Go heavily ethically!

Ole Fogh Kirkeby

- interviewed by Kristian von Hornsleth

In twenty years the centre of the world is China and India and we are left to be reservates for tourists. So there is nothing else we can do in order to defend ourselves than to go heavily ethically!

Copenhagen Business School, April 2nd 2008

KvH: How does aesthetics in art today relate to ethics in relation to Adornos ideas of aesthetics?

OFK: It's a very good question, I think. Now it could be a very difficult to explain Adornos idea of aesthetics in a few minutes, but let us suppose that we know what we would mean about it, when we speak about Adornos aesthetics, shall we do that.
So, I would say Adornos aesthetics is of course tied up to or closely related to a concept of trancendency that the beauty is sort of immanence, it is always escaping you, in a way I think, and if it didn't escape you it would be of course reificated or estranged immediately because you are served by the commodity society.
So there is a fight between the ideas of aesthetics which always have to transcend themselves in order not to be functionalized pragmatized and strategized, and I think it is exactly the same with ethics, and of course with business ethics, and also with what would you call common life ethics, because every time you get a maxime, or every time you define what the good is, you would end up by making it functional strategic and pragmatic.
So there is the same movement in ethics, it has to transcend itself, or it has to transcend its articulation in this very second. When I speak out what beauty is I always in a way make it a part of the commodity society or the capitalistic society, so I always have to create a discourse which transcends itself, and this is exactly the same with ethics. It have always to transcend the very shape of the beautiful, the form of beauty, it has to fight it and to get through it, and the same with the good.

KvH: So how close is Adorno today?

He is very close because he has the central idea of aesthetics today because, every time you try to articulate or formulate or phrase or put into a final shape, the concept of beauty, you will destroy it. This is also a romantic idea, and there are of course many romantic ideas in Adorno, and this is the same when the good is emerging everywhere, it is going to be part of business practise, it has to be, because you can't brand yourself with out social responsibility.
And I think it was always the condition with religion as well, because if you try to be a very good person, and not to be too self righteous, you sit down and you pray: Oh let me not be to sure on my own goodness, and in this very gesture, of course you expose this attitude that you are trying to escape. So if you pray: Oh, don't let me be self-righteousness, you can't escape being self-righteous. It is very difficult to escape it, so you have to pray another time, that's the third order and so on. And it's the same with beauty I think. Every time you settle down with a fixed form and think: Now we got the concept of beauty, then you can be sure of one thing: You haven't got it! I think that is what Adorno said in a way.

KvH: What do you understand by the concept of 'fair' and 'fairness', and how does this relate to contemporary art marketing strategies?

OFK: To my opinion there is a fairness both in the new movements of art focused on installation, events and so on. And also in the market too, because you can only be fair if you are, in a way provocative. Again you have exactly the same figure, you have to transcend fairness, in order to be fair. You have to challenge the concept of fairness and generosity in order to be fair and generous.

KvH: How would one transcend fairness?

You have to find alternative ways to be fair, and in a way you also have to make a game with the conventional and the solid and very good concept of fairness. Fairness might be aggressive, how do you treat another person fairly. Do you have to take really care about the person or do you have to try to transform the person. I think the real genuine fairness has to be bound to the attempt of transforming. You have to change the others through fairness, and that is not because of the fairness. And you also have to make the rules yourself, so you can't bind fairness up to following the rules. And that also include the marketing strategies, they are closely related, when you pay 100 mill dollars for a Pollack painting. I love Pollack's work, but I think he would have laughed himself to death, if he saw that.

KvH: Can one at all talk about fairness in such an act of selling art at 100 mill dollars?

OFK: No, because in a way again you transcend, which I think is the logo of this interview. You transcend the concept of market value, and of course there is no relation anymore between a sustainable concept of aesthetic quality and the work of art, and there are other factors in the game which are difficult to locate. And of course very much speculation and marketing, but in a way there always were in art. No piece of art actually was ever paid fairly! Either too little or to much, I never thought there was a balance.

KvH: How do you think ethics and art relate today?

OFK: I think that ethics in order to be real ethics has to build on what I call ethical imagination and the sense of the event. And because it has to build on the ethical imagination and the sense of the event, it has to build on the power of judging, of the sense of the event. Real ethical acting is an art!
Like real genuine leadership is an art. That means that there are no rules, you have to break the rules and create the rules. There is only one currency in ethics, and that is feelings and emotion, and you have to express emotion. And this is very difficult because in ethics you have canons and codes of how you express emotions. And you have to break these codes. And this is the story of Christ of course, breaking all the codes. In a way also the story of Saint Paul, breaking the codices, and letting emotion in. In Greek the word is "tropos", which means the same word for the tropics. Tropos means deep feeling, sense, attitude, total absorbing attitude and to turn your mind around.

I think you cannot act really ethically unless you are turning you mind around. There is another Greek concept, "epistrephain". When Mary went down to the Jesus' grave, only in saint. John's gospel, she sees that the grave is empty. She begins to cry, because she thinks there has been a robber removing the body and so on. Then she hears something behind her back. And then she turns around, and sees the rising Christ. And the word for turning around is "epistrephain", that means you turn your mind around and you turn your body around, in the same gesture. Later on you translate this word to conversio, to convert, to change believe, and when you change believe you get baptised, and then the body will follow the mind.

KvH: Let's hope they turn into something fair?

OFK: I never think religions were fair, but in the beginning they were, probably because they were genuine felt, and then they got dogmatised, and institutionalised, and they got hell on earth.

KvH: You are promoting the idea of art and leadership, why is art able to fulfil propositions of leadership?

OFK: Because art improvises, and genuine leadership has to improvise because art creates the way it looks at the world, because art is devoted totally to attention, because the core of leadership is attention. "Prosoché" in Greek, the virtue of the stoics, "prosoché", "attention" in Latin, the "hexis of prosoché", the mode of attention, always to attend to yourself, to the others, the world, and to the way you practise attention. And what art does is to see what we others pretend not to see, and the leader has to do the same, he actually has to see what there is to see, and this is very difficult because your own intentionality, motives and interests, always direct your plans and your vision. Art has to develop an alternative form of vision, looking on the other things on their conditions, and exactly the same must the modern leader do.

KvH: And our friend Jackson Pollack, he really navigated this pattern of transcending and didn't stumble into anything on the way?

He was an icon I would say, because he changed his way of seeing by doing, and I think the leader has to do the same thing. Because you cannot change your vision before you do something first. You cannot sit contemplative and change your vision, you have to act, and Pollack acted when he painted.

KvH: How does this kind of leadership relate to Adorno's aesthetics and ethics?

OFK: It relates in the way that it tries to develop its own criteria of beauty, and I think that real leadership has to go for a very special kind of excellence, which it defines it self. You have to define your own excellence, and that is also what the genuine artist has to do. You have to define your excellence on the conditions of your interactions with the medium, and you have to do it on the condition of the medium, not on the condition of the transferred forms and shapes, on the canonical ways of looking, and of experiencing. You have to develop exactly your own personal criteria of excellence and mastership.

KvH: That's why there are so few of them?

OFK: Yes, but when they succeed, they succeed. There will come a lot of them, there has to.

KvH: Can we cultivate them and bring out more?

OFK: Yes by bringing them very early in relation to intelligent philosophy and intelligent art. It was from the time of the Greeks, the best areas of teaching.
Philosophy and art, that's it! - and rhetoric's of course, but that is in the combination of philosophy and art.

KvH: Is it possible to give examples of art taking leadership in contemporary societies?

OFK: That's more difficult I think. In a way I think the theatre played this role, for many years since Shakespeare, it was what the Greeks called "protreptic". Protreptics was a discipline in the executive academies of Greece. It was a discipline being the core of the executive academies in Greece, founded 400 years before Christ. The idea is to change the attitude of a person, to teach the real important things in life. To turn another person to the real values, not to the pseudo values, but to the real values. To turn the person to reflect on, what do you want in your life?

KvH: Could film art do that?

OFK: Both film and theatre can do it, they expose to us the way we interact with others and the way we present ourselves.

KvH: And bad television and bad art makes us bad persons?

OFK: Yes of course, bad television is a disaster, and there is nothing else but bad television.

KvH: Are we then back to state consulting television?

OFK: There is a very interesting thing. You can fake reality though television, but you cannot fake television through television. You cannot fake fiction. You cannot make a Meta level on fiction. That means that the only real level of reality or the only true level of reality is actually fiction. All the real reality we only know though a way in which it is perverted.

KvH: Unless you are out there on the spot yourself?

OFK: And when you do it you just make a new Meta level and then you make it even more genuine, like you do when you put your Hornsleth name on your work, you put another level on it, and then in a way you intensify reality, by amplifying fiction.

KvH: Which importance has the art sytem for social development in terms of innovation?

OFK: Extreme importance, because the real importance of innovation today, I think is communicational, that means that art presupposes, that the artist is able to change his way of looking at the world. And real invention has to come from a real serious shifting of context, a real serious shifting of perspective. But today innovation has to go on as collaboration between the consumer and the firm. Real art was always collaboration between the virtual consumer and the work of art, in relation to changing the way of looking at the world. You have to do the same today in order be innovative.

KvH: Please clarify me on the virtual consumer?

OFK: The virtual consumer is not the consumer now who says I like this, but it is what the consumer might learn to like by thinking himself together with the developer and the innovator in the firm. What art does is to create virtual consumers, because real good art has got very few consumers, until they learn to be consumers of this art. So that is again transcendency, it has to transcend the immediate experience of the consumer. And teach the consumer to use his own power of imagination and his own power of realizing, his own basic normative theme, what he really wants with his life.

KvH: Until now I sense a very optimistic approach in you arguments, it surprises me in good way, as we are surrounded by so many people who refuses to go into this transcendental way of thinking, do you have some kind of hope or trust?

OFK: No, I would say I have a very sober or even objective evaluation of where things are going to, because of the world wide web, because of the political consumer, you simply have develop new ethics, you have to combine aesthetics and ethics in order to sell, in order to get new employees, in order to develop the firm, its economy logic. Of course there are a lot of losers in the third world, but they will come. In twenty years the centre of the world is China and India and we are left to be reservates for tourists. So there is nothing else we can do in order to defend ourselves than to go heavily ethically!

KvH: I often wondered why the thinkers and the artist are running behind evolution commenting and if they are so clever, why they are not in front of the car of evolution with the evolution following the thinkers, is an this absurd?

OFK: No, because I think that was the way it really was and is, that art and real good philosophy was always ahead. They were always in front.

KvH: So are cynical marketing, bad culture and bad television etc leading us the wrong way?

OFK: Yes, but it cannot last, because people are getting more and more educated, more and more reflective, because of their content of their work, they are forced to think, and they won't accept it.

KvH: Its like the people who are doing this magazine we are doing the interview in, fair arts magazine, they want to express an alternative to the present miserable arts communication, in a way they are already trying to transcend as an reaction?

OFK: Yes, but I think the big inspiration from philosophy come from Gilles Delueze because he thinks like that. I don't think like that because I read delueze, I think like that because I was a Marxist, I can se things the way they are, because of the economic logic. It's a very cynical approach and a very realistic approach, to see the function of art and philosophy in history, It was always 10 to 20 to 50 years before with every thing, It simply had to be, because it had not the same economic interest. Not the same cultural interest – except for a few prosperous artists. And if you don't suppress yourself in relation to certain canonical interests, you think automatically in another way. Because you will not profit emotionally and intellectually form what the rest are thinking. Its logic for hens as we say, cage hens?

KvH: Industrial poultry?

OFK: Yes, that's a very good word

KvH: What importance has the art system on political global development?

OFK: Its more difficult, because I think, the best thing in art is to create a virtual community, which is not liable to be concurred by the interests of power, it's a sort of spiritual virtual community. Not spiritual in this new age sense, more in a way to have the right to think life through categories that liberates life. Because the most important concept of all in the western history, is the concept of freedom, and liberation, and art always knew that.
That's why art was ahead, because it always knew the demarcation lines, of what is in your power and what is not. It was very good at taking a stand from the point of what is in your power, and then going into the other area, the chaos where you have no power. And moving the demarcation line. The others just work on the line, and created it into a fence. The kamikaze, the suicide bombers.
Real art is a sort of kamikaze movement.

KvH: What about Stockhausen and his comment on 9/11?

OFK: In away he was right, but in another way he has not the right to say it. I wouldn't say it, but I would perhaps think it.

KvH: If art is so important, why are the writers, artists, thinkers and scientists so badly paid?

OFK: We are actually going into an area where they are going to much better paid. That's again economic logic, but of course they have to badly paid, because they cannot have the same economic interests as the rest of the system. When you become rich you begin to think in another way, and you begin to move your attention, you worry about the million you lost last night because of the fluctuations in the stock market. As an artist you cannot afford at all to think about these things, because all your energy, all your mental powers, all your emotions has to go into one thing.
The artists cannot for long periods have any economic interests common with the system. You have to have manifested your own new focuses of intention and attention. And then, of course, then you will sometimes when you pass the faults and pass the thirties and get money, but that is alright. In the beginning you must be counteracting the system, a sort of revolutionary.

KvH: And hopefully end up as visionary?

OFK: Yes, and not stop the visions

KvH: Looking back to the last 30 years market, there seems to be new huge army of artists out there making career, when I was a child I sensed that artists was somewhat detached from the cynical logic, and, today if you go to the big art fairs, you see huge turnovers, I refuse to se it as a bad thing, what do you think?

OFK: I don't think it's a bad thing, its an old historical phenomenon, which is returning, the fact that the artists is recognized as an artist, that means a person which is able to do something that others cannot do. I think that's good. What could be bad is if this person compromises himself, by not using his talent, and what he can do the right way. But because you are well paid you can easily use your talent and your capacities in the right way. That's the great difference. Rubens didn't compromise himself, or didn't sell his soul, he was well paid.

KvH: And Architects?

OFK: Some of them are so powerful that they can do what they want to do, and I think that's all right. Of course there will always be people that compromises themselves, in they live in this way a bad life, because the don't realise their real authentic ambition, but that's their problem.

KvH: Thanks for you time and most generous participation.

Ole Fogh Kirkeby
Professor, Doctor of Philosophy
Department of Management, Politics & Philosophy and Centre for Art & Leadership
Copenhagen Business School
Info: www.cbs.dk/staff/ofk