Foucault’s Parrhesia, Art & Criticism
art IV
14. Juni 2014, Vienna

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Elke Bippus, Professor of Art Theory and Art History, ZHdK University of the Arts, Zurich, Switzerland, and Hamburg, Germany

Sabeth Buchmann, art historian and critic, Professor of Modern and Postmodern Art and Head of the Institute for Art Theory and Cultural Studies, Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, Austria

Nina Glockner, artist, Amsterdam, Netherlands, and Vienna, Austria

Ulrike Möntmann, artist, Amsterdam, Netherlands, and Vienna, Austria

Ruth Sonderegger, Professor of Philosophy and Aesthetic Theory, Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, Austria

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The fourth Accomplices’ Meeting featuring the fields of art theory, art history, and philosophy took as its starting point Ulrike Möntmann’s concept for an art intervention titled Parrhesia in the City as a part of her Outcast Registration. The participants discussed Michel Foucault’s development of the term parrhesia and its possible application to art whereby the current concept of the public was interrogated and various strategies of criticism were explored with regard to the decline of practises of criticism.

 

parrhesia_moentmann

 

 

INTERVENTION  PARRHESIA IN THE CITY

COUNTER – ADVERTISING, COMMUNICATION, AND THE CONCEPT OF “THE PUBLIC”

 

After briefly reviewing various activities in connection with her current research project, Ulrike Möntmann talked about her planned intervention Parrhesia in the City. Referencing Michel Foucault’s elaboration and analysis of parrhesia*, she plans — working together with specialists from communication design and advertising agencies — to put into practice the specific knowledge she has gained from her Outcast Registration in a large-scale poster campaign in public spaces as counter-advertising. Together with women drug addicts, Möntmann will develop the statements and motifs for the backlit posters in the City Lights lightboxes as a new section of the project. The Parrhesia intervention will always take place at the same time as a presentation of the planned book.

 

“Is this the right approach, to make counter-advertisements to regular advertisements?” asked Ruth Sonderegger, and in this context brought up the problems associated with the communication of complex knowledge. She finds it intriguing “to work on maximum publicity with the maximum professionalism”. However, this does contrast rather strangely with Möntmann’s production of differentiated knowledge: “There needs to be options of communicating and presenting knowledge without losing complexity. […] Complexity cannot simply be created and distributed via professional advertising. Expressing complex truths always requires more time than is available when pursuing professional strategies of profit maximisation, and always requires more space than one has at one’s disposal.”

Elke Bippus also voiced scepticism about this intervention as a medium of conveying lasting knowledge: “It is possible to trigger certain emotions and ensure that something is noticed. But what happens then? How does it go beyond the affects, so that the ramifications of what you have done are conveyed?”

 

For Möntmann, putting this concept into practice and its outcome remain very open; however, her basic question in this context concerns specifically the concept of parrhesia in reference to her artistic practice: “Does such a project including all its stages, which the women — me included —went through, fit into the category of parrhesia? Could this be a method in accord with today’s democracy to speak the truth?”

In parrhesia, speaking the truth means that the speakers take responsibility themselves with all its consequences, said Sonderegger, which is the most vital aspect and therefore stands in total contradiction to what an advertising agency in general does: “In your long-term practice with all its problems and difficulties — especially and particularly those connected with communication — I see the life of a parrhesiastes, to which you are committed. You keep going. The question regarding parrhesia is exciting, although for me the question concerning the advertising agency has already been answered: they do not create what you want. The difference to your practice of truth, your life as a parrhesiastes, and what it says on the posters, this difference has to be visible somewhere.”

For Ulrike Möntmann what is intriguing is to interrogate what is possible and impossible within the genre. She sees that it is risky, daring, to launch an offensive and bring this marginal group into the centre of the city in order to reach the general public. After Möntmann’s institutional work in prisons, Parrhesia in the City shifts the focus to communicating art research, albeit this has been present in other aspects of Möntmann’s work (for example, abandoning the Baby Dolls with their biographies in public places or the Expert Meetings). But does this intervention provide sufficient space to encompass the complexity of the project? Illuminated showcases or City Lights posters as sites of exhibition, according to Möntmann, can only present partial aspects of the project, although they do have the potential to initiate a movement that questions the normality that is presented by the media. This movement should then be linked up to the project in its entirety.

 

To Sabeth Buchmann it makes sense, both in terms of structure and context, to take this knowledge back to its origin — the street as a public space. At the same time, though, she questions to what extent in the field of advertising, as a “form of social consensus production it is still possible to visualise differences. Whereas in the 1980s and 1990s, during the Act Up movement billboards were used to draw attention to issues that had no political representation and to initiate forms of participation and the formation of collectives; that is, “to get people to take to the streets, literally”, the question arises whether this strategy could still have any effect today given the contemporary notion of public and publicity. In this connection it is necessary to analyse current understanding of these terms: the public sphere exists these days merely peripherally in the “consumer zones of inner cities”, and functions to a significant extent via a “media network” (Internet, social media, etc.).

 

Elke Bippus had no doubt that it would be possible to create an impact using the affective power that advertising utilises, but what needs to happen then “so that people are not left alone after being jolted, but are used to create publicity? The public sphere is where dissension exists, but if there is dissension then it needs to be discussed.” It is important not to lose sight of the roles of the actors in the project, said Sabeth Buchmann, for if an important purpose of the intervention is to bring about a change in a specific image or perception, this is precisely where there is a conflict: “Where does the public debate take place, when these pictures unleash their provocation?”

Ruth Sonderegger questioned in general the efficacy of media representations (illuminated showcases) of the actors given the overkill of images in the public sphere, regardless of how professional the presentation is: “A beggar, a homeless person sitting in front of St. Stephen’s Cathedral has far more weight than any poster.”

 

She mentioned as an example Axel Stockburger’s intervention Quantitative Easing (for the street) (2014) in Vienna’s inner city. At the Kunstplatz (Graben) near St. Stephen’s Cathedral Stockburger installed a golden cylinder that spat out a Euro coin at regular intervals, for which almost the entire budget of the project funded by KÖR (Public ArtVienna) was used. During the opening and afterwards a diverse audience gathered consisting partly of people who were definitely not welcome at this city venue: homeless people and drug addicts. The temporary installation succeeded in effecting a shift in the composition of a specific social group in a specific public place. “The point is you can write whatever you want, you can hang up posters depicting poverty. But the people who are actually wretched and poor, they are not supposed to be there at all.”

 

FOUCAULT’S PARRHESIA

 

To reinforce the starting point of her intervention concept Ulrike Möntmann asked to what extent art can have parrhesiastic traits, thus turning the discussion again to Foucault’s parrhesia. Ruth Sonderegger summarised the three forms of parrhesia according to Foucault.

 

  1. Parrhesia and Democracy/Politics

This form emerged with the development of democracy in Ancient Greece. Foucault describes it in the form of a square (see also Mind Map by Möntmann) and highlights the problems of democracy. “He does not embrace all forms of democracy but says that democracy, which accords everyone the same rights, is always on the threshold of watering down everything, and for me he thus discusses all the problems of populism”. Unlike Rancière’s definition of democracy as a radically democratic system whereby the people always speak from a subordinate position, democracy according to Foucault implies both populism and the possibility of speaking truth.

 

  1. Ethics and Parrhesia, the Parrhesia of Personal Relations

Ethical parrhesia exists within small circles of friends, and in relationships between two people; it becomes increasing the model for political consultation.

 

  1. The Cynics and Parrhesia

The parrhesia of the Cynics was not manifested by what they said but by what they did, their way of life, publicly affirming certain things, also in a radical way (e.g., Diogenes who masturbated in the marketplace). The Cynics favoured spectacular actions in front of a large crowd as well as the politicisation of physical exercises. Interestingly, the Cynics also included women and slaves among their number.

 

In Foucault’s discussion of the history and meaning of parrhesia it becomes clear that he favours Cynical parrhesia. In it he sees a possibility of opening it up into “an alternative model to democratic parrhesia that is not so strongly standardised.” Sonderegger added that Foucault apparently intended to re-write the history of European thought systems in the light of Cynicism. In his view, Cynicism can be detected in various periods; “In medieval heretical movements, in the run-up to the French Revolution, and after it in the nineteenth century where it was partially absorbed by avant-garde art — also as a reaction to the failure of the French Revolution, the baton was passed to art.”

With Cynicism Foucault continued his aesthetics of existence, as “an attempt to politicise aesthetics of existence and to go beyond the aesthetics of (private) friendships. To explore to what extent it is economic factors that restrict us, and how far it is conventions. The issue is to find out collectively what makes the good life, a life in freedom impossible. Asceticism was practised, and a life of poverty, entirely voluntarily. What I find fascinating about this life of trying things out is that there is constant vigilance to remain flexible. How does one do this? Including in debates with others? How does one remain in a state of trying out instead of elevating asceticism to a new dogma?”

 

THE DECLINE OF PRACTICAL CRITICISM

 

Buchmann underlined the political importance of Sonderegger’s work on parrhesia in view of the declining number of critical positions in art, science, and the humanities under conditions characterised by “collaboration imperatives and network imperatives”.

 

Although criticism as a theme is ubiquitous, said Sonderegger, as a practice it is disappearing. Buchmann added: “It is the meta-criticism of criticism which pretends to be mega-critical and in the process of clearing away the critical tradition, while at the same time it completely restricts practical criticism’s room for manoeuvre.” She attributed the possible influence of object-oriented discourses to the lack of artistic responsibility, “that the form, so to speak, which was a legitimate approach to criticise authorship in the sense of critiquing humanism, in the guise of object-oriented discourses around Latour and others has led to the circumstance that responsibility on an artistic level, in its involvement with political areas that had always been taken into consideration, can now be pushed aside. Thus, artists are now in the position that when they take sides, take up a political position, they make themselves suspect. Or suspiciously ideological.”

In this connection the increasing evaluation culture and the growing demand for (interdisciplinary) networking in artistic and scholarly practice were discussed as contributory causes for the decline in taking up a critical position. The continual evaluation mode, in which one acts both as evaluator and evaluated, exacerbates frictions, thinking in terms of competitors, and encourages wary and cautious behaviour so that one hardly ever says what one thinks.

 

Elke Bippus said she has noticed that “in art, criticism has now become a subject and a theme. One does not operate critically and reflect on one’s position within a given field; instead, one criticises and often uses the modes of irony and parody. Thus criticism is treated as a subject that one speaks and thinks about and less as something that one practises.”

Buchmann views this as a potential strategy of self-legitimation that is often accompanied by the “unpleasant” urge to deal out criticism from a lofty, elevated position. Sonderegger said that in this respect she agrees with Peggy Piesche who said that often the goal of this strategy is the formation of a “critics’ elite”. And behind the problematic of “problem zones art” that lacks any longer term engagement, Buchmann detects a far-reaching “logic of commercialisation”. Artists take on roles that are “part of problem-solving strategies. That is also a perfect legitimation.” Even if they are far removed from denigrating critical practice, there is much potential for them “in redefining the concept of criticism differently. But also — and I find this very important — to exhibit what is a risk for oneself at the same time.”

 

STRATEGIES OF CRITICISM

 

From the concept of criticism in the arts and humanities discussion turned to Sonderegger’s text “Vom Wahrmachen der Gleichheit” (Making equality a reality) and the significance of various strategies in philosophy and activism, especially the position of Jacques Rancière:

“If disagreement can be turned into a dispute and thus rendered political, all sides in the altercation change. At one with the demanded conditions or objects, those demanding equality are also allocated a place in the sensual realm of what can be argued over or discussed, and the representatives of the hitherto valid ‘distribution of the sensible’, who were oblivious to the unequal treatment of the other side must learn to see their habitual forms of perception as those of fundamentally unequal treatment.”**

With this quotation Elke Bippus related the concern of Möntmann’s project to Rancière’s demand for a “re-distribution of the sensible”, which Sonderegger then explained briefly: Rancière assumes that “in every society there exists a consensus about a basic distribution. What is an action, what counts as an action, what does one see, and what does one not see. This concerns perception, what is conceivable, and what can be manifested as an action. We can’t think certain things, certain things we don’t see, certain actions are not actions for us. Rancière thinks that there is always a distribution of what is inside and what outside. There is consensus about this. And this consensus, one could call it a norm, only takes place during speaking or in what has been said. Movements and perceptions are also normative. He refers to the given consensus as ‘the distribution of the sensible’. Thus for Rancière it is about politics being there where the consensus is made an issue or is contentious.”

 

Based on Sonderegger’s text Bippus directed the discussion towards a possible comparison between Rancière’s position, not wanting to speak for others but letting them write for themselves and thus making them “visible as writers”, as well as Chakravorty Spivak’s, who seeks to create a certain field and certain conditions as political act so that others “will become, writing. That it will be possible that they practise, produce, and speak themselves.” With this comparison the discussion led to interrogation of the characteristics of effective criticism, whereby to begin with Sonderegger outlined the following classification of strategies regarding the problematic:

The first strategy, Sonderegger said, is analysing and documenting as proposed by the French sociologist and social philosopher Pierre Bourdieu, who identifies the origins of certain social evils, that is, the reasons why persons affected cannot always act themselves. This is an important strategy; however, it carries the danger of becoming “new intellectual sociological capital”.

The second one is philosopher Jacques Rancière’s strategy of publication: He seeks out the sparse emancipatory moments, for example, when people who one thinks can’t write actually can. He celebrates these few moments which he then publishes and ascribes great importance to.

The third strategy Sonderegger described is that of the philosopher and literary scholar Chakravorty Spivak: “on the one hand she attempts to raise acts that are actually imperceptible to us to our perception using case studies. However, the consequence is, according to Spivak, that she has to change the contexts in such a way that the subalterns are no longer subalterns. In this respect she has an activistic and practical component. And this means, of course, that she leaves the intellectual field.”

 

Buchmann then gave her opinion that the unity of theory and practice is not a decisive criterion for effective criticism, and advanced the following as an argument: “What goes so far in a theoretical discourse that politics can be conceivable?” She also said that both Rancière and Spivak described the political field within their own disciplines.

 

Sonderegger said that besides a certain “heroism of exceptional cases”, in Rancière’s early work as an editor and his work in archives (e.g., Proletarian Nights) she definitely sees “a practice”, an activism. However, compared to the radicalism of his early activistic critique and production of knowledge, in her opinion his work of the last ten to fifteen years is less “audacious and explicit”. She would welcome it if he would apply the radical practice of his critique to his activities within the sphere of art.

Buchmann countered by citing an example of Rancière’s current practice: his radical critique of curator Nicolas Bourriaud and the “self-appointed left-wing culture scene” in France. For Buchman this is surely “criticism of institutions in the very best sense. Moreover, Rancière does not heroise individual “highly productive artist figures”, but is one of the few well-known philosophers to engage seriously with contemporary art and what is going on in it, who has extensive knowledge of the field of art, and who develops criteria that facilitate and enable criticism.

 

Sonderegger said that she respects Rancière’s participation in the field of art and that he is a serious art critic, but he neglects to engage with the question of how he could reflect on or change art criticism so that it would be possible to get beyond the field-immanent “experts’ discourse”.

But Rancière, said Buchmann, gets involved “with other greater conflicts” unlike many other practitioners from the field of theory and activism. These tended to “pump critique into institutions that is expected and demanded of the art world but which is frequently totally ignorant about artistic practice. This activism triggers fantasies doability that disregard entirely the reality within the arts yet suggests that artistic practices are political when they are combined with forms of activism. This is naturally welcomed by the art institutions which have an interest in live actions. I rarely see any kind of criticism in this or only criticism of a subservient type that can be used “for free” because ultimately, it does not affect the institution itself at all; rather, it gives it the nimbus of being critical.”

 

Although Sonderegger agrees with Rancière’s criticism of Bourriaud and appreciates his commitment to the sphere of art, she suspects Rancière of harbouring the “philosopher’s wish” of “contributing to crafting a concept of aesthetic experience or the artwork” that is as general as possible. In her view, Rancière confines himself to art shown in exhibitions and does not engage with phenomena such as micropolitics or other aesthetic practices where the question of whether something is art or not is secondary, and which problematise the shifts away from traditional art venues within the framework of the criticism of institutions.

 

Buchmann cited an example of the immanent negation of differentiating between art and non-art in the arts: at the Documenta 2012, curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev ignored the institution’s real power over definitions and thus prevented any questioning of the institution itself. By contrast, Rancière succeeds in “establishing criteria for politicisation of what can be said and what is visible within this framework”.

Bippus then enquired how Rancière deals with complexity. Although he “sets up a concept of art, that is, he develops certain criteria and descriptions of art”, it is nonetheless questionable to what extent he engages with the effects of his philosophy; “with his very general conception of aesthetic experience he also produces a normative concept of art and divides it into what is called art and what is called actionism.”

Buchmann sees self-reflection as given in Rancière’s differentiation between the “public and private platforms”, when he distinguishes between “within which framework something is depicted or represented and is tied to the form of the work”.

In Sonderegger’s opinion this self-reflection is not sufficient, not concrete enough: “This kind of self-interrogation or even self-deconstruction, and thus the interrogation of his own situation, takes place extensively in his early work in connection with standards of scholarship.” As an anti-pedagogue in the context of knowledge and education she said that Rancière achieved a considerable impact with the tools available to him, which could be applied to the art context.

 

As a Rancièresque perspective on art education Sonderegger paraphrased Linda Nochlin’s answer to the question What is great art for feminists?: “Great art means to produce contexts — as an artist, as a teacher — in which people have the courage to review their practices critically, and become great artists. To ensure that people who possess a certain courage, a certain reflexivity, can become great artists — this is feminist teacher activism.”***

Buchmann was in agreement with this and saw a real possibility of connecting Nochlin’s statement with Rancière’s position, “even if he doesn’t do this himself”.

 

ART AS THE PRODUCTION OF DISSENSION

 

“A problematization is always a kind of creation; but a creation in the sense that, given a certain situation, you cannot infer that this kind of problematization will follow. Given a certain problematization, you can only understand why this kind of answer appears as a reply to some concrete and specific aspect of the world. There is the relation of thought and reality in the process of problematization. And that is the reason why I think that it is possible to give an answer — the original, specific, and singular answer of thought — to a certain situation. And it is this kind of specific relation between truth and reality which I tried to analyze in the various problematizations of parrhesia.”****

 

Ulrike Möntmann gave this quotation of Michel Foucault’s at the end of the discussion illustrating the connection with her own work and art in general: what are the conditions for acting or problematising? “Basically, you create a problem in art that did not exist there before, and you work your way into the problem and then you work your way out again.”

Buchmann pointed out that this description is not specific to art, but can also apply to problems in the humanities and science. Ruth Sonderegger said that Möntmann’s statement is “a brilliant formulation of what Rancière means by making dissension visible. Where nobody sees a problem, where only consensus prevails, to say: Hey, that is a problem. And then to work toward others also recognising the problem, which is incredibly difficult in most cases. I think that there is something like the social production of dissension. That is why it is not surprising that one can work on it, one can work on it artistically; that the problematisation of the production of dissension can be done in an artistic way — as well as in the production of knowledge, perhaps also in political activism — in very different forms. This dissension is there, yet it is mostly not seen or heard. To make it public would be to process dissension so that it becomes a stumbling block.”

For Sabeth Buchmann, processing dissension is a possible criterion for when “it is about art that seeks to be effective politically or to intervene in a political field”, but it is not a valid characteristic of artistic practices per se: “It is unfortunately a characteristic of political art today that is tasked with providing problem solving strategies. And as the art critic Patrizia Grzonka from Vienna expresses it that artists are sent to the world’s crisis hotspots like “universal soldiers”: short-term projects, no structures, no problems, just get everyone round the table. This can be a gesture of good will, but it can also be a harmonisation strategy, which rather tends towards homogenising and pacifying the concept of art. The production of dissension as discussed must operate in a completely different way. Tendentially, this is not so. However, I do believe that there are many practices in which one can find points of connection. And especially where “political” is used as a label: as the artist Stefanie Seibold has said, “One must see feminism not as a label, but as an open, polemical field. Nothing will be gained by merely invoking the concept.”

 

 

Transcription and Text: Nina Glockner

Translation: Gloria Custance & Isaac Custance

 


 

* “…parrhesia is a kind of verbal activity where the speaker has a specific relation to truth through frankness, a certain relationship to his own life through danger, a certain type of relation to himself or other people through criticism (self-criticism or criticism of other people), and a specific relation to moral law through freedom and duty. More precisely, parrhesia is a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself). In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy.”

Michel Foucault, The Meaning and Evolution of the Word Parrhesia. In: Discourse and Truth: the Problematization of Parrhesia, edited by Joseph Pearson. Digital Archive: Foucault.info, 1999; online: http://foucault.info/doc/documents/parrhesia/foucault-dt1-wordparrhesia-en-html

**Ruth Sonderegger: Vom Wahrmachen der Gleichheit, Phänomenologie no. 38, 2012, Vienna.

***Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, essay by Linda Nochlin, ARTnews, January 1971

****Michel Foucault, Concluding Remarks to the Seminar. In: Discourse and Truth: The Problematization of Parrhesia, edited by Joseph Pearson. Digital Archive: Foucault.info, 1999; online: http://foucault.info/doc/documents/parrhesia/foucault-dt6-conclusion-en-html