In Berlin

I was at Spike Art’s headquarters last night in Berlin-Mitte to listen to Tino Sehgal. He was invited to give a lecture in the context of the Saas-Fee Summer Institute of Art.

The space chosen for the lecture was packed. The audience overflowed into the adjoining rooms. Sehgal’s approach to the situation reflected his intellectual concern for the evening: questions about ritual, holism, art, experience, involvement. Given the crowd, he elected to leave the podium, preferring to stand at a corner where he was more directly involved with everyone. I found his easygoing interactions with the audience and his modest aim – to better understand cooperatively the text he’d brought with him – a refreshing corrective to the stylized performance of latinate art theory that’s typical of this cultural scene. As we know, Sehgal isn’t interest in performances, but rather situations.

Sehgal had selected a text, “Art and Reality,” by the American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, in which she, in my opinion, reacts to the fragmentation of experience in modernity. She locates and criticizes this fragmentation in the context of art in present-day society: the museum, the artist as individual. (Reaction is to be distinguished from the practice of questioning and understanding.) She claims that to better understand the problems of the relation between art and society, we’d better consider indigenous religion, rather than studying indigenous culture according to our limited categories of music and design.

T.S. Eliot in his “Notes Toward a Definition of Culture” – which, interestingly enough, was also published in the early 1940s – remarks at the outset of his essay that it’s very difficult to separate religion and culture because we’re dealing here with the matrix of meaning. (My words.) Essentially, Mead is concerned with organic unity at an ontological level. (But I don’t think she’s aware of that.) If we want to understand the leaf, we cannot do so without considering the tree. The tree is religion, culture, the organic whole. The leaves are the different cultural products, such as “art.” For Mead, these considerations have to do with her question concerning “art and reality.” That which unifies “a phrase of Balinese music, the design of a Balinese frieze, or the pattern on the border of a cloth” is the common root.

According to Mead, art should cause an “increase in the whole individual’s relationship to the whole of life.” This is not what, according to her, modern art does. In fact, Mead’s characteristically modern intellectualism is a symptom of a larger movement which the unease underlying her tendentious critique puts her in touch with, but which she hasn’t understood. Nietzsche remarked from the beginning that thinking leads to dis-integration. What modern thought dispensed with when the efficient cause became the new God of explanation was holism. The problem of ontogenesis and teleology remain, by the way, inaccessible to contemporary physics. (See “Making Sense of Life” by Evelyn Fox Keller.)

Mead is reacting to what I’d call the “idiocy of individualism.” (The list of people who have merely reacted to modernity instead of thinking it through is endless.) The word “idiot” comes from the Greek word idios which means “private” or “one’s own.” We call people idiots when they can no longer communicate with the rest of us.

How can we be together but still experience ourselves as individuals? We are dealing with the relationship between the general and the particular. It has been remarked upon by various thinkers that an exaggeration of individualism leads to an increase in a certain rigidity and generality of social structures. We lose ourselves at both extremes: the idiot is cut off from the space of meaning in which it becomes first of all possible to be someone; the extremity of abstract generality destroys the particular content that makes being an individual possible.

The general and the particular meet in the present. There is a temporal-historical component here.

It seems to me that Tino Sehgal is questioning, experimenting with, understanding this.  Ritual isn’t something we ever got outside of. We’re so much inside ritual, that we don’t notice. Somehow ritual allows for one to be an individual in the whole. Rituals are repetitions, but they are never rote. They thus maintain the balance, in the temporality of the situation, between the general and the particular, the individual and the collective.

Another thinker who was nearly obsessed with holism from the beginning, is Martin Heidegger. The tension between the general and the particular runs through “Being and Time” like a fault line that threatens to simultaneously break apart and close forever. In my opinion, studying his works is the key to understanding all of this. But that would be some serious thinking.