On … Art & Utopia

In 1964, German philosophers Ernst Bloch and Theodor W. Adorno discussed the possibilities of Utopia in a Modern world in a radio emission in Südwestrundfunk. Despite radical changes in the way society is organized and lives together – with buzzwords such as monetarization, digitization, and, generally, globalization – the analyses and ideas by Adorno and Bloch possess a remarkable actuality and applicability to contemporary life. And present the topic as being equally relevant as it was 60 years ago.

Concerning Theodor W. Adorno, within the history of humankind, many of man’s utopian wishes had been fulfilled, e.g. the possibility to fly, or certain architectural achievements. But by achieving these utopian goals, one felt betrayed about their content: One could fly, but was not as free as the bird. In Ernst Bloch’s words: A trivialization of the Utopian endeavor took place. Bloch adds that people in Modern societies – and one might well transfer this thought up until today, i.e. the 21st century – live close to the topos of Utopia, with a constant feeling among the individual of ‘not being there yet’: Utopia exists, I only have to get there. But by moving there – i.e. developing and enhancing technology, self-optimizing ourselves – Utopia eludes ourselves. Adorno continues that a general diminution of Utopian consciousness took place: The individual lost the capacity to imagine society – the society whole – as being completely different. Instead, one concentrates on the world as it is. One might add from a nowadays’ perspective: on oneself. With key terms such as ‘universe me’, ‘individualization’, and ‘mindfulness’. Adorno’s proposition is the following: Deep inside, all individuals know that the world could be different. That we could live in peace, more equally, and happily. But reality around them keeps on aggravating so that the theoretically possibly – Utopia – becomes seemingly impossible. And thus, a contradiction between the possibility and impossibility of Utopia arises. To bridge this contradiction, people start appropriating and identifying with the impossibility of Utopia, and thus, of change. 

Oscar Wilde, quoted at this instant by Ernst Bloch, wrote: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at…” (Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism)

How, then, can the topos of Utopia be created and approached nowadays? How can we envision and embrace a practice of change, of possibility? In this, art plays an elementary role. Not necessarily – though possibly – the political, activist art. But the art that leaves room for imagining; that presents ‘the different’. 

The following as a starting point for a (mind) map to Utopia.

The image shows the first and second page of Jonathan Mieses manifesto "2021 Kunstjahr de Large".
Jonathan Meese, 2021 Kunstjahr de Large, 2021, “Norden” (north), “Süden” (south). Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Sies + Höke, Düsseldorf.

In January 2021, Jonathan Meese wrote a manifesto, 2021 Kunstjahr de Large (transl.: 2021 Year of the Art de Large).  Comprising four pages, dedicated to north, south, east, and west, it proclaimed the following, among others: 
“From now on, thus 2021, everything may happen in the name of Art. Art may be the measure for everything. …. All power to the Art. “Art 2021” will ban all ideologies! “Art 2021” will de-politicize everything! … “Art 2021” must happen without any censorship!”
Or later “The “Year of the Art 2021” may return to all of us the free play. … “Art 2021” is the energy from tomorrow for tomorrow. … Only Art, as most ineligible power, is the future. … ONLY ART IS THE BOSS! … 2021 will expand and shape the most objectified leadership Art”.

At once cryptic and straight forward, the manifesto touches upon ‘the political’, and yet constitutes its exact opposite: It aims at demolishing all traditionally political power, i.e. political institutions and practices as they exist nowadays, and put Art in its place as guiding force and principle. In an interview I conducted with the artist in March 2021, Jonathan Meese specified: “We can do business in the name of the total work of art, we can do transportation, we can do schools in the name of art. It’s all possible, it’s just that we’re doing it differently at the moment.” And here is the utterly Utopian element, which manifests in nearly all of Meeses work: Imagine, do it differently. Meeses approach directly relates to Adorno’s individual’s loss of the capacity to imagine society as being different. Jonathan Meese does imagine and propose a completely different society, thus his art/writing might help us in re-finding our imagination.

Das Bild zeigt zwei Schirftzeichnungen des Künstlers Jonathan Meese.
Jonathan Meese, 2021 – 2022: Kampf um Kunst Fixstern Kunst, Manifest, 2022, Seite 1 und 2. Courtesy of the artist.

In January 2022, the artist wrote a second, follow up manifesto, 2021 <–> 2022 Kampf um Kunst Fixstern Kunst (transl.: 2021 à 2022 Battle for the Art Fixed Star: Art). Among others, he plays with the words, letters and sound of “Kunst”, “Start”, “Staat” (“state”). – Let’s start!

The image shows an artwork by Malte Bartsch, consisting of an orange robot, four pillars with birthday cakes on it, and the floor being covered with white sand.
Malte Bartsch, 16 R1610/KRC4, 2019, installation view at Städtische Galerie Wolfsburg. Courtesy of the artist.

R1610/KR C4 by Malte Bartsch is a fully functional robot, placed between five assumingly Greek columns, each crowned by a birthday cake. With its articulated arm, the robot, usually used in automotive engineering, successively grabs birthday candles from the adjacent windowsill, places them on the cakes, lights them and blows them out again. This process repeats itself in an endless loop. 
The work was conceived specifically for its location in Wolfsburg, one of Germany’s most important production sites of the automotive industry. R1610/KR C4 refers to the social and political future of work, as well as to the relation between man and machine, or the humanization of the latter. The birthday candles and cakes moreover point to the genesis of socio-cultural practices and traditions, and the role of machines and anonymity therein nowadays. With its playful and dream-like outlook, the work alternates between an ironic Utopia and a dystopian vision of cultural community and the future of work. The impression of landscape generated by the sand and mountain-like columns underlines the reference of place or an island – Utopia.

The image shows a video still of Sasha Svirsky's work "9 Ways to Draw a Person".
Sasha Svirsky, 9 Ways to draw a Person, 2019, video still. Courtesy of the artist.

Sasha Svirsky’s 9 Ways to Draw a Person presents 9 ways to draw a person. Among the suggestions: 
“You can draw a person like a bird. Or draw a person like a bird would draw them. … 3. Or you can draw a person as an incongruous awkward fool. 4. You can draw a person who as its head has a tree and as its hands two giant fishes … to the point where a person doesn’t really look like a person at all. 9. And by accidentally drawing a person you may notice that in fact you have drawn a person.” 
The combination of most different visual material in the video is a brain-teaser in itself. The visual and conceptual suggestions made require full concentration and mental flexibility. They question given visual and practical standards and present perhaps absurd alternatives. But these alternatives directly relate to Theodor W. Adorno saying that individuals have lost the capacity to imagine a completely different world. There it is. From these visual opportunities one may well arrive at practical opportunities and ideas of change.
Confessed, this is a bold suggestion, opening up a wide field of references for the relation of Art and Utopia. Indeed, their relation is basic, but fundamental: things can be made differently.
And Art embodies the form, courage, and creativity to do them.