How could artists harm society?




H.-D.H .: You have been working with a new distinction for some time. Instead of distinguishing between "system" and "environment", you distinguish between "form" and "medium". What is specific about this concept of form?
N.L .: Well, first of all I would say that it does not take the place of the system-environment theory, but is an alternative formulation, whereby both formulations "system - environment" and "form - medium" can justify each other. This is the first. The concept of form itself is actually taken from George Spencer Brown's calculus of forms in "Laws of Form", according to which all observation is based on a distinction and the form is the unity of the distinction. So form is not a beautiful figure, a special thing, but the difference between the thing and its surroundings. This used to be explained with "shape - background" or such distinctions.
H.-D.H .: Gestalt psychological explanations
N.L .: Yes, things like that. Now the difference is simply highlighted more sharply, which is constitutive. So it's not about an object, it is the difference itself that is form.
H.-D.H .: That seems to me to be very useful for the analysis of art. This gives you a very flexible concept of form that can always be explored anew. But now your decisive thesis is that this formation makes something visible - that is the old thing of Paul Klee: Art makes something visible - but at the same time also makes something invisible again. I am now interested in this invisibility through form, through art. What do you think is covered by form in art?
N.L .: If you stay in the field of surgery, I would say the unity of distinction. You then only see what is different. When you see that a certain line, a certain color, a certain spot makes a difference, that is, manifests itself and thus makes or emphasizes something else dead or meaningless, if this difference is always at stake, then you oscillate between the two Pages, you either think of this new ingredient, this new line, this new stain, this new color effect, or of what you have to do




to keep him in the picture, but not both at the same time. The unity of form disappears in use or in observation.
H.-D.H .: Isn't it possible to see both at the same time? I am thinking of the Rubin Cup, where you can see the cup on the one hand, but also the two profile faces alternating on the right and left. I think if you let that jump back and forth a bit, then at some point you will see both at the same time, the face and the trophy. Then one would be able to see the unity of the difference
N.L .: Then the unity would be an effect of speed in alternating the two possibilities
H.-D.H .: The perceptual attitudes ...
N.L .: But in principle it is the same as with paradoxes. They say something is true because it is false, so it's false, so it's true, so it's false, so it's true. You can of course accelerate this so quickly that you can see the paradox yourself, so to speak, but cannot do anything with it. If you want to do something with it, you have to go to one side or the other of the distinction, then you have to say that the paradox is eliminated with logical operations, set theoretic or as always, and now the truth is true and I stick to it. And then I work with it. And in exactly the same way an artist who is at work or a viewer who is analyzing would have to say, I now see the meaning of this side of the picture because the other side challenges it. And I don't think that can really be condensed into a consistent, unified impression. Of course, you have finished painting the work afterwards, so to speak, or you have analyzed it thoroughly, and you have this unity in the sequence of focal points or foci of work or observation. But you don't come back to a unit from the sequence.
H.-D.H .: It is a well-known experience that the distinctions and designations that one makes while observing fix and determine the result of perception. The conceptual fixations, however, are one of the main obstacles to an adequate understanding of art. Now, when you say that one has to choose one side or the other of the distinction, I wonder whether the moment one decides on one thing one does not overlook and miss the other?
N.L .: On the level of direct observation, I would say that one has to stay on one side when using it, because otherwise one would deny what is different as different. But one can of course make the distinction as such the subject of a further distinction. I can say yes, for example, here are effects that are based on color contrasts, and now I want to go through "large - small",




through another distinction, neutralize or intensify precisely these effects. So one can make the distinction again on one side of another distinction. But then you use the instruments of observation, differentiation and labeling a second time, and you get out of this misery of only being able to really distinguish one side.
H.-D.H .: What then makes the world unobservable?
N.L .: If I want to distinguish, I cannot at the same time want to see the unity of the distinction, the indistinctness of what is different. That is why I have the idea that the concept of the world, the unobservability of the world, is a correlate of the operative paradox of the observer who, as an observer, cannot observe himself or who cannot see the distinction as a unit, unless with the help of another distinction .
H.-D.H .: We are now talking about art, i.e. we are already communicating about art on a second-order observation level. You yourself described art as a social system. Can you briefly explain what you mean by this?
N.L .: By social system I understand in a very general way a system whose operation is communication, i.e. which constantly replaces communication with communication, i.e. has to continue communication with another communication. I am not only thinking of language, but also of gestures and all sorts of things, but at least of linking processes between systems of consciousness. So when I describe art as a social system, it means that the operation is communication. Of course, this does not exclude the possibility of analyzing psychologically. This does not exclude that a work of art can be seen as a form, i.e. as a difference in relation to the environment in which it is to be seen, or




can also analyze in relation to other works of art, to predecessors, to other style decisions, etc.
H.-D.H .: So if someone paints the Mona Lisa with a beard like Duchamp e.g.
N.L .: Yes, you can do that. Or you can also localize the Mona Lisa as such in terms of time. One may wonder why a youthful train comes into a woman. So there is an abundance of distinctions one can make in analyzing a work. What sociology contributes is the question of whether not all of this ultimately owes its reality, its social existence, to communication. This would mean, for example, that the artist places distinctions in the production so that he observes what another observer will observe when he sees the work of art and vice versa. In the more recent aesthetics one says yes, a viewer understands the work of art only if he recognizes the means, or in my language, if he recognizes the way of observation with which an artist has produced the work of art in the work, so that in this sense art just as language is a mediation between observations.
H.-DH: So you understand communication not only as verbal communication between people who talk about art, write art reviews, or argue about whether this is art or not, but you set communication on the level of the works themselves at.
N.L .: Yes, that is crucial. Otherwise it would be really banal to say that the art critics write articles and that after the theater performance people talk about how it was. As a sociologist, you don't need any special theories for this. The decisive point is actually that an artist actually wants to address other observers, one could almost say. He would like to achieve adequate observation of his work, namely through the peculiarity that one does not somehow have the choice to see anything. When you see the work, you see the decisions or the observations that produced it. And you understand something of what was wanted. I also call that communication.
H.-D.H .: Is there an opportunity to make art outside of the art system?
N.L .: No, I would say there isn't. Every system - economy, science - is based on the continuity of its operation; it is based on the recognizability of belonging. If something is not recognized as belonging to art, it is not art.
H.-D.H .: But it could be the case that someone leaves the system of art, initially works as an artist in an area outside of it and, as you say, as an artist.




ler remains undetectable for five or ten years. And then all of a sudden it becomes apparent that it was art, only at that time nobody viewed it as art. I am now thinking of consciously crossing borders by artists, e.g. Duchamp's Urinoir, which he simply put in an exhibition as a fountain. That is also a deliberate transgression of boundaries, which in turn has an effect on the art system.
N.L .: But it is not designed with that in mind from the outset, otherwise it would be of no interest.
H.-D.H .: You mean it is not designed for the art system?
N.L .: Yes! The plan was to make it observable for art observers in the form of a surprise: It can also be art. Otherwise it would just be something.
H.-D.H .: So you would say that under certain circumstances you can leave the art system of art and work outside, but it has to be done with the intention that it will be reintroduced into the art system at some point.
N.L .: No, I would say from the outset that it is laid out as art, as communication in the art system. The only surprise is that this is also art, and of course intentionally, as a reflection of the concept of art. The whole avant




garde has actually always reflected on the concept of art, has gone to the limits of what can still be proven to belong to it. That has only changed now with postmodernism. But at that time there was really an attempt to do something quasi outside, which was still recognizable as art. The art is universal, so to speak. Anything can be art if it is so defined, if it can be built into the context of communication art.
H.-D.H .: Can one then say that the avant-garde or certain artists' approaching-the-fringes of the system can expand the limits of this system, piece by piece?
N.L .: Yes, the system is establishing itself in a certain way as independent of the subject or as universal. Everything can be art, just as you can buy everything in business or research everything in science. Or all human action is either right or wrong. In the modern age, these functional systems tend towards universalization, i.e. independence from given world segments. And art realizes that for itself too. But it is a general, typical model of modernity.
H.-D.H .: There is also the reverse phenomenon. One could imagine that through the further differentiation of this social system of art, further autonomous sub-systems emerge, which then - at some point - can no longer be integrated and fall out, such as industrial design, which was still the domain of artists a hundred years ago. So it could also be that the social system will at some point dissolve and disintegrate due to its further differentiation?
N.L .: No, I would not assume that it would lead to a breakdown, because industrial design will also be fertilized again and again by new developments in art, for example. Pop Art or whatever can suddenly open up new possibilities for the designer. I would rather say that there have always been natural fields of art that were important for other systems, such as economics or politics, the glorification of leaders, the importance of parliaments and buildings and whatever. Every system always has a power sector in relation to other functional systems. And that can perhaps float away insofar as you simply leave the design, especially for automobiles, to the wind tunnel and then retouch with any lines. It may be so independent that art no longer benefits from it. So art does not connect to design.
H.-D.H .: Then the wind tunnel design would still be included in the art system, or is that already outside in your understanding?
N.L .: It's out there if it's just an economic operation, if you just think the car has to




differ from others. A Honda is not a Mitsubishi or something, I have to have brand similarities
H.-D.H .: Corporate Identity
N.L .: Then it's completely outside. But when I bring in experience from art, when I have a trained eye for optical effects that one can only have because there is art, then it is, as it were, recursively linked to artistic operations. But it is no longer artistically usable. It is art-dependent, as it were, to one side, to the past. But it has no connection effect with regard to the creation of new works of art.
H.-D.H .: In the essay "The medium of art" you expressed the thesis that art in modern times uses society as its medium. At the same time, you saw the danger that the art system would collapse into itself, so to speak, and become a medium like everything else.1 In fact, in the current development of contemporary art, there are actually artists who use society as a medium, like Jenny Holzer, Jeff Koons or even if you think of Joseph Beuys' 7000 oak project in Kassel. In this respect, this thesis is also empirically correct. What does it mean that art uses society as its medium and to what extent could the art system collapse in on itself?
N.L .: First of all, the first part of the question. I think that it has always been a task of art to provide descriptions of the world or to offer forms for the world that do not correspond to what is there anyway. And that from there society as a topic is, so to speak, an excerpt. But when you see that society itself designs the world, and that it is inconceivable to have a meaningful world without recourse to communication in society, then society suddenly becomes the necessary passage point for every description of the world. And that's what I meant when you now say that society is not what there is in terms of industry, chimneys, highways, supermarkets, political party headquarters, etc. Rather, it is a medium for possibilities of order that could also look completely different. In doing so, I probably thought of literature rather than art. Art is then a different form in the medium of society. And then the question is: how can it assert its own if it makes a contribution to the description of society? Is that a danger? In any case, I am relatively open to the conclusion whether this will become a problem for art itself, or whether it will then merge with the mass media, with sociology and with all sorts of other forms of describing society.
H.-D.H .: It was not clear in the argument whether it could mean a danger or an opportunity for further development.




NL: If art is just a description of society, just an offer from another society, a more beautiful, a more humane one, one without environmental problems, one without disasters, a safe one or whatever, then suddenly you have the whole alternative movement, you have politics, you have everything possible in there. Art is then suddenly a means of making politics, a means of presenting social movements, a means of motivating protests or alternative projects. And then I just assume that the use of art for political purposes, for example, is very obvious. That was a problem for Marcuse somewhere at the time, that he suddenly saw that the beautiful should be a means of revolutionizing and then he said after all, take it seriously as a reality. So this distance from the appropriation of his ideas about art by an alternative-oriented, protesting politics was suddenly too much for him.This is the point where I also believe that when art projects society, i.e. when it presents other possibilities of order in the fictional realm, it must still have control over it: is that actually art too?
H.-DH: That is also the exciting thing about some of the works of contemporary art that, out of disappointment with the leisure-time entertainment mentality that prevails in the art system, deliberately leave the art institutions such as museums, galleries, exhibitions and really outside in social, public space work where whoever uses the part or walks over it no longer needs to know that it is art. It doesn't matter at all. Last year, for example, Jenny Holzer set up four white marble benches and four black granite benches on a plaza in New York on which paradoxical texts were carved.2 People just sit on the bench because they are resting in the city. But whether they perceive it as art or not is completely irrelevant for this bank. So I would say the field of activity has shifted. Or is that just an apparent shift?
N.L .: That brings you back to the topic that we already have




had: is there art outside of art? And here I would say again, if I take this example, that the artist wants to stage a real surprise of the encounter with art. Especially the normal, the normal sitting on it, but that doesn't really interest him. But someone who is sitting or who is sitting down suddenly starts reading and is, as it were, shocked - "Why" - transferred into another medium. This why effect, the astonishment, the tou mazein in Greek, is actually at the beginning of art. That is the shock-like confrontation with another reality that also promises to be order. I think that things like that matter, not giving passers-by seating and, let's say, keeping the art hidden so that no one can see it.
H.-D.H .: I would say it's both. Scott Burton works in public spaces by cutting benches out of marble, which are also works of art that are very reminiscent of reduced Brancusi objects. But it is perhaps both, the usability, you can sit on it, you don't necessarily have to know that it is now a work of art. But if you are a little attentive, you will notice that there is something different compared to the other seating in public spaces.
N.L .: It can't just be secret glee: I made a work of art and nobody noticed it. That is the limit then. Then one can say that the works of art are reflective of self-gratification. But no large system can be built entirely on masturbation.
H.-D.H .: In the field of art, there is currently a strong change in styles or accentuations, preferences, preferences, and aversions. I am interested in how you can describe historical change within your conceptual model.
NL: I think we have to distinguish between two things: the transition to a functional differentiation and autonomization of important areas of society, such as economy, science, politics, law, nursing, art, religion, etc., so that an autonomy that can no longer be controlled by society has emerged that practically produces what society is today. The inherent dynamics of the functional systems themselves would have to be distinguished from this, the pace at which the law changes, the pace at which new theories are created, the pace at which art has to react to previous art with overbid gestures or with variations, from year to year, so that the tempo runs much faster than the life story of the individual artist and he - if he is not careful or has Picasso-like skill - immediately becomes out of date. These phenomena can be traced back to differentiation and have a peculiar fatality. You can then of course ask yourself what kind of constants are being produced when things are constantly changing.




H.-D.H .: How would the further differentiation of such functional systems of society look like in the future? Is it becoming more and more differentiated, is it becoming more and more autonomous, or how can you imagine that?
N.L .: No, I think that the autonomy has been achieved. I also actually see autonomy in connection with this operational closure, i.e. not as something that can be more or less there, but something that either is or is not. If one recognizes art in terms of other art as art, i.e. recognizes works as art because they are different from other works, or because they have a historical conversation with existing styles and with other styles, should, must or want to be innovative, then the autonomy of art is given. The only question then is really: let's stick with this type of society of autonomization, a momentum of its own, a closure that more or less, however massive they are, leaves all mutual influences to chance and confronts every system with the fact that no one takes it anymore Knowledge, nobody cares anymore. Or are the demands on the ability to see so high that hardly anyone fulfills them, unless the experts. And even the critics are accused of not painting themselves.
These are problems that are different in every functional system and that are provisionally reflected in art in the transition from the avant-garde to the postmodern, even in a peculiar way. By this I mean that the question now arises as to whether the end of reflection on the concept of art in the work of art has now been reached. You push your limits, you exceed, you do it differently from others. How much longer, with what radicalities? If you now change over to postmodernism, that you choose something from the treasure and how you do that, it is left to your discretion, then the question is to what extent this will now prevail and to what extent a further step is historically possible from there.
H.-D.H .: Against this arbitrariness and selectability?
N.L .: Yes, and whether there might not be a quality awareness somewhere that promises stability, i.e. a judgment that can also be applied to other works of art.
H.-D.H .: That would then have to happen through authority, i.e. through the dictum of an authoritarian leader who says: that is quality and the rest is not.
NL: In the field of science, in sociology, we also have this problem: diversity of theories, pluralism, discourses, everyone has their own theory, etc. I don't know whether one shouldn't call for something like a new rigor, for example in the scientific field should pay attention to conceptual accuracy: "What exactly do you mean?" And suddenly new possibilities could arise




to be accurate. I could also imagine that there could actually be a new severity in art. A Hungarian art historian once spoke of Nouvelle Severité - a new seriousness and severity. One could consider what goes with what and which combination works as a new combination, so that in the reflection one simply pays attention to the means again. But of course that is the reflection of a sociologist who actually has to wait and see what happens before he can say what is the case.
H.-D.H .: But we all want to know what's next.
N.L .: But I am always very cautious because I actually see possibilities, but especially when you argue from a scientific point of view, you don't want to dictate what art should actually do. It's the same with politics. One is in a certain way dependent on the fact that something is actually done in the spectrum of possibilities and, above all, can be done.
H.-D.H .: You mean that one from the multitude of possibilities




can increase the quality of art through rigor and accuracy, i.e. introduce a new determination?
N.L .: Yes, and what science can offer is actually just the uncertainty as to whether that will happen or whether it is possible. Science, when it encounters other areas, politics - including the theory of science, by the way - and economics, always increases uncertainty. I also have the problem with theologians. If I tinker with the concept of God, so to speak, I put them in uncertainty.
H.-D.H .: This is not only the case with theologians, you also put artists in uncertainty with their theories. But that can be very productive at times.
N.L .: Yes, but that means: do it yourself.
H.-D.H .: Your theories are currently receiving a lot of attention in the art world. There is definitely an impact directly on art. Only I would say that terminological terminology is sometimes an almost insurmountable obstacle for artists.
N.L .: Within the theory of operationally closed systems, of course, that means: science speaks to science, and if someone else gets something out of it, it's a coincidence. Now you can condense coincidences. Coincidences are not uncommon in the event. I think that sociology, if it wants to formulate a social theory, must treat all intellectual high achievements, all artistic or other special semantics with high claims as social facts. And she can't just say it's a different science, that's what you do at art schools and not at universities, that's the theological faculties, that's the economists and such. You really have to see that these things happen in society. A social theory cannot simply ignore this just because there is an academic division of labor. This results - at least for me - in a strong interest in extravagance, artificiality or exaggerated special claims. I try to develop a language within sociology that is appropriate for this. That brings me close to educators, theologians, art scholars and even artists. On the other hand, there is no regulatory intention behind it.
H.-D.H .: The breadth and versatility of your topics is amazing. There is hardly anything that you have not written about. Are there certain subject areas that you are not interested in?
N.L .: I don't want to apodictically say "not interested" once and for all, but e.g. I always have difficulties with spatial arrangements. As much as I like being in Brazil and interested in the political situation there, but Brazil




I am not interested in lien as a unit. Or take the city of Bielefeld, there is no system. So all spatial, regionalizing units don't interest me that much. How one can think about space in relation to communication is one such area, for example. Or also: I decline all invitations that want me to talk about people. Images of people, something horrible. So I am not interested in people if I can say that so hard.

1 Niklas Luhmann: The medium of art. in: Delfin 4 (1986), pp. 6-15. Reprinted in: Frederick D. Bunsen (Ed.):> Untitled <: New Orientations in Art. Würzburg: Echter (1988), pp.61-71: "If it were true, then the use of society as a medium would be the logical conclusion to such a development. Since art as communication is itself an implementation of society, it could then also be use themselves as a medium and collapse in a kind of logical short-circuit. "(p.67)
2 Selections from Truisms and Under a Rock. Shown in: Diane Waldman: Jenny Holzer. New York: Harry Abrams Inc. (1989), pp. 48-49.