Asger Jorn: Monsters of all lands unite!
Asger Jorn is acknowledged to be one of the great artists of the postwar years. Even more impressive in my estimation is his theoretical work. I made the case for this in The Beach Beneath the Street (Verso, 2011). Since then, two collections of Jorn’s writings have appeared in English: Fraternité Avant Tout (010, 2011), edited by Ruth Baumeister, and Concerning Form (Museum Jorn, 2012). Both make it much easier to teach Jorn in the Anglophone context. Karen Kurczynski has also published a major study of Jorn. He may yet attain his proper place in considerations of postwar theory, and even inform current debates in the Anthropcene, when questions of a dialectics of nature are back with us whether we like it or not.
Jorn practiced a kind of mystic materialism, both romantic and realist. There’s a remarkable consistency to this, all through the three avant-gardes in which he played a key role: CoRrA (1948-52) the Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus (1954-57) and the Situationist International which he co-founded in 1957.
It was after the CoBrA group came to an end that Jorn started a particularly productive period in his writing. One spur to this was the founding of a design school at Ulm by Max Bill and others that claimed to be a revival of the spirit of the Bauhaus. Bill’s version of the Bauhaus did not include any artists. Jorn’s Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus protested this exclusion, but Jorn’s writings made a more fundamental argument about nature, life and aesthetics.
Max Bill’s aesthetic was Platonist and reductionist, a shearing away from the accidental to reveal a formal purity. Jorn thought the aesthetic task was to reignite sensation through experiments in emergent form. His was an aesthetics of accidents, experiments, elaborations rather than purification. He opposed any return to Hellenic idealism and insisted that art needed to keep abreast of the latest developments in the natural sciences. He thought that the evolution of form in any domain took place through dissymmetry. Jorn: “ugliness is no less rare than beauty.”
Jorn was opposed to that strand of modernism that sought only a purification of form and which tended to fetishize the geometric. Nature isn’t a matter of pure forms for Jorn. It is about a play of variations and even monstrosities. Jornian aesthetics does not seek a balance between the disinterested appreciation of Apollonian rigor and the immersive passions of Dionysian play. For Jorn, the tension between the figures of Apollo and Dionysus is actually a class struggle between aristocratic and folk life. Rather than the war on monsters that constitute the mythic life of every ruling class, Jorn is on the side of the monsters. Or as Michele Bernstein says apropos Jorn, “monsters of all lands unite!” On the theoretical plane, the tension between Apollo and Dionysus is also that between a dualist and a monist version of the dialectic. The dualist dialectic is an external conflict between differences. The monist dialectic is flux, turbulence and complexity. Actually, there’s only one dialectic for Jorn, the monist. The dualist is merely how it appears to a ruling class that tries to install its own worldview. In Jorn, as in Alexander Bogdanov, worldviews are always extensions of how a class interacts with the world.
Hence for Jorn, capitalism will fall apart because its worldview is unable to grasp the nature of which it is a part. Socialism is a natural way of life. Aesthetic, philosophical and political struggle should aim to restore not a lost unity but an integral process of open, creative and collective play. For Jorn, as for Raymond Williams, aesthetic practice is part of the base, not the superstructure. Art is action, praxis – not representation or ideal. Art is qualitative praxis, and as important and basic as any quantitative one.
For Jorn, contra Adorno, art is not opposed to a scientific materialist worldview. Art has to be on all fours with the science of its time. But to the materialist worldview that is possible in the sciences, art adds a materialist attitude to life. The materialist attitude to life takes qualitative transformation of matter into life as primary. Where science struggles for objectivity, art struggles for subjectivity, but the subjectivity of art is not that of an individual. It is social and collective. Here Jorn anticipates those who, like Lazzarato will later develop affect theory, and those like Erin Manning and Brian Massumi who try to work out its implications for a practice.
Art is experimental social practice. Ruling class art is Apollonian and represents the world as made in its own image. What it fears is the alignment of popular power with the forces of nature in an open-ended process, as the capacity to reinvent form, including social and political forms. Art is playful; play is social. To modify Lautréamont: “poetry should be played by all.” One can see this at work in Jorn’s Modifications paintings, in which he over-paints found canvases by amateur painters, but not entirely. He leaves the good bits. Jorn collaborates and extrapolates from them.
But Jorn was less interested in extracting a metaphysics from natural science than a pataphysics. As a Marxist Jorn follows Engels in reading the natural sciences, but as a modernist he brings a particular reading practice to bear, a pataphysics or science of particular solutions. Here he offers an original position among Marxist thinkers: unlike Lukacs and Adorno he follows Engels into engagement with the sciences; unlike Althusser and Della-Volpe he does not fetishize the scientific worldview, but rather extracts things from it for the materialist attitude to life.
Like JD Bernal, Jorn thought of life as organized movement. Like Isidore Isou, he thought modernism had performed a necessary service in clearing the field of inherited bric-a-brac. Art history often amounts to not much more than a catalog of left-over ideal forms meant to decorate the interiors of this or that vanished ruling class. The modern reduction allows art to begin again as a qualitiative, experimental, playful praxis.
Unlike most modernists, Jorn is in favor of ornament, which is art’s “pact with the universe.” Ornament should extend natural forms but not imitate them. Like Joseph Needham he was interested in how a playful, collective practice might extrapolate new forms from existing ones, just as nature does. Jorn’s art is neither socialist realist nor abstract expressionist – and as such hardly readable in the inherited framework of cold war aesthetics. To understand Jorn, and perhaps to make progress again in aesthetics, means abandoning both forms of idealist reduction. Jorn is however on the case of an aesthetic practice one can find codified in Deleuze and Guattari – that of the diagram.
One can find this elaborated in Jacqueline De Jong’s The Situationist Times, and Jorn’s later collaborative project The Institute for Comparative Vandalism. Jorn sought to overturn the whole privileging of ideal form in western aesthetics, by replacing its classical and renaissance heritage with another, which could be drawn, for instance from ancient Nordic practices of the diagram, eastern calligraphy or Islamic pattern-art. All of these might be forms of naturalism that are not imitation but ornament, development, extrapolation. For Jorn, “art is cult.” It is a love affair with the earth. Class society has replaced an open totality with a closed and imaginary one. As Paul Burkett shows, in our time, this would be the closed world of exchange value. The task of art is to reconnect with popular forces for a new elaboration of the world. After Donna Haraway and Karen Barad, one might now add that this love affair with the earth could be a very queer love indeed.
After CoBrA, after the Imaginist Bauhaus, Jorn saw a way forward in the practices of the Letterist International, perhaps one of the most marginal and inconsequential avant-gardes of the time – at least from the art world’s point of view. A shorthand way of explaining what he saw in them might be to think about the name of the movement they would found together: the Situationist International. It was Sartre who had put the category of situation back into play. In Sartre, the situation was where a free consciousness came up against the inertia of a facticity it could not know about in advance. But in Sartre the situation is given, a stage for an individual encounter. For the situationists, the collaborative and playful labor of the production of situations might yield a renewed consciousness, unknown ambiences and affect, a playful reconstruction of the world.
Thus, the Letterist practices of dérive, potlatch and détournement might point the way forward, to a reinvention of art as collaborative, experimental practice, meant to make new myths, new avatars, a whole way of life. Of course, all of this will be absorbed back into the art world as an archive. As images and concepts to be processed into the making of more of the same. But Jorn wanted more than that. Now that we know that this is the Anthropocene, that things can’t just go on as they are, perhaps we need more than art-world Asger Jorn. We need Jorn the thinker and activist of the materialist attitude to life. Or so I argued in The Beach Beneath the Street.