The text below is also part of the publications Asger Jorn: the Form and Beyond, edited by Luca Bochicchio and Paola Valenti, Genova University Press, Italy, November 2014, and Asger Jorn: The Secret of Art, Cobra Museum of Modern Art, Amstelveen, The Netherlands, 2014 (limited edition, designed by Richard Niessen).

The public sessions in the framework of at the Athens Biennial 2013 and at Casco, office for art design and theory in Utrecht early 2014, built the basis for this text.

After having worked exclusively with contemporary art for about ten years, I started a job as a curator at the Cobra Museum of Modern Art in the winter of 2011. This called for refreshing my knowledge of Cobra, the loose constellation of young left-oriented artists and poets that officially existed from 1948-1951. The energetic Danish experimental artist and thinker Asger Jorn (1914-1973),  well-known as a painter and a co-founder of Cobra and one of its driving forces, attracted my special interest. He was always on the move looking for international exchange and discussions, creating collaborative work, magazines, and exhibitions. What I have learned since 2010 is that Jorn, with great thrive and ambition, also wrote numerous books and articles envisioning, from an artistic point of view, ‘the first complete revision of the existing philosophical system’.

In his writings Jorn combined ideas from a wide variety of disciplines including politics, physics, economics, philosophy, anthropology, structuralism and art theory. The way he brought these various interests together in complex and unconventional ideas and ways, in search of a comprehensive theory of art and life, appeals to me for various reasons; especially his strong ideas on art as not derived from an ideology or worldview, but as the direct expression of an attitude towards life, belonging to the fundamental level of work and production. Jorn’s views result in a very outspoken position in the philosophical debate about the value of art and the position of the artist in society. In this perspective, art historian Graham Birtwistle makes the crucial observation that: “(…) in placing [art] at the basis and not in the superstructure, Jorn’s theory gives to art both a primary role and a certain independence from conventional ideological idealism.[1]

Over the past years (and currently) the value of art and the position of the artist in society has been a much discussed topic in several European countries. Politicians announced budget cuts and other vigorous measures for the cultural sector in the light of the (ongoing) credit crisis. I wondered if the questions that Jorn posed and the position he took could still be relevant for the analysis of our current situation. Could Jorn’s theory, and more important his (art) practice, give us “certain independence”, as mentioned by Birtwistle, with our society transforming at a rapid pace from ‘market economy’ to ‘market society’?

After reading an essay by the Belgian sociologist Pascal Gielen I realized that Jorn, who had strong political views and anti-capitalist ideas, might have shared Gielen’s perspective on the current situation in Western society as one of ‘repressive liberalism’.[2] He defines repressive liberalism as a situation in which the state embraces ‘freedom’ and the ‘free market’, whereas the control of that freedom has in fact increased. The result is an extremely conditional form of freedom, or freedom as an instrument of control. Within this, Gielen says we are facing a situation of political dialectics replaced by a bureaucratic middle class that aspires to a measurable and controllable mediocrity.[3] Indeed a contemporary echo of Jorn’s words:

For an elite to have real power it must have rights and regulations other than the rest of the population, it must form an extraordinary order. As this monopoly is abolished in modern democratic society, the administrative posts can only be occupied by the best amongst the mediocre, chosen from the good citizens. The disorderly and the extraordinary, the poor and the best are excluded automatically … .[4]

Gielen also states that in fact, the past ten years the jargon of liberalism has been embraced with surprising and quite uncritical easiness, using politically charged language (including terms such as culture consumer, entrepreneurship, marketing) as if it were neutral, as if it were devoid of an ideological signature. He points out that anyone who nowadays opposes the rhetoric of repressive liberalism is labelled a naive romanticist. Isn’t this perhaps one of the major problems with what Jorn has to offer us as well? That it is hopelessly romantic? What could be distilled or taken from Jorn’s way of thinking to practise a genuinely critical art towards culture in our times?


The spice of life

Not surprisingly, Jorn never showed any hesitance in advocating and claiming an essential role for the arts in life and society. He wrote:

What we are talking about here is art and its justification, its meaning and its place in our lives and society. Art does not exist simply for the enjoyment of beauty, nor to point a moral finger. Aesthetics and ethics are nothing more than playthings for philosophers and theologians. Art is a life and death issue; a human necessity. What I am referring to here is the creative, artistic urge and its sets its stamp on all our actions (…). There are core life values which can only grow in freedom, and only when truly free can they form a central part of the way we lead our lives.”[5] He even goes as far as to claim that: “There is a widespread misconception that one’s daily bread takes precedence over the spice of life and that we must all have practical homes before we can even start thinking about putting up frivolous buildings.[6]

With the above statement Jorn wasn’t simply trying to advocate freedom for the arts for the sake of the arts. In all his texts he kept on expressing in various ways that this freedom was essential to be able to experiment and consequently essential to the generating of new knowledge. According to Jorn, this made it crucial for human society and the human race to develop further. In order to do so artists would need, what he called “free or unused energy”, which he identified as a potential scarcity in a (capitalist) society that claims all available energy. Almost cheekily, Jorn added that strictly speaking, the arts are not necessary. It only is if one desires progress. And if so, one of Jorn’s prerequisites to opening up the possibilities for an effective utilisation of the artistic possibilities would be “that society can afford, and is at liberty, to give architects and artists a free hand in the creation of the best environment for mankind.[7]

The give-and-take between artist and society was of great concern to Jorn, as this citation also shows. In “Value and Economy …” he reflects on the topic at length and states that artists (and other cultural producers) are in fact exploited by the power elite and that “Art and culture retain only a minimal part of the sums that they earn[8] as artists and other makers are not paid for their hours of productive work. He builds up his arguments in great detail but it might be most effective to present his example: “If the Americans just paid according to the tariff for the time they occupy themselves with European culture, then the whole of Europe could live off it.”[9] It would be obvious to conclude that Jorn simply argued that from now on artists and other makers should be paid for their hours of productive work[10] (especially as he also stated that the aim of his text “Value and Economy …” is to demonstrate the economic basis that ‘the creative elite’ is entitled to), but he loved undermining and contradicting, and his arguments often had an unexpected twist. In this case he ends the very same paragraph by saying that if what he suggests would be realized, it would have the (I take it as undesirable) effect of “stagnation of our artistic culture”.

Jorn obviously was well aware of the fact that art has a lot to do with economics, at the same time though he often pointed to those aspects that can’t be measured in money:

Art is a life form. It is mankind’s celebration (and maledictions on) all aspects of life that enliven us. Architecture is the framework upon which we build our lives but the arts are the living framework around life itself. Artistic creation is the spiritual and psychological sea in which we swim and which provides life-giving nourishment.[11]

It is in social interaction and spiritual immeasurable values that we can find what Jorn calls “the secret of art”:

The secret of art consists in the simple fact that it is more blessed to give than to take, but also that this blessedness is dependent upon voluntary giving, so that what is given is felt as a surplus, a wealth, not a duty. This is the simple materialistic explanation of the value of the art work and for all other things called spiritual values. In relation to the practical values, art is thus a counter-value, the value of productive pleasure. Art is the goal for a discharge of energy without a precise goal, except the one that the receiver can discover. In this way, art is the source of benevolence, is what is called grace.[12]

Holistic as this may sound, the artistic strategies that Jorn applied make him the exemplary model for the recalcitrant modernist artist to whose strategies contemporary artists – “problem solvers of social problems on a micro level (…)” – should return, according to Pascal Gielen. No safety, order and comfort, no self-management disguised as cultural entrepreneurship for the sake of calculability and controllability,[13] but the creation of problems and “creative destruction” is what Gielen calls for. It is true: “Asger Jorn loved difficulties. If there were none, he created them, for himself and others”, writes Wieland Schmied.[14] Risk was also an extremely important element in Jorn’s thinking and strategies, and certainly not a factor that he wanted to reduce to acceptable proportions, in the ‘entrepreneurial’ sense. “(…) I have never been interested in going anywhere unless I was able to go all the way to the extreme[15], Jorn said. Gielen’s call for creative destruction bears strong similarities to Jorn’s fascination for vandalism as a potential creative act, and his (and those involved in the Situationist International) well-known strategy of ‘détournement’ – basically the adaptation of or variation on previous ideas or works, in which the newly created has a meaning that differs from the original one.

These and other artistic strategies worked very well for Jorn and the other people he was associated with, but as stated in the preface of Collectivism after modernism, recently reborn collectivism has little or none of the leftovers from its own rich past.[16] Rather than looking into specific artistic strategies that worked well for artists in the Cold War era (and which might or might not work well here and now), I suggest that we take two elemental questions to heart. The first question is whether we can find the inner conviction that art is an elemental need (and if we have the willpower, or are prepared, to put this idea into practice).[17] The second one has to do with the idea “that artisthood is not an individual fate (…) but can rest on a collective foundation of solidarity structures”,[18] as Gielen phrases it so rightly.

Perhaps this is a good moment to remember the lifelong stipend that Jorn passed on to the Belgian poet Christian Dotremont, and to bring up Jorn’s donation of over 1,500 art works by various artists to the city of Silkeborg (today at Museum Jorn). Or the donation of his premises in Albisola, Italy, to the community, on the condition that his artist-friend Alberto Gambetta could continue living there until his death and that it would become a public venue after that. These examples not only testify to what looks like solidarity (or generosity) in various of Jorn’s actions. They also point to Jorn’s “second prerequisite to an effective utilisation of the artistic possibilities”: the artistic prerequisite,[19] to which collaboration between artists is a pre-given.

To Jorn collaboration and ‘brotherhood’ were vital and primary artistic solutions. Within these collaborations he regarded disciplinary boundaries of no importance, he rather advocated their abolition. He also rejected the idea of making compromises – so that everyone involved in the collaboration can give his best. The artists involved would share, what Jorn calls “the language of the new age”.[20] He wrote:

It is the change-over to another rhythm of life in which the essential thing is not the emphasis on the private, the masterpiece, the individual, … not the division of life into closed-off forms, rubrics and classifications, but life’s own rhythm, luxuriance and free growth …,[21] or: “it is not just a matter of creating an organic, living and cohesive architectural style, but also of creating a living lifestyle, an organic collaboration between human beings – an organic society in effect.[22]

What is important to add is that to Asger Jorn, the idea of an ‘organic collaboration’ (or any other idea for that matter) takes the subjective, irrational side of human nature into account. To answer one of my initial questions: I can only agree with Jorn that this ‘romantic’ approach is in fact truly realistic.

Let us return to the second question: How to practise a genuinely critical art towards contemporary culture today? Perhaps it is not too far fetched to claim that in our individualistic society, focused on specialization and demarcation, collectivism by its very nature is genuinely critical (towards the art world’s system of individuality in particular). In her essay ‘Internationaleries – Collectivism, the Grotesque, and Cold War Functionalism’ Jelena Stojanović writes about influential European collectives which were all, with the exception of one, co-founded by Jorn: Cobra, International Lettriste, Mouvement pour un Bauhaus Imaginiste, and the Situationist International. She points out that they:

took upon themselves the immense and utopian task of reimagining collective subjectivity. That is, of redefining the very notion of utopia for the cold war era, a time when the “colonization of everydayness” first took on an unconditional presence. They sought to achieve this gargantuan task by employing what they believed was the only available tactic: a critical art practice, informed by the cold war in which negation, debasement, and blasphemy were discharged against all highly promoted cultural values including “art”, but also the “avant-garde”.[23]

Perhaps the second question to take from Jorn and his co-conspirators is whether we are up to reimagining collective subjectivity in a time of repressive liberalism.

[1] Graham Birtwistle, Living Art – Asger Jorn’s comprehensive theory of art between Helhesten and Cobra (1946-1949), Reflex, Utrecht 1986, p. 55.

[2] Pascal Gielen, “Repressief liberalisme – Over kunst, markt en cultuurbeleid in Nederland”/“Repressive Liberalism: The Dutch Cultural Policy System” (summary in English), Kunstlicht (no 1/2, 2013). Translations are my own and I refer to the Dutch text.

[3] Dito, p. 14.

[4] Asger Jorn, “Value and Economy – Critique of political economy and The exploitation of the unique”, published in French in 1959 by the Situationist International. In 1962 Jorn published “Value and Economy …” as Report no. 2 of the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism. I refer to Peter Shield’s English translation in The Natural Order and other texts, Ashgate, London 2002, p. 203.

[5] Asger Jorn, ‘Architecture is not art’, 1943 translated by Paul Larkin in: Ed. Ruth Baumeister, Fraternité Avant Tout – Asger Jorn’s writings on art and architecture, 1938-1958, 010 Publishers, Rotterdam 2011, p. 53.

[6] Dito. Jorn’s words were not empty rhetoric, he and his family lived in very poor conditions for a long time. He was seriously undernourished by 1951, indicated as one of the reasons for him to get tuberculosis, and when he moved to Albisola, Italy with his family they lived in a tent along the riverside for a while.

[7] The painter Asger Jørgensen, ‘Notes on the Way’, 1945, in Baumeister, p. 82.

[8] “Value and Economy …”, p. 190.

[9] Dito.

[10] He literally meant that if I would amuse myself for one hour with a piece of art, a boxing match, chess game and so on, I would owe the maker/entertainer one hour of productive work.

[11] Asger Jorn, “Face to Face”, 1944, in Baumeister, p. 66 and 67.

[12] “Value and Economy …”, p. 184.

[13] Gielen, p. 14.

[14] Wieland Schmied, ‘The Graphic Artist Asger Jorn’, in Asger Jorn: The Secret of Art, Cobra Museum for Modern Art, Amstelveen 2014, p. 37.

[15] Asger Jorn, ‘Against Functionalism’, 1957 in Baumeister, p. 278.

[16] Ed. Blake Stimson & Gregory Sholette, Collectivism after modernism: the art of social imagination after 1945, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis/London 2007, p. xii.

[17] In line with this and Jorn’s concept of “a living art” Gielen mentions the need for artists who are capable of translating their strategies into “actual life forms” (werkelijke levensvormen).

[18] Gielen, p. 18.

[19] Asger Jorn, ‘Notes on the Way’ in Baumeister, p. 82.

[20] Dito, p. 83.

[21] Asger Jorn, ‘Formsprakets Livsinnehåll’ (The lifecontent of the language of form), Byggmåstaren, Stockholm, XXVI, 17, 1947, in Birtwistle, p. 317.

[22] Asger Jorn, ‘What is an ornament?’, 1948 in Baumeister, p. 206.

[23] Stimson & Sholette, p. 38.

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