The cloaks of barbarism

by Daniel Neumann

I am a barbarian. Immediate response. Of course. And why not? Hélas! - it might not be true. For as the saying goes, it takes two to tango, and it also takes two to establish a barbarian - non-barbarian relationship. As always, we are dealing with an ineluctable reciprocity. One in which one party defines the other, deprecatingly or not, sceptically, maybe even lovingly – by virtue of ignorance. So it was due to the onomatopoetic genius of the Ancient Greeks that they, by the basest of rhetoric devices some might say, assigned every Non-Greek speaker the trait of a βαρβαρόφωνος, and, as Aristotle claims, no Greek phoné, no logos.

Can there be art without logos? Without the ability to entertain a dialogue, a monologue? Without the guidance of reason that allows for the complicated movements up and down the chain of ideas, propositions, conclusions, imaginary sequences – what could come of a creative exercise unbarred by spacial and temporal congruity? A barbaric artwork? By a barbaric artist? With a mind, obtuse enough not to be able to conceive a concept? With hands, too clumsy and ill-directed to amend the obvious flaws of the composition?

Such is highly unlikely. An artwork is, as I have tried to argue in my last column, to some extent guided by intention, albeit sometimes along with the abandonment of conscious reflection. This would preclude the wallowing in chaos and illogical meandering of our hypothetical barbarian as conceived by the likes of Plato. As a figure, it is never valid for the ones being figured out, only for those figuring. To the extent that I expect barbarism, my mindset becomes barbaric. It is more than just my expectation, though: to willingly disregard what might be associated, to look for instead of at, to act, therefore, suspiciously against one’s own contemplation: ‹Shut up you barbarians! I can’t hear a word.› Is not this fit of melodrama a testament to barbarism? Some may have heard many a silent scream throughout the halls of museums. I know I have.

Out of this miscommunication two views arise. Either I fail, as a viewer, to refrain from voicing, however verbally, my barbaric judgments; or somebody is trying to pose as a barbarian, an imposter and mime pandering to the sentimental bias towards art. Someone who makes up words and slurs them on purpose, limps out of affectation, closes their eyes when they should be open and whose whispers, in a disturbing way, turn to mumbles. But then again, that might be my own barbarism talking, sketching.

It is difficult to see how the barbarian concept can be made productive without it becoming a barbaric conception itself. The enticement of enshrining one’s work with mystery, like the one of dignifying that mystery by turning one’s back on it and proclaiming its incomprehensibility, both come down to the same thing: the mutual agreement to overlook one another. What makes for the quintessence of tragicomedy thus unfolds itself in a real life sequence of non-encounters between artworks and spectators. Hence my plea: don’t try to be a barbarian to your fellow human beings, if you have to, be it to yourself.

Daniel Neumann (1988) currently lives in Berlin.