Tag Archives: Max Stirner

Persons of Interest

Persons of Interest was a series of blog posts about artists, writers and thinkers who have had an impact on me at some time in my life and have continued to have an impact. I wanted to write a personal history of art, telling it from my own view, to examine how the art and biographical details have influenced my own critical judgements. It was not an easy process and the posts did not attract many readers; maybe it was too self-indulgent or my choose of persons too obvious. Maybe, the posts didn’t come with enough images; anyway, I don’t think that I will continue it.

Who to include and who to leave out? This is always the question in making such lists. Influences come and go in waves of interest by the public and at various times in your life you get caught up in that wave of general interest. As a kid I must have been reading Robert Hughes in Time Magazine as my parents subscribed to it but I wouldn’t want to count Hughes as an influence or a person of interest. I played on synthesisers and so I was interested in Brian Eno. I am not claiming that I am major fan of Eno but Here Come the Warm Jets and Another Green World has been on high rotation for decades.

Here are all my Persons of Interests posts. They were written roughly in the order that they started to influence me.

Jan #1 – Desmond Morris

Feb #2 – Andy Warhol

March #3 – Salvador Dali

April #4 – Marcel Duchamp

May #5 – Laurie Anderson

July #6 – Various, Notes from the Pop Underground 

July #7 – Keith Haring

August #8 – William Burroughs

September #9 – Philosophers

December #10  – Hunter S. Thompson

It is not surprising that I am interested in influences when the subject of my thesis was the influence of Max Stirner’s philosophy on Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. I started reading Max Stirner because of one remark by Marcel Duchamp but as I was investigating his relationship to philosophy, both the influence on and the influence of, I felt I had to read him.

“When he (Duchamp) was asked later in life to identify a specific philosopher or philosophical theory that was of specific significance to his work, he cited Stirner’s  only major book – Der Einzige und sein Eignetum…” (Francis M. Naumann “Marcel Duchamp: A Reconciliation of Opposites”  p.29)



Person of Interest – Marcel Duchamp

Many millions of words have been written about the art of Marcel Duchamp – I wrote my Master thesis about Duchamp’s readymades. I was wrote it in the unlikely setting of Philosophy Department of La Trobe University. I was interested in the impact of philosophy on Duchamp and Duchamp’s readymades impact on the philosophy of art. Anyway that was decades ago and this blog post isn’t about my thesis – it is about the extensive influence of Duchamp on my life.

Many people still regard Duchamp as the anti-Christ of art, others as the godfather of contemporary art. David W. Galenson ranks Marcel Duchamp as the 3rd most important artist in the 20th Century by mean illustrations in a sample of texts on the history of 20th Century art. Duchamp is such a large an influential on contemporary art because he was a major influence on Man Ray, John Cage and many other artists. Duchamp is so influential on contemporary art and myself that at the top of my word.doc for drafts of this blog I have this admonition: “I will not use any excuse to mention Marcel Duchamp.”

Duchamp was at first interesting to me when I was an undergraduate studying aesthetics and other philosophical issues concerned with art because he created difficult examples for any theory. His art was about ideas and so was easily transmitted in art history books. It wasn’t until years after I became interested in Duchamp that I encounter my first actual Duchamp readymade, Hat Rack (1917) in the collection of Australian Nation Gallery Canberra and by then I knew that this was one of an edition of 8 that Duchamp made in 1964. The examples of Duchamp’s art that I have encountered are like curious relics. I really enjoyed playing with a reproduction of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel because I could touch it and see the pattern of light created by the spokes.

When I came to writing my thesis Duchamp’s readymades lead me to the writings of the philosophers Arthur Danto and Max Stirner as Stirner’s philosophy influenced Duchamp and Duchamp’s readymades influenced Danto’s thinking about art. And both of these philosophers have continued to influence my thinking.

Studying Duchamp gives a good perspective on the art world and the many and varied roles in the art world. For most of his life, Duchamp wasn’t a full time artist there was a lot of chess playing and giving French lessons. When he was involved in the art world he was more often an art dealer (he represented Brancusi in the US), judging a panel for an art prize, and other exhibition organization work like catalogue design. And this is what most people forget, or don’t know, when they think about what Duchamp did – it’s like that internet meme, about what my mother thinks I do, what I think, what my friends think etc.

Duchamp reminds me that there are more positions on the chessboard of the art world than the mass of artist pawns working their way up the board to become Queens. Perhaps I am playing the position of the critical knight and art galleries as castles, bishops are collectors etc. to keep the metaphor going, even though I’ve largely played it out. Anyway the point of my metaphor is that you don’t have to be an artist in order to participate in the art world, most of the participants are not. They are the other player at the other end of the board.

Most of the participants in the art world are viewers, responders and Duchamp’s art depends on the minds of others, for the responder to join in and continue the game. (For more on Duchamp see MarcelDuchamp.Net.) It is his understanding that art exists in the minds of other people that invites people to respond to his art, to write millions of words about it or to create art inspired by him. Duchamp’s epitaph reads: “D’ailleurs, c’est toujours les autres qui meurent” (Besides, it’s always the others who die.)

What is it with Hipsters?

Hep or Hip … Someone who knows the score. Someone who understands ‘jive talk’. Someone who is ‘with it’. The expression is not subject to definition because, if you don’t ‘dig’ what it means, no one can ever tell you.”

– William Burroughs Junky glossary, 1953

I haven’t used the word ‘hipster’ before in this blog – I have been consciously avoiding this now heavily loaded term – Kate Forsyth on the Melbourne Arts Club did not avoid the term in her post “Hipster or Hobo”. (I don’t have any argument with Kate Forsyth, I’m not surprised that people are mistaking hipsters for hobos, this is only an example to show that the word is in common use in Melbourne.) I savvy the history of the word but I’m not sure when the word ‘hipster’ took on a pejorative connotation, maybe it always had one in the square world and I didn’t know about it.

I did use the word ‘hipster’ in my MA thesis but that was decades ago, at a time when the hipster had fallen out of contemporary use. To quote from my thesis:

In “The White Negro” Norman Mailer, attempts to explain the philosophy of the hipster. He argues that since death is ever present “then the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey of the self.” (Mailer “The White Negro – Superficial Reflections on the Hipster”, 1959) Both Stirner and Mailer advocate living with the contradictions, living with the nihilism and the meaningless arguing that it brings a valid, life-enriching existence. This is a life enriching experience because the objective of the Unique One (Stirner’s name for the ego) is to get as much enjoyment from these things while he and they last.

In reference to Mailer’s contrast between the hipster and the square, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin provides a compilation of contemporary comments on the dichotomy along with Mailer’s 1959 list.

Do I really care if some people think that being a hipster is right or wrong? No, there is something square about distinctions based on appearance, clothes and hair. Mailer’s list is also kind of square, lamely attempting to define the indefinable with a few examples.

“I don’t care about the state of my hair/ I got something out of nothing/ That just wasn’t there/ And your kiss kiss kiss/ Is never going to blow me away.” (Jesus and Mary Chain, “Blues From A Gun”)

Getting “something out of nothing that just wasn’t there” was Marx and Engles critique of Stirner’s proto-hipster philosophy of the Unique One. It was, according to Marx and Engles, impossible and a “conjuring trick” on Stirner’s part. But according to the Jesus and Mary Chain they did it and it had something to do with hair and never being blown away. Now this might seem like nonsense to some but I’m hoping that someone will be hip to what is happening here. It is this acquisition of something (cool) out of nothing is what is desired and despised in the hipster. And this explains why Kate Forsyth’s friends were mistaking “hobos” (people with nothing) for hipsters (who also clearly have nothing but are getting something out of it because they have other things like a home, a job, money, skills, talent, good friends…) – as I said, a common mistake; it embarrasses the cops, and those with minds like cops, like Marx and Engles, all the time.

Dada & Anarchy

Dada has long been associated with anarchy but how accurate is this association? There are many types of anarchists from the syndicalist to the anarcho-criminals. Anarchy is better able than most political movements to reinvent itself and it has done this numerous times already, from the bomb-throwing anarchists of the 1890s to the cyber anarchists of today. What kind of anarchists were the Dadaists? The short answer is anarcho-nihilists – here is a slightly longer answer.

Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst both read Max Stirner The Ego and His Own when they were young. When asked later in life what philosopher was of special significance to his work Duchamp cited Stirner’s The Ego and His Own. In 1899 a French translation of Stirner’s book was published and this is probably the translation read by the young Duchamp.

Duchamp was born in 1887, a time of anarchist bombing in Paris, something that would have had an impact on a young boy in provincial France. Woodcock describes the period of 1884-1914 as a fertile and productive period in anarchist development with the establishment of communes, schools and publications. There was also the violent anarcho-criminal tradition in France with the Marius Jacob gang operating between 1900-05, who robbed the unproductive, and the far more violent Bonnot gang in 1913. The Bonnot gang were non-smoking, tea totalling, vegetarians who read Max Stirner and loved of fast cars, women and guns.

Max Stirner (1806 -1856) was one of the young Hegelians, who developed an anarcho-nihilist philosophy in his book The Ego and His Own (1845). Stirner was one of the “The Free”, a circle of radical Berlin intellectuals. Stirner’s philosophy explains not only why the terms, anarchy and nihilism are often linked with Dada but rarely explored. Marx and Engles in the German Ideology attack Stirner’s philosophy because it places the “I” before the “we”. For the Marxists the material situation that determines meaning, for Stirner it is the individual that determines meaning, and for this belief Marx and Engles compare Stirner to the great beast of the apocalypse (quoting REV 17 in a religious frenzy to exorcise his philosophy).

Stirner’s philosophy explains the psychological basis for the Duchamp art: the questioning, attacking, proposing, joking, suggesting, tongue in cheek Duchamp’s art. There are many points of comparison both Duchamp and Stirner were restless individuals; their total rebellion against all ideals, ironically interpreting history by references (Stirner to Biblical texts and poems by Goethe and Schiller, just as Duchamp’s art is full of allusions to Da Vinci, Courbet and others). Another aspect is their use of pseudonyms, due to their own sense of alienated identity (Stirner aka Johann Casper Schmit. Max Stirner could translated as Max the Highbrow or Ironbrow or Max Headroom).

Max Ernst and Hugo Ball had studied philosophy at university and so it is likely that both had read Nietzsche. Francis Picabia (1879 -1953) claimed that he had met Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) but it is unlikely to be true and if it was it can’t have been a very meaningful connection given Picabia’s age and Nietzsche’s advanced syphilitic condition.

Richard Huelsenbeck expresses Dadaist existential nihilism. “The dadaists were interested in two main facts: shock and movement. They felt that man was in the hands of irrational creative forces. He was hopelessly wedged in between an involuntary birth and an involuntary death.” (Huelsenbeck, Memoirs of a Dadaist Drummer, New York, 1974, p.160)

The most surprising and practical connection between the Dadaists and anarchist is that Man Ray studied art at the Ferrrer School in New York City. The Ferrrer School was established run by the anarchists, Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldberg after Berkman’s release from prison for the attempted assassination of industrialist H.C. Frick. The school was named after the Spanish anarchist, Francisco Ferrer. Berkman taught and lectured at the Ferrer School but didn’t actually teach Man Ray. Man Ray didn’t care about the politics he was attending because of its quality and cost (free).

Not all the Dadaists were anarchists for their whole lives; Tristan Tzara became a Communist.

Gordon Bennett @ Sutton Gallery

The title of Gordon Bennett’s latest exhibition: “(Abstraction) Citizen” is just waiting to be deconstructed. They are tempting text to use as a springboard for an examination of Australia’s race relationship and representation.

The paintings themselves, Bennett’s series of double portraits invites more critical discourse about the dichotomy between words and identity, abstraction and representation, citizens and non-citizens. In Bennett’s painting the pink lines that make one face are on top of the black/brown X-ray, geometric figures that are reminiscent of figures by Jean-Michel Basquiat. In 1998 Bennett started to channel Basquiat in his paintings. Bennett saw similarities his Anglo-Celtic and Aboriginal ancestry and Basquiat’s Haitian/Puerto Rican, as well as, that Basquiat’s art that was an amalgam of visual images and ideas.

Underneath the double portraits of imaginary people Gordon Bennett has written words on the canvas, titling the portraits with text: “suburbanite”, “burgher”, “indigene”, “citizenry”, “colonist” and “population”.

The philosopher Max Stirner wrote: “…in order to be a real I, a ‘free burgher’, a ‘citizen’, a ‘free and true man’, they too see the truth and reality of me in the reception of an alien I and devotion to it. And what sort of I? An I that is neither an I nor a you, a fancied I, a spook.” (The Ego and Its Own p.225)

Max Stirner argues that identities like ‘citizen’ are alien abstractions; that I am not a citizen, a suburbanite, a burgher, an indigene, citizenry, colonist, or even population. The words that Bennett has written on his paintings are abstractions; they are not representational or representative of an individual. The words suggest a membership of an abstract group. It is also a reference to Bennett’s alternate identity as “John Citizen”.

Gordon Bennett keeps on changing his style of painting. I remember seeing his retrospective of twenty years of art at the NGV in 2007 and being struck by the variety of media, besides painting, that Bennett has used including videos and self-portraits in the form of installations with dressing tables. Bennett’s ‘cut & paste’ aesthetic appropriates everyone; he mixes Pollock with Pop Art, Phillip Guston with De Stijl, going from one extreme to another. He could, at this stage of his career be resting on his achievements and like many other established artists continuing to turn out trademark style paintings but instead he keeps on changing.

Gordon Bennett is a post-modern stylistic master of appropriation mixing Western and Australian aboriginal art with a post-colonial agenda. This sounds very serious but Bennett makes post-modernism visual delight. Gordon Bennett’s art will remain a critical favourite with his references and thought provoking work but his art remains fun and visually appealing.

Commemorative plaque @ Queensland College of Art, Brisbane

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