On the N55 artistic manifesto on art and reality

By Søren Kjørup

Søren Kjørup is a philosopher living in Copenhagen and Oslo. He is professor in the Communications Department at Roskilde University, Denmark, and the School of Art, Bergen, Norway.
November 2003.

"Therefore we now know that:

when one talks about art one must always talk about: Persons and their meaningful behaviour with other persons and things in concrete situations"

In this way the N55 group formulates the conclusion of their artistic manifesto "ART AND REALITY" from 1996 (in the "official" English translation that I follow throughout this essay). And this brief and concentrated statement articulates significant answers to quite a few traditional questions in aesthetics.

Obviously, art is not made to make us silent. Art is not the field of the unspeakable. Art is something we can talk about - and maybe even something we have to talk about. And art is not just art for arts sake. The concept of "art" cannot be conceived without concepts like "persons", "meaningful behaviour", "interaction with other people", and "interaction with things" - and it all has to take place within "concrete situations".
Consequently, art is not for eternity. And art is not only for contemplation. Art consists in concrete initiatives in concrete situations. Works of art are made to be used for something.

If one knows the works of art that the N55 group creates, one will know that the group has managed to turn these principles into reality. Its works of art all have concrete possibilities for use. The most spectacular example must be the N55 SPACEFRAME, floating in the harbour of Copenhagen and for the last three years the home of three members of the group. Some of the works - e.g. LAND, ROOMS, and WORK - may be said to have more programmatic than practical implications (and are rather based on the "Notes" of the manifesto than on the brief main text, as I shall show further down). But let us not forget works that must be seen as quite concrete gestures of benevolence like BEACH: A few loads of sand in a corner of the Copenhagen harbour that becomes the setting of seaside life for the members of the small neighbourhood, of their guests, and of casual passers-by, grown-ups, children, and dogs alike.

Social and philosophical aesthetics

The idea of making works of art with a possibility of being used in social settings and that articulate social ideals, does not put N55 in a category of its own these years. Neither is N55 alone in formulating texts in the genre of manifestoes that expresses this conception of art. You may find a rather striking parallel in the writings by the French theoretician (and curator) Nicolas Bourriaud about what he calls "relational art", which he characterizes in the following way: "a kind of art that takes as its theoretical horizon the sphere of human interactions and its social contexts, rather than the affirmation of a symbolic space that is autonomous and private", thus (also through the use of italics) making "relational" and "private" opposites (Bourriaud, Esthétique relationelle [Paris: Les Presses du Réel, 2001], p. 14) The N55 manifesto, however, probably has the most clearly formulated philosophical character amongst recent writings of this kind. And the reason for this is probably that is has been formulated to a certain extent in collaboration with the Danish philosopher Peter Zinkernagel (1921-2003) and on the background of his way of reasoning and his epistemological and ontological position. The manifesto (and especially the "Notes") is also inspired by Zinkernagel's ethics, but this part of his philosophy is less developed and only a few suggestions are published, integrated in the later part of his - very sparse - published work In a footnote on page 520 of the second, expanded edition (1966) of John Passmore's A Hundred Years of Philosophy, Peter Zinkernagel is mentioned as someone who has formulated "a comparable argument" to the one P.F. Strawson makes in Individuals (1959) about the unbreakable relationship between material things, mental states and persons. Being a Dane, one cannot help thinking whether it might have been the other way around if Zinkernagel had published his dissertation of 1957 in English, and not in Danish; the version Passmore knows of Omverdensproblemet ("The Problem of the Existence of the External World") is the translation (of a slightly revised text) with a title belonging after the linguistic turn: Conditions for Description, which was only published in 1962. And one way of formulating Zinkernagel's position is to say that it is impossible to express doubts about the existence of the external world without presupposing this very existence Zinkernagel makes the point that the rules of formal logic (e.g. the principle of non-contradiction) are not the only fundamental rules we are obliged to obey if we want to make meaningful (as opposed to inconsistent) descriptions. If I say about one and the same situation that there is an ashtray on the table and that there is not an ashtray on the table, I contradict myself and have not given a meaningful description. But the same is true if I say that there is an ashtray on the table, but that it does not constitute a hindrance for the movements of my hand over the tabletop. Or if I say that the ashtray is seen, but not seen by anybody. Or if I say that I see the ashtray, but that I am nowhere, i.e. that I have no body.
The three - according to Zinkernagel (and I agree with him) - inconsistent statements that I have sketched here, exemplify his three fundamental "rules of language" or "conditions for description", as spelled out on page 51 in Conditions for Description:
"1. We must not use names of ordinary things and expressions for possibilities of action independently of each other. 2. We must not use psychological expressions independently of the personal pronouns. 3. We must not use the personal pronouns independently of designations of bodies and, in consequence, of names of ordinary things."
It should not be difficult to see the non-vicious circle that Zinkernagel builds up here - or "zircle" as the Danish science writer Tor Nørretranders has phrased it (in his book on Niels Bohr, Det udelelige ("The indivisible", 1985), a scientist whose epistemological thinking has had a deep influence on Zinkernagel): Talking about things presupposes talking about actions we can or cannot perform. Talking about actions, intentions and other "psychological" phenomena presupposes talking about human beings. And talking about human beings, presupposes talking about bodies, and bodies are things. Things presuppose actions that presuppose persons that presuppose things. Or in yet another prosody: Could one imagine things that do not put limits to our possibilities of action? Could one imagine actions and mental states that are not actions and mental states of human beings? Could one imagine human beings that do not have bodies and in that sense are also things?
And this last "melody" is exactly the one used by N55 in "ART AND REALITY". The philosophical problem is, however, whether art may be drawn into this closely knit network of concepts, thereby getting the same kind of undeniably interconnected content as "persons", "actions", "things", etc.

Art and other artifacts

The manifesto begins with a set of rhetorical questions:

"Could one imagine art which had nothing to do with persons?
Could one imagine art which had nothing to do with other persons?
Could one imagine art which had nothing to do with concrete situations?
Could one imagine the existence of concrete situations without the existence of things?
Could one imagine concrete situations with persons in which the behaviour of persons had no significance?"

As the next sentence makes clear, the only possible answer to these questions is supposed to be negative: "There is no meaning in talking about art without imagining persons, their behaviour, things and concrete situations." And this seems to be convincing: Works of art must be something created by persons, probably for other persons, in concrete situations defined i.a. through things and the ways people act. What one should not forget, however, is that the very same kind of reasoning could be made for any other kind of artifacts:
"Could one imagine knives and forks that had nothing to do with persons?"
I am sure that this reminder will not disturb the N55 people in any way. The very point of their reasoning is exactly that art is an everyday thing. On the other hand the N55 people seem to think that art has some kind of special ethical value, or at least that their way of conceiving of art makes it possible to discuss works of art in a way that is not the one we know from everyday discussions of knives and forks. This seems at least to be the point in the afterthought to the conclusion with which I started this essay:

"This knowledge enables us to talk about art in a way that makes sense, and without allowing habitual conceptions, social conventions and concentrations of power to be of decisive importance to our experiences."

Why should the acknowledgement of art as part of everyday life relieve us from the temptations of "habitual conceptions, social conventions and concentrations of power"? These concepts are not mentioned earlier in the brief main text of the manifesto, and actually come as quite a surprise to the reader. They have, however, been introduced in the "Notes", so I shall now turn to them.

The Notes

The so-called "Notes" of the manifesto turn out to be much more comprehensive than the actual text. In the original "manual", the text comprises two pages, the notes seven. The notes are a kind of definitions and explications not only of the most important concepts of the main text ("persons", "concrete situations", "things", and "significance"), but also of "logic", "norms", and "concentrations of power". And except for the brief note on "things", the notes all end in a passage in bold type that draws some conclusions concerning art from the considerations on each main concept.
Whereas the main text only uses some kind of logical "zircle" in its reasoning, the notes combine logic and empirical facts. We meet logic e.g. when it is stated that it is part of the concept of a person that a person not only has a body, but that persons also have certain rights (even though this in itself does not determine which rights a person might have). But we meet facts (or a combination of logic and fact) e.g. when it comes to the above-mentioned "concentrations of power":
"Concentrations of power do not always respect the rights of persons. When one denies this fact one gets: concentrations of power always respect the rights of persons. This does not correspond with our experiences.�

And of course nobody would want to deny that!
Contrary to the concept of "concentrations of power", the concepts of "habitual conceptions" and "social conventions" do not have their own notes. "Habitual conceptions" enter the text as part of the explication of what logic is, as a kind of contrast to logical thinking:

"Most of our thinking and our discussions are conducted on a level where we repeat and repeat our habitual conceptions to each other. [...]
Logic is something more basic than language. Logical relations are what makes language a language and what assigns meaning to words. Therefore, it is impossible to learn a language, without learning to respect logical relations. But when we grow up and learn to master language, logical relations are not present on a conscious level. If we are conscious of logical relations, it is possible for us to decide whether something is right or wrong and not allow ourselves to be ruled by for example habitual conceptions and subjective opinions."

And "social conventions" are only mentioned in the note on norms. Here norms are defined - somewhat surprisingly - as "the expression of objective knowledge", and the view that some kind of objective norms exists is contrasted to the view "that everything depends on subjective opinions, and that one therefore can do or say anything, as long as one observes social conventions."
The upshot of these considerations for the N55 concept of art is a double one. On the one hand, N55 wants to make room for its own creativity by turning its back to the contemporary aesthetic establishment or institution of art:

"Examples of concentrations of power which have interests in art include: Mass media (represented by journalists, critics, etc.), capital (represented by collectors, gallery owners, etc.), governments (represented by politicians, civil servants, etc.), and science (represented by historians, theorists, etc.). One cannot permit these concentrations of power to have decisive influence and at the same time respect persons, the rights of persons or art."

On the other hand, these considerations open the door for what I above called the programmatic works, a group of works that had not really started when the manifesto was conceived. (LAND, started in 2000 , was the first and is still the most comprehensive). The germ of these works - the "idealistic" basic thought - may perhaps be seen in this passage from the note on "concentrations of power":

"Concurrently with the concentrations of power dominating our conscious mind and being decisive to our situations, the significance of our fellow humans diminishes. And our own significance becomes the significance we have for concentrations of power, the growth of concentrations of power and the conflicts of concentrations of power."

Considerations like these would normally call for political action. Most artists with more or less similar opinions obviously refrain from direct political work, but use their artistic creativity to express what they think and feel about society. The N55 people, however, have chosen a third way by letting a series of works represent (even though small) steps towards the realization of their ideas of a different kind of society.

Philosophy as art, art as philosophy

"ART AND REALITY" is not only an artistic manifesto, but also a philosophical text and must stand up to philosophical criticism. Does it hold good, is it philosophically convincing?
As far as I can see, the main idea of a Zinkernagelian "zircle" that does not only join the concepts of things, actions, mental states, persons, bodies, and things once again, but also works of art (as artefacts), having significance for persons in concrete situations, is indeed very convincing. That some of the other considerations contain a few examples of awkward reasoning and of jumping to conclusions does not affect the main thrust of the text But then again one should not forget that the N55 people are not philosophers; they are artists, even though philosophically (and socially and politically) engaged artists. And it is tempting to also look upon the manifesto as a work of art in itself. The very special structure and the insisting rhythm of the main text seem to invite us to do just that - just as the acoustic version that one can find on the internet.
But having said that, it may be just as tempting to also regard the by now fairly long row of artistic works by N55 as just as many contributions to philosophy - if not as philosophical tracts, then at least as a kind of philosophical manifestations. Seen like that, they all turn out to be arguments for one of the main statements in the notes of the manifesto, and one of the most both significant and beautiful ones:

"If one does not assign persons, their behaviour, things and concrete situations significance, then there is no reason to be concerned with art. Art has significance for our daily existence, because persons, their behaviour, things and concrete situations have significance for our daily existence."

Back to manual for DISCUSSIONS

Back to manuals
Back to HOME