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THE ASSAULT ON CULTURE CHAPTER 11 (pages 60-64)
GUSTAV METZGER AND AUTO-DESTRUCTIVE ART
Gustav Metzger (born 1926, Nuremberg, Germany) identified destruction as one of the crucial elements in twentieth-century art, and on the basis of this observation became a one person art movement. He gives a description of his artistic development in "Auto-Destructive Art - Metzger at the AA" (an expanded version of the lecture notes for a talk given at the Architectural Association 24/2165, published by A.C.C., London 1965):
"In 1957 I had reached a strong dissatisfaction with the materials of painting. I needed something tougher to work against than board. The following year I did a series of paintings on mild steel. I used a palette knife which in the course of paint application scraped and incised the steel, giving reflections, This did not satisfy either, I wanted to use some of the machinery I had been reading about in the "Financial Times", Presses of tremendous power that respond to a minute fraction of an inch. I wanted to make sculptures with these machines, controlling them rather like an organist does his instrument. It was months after I had given up these plans, partly because of the extreme difficulty of realising them, that I hit on the idea of auto-destructive art.
The first manifesto of the new art form, entitled simply "Auto-Destructive Art", was issued in November 1959. This proclaimed:
"Auto-destructive art is primarily a form of public art for industrial societies.
In this short statement Metzger set out the platform of ADA (auto-destructive art). It was the founding manifesto of a movement which never came into existence, and was followed by four more manifestos which failed to find adherents. Metzger was influential, but most of those who sympathised with him preferred to join the nouveaux realiste and fluxus groups. ADA should thus be seen as a tendency typified in particular by Metzger and the early work of Jean Tinguely.
"Acid action painting. Height 7 ft, Length 12' 6". Depth 6ft Materials: nylon, hydrochloric acid, metal. Technique. 3 nylon canvases coloured white black red are arranged behind each other, in this order. Acid is painted, flung and sprayed onto the nylon which corrodes at point of contact within 15 seconds.
The pieces, such as these, which Metzger actually realised, fall a long way short of his ambitions for ADA. In his 1965 lecture at the Architectural Association, he described plans for pieces which would have taken years to complete and required public funding on a massive scale:
"The... construction is to be about 18 feet high with a base about 24 ft, by 18 ft... It consists of mild steel 118 inch thick. The structure consists of three slabs. These highly polished forms exposed to an industrial atmosphere would start to corrode. The process continues until the structure gets weakened by the loss of material. In about ten years time most of the construction will have disintegrated. The remaining girder will then be removed and the site cleared. This is a fairly simple form of auto-destructive art and not expensive compared with the next project
These unrealised projects of Metzger's bear a conceptual affinity to the Unitary Urbanism of the early Situationist International; like the SI's conceptions, if implemented, they would have increased the visibility of the dynamic of change already implicit in any urban environment. And like the SI's conception of urbanism they would have altered the individual's psychological relationship to the urban environment.
Metzger developed his "aesthetic of revulsion" (auto-destructive art) as a therapy against the irrationality of the capitalist system and its war machine. In many ways it represents a form of institutionalised waste with fewer anti-social consequences than those generally employed by capitalist states. In his talk at the Architectural Association, Metzger emphasized that the ADA was:
"not limited to theor(ies) of art and the production of art works. It includes social action. Auto-destructive art is committed to a left-wing revolutionary position in politics, and to struggles against future wars."
Metzger, and thus ADA, was also opposed to the art dealer system. He believed that ADA should be publicly funded because art dealers were not interested in 'fundamental technical change' where no profit was to be made from it. According to Metzger, ADA was socially necessary as the only possible substitute for war, and thus nuclear annihilation, in a society peopled by individuals who were psychologically warped from an entire lifetime of sexual repression.
However, ADA failed to attract any kind of government funding, and when Metzger and the poet John Sharkey organised the "Destruction In Art Symposium" (DIAS), London, September 1966, the event "was run on a voluntary basis and the artists paid their own expenses". It was the month long series of events around the three day symposium held at the Africa Centre (September 9/10/11 '66), and not the discussions themselves, that attracted the attention of the media. These events included "Explosive Art Demonstrations" by Ivor Davies in Edinburgh and London, which featured among other things mannequins and an enormously enlarged photograph of Robert Mitchum being, literally, blown apart. Perhaps the most powerful piece performed during the DIAS events was Yoko Ono's "Cut" (Africa Centre, 29 September '66). Members of the audience were simply invited to get up onto the stage and remove Ono's clothing using a pair of tailor's scissors, while she knelt motionless for the hour the action took to complete. The strength of Ono's piece lay it the way it attacked traditional assumptions about the relationship between audience and performer; despite its apparent simplicity it effectively revealed a complex web of social relations which under normal circumstances remain unchallenged and undiscussed. Herman Nitsch's "5th Abreaktionsspiel of OM Theatre" was the event which captured the most attention. It consisted of the ritual mutilation of a lamb carcass over which images of male genitalia were projected. Two journalists, shocked by the obscenity of the action, complained to the police, and as a result Metzger and Sharkey were each fined one hundred pounds for having presented an "indecent exhibition contrary to common law". This was Metzger's second brush with British law; in 1961 he'd been imprisoned for a month as a result of his anti-bomb activities with the Committee of 100.
After DIAS, Metzger maintained his interest in ADA, but alongside this his distaste for the exploitative aspects of the art world grew. In his 1962 "Manifesto World", Metzger had described gallery owners as "stinking fucking cigar smoking bastards". By 1970, Metzger was London organiser of the "International Coalition For The Liquidation Of Art". (1) In the catalogue accompanying "Art Into Society, Society Into Art" (lCA London, Octobe/November 1974), Metzger called for a three year art strike between 1977 and 1980. (2) During this period artists would 'not produce work, sell work, permit work to go on exhibition, and refuse collaboration with any part of the publicity machinery of the art world'. The protest itself was a failure: Metzger was the only artist to strike and the art world, contrary to Metzger's wishes, did not collapse. However, the exercise bore more than a bitter fruit, because by refusing to produce art, Metzger was refusing the role of an artist. This single gesture demonstrated the fallacy of popular ideas about artists as individuals possessed by an uncontrollable creative urge. It also showed that it was possible to break with the privileged positions certain militants had come to occupy within capitalist society. Metzger realised what Vaneigem and various other specto-situationists could only partially theorise - the rejection of roles - and for this alone he will not be forgotten.
1. The fact that Metzger vacillated between calling for a totally institutionalised art system which would provide the necessary funding for ADA and the abolition of the existing art system, is not as contradictory as it may at first appear. His disappointment at not being funded by the existing institutionalised art system (which in my opinion is because his work has nothing to do with the dominant definitions of art) led him to call for its abolition.
2. The earliest recorded use I've found of the term 'art strike' is in "What's To Be Done About Art?" by Alain Jouffroy (included in "Art and Confrontation: France and the arts in an age of change" edited by Jean Cassou, Studio Vista, London 1970). However, as the following quote will demonstrate, Jouffroy's conception of an 'art strike' is very different from Metzger's:
"Let us have no illusions about it: most "art critics" are going to carry on as if art were not abolished, as if art couldn't be abolished; most "artists" are going to continue to believe in the "artistic" character of their production; most gallery-goers, art lovers and, of course, buyers are going to ignore the fact that the abolition of art can really occur in the actual time and space of a pre-revolutionary situation like that of May '68. It is essential that the minority advocate the necessity of going on an active art strike, using the "machines" of the cultural industry so that we can more effectively set it in total contradiction with itself.
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