Transcendence. History. Humanity. Remarks on Detlef Günther’s artistic work (part 2)

(will be published in the next days)

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Transcendence. History. Humanity. Remarks on Detlef Günther’s artistic work (part 1)

Conceptual Art

“Wandering and wandering / What place to rest the search? / The mighty arms of Atlas / Hold the heavens from the earth.” (J. P. Page & R. A. Plant)

I.1. Multilingualism and its development

Detlef Günther is an artist who makes use of a multitude of media codes and is able to express himself in them: in paintings and drawings, collages, objects and installations, photographs, video works and multimedia environments. If one wanted to summarize this multilingualism of his work, this heteroglossie (to put it in terms of a con­cept coined by Bachtin) in one term or under one title, one would have to call it conceptual.

Conceptual not primarily in the sense of conceptual art that first designs the concept in the form of a plan, which can then be produced by other people in a so-called post-studio pro­duction (Günther‘s approach to an installation entitled Sen Giotto ­ The Manifestation of Volumes might possibly be understood in this way; pic.1), but rather in the sense of a con­ceptual under­standing of his own art activities and art works.

Picture 1: Sen Giotto – The Manifestation of Volumes

On the one hand, everything revolves around the concept of humanity and the (implicit) question as to whether it is possible to portray the human being itself, rather than just individual people. Günther pursues this question by dedicating himself to the historical reappropriation of certain pictorial elements and themes of the Renaissance, e. g. the hu­man face in the “Faces of the Renaissance”, or the halos resp. aureoles in Giotto’s frescoes in the Arena Chapel of Padua (pic.2) According to the artist, the aureole is “a trembling of what has come to its com­pletion“, as a “supplement that adds to perfection.” (Giorgio Agamben)

Picture 2: Arena Chapel of Padus

To whose perfection? To that of man, or more pre­cisely: to his absolute, unlimited freedom, as the Re­naissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola im­pres­sive­ly conjured up in his speech De Hominis Dig­ni­ta­te / On the Dignity of Man. And that is why the artist’s work is always concerned with the con­cept of freedom, and here with the question of how far this freedom extends at all, how perfect, how absolute it is: whether it extends beyond the con­cept of hu­ma­ni­ty, as it is the case with the current phenomena of so-called „trans-, meta- or post­hu­ma­nism“, or whe­ther it suspends this concept, makes it cease to exist, because it is always bound to certain notions or ima­ges of humanity.


The development of the conceptual heteroglossie in Detlef Günther’s work over the years can be briefy characterized as follows: Initially, at the end of the 1980s, the artist devoted himself to the unstable relationship between human figure and space. Then, in the early 1990s – for example in the project Gelb 92 – he dealt with the manifold patterns of seeing. Here, the openly visible, the obvious in its combination of form and color, was at the fore­front of his artistic interest: how is one and the same form or figure, one and the same co­lor perceived in different spatial, temporal, material, and situational contexts?

At the end of the 1990s, in the Twosuns project, Günther developed new forms of in­ter­ac­tion, especially with digital media. In the course of an accelerating electronic development there was an increased confrontation with the innovative modes of production offered as a result as well as their effects on perception. With his last works since 2006 (Dignity of Man and Sen Giotto, but also in his purely painterly works Trans­naissance no. 1 and Grund ­ Transnaissance no. 2), the artist finally faced the question of – or the challenge of – the invisible in art, once again with reference to classical production methods.

Ideally speaking, this development was and is about balancing two different boundaries: the boundary between the analog and the digital on the one hand, and between the visible and the invisible on the other. Both boundaries are es­sentially the same in essence – less in terms of art theory than in art practice: While the invisible – thought, vision, or in­tu­i­tion – can be understood as the pro­duction principle of the visible (it is the invisible that is made visible), the digital code can be understood as an invisible production principle of the analog (it is the digital code that gives the analog its analogicity).

The formula that can be easily found for this double context of refe­rences is the phe­no­me­no­lo­gi­cal formula of the (invisible) reason and the (visible) figure – which in turn vaguely reminds us of the Platonic idea of the difference between idea and appearance: reason and figure are separated from each other and at the same time connected with each other, but in a way that occasionally makes the reason appear as an abyss and the figure appear as so deprived that there can no longer be any talk of an appearance itself of the idea or an ap­pear­ance of the idea itself (think of Gün­ther‘s oil paintings from the Twosuns cycle, but also the mysteriousness of the aureoles that have been robbed of their holy figures in his Sen Giotto project).

I.2. Space of the image and time of the concept

For clarification, we would first like to draw attention to the artist’s pain­terly works, in par­ti­cu­lar to the series Grund. Transnaissance No. 2 (pic.3). The pic­tures in this series are monochrome, but not monoform black. In this respect, they belong together, they are one, but each of them is one, an individual figure – in­dividual and figurative by virtue of a blue that communicates with the black of their background in different ways, literally sharing it with the black. In this respect, the pictures have a correspondent relationship with one an­other; they are variants of each other. However, with one exception: that of the last picture (pic.4), which has a special status because it is the only image that is not monochrome throughout, and it also has its own title.

Picture 3: Grund. Transnaissance No.2

This title is The Power to Believe and it is reminiscent of a CD or song title by King Crim­son which says: “She carries me through days of apathy / She washes over me / She saved my life in a manner of speaking / When she gave me back the power to believe”. One gets the impression of a certain ambivalence here: On the one hand, the text association ap­pears to be coherent, for it is not a question of just some type of power but instead of the human power of faith, that which distinguishes man as a human being. But on the other hand, the association is also incorrect or incoherent because the song title appears only as a possible and by no means necessary exemplification of what is depicted in the picture.

Picture 4: The Power to Believe

What does the picture depict? Instead of being monochrome black throughout, the pic­ture, unlike all other pictures in the series, has a small rectangular colour field at its center. Its blue, which is sometimes more intense, sometimes less intense depending on the in­ci­dence of light and the viewer’s perspective, blurs with the surrounding black ground and seems to have difficulty standing out from it. It’s as if the blue tones of the other pictures had been concentrated in the last picture, or as if the dark blue of the last picture had merged with the black of the other pictures.

A closer look reveals that the painting has a peculiar facture: The artist has painted several layers of paint on top of each another; it has a haptic that rejects any illusionism. These layers mark, almost invisibly, two window-like frames, so that the blue in the center of the picture exerts a specific effect on the viewer. It is as if it were attracting the viewer or, con­versely, coming towards him; as if it were alive inside, were an autonomous power – pre­cisely the power to believe described in the title: perhaps an idea, or an ideal awaiting its own creation.


In Detlef Günther‘s painterly works, as demonstrated by the series of works just discussed, less and less or nothing is depicted. The visible appears out of the invisible as a blue fi­gu­ra­tive from a black abyss, from which it flashes up but is nevertheless not really able to detach itself. It is not possible to tell a story or explain some type of phenomenon here. These pictures have deta­ched themselves from the supremacy of the world of things, li­be­ra­ted themsel­ves from themselves. They have become meta-pictures in that they spe­ci­fi­cally address the history of the possibility of the appearance of the idea – of man, his faith, and his freedom.

Space and time, image and concept, the visible and the invisible come together here – in space, in the image, in the visible. It’s as if the artist wanted to draw attention to a move­ment, but at the same time undo it – a movement he once described in a conversation as follows: “There is something that can be referred to as a cult of inwardness, which I think is something different from the narcissism that everyone likes to talk about today: The in­terior, in the compulsion to achieve self-realization, in the dictatorship of the ex­ter­na­li­za­tion of individuality as singularity, is transferred into the exterior; time plunges into space.”

Time plunges into space. This means that we don’t just go out through the door – we do this every day: We are constantly expressing ourselves and so coming outside of ourselves. Rather, the issue here is that it seems as if this were the only way to get inside, the only way we to get to the interior of our­selves – in through the out door. The reappropriation of history, our history, in­dividual history, but also universal history, seems to be interrupted, because history – that is the truth of post-history – is made again and again, without any pause for breath. Man always encounters his own effects; wherever he goes, he is already there. There is nothing else anymore.

Or is there? It is as if the halo or, as Giorgio Agamben might put it, the aureole in Detlef Günther‘s work once again raises this question again, the question regarding “ the other.” Because it has lost the holy figure who had worn it, the aureole seems to have lost its place among men, withdrawn itself into a distance from which it can no longer be retrieved, can no longer appear, or appear only in such a way that it acquires a completely new function in the visible – as a pure con­stellation in space (pic.5), as a pure context of reference that refers to nothing more than (in the metapicture): transcendence.

Picture 5: Sen Giotto (Halo without Man)


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In the coming month I will be placing a text on this blog in an extra slot – outside the series, so to speak – that will deal with the works of the exceptional artist Detlef Günther. For me, these works set a truth, an exceptional truth in motion, which, if I were to center it in a single sentence, I would characterize as follows:

All art is human. And that is exactly what it is about.

One can doubt that and say that art points beyond the human, at least beyond the purely human. But then you only claim a triviality. Because to be human is to be beyond yourself. Also in Land Art, in Arte Povera, in Process Art, etc. The whole staleness of post-, meta- or transhumanism becomes clear in the face of such a triviality, such a „poor“ truth.

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I was wondering if I might delete my last blog post. It doesn’t seem to be tenable to me. What I write in it: about science, which does not exist in its generality, totum pro parte, is for the most part – I apologize for it – nonsense, pure blabla.

So I should delete the post. Or maybe not? Maybe it makes more sense – quite apart from the fact that it’s more honest – to leave it there. Because one’s own mistakes are often the ones that – à propos philosophy – allow one to look deepest and through which one learns the most.

I have written about disappointments / disillusions and what they mean. And I said: we are all too fond of deceiving ourselves; we rarely want to face the truth. So we’re dis­ap­poin­ted when we’re surprised by the truth, and then we cheat ourselves.

Just as it happened to me the other day, when I wanted to write about it: Instead of the truth I wrote nonsense, blabla – which doesn’t mean to have written the untruth, but some­thing that comes close to the truth, to another truth, but, of course, in a weird way.

So do I really have to reckon with the possibility of writing nonsense or even blabla in my own thinking? And to reckon with letting it stand for fear of disappointment / dis­illu­sion­­ment, for fear of having nothing to say?

Yes, I must reckon with that. Even if nonsense or blabla are certainly not the fine words that meanwhile belong to the canon of bourgeois education.

But fine words are not meant to be. For I am not knitting here elaborately turned treatises, but philosophical notes that are intended to clarify a process of thinking that does not stop at disappointments / disillusions.

In other words, I am not concerned here with a loving contact with myself or my own thin­king. Such an approach would be embarrassing for me. It would only lead to a false con­si­de­ra­tion, to a weak thinking, which actually does not look the truth in the face.

Finally – I would like to stress this once again (cf. my blog post of 28.7.13) – nobody simply has any duty against himself; he imposes it on himself or not.

But every human being has a fundamental duty – and from it duties – against others: to re­spect their freedom. This is the asymmetry in the relationship between me and others that no theory of so-called intersubjectivity can ever eliminate, precisely for the sake of in­ter­sub­jec­ti­vi­ty.

By the way: It is always a certain nonsense from which one works oneself out, it is always a certain nonsense that one recognizes and negates as such, and it is always a certain blabla that one opposes with a less naive speaking and writing. Ultimately, thinking is always what it has become what it is. It is the trace of itself.

Self-disappointment? Yes. For even in disappointment deception is still possible, one’s own narcissism gives one a leg. Precisely for this reason, caution against deception and all the nonsense it entails cannot be great enough, especially in relation to oneself. At least I hope so, for my readers.

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Why „disappointment / disillusionment“? What does „disappointment / disillusionment“ mean?

I say: we are all too fond of deceiving ourselves; we rarely want to look the truth in the face. Especially if it is a negativistic truth: that we do not really know what is true and real (in itself), but also not what is good and meaningful (for us).

Precisely because we do not know (or only think we know) whether philosophy is a sci­ence. But we like to be mistaken about that and are disappointed when it is not true that we know it: when our knowledge does not prove itself, when it does not pass the test of time.

But why not? Why do we not know what is true and real, what is good and meaningful?

First, we do not know it because we are finite and thus historical beings, i.e. the truth itself is always a finite and a historical one.

So we would have to be able to stop the process of the continuous on-one-end approach, of this series of events, which is history, in order to be able to say once – not even once and for all – what is true and real, good and meaningful.

Secondly, we don’t know it because we are individual and thus intersubjective beings, i.e. the truth is always also an individual and intersubjective one.

This means that the process of the continuous on-one-end approach is a multiple, plural process: everything and everyone is approaching its end here, the individual in his com­mu­ni­ty / his society, the society / the community with its individuals.

There is no stopping, but always something new, no pausing, but always new challenges, against which the old truths, what used to be meaningful and good, fade.

But, one might ask, isn’t science, precisely then, the only and only reasonable answer?

Far from it. For as it turns out, in the end every science disintegrates into a multitude of sciences, which all produce their own truths, which at a certain point – a point of no return – no longer communicate with each other, are no longer compatible with each other.

It begins with the soft sciences: with pedagogy and political sciences, social and cultural sciences, history, ethnology, etc., which disintegrate into schools and doctrines and are at best still held together by fashions and mainstreams, so-called turns: the linguistic turn, the cultural turn, the iconic turn, the body turn, the communicative turn, etc. (see here for an unironic description of a scientific description of such turns).

Then, at some point, the hard sciences will also be seized. Just think of the inextricable con­tra­dic­ti­ons in physics about space and time, matter and energy, or of the so-called neu­ro­sci­en­ces, which can no longer get a foot on the earth at all and which we, the phi­lo­so­phers, have in our ears with „insights“ – they are only speculations – which have to be re­vised every two / three years.

Meanwhile I am almost ashamed to have taken part in such debates myself (fortunately only with inferior contributions; see my bibliography No. 30 and No. 46).

Everybody goes there, keeps his own little machine running and hopes to become part of a scientific community, pressure group or lobby to be able to help shape a small one.

What about what? Nobody knows that. Millions and millions of dollars and euros have been and are burned in this way – because it goes on and on – , dollars and euros, which could have been used much more sensibly in many places.

In other words, science has become our favourite activity for not changing anything and for not being responsible for anything, really for nothing at all.

Because: The sciences can only describe what there is. They cannot – and do not want to – change anything about being, or if they wanted to change something – but they do not want to – they would no longer be sciences. That’s it.

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I can inform the readers of my blog this month that the first version, i.e. more precisely the typoscript of my book announced in December last year (cf. here) is finished. The book is entitled „Disappointing Thinking. Philosophical Sketches I“ (the numbering indicates that more volumes, at least two, will follow).

The book will contain a number of texts that I first presented to the public here in my blog years ago, but also a number of new texts that will be dedicated to the title-giving theme of „disappointment / disillusionment“.

What does the word „disappointment / disillusionment“ mean in a context that is not psy­cho­lo­gi­cal but philosophical? Philosophically, it means the ongoing process of questioning deceptions / illusions, i.e. that of dis-appointment / dis-illusionment.

In my understanding, however, such a process is not an anonymous one, not even an ob­jec­tive one. Its result may be objective, even if it is always uncertain, but it is not objective itself. It is always an individual and subjective process, carried by a subject struggling for it and in it.

Therefore, the disappointment it brings is not only philosophical in the narrower sense, but also psychological: Disappointing thinking is not only the thinking that uncovers il­lu­si­ons and in this sense disappoints, but also the thinking that suffers a disappointment and in this sense is disappointed.

Philosophical action and psychological suffering, philosophical action and psychological pas­sion – both are connected in the title „Disappointing Thinking“ and only together make up what I – in the broader sense – understand by „philosophy“.

For me, „philosophy“ is therefore committed not only to truth, but also to truthfulness, not only to cognitive experience in the objective sense, that is to say, to knowledge, but also to life experience in the subjective sense, that is to say, to certainty.

An important sentence, in which the principal arrangement of the book, but also the claim just explained in the term „philosophy“ becomes clear and which is also explicitly for­mu­la­ted in the book, is: „Philosophers who do not also speak of themselves are not“.

In this respect, in this philosophical book – and I attach importance to calling it that way – I do not speak only, but always also of myself. This may surprise you at first, since today „philosophy“ is more of a scientific discipline.

However, this understanding of philosophy as a scientific discipline is for me – I’ve made it clear again and again in this blog up to the point of overtaxing myself – an extreme shor­te­ning. In my opinion, this can neither be justified historically nor systematically.

Historically, it cannot be justified because philosophy has, since its beginnings in the so-called „pre-socratic“ philosophy, but especially in modernity with Descartes and Kant, Husserl and Heidegger, Foucault and Derrida, formulated and tried to assert a com­pre­hen­sive claim to knowledge, which can never be brought into full agreement with the spe­cialized claim to knowledge of the sciences, such as biology and physics, but also, for example, the historical sciences and ethnology.

And systematically the shortening of philosophy to a scientific discipline cannot be ju­sti­fied, because there is at least one conceptual pole at which science and philosophy must necessarily separate from each other: at which philosophers, e.g. in existential philosophy for existential philosophy or in ethics for ethics, can justifiably question and doubt the meaning of science.

For there is no scientific philosophy of existence, and there is also no scientific ethics. It is especially difficult for philosophers to understand the latter in our scientific age.

The publisher of my book has therefore recently suggested that I give the following title to the series of books I have planned: Critique of philosophy.

After some hesitation, I was not averse to accepting this proposal.

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Not much this month. Two quotes that made me think.

  • Sam Freeze, one of my followers (see, writes about my last contribution in which I measured postmodernism against the promises of modernity: „Interesting take on postmodernism. I’m not sure postmodernism ever promised a fulfilled modernity though. As I’ve come to understand it, postmodernity didn’t promise (nor did modernity for that matter), it simply became. Things changed enough to be given a new name.“

That’s true. Postmodernism could simply be anything other than modernity. And it could have simply given up the promises of modernity. The idea, however, of simply giving up these promises or having already given them up – at least the most serious of them: uni­ver­sa­lism, for example, or human rights – this idea frightens me. So in my opinion, post­mo­der­nism should also be measured against the promises of modernity.

Every historical epoch must, to a certain extent at least, be measured against its pre­de­ces­sors (we simply have no other yardstick; Le Goff’s „history without epochs“ doesn‘t con­vince me at all). So postmodernism is either a new epoch, or it is not. If it cannot be mea­sured against modernity, it is not a new epoch either. If it can be measured against mo­der­ni­ty, it must put up with being perceived as a catastrophe.

This leads me to my second quote.

  • Paul Mason writes in Clear Bright Future (cf. „The universal rights guaranteed by the UN treaty are being punished with lies in torture camps, refugee camps and commercial prisons. If you find this enduring, always remember that the postmodern left has paved the way for it in a 30-year campaign against universalism.“

I find that convincing. I have nothing against the left. I am one of the left too. But I have something against the postmodern left with all its relativism, which it would like us to see as pluralism, and against its tendency to deny, for the sake of maximum political freedom, the ethical freedom of the subject to such an extent that actions can be excused and justified that clearly fall behind the humanism of modernity.

This humanism can be seen as an ideology. There are enough indications that those who believe this humanism to be true are at the same time trampling it underfoot. But an ethi­cal truth – beyond the suspicion of ideology – does not become untruth because no one se­ri­ous­ly follows it. And I find it downright pathetic that the few people who seriously follow it are denigrated as „naive“ or „politically correct“.

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