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Quitting: a conversation with Alexander Koch on the paradoxes of dropping out

In the course of researching my end of our upcoming book on shadow practices, I have been grappling with the ethics and politics of trying to detect and draw even modest attention to initiatives that have deliberately sought to impair their coefficient of specific visibility. More on that to come. But I guess the most radical way for an artist to get off – and stay off – artworld radar screens is simply to quit the artworld. To bail, but to do so as an – ultimate – artistic gesture. Berlin-based theorist Alexander Koch has initiated and carried out some fascinating research on this unwritten chapter of contemporary art history – the history and conditions of possibility of what he calls the Kunstausstieg (http://www.kunst-verlassen.de/). Here’s an excerpt from our recent exchange.

Stephen Wright: You have developed an utterly original line of enquiry in art-historical research: the investigation of artists who quit art, or who at any event drop out of the artworld, and who do so not through fatigue, boredom, old age alone, but rather as a pursuit of their artistic activity. Almost by definition, that’s an unwritten chapter of art history, because convention dictates that visual artists should not be merely visible, but have the highest coefficient of artistic visibility possible. I’d like to start with what I understand as your counterintuitive motivation for your interest in this blank page in art’s history: that quitting art or the artworld has a critical dimension. Artworlders typically think of doing art as productive of subjectivity and intersubjectivity, which critics typically laud for its emancipating, intellectual and above all perception-busting content. That may be true to some extent, but you have argued that “today, it is increasingly obvious that art, as a social, discursive and institutional system, is fettering us more than liberating us; that it is shrinking our space of thought and agency. By drawing attention to the limiting qualities of the art field in its current form, by sensitizing us to the option, if need be, of simply leaving the playing field, of quitting it for a different one, of accepting the role of the artist but also being prepared to give it up – these are just some of the ways in which the figure of the artist who quits art can be of use to us.”

Alexander Koch: I liked the idea that there might be historical skepticism about the artworld’s ability to inspire social hope. And I liked to imagine that this skepticism might have remained unnoticed exactly where it had become most coherent: in the decision not to make doubt-in-art yet another object of art, not to give mistrust in “visibility” in the art field still more visibility.

You are right to ask to what extent this decision has a critical dimension. Remember all those classical gestures (sic) of refusal in art: empty canvases, closed galleries, silent artists. I see that sort of silence as a fundamental mistrust in arts’ contribution to social and individual change. I wondered if emptiness, silence or announced attacks on museums (who ever fired a bomb on anything?) were already the radical peak of such distrust. And I found that there was a possible step further to imagine: just leaving the canvases, museums, and artworld as a whole, alone with themselves and seeking out other endeavors. But then – as you mention – how would we know about such steps, once they were taken? That was the most challenging question for me on the methodological level.

With regard to different notions of the critical dimension of artists’ dropping out, in my latest lecture on the subject I suggested separating the progressive dropout from the regressive dropout in order to separate those forms of withdrawal from the artworld that were looking for an encouraging perspective elsewhere, from other forms of withdrawal that were not looking for such encouragement. In my case studies Charlotte Posenenske stands for the former type, Lee Lozano for the latter type of withdrawal. Whereas Posenenske chose social science to pursuit her enquiries on participatorial practice, Lozano ultimately chose retirement in resignation.

SW: Before attending to the paradoxical methodology required by trying to study what is no longer there, or even how you distinguish between “regressive” and “progressive” dropout, let us pursue a little further the critical dimension of withdrawal. Do you see “regressive dropout” as a-critical? And in the potentially more complex case of “progressive dropout,” what kind of competence or incompetence do you see artists as bringing to their new fields of enquiry? I don’t mean this or that artist in particular, but artists as a whole – or at any rate, those artists who are inclined to undertake a progressive dropout. I am presuming that they don’t merely become social scientists or long-distance runners, political activists or house painters like any others, but pursue these activities as artists – or at least with the self-understanding of artists, even if they don’t necessarily make that self-understanding known to others.

AK: Do I see the regressive dropout as a-critical? In a general sense, it might be said to be critical as it stems from discontent and points to the limits and borderlines of an artistic practice. In a more particular sense, where criticism is understood as a contribution to an open situation, as something that pushes things further, as something progressive, this position is decidedly a-critical. This is why I think this distinction between the regressive and the progressive dropout is helpful. It helps not to idealize, nor to standardize artistic dropouts and to ask in every single case: where does the withdrawal lead to? What is its perspective? What is its proposal?

I disagree with the notion of withdrawal expressed in the second part of your question. I see no sense in attributing to individuals a self-understanding of artists after they have quit an artistic practice and the role model it relates to. The whole point of my proposal is to de-naturalize the notion of “being an artist” by saying that you can stop with it at any time. The future is open – even if you were an artist. We should see artists as people like everybody else. People with an education, a profession and an evolving biography that includes choices and changes of one’s’ profession, changes in what one believes in and what endeavor one goes for, including changes of one’s self-understanding. Why should anyone be condemned to be an artist, only because he or she had had that role for a while? If one quits a profession or a passion for another, past experiences will give a certain color to any future activity of course. But whether these might be helpful or not cannot be answered in general.

And there is nothing in general to be said about “competences” here. If a dentist and a mathematician become filmmakers, would we expect their films to make a difference because of their competences in dentistry and mathematics? And if we assumed their films to look more scientific, more rational, less poetic than films of non-ex-dentists and non-ex-mathematicians, wouldn’t we only show how limited we believe other peoples’ minds are and how little chance we see for their lives to develop? I’d say the same about artists becoming mathematicians or dentists. All the rest is cliché. Why would an ex-artist potentially bring more creativity, more imagination or more self-responsibility to natural sciences and medicine than anybody else. I think Richard Rorty (whom we both admire) would actually support me here. If artists merely become social scientists or long-distance runners, or if they do become social scientists or long-distance runners “as artists”, would sound for him a) as really hard to distinguish, b) unclear what this distinction is good for, and c) sound like an attempt to find something essential about what artists are, exactly in the very moment of their disappearance, whereas my theoretic proposals of the artistic dropout try to contribute to an anti-essentialist perspective on that disappearance. The idea of the progressive dropout is this: if your ideas, your passion, your individual capacities or the issues that don’t let you sleep at night, reach beyond what art has to offer you, there is nothing that binds you to it. Except maybe an old fashioned artistic self-understanding that I hope to disqualify.

SW: Could it not be argued that the dichotomy between progressive and regressive dropout is a little too neat? Is there not some degree of both in any decision to quit an artworld? What you disparagingly call Lozano’s “retirement in resignation” could perhaps be redescribed, as Richard Rorty would say, as a serene and considered choice to seek fulfilment in life in a way that only a passage through and then out of the artworld would enable… On the other hand, is it not something of an illusion for a discouraged artist to seek encouragement elsewhere – as if social science, or whatever, could somehow save art from the corner it has painted itself into? Or, worse still, a means of art actually expanding its purview by moving into other lifeworlds?

AK: Doesn’t it sound like a perfect progressive dropout scenario to seek fulfilment in life? It is the best you can do if you could not find fulfilment in art. This was not quite the case with Lee Lozano though. She got anything but fulfilment in life. “Retirement in resignation” is what fits perfectly with the 30 years between her dropout and her death. To make the argument clear, I’ll take the extreme case of the regressive dropout. The case I have always considered to be a specific exception in withdrawal is suicide. It is an exception, because it both is and is not a withdrawal. It’s getting you out of something, but it’s getting you nowhere. My distinction wishes to qualify the withdrawal in order to find out what it’s about. It has become a fashionable attitude in art to resist, to abstain, to refuse etc. Most of the time these gestures are empty though, since the point is not just to resist. The point is, for and against what. The regressive dropout gets you nowhere except out of art. The progressive dropout gets you somewhere else.

As for the second part of your question, I feel you miss the point I try to make. I agree, if artists go for social science or whatever in order to SAVE art from its discouragement-engendering character, they will meet with illusion. If they intend to overcome arts’ discouraging character, they rather should give up art instead of holding on to it. It is certainly not social science that will save art. But people should trade in their artistic practice for social science or whatever if this exchange encourages them to meet their hopes and passions and to be more content with what they do. If there was no such encouragement, why would anybody have taken this kind of decision after all? And hoping to expand the means of art into other life worlds is a naïve vision of such worlds as well as of the means of art. This whole idea of expansion actually helps us to see the misunderstanding between your question and my notion of dropout. It is exactly this notion of arts’ expansion into other life worlds that my theoretical and historiographical endeavor was seeking to overcome. I do not see any ways or means for art to make sense anywhere else except in art. I do see different means for different needs. And if we were to judge our means with regard to our needs, we might find that the means of art are one option – but not the only one. We might wish to have different means at hand at different times for our different needs and purposes. Why would we deliberately limit our means to the means of art? Such self-limitation would urge us to suppress our needs and purposes, which would be the most debasing thing we can do.

SW: Let’s come back to a question that has been implicit until now: that of your methodology. You have deliberately framed your research on artists dropping out in art-historical terms – as a supremely ironic but nevertheless scientific line of enquiry. How have you negotiated that paradox? How does one go about detecting, researching and then ultimately documenting withdrawal? Isn’t there a danger of repatriating in the fold of artworld visibility those gestures that sought to avoid just that? It would seem to require extraordinary dexterity to avoid the methodological quagmire on either side of the divide!

AK: I think I can give my answer a critical turn concerning methodology. I was in fact seduced by the paradoxical appearance of my subject for a while. How can we observe disappearance? Or worse still: absence. Not absence in an aesthetic sense, known as a major subject in aesthetic theory. But the absence of a social actor. The absence of a person who chose to be elsewhere than where we were accustomed to seeing them. What could an art historian say about someone who deliberately turned his back on art, including art historians? Why would art history consider “elsewhere” (than art) a place to notice? I found though, that any paradoxical concept of the phenomenon was in danger of mystifying the problem instead of solving it. The paradoxical and the mystical relate. I concluded by taking a pragmatic perspective. What does that mean? It means a choice against scientific empiricism and for the very ideas that made the people I could have written about wish to not serve as empirical assurance for historiographical methodology. It meant to respect and to commit to their individual decision without making it an “example” and thus a symbol. I decided not to pull into the light of my own historiographic hunger all the cases of withdrawal that I could possibly grasp. I found it was cynical and misleading to deliver a list of dropout cases just to sate my hunger. It would have meant undoing what they had decided. Instead I focused on a handful of names that had already be repatriated by historians (including myself in the case of Lee Lozano at the beginning of my research), by market forces and by the institutions.
In short, I found it was most provocative and theoretically most coherent and responsible to let the artworlders make the artworld and let the others make something else, dropouts included. I needed a few case studies in order to historically approve that “making something else” was more than an illusion and not just another “concept” of artworlders.