BY Marius Babias in Frieze | 05 SEP 93
Featured in
Issue 12

Daily Life, Art, Aids - These Things Happen

Wolfgang Max Faust, Edition Cantz

BY Marius Babias in Frieze | 05 SEP 93

The news spread fast, sending a shiver through the art world – in September 1992, critic Wolfgang Max Faust made the announcement. Faust had been HIV positive since the beginning of the 80’s but in 1989 his immune status stabilised at 130 T-cells: he had developed full-blown Aids and had only a short time left to live. Faust had just finished writing a book, Daily Life, Art, Aids, which was to be published in May the following year to coincided with the World Aids Congress in Berlin. But Faust wasted no time in launching an offensive, writing a series of "I’m going public" articles which took up the motto of Pier Paolo Pasolini: ‘No more half-truths!"

For Faust, it was not enough to make his illness public and emotionalise the debate about art and Aids. While the art world was torn between sympathy and respect, he shocked it with a pathetic prophecy: "Western art is preparing itself for extinction. The only innovation that can logically come out of contemporary art is the innovation that consists in it doing away with itself.’ That was going too far. The unsettled art world respected Faust’s personal stand against his fate, but declared his utterings on the ‘extinction of art’ to be pure madness. Mad Max Faust.

Just before the book was published, Faust heated the debate some more. He gave lectures and readings, granted Der Spiegel an interview and published extracts from the book in Art magazine. His recurrent theme: that art was the expression of ‘unlived life’, in other words a symbolic downpayment towards death. There were he said, more important things in life than art – such as Tai Chi, meditation and tango. While that may be true, the words sounded false, coming from a critic who had been in the business for 25 years and was closely linked to Neo expressionism and the Transavangardia. Could this be the same Faust who in 1982 had written a book wit Gerd de Vries, Hunger nach Bildern (Hungry for paintings), which praised the paintings of the Cologne Mühlheimer Freiheit group and Berlin’s Junge Wildenand boosted the success of a comparatively provincial phenomenon? The answer is yes – and no.

Faust still stands by Neo-Expressionism. Although he grew up with Conceptual art, he sees in the painting of Dahm, Dokoupil, Fetting and Salome a refreshing counteraction to the intellectualisation of art – And a parallel with the way his own life had turned out. All the same, he did not allow his private passion for ‘wild’ painting to dominate the content of the magazine he dedicated: Wolkenkratzer Art Journal was always one of the first to report on new trends. And Faust was one of the few German critics who dared publicly to criticise the anti-semitic, homophobic, misogynist rhetoric in the work of Förg, Kippen berger and Oehlen as the ‘self-realisation of the German petit bourgeoisie’. Kipenberger responded with the sculpture: Marin, shame on you, go and stand in the corner!

Faust gained no friends with these combat tactics – not in Cologne, at any rate. So it was hardly surprising that his book of Texts on Art (texte zur Kunst) was not a success. When the publisher Stefan Germer put him down as having ‘taken Aids into the middle class mainstream’, Faust sent him a postcard inscribed with an aphorism of Georg Christoph Lichtenber’s: ‘If a book and a head collide, and make a hollow sound, it is not necessarily the fault of the book.’

Despite the book’s sentimentality and occasionally plaintive tone, Faust has not written a work that directly solicits our sympathy, á la Hervé Guibert. Instead, like Derek Jarman, he has given us a contradictory autobiographical account. The book offers no new philosophy on Aids, but it does have an effective message – protect yourself against Aids. Critics have accused Faust of accepting Aids as an ‘illness’ instead of criticising it as a social construct. In reality, his descriptions of the scenes around the deathbeds of his friends Klaus Ebbeke and Christian borngräber are heart-rendingly banal. Steering clear of ideological criticism, Faust makes the case for trying a whole range of therapies. He has personally gone in for a variety of treatments: medically prescribed AZT, homeopathic injections of mistletoe, and Tai Chi to strengthen his spirit and psyche. The book makes no mention of the controversial theories of the virologist Duisberg, who claims that Aids is caused not solely by a virus, but by an ‘unhealthy’ lifestyle.

But the real problem with Daily Life, Art, Aids is that its parallel structure makes it possible to see one area as a metaphor for the others. In this way, Aids becomes a metaphor for an art that is longing to die, and so destroying itself. And this is a regressive approach – a return to myth, which contradicts all historical experience

Faust’s book takes a complimentary view of the art hat has emerged since the mid 80’s, with its emphasis on ‘context’, ‘field work’ and ’political correctness’. Along with art, art criticism is changing from a utopian exercise into a service industry, with a devastating effect on the way art is perceived. Post-modernism exploits the element of self-doubt in art criticism in order to undermine the supremacy of the theory. Discourse is conjugated according to the rules of francophile philosophy and loaded up with jargon. Ultimately, art criticism is relegated to mopping up the dregs of philosophy.

In linking his personal illness with the social reality of dying an outsider, in a clinic, Wolfgang Max Faust wants to make clear the misery that prevails in art criticism and art. He maintains that art and criticism are too weak to prevent their own disintegration – that may be true for him, but from an objective point of view it is false. The book is a literary collage of diary entries, reviews, catalogue, texts, newspaper articles and correspondence – a kaleidoscope of intimate notes, anecdotes and theory. This type of collage allows the combination of the intellectual and the trivial. Life is spent waiting for death. The book contains unflinching self-criticism, but also historical half-truths. For all that, it should not have aroused the animosity it has done. Some people in the art world won’t be sorry to see Faust go – and that’s one thing he doesn’t deserve.