Artworks are strange

by Daniel Neumann

In the outline of this first issue of reciprocal turn, two terms are placed next to each other, seemingly to force a conflict to appear in the practice of writing about art: the reciprocity of artworks referencing each other, resul­ting in the inane ascertainment of yet another turn, but also an instrument to describe an – apparently – manifest trend. The other term, too brash to translate, is Menschlichkeit, the need to see art and think about it as being more than a string of references and counter­references. Some questions may be asked: do contemporary artworks give a motivation to come up with something like a reciprocal turn in virtue of their own reciprocal charac­ter or is this turn rather the result of a diffuse and opportunistic criticism? What kind of community of features and relationships between artworks does the reciprocity of references engender? Is it that artists, in the form of their works, are greeting and nodding towards each other? In contrast to this superficial institution of recognizing each others status (as artists), reci­procity and Menschlichkeit relate in ethical as well as aesthetic theorieson a level more profound, the one of existence. Here, an exclusive bond of mutual recognition, but also mutual of aloofness may dictate the way in which an ‹I› and a ‹You› interact and perceive each other.

Now I could ask, modifying a former question: what kind of recipro­city can be envisioned to take place between artworks, between a work and a spectator? According to which interpretation? Or, a little more precise: what constitutes a reciprocity between an artwork through which a human existence can be felt, as opposed to one that, remaining outside the intima­ cy of spectatorship, is turning towards yet another work? I want to suggest, taking some cues from Heidegger’s text on the origin of the artwork, that Menschlichkeit does not take place in an artwork in the sense of a human counterpart, communicating through his or her work, which would rather constitute a non­aesthetic relationship. But rather, that the factum est ofthe artwork produces an estrangement vital to it gaining a meaning for some­ one.

Looking at an artwork, in Heidegger’s sense, constitutes an encounter. We encounter something that is withdrawing as we look. The white stones of a temple withdraw to give way to their form, to a rectangle that shapes the room in which the gods will arrive. A painted pair of boots withdraws to let a life of hardship and care for the soil arise, the world of the farmer, mani­ fest in the weariness of the shoes. But this withdrawal is only a symptom for the fact that an artwork enables a glade as a consequence of its being made. From a fissure in which the work takes its place, it destroys my purpose­-oriented relation to the artwork­-thing, making me realize that this is indeed a glade, an opening through which I am confronted by my experiencingthe work. As the thingness of the artwork disappears to give way to this strange new world, so does the artist.

Considering this, I would argue that the reciprocal referentiality ex­pressed by this new turn cannot be consolidated with the play of absence and presence described above. Instead, the mutual recognition of artists by way of allusions rips the work apart in the wrong way by making me think of an­other work, a discourse, a person or an attitude. Consequently, one could ask : might there be a palpable difference between the creation of a work that estranges me from my usual outlook and a work that rather reminds me that there are others – in some certain ways – like it? If I claim that a shared Menschlichkeit is brought about by the fact that I am as immersed in whatI experience as the artist is when he or she makes and experiences this same protruding and reclining thing – could not this be considered a form of meaning usually ascribed to art? And so, would not a reference, a symbolic or discoursive relegation to something else be constituting an incommen­surability, not just between my experience of the work and that of someone else but also one at the heart of this experience itself? This could be one possible explanation for the fact that, while some works are as prepossessing as they dispossess the spectator of their everyday­phenomenology, others remain silent as a book cut in half, readable with some effort but begging the question: why bother?