Just before Christmas, Knud Pedersen presented his latest book, “Kunsten ud til folket og hjem til kunsten igen, et testamente” (“Art to the people and back home to art again, a testament”). Flatteringly, he dedicated a chapter to me. And now you, the reader, will probably expect me to tell you in a few words who Knud Pedersen is, and that is no easy task. Explained very briefly, Knud Pedersen has since the early 1950s worked to make art available to everyone, first by means of Byens billede (The Picture of the City), an easel on a street corner where a new painting is put on display every month or so (the easel is still in use and is now to be found on Nikolaj Kirke Plads in Copenhagen), and from 1957 onwards via Kunstbiblioteket (The Art Library), where one could rent a work of art “for the price of a packet of cigarettes a week”. Throughout his long career, Pedersen has devised many more ways of getting art out to the people, for example by displaying it on the side of beer vans and by renting it out in jukeboxes. His most recent idea is ArtScreen: annoyed by the fact that he could only rent out paintings and small sculptures, art forms that make up a rapidly decreasing percentage of the total amount of art produced, he decided to offer digital access to art – in any form and shape – at the now-standard price of 57 crowns per month. If you are interested, you will find more information about it on the ArtScreen website.
Anyway, Knud Pedersen has written this book and he signals that it is his last one. Not only does he call it a “testament”, but he also suggests that he has come full circle: art out to the people and back home again. In the chapter dedicated to me, he describes a work of art he once made (I do not know the year, and to try and find out would be extremely problematic in the given context – see below). It consisted of two panels, the first one of which bore the instruction “Phone a taxi. When it arrives at Den Frie [the exhibition hall in Copenhagen where it was on display, PvdM], invite the driver to come inside and ask him to choose the work from the exhibition that he likes best. Move it from its place in the exhibition to the other panel with the legend ‘the chosen work’”. The other panel, predictably, read “The chosen work”. Pedersen did not make the panels himself and never even visited the exhibition. When the show ended, he arranged for the panels to be sent to the German artist Jochen Gerz, who buried it in the Jardin des poètes in Paris. Pedersen, therefore, never actually saw the work himself.
As Pedersen points out himself, what motivates the work is a rejection of the concept of the “work” of art, the idea that it needs to be physically produced and the idea that one needs an artist to produce a work of art. All this is perfectly normal for the time; it is my guess that the work was made sometime during the 1970s. As usual, the sting is in the tail. The concluding sentences of the chapter are: “As far as I can recall, this project has never been discussed by myself or others. Maybe it has never taken place”. And there he has me. How does an art historian, an academic, deal with this story? Of course one could travel to Paris and dig up the work, but to desecrate its grave in such a way would be to destroy both Gerz’s and Pedersen’s work. One could also take an easier way out and merely dig out the catalogue of the exhibition, but then, one would only find secondary evidence of its existence. Anyway, the panels are not the work. They can be recreated. The exhibition, on the other hand, cannot, so the work cannot be recreated either. The work only exists in the story, and the story is told by someone who never actually witnessed the work. This is enough to make any art historian nervous.
My worries remind me of a passage from Jean Baudrillard’s “Simulations” (1983): “It is always a question of proving the real by the imaginary”, it says, “of proving truth by scandal, proving the law by transgression, proving work by the strike, proving the system by crisis and capital by revolution, (….) – without counting: (…) proving art by anti-art (…). Everything is metamorphosed into its inverse in order to be perpetuated in its purged form”. What is especially worrying about the passage is the context. Baudrillard arrives at his statement via a discussion of the Philippine government’s decision, in April 1972, to create a reserve for the Tasaday, a people that were claimed to have lived in isolation since the Stone Age, and to close it for all visitors. The episode is now widely considered to be a hoax, but Baudrillard did not know that. What was at stake for him was the fact that in making further ethnological research impossible, ethnology (read: science) made a “simulated sacrifice in order to save its reality principle”.
What is at stake here is no longer the question of whether a particular work of anti-art was actually made, but whether it can be a subject of art historical investigation. I cannot have direct experience of the work, but the rules of the academic game demand that I produce physical evidence, preferably in a shape that looks acceptably archival: a document, a photograph, something that can be preserved and filed. Transposing the story of the Tasaday to Pedersen’s story, I can either discuss anti-art in an art context, thereby “civilizing” it, or I can explicitly refrain from speaking about it and so help to preserve a totally fictitious idea of a “savage” art. Either way, I give reality to an idea of art, rather than to the work. Art history as an academic discipline may seem to demand of me that I prove the reality of the work, but what I actually end up proving the reality of a theoretical construct called “art”. You will not find a single molecule of art in the entire universe, so any attempt to prove its existence must be disingenuous. Academia would give me ample opportunity to hide behind the image of the solid researcher who has order in his empirical material, but I would still be doing something else than what I claimed to be doing.
How to avoid this? An obvious answer is to refrain from referring to the Stone Age. The Tasaday were there, around 1970, and ethnologists spoke to them, but they had nothing to do with the Stone Age. By drawing in the Stone Age, people made it impossible for themselves to see what the Tasaday were. In art historical terms, this means forgetting about history. It means forcing myself to stop seeing Pedersen as a witness of something that happened some 35 years ago and to start seeing him as someone who is telling me a story, now, in the present. That is an effort it is important to make, because one of the things I am currently discussing with Pedersen is the 50th anniversary of the first European Fluxus festivals in 2012. Admittedly, it also means that I have to think about myself quite a lot, and that always makes for rather tedious, introverted, introspective, egotistical texts, but I guess we will all have to live with that. One of the ways of complying with Pedersen’s testament, and I think a good one, would be to stop thinking of this 50th anniversary as a direct line back to an originary event and to start thinking of it as an event in the present – as a story that is told now, rather than documentation of an event that took place back then.