Aesthetics of Resistance

By Leander Kaiser

In the announcement, the topic of my talk is very broadly defined, as I was to be given a great deal of latitude. Nevertheless, I will refer more to Anders Eliasson and include my own experience as a painter only by way of comparison. Like Eliasson, I was born in 1947 and can recognize my own conflicts in his controversies with the musical authorities of avant-gardism in the 1960s and 1970s. Like him, I had to defend my artistic position against the demand to turn towards artistic currents considered up-to-date at the time. We had to live with the accusation of practising antiquated forms of art. But the re-acquisition, reconstruction and restatement of artistic options, whose tradition was broken in the 20th century, was for both me and Eliasson characterized not by the cultivation of tradition, but by the rebellion against alienated history that must be opposed by a different present, a different form of Modernism.

Peter Kislinger, to whom I owe my meeting with Anders Eliasson, wanted to talk about the masters the composer elevated into the empyrean of his music. Vergil, too, was accorded grace and will not have to persevere eternally in limbo, as we have known since the 14th century from the hint Beatrice gave Dante about the intentions of the authorities. In his essay “Virgil and the Christian World” (Sewanee Review V61, No. 1, Winter, 1953), T.S. Eliot described the tendency of the 20th century to isolate the present from the past and to reduce human knowledge and capability to information and technological feasibility.

‘In our times, when with growing fondness people are confusing wisdom with knowledge and knowledge with being informed, endeavouring to solve vital issues with the means of a technological and mechanical conceptual world, a new form of provincialism is emerging that should perhaps be given an appropriately different name. It is a provincialism not of space, but of time; a provincialism for which history is nothing but a chronicle of human plans that have played their parts in turn and have then be cast on the scrap heap; a philistine mentality according to which the world belongs exclusively to the living, whilst the dead have no part in it. The danger of this kind of provincialism is that all of us together, all the nations on the globe, might become philistines, and whoever does not want to be provincial can only become a hermit.’

Of course, Eliot can be dismissed as a Christian reactionary, but his prophecy is accurate. Today, due to his knowledgeability any provincialist may think he knows what is modern and as a civil servant of art call for artists to turn to an innovation, usually having to consist of using new technological media. And whoever refuses to swim along in the provincialism of the age can only become a recluse, a crank, an outsider or the ANARCH as which Eliasson perhaps self-ironically styled himself.

The term anarch, a neologism, was, as far as I know, coined by Ernst Jünger as a designation for a person prepared to summon up the utmost resistance to defend his freedom and hence individuality per se against totalitarian collectivisms. Jünger was referring to National Socialism and Communism. The anarch must remain a loner, for in Jünger’s view anarchism was also a form of collectivism. The painter Max Beckmann, with whom I have occasionally been compared, would have been in complete agreement with Jünger. By contrast, Giacomo Oreglia included the sailors of Kronstadt and the ‘short summer of anarchy’ Catalonia witnessed at the outset of the Spanish Civil War in his great hymn. In his case, the anarch is positioned in the imaginary space of the dream of humankind united in spirit and liberated from hegemony, i.e. Gioacchino da Fiore’s thousand-year empire of the Holy Spirit, not in the conceit of liberty beyond the Principle of Hope.

Anders Eliasson probably viewed himself as being in resistance against a world going astray, deriving energy for life from furious opposition. In the musical pathos given to Oreglia’s text, there resonate both the ‘Debellare superbos!’ and the ‘dream of a cause’, i.e. of a humane society.

20th-century Modernism in music and painting commenced not just as a rupture with the past, but also as anti-Modernism, as a rejection and invalidation of both the aesthetic and civilizing achievements of the bourgeois age after the Renaissance. The barbarism inherent in the bourgeois, capitalist mode of production and the exploitation of the working class, colonialism and imperialism were not topics for the ‘historical avant-gardes’. The breach with the Renaissance – the core of the matter – took place in two main forms that might be termed the futurist and spiritualist versions. In Kandinsky and Schoenberg, this consists of descending into the materialism and compulsiveness of bourgeois society, from which art is to liberate chosen individuals for spirituality. This spirituality is not understood as thinking, the intellect or participation in the divine, but refers to the transformation of the chosen into immaterial apparitional creatures; they got that from the contemporary Gnostics, Theosophists and Anthroposophists. I will return to this later at the end of my talk – when comparing Schoenberg’s oratorio Jacob’s Ladder with Eliasson’s Dante Anarca. For the avant-gardists at any rate, the benefit of obliterating the work of man was that they could now award epoch-making significance to their more or less arbitrary rules.

For their part, the Futurists proclaimed the cult of the machine, of speed, of war as ethnic hygiene, seeking, or pretending to seek, the destruction of all museums and academies. For Kandinsky, ‘the pure, spiritual essences’ of music were the model for abstract painting. Conversely, in its development as far as Minimalism abstract painting was the model for music. The Futurist fascination with the machine, with acceleration and technological innovation were the forces behind today’s apotheosis of the New Media, digitalization and robotization in worldwide synchrony. Since then, artistic modernity has been understood as a repeated rupture with the forms, traditions and achievements of earlier days, producing a series of bans on everything that can or may be done.

These bans, e.g. those on melos and harmony in music and those on figuration and narration in painting, have never fully prevailed, and their earlier rigour has yielded to the arbitrariness of so-called Post-Modernism since the 1980s. The somehow still consistent line from abstraction and twelve-tone music to Minimalism and Concept Art, to the serial and aleatoric, has snapped. A faster and faster and more and more short-winded sequence of novelties, which largely merely recycle older ideas, now keeps the art scene running. Explicit demands on the artistic work have been replaced by the rules of etiquette of the art scene, more or less subtle seductions towards a conformity that has to be applauded by artists as the freedom of art. On the other hand, a quicker and quicker museification of the very latest products has come about: in the Museum of Contemporary Art, the latest art immediately becomes something of the past.

As I mentioned at the beginning, a different modernity needs to be founded in view of both the proscriptions of Modernism and the seeming liberty of Post-Modernism.

Anders Eliasson always pleaded that it was ultimately a question of music and that music was simply based on melos, rhythm and harmony. At first glance, here he seems to be entertaining the notion of a ‘musica perennis’, just as many philosophers speak of the ‘philosophia perennis’. But here what matters is above all the artistic potential historically incorporated in the material of music, not simply having it available, but rather deliberately grappling with these possibilities and the knowledge of where one’s own composition stands in relation to and in the space of the musical cosmos. As far as I understand, with his disassembling triangles Eliasson arrived at a new understanding of the musical material. I would consider it a dialectical understanding – entirely along the lines of Hegel’s contradictory logic – but cannot elaborate on it, being the musical layperson that I am. The freedom of art, in existence since the end of the artist’s bondage to the norms of certain worldviews, i.e. since the 19th century, freely to choose its artistic means from among those historically given becomes eclectic virtuosity, if it is not linked to a new viewpoint, a new awareness in terms of the psycho-physical material of the medium. When I listen to Eliasson’s music, it seems to me that he found such a perspective. His triangles remind me of the circular structures in painting, the discovery of which was very important for my work, revealing to me old painting in a new way. For, to be insistent briefly, the circular element of the picture not only concerns an arrangement of figures and things, but also a process in time, in which the present of the picture is first produced. This present is not identical to its simultaneous presence as a thing. After all, music is not just a sequence, but, if successful, overlaps and interweaves into a totality in the present. And maybe Anders Eliasson’s triangles also conceal a spiral or cycloid movement.

Between the tercets of Dante’s Divina Commedia, in which the respective first and third lines rhyme, whereas the second one rhymes with the first of the next tercet, and Eliasson’s dynamic triangles a distant affinity or a certain sympathy might be discerned. In Dante’s tercets, language goes through itself, it moves on the path constructed by itself, leaving all premises behind, like Dante on his great journey. The directly gripping, terse diction of the Divina Commedia – but it has to be read in the original – would also have appealed to Eliasson and have been reminiscent of the immediacy with which he himself made his musical message appear from the construction and motion of the material without any embellishments or illustrative, atmospheric elements. But I have been told that Eliasson probably never read Dante, and certainly not in the original. But that would be a pity for my comparison.

Anders Eliasson developed his own consistent modernity, dispensing with any rupture with the past because, I think, it takes a truly novel stance and creates a new consciousness of the material of music, making us again more aware of the modernity of the great masters of music history. That means, he makes us into contemporaries. Genuine contemporaneity requires a common present, adopting the past as its outcome and transcendence.

I am coming to the conclusion I announced. Schoenberg’s oratorio Jacob’s Ladder was written at the beginning of the 20th century, and Eliasson’s Dante Anarca at its end. Schoenberg refers to the Old Testament Jacob, dreaming of a ladder with angels ascending and descending. Schoenberg replaces the angels with souls striving on the path of reincarnation for purification and union, for effacement in pure spirit, thus eluding the eternal ‘Move on! Move on!’, i.e. the compulsion and the sinful materialism of earthly life. The way to the very top is found by the chosen, i.e. the pneumatics of ancient Gnosticism in the 2nd century. There is no sense of community among the souls, and they have no common present. By the way, this makes these recitatives into an arduous concatenation that does not condense into a whole. The work also remained unfinished.

Giacomo Oreglia’s great hymn, his ‘Canto General’, delves similarly far back into the 13th and early 14th centuries, unlike Schoenberg into a historical age that can justifiably be interpreted as the beginning of the Modern Age. Gioacchino da Fiore indeed influenced St. Francis, and Dante was a member of the lay order of the Franciscans. Gioacchino’s realm of the Holy Spirit has been compared to Hegel’s Day of Universality and condemned by Eric Voegelin as the origin of modern Immanentism. Gioacchino has been seen as the forefather of Communism – and since then evil has been in the world. The ‘thousand-year Reich’ of the Nazis has nothing to do with him, as the millennium is not a speciality of Fiore. The fundamental difference between Gioacchino’s dream of mankind with all those who later followed him and Schoenberg’s elitist redemption of souls is clear. All people should live this life free of hegemony and in direct communication with the divine spirit. The intermediary role of the Church and its hierarchies becomes redundant, just like all hierarchies.

In Anders Eliasson, the religious utopia meets the utopian promise of music: not as a reconciliation taking place in the concert hall. This is rejected alone by Eliasson’s TERRIBILITA, with which the work goes beyond the material approbated, producing a hermeticism that at any rate denies the sentimental harmony of souls in inner atmospheric images. Although Oreglia’s text and Eliasson’s music are simultaneously a requiem for the martyrs of the failed attempts to realize the presence of the spirit in human society, hope is preserved and raised aloft, yet an apotheosis does not materialize. The outcome remains open.

Leander Kaiser, August 2017
Translation: Ian Mansfield, M.A.