Sunday, February 04, 2007


Asger JORN, 1963 (portrait photographique d'Erling MANDELMANN)

Risk and Chance. Dagger and Guitar

Asger Jorn

The Sublime or the Informal
Foreword 1963


I can see today that this world of mine had disintegrated and that I had to put up with the wreckage. Risk and Chance is the doctrine of the relationship between ship and wreck.

To put up with illness may be the worst thing you can offer anybody in the North, where health is the great and, I dare say sick, dream today, without meaning anything disparaging thereby. It is a thing of the past. I discovered that the unsuccessful in certain cases has greater artistic value than the successful. It all depends on what is unsuccessful and what is successful; how much was put in and how much after all was done. But it has taken me ten years before I dared to publish this little book. Taking into consideration my own reactions, one will understand that I myself had to doubt whether I had the right to put forward my conclusions to people who had not been through the events that could make them ready to understand, and I would not ask it of anybody to have experienced the uttermost. I am publishing this book now because I think that the dominant threat of death with which modern politics today tyrannize the world is a sickness itself, one we all suffer from and which governs our thinking from morning to night. If the authorities can inflict such a sickness on mankind, then one may also take the liberty of publicly explaining how sick people deal with sickness, for then this is a form of health. Today, when one introduces literature and art into schools and kindergartens, regardless of whether insight into them requires the utmost maturity - I have indulged in the practice myself - then there are no longer stages of initiation. This is a fact we must all reckon with.

It was my intention to find out what is meant by the concept we call aesthetics, as I could not bring myself to accept the identification of what we call aesthetic and what we call beautiful. Much less could I fill out the concept aesthetics with the concept form. There must, therefore, exist a third something, something essentially different from the formal and the beautiful that must be the extreme form of aesthetics, something that to a far greater extent resembles the ugly and hazardous than the beautiful and harmonious. If I was able to get this extreme element into the frame formed by aesthetics, it was because I returned to the original definition of the aesthetic as propounded by Baumgarten, namely sensory effect.

Initially, I thought that this field was quite new and untilled; that it was entirely new and virgin territory. In the past years I have learnt that I am not the first to have roamed in these areas. They have been given different names. Yet it seems to me that they are reminiscent of the information given about Vinland. They are not organically linked to the point of origin. This link seems to be establishable if we collate information from different explorers.

The first time I suspected that I somehow had a distorted image of the matter was on reading the characterization of me by the art historian Werner Haftmann as a "nocturnal" person, which I took to mean a "dark" painter; something that shocked me enormously, because my craving for the light perhaps is my most conscious urge. But do the "light" people of the south seek the dark ? Is it because they are "light" that their longing gives them a dark exterior; and are the people of the north "dark", who look "light" because of our longing for light, like the potato sprouts in a cellar that long to be green? The idea was alien to me; but then it struck me that there was a nocturnal aesthetic in Kant, and when I came to this I suddenly discovered what this book is about. It is about the sublime, the longing for the lofty; and now I understood as well why I have pondered so much to find out what is meant by the sublime; what it means to lift oneself up.

The sentence by Kant that had taken hold of me is this: "The night is sublime; day is beautiful". It is remarkable to see Kant propound an antithesis between two aesthetic categories, in this dialectical way, as night and day. He also says: "The sublime moves; the beautiful entrances. The sublime must always be great. The beautiful can also be small. The sublime may be simple; the beautiful can be polished and embellished. A great height is just as sublime as a great depth."


Asger Jorn, Paris, 1963



Objective Subjectivity

Objective science is the doctrine of how matter thinks, of the spirit of matter. Subjective science can be called the doctrine of how matter feels, of the interests or soul of matter; its enthusiasm or eros, its body-forming principle. This doctrine of the objective subjectivity of material, which makes the bodily identical with the spiritual and thus sees the spiritual as a physical phenomenon, is in fact natural and easily understandable if one opens one's eyes to what an object or body is. We can buy the materials that are in a human body at the chemist's; but we cannot combine them to form a human body; and this continues to exist even though the materials of which it is formed are renewed. One is the same even though one is different. We can form a lump of clay into a vase; and a sudden movement will turn it back into a lump of clay. We can lay out a railway track, and continue to renew all the material. Even though the materials are quite new, the track will remain the same; the same scheme, the same continuity.



The Uncritical Craving for Experience

Experience is the best teacher.

Create, artist, don't talk, it has been said; and even though it is necessary at times to open one's mouth in order to correct certain misunderstandings, there is a point in that, if only one could get the artist, and for that matter the viewer, to stop listening to what people who have no understanding of it say about art.

The one who will not hear must feel, it is also said; and the fact that aesthetics precisely is feeling explains why the rather primary fact that the aesthetic person will not be content with second-hand experiences but wants to learn for himself the hard lesson of facts. It is the task of aesthetics to confront people unceasingly with themselves and their own experiences; get them to feel for themselves and believe more in their own feelings and sensations rather than in the words of others. This doubting Thomas approach is neither an expression of disbelief or of scepticism, but on the contrary of an uncritical craving for experience that will realize the idea, the imagination and the word in the sensation. When the aesthetic person reads a sign saying Ice Unsafe, he sees it as a challenge not only to test whether the sign is speaking the truth but to try what unsafe ice feels like. This is the prerequisite of aesthetics, development and progress: to get out on thin ice.


Asger JORN, Comme si les cygnes chantent, 1963

Animal Play

It will be very hard indeed to find a higher animal that does not play and joke in a way incomprehensible to us. Notice the monkeys at the zoo, or domestic animals - dogs, cats, horses, pigs, goats, cattle - how they enjoy fun and games. This playing cannot be seen as a training or preparation for the struggle for existence. It involves something that in itself has the effect of life; indeed, perhaps its most intense and inspiring nature, renewal. Can we call this aesthetic ?

Homo ludens

Addendum 1963

Men have wondered how man learnt to walk on two legs and have tried to give to the phenomenon a practical explanation. Far more sensible is the assertion that the first real anthropoid apes were "singing" apes; having developed jaws allowed good room for the tongue. Singing encourages dancing, and this entertaining occupation separated man from animals and gradually trained dancing and singing apes to move lithely on their hind legs. This is the story of the genesis of homo ludens.

It is said that man wants to be fooled. This is a lie. Man wants to play. Play with or be played with or play for. The opposition between play and seriousness is false. Play seems to be the only thing taken really seriously. This is denied because one can thereby play unobstructed with people without their knowing it.

Huizinga has said something about this in his book Homo Ludens, which unfortunately I did not know when I wrote this book.



The Aesthetics of Banality

Anybody who sets up parrot-like coloured pictures against one another without fusing them, and compares the fine with the coarse, the hum rum with the sublime may come to be remembered, but laughed at into the bargain.

Georg Brandes

This activity aimed at keeping the old young and tradition fresh is often forgotten when the talk is of renewal, although it is the prerequisite of real renewal. On the other hand, it is also regarded by many as the one thing needful. They think they can keep on going round in a closed interest group.

Aesthetic criticism or exclusive doctrine works like a tree with dead wood in the middle and life in the bark only, in extreme elitism; and then the cry is for "critics who have so much spiritual ballast that they can recapture and regenerate the old expressions," as Kierkegaard says. Instead of simply keeping one's natural simplicity and simple-mindedness, one's ability to sense the intimacy of banality in life. Apart from this, these invoked critics may only destroy, never refresh, that which is destroyed by the exclusive, conventionally limited aesthetic. Only the artist who experiences it freshly, the broadly popular artist, can do this; and when the point has been reached where one has to look for it, one thinks that one grasps backward, instead of understanding that one grasps right in the middle.



I'm Only an Image with Feet of Clay


In Paris about fifty years ago, Strindberg found his inferno when he tried to prove the homogeneity of matter, convinced that the elements were not, as asserted then by scientists, incompatible and indivisible terminals, but that matter is a cohesive and fluid unit, a subject, and that all existing things, deepest seen, know and comprehend one another, are one another, indeed are one and the same in different forms of being. Every scientist now is forced to admit that he was right, though that is of no pleasure to him.

We accept Strindberg's conception today, and yet we advance the contrary postulate: that there is in matter a tendency to exclusivity, exclusion, ignorance and non-understanding, to delimitation, to disintegration, to haziness; and that this disintegrating process has to be present in order to serve unity; because, indeed, the tower could not in its time be completed because people were too well known to one another, all doing the same things and all saying the same things. So they separated, in order to learn individually for themselves what the others could not do and pronounce words the others could not say or understand. And when they turned to look at one another again and got to know one another, then they were able to build the tower of Babel.

We are not interested either in gold or in making gold. Consequently, we will not make an inferno for ourselves by taking to alchemy or endeavouring to prove our postulates scientifically. All we will do is display ourselves, try to open up new perspectives; for nobody can expect leaves and branches to have the same form when they spring up as the full-grown plant or tree will have. That is against the shoot's nature. Art is for us more material than science; and if our work is capable of opening up new perspectives for artistic activity and understanding, let that be a proof of the depth of renewal, though they make hell hot for us. We ourselves could not envisage making it unnecessary.



The Perfect Crime

Bring these gods to the uttermost judgement. They lead our steps to the verge of crime. They let us commit it and do not forgive it.


An act that breaks the law is called a crime. All drama is crime; and the perfect crime, the absolute drama, must be tragedy, where not only the hero and the villain, but also the actors and the audience as well as the theatre disappear in annihilation, the absolute destruction, where there is neither victim, criminal, witness nor evidence left. But it is exactly the nature of drama that it can never be absolute; for then it is nothing. Somebody must live. The tragic is therefore what one believes to be lawful, but which turns out to be a crime; or, vice versa, one believes to be a crime, and which is treated as such, but which afterwards turns out to he lawful, what one believes to be rational but which shows itself to be an absurdity, and what one condemns as meaninglessly sick and absurd but too late shows itself to be reasonable, healthy and natural. Suicide and judicial murder are the two extremes of tragedy. This, then, is the artistic extremity of aesthetics: to produce drama, conflict, war and destruction.

The Anglo-American painter Whistler aptly called aesthetic art the noble art of making enemies. Thus to create aesthetic art is to sow enmity, strife and rivalry, to create differential effects. It is a lie to say that need makes the weak vile and the strong sublime. The strong man is only the most vile, his aggression being so great that he overcomes resistance. The vile man is only the one who dies vile. If a man rips open another man's stomach just for the sake of it, he is a criminal. The same act by a surgeon, who thus saves a patient's life, is a sound and sublime destruction. The soldier who rips open an enemy's stomach is a hero.



Animation, Animism and Religion

In the end we should so dominate our lives that we might say: there are no longer works of art, but art only. For art is then the way of life.

Herbert Read

It is our excess of interest that turns external phenomena into mysteries and secrets. The day we interest ourselves in nothing but the fact that we exist there will be no more problems and unsolved riddles. Some people try to promote this completion by stopping renewal; but everything must nevertheless arrive at its natural completion. Nobody knows where it is inquisitiveness and thirst for knowledge seem to stop only at the frontiers of the universe, the absolute non-existence. Man wants to know all and be all. Will this will to omnipotence, which has already driven us so far, make us eventually end up in the ditch; or will it come to a stop in an endless nightmare; or will we one day rule the universe? Nobody can answer the question; and everybody takes his stand.

We have here come to the question of the position of aesthetics in the religious problem. We have defined art as the life form and aesthetic art as the life renewal: the stimulating, animating, agitating, inspiring, inspirational, fermenting, fascinating, fanaticizing, explosive and outrageous: the renewal or the unknown. Nobody who knows anything about the religious problem can be in any doubt that the factors we have been discussing are the same that make up the elementary themes of the religious problem, though we have discussed them from another angle.



The Process of Sensation

It is said that you have to learn to do as you are told before you can learn to tell others to do as they are told. In nature it is the exact opposite. Only by learning to govern can it learn to serve. The organism that at a given point can impart the most diverse and complex interests will, superficially, govern it, or will govern the surface of the matter and will be the sensational or aesthetic element in the scheme of things, as it can, without effective opposition, puff itself up into something quite improbably important. A process of fermentation will create a multiplicity of surfaces to the matter, and through this process the clarified type will evolve. From being a governing and meaningless factor it will be transformed into a new scheme of things. It will be the transformation of infatuation into love. We know this process of sensitization and fermentation from the sensation-seeking and modernism of cultural life. But we forget that this stage, where a phenomenon, whether scientific as in Darwinism or psychoanalysis, or practical as in new medicaments or technical advances, or singing, dancing, etc., becomes a pastime or an obsession, absorbing everybody and nobody and bursting out in a cloud of bubbling drivel and rubbish, fantasy and excitement, especially in a democracy, is a touchstone of the value of a phenomenon, what is left when the sensation collapses and is forgotten being what we call culture. Its nature is conditioned by the nature of the sensation. A cultural development will therefore be known by what it finds sensational. It is not a question of lying, but of what is being lied about. The business of aesthetics is to create rebellion.



The Aesthetic Sociology of European High Culture

For the rose's sake we also water the thorns.

Arab proverb

The birds of the air have nests and the beasts of the field have dens, and both ants and bees have immensely complex communities; and all this is natural property. Altogether, it is incredible what can be found in the way of parallels to man's technology in the world of nature; but all this wide-ranging problem of the work of art and artistic technique will have to be left. We shall confine ourselves in this work to discussing the aesthetics of the life form itself, and even this in highly summarized form.

There is talk of the social body, and rightly so, for human society is truly a living organism, an ego, although a split and divided ego; and can with full justification be regarded as such a unit or interest group - a subject.

Excerpts from Risk and Change. Dagger and Guitar. The 3rd publication from Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism. The book was a re-issue of Jorn's 1952 theory of aesthetics as reactions to the unknown, now furnished with a long new foreword reconciling it with the new ideas. Compiled from material as early as 1946, as the 1952 edition but with the new foreword and minor additions dated 1963. Taken from Asger Jorn - Animator of Oil Painting (ed. Erik Steffensen), Edition Bløndal, 1995


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