15 September 2014


Hauser & Wirth in NYC recently launched the exhibition "Rite of Passage: The Early Years of Vienna Actionism, 1960-1966," whichg the gallery has billed as " the first major New York City exhibition" devoted to Hermann Nitsch and his Actionist associates. Thomas Micchelli at Hyperallergic weighs in with one of the earliest reviews of the show:

"Through elaborately staged performances, or 'actions,' ... they strove to break down the defenses, rationalizations and inhibitions of the audience as much as remove the barriers between art and life. It was an art, as Nitsch says in the VICE interview, 'which can be experienced with all five senses, thus being an artistic synthesis.'

"This of course brings to mind Richard Wagner, whose idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total artwork, hovers over the Actionists’ ethos as much as his music is historically linked to the cultural ideals of Nazism. And this is the most unsettling part of the Actionists’ enterprise, in that (as with the example of Wagner, whom Friedrich Nietzsche condemned as 'a disease') the primal forces they sought to unleash could go either way, toward staggering works of art or unheard-of barbarities. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that they go both ways, uncontrollably. [...]

"In the obituary that The New York Times ran for Muehl in May 2013, he is quoted as saying, 'The aesthetics of the dung heap are the moral means against conformism, materialism and stupidity.' That the Actionists used debasement, the same weapon wielded by the Nazis against their racial and political enemies, as a 'moral means' to rid society of 'consumerism, materialism and stupidity' is a paradox that can be endlessly parsed, with equally compelling arguments for and against their tactics."

Which cuts to the core of why I've never been the least bit comfortable with the Actionists, some that lay behind all the unseemliness of blood, shit, viscera and mutilation that characterized their activities activities. As a minor postwar art movement, Actionism shared a common theme with that of other European postwar ("anti-")art movements in that it constituted a rejective "protest" against the excesses of recent Western history -- a reaction to fascism, genocide, the traumas of then-recent Germanic history. the possibility of atomic war, and etc.. As such, it took the form of a type of exorcism, or at least a a self-reckoned purgation by means of theater-of-cruely cathartic extremes.

Problem was, in doing so the Actionists failed to break with, let alone recognize, the nature of the social and cultural pathologies it claimed to address. Case in point: As far as fascism was concerned, it often seems that Actionism was in some degrees carrying the same, albeit in a slightly different key -- what, its appeals to myth, to collective ritual, to sanctioned forms of violence and regressive savagery.*  Bloodletting, primal-therapuetic histrionics, transgressive shocks, yeahyeah. But, all gruesomeness aside, merely that. At the very one could argue that, in the course of responding to one type of excess with its own, it was just all too literally-minded.**

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*  As well as, via its exultations of the 'primordial', and the perpetuation of such as the domain of of a certain type of masculine activity. Where's Klaus Theweleit when we need him?

**  If not a little too Mondo Cane.

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