– Johannes Raether and Kerstin Stakemeier: “The Art of Falling Apart”

· Realism! Online Magazine – table of contents

The Art of Falling Apart – On the Realism of Romanticism

german version

The order of the world is violence. The practice, which reverses it, disintegrates it and constructs a process that is not geared to it, contains a revolutionary desire. This desire does not stick to itself, but wants to become universal and claims that violence should not be the order of the world anymore.

Violence lies within things themselves, in the dressing and fitting of subjects and objects into their purpose for the reproduction of society. Furthermore, things entail starting points for productive orientations, for ways beyond an order of violence. But within the Here and Now there are no refuges, where those ways out could already be exercised in small scale. Figures of romanticism, the aesthetic contemplation of a possible but fleshless ‘elsewhere’ have never exceeded a temporary escapism. And even references of realism, compilations of the fettered present, cannot hide the fact that past and future are lost for now.

Realism and romanticism are just two styles in many within bourgeois history. Styles draw lines of aesthetic identification to melt down productions of whole ages in order for them to be identifiable and repeatable in the sense of merchandise knowledge. Within a style, artistic testimonies from an undisclosed period are being fixed or seemingly frozen. Given our case, realism and romanticism appear as styles of an epoch, the 19th century, in which the capitalist reproduction of the world was generalized and systemized. But to a revolutionary desire that takes society’s violence only as a negative starting point, realism and romanticism remain unfinished beginnings, whose leftovers and revenants repeat within the undissolved present and whose realization stays possible.

At the historical moment of their formation, foremost the notion of nature changed. The very dimension of which disintegrated within the reconstruction of the world under the conditions of capital. While romanticism between the 18th and 19th centuries tried to capture nature’s grandeur in order to create its own genius, from the middle of the19th century realism tried to make it inhabitable as a place of not yet industrialized manual labor. The historical construction of the romantic national mythology consisted in its very transfiguration into a pseudo-natural entity. Agricultural labor, redrawn by realism facing industrialization, became prime witness of the transformation of nature into machinery, a “second nature of mankind”.[1] Romanticism and realism where dragged on as founding myths of that second nature. Their perspective on nature as a dimension open to historical alteration got lost on the way. Because nature today is “second nature”, a worldwide reproduction of productive forces incorporates humans merely as means of production.

Romanticism and realism were signs of the historical formation of the bourgeois subject, which never realized the philosophical pathos of its civil liberty, but maintained it as an illusion of a class already vanishing in the 19th century. Having said this, its deconstruction was already present in its formation and continued until the historic ideal of the autonomous subject faced its industrial destruction in World Wars I and II. The immateriality of the bourgeois imagination of freedom became obvious. It left a perforated subject, whose subjectivity had turned into objectivity, because its consciousness deconstructed itself between ideal and realization – to an object amongst objects.

In order to become a subject again, “second nature” has to be taken as first, as irreducible material of any construction. Taking the second nature as a starting point just as serious as the perforated subject, which is broken and can barely determine the consequences of its actions, enables us to utilize romanticism and realism as figures for taking responsibility – to the point where they turn into another and their desires become tangible in the Here and Now, as the material potentiality of a universality that is not ordered by violence.

Escape into Ideal

The single commodity turns more and more into an image without context, whereas capitalism becomes more and more a context without image, an abstract form of production that lacks an illustrative character and needs images constructed in order to give orientation. Those images cannot be factual or realistic ones. Not only because they would be utterly unbearable, but because capitalism as an abstract mode of societalization (“Vergesellschaftung”) is a revenant of the iconoclasts. It destroys the truth of an image by showing its deficiency, its unavoidable under-complexity. The single image cannot capture the Real of the abstract form of capitalism. It necessarily gets trapped in character masks that do not uncover productive starting points, but remain in representation. Eventually, they do nothing more than reproduce the clearness of its violence.[2]

Realism tries to give significant orientation within an ocean of images, is met by its own insignificance: There is no fixed symbol to attack, no single flag, no single image of a ruler that could make capitalism visible and eidetic.

Capitalism is not visible and eidetic, it is an abstract relation of things, which renders their material existence absolute, represses their origin and rules out their concrete localization. But the violence that gives order to the capitalist world is illustrative in and of itself and can be localized. An unsuspended confrontation with its illustrative representation is unbearable, its fading-out is an act of psychosis, embedded in psychotropic drugs or caviar depending on social position. Artistic production – as such a genuinely romantic site – is the only socially fixed place of an only seemingly visible and clear sublation. Here is where elements of reality seemingly can move free from their use value or their ideological function.

“At Wolfgang’s vernissage, really everybody was there. From the pierced hardcore gay to the visitor of the church gathering.”[3]

Wolfgang Tillmans doesn’t ‘make’ images, he finds images. He recovers them out of the vast flood of all kinds of pictures and keeps them for the bourgeois institution. With an almost magic certainty he finds images which seem “right” to an exceptional variety of social and cultural environments. These images, it may seem, hold offers of identification for ‘all’. The magic of the ‘right’ for ‘all’ is drawn from the romantic identification with a vaguely identified, distant ‘other place’. Another life, which the pictured ones seemingly are capable of living. A life, seemingly escaped from the violent order of the world, that has created a fragile and magically charged zone of clubs and parks, beaches and cities, in which “everything matters”.[4]

The magic of these images is their fragile distance to everyday experience, in its banality and brokenness. What keeps the distance is the melancholic longing for a more perfect place, where community, affection, sex, music and art gather innocently in front of the commodity form. A place, in which being free and different is a collective experience. The bridging of banality and violence on the way from the spectator to the image goes completely without Wolfgang Tillmans. He himself, although often pictured in the images, is not included in the “magic” transmission between image and spectator.

“I would be dead without America.”

The magic of the romantic longing for an innocent place is fragile. It unfolds as long as the production of the world does not come into the picture; the production of the world that appears as its material base in the form of bourgeois institutions of art, art market and the pop culture industry. The romantic longing constitutes two poles like a bridge of light that outshines its materiality. The light goes out and the poles become visible, when one pole comes too close to the other.

Images of Holocaust survivors, Auschwitz memorial plates and the clumsily preserved knowledge that without America being different in Germany could still lead you directly into the chimneys, lose their naïve magic only when they meet their materiality: to know that F.C. Flick bought the “Wahrheitsforschungszentrum”[5] (Truth Study Center), exhibited and handed it over to the German National Gallery in order to “extinguish the manner, in which this wealth came into being”.[6]

To let the reality of production come into the picture is the fall from grace for Tillmans’ fragile innocence, the moment, in which the bubble bursts and the spectator – whether pierced hardcore gay or visitor of the church gathering – can realize that ‘nothing matters’. That there is no such thing as a place outside of capitalist production, that the bourgeois subject definitely died in the crematories and that we became objects of our own societalization. Wolfgang Tillmans finds the right images for a wrong world.

Pretended Revolution

“Criticism is a matter of the right distance. However, things have approached human society much too close. ‘Impartiality’, the ‘free glance’ have become lies, if not the very naïve expression of plain irresponsibility.”[7]

Keeping distance from the wrong world has become a matter of continued tactical repositioning. Having the ‘right attitude’ or position within a certain social field is not enough anymore. What is needed is an ever-changing network of concrete relations to past, present and future, which is keeping the distance relationally.

That is true for artistic production. As a bourgeois institution, art seems to create a place of distance, at which positive and negative desires can be directed, where they calm down and become ineffective. But as a place of distance, art is also a popular site of romantic revolt. This is precisely what is characteristic about those artistic producers, who present themselves as genuinely political subjects without disrupting the safety haven of art. Just as the magic romantic artist, the ‘political’ artist creates ‘another place’ by his view into the distance. But at this place, there is no tender stroke but fighting, uncontradictory and undisputed. A place promising truthfulness, pureness and adventure, where capitalism seemingly becomes eidetic and clear and its violence only abstract. This outsourcing of a mere romantic political fight consists in the projection of the myth of a romantic hero and creates nothing but “plain irresponsibility”.

The fact that the image of revolution is cited just there again and again is neither accidental nor inconsistent: Revolution always has been at the core of spectacular and romantic presentations of the bourgeois ideal of liberty. Only when treated as an abstraction, revolution can be performed as immaterial and thus as void of effects. The gesture of revolution in art remains a phrase of pathos. For instance, Oliver Ressler’s accusations in the form of videos never broach the issue of one’s own revolutionizing, but charge the externalized power that allows for his internalized freedom. But as Benjamin put it in Einbahnstrasse, class struggle is not a competition – it’s about the abolition of the relation that positions subjects against one another, not about one side abolishing the other.[8]

Ne Jamais!

The internationally renowned contemporary artist with the aura of the subaltern shows an image of a wall in a western metropolis at a time of fierce struggles against capital and labor. On of the strikers had sprayed a graffito on this 1953 Paris wall: “Ne travaillez jamais!” (Never work!) He took the photograph of this from the “International Situationiste” in 1963,[9] turned it into a screen print with a print run of twenty. The spectator reads this piece, its message, within the White Cube of the bourgeois art institution as both a warning and a calling. It is an emblem for the potentiality of opposition and yet torn out of its historical context, pinned to walls of the exhibition hall, not more than a symbol of an indefinite, other world. A gaze into the distance.

When looking at “Ne travaillez jamais!” it is possible to focus on that message and to derive an element of meaning for one’s own life from its calling. As long as there are people spraying this kind of sentence, printing these sentences and showing these sprayed and printed sentences, it makes sense to let this production of meaning produce. That’s how long there is consolation. From elsewhere.

But it is also possible to focus on the paper itself. One can catch a glimpse of another production when looking past the symbol, past the production of worlds and towards the production of the world. In the very moment of looking past the meaning of the produced surface one can imagine the many hands that packed, carried, unpacked, transported, insured, bought and hung up the work of art entitled “Never work!” after it left the head of the artist and the domain of his command. Within this micrology of “Never work!” these thousands of hands become imaginable albeit not visible, continually working for the name of Rikrit Tiravanija, legitimizing him to present a message in this institution. There is no meaning and no consolation in this gaze into production. Every struggle against labor dies down against the longing for a struggle without labor. The strike of the conceptual artists is romantic. Realism would be the strike of their assistants.

The romantic politicity of the artist performs a lack of practical solidarity with the underprivileged and leftovers. It does not produce power to foster the perforated bourgeois subject. Rather, it leaves it in its always-precarious status, in a more and more insecure but enjoyably familiar setting. Only this romantic distance is what creates the ‘political artist’. He is granted to be a wanderer between the worlds, to be on the indefinite ‘right’ side and to have the ‘right’ attitude.

Romantic Bridge over Troubled Waters

Projections of possible freedom are necessary. Romanticism is not an inexcusable escape, but projection of a subjectivity longed for, the absence of which produces a permanent phantom pain. Within the motion of escape, the perforated subject stands up against its material bondage.

The romantic worldview, dragging along the artist as a figure to identify with, can materialize freedom only within projection. Collectivity then means nothing more than gaining distinction for your own subculture, voluntary precariousness, unable to even think about its own universality as an act of liberation. The question remains where to bring the projection to an end, to its sublation in a material realization of freedom. Whether we can lift the glance from the projection and break away from its romanticism in order to see our own fragile freedom within the remnants of our everyday lives.

An Image of Destruction

While it was the historical detour of socialist realism to expel individual desire from image production and attempt to unify it within a collective body, the collective body was damaged just as the individual one is today. Socialist realism proceeded from reality, but abandoned it in favor of a violent romanticism of a constrained ‘real’.

Being the subject of one’s own actions remained the historically biggest impertinence. The gap between ideal and realization could not be bridged, but was carried into subjects that have to bear up against it in order to say ‘I’. The disparate parts composing this subject historically stayed divided, into a liberated spirit and an enslaved body.

A notion of the somatic describes how mental disorders can trickle down into the body. Instead of isolating this issue as an individual illness, we would have to establish the somatic as a key concept to explain people’s everyday behavior. Unfulfilled desires redirected and disposed between imagination and attitude, because the body has too much nature attached to it, whereas the spirit has too much of the absolute freedom that drags along the body as but a flaw.

Nan Goldin’s snapshots of the 1980s New York scene were universal, because violence there was not only an abstract relation but quite physically inscribed into the bodies. Their damage was not due to individual failure but represented a collective practice, a practice recording itself very romantically. In Goldin’s photographs what was positioned at the core of ‘freedom’ was that which separates the spirit from the body, its proximity to the beast, its mortality; freedom in bodies that claim their own universalization because and not in spite of their damage. Recording this visibility of wounds as moments of freedom, negative freedom, holds the mirror up to the subject in its damage, but at the same time is truthful to it.

Questions about the absence of a realism of the present then would have to begin right in the middle of and not in opposition to romanticism. Realism as a somatic turn in romanticism – materiality trickling down into the immaterial projection: this would be the moment when the romantic projection approaches its physical limits and hits the ground of reproduction; a realism that is trying to establish the perforation of the subject as its single possible starting point.

At present, romanticism has regained strength within art and could become the starting point for a renewed realism, an updated realism that lets the places of violence trickle down into the romantic projection. Realism then would produce a somatic impulse within the romantic desire, its transition into responsibility. A realism which attracts a proximity from a distance.

Johannes Raether and Kerstin Stakemeier


[1] Georg Lukács, Die Theorie des Romans, Darmstadt/Neuwied, 1982, 54.

[2] The popularity of structurally anti-Semitic images within criticism of capitalism could be a symptom of the insignificancy of the documentary image. As there is no possible document of social domination, the localizations of domination become fiction and its images merely illustrate an ever repeating political story.

[3] One of his gallerists after the opening of the exhibition “Lights” at Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin 2008.

[4] Wolfgang Tillmanns, “If one thing matters, everything matters”, Ostfildern-Ruit, Juni 2003.

[5] Wolfgang Tillmans, Truth study centre, table installation, 2008.

[6] Christoph Vitali, In: Stefan Ramming, Das grosse Schweigen nach dem Knall, WoZ (Zürich), 22.3.2001.

[7] Walter Benjamin, Einbahnstrasse, in: Gesammelte Schriften Bd. IV.1, Frankfurt am Main 1991, 131f.

[8] Walter Benjamin, Einbahnstrasse, a.a.o., 147.

[9] Roberto Ohrt, Phantom Avantgarde, Hamburg, 1990, 68.

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