nuans Summer Academy, Cologne 2009

This text work is the English translation of a lecture that I gave as a 90-minute seminar at the nüans Sommerakademie at Cologne University on the 7th of July 2009. The title and subject of the lecture was taken from the academy flyer, which stated that the teaching artists had been invited to communicate their “Zugang zur Kunst” (Approach to Art).

This text was originally a site-specific work, which was intended for a particular context (the summer art academy), a particular form (that of a lecture) and was written in response to the particular wording in the academy flyer. For this reason, before I start the lecture, I feel the need to try and explain my decision to transplant this text into a new context (part of a website) and into a new form (a text work).

It is probably particularly problematic that I am now presenting this work as part of my website, rather than as a lecture. The expectations of any viewers/readers/listeners will be different. I can’t know how much it was essential to the work that it deliberately played with the expectations of people who had come to listen to a lecture given by an artist, and who were given a text instead. Visitors to a website haven’t made a decision to spend a particular amount of time or share the same physical space with an artist. Crucially, visitors to an artist’s website also expect to see works of art, which can’t be said of people coming to listen to a lecture. That this text is a work of art can no longer be questioned because it is listed as a work on an artist’s website, and is therefore art. It is possible, however, that the question of whether this text is art, which inevitably arose when it was presented as a lecture, was crucial to the work, which means it won’t function here.

I thought about solving this problem by altering the text so that its origin as a lecture would be no longer mentioned, but then I struck the problem that I found myself unable to justify producing a work called “My Personal Approach to Art” without having the excuse of the original context, in which the title was dictated to me by the academy flyer. Producing a work with this title as an independent decision seemed to me to convey an unpleasant aftertaste of over-inflated self-importance. The end result is of course exactly the same, but by explaining the origin I am able to provide the excuse that the title of the work wasn’t my choice.

Ultimately, it is only my feelings about the actual content of the lecture, which provide a justification for reusing the text. Although the issues covered in the lecture are ones that I constantly address in my work, in the process of turning them into a text I found myself thinking about them differently and more precisely. The text became not only a work that I was happy with but also a work that was an important part of Guide To Life. For this reason, I ultimately decided that it would be self-defeating to not allow myself to re-present it.

What follows is a translation of the German original.


My Personal Approach to Art (7.7.2009)

This lecture is about my personal approach to art. As you can see, I’m not here, so please take a copy of the text and start without me.

If I were here, you would hear that I am a native speaker of English - that explains the mistakes in the German and any strange formulations that you are sure to find in the lecture. [That the text is now in translation could explain any strange formulations that arise because I’m translating thoughts into English that I originally had in German. I hope that there aren’t any actual mistakes as that would mean that I’ve forgotten even more of my native language than I thought I had.]

My reasons for not physically appearing for the lecture are almost certainly partly personal: the thought of standing in front of a group of strangers and being responsible for entertaining them for 90 minutes makes me extremely nervous and stressed. I know that I might not always be able to avoid this situation, but in this case I’ve decided it can be justified. I think that my personal approach to art can be communicated just as well by providing a text to read, as it would be by me standing up and reading the same text aloud. Actually it can be communicated better because there’s then no chance of me making mistakes in reading through being nervous and there’s no chance of misunderstandings arising because of my English accent. My approach to art is also a fundamentally important topic so I wouldn’t want to be tempted to start lecturing freestyle, in case something comes out that I haven’t properly thought through. Of course there’s a risk that there are passages in the text that haven’t been properly thought through, but the risk has to be less. Another reason for not being here is that I’m somewhat physically limited which means that travelling from Düsseldorf to Cologne and back would be extremely exhausting and it wouldn’t anyway be possible for me to stand for 90 minutes to give a lecture. But enough of these cowardly and lazy excuses.

Luckily, in the context of my work I can find a much more convincing reason for my absence. Central to my work is the production of a certain distance between me, as the artist, and the viewer. That this lecture is a work of art can be recognised by the fact that it has been given a title that gives it a place in Guide To Life. You are therefore a viewer. I’m sure it would be possible to create the necessary distance between us using performative rather than purely physical strategies, but I am not a performance artist and I don’t want to become one (and that has nothing to do with conceptual or aesthetic principles, but I’m just not temperamentally built for it – see personal reasons above, for why I am not here). The distance that I want to create comes from my passionate (or maybe neurotic) desire to make a fixed interpretation of my work impossible. To try and achieve this I created Guide To Life and have positioned all my works within it. Guide To Life implies a conceptual decisiveness on the part of the artist and the work. Through their positioning within Guide To Life, the works are assigned a fixed meaning, which, in the best case, should contradict the desired complexity of a direct experiencing of the work, or, in the worst case, should at least initiate a process of reflection in the viewer as to whether the assigned meaning can really apply.

But now we should get to the substance of the lecture. In the information text to the nüans Sommerakademie it says that teachers have been invited to communicate their personal approach to art. That’s a very big subject. Where can I begin?

First I need to make a fundamental statement:

My work is driven by a nostalgic longing, by a romantic dream of art. I dream of a time when artists seemed to have a real mission. They were the chosen ones who were alone in speaking the truth. They were driven by a feeling of their own importance, their own essential necessity, because they knew that they were the carriers of crucial messages that they alone could communicate. Of course, I don’t entirely believe that it was ever like that, but romanticism is extremely obstinate and, in the meantime, my experience of being an artist is plagued by despairing hope, deep disappointment and by self-castigation because I can never achieve the unachievable.

My dream isn’t necessarily productive for my work. It would certainly be more productive if I could experience a relaxed enjoyment of the creative process, or a feeling of achievement that I’ve managed to get to the point of being able to make art. Because, apart from the fact that making art is the only thing that I’ve discovered that I’m reasonably good at (and this statement can be seen in two lights: the discovery of a true destiny, or the recognition of a deep life incompetence. Probably both are true but it doesn’t matter, it can’t be changed either way), making art is also a truly beautiful thing. Sometimes you can even experience a short moment of fulfilment. But whether my dream is productive or not, I sometimes have the suspicion that the feeling of constantly striving after something that is unattainable could just be part of what it means to make art. I should have become a scientist as then I would have a concrete goal to aim for - probably just as unattainable in one lifetime, but my goal could at least be described. As a scientist, I could say that I want to know everything, that I want to understand how everything works and the rules that determine everything. As an artist I can only say that I want. But I really want. I really, really want. My will drives me further, but I don’t have a clue where to.

Maybe I should begin by thinking about what art actually is. Making art is sometimes extremely complicated and sometimes extremely simple. Sometimes it’s a real effort to produce a work and sometimes very easy. Sometimes I have the feeling that I’m having to juggle such a complicated tangle of visual and conceptual perspectives that my brain is completely swamped. It’s a struggle to guide the work to a clear artistic statement. Other times everything just seems to flow effortlessly out of me. I have the feeling that the work takes control of the process and reaches a clear statement by itself. In the end, however, it doesn’t seem to make any difference. If everything goes too smoothly, I become distrustful. I can’t justify why I find the work successful. Faced with so much insistent clarity and simplicity I have to ask what could be behind it and then it gets complicated.

That’s the problem with art: on the one hand it feels like there’s nothing to understand and on the other hand I have so many questions that I wonder if understanding it could ever be possible.

The first work in Guide To Life is called Guide To Life I.1: Basic Philosophy: Core Concepts. It is a very short text work consisting of the only three statements that, after long consideration, I could unreservedly declare to be true: Fascism is Bad, Art is Important, God Does Not Exist. In the context of this lecture fascism is irrelevant, and since I’ve produced the lecture (work of art) and you are reading it (viewing) then we can assume that art is being given (maybe only temporarily but for this moment and in this context definitely sufficient) enough importance. The question of the existence or non-existence of God, however, proves to be far more problematic as soon as you start to ask fundamental questions about art.

When I was young, I used to go to the National Gallery in London with my grandmother. There was a room there that had been especially built for one of Monet’s water lily paintings. As I sat on the bench in front of it, I felt as if I was sitting alone with the painting, in perfect silence. My thoughts were gone and my head was filled with white noise. I was deeply happy. I found the painting so beautiful. I experienced transcendence. At home I had a framed postcard of Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring and I had a profound connection to the picture. I talked to it and kissed it before going to bed. If my relationship to art has changed since then, it is only in that I now have a greater variety of strategies available to me for interacting with it. Some aspects of a work can talk to me, and others not. I can find a work partially beautiful. I’ve learned to use thoughts and words to dissect a work in order to justify my feelings about it. This only works up to a point, however. I still cried when I saw Dürer’s Self-Portrait in Madrid. And I’m not absolutely (of course I am, but not absolutely) convinced that Dürer doesn’t know that I’m there and that there’s not a special bond between us. I love this painting. It’s sublimely beautiful. Transcendence seems an almost trivial description of my experience when I look at it. I don’t have any problems in saying that.

Where my experience of art starts to get disturbing, though, and what seriously stirs up all of my questions about art and beauty and transcendence is when I find myself caught by works that I absolutely don’t like. This happens above all with painting (particularly disturbing because contemporary painting really doesn’t do anything for me), where I find myself experiencing a particular gesture or a meeting between paint and canvas as absolutely beautiful. My head is empty again, the white noise comes and transcendence is there. And dissecting the painting with thoughts or words doesn’t change anything. In my video work Guide To Life V(A).16: Beauty (Analysis): Video Without Content, which is showing here on the monitor, there is a particular moment where some hairs slowly move across the screen in front of a black background. In this moment I experience transcendence. [A short aside: this video is a very good example of a reassignment within Guide To Life. Originally the work was a self-portrait within Guide To Life IV(A): Autobiography (Life History), then I was caught by this moment and realised that the essential statement of the work had nothing to do with constructing identity or inventing and asserting a personal history. The work was then reassigned to Guide To Life V(A): Beauty (A Collection).] The question I am forced to ask myself, in this work specifically, but also in my work generally is: what can this moment of transcendence mean? Isn’t implicit in the concept of transcendence some kind of contact to something outside myself, to something larger and more universal? And what could that be when I categorically and with absolute conviction reject the existence of a God or the concept of a God in whatever form you might like to imagine it.

I’m very careful to exercise a considerable amount of caution when I experience these moments of transcendence. Without wanting to denigrate the beautiful experiences to be had from art, which would be brutal, I have to be careful not to slip into faulty thinking. Faulty thinking in this case would be a blind enjoyment of the moment without paying attention to the Core Concepts. I don’t want to deny myself blind enjoyment but it has to be the result of a conscious decision.

Luckily, I’m sure that we don’t need God for an explanation of transcendence. The feeling of transcendence is sure to be a purely biological process in the brain. When we experience beauty, a particular neurotransmitter is probably released by the neurons in the brain, which puts us into a state of transcendence. Probably this process either still has - or at least previously used to have - a definite practical function, but even if it doesn’t, as soon as it starts to accidentally happen, the responsible pathway in the brain will become reinforced in us as individuals with every repetition. And these repetitions are sure to happen because we enjoy the feeling, so will want to keep on re-experiencing it, and will therefore repeatedly seek out the situations which cause the feeling to be released. It’s also possible that the ability of our brains to instil in us a feeling of transcendence brings some kind of mysterious evolutionary advantage. And if this is true, since every ability that is dependent on a biological function is subject to a certain measure of random variation between individuals, the individuals who have this ability would have a reproductive advantage and the ability to experience transcendence would be strengthened through inheritance across the species.

I am aware that I definitely know far too little about biology in order to be able to say anything intelligent here, but as I was writing “mysterious evolutionary advantage” I began to think about what this advantage could possibly be. And, although I actually find it completely unforgivable when ignorant people think up some kind of quasi-scientific rubbish and then have the need to share it with the world, that’s what I’m about to do. I’ll just say beforehand that I’m really sorry.

Recently I was reading in a dog-training manual about one of the basic emotions in animals, which in the book was called “seeking”. Seeking is the feeling of curiosity or expectation that comes when an animal is confronted with something new. The feeling comes in the moment where the decision hangs in the balance as to whether the animal should react with fear or with a further investigation of the new stimulus. It’s like a moment of stillness. In the book it said that seeking feels really nice and because of this you should try and initiate it as often as possible when training your dog so that the dog enjoys learning. The feeling is nice because it could be that something new and unknown could lead to something good. It’s an exciting feeling of expectation. I’ve been thinking that transcendence could probably be the same feeling, which has been somehow extended in time. We are held in this nice exciting state of expectation. I imagine seeking (or transcendence) to be like a heightened state of awareness. When the mind is empty of thoughts, the perception can’t be distracted by anything and we can collect every impression. Earlier we would have definitely had a good use for this heightened awareness so that we could exactly study new and unknown elements in the environment in order to decide if they were dangerous or not. On a purely practical level this good feeling makes sure that we want to look for new and unknown things around us, which has the result that we tend to exploit every opportunity in which it could be possible to find something to eat or a good place to sleep. If we were afraid of novelty we wouldn’t survive. Seeking makes us curious and leads us to collect new experiences and the more we are familiar with the less we are afraid of and the more we have the feeling that the world is under our control.

Fear is of course vitally important, but too much fear means stress. Seeking in animals helps them to achieve life competence by allowing them to develop a poised and confident relationship to their environment. For us it’s somewhat more complicated, because we are conscious, and therefore know without a doubt that life is brutal and unpredictable. And we maintain this knowledge even when we happen to find ourselves in a safe place. Maybe this is why we’ve developed the ability to extend the feeling of seeking so that we can make use of transcendence to give ourselves a temporary respite from the cruelty of existence. This is sure to be the evolutionary advantage of transcendence: as soon as an animal is conscious, he can feel the uncontrollability of life and so those of the species who develop an ability to temporarily alleviate these feelings would have more will to live and therefore an evolutionary advantage.

I can really relate to this image of transcendence. Seeking feels like a good description of my feelings when making art: I’m in a constant state of expectation when I make art. I always hope that something good will happen. And there’s no question that art and the associated experience of transcendence comfort me and give me a feeling of security. It really and absolutely does give me the feeling that I have the world under control. I look at a beautiful piece of art, I experience transcendence, and I think that when something so beautiful can exist then it just can’t be possible that something really bad could happen.

The process must be something like this: art offers me something new and unknown, I become curious and expectant and the feeling is nice. We can call this feeling seeking or transcendence. I have the feeling that endless vistas of possibilities are opening up in front of me. Since I actually find myself in the moment of stillness where I am deciding between fear or further investigation, I also, appropriately, experience some fear. Or at least I definitely notice the physical symptoms of fear: my heart beats louder, my breathing becomes more laboured, my brain is empty, I’m hyper-vigilant and my body is tense and poised for flight or fight. But the fear doesn’t bother me. It stays in my body as a kind of life insurance but doesn’t seem to enter my head. When I go away afterwards, I have the feeling that I’ve experienced (survived) something and the experience has given me strength. Something has been given to me that I didn’t have before. Through art I have found a way to make me feel more secure in the world.

As I predicted, that was all quasi-scientific rubbish, but I must have stumbled on some kind of truth despite myself. I reread this part of the text several times and at the end I really wasn’t sure what I had been trying to say. I decided to try and get a bit of clarity so wrote the last paragraph where I attempt to describe the process. And now I’ve come to the conclusion that it may all be quasi-scientific rubbish but it really does feel like how I described it. It really does. So I’ll leave this section as it is, in the hopes that something in it might trigger some more intelligent and informed ideas in one of my viewers.

The more I write, the more I become aware of something deeply illogical: although I really do believe that the feeling of transcendence comes from a biological process in the brain, I secretly refuse to accept it. Secretly I think this is all about art and art is my life and it has to mean more than just a circulation of neurotransmitters. This is a perfect example of faulty thinking. I am fighting against the renunciation of my dream. I’m clinging onto my romantic vision of art, and of me as an artist, as something really special. Maybe I’m scared that I won’t be able to let myself indulge in the nice feelings anymore when I know that it’s all just a biological process in my brain. But everything that I experience or feel is a biological process in my brain. That’s how life works. I can go with my neurotransmitter-driven feelings of tragic loss if I feel like it, but I don’t have to.

I must just say at this point that I do know that any statements that I make about art or transcendence can only be deeply banal and obvious. The trouble is that I’ve been given the job of communicating my personal approach to art and so I have to address these already extremely overworked issues because it is these issues that drive my work. It may be banal but I really am driven to find the answers to particular questions:

What does art mean? What is art anyway? Where do the feelings of transcendence come from when I look at art? And moving on to the next issue: What is beauty? What is the connection between transcendence and beauty? Is the only real purpose or meaning of art the production of beauty? And when that’s true, what is beauty supposed to be good for? Is beauty a subjective experience or an objective quality? Is beauty controllable - can it be intentionally produced? I just keep going round in circles.

It’s especially the questions about beauty that drive me into a state of serious artistic self-doubt: I really like working with concepts. I see them as fundamental for my work. Having a firm conceptual scaffolding for my work gives me the feeling of being able to justify the otherwise unbearable self-indulgence of being an artist, and it manages to silence some of the reproachful voices that would otherwise run riot through my head. I can’t help wondering, however, if the real purpose of the concepts is to distract from my inability to produce beauty.

I know with absolute certainty that I am not able to intentionally create beauty. When something beautiful appears in my work, like it does in the video, then it’s purely by chance. But maybe there are artists who actually can intentionally create beauty. Maybe the ability to do that is what we call talent. I’m not absolutely convinced of this though. However hard I try, I just can’t seem to imagine how it would be possible for someone to intentionally produce something as indefinable as beauty. I tend to think that if an ability to create beauty exists (for convenience, we can call this ability talent) then intention can’t really play a part. Talent, or the ability to create beauty, must be just another built-in capability of the brain, which is probably present in individuals to a lesser or greater extent. Theoretically this capability can always be randomly activated, as it was when I made the video (and, just to be clear, I’m not making any kind of statement here about my personal talent, or lack of it), but it is very hard to question the fact that there do seem to be artists in which this capability is activated far more often than in others. These are probably the artists who we tend to describe as talented. Maybe the brains of talented artists have a particular biological difference that distinguishes them from untalented brains.

Whatever the explanation is though, talent seems to be a different kind of biological quality than the one responsible for the experience of transcendence. I’m sure it must be possible to train our ability to experience transcendence by deliberately and repeatedly seeking out the situations that release the feeling in us, strengthening the responsible pathways in our brains as a result. Transcendence can be practised for the simple reason that we recognise when we are experiencing it. But if we can’t consciously control the creation of beauty - and I don’t think that we can - then we also can’t practise in order to get better at doing it. I think that this theory is verified by observation: there are a lot of very practised artists who don’t create any more beauty than what you might expect as the result of a random process, while other artists seem to create far more beauty than they ever should have been entitled to, either through practise or chance.

It could well be that I’m just using this theory to give myself an excuse. An excuse for the fact that I obviously haven’t practised diligently enough. But the problem remains that I still don’t know how I could have practised something that I can’t consciously control. And I really can’t control it: after all, I had already given the video a completely different title before I even recognised the beauty in it. Practise could only work for me on an unconscious level, where my brain itself makes sure that it always repeats the right process so that the pathways within it are reinforced. And when my brain could do that then I would probably be talented. To achieve talent through diligence I would have to keep an exact log while I was working in order to establish the exact moments in which I produce beauty. I could then analyse these moments and try to repeat them by reproducing the exact constellation of spatial, physical, emotional and cognitive factors. I’m not sure how that would work though. What if I produce something that I only recognise as being beautiful a week later? While I was working I would have to continuously produce an exact record of absolutely everything that I do, think or feel, but then I wouldn’t have any time left to produce something that I could subsequently recognise as being beautiful.

The question of talent is always to a greater or lesser extent painful for an artist. If talent is something that you either have or you don’t, then struggling to try and create beauty is a complete waste of time. You can either do it or you can’t. To escape from this pain, I decided years ago that I would try to avoid producing works that rely on talent, which meant I would only produce works that had additional conceptual content. I would deliberately not attempt to produce beauty. I would be an artist because I make art; what I made would be art because I am an artist; I would only strive to achieve what I was capable of and what I was capable of would be, by definition, enough. I’m now reasonably certain, however, that this attitude is nothing more than complete conceptual nonsense. Its only function is to provide a rationale for protecting myself from despair, by making my need to constantly compare myself to others redundant (it doesn’t, of course, stop me doing it, but I can see it as an irrelevant film running in my head that I don’t have to take any notice of). This function may be incredibly useful, but the underlying attitude is unfortunately just another prime example of faulty thinking. Because, just to say it once and for all: the real and sole purpose of art is to create beauty in order to initiate the consequent feeling of transcendence. For everything else – statements about science, politics, morality, ethics, or even aesthetics – there are far more effective methods. They can be built into art as an interesting side product, but alone it’s not enough.

I’ve now got to the hideous moment (once again, it happens constantly) where I realise that if I was wanting to be conceptually consistent I would have to give up making art. If I’m not producing beauty, then I’m either producing something that isn’t actually art or I’m producing art but consciously depriving it of its true purpose. I don’t want to give up though. I really don’t. So I have, once again, found a way out: If I accept that I don’t have the talent to consistently produce beauty then I still have the possibility – admittedly only a very weak consolation – of self-expression. Art must be a completely legitimate method to use to express my experience of the world and my experience of myself simply because it can be just as effective as other methods. It isn’t a higher purpose, though. It’s a disappointment. I would have really liked to have been able to control transcendence. Now I can only say that I can also offer the viewers a kind of contact to something outside themselves in that I can offer a feeling of connection with others (with me). It’s a kind of feeble mini-transcendence. It’s a definite disappointment though. It’s not what I dreamed of and it’s got nothing to do with why I love art.

Luckily, however, there’s a second and much better escape strategy. Let’s accept that my conceptual conflict is nothing but a result of personal cultural contamination. I always had a dream. I wanted to make art. I wanted to create beauty. I believed that art represented a higher truth. Then I realised that I would never achieve my dream. To do that I would have to be capable of consistently producing beauty. And I can’t do that. I’m running after something that I can never reach. I could cure myself with therapeutic strategies by learning to value myself and to value what I do, but learning to value something in the full knowledge that it absolutely isn’t what I want to achieve is and always will be tragic. I give up my dream. But luckily there’s another possibility. I could recognise once and for all that my dream is nothing but romantic idiocy. It really shouldn’t be too hard. Actually I detest romanticism. But why do I find it so difficult to give up? This is where we find my cultural contamination. I’ve been culturally programmed to search for meaning. That’s all it is.

If I was really consistent I would have given up the nostalgic longing, the dream and the resultant artistic despair long ago. Art can’t have a meaning. On the one hand I say that the purpose of art is beauty and transcendence, and on the other hand I say that transcendence is nothing but neurotransmitters. On the one hand my dream tells me that art represents a higher truth, on the other hand I say that God does not exist, but as soon as I talk about a higher truth then, however I want to phrase it, I’m talking about God. And now it can get really exciting: if I accept that art has no meaning, then I must also accept that life has no meaning. And then the concept of meaning has no meaning. And now I can really relax because if meaning has no meaning then meaninglessness also doesn’t have any meaning. Both terms are completely superfluous. And all that I have left is blind enjoyment. The lovely feeling of transcendence. I don’t have to understand anything any more. And to get to this transcendence I don’t have to rely on either beauty or talent.

But do I really believe that? Finally I need to say something about the text (the work) itself. It was very difficult writing the text. I wanted to produce a text work that, although the writing style is deliberately informal, appropriate for a spoken text, was nevertheless an extremely reasoned and clear statement. The statement could well have been that it actually isn’t possible to communicate a personal approach to art, but the more I write, the more I realise that in this case it’s not only impossible for me to communicate my personal approach to art but it’s also impossible for me to know what it is. I ask myself if this ignorance is a failure on my part or a necessary condition for staying artistically active, but I tend to the second possibility and this is not just because I don’t want to accept my personal failure. I believe that if I knew what I was doing and why I’m doing it, I wouldn’t have to do it any more and wouldn’t want to do it anymore. But I want to. I really do.

Thank you for reading/listening/viewing.

For the rest of the 90 minutes go and have a cup of coffee, enjoy your life, and look forward to the next seminar.

Lucy Harvey