through art and beauty if we wish to give any system of rights any justification at all.

Indeed processes of self-deception go to the very heart of what it means to be human and perhaps only in understanding this fact may we intuit what Marx had in mind when he said that the human being’s variable capital is his life. For Judith Butler the giving of a proper account of oneself necessarily entails a pure act of faith, both in oneself and in the other and the supreme moment of the subject’s freedom is to free life, its object, to leave it to freely deploy itself. In any final analysis there remains for us something, an empty space, a hole, a remnant, a vitalist element, that is elusive to any formal control for it can never coincide with itself. Yet it is to this essential excess of what we take ourselves to be that also allows for a rejuvenated political subject with a new perspective to dislodge our antiquated notions of a people and a democracy. But when we are sold the illusion of infinite freedom and where knowledge is merely channeled into personal taste and preference we become ever more susceptible to being indentured to our identity, a subject trapped in a logical circularity. For Jorn the cult of this subjectivity becomes a mere caricature of what has been lost.

For Nietzsche life does not know modes of being apart from those of its continual strengthening and any critique of modernity sees clearly that what produces such self-dissolving effects in our institutions, party, parliament and state are their inability to relate directly to life. For Jorn this is described as power losing its own extraordinary order and is clearly felt by the fact that in our modern democratic societies administrative posts are now only occupied by the best amongst the mediocre, chosen only from the proven, conscientious and well-functioning citizens. This means that the disorderly and the extraordinary, the poor and the best, which for Jorn more often than not amount to the same thing, are ever more excluded. As for the abnormal, something we might reasonably consider the human’s very birthright, its exclusion is near total as we continue to treat it with hate and fear. In a world where the brother having usurped the father to become the big brother gives the lie that everything is different, ever changing forgets that just beneath its surface, underlying its structure, all remains the same and continues nevertheless that infantile state fleeing the productive figurations of our inner lives. In this sad state of affairs difference is still a prisoner of repetition and the dead continue to reach out and grab hold of the living.

For Asger Jorn art is a strength in its capacity as a work of negativity, one that has need to influence a body and liberate value confined in that body. By the same token no politics can properly exist other than that which takes place on bodies, conducted on bodies, through bodies and the physiology that we find in Nietzsche always to be allied with psychology is the very same material of politics. It is nothing less than its pulsating body. This is a body always inside a struggle outside itself to other bodies just as much as it is an unstoppable conflict among its own organic components. Such bodies, whether we consider them from the perspective of the earth or of writing, alone have the power to affect and be affected and art equally an elaboration of the most primitive and elementary fragments of our ancient animal prehistory as any utopian longing, becomes exemplary for both Jorn and Nietzsche when it breaks down the self’s absolute integrity and works through its open possibilities of transformation, transfiguration and fabrication.

In this way for the human to progress it is necessary that we regress, to undo, subvert, and liberate ourselves by touching upon the ‘restlessness of the negative’. It is from here and only here that we may emerge upon a constant, multi-layered battlefield of forces allowing no final word but of which the vital organism now no longer suffers limits or reductions but on the contrary tends continually to move beyond and transgress them. As the body continuously overcomes its own internal limits and of its own categorical definition there is offered the still yet open possibility of becoming something that is more than life, other than life, and embody that which Nietzsche demanded, ‘I am that which must always overcome itself’. We may call this a form of delinquency, both in its literal significance of a lack and in the figurative sense of violence, but it also the very form that opens a vacuum of sense at the heart of life. From here we are literally forced to think in a performative manner and take in distractions but without simply reproducing them in the manner of those embracing everything whilst refraining from seriously engaging with anything. Such a path finally allows us to recognize history as always unpredictable and open because essentially its fate has to remain in a state precarious and vulnerable of others.

Scientific control with its hardening forms of rationality has no love of the body and thus no real critical effect since it understands little of the true relational nature of things. As a result it can only state and consequently whatever is new becomes more and more meaningless and without value. If art is to become more than just an effective vehicle for spreading proliferating but vacuous desires and left solely implementing changes for urban and regional development, tourism and cultural policy more generally then it has to engage with the dynamics of the commodity form and its negation of use-value. Benjamin argued that, ‘it has been one of the primary tasks of art to create a demand whose hour of satisfaction has not yet come’. Such an argument as reiterated in the words of Jorn sees art as a primary wealth but only if governed by chance, directly futile and fleeting in existence. It is also a demand that art function politically and of which boredom can only intensify the demand.

Martin Wooster – Aug 2013


The entry below revolves around Asger Jorn’s text Value and Economy – critique of political economy and the exploitation of the unique which was originally published in French in 1959 by the Internationale Situationniste. In 1962 Jorn published it as Report no. 2 of the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism. An English version in PDF format, translated by Peter Shield, published in 2002 by Ashgate (together with other texts) can be found here:

The first part of Value and Economy is a critique on socialist/Marxist political economy. In this chapter Jorn speaks about the notion of value from the perspective of material/substance, time and space, progress and change including notions of uniformity and creativity in work. In the second and last part of the text the key issue is the proposal for an economically independent international “creative elite”. By adopting typical Scandinavian institutions such as Nikolaj Grundtvig’s ‘Folkehøjskole’ (Folk high schools) to realize “artistic value” for the greater universal good. He also attempts to reconcile the unique and individual position of the “creative elite” with his socialist principles.

Read more:

To me, there is a connection between Value and Economy, Jorn’s outspokenness about the function of art and the role of the artist in society (which was  one of the reasons for raising my interest in his writing and thinking), and the current European political, financial and moral crisis with its populistic excesses,  and its thinking in economic/financial terms only. In the light of serious budget cuts and closing down of a variety of cultural institutions (starting 2010 and 2011) many people also came to defend the importance of the arts from the perspective of the economic benefits of what we nowadays call the ‘cultural industry’. It was difficult to verbalize the ideas on the value of art and culture and the role of the artist from the perspective of the arts, or at least to be taken seriously if one would take on a typical Asger Jorn perspective:

“What we are talking about here is art and its justification, its meaning and its place in our lifes and society. Art does not exist simply for the enjoyment of beauty, nor so as to point a moral finger. Aesthetics and ethics are nothing more than play-things for philosophers and theologians. Art is a life and death issue; a human necessity.” (Asger Jorn, ‘Architecture Is Not Art’, in Fraternité Avant Tout, p. 53, ed. Ruth Baumeister, 010 Publishers, Rotterdam 2011 )


Shout for Culture protest, 20 November 2010, Amsterdam

In the light of the current crisis it is probably not surprising that Asger Jorn’s text Value and Economy – Critique of Political Economy and the Exploitation of the Unique kept popping up in the various encounters I have had so far. The well-known Danish artists’ collective Superflex were the first ones to bring it up when I visited their studio in Copenhagen.  Their projects usually revolve around alternative models for the creation, dissemination and maintenance of social and economic organisation.

Superflex, Today we do not use the word ´Recession´, 2010. Photo: Peter Cox

The image comes and is accompanied by a very informative text about their work.

After the meeting with Superflex I brought up Value and Economy to the Belgian artists duo Ronny Heiremans and Kathleen Vermeir, who immediately included a copy of the text in a reader they composed for a public event in the framework of the Brussels Art Fair (2012). In their work, Vermeir and Heiremans create work in various media, usually including video, which explores the  entangled web between art, the economy, real estate, and urban development.

The Residence (photo) 2012 Photo series by Katleen Vermeir & Ronny Heiremans in collaboration with Kristien Daem.

When contacting artist, writer and curator Dave Beech I learned that he was organizing the Art and Capitalism conference at the Chelsea School of Art (July 2013), and that one of the three debates would be about Jorn’s Value and Economy. He kindly send me an audio recording of it, and based on that I asked philosopher and artist Martin Wooster if I could publish his contribution to the debate on this blog, as well as a brief converation between us. He generously agreed (see next entry).