The Art of Parrying: Wilfried Dickhoff in conversation with Joan Waltemath
Wilfried Dickhoff is an independent critic, curator, and publisher who lives in Cologne and New York. He has taught at several art academies in Europe and recently at Princeton University. Currently, he is working on monograph books, e.g. on Albert Oehlen and Rosemarie Trockel, and a new international art magazine, which will be published out of Istanbul. Upcoming publications of his own edition “VWD” are “Dennis Gün: Upgrade” and “Maurice Blanchot: Beginnings.”
Joan Waltemath (Rail): In talking and writing about art, your work seems to thrive on the confrontation between philosophy and art, rather than an art historical approach.
Wilfried Dickhoff: Yes, I like to read philosophy, I like to look at art, and I like to make music. And this shows in my work, be it writing, publishing, or curating. I’m interested in composing encounters between art and philosophy; but without one being the object of the other. Art and philosophy are different kinds of thought; links between them can only be that of oscillations. Philosophy thinks with concepts and art thinks with percepts. Art is about extracting a bloc of sensations, a pure being of sensations, which stands for itself and exists in itself. While art erects monuments with its sensations by means of percepts, philosophy brings forth events with its concepts. In my approach to art I’m looking for a clash of concept and sensation, without blurring them. It is about composing oscillations and paradoxes, which might be related to the paradoxes we have to face today, in art and in “real” life.
Rail: Do you consider your writing to be either philosophy or art?
Dickhoff: It is a kind of philosophical exercise in view of art’s image-truths (Bild-Wahrheiten). The results of these exercises might on the one hand be compositions and constellations of concepts working out theories and terms regarding art’s visual presence, which is a presence of difference, and vice versa. On the other hand they might be conceptual love letters provoked by a certain logic of sensation, e.g. a song, a video, a painting, an intervention. But, as Michel Foucault once said, in art as in thought, encounters are justified by the new necessity they have established. It would be wonderful if such a philosophical practice would here and there contribute to establishing new necessities of art and philosophy. That’s why I sometimes like to work with artists instead of on or about art.
Rail: With your approach it looks like it might be possible to take the kind of risks art takes, to create a tabula rasa, while art history seems to be bound up in its own rules— quite often with the necessity that one must make a development on what came before.
Dickhoff: Every art history is a construction of a history. And every art history implies a philosophy. If an art historian is aware of the philosophical implications of his or her writing, art history can be very enlightening. In the end any interesting writing about art takes the guts which art and philosophy take: to probe existence by taking the risk of being partial, passionate, political, existential, and philosophical.
Rail: Can you clarify the term you used—art’s image-truths (Bild-Wahrheiten)?
Dickhoff: Art can be a production of truths or it can be an event or a monument of truths. Philosophy can make these truths manifest by distinguishing them from opinions—the main sources of humankind’s disaster. A philosophy of art in that sense is a conceptual decision-making, making distinctions between truth and opinion, and by doing so taking on art’s responsibility, which might turn out to be one of a new subjectivity.
Rail: For example?
Dickhoff: It might become a non-identical subject, beyond any naive idealism of freedom and beyond any reductive realism of dependency. The subject of art as well as of philosophy is only possible if we face its impossibility. A subject based on and emerging from a deconstruction of itself. This subject is more than it can handle. It constitutes itself by overstretching its possibilities. In fact it is itself an im-possibility. In other words, there is only freedom under conditions of real “non-freedom.” There is only truth under conditions of real “non-truth.” I would like to insist on the necessity of sovereignty within a situation of objective “non-sovereignty.” Or, as Salvador Dalí once said, “every flower blooms in a prison cell.” Art can manifest this paradox by giving it forms, presenting unforeseen models of a subject parrying this paradoxical immanence, models of freedom within non-freedom.
Rail: Were there any writers that you looked to as a model for what you wanted to do when you first started writing—with whom you felt a kinship?
Dickhoff: There were no models, but there were books, which were important to me. For example Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, which I happened to run into in 1968. What I read and understood at the time was all about freedom, the other, the gaze, sexuality, relationships, and the existential condition. This book insists on freedom of choice, even in situations where freedom seems to be impossible. He takes the position that we are what we make out of everything we are made of, including our social, psychological, and economical conditions. The more real freedom becomes impossible and objective unfreedom takes over, the more this insisting is still interesting. Sartre was very wrong very often. But I still ask myself: Why is it, that being wrong with Sartre was always more interesting than being right with Camus? By the way, if his books would be read for a change, if e.g. Idiot of the Family, Truth and Existence and Sartre’s last interviews Hope Now, one might find that he might still have something to say today, especially regarding today’s ethical questions.
Later, during the seventies, e.g. Heidegger’s Being and Time, Adorno’s Negative Dialectics and Aesthetic Theory, Walter Benjamin’s essays, and the writing of Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida became important to me. And regarding the question “why at all, if at all and how to write on art?” reading Roland Barthes, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gottfried Benn, Maurice Blanchot and the great Carl Einstein, provoked me to go “my way.” Carl Einstein is still not translated in English much, although he is maybe the most important German art critic and art theorist of the twentieth century. He wrote the first non-racist essay on African sculpture, before World War I. And his art-theoretical essays, like Fabrication of Fictions, belong on every contemporary art-related bookshelf.
Rail: You were talking about your attempts to use language without undoing the achievements of deconstruction, and you speak of your essays as polylogues that turn out to be female. I found it to be quite humorous.
Dickhoff: First of all, let’s not forget that deconstruction is a political practice. Starting out with identifying the conceptual construction of a theoretical field and highlighting the hierarchical ordering of the concept-pairs constituting it, deconstruction goes further by inverting and subverting this order, e.g. by reversing hierarchies like male-female, particular-universal etc., and by producing third terms which might reform and transform one or the other theoretical field. This all together is the practice of de-construction. De-construction is a transforming intervention. It wasn’t born as an ideology to establish the play of today’s seemingly socially engaged, mediocre “post-conceptual” art, which would just be a joke if it wouldn’t dominate the discourse of what is called “art” for more than a decade now. But I’m quite sure that this aesthetic ideology and all the fakes of visual criticality that came with it will disappear quite soon. There is a young generation coming up demanding truths, integrity, and new necessities of art to come, which will turn out to be more and more female.
In my introduction to After Nihilism I mentioned that an adequate writing on art necessarily becomes an ambigraph of non-identity, generating more voices than it formulates. And I like to associate this process with the process of becoming-woman, which is actually the becoming-woman of every gender, seen as a necessary political change in the world of thought, theory and “real” life. “Also women shall become woman,” as Deleuze and Guattari, proposed in Milles Plateaux.
But I’m glad you got the humor: There is no understanding; there are only various levels of humor. Which is actually not very funny because it takes a lot of seriousness to think on a level of humor, which parries the fact that there is no understanding. Let’s live and think on the highest levels of humor, instead of simplifying things, e.g. by means of reality shows and religious fundamentalism. “The desert grows, beware of hiding deserts,” as Friedrich Nietzsche said.
Rail: What you’re describing is initially why I pursued interviewing you. In the prologue to your book After Nihilism, where you set up the context for what you’ve written, you had exactly this kind of very open construction. It seemed possible to penetrate the text from many different angles and allow for contradictions. Often it seemed as if you were saying the opposite of what you just said. I found that refreshing.
Dickhoff: I just try not to contribute to the production of false art-theoretical coherency, these illusions of understanding, produced in order to help establish and sell “art” as a commodity. Instead I like to compose conceptual intermezzi, which don’t cater to identity, which by the way is the biggest problem in art and life. Instead I’m working on a non-passive enduring of aporias, a kind of writing which takes on the legacy of critical theory by allowing a non-positive affirmation to appear through the aporias. I find it more adequate to carry-out our constitutive paradoxes and contradictions and keep them in tension, instead of betraying them to any thinking of identity or to any aesthetic ideology of reconciliation. I find it more adequate to complicate things and avoid simple phrases because things are in fact quite complicated. Reaching a higher degree of ambiguity will turn out to be more adequate to truth. Therefore it is necessary to overcome all the dead theories, which, as institutionally protected identities, still produce comforting lies, illusions and ideologies. To cope with the organized chaos of our nihilistic human condition I propose an art of parrying.
Rail: One of your criteria for an art of parrying seems to be a certain responsibility of forms. In the States the word form, the idea of form, has been stigmatized since the period of formalism in the seventies, yet now we’re at a point where it can be considered in a new light.
Dickhoff: First of all, let’s not confuse form with formalism, which is its reduction to a cliché of seemingly pure abstract form, something that in fact doesn’t even exist. In fact, form is what manifests itself. What lets itself be seen, what presents itself, what can provoke thought, is a form. Not an essentialist form, and certainly not a form with a substantialist presence. Something form-like is what in general presents itself of something. Form is presence itself. Form is a formation, the forming of a form, for instance, the way in which for a painter the ineffable things with which she is concerned are shaped in the imagination on canvas. In painting, formation is also a deformation, albeit a coherent deformation, just as every artistic deconstruction is a de-construction, assuming that it wants to be more than illustration of ideas or concepts. In illustration everything becomes flat and indifferent—for instance, even affirmation and negation—in the unnecessary and arbitrary interchangeableness of images, attitudes, subject matter, references etc. Form is not something as opposed to content. Form is the material event of abstraction. But this has nothing to do with reductive dualisms like abstraction-figuration. A figurative painting can be a wonderful abstraction, e.g. an abstraction of a feeling. Abstraction doesn’t reduce anything, it is a practice of subtraction by means of addition, e.g. subtracting a painting from its clichés of abstraction or subtracting oneself from a structure one might be stuck in or from a context one might want to escape. In the end abstraction is a way to situate oneself in a world one cannot escape, by means of subtracting additions and additional subtractions. Abstraction is this paradoxical gesture, which might in certain lucky moments generate forms, which embody this paradox. For instance, de Kooning’s most important move was to become abstract about an abstraction, which was about to become a fashionable aesthetic style. In other words, abstraction is a negation of positive affirmation. Form in this sense is a manifestation of a non-positive affirmation. In this sense the formal is “a power of transformation and a locus of thought” (Michel Foucault). And art is an abstraction from indifference, an abstraction from “our” culture of indifference: from arbitrary brushstrokes to irresponsible installations referring to social issues, which they don’t really manifest and in the end even beautify. Form is non-metaphysical presence of difference or else it is not interesting.
Rail: What is interesting?
Dickhoff: Interesting is the other, the other inside and outside of our-selves, the other side of all our identities. The only interesting thing is to speak the language of another, which one does not understand. What is interesting is the unspeakable, the non-representable. An art which represents the image-truths of this impossible representation is interesting. To assume a responsibility for form would therefore mean to present something interesting to view, something that presents polylogical formations of difference, not as indifferent diversion, but as ambiguous images of non-indifference. I call this social abstraction or existential abstraction. Interesting in this sense is what is inter-esse, something amidst being, a being-between, something that exists between Dasein (being (t)here), a being-in-between, for instance, a passing through between the dualisms, negativity without negativity. Art is interesting because it is what it is not. Everything that makes life go on makes identity and contributes to the well organised chaos of humankind’s disaster. Art is this passive activity that gives us the chance of talking back to chaos by creating non-identity. Art is non-identity, if it is at all. Even in being about identity it must not have any, because, as Gertrude Stein said, “governing is occupying but not interesting because masterpieces are exactly what they are not.”
Rail: How do you see the responsibility of such forms of non-identity?
Dickhoff: Responsibility of form is based on a consciousless ethics, which every artist follows in order to create an interesting irreducible difference. But this only works out, this only exists, if a presentation of difference becomes a material event, the moment when a form actually looks at the beholder, offering a gift she or he didn’t even ask or hope for. Such a material event is a response preceding every question, an answer to questions nobody has even asked. This preceding answer of an incipient speaking that is torn within itself, is what is really surprising about art. The moment of art is the event of an intense simultaneity of difference and non-indifference: response-abilities becoming forms, intensities of an irreducible difference that meet the eye as gazes of non-indifference upon us. There where a painting or an installation enables a miracle of giving, art—this “ideal inhumanity of the sensuous,” as Alain Badiou calls it—is more than an aesthetic event within its predominating industry. Either art to come will be(come) an art of non-indifference which surprises us with possible models of im-possible freedom, love and justice which parry the impossibility of all that—or art will be nothing but an economically circulating commodity within a growing art stock market.
Rail: This polarization seems to mirror the condition of the country at large.
Dickhoff: A responsibility of form could free the subject from boredom and art itself from the dead theories of “avant-garde” (a military term by the way), which still dominate the discourse on what is called “contemporary art.” I wouldn’t say, as for example Paul Virilio does, that the “avant-garde” was the way fascism won the peace after having lost the war. But I think it is really necessary to discuss the issue of freedom and responsibility of art again. “The subject’s for-the-other” is a limited freedom, which remains freedom, as Emmanuel Levinas said. I propose to take art’s responsibility from there.
Rail: Does this either/or point to a crisis?
Dickhoff: There is no crisis in art, there is a crisis concerning its criteria within an art world, which doesn’t care about any criteria as long as whatever stuff sells. In other words, the crisis in art now is that the problem of identity, which used to be a political, social, psychological problem, infiltrated the art world to the point that you don’t even want to see all this indifferent mediocre visual stuff anymore which pretends to be whatever the market and the dominating art ideologies want it to illustrate. For example “intervention” is just one of the more recent art fashions, selling the illusion of political art as style. I find it quite disgusting actually, what is sold as “political” or “critical” art recently.
But luckily art always has the chance and potential to become the crisis of identity by giving form to non-identity for the other. Making art today is first of all making an end with the end of art. And this takes a lot of unpopular risks, e.g. the risk of “making it sing a little, making it human and not fucking it up” (Lou Reed). Or the risk of creating an ephemeral and difficult affirmation before and after, normality, an impossible “wing-beat that rends the continuum, that invents an island of the absolute within disorder” (Julio Cortazar). In other words, making art means to consider the desire of the impossible as reasonable. The desire of the impossible is art’s reason. And this reason could still and again generate wonderful paradoxical presences of non-indifference, which might parry human’s contemporary nihilistic condition.
Rail: Earlier you articulated the whole notion of an oscillation, which I began to see as an oscillation between being and believing or hoping. One point would obviate the other one. If you’re being you cannot believe because in being you cannot step outside yourself, and so on. Is this what you were describing as a necessary condition for Art?
Dickhoff: I would like to put it this way: Given the fact that our culture of indifference has become a totality, a dominating, almost impersonal, structural complexity, everything called “art”—including all its concepts, attitudes and stereotypes, be they modern, postmodern or of whatever fashion—is a production and reproduction of this immanence. Let’s face it: the immanence is complete. There is no outside. But no outside of what? Of the spectacle, the capital, the capital of the spectacle as part of the spectacle of the capital and vice versa? Yes, of course, but it’s not just that. As much as the capital is the director of all sounds and silences within our culture, the immanence we’re facing today is unfortunately more than this. Nihilism, not as an attitude or doctrine you could have or not have, but as an overall human condition, which we’re all part of, might be an adequate term. But this onotological or, more precisely, anthropo-ontological dimension of immanence hasn’t been seen and discussed much recently. At least in the “art world,” where a lot of zombies of dead theories and art-isms are still dominating the language of an industry selling indifferent styles and aesthetic identities of any kind, even of critique, politics and social consciousness.
Rail: What grounds are there for hope in view of current impossibility of making art?
Dickhoff: There is no need for “hope” because art is the impossible invention of the impossible anyway. And the fact that there is no outside is absolutely no reason for resignation. What is asked for is an art, articulating the oscillations you mentioned, e.g. by bringing out the contradictions, paradoxes, antinomies and aporias, which became “us”, which we in fact are—instead of suppressing them by means of dead theories (from uninspired neomarxism to any kind of regressive confusion of religion and new age) and art myths of any kind (from mindless variations of romanticism to the conformism of destruction and transgression). What is asked for is an art of parrying, an art of talking back, an art of visually and conceptually talking back. Such an art of parrying would generate concepts of non-positive affirmation creating immanent differences.
But again: there is no difference without non-indifference. Art only happens if immanent, but yet still irrreducible differences meet the eye as gazes of non-indifference. Art is an event of non-indifferent immanent difference. And what I call responsibility of form is a presence of a certain response-ability of non-indifference. The artist has no morals, but art (which is more than “his work”), has a morality: the morality of non-indifference towards the other (not only human) being (Dasein). In every single work of art, which deserves this name, there are these questions Roland Barthes formulated so adequately: “What are others for me? How am I to desire them? How am I to lend myself to their desire? How am I to behave among them?” (Roland Barthes).
Rail: In the reading of your text I became aware that the word hope comes up again and again. How do you understand this word, Hoffnung I suppose, in its precise philosophical meaning?
Dickhoff: Hope is not something given. And hope is not a principle, as Ernst Bloch thought, because the worst might in fact happen and is in fact happening quite a lot in this world dominated by humans…
You could say that art is also a way to construct hope without illusion. Illusion not in the sense you create in a painting, but illusion in also the political sense. I would differentiate this from utopia, the construction of a better world, a better idea, which somehow brings the future back to a realm of the possible, while art is exactly the opposite. It’s about getting beyond the possible, and provoking the possibility of the impossible. It’s related to hope, art can be a construction of hope; hope where there is not so much reason for having it actually, in our society, in our situation. Hope that there is something im-possible but necessary beyond our global culture of indifference. The construction of this hope is also a criteria for art.
Rail: Isn’t the impossible another word for utopia?
Dickhoff: No, not at all. I agree with Jacques Derrida in that the impossible is actually the opposite of utopia. In a certain sense utopia is an insult of the presence. The im-possible is here and now, it gives our wishes, acts, and decisions its direction. While utopia is irreal, the im-possible is a figure of the real. It is nothing negative, it is an affirmation, which allows us to critically resist all the pseudo-acts, pseudo-decisions, and pseudo-responsibilities in art and “real” life.
Rail: What is the condition and function of art regarding this critical resistance?
Dickhoff: Art’s conditions of possibility are the conditions of its impossibility. And the function of art is a certain non-functional parrying of nihilism by means of talking back to the spectacle. And art does so in these moments of non-indifference, which are moments of impossible “Aufhebung” (overcoming), moments of overcoming the aesthetic through the aesthetic. And this overcoming is the experience of what escapes power: the impossible itself. Art is about creating possibilities of the impossible. Art is an art of the im-possible or it is not at all. In the end art is humankind’s way of parrying the impossibility of justice, freedom, decision, gift, love, hospitality, subjectivity and everything existence is (t)here for. The practice of philosophical and artistic parrying is not a passive reaction at all. The art of parrying is in fact the im-possible invention of im-possibilities. A goal might be to enjoy existence instead of catering to the enjoyment of life, which is only its compensation. As the director in Godard’s “In Praise Of Love” says: “We are all trained to treat life as a whore which we use to improve our existence in order to get around facing existence.”
Rail: And yet facing existence is the most invigorating possibility of all, and therefore the most frightening.
Dickhoff: Of course, as Samuel Beckett said: “nohow on.”
Joan Waltemath grew up on the Great Plains and now lives and works in New York City. Her abstract paintings focus on constructing spatial voids using harmonic progressions and non-traditional, reflective pigments in oils. Drawing has long been at the root of her artistic practice, serving as a means of abstract thinking. Her works on mylar and paper use diverse wet and dry materials. Shown in New York, Chicago, Portland, London, Basel, and Cologne, her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art, among others. She is the recipient of numerous grants including Creative Capital, and the Pollock-Krasner award. She has written extensively on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She taught at the IS Chanin School of Architecture of the Cooper Union from 1997 to 2010 and at Princeton University. She is currently the Director of MICA's LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting.