In a 2007 art summer school held in Irsee, southern Germany, the English artist Clive Head and the Anglo-Cypriot writer and art theorist Michael Paraskos held a joint class. Head and Paraskos had previously taught together at the University of Hull, but had both left academic teaching in 2000, and partly gone their separate ways. The reunion in Irsee resulted in their publishing a small pamphlet, The Aphorisms of Irsee, in which they set out a series of seventy-five aphoristic sayings on the nature of art.
These assume importance with respect to what HUG is trying to do, but it also demonstrates how risky and dangerous a programmatic venture on art can get and how HUG distinguishes itself from the stubborn reactionary elements ingrained in this kind of a manifesto that develops around the movement of New Aestheticism at this point in different ways.
It is remarkable that the aphorisms highlight a return to a certain materialist romance. There is clarion call to return to the specific and the definite—against dogma. It is apparent in the way the two of them begin their series of aphorisms; right from the very first one, a thread develops. This is a welcome move—asking us to think outside of the ethical, linguistic, discursive or purely subjective possibilities in appreciating art objects and creations. This immediacy and directness in art probably propels the duo to reject learnedness (‘Scholarship is the enemy of romance’—No. 34 or ‘Three artists make a movement. Four make an art school—No.59). But this very anti-intellectual stance is also a problem, to which I’ll return in a bit. There is an attempt to amplify the ambit of language and make art sharper with perception and emphasise its extraordinary possibilities. This is surely a reaction to semiotic and other forms of abstraction (‘To call art a language shows the paucity of the language with which we discuss art.’—No. 41).
Quite early on, both Head and Paraskos articulate a call to create forms of the impossible—heavens or anti-heavens. ‘Anti-heavens’ is an excellent idea and that gets quite an interesting shape through the notion of ‘slowing down’ (No.2), except for the fact slowing down means a mundane coffee binge! Is this a paucity of imagination, or a deliberate pointing towards the ordinary, placid and the average? Is this a counter move against over-reaching?
It is terrific to see a celebration of curiosity and astonishment and a thorough, well-deserved dressing down of pettiness (‘Art should astonish its viewer, but most art is too mean-spirited to do this’—No. 15). HUG is particularly invested in everyday wonders and mutinies. And the aphorisms surely make a case for the sensuous, but again whether a return to sensuous merely points to towards forms of nature-philosophie is a thing to take stock of (‘Central heating has destroyed English art. It has removed the artist from feeling the real world—No. 61). What is real here? And how does matter work in such a real world?
The real issue with New Aestheticism is that it hankers for a believable space that can be ordered. This is a dangerous reaction to things that might spill over, against the radical utopian possibilities of art. Hence, little wonder that the most disturbing aspect of the manifesto is that art is subservient to politics. There is nothing new in this kind of retrograde move. In fact, telling examples of how art ought to be safe and sanitised gets shape in No. 51 and No. 52: (Sometimes even the artist should realise it is too cold to go for a swim /One should live for one’s art, but there is no need to die for it).
There is an extraordinary vituperation against photography and performance (also against literature, at a remove): Photography is too real—too material and reproductive. This is really a bad and un-nuanced understanding of materiality involved in the art of photography. And the chief charge against performative art is that it is an exercise in movement and dynamism: (Performance is not art: it moves too much and so adds to the flux. Art is always a moment of longed-for stasis—No. 38). The idea of stasis can generate freedom and anarchy, but in this case it seems to argue for collected tranquillity.
But the amazing call for the national, the quasi-religious and the personal-salvific are the most reactionary elements in this new aesthetic world. How does Germany and England get placed against the Swiss? It is a certain deeply conservative idea of nationality that gets transferred to the idea of communion (No. 48) and transubstantiation (No.39). Such religiosity means naturopathy, therapeutics and is sharply moral (Bad art demeans nature and, because of this, bad art is immoral—No 55)! Politics or charting everyday conflicts in art would seem to the New Aesthete to be wallowing in acts of guilt and suffering. Pain has to be alleviated, not dissected. This is again an extraordinarily narrow and unhelpful binary—between pain and panacea, between trying to understand the vicissitudes of life and their mitigation through art. Since art has a moral aim, it should not try to be ironical. At best it can be playful, Head and Paraskos affirm. Notice how humour in art has to hide anger, not highlight it (No. 73) and terror is de-historicized completely, beyond human comprehension (No. 35).
It is good to see some new moves in literary criticism at the beginning of this century. And manifestoes often clarify certain things at the basic level. But aphorisms also mean dogmatism of a different kind. They set the terms for repeatability. Art and art-practice becomes a project. One gets into the business of institutionalizing and ordering chaos.
The Aphorisms of Irsee ( originally published in print form by the Orage Press, London in 2007.)
1. Art is always definitive, but never dogmatic.
2. Artists should slow down and experience the world. A quiet cup of coffee is often the best starting point for art.
3. All artists create heavens. The heaven of God; or, the anti-heaven of the Devil; or, the earthly heaven of humankind.
4. Photography kills painting when the painter merely copies a photograph. It turns the artist into a photocopying machine.
5. Reproduction is never enough. Art is always a creative act.
6. To illustrate ideas is merely to repeat those ideas and turns artists into parrots.
7. The artist creates form, and through form creates reality.
8. In the artwork politics is always subservient to art. Art does not illustrate politics.
9. The primary purpose of art is the establishment and organisation of believable space.
10. Art is the organisation of space, but the creation of mundane space is a worthless exercise.
11. True art comes from an aesthetic engagement with the world by a particular person, in a particular place, at a particular time.
12. The artist creates form and space through a direct engagement with the world, a physical engagement with their materials, and a personal engagement with their own sense of self. That is what aesthetics means in art.
13. Through art we can confront suffering, but only if our aim is to to alleviate pain, rather than wallow in it.
14. Even great art that shows suffering is a refuge from pain. It is balm for the human spirit.
15. Art should astonish its viewer, but most art is too mean-spirited to do this.
16. No idea in art is better than any other idea. This means an artwork dealing with torture, murder or any other form of inhumanity is not automatically better than an artwork that deals with a still life or gentle landscape. It is a harsh truth, but death and the teapot really are of equal value in art.
17. Art does not need to be religious, but it is always quasi-religious.
18. Faith in art requires faith in the validity of art.
19. The dominance of conceptual illustration shows bad faith in art.
20. Art is never ironic. It can be funny, witty or playful, but the artist always means it.
21. Art is not literature, art is not politics, art is not philosophy. So why is art polluted by the discourses of literature, politics and philosophy? Why is art a polluted framework?
22. Art is always a sensuous act. It is the expression of the aesthetic experience of existence. Aesthetics in art means ‘the sensuous’.
23. For artists aesthetics is always materialistic and art always an object.
24. Art has a nationality: the German artist cannot make English art because they are German. They can only make German art.
25. Art has a nationality: the English artist cannot make German art because they are English. They can only make English art.
26. The lack of a history of making art stunts the progress of art.
27. Art without roots is like a tree without roots: dead.
28. Art is always formed by the individual sensibility of the artist, but it must transcend this if the artwork is to deserve another viewer.
29. The artist has to persuade the viewer that the reality they show is true.
30. Art is expression, not a cliché of expression.
31. Art is always political, but nothing kills the political power of art more effectively than political art.
32. The only mandate of the artist is to make art.
33. The power of art is not the power of the fist or the shriek of the sloganeer. Art quietly conquers receptive minds.
34. Scholarship is the enemy of romance. All art is romantic.
35. Chaos is not the absence of order, it is order beyond human comprehension. That is why it is so terrifying.
36. Chaos provokes fear (Grundangst). Art orders chaos.
37. True art fixes the flux of chaos. That is how we cope with chaos, and that is the purpose of art.
38. Performance is not art: it moves too much and so adds to the flux. Art is always a moment of longed-for stasis.
39. All painting presents a barrier to the viewer. It is called the picture plane. To overcome this both the artist and viewer must perform acts of transubstantiation.
40. Non-art is never transformative and so should never be called art, even if it is made of paint.
41. To call art a language shows the paucity of the language with which we discuss art.
42. Most art schools do not teach art. They do not teach anything.
43. The framework of art is not a free-for-all. It is as specific as physics to the physicist, brain surgery to the surgeon, or plumbing to the plumber.
44. The scandal of the art world is not that so much rubbish is called art, but that so little of the good stuff is.
45. Art can be made from anything, but not everything can be art.
46. Some things are not art.
47. One should choose whether to make tables or bake cakes, and not be a carpenter of cakes or a baker of tables.
48. Communion is not the salvation of one, but the salvation of all. Art is also not the salvation of one, but must be for all.
49. Those who preach loudest often have least to say.
50. Art doesn’t require us to wash our dirty linen in public.
51. Sometimes even the artist should realise it is too cold to go for a swim.
52. One should live for one’s art, but there is no need to die for it.
53. The realist artist and the abstract artist speak the same language, the language of art. The real divide is between True Art and non-art.
54. Conceptualism might be important, significant and necessary, but that does not make it art.
55. Bad art demeans nature and, because of this, bad art is immoral.
56. Should artists practice what they preach?
57. Ich möchte ein bier bitte.
58. Tolerance is best learnt by example, not by reminders of guilt.
59. Three artists make a movement. Four make an art school.
60. You do not need electricity to make art.
61. Central heating has destroyed English art. It has removed the artist from feeling the real world.
62. You can spot a Berlin artist at a hundred paces. Two hundred if they’re talking.
63. In Germany there are some things we cannot say.
64. In England there are some things we cannot say.
65. Why have there been no great painters since 1945?
66. Ruskin said no work of art should ever be perfect. For most artists this is not an issue.
67. It looks like art, but looks can deceive us.
68. A few years study at university is only the start. You should add another ten years hard work to deserve the name of artist.
69. Drawing too much attention to the materiality of a painting turns it into sculpture.
70. The framework of painting and the framework of sculpture might overlap, but they are not the same.
71. Photography is too insistent on its own material nature ever to be art. It cannot not be itself.
72. The most serious statements can come from laughter.
73. Humour can hide anger.
74. Idealism is lost on the young.
75.Beware the Swiss bearing sausages.
Prasanta Chakravarty teaches in the Department of English. University of Delhi.