This issue of “Texte zur Kunst” bears the programmatic title “Life at Work”. Admittedly, this means to take up quite a bit, for at issue is nothing less than revaluating a theoretical and historical relation that has determined the history of modern and contemporary art like almost no other: Since the notorious turn of an era “around 1800”, the forms of art have been ascribed a quasi-organic life of their own. Two opposing movements emerged that went on to lastingly shape the debates on modern art: In Huysman´s “Á Rebours” from 1884, Jean Floressas Des Esseintes´ turtle encrusted with jewels offered the awful image of an extreme aestheticism amounting to a glorification of the inorganic. Life is so radically aestheticized here that it coagulates to death. An important trend in modern aesthetics – the most influential probably being the strategies of the historical avant-gardes – sought to counter this by evoking liveliness, with the aim of offering resistance not only to the decadence of “l´art pou l´art” but to the commodified world of capitalism itself. Modernism was therefore characterized by a struggle for liveliness in life. But how does this problematic pose itself from a more recent perspective – after decades in which poststructuralism and deconstruction have preferably – and rightly – criticized “biologisms”, “organic metaphors”, or notions of immediacy and authenticity in general? Can the topos of liveliness possess validity after it has long become clear that the endeavor of the historical avant-gardes, to transform life through art, can hardly be reanimated? What can be said today about “the life of forms” that the French art historian, Henri Focillon, intended to discover in his eponymous book from 1934? Is a critical reference to “life” in art and beyond at all possible after theories of biopolitics have long and insistently argued that capitalism and it law of value have permeated all areas of life? How could this enigmatic “aesthetic of liveliness” be conceived as a critical strand of artistic production and theory relevant until today?
The contributions compiled in this issue face the challenge of these questions by grasping “life” not as a biological but as a social fact that must be historicized against the foil of artistic practices. For this reason, a number of art-historical case studies (e.g. on Joseph Beuys, Lee Lozano, and Marina Abramovic) depart from the late 1960s and early 70s: at a point in time marking a paradigm shift to the regime of post-Fordism, in which the distinction between life and work becomes increasingly porous. It was from then on that the cultural sector in particular became a blueprint for the entire economy; it was no longer the assembly line worker, whose alienated life was to be liberated through art, who stood for the dominating model of production, but the flexible cultural producer, the constantly communicating “performer” (see the essay by Sven Lütticken), who produces live events rather that material goods (see the essay by Rachel Haidu). If subjectivity itself has become such a significant economic factor, and – according to Paolo Virno – the performance of the virtuoso is not just a decisive category for the culture industry anymore but for the production of society in general, a different concept of life or liveliness can claim relevance to the present: Against this background, vitalistic notions can no longer be played off against reification (see the conversation between Lütticken and Hito Steyerl); nor can radical social change be imagined based on transgressing the border between art and life (see the essay by Sabeth Buchmann). Yet the reference to the aesthetic tradition of modernity aiming at a different form of life is therefore not discredited tout court, but must be newly negotiated under altered social conditions (see the essay by Branden W. Joseph). Hence, taking the motto “Life at Work” seriously means reflecting on the consequences of the paradigm shift, primarily from Fordist to post-Fordist organized life, in terms of both the methods of art history (see the essay by Eric C. H. de Bruyn) and an artistic practice that is aware of its own conditionality without leveling the potential of the aesthetic promise of liveliness in all its ambivalence (see the essay by Paul Chan). Get to work!
PS: This is my last issue as chief editor of “Texte zur Kunst”. I would therefore like to express my gratitude to everyone without whom my work in the past years would have been impossible in many respects and incomparably poorer regarding jointly elaborated ideas, fought-out debates, and weathered efforts. My cordial thanks to all colleagues of the editorial staff and publishing company, the contributing writers, members of the advisory board, (edition) artists, translators, copy editors and other supporters!
(Translation: Karl Hoffmann)