Thomas Schlesser

Humanless Art

Fabien Giraud et Raphaël Siboni, sans titre (La Vallée Von Uexküll 5120 x 2700), Video 5K, 36 min, 2009 - 2014

Though contemporary philosophy, faced with global issues, strives to rethink and decenter man’s place in the world—which has been dominant in modern thinking—art historian Thomas Schlesser brings nuance to the common idea of a strictly anthropocentric relationship between man and the world, visible in artistic creation since the Renaissance. Identifying major moments of rupture at the root of anthropocritical visions in the history of art, he sees within them an expression of a form of leveling out of the importance of mankind on the scale of the living. Human fragility thus constitutes both an artistic motif and cause, particularly within popular culture. By analyzing a “cosmic dilution” of the human figure at the heart of historical avant-gardes and of abstractions, through to the performance and Land Art movements, Schlesser reveals an art racked by the disappearance of the human. Without claiming that art has mainly become a “universe without man,” he opens us up to the idea that the most interesting artists are those who intuitively propose “alter-egocentric” visions of the world.

Humankind against nature

In your book, the use of art as an interpretive lens enables you to dispel, or at least to qualify, the mainstream understanding of humankind’s anthropocentric relationship with the world since the Renaissance. What was the starting point of this research?

The starting point goes back to Pierre Huyghe’s exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in 2013, which was recommended to me by my friend Judicaël Lavrador. In an interview, HuygheSee his interview with Philippe Chiambaretta and Éric Troncy in Stream 03: Inhabiting the Anthropocene (Paris: PCA Editions, 2013) declared that his readings of Bruno Latour and Quentin Meillassoux—who endeavors to imagine a “world without humans”—didn’t only interest him but also confirmed his intuitions. I was particularly intrigued by this and, almost at the same time, rereading the part of Baudelaire’s Salon de 1859 where he talks about “the universe without man” and “nature without man,” ten years after my Ph.D. dissertation, something was triggered in my mind. I then decided to trace the genealogy of this idea or, more accurately, of the representations that artists form of it.

You identify three “moments” or “tragedies” that would historically explain the emergence of the great modern movements. How are these disruptions expressed in artistic terms?

In 1755, an earthquake devastated Lisbon and claimed several tens of thousands of victims over the course of two days. There were two conflicting interpretations of this horrible event: on one side, the conventional providentialist reading of the event, held by the Church, speaks of divine retribution which is beneficial to men; on the other side, a rational and enlightened vision, held by Voltaire and Kant for instance, laments a tragedy that stems from a contingency and states that nature isn’t moved by God’s spirit to punish men, but rather is an impersonal force that is indifferent to their fate. During the rest of the eighteenth century, a great number of major disasters occurred, giving rise to an eschatology that could be described as materialistic—in Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, in The Last Man by Mary Shelley, or in the writings of Saint-Simon among other examples. There looms a modern terror: that of an end to the human species that would arise independently from the end of space itself. Gone is the coincidence of the passing of mankind and the dissipation of history: the man could be gone and yet, history would carry on. What I make clear in the first part of my book is that, at the same time as this “anthropocritic” vision, there is also a promotion of annex spheres—animals, plants, and even “things,” if we consider for example the Barbizon school, Rosa Bonheur, Victor Hugo, or Jules Michelet—that also participates in the leveling of humankind’s place in the living world.

In 1860, then appeared the mental shortcut that designates man as descended from the ape, following the eminently outrageous success of Darwin’s Origin of Species. The narcissistic wound regarding the origins of man conclusively demolishes the fixed and unshakable representation of humankind, thereby reduced to an inconstant and temporary instance. I think we must consider the aesthetics of hybridization and the biological, physical, and mechanical speculations of symbolism or futurism as amplifications—either concerned or exalted—that are permeated with this new paradigm.

In August 1945 comes another moment of shock. Einstein himself declared that atomic weaponry “threaten[s] the continued existence of mankind.” Artists will produce many visual, literary, cinematic expressions of this potential eradication, and often very disturbing ones—I am thinking in particular of On the Beach, Nevil Shute’s excellent 1959 novel. The fragility of humankind becomes not only a motif but I would also say an artistic cause. And the problem isn’t nature’s random violence against man anymore but the chain of uncertain consequences stemming from the telluric action of humankind against nature, which is now the one that suffers. Hence a fascinating and stimulating paradox for the artists of the contemporary art scene: “The chasm of the Anthropocene, where anthropocentrism, which had just reached its full vigor, peaks precisely at that cut-off point after which the Apocalypse takes place.”

T1986-E16, Hans Hartung, Fondation Hartung Bergman

Art as a representation of the universe

You mention a “cosmic dilution” to express the dissolution of the human figure from symbolism to surrealism and all the way up to the emergence of the figure of the robot. How could the renewed relationship to the living and to the scale of things direct humankind toward abstraction?

I must first make a very obvious point: there is not one abstraction but, artistically speaking, several abstractions, which both experience a different intensity in the disqualification of the figure and that borrow from very different technical and theoretical avenues. From the point when the essential seemed beyond the reach of human perception—we are allowed neither the access to the infinitesimal structures of reality, nor the access to its most stunning cosmic deployments—painting engaged in another longing altogether: to plunge into the invisible and make the scales of our representations of the universe waver. The illusion of human centrality suffers a double knockout: not only is the human figure expelled but the forms that act as a surrogate on the canvas remind humans that their perception is terribly limited. Things are getting more complicated, however. Many painters have been inspired by this break with human scales to have the ambition both to relate their inner life and to support the creation of a “new man” through the use of abstraction. In short, one form of anthropocentrism is replaced by another; hence Motherwell’s quip regarding the “humanism of abstraction” during a famous lecture that he gave.

We obviously cannot elude the adventures of abstraction when we study the genealogies of the concept of the “universe without man.” But I found most artists to be fairly shy deep down as if a majority of them were afraid of going too far. I think that for artists such as Malevich, Fontana, Klein, and many others, abstraction should rather be thought of as an emancipating airlock of the human condition. This condition—our condition—is one of gravity. The physical gravity that nails us to the ground, but also the moral gravity in the face of our mortal destiny. For these three artists at least, abstraction has the explicit—and, obviously, completely fantasized—ambition to tear the spectators experiencing the artwork away from these two gravities, to elevate the mind and the body, and to make them levitate beyond the contingencies of humanity in a sort of cosmic dilution of being. I remember a passage written by the art historian Kenneth Clark in his classic essay, The Nude, Kenneth Clark, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (New York: Pantheon, 1956) where he discusses Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. He proceeds to briefly comment on the levitation of Venus and then expands on the allegorical figures on the left of the painting that represent the winds. In these divine ascensions, these corporal assumptions, Kenneth Clark is already seeing signs of the expression of a powerful emancipation beyond the human condition. I personally see a meaningful continuity between Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Malevich’s Suprematist Painting: Aeroplane Flying.

Can you say a word about the abstract painting that is used as a cover for your book, an artwork painted by Hans Hartung in 1986 that is held in the Foundation you run?

I have no hesitation in saying that T1986-E16 is one of the most exceptional artworks of the second half of the twentieth century. It was painted by Hans Hartung at the end of his life and features an airbrushed blue background, a projection of uneven accumulations of grayish painting rendered with a Tyrolean flicker gun, and much darker tones that give an illusion of relief that is almost satellite-like. In addition, there are a few traces, including some erasures in the upper part of the canvas, where we can discern the passage of a sort of brush or sponge. Though the artwork itself is very simple, it has many aspects to it. This makes it both obvious and complex. It has the crude and mineral aspect of distantly archaic things and a strange anticipatory quality to it because it seems as if it represents the dehumanizing images of Google Earth twenty years before they came into being. Finally, there is a sort of face that petrifies and fades out, or at least that is how some spectators experience it. This artwork is a telescoping of spatial and temporal scales that could only be achieved in painting by means of abstraction.

Ernst Haeckel, planche 93: Mycetozoa, 1904, Kunstformen der Natur

You also hint at the situationist movement, Land Art, and performance art, which are considered as a whole as being a form of disappearance of the human given that the idea is to feel at one with the environment and to lose ourselves in it. Incidentally, you have even experimented with performance yourself, with In Memoriam : 10 ans/10 heures, going against the “disappearance” and plunging into the depths of your individual recollections. Was remembering sensations, emotions, and events a way of feeling alive and experiencing your individuality? What was your objective?

I have never thought of the few performances I conducted in very intimate settings at the Générateur (Gentilly’s art center) as being particularly related to my scholarly research. But indeed, in 10 ans/10 heures, the protocol was one of a staggering confinement within oneself. I hadn’t rehearsed, had no notes or any kind of material, had no time reference and no audience at all—during the five first hours at least, when I was speaking to a video camera. I set out to tell the story of the past ten years of my life, without indulging in any break, from 2 p.m. to midnight. It would be hard to say what the “objective” was. I can assure you however that I was initially—over the preceding months—sincerely afraid that I would go mad and that I was somewhat changed by the experience.

10 ans /10 heures was, in its own way, a quest for the living. In a conventional way, the idea was to awaken and to verify what lives within us through memory but also what a basic memory exercise is capable of triggering in terms of corporal and affective recollections. More significantly, it was also an individual assertion of the mnemonic capacities of a human organism in the face of those of machines. I am not a fool: what we call human memory and computer memory do not fall into the same categories. At a personal level however, I am crippled by this sense of Promethean shame that Günther Anders described in The Obsolescence of Man: what a prodigious wealth of information machines can store—whole universes—compared to my own capacities. Being a historian, establishing how fast I forget is distressing and, once again, truly embarrassing. This is no exaggeration.

At my own small level, there was something extreme in this performance. I realize how modest, or even paltry, it is compared to what Robert Smithson, Bas Jan Ader, Richard Long, Piero Golia, Francis Alÿs, Abraham Poincheval, and others have done or are still doing. These artists set adventure protocols in natural, and sometimes hostile, settings and their work runs along the tense line between a reassertion of their humanity—as they choose and abide by a concept, and then bring it to its physical realization—and its dissolution in environments that extend beyond them, that threaten them and bring them down. Those are truly artists that put the human element at a distance.

2045-The Death of Ray Kurzweil, Fabien Giraud et Raphaël Siboni , The Unmanned saison 1 episode 1. Video HD, 26 min. 2014

Survivalism in art

As a historian, you look into the past but must also examine the present. At a time when our society has reached all-time highs in terms of the cult of personality, individualism, and the dissemination of its icon, and as humanity exponentially continues to pursue its quest for omnipotence, which artistic signs return individuals back to their insignificant and inconsequential position?

Indeed, at no point do I suggest in my book that art has predominantly become that of a “universe without man.” I am convinced however that many excellent artists—and, indeed, the best of them—intuitively present “alter-navel-gazing” narratives of the world. Sophie Ristelhueber’s works on war for instance. More generally, I am astounded by the way popular culture capitalizes on the fragility of humans. In my opinion, we should be talking about an age that is permeated by the “survival industry,” which is expressed through literature (The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks for instance), comic books (Hajime Isayama’s chilling manga, The Attack on Titan), cinema (Roland Emmerich’s movies) and, more than ever, video games, with a multitude of new, ever more ingenious titles which are released each year (Survive The Nights, for example).

Maurice Maeterlinck raised the following question back in 1890: “Will the human being be replaced by shadow, a reflection, a projection of symbolic forms, or a being who would appear to be alive without being alive?” How would you answer that question?

Actually, when Maeterlinck asked that question, he was thinking about theater, the forms of which he was trying to radically renew. He thereby initiated a fascinating artistic endeavor, which raises so many issues that have yet to be properly investigated: that of a scene with no actor. This is indeed a potential laboratory for a “Universe without man.” Science-fiction literature and cinema have routinely tapped that idea. Since I couldn’t discuss everything in my essay, I didn’t mention Adolfo Bioy Casares’s novel, The Invention of Morel (1940), but it has a very similar idea. It is the story of a scientist on an island who invents a system that records the movements and behavior of tourists and then renders them with the illusory precision of holograms, eventually causing an exiled, isolated narrator to believe that he is seeing real individuals, and even to fall in love with a woman who is in fact dead. That may be what is most staggering when we consider the “universe without man”: human beings have had such a tendency to depict themselves, and with such a quality of illusion, that their projected shadows—busts, photographs, films, paintings—could “survive” for thousands of years after human life itself disappears. All that would then remain are only signs of the human but with no-one left to conceptualize what that is; not a promise, nor even a sign.


This article was initially published in Stream 04 - The Paradoxes of the living in November 2017.

order the book-magazine