Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Dezember 2005
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"Art, Science and Society - Who Keeps The Space Open that Utopia Would Fill!!?"

Gerald Bast (Vienna)


In his letters, "On the Artistic Education of Man", written in 1795, Friedrich Schiller states, "Art must leave reality, it has to raise itself bodily above necessity and neediness; for art is the daughter of freedom, and it requires its prescriptions and rules to be furnished by the necessity of spirits and not by that of matter. But in our day, it is necessity, neediness that prevails, and bends a degraded humanity under its iron yoke. Utility is the great idol of the time, to which all powers do homage and all subjects are subservient. In this great balance of utility, the spiritual service of art has no weight, and, deprived of all encouragement, it vanishes from the vanity fair of our time. The very spirit of philosophical inquiry itself robs the imagination of one promise after another, and the frontiers of art are narrowed, in proportion as the limits of science are enlarged. "

Having been invited to speak on the subject of" Innovations and Reproductions in Cultures and Societies", I had to think long and hard, and I suspect I was not alone in this regard, as to where to begin with this truly challenging topic.

So I asked myself:

Does art bear any relation to Innovations and Reproductions in Cultures and Societies? It is no doubt, that innovation and reproduction as well are basic elements of any society. But what is the role of the arts in these processes?

Accordingly, I primarily have chosen to approach the topic from the point of view of the understanding of the role of a university of the arts and design, as, for me, there can be no question that design is an integral part of the artistic system.

Therefore, what constitutes the essence of a university of the arts and design?

The function of a university of art and design lies in the production of change. Indeed, it is the creation of new realities, the transformation of intellectual structures and perceptive patterns, critical reflection upon personal thought and action that actually constitute a university. Universities always have been places where questions are of greater significance than answers.

The very substance of art - and design as well - consists of the overthrow, or at least the alteration of convention.

Art lives - like people - from its conquest of new dimensions. The history of art is a sequence of further developments, breaks in tradition, sudden changes in style, even revolutions. And these revolutions affected more than the various techniques and materials that came into use; they affected especially the ideas concealed behind external appearances. Leonardo da Vinci is supposed to have said, long ago, that you paint with your head rather than your brush! Artworks have brought about revolutions in our habits of seeing and hearing; they have questioned not only themselves and their creators, but even God and the world.

Art is usually hotly debated, and at the very least misunderstood, whenever it pushes forward into a new dimension, breaks with habits of seeing or deviates from traditional subject matter and received patterns. Since Modernism, in particular, new types of expressive artistic forms, which later became undisputed icons of art history, have even been denied the right of inclusion in the system of art. "That’s not art!" people shout at the artists, radically and apodictically. Not just people who are part of the so-called inartistic masses …

In my opinion, the moral responsibility of the universities with regard to society is comprised of an obligation to provoke public opinion to confront the new and to reject the pragmatism of the practical. Universities have always been the location of the search for the next utopia. As Oscar Wilde said, "Progress is the realisation of utopias."

To my mind, the actual existential question for the future of the universities of art and design, relates to the social value of art and design. In short, what role will these universities play in the process of producing progress? This is the truly decisive issue and the reply to this question will determine social development in years to come.

The predominant aspect is: who has the power to define progress; or in other words: which area possesses the greater innovative strength?

In current social perception, which is coloured by the media and politicians, the term innovation is more than ever associated with technological progress.

Therefore, the universities of art and design must take care that they do not stumble into an identity trap. The Zeitgeist, which dictates that universities must also be as efficient and practically-oriented as possible, is placing increasing pressure.

Cheaper and quicker output, necessity, neediness and economic utility are the dominating arguments in discussions about universities and universities of art and design in particular. The principle ideas of what is university seem to get paler and paler in present times. But nevertheless: universities of art and design are not workshops for marketable prototypes. This is not the raison d’être of the universities of art and design - and to believe that this is the case would be a gross misunderstanding. We do not produce products, but we produce ideas, attitudes and perspectives in he hearts and in the brains of people who are enthusiastic enough to meet the challenge of leaving the used paths of thinking and acting.

In other words, our output is the future.

The universities of art and design are confronted by same dilemma as all universities, which are subject to a growing clamour for application-oriented research. Basic research has fallen into disrepute and is therefore suffering from a downward funding trend.

Of course, it is correct to say that art and design are massive economic factors and that art and design education at the universities must refer to practicality and requires contacts, projects and co-operation with business and industry as well. But, at the same time, practicality is not the primary task of universities. I sometimes have the feeling that the universities and the people connected to them are steadily submitting to economic pragmatism, when, in fact, they should be generating the courage to experiment with regard to thought, design and action. A courage, which in the final analysis, is also in the interests of the art and design industry and its future prosperity.

Art and design have long abandoned their esoteric position and now occur as a social media spectacle everywhere and nowhere. In recent years, the influence of art and design in virtually every area of daily life has multiplied dramatically. In the frequently confusing plethora of brands and products, design is one of the few criteria for consumer decisions. Therefore, industry increasingly sees design as determining brand image. Visible design provides a certain outer skin for those intrinsic values that constitute the brand nucleus. Today, the historic demand that art and design should penetrate all aspects of life has been realised to the extent that art and design in public opinion and in public appearance increasingly has degenerated into a platitude, which is focused on the creation of fashionable superficial exteriors. Decoration seems to be the role, which society concedes to art and design. Art hardly gets people excited any more. This may be connected with the fact that the social development of recent decades has brought about an increasing destruction of taboos so that the threshold of perception for provocations has risen. But a collapse of taboos - even a dramatic collapse of values - has occurred again and again throughout history. By itself, that cannot explain why things have grown quiet around contemporary art in recent years. Things have grown quiet even though the chorus of the art business has grown bigger and noisier than ever.

The art industry is enjoying a boom; biennales and art fairs are becoming more and more numerous; even in Vienna the range of art on offer is bigger than it has been for decades: there are 10,000 exhibition openings in this city every year.

And yet, in spite of all that, you sometimes get the impression that randomness and a lack of focus are becoming widespread. We are experiencing the museumisation and commercialisation of art, which, significantly, has turned into an art industry. Culinary art is highly desirable in the main cultural cities: something that slips down easily combined with big, famous names, which can be enjoyed more or less in passing, without too much thought having to be devoted to it. The ideal is to attract huge crowds of viewers and send them quickly through the museums, whose architectural design is sometimes an even bigger attraction than the objects on display. If art begins being a form of entertainment, it cannot be seen as a political or social threat. More and more, today, aestheticism and withdrawal into inwardness are what is wanted in the cultural sector.

For Walter Benjamin art kept open the space that Utopia would fill. In our days it seems that the utopias have been exhausted. Nobody knows how things are going to develop anyway, and anybody who dares to formulate a point of view arouses suspicion in any case.

Art always fluctuated or oscillated between Kantian unintentional pleasure and enlightenment. Has in our days the project of Enlightenment come to an end? Do we now have an enlightened society? Is art’s only remaining function spreading aesthetic joy and being an instrument for personal relaxation or economic growth in tourism?

And so, has the time come - yet again - to proclaim the end of art?

Not at all. Every society needs art, and what it needs is living art - even those societies that repress art. What did Ingeborg Bachmann say so beautifully? - "When there is nothing left to shape and nothing to correct, then the world will be dead".

Of course art is not at an end, but contemporary art is no doubt on the social and material defensive. Even all the very intense activity in the so-called art industry cannot conceal that fact.

What is the reason? Is it perhaps because there is scarcely any utopian dimension left in contemporary artistic work, as the diagnosis of Bazon Brock suggests?

While science is summoning up a world for us where a person’s lifetime has no boundaries set to it, and there is no torment left in disease and illness, because they will either be prevented from birth with gene technology, or defeated by medicines or cloned replacement organs, or, if necessary, manipulatively selected by means of pre-implantation diagnosis - while science, then, is circling around closer and closer to the utopia it has invented for itself, museums are being opened for art. Museums for dead, but at least well established artists.

This society will not grow healthy with technological progress alone! If art degenerates and becomes impoverished, then society will degenerate and become impoverished too. And when I say art, I mean the kind of art that is concerned with constructing new realities, with the artistic experiment in the mind and in the material, with the development and overthrow of ideas, with artistic failure and the moments that are less than great. Just like science.

Once the domain of art (and philosophy) was to formulate utopias, which were transformed into realities by later scientific developments.

Today, science and technology formulate their own utopias and work on turning them into reality.

What is now being thought and subjected to experimentation in the fields of medicine, biology and science is more radical, more provocative and packed with more explosive social force than artistic approaches and actions ever were.

While biology, medicine and natural sciences deliver imaginations of a brave new world and while they are about to realize these imaginations, using the term design in connexions like genetic design, artificial intelligence design health design or even brain design and human skills design, while these disciplines are dominating not only the present reality but also the world of ideas about the future perspectives of our societies - while all this already happens: what is the intellectual and emotional contribution of art and design in this competition of concepts for the times to come?

In the face of these clearly dramatic scientific, and therefore social, future perspectives, art and design must avoid being pushed to the margins of society.

How did Schiller express this situation? "The frontiers of art are narrowed, in proportion as the limits of science are enlarged."

Saying this, does not at all mean any kind of hostility against science and scientific research. I am just trying to express that art and design have an important responsibility to involve into the development of our societies with more intensity.

What matters is to forsake defensive positions, to strip off randomness and to open up new fields of perception and consciousness.

The future of our society, by sure, needs art and design just as much as it requires technology and natural sciences.

Through the direction of their content, their activities and public utterances and image, universities of art and design should adopt an offensive and self-confident attitude in the social competition relating to the definition of progress, and thus generate courage.

What we now need is targeted cooperation on projects involving all kinds of artistic expressions: fine arts, architecture, design, media arts - as different disciplines will relate to each other more and more and must interact. And not only this: Art and design have to take up cross links to scientific disciplines like biology, perception theory, neuro-science, physics, etc. - without giving up our clear dedication to the system of arts.

What we need are places where such networking can occur, places and structures that fill the vacuum, which is currently expanding in the gap between universities of art and design, on the one hand, and the market, creative and technological industries, galleries, museums and cultural as well as social-orientated institutions, on the other.

We require young women and men, who embrace radical thought and radical design, people with indomitable intellectual and creative radical quality and courage to be utopian.

Furthermore, we require universities of art and design that promote and demand such attitudes, for the strength to be radical in thought and design and the willingness to be utopian is based on freedom of mind and spirit.

What am I seeking to express with my plea for a search for utopias in art and design?

Not just, that art should enter into a competition with science for the faster development of more breath-taking utopias. I am not pleading for a naïve utopianism, nor for a crude utilitarianism, which would also mean the end of the arts. I am appealing for the strength to change and renew positions.

Like the history of science, in the final analysis, the history of art and design constitutes a history of ideas. And ideas have their effect not only in the shaping of artworks, but also the formation of society.

What is so fascinating and simultaneously frightening about current scientific experiments, is not the technology but the idea behind it, the concept of technological omnipotence, the conviction that the future of the world is ultimately dependent upon technological progress.

What matters is to oppose the scientific fantasy of omniscience with our own, artistically based, new worlds of ideas.

There were times when scientific disciplines were described as arts. Let us resist the temptation to stylise art and design as a kind of sciences. And let us withstand the pressure to regard the development of art and design as merely a market by-product.

We cannot leave the field of the future to the scientists and certainly not to the futurologists and market strategists.

Let us enlarge the limits of art and design!

© Gerald Bast (Vienna)

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For quotation purposes:
Gerald Bast (Vienna): "Art, Science and Society - Who Keeps The Space Open that Utopia Would Fill !!?". In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005.

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