by Asmund Havsteen-Mikkelsen
‘A being is special if it coincides with its own becoming visible, with its own revelation.’
What does it mean to be a contemporary artist today and can we describe this mode of existence? First of all, we must situate the contemporary artist within the space of the generalised human existence. Artists are just like all other humans: they have a body, are social and temporal and in search of ecstasies in whatever form. At some point in their lives they enter into the art world with a mature body, committing themselves to some kind of artistic output generated by the act of social positioning. This entering is a fundamental gesture towards life; it is a choice that becomes absolute, because it transforms a human body into something specific: that of an artist in a social world. From this first decision comes a specific existential power: the power to place a whatever within the art context. This power is not automatically given once and for all, and it does not happen with the same intensity for all artists at the same time. For example, the budget to produce art for a Tate Modern Unilever project is only given to artists who have already established themselves, and never given to an artist who is still a student. Both are contemporary artists, but with a different power to exist, and situated differently. To exist in the art world as a contemporary artist is not the same experience for all its agents.
In order to understand the subtleties of being an artistic agent, a person who does something within a social field, in this case the art world, we must develop a hyper-reflection regarding the artistic existence. We must on the one hand grasp the condition of being situated within the metaphysical knot – own, given and final being – yet on the other hand understand the institutional transformation of the artist into someone specific: a generic singularity. Generic singularity as a concept points towards the double-sided aspect of being a human agent incarnating generic categories and yet being an absolute singularity. It is a being who becomes special by coinciding with his own becoming visible in a social world (Agamben). For example, my generic properties are those that I share with a number of other people depending on which context I inhabit, such as being male, white, Western, educated, middle-aged, father, brother, son, neighbour, consumer, artist, but my singularity in the art world derives from my specific power to exist as a human: a contemporary artist who has become known for a specific output. Only one person is incarnated into my flesh with my name right now. I am the one who in specific contexts (the art world) stands out from the crowd as that person known for this or that and who has the right to choose whatever to become works of art. The power I have to exist is partly derived from the generic institutional qualifications I have acquired and the exhibitions and works I have done as the total sum of competences I have accumulated over the years, for example, the papers and documents from certified institutions stating I have an MFA degree in Art or an MA degree in literature. These titles are generic in nature – thousands of other people also have these degrees – but I am the one with this specific outlook because of the artworks and projects I have made. I am at once generic, qualified through institutions, and a singularity. Thus the singularity I have achieved as a living artist today takes place against a background of generic categories: I am categorised as a contemporary painter educated at the Royal Danish Art Academy who has exhibited in art institutions of various formats. The category ‘a contemporary painter’ is generic, meaning it represents an abstract field of possibility where nothing about the actual content or formal output is said. It means that I mainly work as a painter and my work has a contemporary outlook – a description that I share with thousands of other contemporary painters. But, following the argument of this book, I would also say that being a contemporary painter means I am aware of possibilities other than painting. I have experimented with video, installation, photography, sculpture, performance and interventions. I am aware of all these possibilities within each medium or way of engaging with space, and if the right idea or appropriate context is there, I do these non-painterly activities.134 I don’t have to paint, but I paint because I want to. For me, there are still many ideas in painting and ways of creating spaces of reflection to be explored.
So, to the art world I am first and foremost a contemporary painter, but to my three children I am their father, and to my neighbours I am the man next door. To the local café I am the good customer, to the guy in the video rental shop I am the one who watches TV series, but to the clerk at the embassy I am a Dane, to the woman in the local municipality office I am a citizen with social rights and obligations, to the vendor on the main square in Marrakesh trying to sell me a wooden snake I am just another Western tourist whom he will overcharge, to a dog barking at me I am simply an unknown human. Depending on my context, I slip into different generic categories that construct operative spaces within and around me. There is no escape from the maze of categories, but I can act and behave differently according to each situation. Throughout all these encounters three transversals remain the same: that I exist in my body, and that I am present to a social situation in time. The transcendental foundation of my human existence is the intertwining of three essential dimensions of being: own, given and final being. The body, the social and time are all co-present in my life right now and in all situations I have ever experienced. Yet the number of categories, their inherent intensity and power over my existence is not the same, because the components feeding into the three dimensions change throughout life. As my listing of different generic categories reveals, the way I engage with the situations is not a given. I am granted the possibility of reflecting upon my relation to these three dimensions, which gives contemporary life an element of chance, indeterminacy and vitality.
I have become something specific in an art world, because I have pushed myself in a certain direction. I have decided to become an artist and insisted on this existential form for more than fifteen years. My power to receive but also produce the world is derived from this initial gesture towards my life. I am a contemporary artist as a specific instantiation of a generic singularity existing alongside a huge number of other generic singularities. My artistic output is being tracked, recounted and is public in a new way due to the internet and my personal website. A totality of works and projects and writings is accumulating, generating a direction, a sense of where I am heading and which interests I have been pursuing. Yet, at any moment I might make a radical ‘jump’ almost as in quantum physics, where electrons leap between energy levels in an atom. From one day to the next I can make a fresh start, place myself differently in the way I make art if I really want to. I can re-invent myself and this is often the case for artists who stay in the game a whole life: they keep on moving. I have so many possibilities of becoming inspired by either historical or living artists and through my positioning and the absorption of concepts into my own existence. I can always become a displacement to myself and to the history of contemporary art. This is the radical freedom of art that derives from the radical contingency of art: that everything and anything is (still) possible.
As a conceptual person the generic singularity has certain traits or components feeding into the specific empirical situation. Each generic singularity within the field of contemporary art represents a development of an artist-being, of a way of living a life as an artist: being visually talented, with an ability to execute projects and meet deadlines; being conscious of one’s public appearance; having the will to keep going and overcome defeat and rejection; being conscious of the art world as a social system with internal differentiations; living a bohemian lifestyle; being part of an educational environment, either as student or teacher; developing an artistic project while pursuing a specific interest. There is a fundamental self-care in the way artists manage and develop specific relations to all these aspects of life, because a generic singularity develops an ethos for life that contains an element of honour but also risk. The honour manifests itself whenever I am invited to do something, when I am praised for my artwork, when I am included in a prestigious collection, when I am associated with other established artists or when I am critically assessed in a written text or speech. The risk I am running is the possibility of poverty and precariousness. I have no fixed income, my work is not paid for by the hour, I might not receive recognition for it in my own lifetime (or never at all) and be considered a failure in the eyes of others or more successful artists.
These aspects constituting the space of the generic singularity as a mode of existence have developed over a long period of time and might have a historical origin. For example, there are many contemporary artists who live a bohemian lifestyle, yet this way of living was not invented by the contemporary artist. I might be inspired by art movements from the 1960s or an artist from the 1980s: within me there are many sources of inspiration. I, just being the bricolage of these sources, never a pure repetition. This is the verticality of my existence: that I can go back in history, find sources of inspiration, which I translate, superimpose into and upon the present. This constant refolding of the past into the present is what aligns the latter with a sense of raw energy: we never know when the past will suddenly reappear in the present in a different disguise, coming back like a ghost with a forgotten message.
My being as a generic singularity is an acquired existence in the sense that I have struggled and fought for it to be. I chose to become an artist, and I applied out of my own free will to an art academy, which accepted me as a student. Thus, behind the appearance of any kind of generic singularity an act of will reigns. It is a fundamental gesture towards a life to be lived. As a will it manifests itself in the public, declaring: I want to be an artist; I am an artist. And it is a will continuing through time, making me endure the initial choice to be an artist that I made a long time ago. With the being of an artist comes a being-ability of an artist, although, in the space of contemporary art and its radical contingency, there are no precise definitions of what such a being-ability should consist of. Unlike medical students, for example, who must appear before a examination board of authorities and show their abilities – knowledge of how the body functions on an anatomical, bio-chemical and physiological level – there is no judge that can fail an art student of today. The being-ability of an artist could be anything – from working a material, to sitting at a laptop, drawing on a computer, developing ideas via Skype – nobody can limit the space of contemporary art. Whatever is decided upon, which project or interests or possibilities to pursue, contemporary artists will ultimately develop the needed being-ability to make the artworks real. And if the projects exceed their knowledge, they
will contract experts, hire assistants, get friends and family to help them. Then they become a manager, someone who must organise the time and output of others. This is one of the effects of Minimal art on contemporary art: the moving away from the traditional idea of the artist as a craftsman in a classical sense. It doesn’t mean that the craftsmanship of art disappears, it means a new kind of craftsmanship arises: that of developing ideas, convincing curators, contracting workers, considering the installation, organising employees etc.
In Generic Singularity (2014) I developed this concept in order to explain how humans become something specific in their lives. My investigation was only limited to the cultural field of the contemporary artist and only included components that I saw as significant at that point. In five years time, I will probably include new aspects. For any other cultural field, the components are different and have another depth, the process of developing a specificity not being the same in each field. For example, there is a difference between the work process of a film director and a poet, architect and actor, novelist and set designer etc.
For me, there is a reflective power within each generic singularity, because they have thought about what kind of life they want to live and they have taken inspiration from the past, aligning themselves with art movements, re-introducing actions and events to the present, not only thinking, but also actively pursuing a specific position in life. Each generic singularity has taken powerful decisions with repercussions far into the future. Every generic singularity thinks for himself, from his point of being in a body in a social context right now in time (situated). Every thinking derives its force from the epistemic rupture it has been through and surpassed.
excerpt from the book: NON-PHILOSOPHY AND CONTEMPORARY ART by Asmund Havsteen-Mikkelsen