What is art and more
christoph türcke

ART IS A GREAT SPACE for social preservation, a sphere where societarian reality is uprooted. The Greeks called this space asylon: refuge, haven. A haven is a sacred space. I believe art cannot be understood without considering the sacred place from which it originates. Art has broken through from within the sacred sphere. It has broken through in a double sense; both as a fountain from within a mountain and as a prisoner breaks free from prison. Attention must be given to both meanings equally, so as not to give way to the nostalgic misconception that art needs to return to religion in order to regain authenticity. The truth is directly opposite to this idea: when art is still bound to the definitive forms of religion, it is incapable of any articulation completely independent from its religious sources. Even the most radical protagonists in contemporary art are unable to achieve this goal. Furthermore, there will only be strength in this movement if it can also be understood as a weakness.

The haven, or refuge, was originally located within the temple. Architecture, too, began with the construction of temples. The preservation of the temple’s premises is not an autarchic sphere, but it does preclude profane day-to-day habits from invading and taking over. It promises protection before them. It claims its own laws. And self-legislation is the definition of autonomy.

Havens existed long before the Greeks named them. One such instance are natural havens, i.e. caves. Petroglyphs are 20 to 30 thousand years older than classical Greek culture. In fact, not long ago, some snake sculptures were found in a South African cave which are possibly twice as old as France’s oldest petroglyph, thus 70 thousand years old. At the time, humans did not perceive the art they made as art. Their artistic production was a form of self-defense: a means of banishing temptation and threat through pictorial forms. Images are thus, in principle, mere attempts to banish threats. It’s a mistake to believe that images first came about as static pictures, and that moving pictures are a product of some later culture, perhaps as late as film. “When images learned how to walk” is the title of a book about the birth of film, as if dance and theater had never existed. My thesis opposes this idea: images began with motion.

What could be more filled with motion than the ancient ritual of sacrifice, where humans of the Stone Age savagely killed their equals in order to avoid natural disasters and overcome the traumatic experiences of an untamable nature? The ritual of sacrifice is an exhibition: literally, “an image for the gods”. And the first static images are already recorded copies and summaries of moving images – such as the setting of a sacrificial presentation. From a modern perspective, one could say that the archaic ritual was a total work of art, terrifyingly raw and bloody. The birth of language, too, is found within this context. Grammar and syntax are sedimented rituals.

REPRODUCTIONS AND IMAGES are art when they are more than mere copies, when they displace and condense external reality in such a way that the latter, in a sense, reaches its essence. One of Freud’s revolutionary accomplishments was to recognize displacement and condensation as primary animistic processes. He calls them “artifacts of dream”, but they are no less artifacts of art. This becomes evident in ancient representations of animals. These representations show, instead of one particular snake, bison or lion, the snake, the bison and the lion – as something that’s terrible, but also offers protection. The haven, too, makes it possible for one to surrender to the protection of a terrible power. Only that which terrorizes is also capable of protection. That is why all ancestral divinities are also terrible. One might ask why humans were so stupid as to imagine terrible divinities. Wouldn’t cute divinities have been more useful? No, and for a good reason: because drafts of images and art – which are both also linked to the draft images of God – are primarily founded on the overcoming of terrible fears and banishing of threats.

Art is thus displacement and banishing. It begins with the ludic minimizing of that which is terrible and threatening. It dares to play with the terrible: to diminish it, twist it, damp it and mitigate it. It makes it “gracious”. Gracious has two meanings: that of fragility, but also that of the ornament. When a tribal chief wears a necklace made from the teeth of a beast, he celebrates the weakening of the fatal teeth that once belonged to a threatening animal. He triumphs over the beast’s lethal threat. Beauty is, originally, a manifestation of triumph. Rilke’s statement in Duino Elegies is quite well known: “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure […]”. I’d like to invert that sentence: Beauty is nothing but the end of terror, which we have already endured. Thus everything becomes endurable, filled with relief, and fortunate when it becomes graceful, when it adorns, when it becomes ornamental. Many things testify to the first form of beauty being the ornament. Men like Mies van de Rohe or Adolf Loos had a hard time swallowing that. They took the ornament only for what is was, preponderantly, also within its surroundings: a phenomenon of decadence, an empty decoration. But that, naturally, is not how it began. In the beginning, it was an indispensible trophy, the victor’s jewel. It was thus not in the least dysfunctional, but firmly and ritually inserted in the party, and in its triumph over the forces of nature. As such, it presented to nature, once more, its feature, now gracious, but also depotentiated – like an amulet.

CHRISTOPH TÜRCKE is a philosopher and emeritus professor at the Visual Arts School of Leipzig and at University of Leipzig. He was a visiting professor in Brazil and has lectured worldwide. He is the author of works such as Excited Society and Philosophy of Dreams, and has termed the notion of “philosophy of sensation”.