Art can be almost anything these days: research-based ersatz-science, Instagram post, politico-creative protest, blank investment for the one-percenters of this world, gnarly nexus of social networks and, as an entity with agency, the subject of the philosophy of object-oriented ontology. One thing art cannot be, I would argue, is genuine and subjectively truthful therapy. Put bluntly, therapy is only allowed within the professional art business if made by the ‘mentally ill’, and seldom occurs without the tiresome (and questionable) label ‘outsider art’. These ill people ‘must’ paint because ‘they can’t help themselves’. This now seems to be almost the only acceptable form of the old-style ‘compulsion’ to express oneself artistically – articulation, that is, without some attendant concept that has been verified in politico-symbolic/theoretical/commercial/intellectual terms (the only other such role model being the naïve hobbyist Sunday painter). Right?
After visiting Jeppe Hein’s exhibition This Way (2015) at Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg I wasn’t so sure. Because that’s what the show was about: art as therapy; art as a path to the self and a means of healing that self. In 2009, Hein, who was highly successful in the ‘00s with his interactive and kinetic works, had a burnout. On a plane from Berlin to Copenhagen, after god knows how many espressos and endless flying and sleepless nights and days with project meetings and days with still more project meetings and this one day with this one more project meeting, he had a panic attack. The whole story is contained in a book by the writer and philosopher Finn Janning called The Happiness of Burnout. The Case of Jeppe Hein, written in close cooperation with Hein and published in 2015, a few months before the exhibition.
Hein’s exhibition left me perplexed. It was a large-scale retrospective for which the artist had reinterpreted many of his old works. For the show, the whole of the ground floor of this far-from-diminutive museum was transformed into a high-walled labyrinth of self-experience. There were water features, dry-ice-spewing benches, huge rotating mirrors, gigantic walk-in canary cages, even an invisible mini-maze navigated using audio signals received via headphones. There were even singing bowls and gongs in a room offering courses on how to use singing bowls filled with paint to make abstract splatter pictures.
All of this was framed by more than 3,000 small-format watercolours, some of cute little elephants, others abstract patterns of coloured stripes, or texts from likeably daft nonsense (‘MAMA IS EINE MELONE’) via (misspelled) observations of mental overload along the lines of ‘SORRY....I AM.....A LITTEL...BRIANDEAD.... AT THE MOMENT’ and ‘MY MOBILPHONE IS OFF’ through to the autosuggestion of ‘I FEEL MORE AND MORE….’ and the exhibition’s mantra: ‘I AM RIGHT HERE RIGHT NOW’ (I am right here right now, 2010–11,and I am right here right now II, 2011–15). Therapy watercolours. Self-discovery art. Let it all flow. Let it all out. In a word: awkward.
But why? It’s great that someone is back on his feet – and has the courage to bare everything, to talk about being defeated by society’s pressure to achieve. I mean this approval seriously. In a way. But in another way, it leaves something of a bad taste when someone takes his burnout as a theme, using less-is-more rhetoric to propagate inner balance, deceleration and renunciation – only to then stage such an elaborate, showy show that was clearly labour-intensive. The blatant contradiction between form and content, between the medium and the message, cannot be denied. Nor can it be denied that someone was marketing his burnout here, at least to some extent. In full view, the artist reinvents himself by pondering the meaning of life and apparently finding it in a holistic notion of meditation and art as self-discovery in the absolute present.
But precisely this image of the holistically reformed self reflects the ideology of ego-milking creative capitalism in its purest form. In the name of this ideology, the ego to be milked has its illness hung round its neck like a merit badge (‘You can only burn out if you were burning in the first place’). And that translates not to illness as a metaphor, but illness as added value. There is also the hollow promise that the empty battery can always be charged up over and over again, allowing it, of course, to be emptied every time. Total failure and long-term dropout, on the other hand, are not part of the plan – on the contrary, the nature trip/ yoga/digital detox/silent retreat programmes that fill the self-help shelves in bookshops serve precisely to organize re-entry after a temporary dropout.
Perhaps I should stress that this is not intended as an argumentum ad hominem – I do not wish to accuse Hein personally of selling out or engaging in ideological falsification, even if his exhibition illustrated not only the need to address the burnout problematic but also some of the issues involved. Instead, I am interested in the figure of the artist in general as developed by sociologists over the last ten or fifteen years: stylized as the avant-garde of self-exploitation and formatted as a ‘creative subject’ (the latest version of this narrative being the ‘disruptive’ start-up artist who takes this same set of assumptions one step further). To this stylization (with all its contradictions) there has now been added the role model of the burned-out artist. Dialectic confirmation, full circle. All of which makes no difference to existing phenomena like mental overload and pressures to achieve, nor to Hein’s brave and palpably serious discussion of them. It is clear that he is genuinely concerned. And that, in itself, is a good thing. The problem is structural.
It is interesting, however, that in this case, artists, with their supposedly avant-garde role of being the first to embody each new subject model within society, seem, unusually, to be behind the curve. Nearly a decade ago, burnout was already being discussed, around the time of the financial crisis, as the first symptom of the ‘new spirit of capitalism’ so lucidly analyzed by Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello. Burnout as a fashionable ailment without a clinical diagnosis is depression under the conditions of an achievement-oriented society. And just a few years later, this discussion already sounds surprisingly passé. But it is interesting in the context of the art world, where the paradigm of acceleration and the affirmation of alienation and technology are slowly but surely running out of steam. Perhaps there will soon be room for a ‘new’ old concept. And in this context, deceleration and self-presence (right here, right now), along with their unpleasantly conservative overtones, suddenly seem once more to offer valid strategic options.
The question that remains is this: How to strike a balance? How to display the wounded soul without selling it? How to acknowledge the need for a holistic self – and its direct, intuitive expression – without denying breaks, disjunctions and the societal roots of the problem to begin with? How can this discus- sion even be conducted with dignity? Serious-minded criticism of the mechanisms of the art business by artists can look cynical if the artist in question gains success. Serious sty-lization of dropping out inevitably can appear equally naïve when the artist re-enters the game. The obvious answer would be: here, as elsewhere, one must refuse a choice between false alternatives of cynicism and naïveté. But doesn’t this bring me to a position where I never wanted to be – the position of in-decision? And isn’t the prerequisite for keeping the system going that state of indecision? Beats me.