About Asger Jorn

Opening Speech to the First World Congress of Free Artists in Alba, Italy

The Congress of Free Artists took place September 2 - 8, 1956 and was organised by the 'Experimental Laboratory of the International Movement of a Imaginist Bauhaus', a project initiated by Jorn in 1953.

Asger Jorn

We have organized a Congress here. Why? What reason can there be for artists, the freest, most independent people in society - people who live like "the lily of the field" - to come together, organize themselves, and undertake theoretical discussions?

"Create, artist, do not speak." This speech has been made to us all too often by people who claim to speak for us, think for us and act for us: politicians, intellectuals, industrialists, teachers, art critics and others. And we have always been betrayed.

I create, I think and I speak. But all thought does not exit from the mouth: man's entire body thinks, and the entire body speaks, too. We speak with gestures as well as with the tongue, and, like the dancer and the musician, the painter speaks with gestures that he imprints on matter that is independent of him. It is this transmission of the gesture that we call pictorial creation. In our language the artist can express himself thus: "I don't seek, I don't find, I create."
This explanation shows that the artist has no need to express himself in a language that is not that of his art, and that any attempt at theorization is indeed a waste of time and energy. This would apparently seem to mean that our Congress is totally useless. Unfortunately, it isn't: the reason why the artist is today obliged to speak out is not that the public demands a literary explanation of a certain kind of artistic creation, it is that it always gets false ones.

Art critics who claim that painting cannot be explained in musical terms have no scruples about explaining music as painting in literary terms. The very existence of criticism seems to have established its raison d'etre; and, if we denounce this lack of logic, it is not to have done with it nor to take its place, but to put ourselves on guard against confusionist practices, and to indicate the way toward a more precise and sounder basis. The error of the first Bauhaus was encapsulated in the motto of the Staatlichen Baushauses Weimar Manifesto: ARCHITECTS, SCULPTORS, PAINTERS: WE MUST ALL GO BACK TO BEING ARTISANS.

This motto had a certain pertinence in its time, perhaps, but today, on the contrary, the artisanal has become an insignificant realm in comparison to that of industry and that of free art.

The first Bauhaus was the logical transformation of the craft schools that had sprung from the academies. It's true task was not only to replace the craft schools but those devoted to fine art as well. The error that led to its failure was that it recoiled from the struggle against the organization of the academies which, contrary to the scientific faculties of the universities, have remained purely speculative and formalist enterprises.

This failure was manifested most strikingly in the hostile attitude of the first Bauhaus to the experiments of the painter van Doesburg and the Dutch group de Stijl, an error compounded still further by the heads of the new Bauhaus at Ulm who, in response to our attempts at rapprochement, suggested collaboration with the fine art academies, the latter being, in their opinion, abreast of the problems that are imposed on art today - a notion that is clearly as aberrant as it is habitual.

On the contrary, we who are faithful to the ideas of Gropius and Le Corbusier are convinced that contemporary academicism is worse than it ever was in this domain. In the review Eristica, we clearly demonstrate the reasons for their inevitable failure, and we insist on the fact that the resolution of the basic problems of the first Bauhaus depends on the supersession of academicism in the realm of the fine arts, which is confronted with the supersession of the artisanal by the industrial world.

It would be a big mistake to class us amonmg the anti-academic autodidacts. We are neither against the craft schools nor the fine art academies, as primary and even secondary schools. That is not our concern. We merely wish to state that world-wide progress in the realms of art and technology has resulted in so much formal confusion that the founding of an INSTITUTE OF ARTISTIC EXPERIMENT AND THEORY, on a par with the scientific institutes, beyond professional, artistic or industrial problems of an academic kind, imposes itself with enormous urgency. The founding of the Institute is our precise and direct aim.

The banner of the artistic Avant-Garde has always seemed suspect to me. Extremism is usually an empty attitude. I've always speedily distanced myself from those who walk around with the medal of the avant-garde on their breast, and yet it has never interested me to go forward without being able to go to the extreme. I've always tried to make the closest contact with the people and the intellectual milieu in general. For this reason, it's a great disappointment to me to have to recognise that our movement has reached a stage where only the name of an avant-garde movement can be applied to it.

There are two conditions that apply for a movement to be called avant-garde. In the first place, it must be isolated, without direct support from the established order, and given over to an apparently impossible and useless struggle. I think everybody will recognise that our movement exactly fulfills this first condition.

Next, the struggle of this group must be of essential importance for the forces in whose name it struggles - in our case, human society and artistic progress - and the position conquered by this avant-garde must later be confirmed by a more general development.

It is only in the future that we will be able to find precise justification of the prior condition. This yet remains in the realm of hope and belief, even if numerous expressions of sympathy, and our own certainty of the merits of our enterprise, give us an assurance of its success.




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