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Utopia – or Feasting during a Plague
By Einar Børresen

Sir Thomas More's Utopia was originally published in 1516, in Latin. The subtitle describes the content of the work as de optimo reipublicae statu deque nova insula utopia – "On the Highest State of a Republic and on the New Island Utopia." Through his book More created the concept of the perfect society, a kind of earthly alternative to the heavenly Jerusalem. The word Utopia carries a fundamental ambiguity. It was coined by combining two Greek words: outopia, meaning no-place, and eutopia, a good and beneficial place. With his Utopia More initiated a literary genre of Utopian and dystopian literature, prime examples of the latter in twentieth-century literature being Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's Animal Farm. The concept is also inextricably linked to actual political attempts at creating a new society based on equality and shared ownership. Today this communist dream is, like other collective political ideologies, seen as fallacious. In Animal Farm Orwell describes so well how human greed all too soon turns the collective Utopia into a dystopia, a society of terror with brainwashing and oppression. In his The Road to Serfdom (1944) the German economist Friedrich von Hayek points out clear parallels between communism and Nazism. He maintains that governments aiming to realize Utopia always end up in despotism. In other words, when man wants to grasp the Utopian, in his pursuit of eutopos he often forgets the ungraspable aspect, the outopos of the concept.

In the recent Norwegian cult novel Naiv. Super Erlend Loe gives a hilarious description of the anxiety, frustration, and yearning characteristic of his time: "If only I had a sense of things being connected and everything turning out well in the end. That would have been so nice," in the words of the protagonist. But at the same time the author points to a private, minor Utopia. "Actually there are quite a few things I appreciate," the main character concedes, making a list that includes things like beaches, girls, sun, trees, eating, friendship, sleeping, dreaming, and waking up, as well as having someone caress his back (rare). Today's Utopia is thus identified as private, not unequivocal, not related to fixed, general dogmas of a religious or political kind. Loe's view is reflected in Yngvar Larsen's contribution to the exhibition – naive and on a modest scale – a manifesto of the minor Utopia. Larsen challenges claims that art is worship of the golden calf by presenting us with his golden irritant. His gold pea defines the role of art as both sublime and beautiful, vulgar and unsettling. Just like the pea in Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale, art is an aggravating factor that prevents us from dozing off into our comfortable Wonderland sleep.

Art has always been a way for man to grasp the ungraspable, to get in touch with what cannot be fathomed by reason or expressed in words. Artistic expression has often been associated with a particular ideology or a set of dogmas. In this sense there are parallels between history's religious art and the icons of modernism. Malevich and Mondrian, Kandinsky and the Cobra artists alike strove to uncover the essence of life and things.

"Look no further – this is it" proclaims Forced Entertainment in this exhibition at Rogaland Museum of Fine Arts – a claim that is as immodest and seemingly explicit as the Utopia of the exhibition title. How can interpersonal relations, the responsibility for anything beyond the self, fit into a world where everyone looks out for himself, where the individual is first a consumer, then a human being? Does art have a role beyond meeting the need for beauty, decoration, and social status? Can art convey ethical values without becoming dogmatic, pathetic, or sentimental? Our exhibition has its origin in the City of Stavanger's commitment to marking the millennium by focusing on the set of rules for conduct and ethics that is most fundamental to our culture, namely the Ten Commandments. Rather than discuss the direct applicability of the Decalogue today, we have chosen a different approach. We join the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas in saying: these precepts establish a Utopian norm for man. How do we handle such norms – created by God or man – which we cannot live up to? In this light the exhibition's concept of Utopia is personal and linked to the relationship between individuals. Utopia is also fundamentally unattainable. It is not a future society, or another place. It is here and now.

Looking at the connection between pictorial art and the Ten Commandments, we must bear in mind the complex relationship that has always existed between the divine and its image. According to the Judaic Torah, the original Ten Commandments, the depiction of the one God was banned. Throughout Judeo-Christian history the balance between prohibition and veneration of the image has been a recurrent source of unrest and conflict. The worship of miraculous sculptures and icons is still a well-known phenomenon in Christian religious practice. This phenomenon is indicative of the power of the image, of representation, and of art. "The proscription of images is truly the supreme command of monotheism," declares Levinas in his 1948 essay on art. He also cautions against putting art, the representation of the Other, in the place of the Other. The Other is Levinas's central philosophical concept of ethics. His warning against art is – like the religious prohibition against images – an indication of how difficult it is to separate image from divinity, art from man, aesthetics from ethics. In his introduction to the Norwegian edition of Levinas's Humanisme de l'Autre, Asbjørn Aarnes suggests that "Levinas has spanned the ages, moving past modernity but not into postmodernism, not into the happy nihilism that rejoices to see seriousness has left everything: truth and lie, faith and disbelief. Instead Levinas finds that where he stands 'all is seriousness.' The critique of the self, the questioning of self-affirmation . . . has ended in the responsibility for the Other. The identity of the self has become its irreplaceability in terms of this obligation towards the Other. Stripped of its rights and responsibilities it is its responsibility for the Other; that is its identity."

It is a very radical philosophy Levinas outlines. The self as subject, as the first person, disappears, and its identity is then defined solely through each individual's unlimited obligation to others. Virtually as a consequence of this, visual perception – the sight of the face of the Other– becomes an important phenomenon. It is therefore understandable when Levinas feels almost haunted by, and considers it necessary to warn against, the image and art. He also calls his essay on art "Reality and Its Shadow," in which art takes the place of the shadow, divested of its own substance. But Levinas also says something about the relationship between the Other and art, representation, when he, in Humanisme de l'autre, states that "the Other that manifests himself in the face penetrates in a way his own plastic form, like an individual opening a window where his image has already traced itself. His presence consists of shedding the form that already made him visible [italics this author's]." With his references to the shedding of image and form Levinas must acknowledge that art will try to move along similar paths in its search for the essence of life.

A closer look at one of the participants in Utopia, the Yugoslav artist Tanja Ostojic, will illustrate the difficulty of distinguishing between concepts. In her performance Personal Space Ostojic stands still, naked and shaven, but covered in marble dust, in a field of marble dust. The field marks the artist's domain, as well as defining her personal turf. It also seems to draw a line for the viewer, for the viewer's responsibility. In a very fundamental way Ostojic with her marble-dusted skin represents art, sculpture. But her work is primarily an encounter between artist and viewer – the artist's eyes meeting us through the filter of marble, a boundless sensuality and pain being conveyed from this denuded, petrified skin directly to the viewer's own body. Drawing on another concept from Levinas, we may say that the artist, through her ritual preparations and her entrance into the dust-covered area, steps outside time and into the meanwhile.

The meanwhile is "the eternal duration of the interval in which a statue is immobilized," which "differs radically from the eternity of a concept; it is the meanwhile, never finished, still enduring – something inhuman and monstrous." This is how Levinas discounts art's chances of eventual success, of giving us the answers we seek. Art gives us a coagulated, eternal duration, not glimpses of a glorious eternity. Pursuing Ostojic's contribution further, we find that she comes from Belgrade, from Yugoslavia, a country Norway recently engaged in a war against – from a European city we shared in bombing. Her performance also becomes a visualization of a bombing target, since this is also a human being from Belgrade. Where is the line between art and life? Where is the line between the Other and the image of the Other?

Under the formalist banner of modernism much of twentieth-century art complies with the dogma or the autonomous doctrine l'art pour l'art – art for art's own sake. Levinas maintains that this "formula is false inasmuch as it situates art above reality and recognizes no master for it, and it is also immoral inasmuch as it liberates the artist from his duties as a man and assures him of a pretentious and facile nobility." In contrast to the Platonic idea of the image as an expression of a world of ideas beyond this world, Levinas speaks of art as existing on the hither side of the world. "To go beyond is to communicate with ideas, to understand," he explains, asking: "Does not the function of art lie in not understanding? Does not obscurity provide it with its very element . . . foreign to dialectics and the life of ideas? . . . [Art] contrasts with knowledge. It is the very event of obscuring, a descent of the night, an invasion of shadow." Thus Levinas places art neither on the bright pinnacle of revelation nor in the strict, disinterested aesthetics, but in an existence among things.

In this context it may be interesting to look at the paintings of Roar Werner Eriksen. The two large canvases in the exhibition may stand as an analogy to Moses' stone tablets. Unlike Moses' tablets of Utopian precepts for living, however, Eriksen's tablets cannot be deciphered. In one canvas we detect a few individual letters, which may form a word. Thus Eriksen conveys human inadequacy when confronted with divinity and when faced with a dogmatically founded code of conduct. We cannot get there, we cannot comprehend, we cannot meet these demands. At the same time Eriksen uses his tentative brushstrokes onto the canvas to distance himself from the more self-assured, expressionist modernism; it is not the Artist speaking on that canvas, but the person Eriksen, one of us, one who also moves in an indeterminate field of cognition, quest, and flight. To repeat the words of Levinas: "[Art is] a descent of the night, an invasion of shadow." And more: "art does not belong to the order of revelation. Nor does it belong to that of creation, which moves in just the opposite direction." Art is a being among things, among people. Levinas expresses respect, almost awe of the power of representation, of art, when he points to the ban on images as the highest commandment of monotheism. His Judeo-Christian background finds expression when he pietistically denounces aesthetic enjoyment in emphatic terms: "There is something wicked and egoist and cowardly in artistic enjoyment. There are times when one can be ashamed of it, as if feasting during a plague."

When Levinas places art as a being among things, in the shadows, in contrast to understanding, lacking the glory of eternity, we may say: yes, but is it not here we find life, is it not here, "in the night falling, in the gathering shadows," that art can really speak to us? The art shown in Utopia is art as part of life. It is art in sharp contrast to the aesthetic cocktail party, to feasting during the plague.