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Philosophy of the Arts

Filosofie van de kunsten (esthetica)

Wiener Aktionists and Taboos

Researching for my paper on Immoral Art, I came across “works” from the Wiener Aktionists. On a site with truly horrible short films from the 1960s there is a film showing Otmar Bauer vomiting, eating his own vomit, and so on. Next, there are several films showing Otto Muehl in horrible, and dirty scenes; there is messing around with excrements and urine, masturbating in the presence of a baby, and so on.

Several questions surface, such as 1. ones about art: is this art? Why would it be art? Is this good art? Are these instances (avant la lettre?) of Immoral Art? 2. And, obviously (is it obvious?) ones about morality: Isn’t it immoral to behave like this? But most of all: 3. questions about taboos: What is the relevance of this breaking of taboos? What is its artistic or its moral relevance? Well, first: what is a taboo?
Q. Is breaking a taboo immoral?


…Taboos precede the moral realm

A. Well, breaking a taboo for fun seems indeed to be immoral but I think this is due to the fact that taboos precede the moral realm. We don’t need a moral rule against auto-mutilation or systematic hungering, because it is evident that either is wrong—evident, because it is endangering not life-supporting. Taboos regulate our respect for the integrity of bodies, rather than the integrity of persons, and it may be clear that the latter presupposes the former.
For instance, there is no moral incentive against eating your own vomit, so why is it taboo? Well, we don’t eat our own vomit because it is life-threatening. Similarly cannibalism is taboo because it is life-threatening; similar with incest; masturbating in the presence of babies; auto-mutilation; demanding the right to see inside your own body (Orlan); smearing people with excrements or urine.
Such behaviour is life-threatening because it makes people sick, breaks them or destroys them. If someone has a hang towards such actions he (and people surrounding him) must be protected against his behaviour. Psychopaths, I guess, have some sort of fascination for lilling flesh too, but surely there is no reason to present an art audience with that fascination, is there?

Q. So, how do taboos precede the moral realm?
A. This can be seen looking at situations where they are broken, for instance, after a place crash it has been reported that sometimes cannibalism occurred. We understand this; we don’t say “But this is immoral, bring these people before the law”. The taboo was broken for the sake of survival, and because taboos are to prevent life-threatening situations, when the situation itself is already life-threatening, breaking the taboo might be a lesser evil.
The works of Immoral Art which I discuss in my paper, in contrast, do concern our morality. Marco Evaristti, Santiago Sierra most notably. Aktionism is not Immoral Art

Not Immoral Art

…Wiener Aktionism is immoral. But it is not Immoral Art…

Are these instances (avant la lettre?) of Immoral Art? I don’t think so, because breaking taboos is not about the moral, nor do they embody the moral. The material of these “works” (bodies >> Body Art) consists of stuff not standardly available to make art from or with (in that sense they might fit my definition of Immoral Art). But what is at stake in what these “artists” do with that material is taboos, not moral incentives.

Body Art

Body Art is a genre in Performance Art. It concerns the integrity of the body of the artist: a consenting adult. Body Art does not dirrectly concern or implicate the body of the viewer in the audience, even though the viewer may respond physically to the horrors on view. To see the Aktionists “scrutinise” the limits of their bodies integrity—or rather: transgress these—is not to scrutinise one’s own physique, or transgress its limits. Instead, the viewer imaginatively scrutinises his conception of bodily integrity.
These works of art are persons too—their personal bodies are transgressed, not just any body. This is by all social norms abnormal. That these artists would choose to do as they do may be motivated by some artistic consequence, but that does not make their behaviour—as the persons they are—any less abnormal, deviate, perverse.

Immoral Art, in contrast, does implicate the agency of the viewer.

Body Art concerns the tabooed limits of the human body. The scope of these “works” lies well below the moral, below semantics generally. These “works” are genuinely shocking. I must admit: I have no clue what else to think of them than to advise psychotherapy.
Aktionism is fascination turned into sickness.

— van Gerwen, Rob. 2010. “How the Present Rise of Immoral Art Helps Clarify Both the Definition and the Moral Autonomy of Art. A Post-Script to Ethical Autonomism.” ms.

UBUWEB: Vienna Actionist Films (1967-1970)

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