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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter (A) December 30, 2016

Introduction: From Comparative Arts to Interart Studies

  • Erika Fischer-Lichte
From the journal Paragrana


The essays assembled in this volume were initially presented at the concluding conference of the International Doctoral School “InterArt Studies” held at the Freie Universität Berlin from June 25-27, 2015. The school bore the label “international” not just because its students hailed from five different continents. Rather, it was called that because it was born out of the collaboration with the Copenhagen Doctoral School in Cultural Studies, Literature and the Arts, later joined by the Doctoral School of Goldsmiths College, London, and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University, New York. During these nine years (2006-2015) of research, it was generously funded by the German Research Council.

For a long time, art studies departments have led solitary lives. Be it musicology or theatre studies, art history, literature or film studies, each discipline clearly defined itself against the others through its specific subject, respective methodology and theoretical approaches.

The last decades, however, have seen a tendency to blur the line between these traditional art disciplines based on fundamental new developments within the arts. Two developments in particular stand out in this respect: first, the increasing dissolution of boundaries between different art forms, i.e. between film, theatre, dance, performance, visual arts, music and literature; and, second, the aestheticization of everyday life, i.e. the fusion of art and non-art in such fields as politics, the economy, new media, sports, religion and everyday practices. Both tendencies transform art studies with regard to their respective subjects of research and challenge their methodology as well as their theoretical approaches.

This is not to say that there has been no theoretical reflection on the relationship between the different arts. On the contrary, comparative art studies have a long and honourable tradition that dates back to antiquity. Simonides of Ceos, for instance, described painting as “silent poetry” and poetry as “vocal painting”, which Plutarch, in turn, took up in his Moralia. In his Poetics, Aristotle discussed the multiplicity of art forms that come together in the performance of a tragedy. Ancient philosophers laid the groundwork for comparative art studies. They engendered the two models that, though obsolete today, significantly influenced and determined the discussion on the relationship between the arts.

Two Theoretical Models for the Relationship between the Arts

The first model compares individual art forms with regard to their specific achievements and effects and explores the possibilities and limitations of transferring the potential of one artistic practice to another in order to transcend the boundaries between them. This model gained widespread acceptance and prominence particularly during the eighteenth century. Perrault, Du Bos, Batteux, Harris, Hogarth and Diderot all adopted and developed it. Lessing’s Laocoon (1766), for example, proceeded from the state of the discussion at the time of its conception and took it even further.

From today’s perspective, Lessing’s idea of a normative aesthetics must, of course, be disregarded along with many of its historically determined conditions. However, his methodical approach is still of great relevance. He did not compare the two art forms of interest to him – i.e. painting and poetry – with respect to individual traits as implied by the “ut pictura poiesis” thesis, which he, in fact, sought to refute. Instead, he examined the particular kind of mutual relationship between the materiality, mediality, semioticity and aestheticity of both these art forms. How materiality, mediality and semioticity interact in order to achieve an aesthetic effect that enables aesthetic experience was of particular interest to him. Lessing’s model thus raises the question of the arts and how to cross their borders in conjunction with an analysis of the material, medial, semiotic and aesthetic properties of an art form or particular artwork.

The second model focusses on the interaction and interplay between the arts. It bore particular significance for the discussion on opera, through which it was repeatedly adapted and expanded. Today, Goethe’s and Richard Wagner’s ideas on this model are considered the most incisive. In his essay published in 1798 entitled “On Truth and Probability in Works of Art”, Goethe virtually apostrophizes opera performances as the ideal of autonomous artworks. He argues that in an opera performance everything – and especially the different arts involved – gels in a way that “it constitutes a little world of its own, in which everything follows certain laws, which is judged in terms of its own laws, and must be experienced to its own characteristics” (Goethe 1983-1988, III, 74-78: 76).

Wagner elaborated this idea by adding historical and cultural-anthropological considerations to Goethe’s inherently artistic perspective, thus paving the way for his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art). He demanded a union of all the arts by fusing the different art forms. It was of the greatest importance to him that the blurring of the boundaries between the different arts in the Gesamtkunstwerk could not be undone. It was therefore impossible to consider them as independent elements or “bricks” from which the Gesamtkunstwerk could be composed by way of addition. Rather, the single arts come together in the Gesamtkunstwerk in a way that they can no longer be demarcated or identified separately. The Wagnerian understanding of a “union of the arts” thus meant wiping out the very idea of individual art forms. Wagner envisioned the Gesamtkunstwerk to consist “of a chain of [...] organic components”, made up of smaller units into which each artistic practice could be segmented, such as a particular musical sequence, an actor’s gesture or a poetic expression. When these elements come together, they form “organic components”, such as a certain action or character, which will be represented by the orchestra as well as by the gestures and words of the actor-singer on stage. That is to say that the individual arts can bring forth such complex entities solely by dissolving in the whole, while also being perfected individually.

Although Lessing’s and Wagner’s models, as different as they may be, have brought into sharper focus the question of how to describe, explain and understand the fusion of the arts, their answers hardly seem convincing with regard to the development of the arts during the last decades. However, three aspects pertaining to their models seem rather promising as a starting point in the endeavour to transform comparative arts into interart studies.

Both Lessing and Wagner regarded transgressing the boundaries between the arts and their concomitant joining as a condition for each art form – and, therefore, “art” in general – to achieve its apex, to realize its potential fully and then exceed it. Even if Wagner demanded that the outcome be an “organic whole”, the very idea of bringing different art forms together calls to mind the concept of hybridity.

The second aspect refers to art reflecting on its own conditions. In the encounter with each other in passages, interstices and boundaries, fundamental elements, devices and strategies of the arts become visible which heretofore had largely remained obscure. By reflecting on the conventions of representation and perception, Lessing and Wagner started a discussion on intermediality, even if they did not know and certainly did not use this term.

The third aspect is the blurring of the boundaries between “art” and “life”, the question of how to regard art from the perspective of doing and acting. Wagner defines music as addressing the “emotional man”, dance as corresponding to the “corporeal man”, and poetry as speaking to “the man of reason”. Each of these three artistic fields expresses another aspect of humanity and thereby addresses a different human faculty. In the Gesamtkunstwerk the three were to be united – not merely the expression of the human being as a whole but allowing the spectator to experience her/himself as this whole. Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk therefore did not only aim at a transformation of the single arts and art as such, but at a transformation of the human being experiencing its performance. The Gesamtkunstwerk thus raises the question of performativity.

The three concepts of hybridity, intermediality and performativity served as the key concepts and instruments in our attempt to develop interart studies. That is to say from the very beginning of our research at the doctoral school we conceived of interart studies as both dealing with the relationship between the different arts as well as between art and non-art. This marks another important difference with regard to Comparative Arts Studies. It made it necessary to involve not only researchers from the different art disciplines but also philosophers, cultural anthropologists and sociologists.

A short discussion of our above-mentioned key concepts and their usage will convey an idea of the kind of research we pursued at the school.

From “Hybridity” to “Interweaving”

As is well known, hybridity as a cultural and discursive element became known as a kind of signature concept of its time in the 1970s. The term originated in biology to designate the result of breeding experiments combining two different species of animals or plants clearly separated by nature.

When used in relation to human beings, the concept was appropriated in racist discourses of biological determinism and used as an insulting reference. It was revaluated when it was transferred to the context of the social sciences and cultural and media studies. Already in the 1920s, American sociologists identified immigrants as cultural hybrids, who in their native country and in their adopted one lived on the margins, having lost their home twice. Here and in similar cases, hybridity was used to describe a specific urban and modern phenomenon.

Of key importance for the further re-evaluation of the concept were Mikhail Bakhtin’s and Homi Bhabha’s redefinitions. Bakhtin used the term to highlight the faculty of language to make two different voices audible at the same time. By distinguishing between “organic” and “intentional” hybrids, Bakhtin (1981) develops a two-fold model that dialectically relates hybridities producing mixture and fusion to forms that bring forth difference, multiplicity and heterogeneity. Referring back to Bakhtin, Bhabha developed his concept of the “third space” in order to make the concept of hybridity productive for the discussion of questions arising out of intercultural encounters (Bhabha 1994). Donna Haraway, in turn, redefined the hybrid within the context of media studies as the overcoming of traditional oppositions, particularly between human beings and machines, and as the abolition of dichotomous thinking (Haraway 1991). Performance artists such as Stelarc, for instance, combine the organic and the mechanical in a way that does not favour one above the other. Also, in the binary scheme of the digital code, both sides of a coupling are, in principle, ambivalent.

Used metaphorically, hybridization denotes a device for mixing materials, for concatenations of diverging codes and for the combination of different theoretical models. Counter-concepts include notions of union, homogeneity, hierarchy and purity, thus redefining it as a “positive” concept. Considering the broad usage of the term, there is a risk of “hybrid” becoming a catch-all term and losing its distinctive value. This risk coupled with the somewhat problematic origin of the term as a biological category designating the combination of two phenomena that by their very “nature” do not belong together, made us rather uncomfortable using this term. For in art as in other cultural processes, it makes no sense to proceed from a “natural” state. When a word from another language is transferred into one’s own or a body technique from one culture enters another, it is not a state given by nature that changes, but something brought forth by culture. We therefore prefer to speak of processes of interweaving, a term coined by the International Research Center on “Interweaving Performance Cultures” at the Freie Universität. Due to the ubiquity of the term “hybridity”, however, we cannot completely abolish it but we must make sure that it is used strictly metaphorically.

This is particularly important when the focus is placed on processes by which traditions, languages and materials from different cultures come together and function as elements of more encompassing social and cultural processes. Methodologically speaking, this meant investigating the production and reception of art as processes of encounters between cultures. This was a particularly productive challenge for our doctoral school, since many students came from countries outside of Europe, such as China, Japan, India, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Tanzania, and others. When it is not only the different arts that meet but also artistic traditions from diverse cultures, the situation becomes even more complicated, begging for such metaphors as “interweaving” in addition to “hybridity”.

Intermediality, Plurimediality, Transmediality

This is not the place to summarize the long debates on intermediality. Yet, in the context of the evolution of interart studies, it is important to distinguish between a narrow and a wide concept of intermediality. The narrow concept applies when forms of representation and modes of perception characteristic of one particular medium are quoted, reflected and commented on, or are transformed into another. As a wide concept, “intermediality” addresses combinations and processes of exchange between different media; in particular, it denotes phenomena combining different media (as in multi-media arrangements) and of media transfers (as with film adaptations of literature). However, in neither of these variants is the “in-between” of media regarded as the zone in which they differ from or overlap with each other. Our preferred understanding of intermediality defines it as a form of difference, of in-between, which does not aim so much at the integration of different media as at the figuration of passages, interstices and boundaries, in which the particular achievements of translation and transformation are not only represented but also exposed self-reflexively. In this sense, intermediality is understood as a specific form of self-referentiality, which is able to make transparent and to reflect on the particular states, conventions of representation and perceptions of the different media involved.

Most of the research on intermediality conducted before the beginning of our doctoral school centred on intermedial relations in the narrow sense of the term as well as on adaptations from one medium to another. The school’s research, inspired by the new plurimedial tendencies in the arts, instead focused on current and historical forms of media combinations in artistic contexts, particularly such forms that go beyond the traditional preconditions of the genre. There is another, perhaps even more important difference. The discussion on intermediality led outside the doctoral school found its subject of research mainly in the encounter of traditional “analogous” arts with digital technology (Paech/Schröter 2008). The viewpoint of interart, however, necessitates a much wider scope and perspective on interferences between media, the arts and everyday practices. Inspired by the multiple intermedial processes in the contemporary arts, the research conducted at the school also considered the historical dimension of intermedial processes, mostly neglected by the debates on intermediality current at the time.

It became clear in our discussions that it does not make much sense to approach intermedial and plurimedial forms of art with methods developed to describe the traditionally held differences in the arts and its related concepts, such as “ the cinematic” or “ the musical”. They certainly fail when it comes to the question of how these art forms affect the recipients and what they do to them – i.e. questions concerning their Wirkungsästhetik. We instead chose to proceed from a particular art object or performance in order to develop categories and concepts that no longer adhere to the traditional boundaries between the arts but transgress them. A number of projects therefore focused on aspects of space in intermedial configurations. Here, the cooperation with the Copenhagen Doctoral School proved to be particularly productive, since it involved a scholar of architecture. Another group of projects was devoted to specific forms of knowledge generation in intermedial relationships from early modernity until today.

It turned out that too narrow a definition of media is counterproductive for interart studies not only with regard to the research conducted as part of the projects but also in the discussions of the joint symposia (held together with the Doctoral Schools of Copenhagen and Goldsmiths), such as Art: Relations Revisiting Crucial Concepts (2008) or Laboratory: Methods of Interart Studies (2009). Proceeding from Luhmann’s (1986) distinction between “form” and “media” we thus developed an open concept to grasp much more precisely the “in-between” where art reflects on and negotiates the boundaries between its own institution and other areas of culture.

Performativity: Between Theatre and Everyday Life

The concept of performativity has been of utmost importance in the development of interart studies. On the one hand, it helps us better understand the passage and transformation from one art form to another. On the other, it enables us to deal with processes that link art to other spheres of life without allowing a clear distinction between the two. “Performative” describes not only speech acts (Austin) but also the material embodiment of meaning and the performance of theatrical, ritual, and other actions. The term captures the quality and capacity of actions to be self-referential and to constitute a reality. We usually differentiate between a weak, a strong and a radical concept (Krämer 2001). The weak concept refers to the general pragmatic dimension of actions and of the usage of language, gestures, etc. We do not just speak of the world, we do something in it as we speak. The strong concept relates to an utterance that does exactly what it says – such as a promise or marriage vows. In such cases, the words do not merely describe or state something but they fulfil the spoken words. The radical concept can be derived from Austin’s strategy of collapsing his initial distinction between performative and constative acts. This draws the attention to the performative act as vehicle for the dynamics “that destabilize the dichotomic terminological scheme as a whole” (Krämer/Stahlhut 2001, 56). The radical concept is decisive when it comes to defining and understanding the relationship between the different arts as well as between art and everyday practice.

The concept of the performative in the context of interart studies is central, insofar as it prohibits certain distinctions that we usually make between the arts as well as between art and non-art. All staged events are “performative” – be it performances of music, theatre, an installation, a reading, any kind of ritual, but also soccer games, tribunals or political assemblies.

When literary works or art objects are turned into events, we speak of their performatization. Visual art underwent a performative turn early on with action painting and body art, later also with light sculpture, video installations, etc. Artists presented themselves in front of audiences performing acts of painting, displaying their bodies, some of which were decorated, or enacting themselves in other ways. Alternatively, viewers were invited to move around exhibits and interact with them while other visitors watched. Visiting an exhibition – particularly one featuring installations – thus often meant participating in a performance.

When a poet’s/writer’s text is read out aloud by the author or other readers before an audience, we are dealing with a performance. When Günther Grass read from The Flounder accompanied by a percussionist (at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg on 12 June 1992), audiences flooded in to witness this performance. Readings from works of long-dead poets are equally popular. Some prominent examples include Edith Clever’s reading of Heinrich von Kleist’s The Marquise of O – (1989), Bernhard Minetti’s reading of the Brothers’ Grimm fairy tales, Bernhard Minetti Tells Fairytales (1990), or also the event Reading Homer, which the Group Angelus Novus put up at Vienna’s Künstlerhaus in 1986. The members of the group took turns reading the 18,000 verses of the Iliad in 22 hours without intermission. Copies of the Iliad had been laid out in various rooms, inviting the wandering listeners – accompanied by the reading voice – to read along, thus combining reading and listening. Here, literature was emphatically realized as a performance, coming to life through the live voices of the readers and seeping into the imaginations of the physically present listeners by appealing to their various senses (cf. Fischer-Lichte 2008, 11-23).

John Cage’s Untitled Event, which took place at Black Mountain College in 1952, had of course already demonstrated how the different arts engaged in new relationships when they became performative. Different art forms were involved in the performance: music, painting, film, dance and literature, but they were not united into a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk; rather, it seems that their unrelated coexistence very closely approximated Wagner’s nightmare “of, for example, a reading of a Goethe novel, and the performance of a Beethoven symphony taking place in an art gallery among various statues” (Wagner 1887-1888, 3). Nor was their usage motivated, caused or justified by a common goal or function, they were only coordinated by “time brackets” (Fischer-Lichte 1997, 233-40). It does not come as a surprise that art historians at the time had great difficulties to come to terms with it – as did musicologists, even if they at least felt “responsible” for Cage as a composer. From an interart perspective, however, the performance does not pose these kinds of difficulties.

The performative thus plays a prominent role in the changing relationship between the arts. The same holds true when it comes to the shifting dynamic between art and non-art. There is almost no sphere of life that would not require and entail a performance. Goffman’s concept of frame and framing is helpful here in order to make distinctions. It is the framing that determines whether to perceive a performance as art, ritual, sport, game, politics, etc. (Goffman 1974). Such a framing can be accomplished collectively or individually, which decides how a performance is perceived and received. It may well happen that different frames collide within a single performance – not just because different participants frame the event differently, but also because such a collision is envisaged from the outset. This has been true for the works of many performance and action artists since the 1960s, such as Hermann Nitsch, Marina Abramovic or Christoph Schlingensief, who set diverse and clashing frames for most of their performances.

In his piece Please love Austria! First European Coalition Week (Bitte liebt Österreich! Erste europäische Koalitionswoche), which was part of the Vienna Festival in 2006, Schlingensief employed and satirized the televised voting model. He set up a container accommodating asylum seekers on the square in front of the Viennese Opera. From time to time, celebrities such as the actor Sepp Bierbichler visited and interviewed them. The goings-on inside the container were broadcast on a large screen. Next to the container stood a sign reading “Foreigners out!” Every day, the spectators and passers-by could vote off two of the inhabitants who where then, at least ostensibly, deported from Austria. Schlingensief deliberately left the audience in the dark about the actual consequences of their vote. Frustrated by the audience responses, the organizer of the festival handed out slips of paper reading “This is art!”. Apparently, they felt the need to frame Schlingensief’s piece as art in order to elicit an “appropriate” reaction and an “aesthetic”, non-interventionist stance. Schlingensief of course collected the slips of paper from the spectators to ensure that a collision of frames could take place.

In the last years the shifts in the relationship between the arts and between art and other spheres of life have increasingly gone hand in hand, cross-pollinating each other. A telling example is the action The Dead Are Coming by Philipp Ruch and his Centre for Political Beauty. The very name of the collective points to the close interpenetration of the aesthetic and the political. The action consisted of demonstratively unearthing the corpses of refugees who, fleeing from war and destruction in Syria, had died on their way to Europe and been buried anonymously in mass graves in Greece and Italy, and interring them individually according to Islamic rites. The funerals took place on June 16 and 26, 2015, at the Islamic Cemetery in Gatow and at the Twelve Apostles Cemetery, both located in Berlin. The burials were led by an imam who spoke the Prayer for the Dead. After the first burial he addressed all participants in German, asking them not to regard it as an “event” but as “a genuine moment of reflection”, the point being to lay to rest a human being with dignity. Moreover, the dead person would act as “a symbol for all who died on their flight”. The imam appealed to “all human beings” to put an end to the dying of refugees.[1]

What should we make of such a performance? No doubt, it was a ritual – a burial conducted by an imam who took care that it was done according to the tradition. It was a political demonstration that aimed to direct public attention to the scandalous death of refugees fleeing to Europe and demanded political change. It was also an artistic action. It alluded to Sophocles’ Antigone, in particular to Creon’s denial of a proper burial for Polyneices, and Antigone’s deed to provide just that. The burials thus merged political action, religious ritual and artistic re-enactment, making it impossible to draw clear boundaries between the three. As a matter of fact, all three were transformed through this fusion, so that a rather peculiar process was set in motion that was political, religious and aesthetic at the same time. It was this blending itself that was highly controversial – no matter, whether actual corpses of refugees were buried as publicly stated (and, obviously, presupposed by the imam) or instead just mannequins or some other ‘equivalents’, as might well have been the case.

A number of our school’s projects are located at this intersection of art, politics and social engagement, as were many of the lecture series, conferences and joint symposia organized by it.

The three concepts briefly discussed here served as key concepts for our research over the last nine years, even as our focus shifted between the first and the second funding period. While in the first they were used to explore the changing relationship between the different arts, in the second the emphasis lay on phenomena and processes that were and remain the result of the increasing blurring between art and other spheres of life, such as art, politics, religion, economy, new media, sports and everyday practice. Even if this is the trend today, our interest was not only on contemporary interart phenomena and processes, but also on the history of the relationship between art and non-art.

This shift in focus between the first and the second funding period also entailed a re-examination of the autonomy of art as the leading concept since 1800. This re-examination – which was the concern of several projects and conferences, such as “Beyond Evidence. The Documentary in Art” (2013), “The Pleasure of Doubt – in Art, Aesthetics and Everyday Life” (2014) or “Situating Global Art” (2015), and lecture series, such as “Turn On. Turn Off. Über den Wandel von Paradigmen in den Künsten und Wissenschaften” (Turn On. Turn Off. On the Paradigm Shift in the Arts and Sciences, 2012), “Ökologie und die Künste” (Ecology and the Arts, 2013), “Kolonialisierungen des Ästhetischen” (Colonizations of the Aesthetic, 2014), “The Art of Protest” (2015)[2] – was mainly undertaken with regard to three tendencies:

(1) a renewed interest in Wirkungsästhetik, (2) a revaluation and redefinition of documentary devices in the arts, and (3) certain new purposes and functions of art in different social contexts as realized, for instance, by “interventionist art”, “social art”, “New Genre Public Art” or “participatory art”.

A New Wirkungsästhetik or Transformative Aesthetics

Extant texts from antiquity onwards explicitly discuss the impact art and performance, in particular, are meant to have on recipients/spectators, as well as the special experience it affords them. In Germany, the related aesthetics are usually subsumed under the term “Wirkungsästhetik”. Since there is no equivalent in the English language and its literal translation as “aesthetics of effect” or “aesthetics of impact” sounds rather awkward, I coined the term “transformative aesthetics”. This term has an added advantage compared to Wirkungsästhetik. While Wirkungsästhetik was fought by Autonomieästhetik – aesthetics of autonomy – after the proclamation of the autonomy of art around 1800, because it was seen to serve specific goals for the benefit of politics, society or religion, the term “transformative aesthetics” is applicable not only to old and new forms of Wirkungsästhetik but also to the aesthetics of autonomy. For they, too, entail the promise of or demand for change. The old Wirkungsästhetik aimed at a transformation of a collective – the polis in Athens that was cleansed when a tragedy aroused ἔλεος and φόβος (pity and terror) in the spectators and allowed them to experience catharsis; the community of Christians fighting the Reformation with the help of the aesthetics of Jesuit theatre; or bourgeois society hailing new civic values. Concerning the latter, Lessing explains in a letter to Nicolai from November 1756:

The meaning of tragedy is this: it should develop our ability to feel empathy. It should make us so empathetic that the most tragic character of all times and among all people overtake our emotions. The man of empathy is the most perfect man, among all social virtues, among all kinds of generosity, he is the most outstanding. A person who can make us feel such empathy, therefore makes us more perfect and more virtuous, and the tragedy, which moves us makes us thus – or, it moves us in order to make as thus.

(Lessing 1973, 4: 163)

By contrast, the aesthetics of autonomy served the goal to perfect the individual by granting him (mostly him, not her)Bildung, i.e. the unfolding of his full potential (Goethe), or individual freedom (Schiller), even if, as in the latter case, this was regarded as the prerequisite for the creation of a free state. Unlike Lessing, both Goethe and Schiller strove to give the spectator aesthetic distance. As Schiller wrote in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795), only such an attitude would allow for “the development of the whole complex of our sensual and spiritual powers in the greatest possible harmony” (Twentieth Letter: 143). And this development of the individual would be the precondition for political freedom: “I hope to convince you [...] that we must indeed, if we are to solve that political problem in practice, follow the path of aesthetics, since it is through Beauty that we arrive at Freedom” (Second Letter: 26). Therefore, Schiller advocated an aesthetic education instead of a political revolution.

The term transformative aesthetics encompasses all kinds of transformations that recipients and artists may undergo in the encounter with the artwork – be it as a means to another clearly defined end as in the “old” Wirkungsästhetik or as a means in itself, which is able to transform the recipient solely under this condition. In a way, when Wirkungsästhetik returned with the avant-garde movements around 1900 they took recourse to both – the old Wirkungsästhetik as well as the Autonomieästhetik – by proclaiming and reflecting on ways of how art could create a “new man”. Today, their utopian thinking seems as unrealistic as Goethe’s and Schiller’s idealism.

Today’s transformative aesthetics, on the other hand, emphasizes that art can trigger somatic and emotional responses as well as certain impulses to act or changes in behaviour and in cognitive attitudes towards oneself, others and the world. Therefore, art brings about a transformation of the recipient, mostly without determining what kind of transformation is envisioned in each case. It also remains debatable whether such transformations can outlast the artistic encounter. Regardless of whether the self-transformation of human beings is considered ubiquitous and an anthropological given (Sloterdijk 2009) or whether self-technologies and the pressure to self-coach are seen as tools of “governmental” power (Foucault) and must therefore be analysed as characteristics of a specific historical epoch, we humans undergo constant training and so transformation is not merely a possibility but a mission for all of us. In terms of our research, this gave rise to the question of how art and especially transformative aesthetics and aesthetic experience relate to this situation. This question could only be answered through case studies covering a wide range of very different scenarios – one set of them framed by documentary and another by participatory tendencies.

Documentary Tendencies in Art

While traditionally works of art were largely regarded as fictional and belonging to the sphere of “as if”, today it often seems impossible to distinguish between the “fictional” and the “real”. Be it in films or in the fine arts, the documentary and the fictive are no longer made to clash, not even as a montage of both elements. The fictional and the documentary relate to each other in many, partly even irritating ways that do not allow a clear distinction.

Their relationship is informed by a contradictory desire – that for “real life” and that for “pure art”. This holds true for all the arts but especially for film, the fine arts, theatre and performance art. In feature films, a low-tech aesthetics often suggests authenticity and directness, as do other means and devices developed for documentary films or live reporting. Documentary films, in turn, not only stage a given reality for the camera but – as in the case of Super Size Me, for instance – appear as minutes of the filmmaker’s self-fashioning. In the fine arts, an aesthetics of authenticity once more lays claim to reality and social relevance. Hito Steyerl (2008) has described such a tendency towards the documentary as a strategy for participation in strong and genuine emotions, as a shift from documentary seeing to documentary feeling, from the distancing gaze to an intense live experience. This implies a shift in the purpose of the documentary. While traditionally what was asked of documentary films and what made them valuable was information, austerity and applicability, nowadays their intensity and immediate impact are the condition for their global circulation. In relational art, to mention another example, the space for social interaction is itself declared art (Bourriaud 2002). In theatre and performance art, social situations and artistic stagings have increasingly begun to merge. When the group Rimini Protokoll declared the Annual Shareholders Meeting of the Daimler Group (2009) a theatre performance, they set a rather different frame from that which Daimler’s Board of Directors had in mind and which the shareholders were expecting. The result was a collision of frames, allowing for a fresh view on the genre of such annual shareholders meetings as well as on theatre and, at the same time, directed attention to the importance of framings as such. It exposed framing as a decisive instrument and device in interart processes.

Participatory Tendencies – A Play of Art and Politics

The last decades have seen a growing dissatisfaction in many Western societies with representative democracy, its bureaucracy and non-transparent decision-making processes that marginalize citizens. One of the results of this has been a new relationship between and partly even fusion of art and politics. On the one hand, political activists, e.g. the Centre for Political Beauty, make use of artistic forms in order to direct attention to certain issues. On the other hand, artists experiment with signs, gestures and forms of political intervention, as Schlingensief did in Bitte liebt Österreich. Participatory art practices become emancipatory projects and serve to intervene in social contexts.

A particularly interesting phenomenon in this regard has been the revival of choric theatre since the 1990s. Here, the chorus is often composed of marginalized social groups, such as migrants or the unemployed or homeless, who during the performance speak about their own situation. Letting them appear on stage is meant to make them visible and give them a voice. This has usually been the case in all of Volker Lösch’s productions since the Oresteia in Dresden in 2003. Such productions blurring the line between the artistic and the political often raise the question of how to decide when art is “no longer” art but has turned into a political action. This once again gives rise to the problem of the framing. In our research, we proceeded from the assumption that many kinds of interventionist art can be fruitfully related to the framing of a game. Play can be understood and defined as such a frame that transports the action into an “in between” space. It is a space of “as if” belonging to the social world and differing from it at the same time. To enter into a game we must distinguish between play and non-play while, at least momentarily, abolishing and transgressing that distinction. This ontological ambivalence, so characteristic of play, has turned the concept into an ideal mediator – between art and life (Simmel), between subjective and objective reality in psychoanalysis (Winnicott), between the sphere of the ethical and the aesthetic (Kant), as an element of an anthropological reflection of the self (Schiller) and also as a descriptor of the passage and in-between phenomena in anthropology (Turner).

In our research we used the concept of play for the analysis of interart phenomena and processes that challenge institutional framings demarcating art from all other spheres by proclaiming dichotomies. Such institutional framings have long become obsolete, are historically determined and result from specific negotiations in society. It is small wonder, then, that artistic productions today often focus on and question the boundaries between art and other cultural institutions. As it turned out, applying the framework of play to them proved particularly productive. A number of projects proceeded from case studies in order to further theorize this playful merging of art and political action.

The concept of transformative aesthetics turned out to be particularly meaningful for our research in the second funding period. It allowed us to deal with a number of current art projects that collapsed the boundaries between art and non-art – not by taking recourse to dichotomies and forcing us into endless and futile discussions about whether this or that phenomenon/event is still to be regarded as art or rather as something else, but by suggesting a redefinition of the autonomy of art.

From its inception, the autonomy of art has not been understood as l’art pour l’art, as Goethe’s idea of Bildung and Schiller’s concept of art as play demonstrate. To once again quote Schiller:

With beauty man shall only play, and it is with beauty only that he shall play. For [...] man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays.

(Fifteenth letter, 107)

The autonomy of art was understood as the conditio sine qua non for human beings to develop all their faculties and their full potential – even if political and social conditions seemed to prohibit this when it was first proclaimed, it related to the very idea of humaneness, to be preserved even under inimical circumstances. In this regard, it was defined as a means to achieve human perfection – enabling everyone to become a human being in the fullest sense of the word. Today of course we can no longer share this idealistic view of art. Yet we still regard the freedom of art as a fundamental human right – comparable to the freedom of expression. Therefore, autonomy of art today does not encompass and protect “pure art” alone – whatever that means –, but all types of art. All these new forms that result from the merging of “art” and “non-art”, of the aesthetic with the political, religious, economic or other, are entitled to the privileges art enjoys because of its autonomy – as long as they do not collide with other fundamental human rights. Any discussion of the question “Is this still art?” must first clarify what understanding of art lies behind it. The projects pursued at our doctoral school greatly contributed to this new understanding of the autonomy of art.

Conclusion: Where Do We Locate Interart Studies?

As has become evident, interart studies is not to be regarded as a new discipline. Rather, it must be seen as an interdisciplinary field that can only be properly established when many disciplines join forces within an institutional framework. It is a field of research and study addressing scholars and graduate students who already earned their first degree in one of the arts disciplines, including literature, or hail from philosophy, anthropology, sociology, political sciences and even from the neurosciences – a lack we tried to compensate by inviting scholars from this field for workshops and lectures. This means that it is a field that is in need of a centre bringing together scholars and graduate students from all these disciplines, as our doctoral school did, but on a permanent basis. The developments in the arts today demand much more flexibility from the related academic disciplines than they are usually granted in their traditional institutional contexts. However, as our doctoral school as well as our partner schools have demonstrated, the joining of forces at such centres greatly contributes to the development of interart studies as a wide and intrinsically diverse field of research which paves a road to new questions and problems, some of which are entirely unprecedented.

As the reader can gather from this book’s table of contents, our final conference was not meant to summarize our work over the last nine years but rather to point to the new territory opened up by our previous research. As the title F(r)ictions of Art suggests, it was supposed “to focus on the current process through which distinctions between art and non-art, and between different arts, become visible and meaningful – moments of friction that lead to particular ‘fictions of art’” to quote from our Call for Papers. The contributions to this volume, in fact, highlight “the productive moments in which art’s fictions are produced through frictions” (ibid.), and trace out different routes along which interart studies could and should develop in the future. They also testify to the common interests of the different doctoral schools that have fruitfully cooperated over the years. We are therefore particularly happy that all of them contributed to the volume. And we hope that interart studies will in future be established as a research centre and as a graduate curriculum, not only at these four institutions but at many universities all over the globe. For the shifts in art and in the relationship between art and other spheres of life happening almost everywhere in the world demand such academic initiatives.


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Published Online: 2016-12-30
Published in Print: 2016-12-1

© 2016 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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