GO TO HELL BASTARD – Asger Jorn’s construction of his public image

A slightly different version of this text was published in ‘Public Relations’, Rietveld Academy, Art in Context Programme. Amsterdam, May 2014. Eds. Sasa Karalic and Jouke Kleerebezem. 

Those who study Jorn get to know him as an energetic and charismatic personality, always on the move and looking for exchange and discussions with others through meetings, the making of collaborative work or magazines, or exhibitions. These discussions were regularly held in public or semi-public realm of conferences and newspapers. Jorn’s output as an artist coincides with a considerable amount of anecdotes and photographs that confirm the impression of him as a playful, spontaneous, and also (thought)provoking and going-against-the-grain type of free spirit that is hard to label or pin down.

When asked to contribute a text to the Art in Context (2014) publication of the Rietveld Academy around the topic of PR, I immediately had to think of how these anecdotes have become inextricably bound to his reception as an artist. It is hard to discuss Jorn and leave these anecdotes out, whereas at the same time there are aspects of Jorn that have been largely ignored in art history, such as the sometimes misogynist tendencies in his writings. As it turned out that Helle Brøns’ PhD research on Asger Jorn includes both a critical questioning of how Jorn himself actively contributed to his public image and gender issues I decided to interview her. Helle Brøns is an art historian who lives and works in Copenhagen working on a PhD on Asger Jorn at the University of Copenhagen, the Statens Museum for Kunst, and Museum Jorn. She is the author of Asger Jorn, Copenhagen 2009;  “Masculine Resistance. Expressions and Experiences of Gender in the Work of Asger Jorn”, in October: Asger Jorn: A Special Issue no. 141, 2012 and “The Shock of the Old”, in Hvad Skovsøen gemte. Jorn’s Modifications & Kirkeby’s Overpaintings, Museum Jorn, Silkeborg 2011.

The notion of self-promotion, and the ways that artists actively influence the reception of their work, is a relevant one also in the present time. It is a time in which artists and intellectuals are required to possess of quite a few ‘entrepreneurial’ skills, including networking and self-promotion skills, and dealing with the press. This current call for cultural entrepreneurship has been criticized by sociologist Pascal Gielen as “a misunderstanding”. (Pascal Gielen, ‘Repressive Liberalism – Art, the Art Market and the Cultural Policy System in the Netherlands’ in Kunstlicht 1/2 (34), ‘De Publieke Markt’, 2013) A free translation of his words: “it is in fact a call for self-management, for calculability (yet how can one ‘measure’ the time that is needed to come up with a new idea?) and controllability – the risks of shaping new ideas and objects has to be within acceptable proportions of risk.” Gielen’s critique might be justified, but the ‘entrepreneurial’ aspects of artist hood are an issue usually not ignored by artists that carried to ambition to put a mark on the art and discourse of their time. Asger Jorn definitely belongs to this category of artists.


HdB: Risk was an important element in Jorn’s thinking and strategies and certainly not something that he would be willing to shrink to ‘acceptable proportions’ in the ‘entrepreneurial’ sense. I would rather agree with you Helle, that Jorn was “unrelentlessly reckless”. He compared artistic practice with walking on thin ice, and I think that it is in line with this, that he disliked it if people would get a too clear picture of him. He would then undermine that picture, withdraw or do something unexpected so that it was difficult to type cast him as an artist. This does however not mean, that he didn’t like to be acknowledged or recognized as an artist. Chronologically speaking, the very first thing that springs to mind, is the fact that Asger Jorn was born Asger Oluf Jørgensen. He changed his name in 1945, the year that the borders of various European countries opened up again after years of war. In the literature about Jorn his name change is generally interpreted as a way to make it easier for an international network of people to remember him. Would you like to add to that interpretation, and, secondly, do you happen to know if Jorn has ever publicly motivated his name change?

HB: I think the change of name was mostly a question of practicality.  Jorn wrote to the Danish artist Robert Jacobsen “Robert, we must have different names. It doesn’t work at all to arrive in France and be called Jørgensen and Jacobsen. Nobody can pronounce it. Damn it, I’m going to find myself another name.” I don’t know of any public motivation, so there is probably no more to it than that. What this does tells us, however, is something about Jorn’s self-confidence. That right after the war he was determined to go out and make himself an international career and that he was very conscious of the importance of having a name in the public. But “Jorn” really isn’t the easiest name to pronounce either, is it?   ….. In his local Danish dialect “Jorn” can sound like “Jorden” (the earth) which he might have thought of as a funny connotation. (In Århus in the 1980s someone wanted to name a café after Jorn and were not allowed – they then called it Cafe Jorden as a prank.)

HdB: During the preparatory talk for this interview, we briefly mentioned two photographs of Jorn that we both found striking in the context of the issue of self-presentation and dealing with the relationship with the press. One is a photograph published in the catalogue Expo Jorn – Art is a Festival!,  by the Museum Jorn in Silkeborg in 2014. It is a black and white photograph of Jorn, some youngsters and two adults walking up a hill. They are all playing musical instruments. The other example actually concerns a series of photographs of Jorn and art collector Elna Fonnesbech-Sandberg taken for Billedbladet in October 1944. What do you feel is most striking about these photographs?

Asger Jorn and Elna Fonnesbech-Sandberg at her Summer house, October 1944. Photography by Olaf Kjelstup for the magazine 'Billedbladet'.

HB: The photographs from Billedbladet are interesting both because they reflect the perception of the artist’s role at the time, and because Jorn so willingly plays the part of the young, bohemian, masculine artist. He is in a boiler suit working outdoors or taking a break while Elna Fonnesbech-Sandberg looks at him in appreciation from inside the house – she is passive, approving and always photographed indoors. The setting is sufficiently domestic and normalized for people to identify with the artist and thereby more easily accept his ‘strange’ modern art. It is a classical setup – which we also know from the photographs of Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. Krasner, though being a splendid artist herself, is portrayed as the supportive, admiring wife, while Pollock is performing his drips – which served to anchor the Pollock’s art work in the figure of a white, male (heterosexual) artist. In Jorn’s case however, the woman was not his wife, but his mistress and patron (and future painter and artist colleague). So the rather conventional photographs that seem confirmative of the bourgeois norms and morality in reality covers an even more complex reality. Even if Jorn posed in the public media as a typical artist hero, at the same time he was very critical towards this notion of the genius artist individual, and warned that an artist who lets himself become a celebrated hero will stand in the way of his own art as popular or folk art – which is what he wanted his art to be.

Asger Jorn, Erik Nyholm, Verner Permild and others in a music procession at Erik Nyholm’s place. Photographer and date unknown.

The photo with the music procession was taken at Erik Nyholm’s place (he was a ceramist and a friend of Jorn). He and Verner Permild (a printer) are the other two men the photo. It looks like a happy, spontaneous moment luckily captured on film and it might well have been so. But very often Jorn also initiated such “happenings”, when a camera appeared. He was very good at using such moments to pose as a “bohemian” artist.  His son told me that he sometimes put an instrument in everyone’s hands when someone took photographs. When the son objected that he didn’t know how to play it, Jorn said that it didn’t matter – you couldn’t tell from the picture. Again, it shows how conscious Jorn was of how to present himself as a lively, impulsive artist living up to the public expectation, while in reality he was also very strategic and theoretical. I think it might be part of the reason why his theoretical work was not acknowledged as part of his “real” oeuvre for many years.

HdB: The photographs we just discussed show Jorn to be quite strategic with the media, but you told me about a conversation you had with one of Jorn’s children. Apparently Jorn once said that “now he was as good as Picasso was in dealing with journalists”, right after he had answered a journalist from an important newspaper at his front door (who obviously didn’t know what Jorn looked like) that Mr. Asger Jorn wasn’t home, and closed the door. Whereas it is not my intention to try and speculate too much about his motivations for his action (which would suggest that a clear picture could emerge), it seems to me that generally speaking the anecdotes around Jorn generate from more or less spontaneous responses, but that he also knew very well how to use these anecdotes to his advantage or to create a certain image of himself – or if necessary distort that image again. How do you think of Jorn’s ‘strategy’ to always add to complexity and readability of his personality as an artist, his artistic work, in relation to our current times, and to an audience that is already overloaded with information?

HB: I cannot help thinking of the way the British art critic Tom Wolfe in his satirical 1975 book The Painted Word describes the play between the artist and the cultural elite as the “Boho Dance”. An artist can only be successful, he argues, if he knows the rules of this dance: first the bohemian artists performs his moves of utter disdain for the bourgeoisie, at some point the cultural elite will nevertheless make a move towards him and after some discreet hesitation he must accept the accolades and attention.

Wolfe argues that if the artist gets stuck in a crippling disdain for his audience and cannot accept the offer to dance when it is made, he is doomed to stagnation and will not be revered by history. Artists like Picasso excelled at this art mating ritual, he said, while Pollock was the classic case of the artist hopelessly stuck between the Boho Dance and the fulfillment. A few artists however managed to double-track their way from the Boho Dance to the consummation, but truly successful double-tracking requires the artist to be a sincere and committed performer in both roles, he argues. I think this is what Jorn attempts – to be true to his communist belief and at the same time have success without kissing ass. As is typical for him, he tries to change the rules of the dance. Wolfe points out that the general public was not part of this transaction; perhaps one could say that Jorn attempts to move the dance into their territory (by connecting so strongly with folk art and popular art). Particularly in his Situationist period of course he was split between the success of his painting and the anti-capitalist critique of the SI – this split made him invent an alter ego – George Keller – who stayed in the SI while Jorn resigned. He then canalized some of the money earned on painting back into the subversive activities in SI.

I think the Boho-dance is still in function today – think of someone like Damien Hirst – but of course the scene has changed radically. The performance, which was for a very long time acted out on a unisexual scene – was overplayed and can no longer be presented as natural or credible. There are more artist roles available and a much broader cast. Also, many artists today work with the public media as a medium – a strategy that the situationists were some of the first to use – but the attitude of most younger artists towards media, institutions or consumer society is much more workable and diverse. The recognition of artistic research that Jorn struggled for is very relevant today and in some ways obtained, which also allows for different relationships between artist and public.

HdB: During his lifetime Jorn wrote a great deal of texts. He was very outspoken about many topics, and he was a well-read man. in the reception of his texts at the time, and still today,  his textual and more philosophical output are primarily considered an example of artistic thinking. In the 1950s however, Jorn send in one of his existing manuscripts at the University of Copenhagen, asking to consider it as a dissertation. The university rejected his application, which as you suggested, could not have come as a big surprise to him. Do you think that he really wanted to position himself as an intellectual, or what else do you think might have been his agenda with this application?

HB: Yes, in 1952, he submitted his aesthetic manifesto Luck and Chance to the University of Copenhagen in order to have it accepted as a philosophical doctoral thesis. The book was rejected because it did not meet the university’s academic requirements, full as it was of intuitive leaps and argument from one discipline used in the field of another. I believe his purpose was to proclaim the existence and value of an artistic way of thinking as an equivalent alternative to the philosophical and scientific one. His  theoretical work was both very sincere and at the same time it included a humorous, irrational aspect which was not compatible with academia). Jorn strikes me as an intellectual who does not want to be intellectual. In his introduction to a later book The Natural Order, he stated that success as a philosopher would be “the most embarrassing and ridiculous thing I could ever achieve. It would be like giving a man who loves women the most beautiful wax mannequin in the world, complete with real hair.” What he cared about was the “real thing”, a living, passionate sensuous reflection rather than an elaborate, but lifeless, philosophical thinking. In the same book he claims that “We need a Ministry of Disturbance, a regulated source of annoyance, a destroyer of routine, an underminer of complacency, or, in other words, a ministry of aesthetic activity.” I think Luck and Chance was intended as such a disturbance.

HdB: Jorn was quite critical of the idea of the museum as the arbiter of taste and what could be called the culture industry of his time. When Jorn was awarded the Guggenheim Award in 1964, he send a telegram to the president of the Guggenheim saying:


On January 8, 1964 he also send a longer letter explaining himself in more detail, stating that he has always refused any price as “pricegiving is the establishment of an hierarchic distinction between artists”, and on top of that he adds that refuses to be used as “an example to artistic and public education, as I hate every sort of education en bloc.” The Danish writer and critic Elsa Gress (1919-1988) however, didn’t necessarily think of Jorn’s action as daring or risk-taking, but pointed out that he might gain more from all the media attention then from the award itself. Could say a little more about what she said, and in what context their subsequent dialogue took place?

HB: I think the rejection of the Guggenheim Price is a perfect example of Jorn’s attempt at double-tracking: a perfect abusive Boho dance move but at the same time he got more publicity without compromising his convictions. What Elsa Gress did was in a way to expose this transaction as part of the game.  She discussed how abstract spontaneous art had become academic and that there was too much speculation and publicity in art – even Jorn who just turned down the Guggenheim price uses publicity, she says.  Jorn wrote an angry reply, refusing to ever have used publicity besides the publicity implicit in every artistic statement. Gress then pointed out that because of his constant presence in the media, his writing, debating and self-conscious appearance Jorn’s public persona, whether he wanted it to or not, confirmed the image of the artist as a genius bursting with masculine vitality and agency. This artist’s role expressed the last gasp of patriarchy, as she saw it, noting Pollock as an example of a male artist self-destructively living his own myth. This was a sore spot for Jorn, who himself saw modern society as being increasingly influenced by what he defined as female values of harmony and stagnation, while masculine values such as experimentation, aggression and innovation lost territory. In the following discussion they both projected gender differences onto their arguments.

Photograph of a page from 'Asger Jorn - Restless Rebel', Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen 2014. The page includes book covers of books written by Jorn, including 'Value and Economy' which shows Jorn posing as Marx.

Gress – taking off from Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret Mead, and others – was advocating for a general humanism that does not discriminate between the sexes, while Jorn stressed the generic differences between the sexes. In his book Alpha and Omega he continues this discussion of art and gender in rather misogynist terms. He does, however, also have a very humorous and ironic tone, which is also evident in his art – not least the modifications and disfiguration which ridicule both men and women. Such “self-portraits” as the one at the cover of Value and Economy, where he poses as Marx is a similar ironic self-representation: He puts himself as an artist thinker in the place of the philosophical father figure. In another photograph he poses as the little mermaid and ironically shows himself as a paradoxical, popular national symbol with breasts, pipe and beard. I think it is a great picture of his self-ironic attitude to his public image as a masculine artist hero.

The Hidden Persuaders / The Hidden Artist

I would like to conclude this interview with thanking Helle Brøns for her time, energy and insights, and with a photograph that I took at Museum Jorn, in a small room that contains part of Jorn’s personal library. It is a photograph of the title page of the book The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard, underneath which Jorn wrote ‘The hidden artist’. It is an interesting note perhaps to end with, as Jorn draws a direct parallel between the artist’s practice and the work of PR managers and other ‘persuaders’.

Packard’s book The Hidden Persuaders was first published in 1957, and according to his underlining of many paragraphs, Jorn must have read it with interest. Packard looks into the use of psychological techniques by advertisers to influence the behavior of potential buyers. Packard identified several “compelling needs” that advertisers promise products will fulfill that according to him are so strong that people are not able to resist the impulse to buy. Packard also looks into the manipulative techniques of promoting politicians to the electorate and questions the morality of using these techniques.

In ‘The Exploitation of the Unique’, the second part of his publication Value and Economy, Jorn discusses the subjective and human passion at length in relation to art, politics and advertisement. He writes for instance: “The best object for exploitation in human society is human desire and enthusiasm and the creative results of this, our cultural past” and “Politics consists of catching people’s attention and is thus art.” (Asger Jorn, “Value and Economy – Critique of Political Economy and The Exploitation of the Unique’ in The Natural Order and other texts, translated by Peter Shield, Ashgate 2002) At the core of his thinking lies the idea that art is the ultimate tool for invoking differences in values, for invoking change and that only changes can catch people’s attention. He then indeed draws a parallel between art and advertisement saying “(…) academics have made a false separation between what they call art and what they call advertisement. They simply refuse to admit the obvious that all art, even that of Beethoven and Rembrandt, is art because, amongst other things, it is an advertisement for something, and that to advertise is to give sensory experience an extraordinary significance. That a sensory experience is given an extraordinary significance is first and foremost to say that that one is conscious of it as something important and something present.” (Value and Economy)

In ‘Value and Economy’ Jorn shows himself critical of the role of mass media in the dependence of politicians’ popularity and he shows himself critical of the role of the advertisement industry in relation to commodity consumption, but perhaps most importantly in the framework of the artistic practice, he shows himself critical of academic thinking about the value of sensory experiences. He says that the consciousness, the focus of attention that artists can generate “is what in the most elementary sense could be called intelligence”.(Value and Economy) Academics, according to Jorn, have refused to acknowledge the intellectual aspect in this process. To Jorn however, intelligence does occupy itself with experiences of reality, not only with concepts. He can’t relate at all to the academic concept of reality as something that cannot be experienced but only comprehended: “Art is to be able, but to be able is also to know” (Value and Economy) says Jorn, which to him means that you can’t remove knowledge from art, or isolate direct knowledge from the problem of intelligence.

It is useful to realize how aware Jorn himself was of the importance of human desire and the focus of attention where it comes to his public image. The image of Jorn as a bohemian artist did not occur as ‘naturally’ or spontaneously as it looks like at first glance, and a critical look at his practice and thinking from the perspective of gender issues also completes our image of him in a different way. At the same time, the numerous photographs of Jorn smoking, of Jorn working with paint, clay or textile, of Jorn eating, drinking, of Jorn flirting, of Jorn playing a musical instrument, but rarely of Jorn not engaging with the world of matter around him, seem to focus our attention not only to him but also to one of the most fundamental ideas underlying his practice, which is that through experimenting, a direct engaging with matter, art invokes differences, and by invoking differences art generates knowledge about ourselves and the world around us. This is not the ‘scientific’ or objective type of knowledge, but a type of knowledge that issues from the subjective, from the needs of mankind. In terms of art, to Jorn this was the true meaning of realism – which when you come to think of it, sheds another light of some of the photographs discussed above. Perhaps Jorn’s ‘manipulations’ were foremost aimed to bring across the image of something as ‘real’ as possible.


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