BY Dominikus Müller in Opinion | 23 APR 15
Featured in
Issue 19

Creature Comforts

All too human?

BY Dominikus Müller in Opinion | 23 APR 15

This issue of frieze d/e is a veritable bestiary. Jörg Scheller discusses the role of aquariums in art and Kito Nedo discovers a strange ‘elephant man’ in the exhibition documentation of one of Haegue Yang’s recent shows. In her essay on ‘the post-human animal’ Ana Teixeira Pinto looks to a number of recent exhibitions including Ape Culture at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW).

Recently I received announcements for three concurrent shows in Europe dealing with ‘the human’: The New Human at Moderna Museet in Malmö, Sweden, Real Humans at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf and Inhuman at the Fridericianum in Kassel. According to the press release, the latter ‘fundamentally calls into question […] the primacy of humankind’. HKW has just seen the end of The Anthropocene Project, a two-year research and exhibition series on the proposed epoch where humankind’s activities have had a global impact on the planet’s ecosystem. From various angles, the focus has been, and continues to be, on the question of what humans are, what they can be, and how they distinguish themselves from and in terms of their relation to animals, machines and the earth.

The fact that our self-perception as humans is shifting is a good thing. But I can’t help feeling, strangely enough, that the question of the human as such is somehow circumvented in these discussions. Perhaps there is something missing in all this talk of the (post- or ‘animal’) ‘human’: something that might rather broadly be termed ‘human-ness’. What might this human quality – the ‘human’ in an affirmative sense – mean for art today?

This inkling brought me back to writings by philosophers and theorists who once set out to close the book on Humanism, convinced that ‘man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea’, as Michel Foucault famously put it at the end of The Order of Things (1966). One book I picked up was Jean-François Lyotard’s The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, a collection of essays originally published in 1988. In the foreword, Lyotard vehemently distances himself from any notion of ‘humanism’ in favour of thinking the ‘inhuman’. True art, he writes, is inhuman, a claim based, among other things, on claims made by Apollinaire in 1913 – ‘more than anything, artists are men who want to become inhuman’ – and statements by Theodor W. Adorno in his 1970 book Aesthetic Theory: ‘art remains loyal to humankind uniquely through its inhumanity in regard to it.’ Of course, when using the term ‘inhuman’ Lyotard – as well as Adorno – often means the radical sublime (linked, aptly, by Kant to the ‘monstrous’). With regard to art, ‘the inhuman’ might be understood as that which rejects Homo mensura, the human as the measure of all things. For example, when it disavows representation (representation, necessarily, from a human perspective), non-representative art takes on a life of its own. Such animation renders it some­what ‘monstrous’. As it moves away from anthropocentrism, art becomes something that lies beyond human reach.

Despite this preliminary reading, the concept of the ‘inhuman’ remained rather cryptic to me. Perhaps the inhuman can be understood in terms of a radical and literal ‘art for art’s sake’ – art that obeys nothing and no one but itself, no market, no system, no person. An art that can enter into irregular alliances – with humans if it wants, but not for them – according to its own rules that are made to be broken.

Later, I happened upon another text I had read years ago, Pierre Bourdieu’s short essay Culture Is In Danger (2000). Having spent decades telling all and sundry how they are implicated in terms of capitalist accumulation (be it economic, symbolic or social capital), here, shortly before his death, the sociologist made an about-turn in his view of art: faced with art’s increasing subjection to neoliberal strategies of exploitation, the essay ends with an argument in favour of l’art pour l’art – for an art, it seems, that is cryptic and hermetic, not geared towards self-interests, markets, integration or understanding. An art, in other words, unconcerned with communication as circulation.

Since pointing the finger to economic and political structures gets no one anywhere anymore (given that art is governed by the same social, symbolic and financial rules), one could argue that letting something ‘be’ – leaving something to itself – can lead somewhere if art is allowed to stand for itself beyond interest (which is always an investment); if it is encountered instead of being related to. I’m inclined to think of this encounter as something intrinsically ‘human’. Encountering an artwork as if it were human (precisely then letting it be an artwork). Encountering an animal as if it were human (precisely then letting it be an animal). Encountering a human as a human. Letting the human be human (beyond whatever that may represent).

Perhaps that’s what it’s all about: something between you and me, chance, openness, gratitude, affection. Let’s call it love.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Dominikus Müller is a freelance writer based in Berlin.