Transcendence. History. Humanity. Remarks on Detlef Günther’s artistic work (part 3)

Philosophical reflections

“Heaven is here / Beyond the idea / To be forever lost / Beside the true behest / Of Earth” (Roy Harper)

III.1. A halo looking for its saint

How free is man really? And how far-reaching, historically speaking, is the pathos with which the Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola celebrates freedom in his (never held) Oratio de hominis dignitate from 1486? It seems that in his exhibition Human Image. Loving the Alien, Detlef Günther spans the arc from this oratorio to the highly topical trans-, meta- or posthumanist pamphlets of a Nick Bostrom or Stefan Lorenz Sorgner: excerpts from Renaissance paintings – sometimes with, sometimes without a halo – stand in this exhibition next to images of cybernetically, nano- or mor­pho­tech­ni­cally altered human bodies, limbs and heads.

In fact, theoreticians such as Bostrom or Sorgner like to cite freedom – which they pre­cau­tio­nari­ly classify as negative freedom – in their defense of the transhumanist, but D. G.’s collages seem more to place the question (What are the systematic connections here?), than trying to provide answers. For ironically, the representatives of transhumanism, who all see themselves as naturalists, refer exclusively to practices of physical: phar­ma­co­lo­gi­cal, morphological, genetic etc. enhancement, whereas the „perfection of man“, which Re­naissance philosophers such as Leonardo Bruni, Marsilio Ficino or Pico della Mirandola believed in, was more spiritual and ethical.

In any case, there can be no doubt about how the choice that God, according to Pico della Mirandola’s oration, presented to mankind (“You can degenerate down to the animal, or you can be reborn by your own will upwards into the divine”) would have been decided by the Renaissance philosophers. And another thing should not remain unmentioned here: The freedom of which Pico della Mirandola speaks in his text is a freedom given by God, i.e. it has not been won freely by man. Instead, it is a freedom whose foundation – here one could speak of an implement – is the lack of freedom: “We are,” says Pico, “born under the condition that we are to be what we want to be.”

So there is a kind of compulsion to freedom („man is“, as Sartre says, „condemned to be free“), a compulsion that the transhumanist can think but not deduce. For how could freedom be a freedom given by nature and explained by natural laws? From a scientific point of view, freedom would rather be a miracle, an illusion, it should not even exist, since it fundamentally contradicts the idea of a continuous determinacy of nature. The pathos of freedom, which occasionally arises in transhumanism, is therefore systematically rather questionable and historically unbelievable.


So is the idea of freedom necessarily bound to that of faith? And if so, how? In Detlef Günther’s works, which have been related to his Sen-Giotto project since 2007 – I will refer primarily to former exhibits (pic.7) – the problem is not solved. But in the sense of con­cep­tu­al art the fundamental questions are once again raised: From Giotto’s famous frescoes from the Capella Scrovegni in Padua, Italy, the artist eliminates all realistic pictorial ele­ments (persons, buildings, landscapes, even the sky is removed) and retains only the halos floating above the heads of the depicted persons, in their precise spatial configuration.

Picture 7: Saint Joachim’s Halos

So it seems that, in reversal of the usual historical perspective along the common thesis of secularization, the aureoles have lost their angels and saints, and even their human holders. The manifold references to angels and saints and saints and humans remain, whereby this is shown by the trick of retaining their spatial assignments. But there is nothing or no one left to take over or be exposed to these spatial assignments. The glow of the divine is misleading, precisely from the moment when the relationship between the sacred and the human is interrupted.

What remains is the idea of transcendence, an idea in which – in a world increasingly aban­do­ned by God – freedom and faith are linked. In the negative theology of Nicolaus Cusanus, which is so important for the beginnings of the Renaissance, this idea is ar­ti­cu­la­ted for the first time in its main features: If, because we cannot know anything positive about God, we also cannot know whether he exists or does not exist (the basic idea of the so called docta ignorantia), it is always a question of faith to assume that he exists or does not exist. In this way, even the atheist is still a believer, and therefore, whatever we may think about the “final things,” and perhaps even about penultimate things, we cannot not believe.

Nicolaus Cusanus

But then there still remains a possibility, a last possibility to make use of our freedom: by no longer having any opinion about the fi­nal and penultimate things, by abandoning the history in which such opinions were the focus of thousands of years of thought, i. e. by abandoning the history of mankind. In the post-, trans- or me­ta­hu­ma­nism of the present, this negative possibility has be­come a re­a­li­ty: If we cannot know something, then, it is assumed, we can only remain silent – our discourse is forever in the circle of im­ma­nen­ce. It is a closed, self-contained discourse, and that alone seems to be the solution … It is a discourse without trans­cen­dence that – pa­ra­do­xi­cally – affirms a certain physical self-transcendence of man.

III.2. The necessity of history. The indeterminacy of the human condition

But freedom and faith are not absolute; they are not realized in a vacuum, but always only in a historical context that is itself constituted by freedom and faith. Detlef Günther re­views this history in many of his exhibitions – this is the idea of his concept. Again and again he returns to the Renaissance, as in Dignity of Man (2006/2010), in Human Image (2017) or most recently in The Mirandola Series (2019; pic.8). It’s the model that serves for him as a point of departure, i.e. with which he relativizes his own artistic freedom. This freedom is not only negative freedom, not only that of an „anything goes“. It stands in the historical context of mediation. If it’s a wanted context, it’s positive freedom, if not, it’s negative freedom.

Picture 8: The Mirandola Series


Freedom and lack of freedom, faith and lack of belief, transcendence and immanence col­lide in this context. But this is precisely the initial historical experience of the Renaissance, which we can and indeed must call upon, since we share its historical a priori: By claiming to imitate the past („the ancients“, „antiquity“, „Rome“, etc.), Renaissance artists, ar­chi­tects, philosophers, and writers experienced the imponderables of imitation: „An in­ter­lo­cu­tor in Castiglione’s Hofmann explained: If we imitate the ancients, we are in fact already different from them, since the ancients imitated no one else.“ (Peter Burke)

The imitation of originals is therefore always original. But for this very reason it is also im­pos­si­ble. The Renaissance artists, architects, philosophers, and writers did not initially see the distance between past and present, which is completely natural for us today, as we are through and through historical subjects. Everywhere they saw, as Foucault has shown, si­mi­la­ri­ties across historical but also systematic distances. But when they were confronted with them – they went to Rome, practiced textual criticism – they realized that for a ple­tho­ra of forms there were no antique models at all, they saw the abyss that separated them from their models. The material they found, as it were, repelled their projections – back onto themselves.

Erich Fromm

Only this movement of projection and rejection – which is re­con­struc­ted and anticipated in the work of Detlef Günther by virtue of his engagement with the Renaissance – can thus be regarded as a model for the idea of a coming human being, a being that has its birth, its determination, already behind it, but its trans­cen­dence, its indeterminacy, still before it: Transnaissance – as a new form of the Renaissance in the sense of a renaissance of hu­ma­nism: „Without wanting to prophesy anything,“ wrote Erich Fromm in 1961, „I believe that to­day, for modern man and for man on this earth in general, there is essentially only the al­ter­na­tive between barbarism and a new renaissance of humanism.“


Is it possible to paint a portrait of man? Not a portrait of just a human being, but of the human being itself? It seems that in his series of works Grund. Transnaissance no. 2 (2016), Detlef Günther in fact made a daring attempt to do so. In Dignity of Man (2006 /2010), with explicit reference to Pico della Mirandola’s speech on the dignity of man, he had only formulated the program for such an attempt, a program that he was to take up again ten years later with Transnaissance no.1 (2015): If an image of man is supposed to be possible – and for an artist this must literally be an image of the human being itself – then it can only be an indeterminate image.

In his work of the same title, Indeterminate Image (pic.9), this assertion was first il­lus­tra­ted with reference to the dynamic understanding of man in the Renaissance. The work depicts an image of this indeterminate image: Above an excerpt from Mirandola’s speech, enlarged to form a poster almost four meters wide and one meter high, are photographic images of two heads of mannequins whose faces are obscured by black bars – comparable to a digital or genetic identity code. To the right of these images, in an intense blue, is the inscription ‚Indeterminate Image‘, with the word ‚Indeterminate‘ highlighted by the shard of a broken mirror as if by an exclamation mark.

Picture 9: Indeterminate Image

In the works of the series Grund. Transnaissance no. 2, the indeterminacy of man himself, and not only that of his image, becomes the image – it is depicted in the image as in­de­ter­mi­na­cy, as a black background. It’s as if the black of the digital, genetic identity code has become universalized. But appearances can be deceiving, as they are here: The ten pictures seem monochrome black at first glance, but they are not. That’s because each of them has a different structure that makes them unique. Through a gestural application in several, sometimes clearly visible layers, as well as through blurring, the black can appear lighter or darker depending on the incidence of light and the perspective of the viewer: the color shimmers back and forth between black and blue-green (pic.10).

Picture 10: Grund. Transnaissance No.9

This not only shows a progress in the history of Detlef Günther’s work: The blue lettering – the philosophical slogan – dissolves in the picture, is shifted into the invisible, and pre­ci­se­ly through this process is made “visible”. The series of works also represents an ad­vance­ment in the conceptualization of indeterminacy. This is not pure indeterminacy: that of an arbitrary, negative freedom without transcendence and history. It is instead an in­de­ter­mi­na­cy – and thus unimaginability – that cannot be anticipated or relativized by any ge­ne­ra­li­ty, neither by society nor community. It comes into play in the transition from the general to the singular, from the common to the individual, from language to speech, from po­ten­ti­a­li­ty to actuality: that of the human individual, the last instance of humanity.


Infos from the artist himself:

Infos from Wikipedia:ünther_(Künstler)

Über Christian Kupke

Philosoph, Autor + Dozent
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