Gustav Metzger

Oxford Museum of Modern Art

Talking about politics these days is tricky, when Bill Clinton’s blowjobs cause greater scandal than his bombing raids; ask anyone what place politics has in art, and you’ll most likely get an answer of the who’s-blowing-who-to-get-that-cushy-curatorship-at-the-the-museum variety.  But as artists in more engaged times would often declare, ‘all art is political’.  Quite how or why art should involve itself with the political world is a debate that artists have been having with each other ever since they noticed that the affirmative values of art couldn’t seem to match, nor influence, the irrational, often barbaric world outside the studio.  In the face of the haphazard horror and destruction that has marked the twentieth century, artists have become ever more disillusioned by art’s utopian claims. The desire to make art bear witness to the growing divide between the beauty of the possible and the destitution of the here and now, underpins the avant-garde’s regular attempts to negate art’s contradictory status, either by attempts to merge art with social life, or by the wholesale destruction of art and its institutions.  Negation, resistance, subversion and disruption are the rallying calls of the century’s radical art.

Gustav Metzger has been addressing these problems for well over forty years.  Coining the term auto-destructive art, Metzger’s manifestos, happenings and lectures proposed an art that could adequately respond to the reality of Western industrial society, in his view so seriously unbalanced that it could create the means of its own annihilation; instantaneously through nuclear war, and more slowly, through environmental pollution and degradation.  In the acid-on–canvas demonstrations, and the polarised liquid-crystal projections of the 60s, Metzger sought to the reveal the transitory, random and ultimately self-destructive character of the ‘post-bomb world’.

The show at MoMA presented two major installations and an archive room.  The first was a recreation of the liquid crystal environment in which a set of projectors, each mounted with a slide of liquid crystals and a revolving polarising filter, projected the crystals’ constantly mutating  image onto the walls of the darkened gallery; almost psychedelic (Metzger once provided the liquid-crystal visuals for the Who and the Cream), and very high-tech  circa 1966, the effect was like being caught inside lens of a microscope in one of those early science documentaries.  The crystals’ gradual shifts in shape, and the random changes of colour caused by the revolving filters, spoke eloquently of change and decay, of transience and instability:  Early on, Metzger defined auto-destructive art as a particular kind of aesthetic experience, one which could oppose the fatigued, defunct, servile aesthetics that could make no real intervention in the present.  Whatever one might think of Metzger’s ideas on modern society, his commitment to the aesthetic moment, as the realisation of content in and through the experience of form, remains genuine.

The second gallery contained an installation of the more recent historic photographs.  Enlarging some the century’s best known images of human barbarity (the ramp at Auschwitz, children napalmed in Vietnam, the massacre on the mount at Jerusalem) the visibility of each was obscured by different formal devices.  In a very associative, open way, each obstacle to viewing the images related to the subject they depicted. So for the famous image of the little boy raising his hands in The Liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, (the Nazis’ initial policy of containment) the image was shuttered in with coarse wooden planks, only visible by peering down behind them at the illegibly foreshortened image . Some images could only be recognised from the guide book’s small reproductions;  with the image of a mass rally of the Hitler youth, the picture was welded between to sheets of steel, hiding it completely. ‘Eisengrau, iron grey, was the colour of Nazi infantry uniform.

According to Metzger’ s accompanying notes the historic photographs “concern man’s inhumanity to man and to nature aided and abetted by advanced science and technological power allied to inhuman social systems.”  The problem is that such catch-all statements of rejection do little to inspire any sense of why man is inhuman to man, and subsequently how people might act to change things.  Metzger’s horror and revulsion draws in all protagonists, regardless of their particular historical contexts, in a general condemnation of civilised man’s actual barbarity.  But does Metzger suggest that the bombing of the FDA headquarters (represented by the image of the fireman holding a wounded child in his arms) in Oklahoma, or even the Israeli repression of the Palestinians (a picture taken during the massacre on the mount in 1990), are comparable events to the Nazi regime’s systematic annihilation  of Europe’s Jews?  What is the real difference between the American napalming of Vietnamese civilians and the relentless building of motorways through the English countryside? Are these all, as Metzger would have it, all just undifferentiated  manifestations of a rapacious, capitalist, techno-military society which is out of control?  Whilst the sentiment of outrage is authentic, the lack of any substantial analysis of the events such work pretends to criticise leaves the spectator confirming all those widely held truisms of the late 90s; war is horrible, industrial society is bad, the destruction of the environment is our fault, and there is nothing we can do about it.

Given the infantile obsessions and self-serving inanity of current ‘young British art’, it is tempting to take whatever politics you can get:  Confronting  a practice as serious and engaged as Metzger’s is bound to be more rewarding that skimming the latest fad in fashionable narcissism, and in the absence of any particular interest in the political world on the part of young artists, old-timers like Metzger can always make a come-back.  But the irony is that whilst their dire warnings of impending catastrophe may have had some revolutionary intent in the 60s, nowadays such thinking has become the preoccupation of the mainstream.  Instead of the impending doom of the bomb, we have the constantly deferred threats of environmental catastrophe and social breakdown. Instead of a struggle between left and right over the control of production, we now have a consensus that too much industrial growth is a bad thing.  And whilst we all agree that war is a bad thing, we accept that waging war is a reasonable way of enforcing peace on others.  This is also politics, and artists are not dealing with this.



First published in Untitled no18, Spring 1999 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated