THIS IS THE SECOND in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with the Austrian-born artist, photographer, and director Gottfried Helnwein.
BRAD EVANS: What is it about violence that continues to capture your attention as an artist?
GOTTFRIED HELNWEIN: For me, art is the most direct and efficient way to approach the difficult questions and complex realities of existence. The reason for my decision to become an artist was therefore not primarily about aesthetics, it was about confronting the elementary questions I struggled with. This began when learning about the Holocaust.
I was born in Vienna right after World War II, and I vividly remember how dark and depressed this place was. I can’t remember ever hearing someone sing or laugh. I was caught in a world that stood still, without sounds, without colors, without movement — I had the feeling the grown-ups around me tried to be overlooked — not to be perceived. The only thing they seemed to fear was to be seen, to be discovered. A city played dead. From the very beginning I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what, because nobody talked, nobody answered my questions.
There was complete silence. It was as if history simply didn’t exist. What I didn’t know at that time was that my parent’s generation had just lost the second of two World Wars and were responsible for the most devastating genocide in modern history.
Then came the war crime tribunals. Reading the newspapers I became suddenly aware of the concentration camps, the torture, the brutality, and the numbers of people killed.
Shock took hold of me. How can life go on after that? What also disturbed me was how many of the war criminals in Austria seemed to be acquitted of their crimes.
By learning about the violence, I effectively removed myself from that society. I didn’t want to be part of that system. I didn’t want anything to do with its traditions, its beliefs, or its ideals. I think many of my generation, around the Western world shared this feeling. And so by the 1960s, you have a generation of disenchanted, angry youths ready to revolt and fight against everything the previous generation stood for. My personal journey was to research as much as I could about the history of cruelty, violence, and the human obsession to inflict pain onto other human beings.
Once you’re exposed to such things, they never leave you, especially as I became more and more aware of the violence done to children. That’s when I decided to become an artist.
I realized art would allow me to communicate something that society didn’t want to talk about. To show people something of the horror that perhaps couldn’t be put into words. I guess I was searching for a different concept of justice in art. So I went to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Austria, which to my surprise accepted me immediately on the basis of a single painting I did of one child killing another child.
I started to paint without any specific expectations, I was not even sure if anybody would bother to look at my paintings, but I didn’t really care, I just needed to get my images on paper. To my surprise, I learned very quickly that my work provoked strong emotional responses in people. No one was ever indifferent. Some people got angry, others laughed hysterically or had tears in their eyes. I was amazed by these reactions, and I thought: “Wow, did my little watercolor just do this to a grown-up person?” It was at that moment that I realized the potential power of an image.
I don’t know how it works or why, but again and again I experienced that instant metaphysical connection, I saw that my pictures could touch people and reach much deeper into their hearts and minds, or the subconscious if you will, than words ever could. It’s a very intimate process, a dialogue, without the need for words.
It’s exactly what Marcel Duchamp said: “The work of art is always based on the two poles of the onlooker and the maker, and the spark that comes from the bipolar action gives birth to something — like electricity.”
I am fascinated by this idea concerning the metaphysical nature of art. Can you elaborate more on what you mean by this and how it links to the question of ethics?
In 2000, when I moved to downtown Los Angeles I suddenly had doubts, I wasn’t sure if painting was a complete anachronistic, outdated activity. I looked around and thought: Who would bother to look at a simple old-fashioned painting on canvas in our digital age, where everybody is flooded with overwhelming special effects and virtual realities of a multitude of media and an omnipresent entertainment industry?
Soon after that I had my first museum solo-show in San Francisco, after the curators overcame their doubts whether my work was too controversial to be shown, I experienced the most emotional response to my work to date. When I visited the exhibition people would come up to me, hug me, and thank me. Again, many of them with tears in their eyes. An elderly lady said to me: “You probably don’t even know how important it is, that you are showing your work here and right now.”
It shows that people need relevant art, and in those moments I feel that what I am doing is worthwhile. To have such a reaction means you have arrived. You’re part of something that is much deeper than the work itself. It still amazes me how strangers approach me and completely open up to me, telling me the most intimate things, which perhaps they have never before told anybody else. And all that because they have seen one of my paintings. As I said, I don’t know how that works, I can’t explain it. It’s not rational. But it shows that art can have a meaning beyond the aesthetic.
A girl that had written a dissertation about my work told me later that when, at the age of 14, she saw my work for the first time she reacted in total shock and trembled and cried but then she realized that it was the painful memories of her childhood that had begun to surface, which had been bottled up for years. She has been abused as a child and she said that my pictures helped her to confront and work her way through these traumatic experiences.
So in this case, the paintings had a therapeutic effect that helped her overcome her nightmares. And that’s what I understand to be the metaphysical or the spiritual. It is precisely that which you cannot explain, but is no less real. Or as David Bowie put it: “Religion is for people who fear hell. Spirituality is for people who have been there.”
The centrality of the wounded child in your work is notably striking and provocative. I do however think there is something more at work here than mere shock art, which I feel simply provokes a reaction without any meaning or depth. How does the wounded child resonate for you in terms of its political and philosophical significance?
History shows us time and time again how the corrupt old world preys upon the defenseless, the children. In our loud and frantic adult world where children are usually marginalized or kitschified, I guess I wanted to force people to confront purity or innocence and the vulnerability that you can see in the face of a child, and the pain of innocence betrayed.
With my work I wanted to take their side, I wanted to see the world through their eyes. When I made the image of the child the center of my work, what I was actually referring to is the existence of a human being. Everybody is a child at some point in their life. Not everybody reaches adulthood or gets old, but childhood is a phase nobody can avoid. It is this brief moment in time, when we are still much more connected to the boundless universe of fantasy, dreams, imagination, and visions, than to the constricted material world. For a child, physical laws don’t exist and constant creation comes as naturally as breathing.
As Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
Because, unfortunately it’s the grown-ups that rule the world and make the laws and all kids have to go through their demolition-program called education. Once they come out on the other side, they are usually broken and their magic is gone. And then they can be citizens, soldiers, clerks, psychiatrists, politicians, bankers, undercover agents, prostitutes, or other useful entities in this brave new world of consumerism.
“You know what the issue is with this world?” said Lewis Carroll, “Everyone wants some magical solution to their problem and everyone refuses to believe in magic.” Dreaming and fantasizing are nowadays considered a chemical imbalance in the brain of the child. For reasons of national security there are no realms of imagination anymore in which to escape — children are held in the merciless headlight of the adults’ level-headed, common-sense madhouse: a world of stock markets, war, rape, pollution, television-moronism, Prozac, prison camps, Miss Universe competitions, genetic engineering, child pornography, Ronald McDonalds, Kardashians, and torture.
In a child, the full potential of humane values and virtues, of innocence, trust, love, compassion, and creativity are intact. Children are sacred. But they are vulnerable, defenseless, and dependent on our fairness. And it seems that we tend to betray that trust.
Do you detect any differences in the ways audiences react to your work in different countries?
Originally I expected people to react differently, due to their cultural and ethnic background, but this is not the case. It seems that aesthetics can cut through the inherited social veneer and acquired reality. With visual art and music there are no language barriers, you directly hit the individual human being at his core. But the reactions of individuals differ. It seems to have more to do with their personal inner world than the country they are coming from.
I think that a work of art can be a screen for the subconscious. People seem to project their own mental images onto my paintings so that the artwork in fact becomes a co-creation. Depending on who is looking at the painting, it will always be something unique and different. For me, my work is an ongoing dialogue with my public and I must say I have learned more from the spontaneous reaction and responses of the onlookers or “naïve observers,” as Kandinsky called them, than from any art theory.
When I look at a work of art, I ask myself: Does it inspire me? Does it touch and move me? Do I learn something from it? Does it startle or amaze me — do I get excited, upset? And this is the test any artwork has to pass: can it create an emotional impact on a human being even when he has no education or any theoretical information about art? I’ve always had a problem with art that can only be understood by somebody with a degree in art history. I think the importance of theory in art is totally overrated. Real art is self-evident. Real art is intense, enchanting, exciting, and unsettling; it has a quality and magic that you cannot explain. Art is not logic, and if you want to experience it, your mind and rational thinking will be of little help. Art is something spiritual that you can only experience with your senses, your heart, your soul.
There are some stylistic influences from Caravaggio, Goya, and Francis Bacon in your work. I’d be interested in your thoughts on these influences. Why are these artists important in terms of the aesthetics of violence?
Actually I was lucky to have never been much influenced by anybody, because as I said, from early on I rejected everything my parents’ generation stood for, their traditions and their values. And I hated art history as it was taught in school. So it was a conscious decision to be a proudly ignorant street kid. The art I could relate to was comics and rock music and when I decided to become an artist I approached painting like an autistic child. I didn’t know much about techniques and I didn’t care about traditional methods and rules. It was fun to try things out and follow only my own curiosity.
It was much later as my resistance against traditional art was wearing off that I became interested in the work of artists of the past. I wanted to check it out and see if it would do anything to me. I was kind of neutral without any preconceptions or expectations. I was just curious, but what I saw took my breath away, it turned my world upside down. I was shaken to my core when I encountered the works of Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Goya, and others. The aesthetic power was totally overwhelming. I didn’t really understand or explain what exactly happened, but I was so deeply touched and moved, it was like a religious experience.
It’s a strange feeling when you realize that a long time ago, there was somebody who created something that touches you so deeply and that is so close to what I try to express in your own work.
Some 40 years after Pasolini’s Salò, which remains one of the most devastating cinematic treatments of violence, you collaborated with Hans Kresnik to create a new version of 120 Days of Sodom for the Volksbühne in Berlin. What compelled you to return to this script?
Pasolini is one of the great visionaries of the 20th century. He’s up there along with Orwell and Huxley. Pasolini’s vision of a new type of totalitarianism whereby hyper-materialism destroys our culture can be seen now as brilliant foresight into what has happened to the world generally in the internet age. When he said: “I consider consumerism a worse fascism than that the classical one,” he referred to the dystopia of a super capitalistic world where only consumerism is the sole purpose of human existence.
Pasolini is one of the most radical but at the same time one of the most poetic of thinkers, who really understands the stakes. It was almost logical therefore that society would have to kill him. He was too close in confrontation with the truth.
Mindful of this, we wanted to bring our version of Pasolini’s film 120 Days to stage for the very first time. I wanted to put the emphasis on all the things he was predicting: the consumerism, the wars and violence carried out in its name. As you know, this was a film that had been banned and widely condemned due to its graphic nature. It seemed to me that now was the time to do it due to its relevance to what we are experiencing now.
After a very successful first season, we were suddenly told it would no longer be showing. No explanation was offered. Later we found out that somebody from the government had intervened and terminated the show. I understand why it was forbidden. It was an assault on the system.
To conclude, how do you think critical thinkers and writers might connect better with artists and creative producers in order to develop a better critique of violence that is more adequate to our times?
Throughout the entire history, the only forces capable of resisting tyranny and suppression are artists, thinkers, and writers. These are the makers of what we call culture, which means the combination of aesthetics and spirituality. Dictators know that, they have a very good sense for the only serious threat to their power: free creation and free communication.
Most societies are ruled by mediocre people that have no vision and no imagination. Most rulers are scared of creation and creative people. Artists are funny people, all they want is to touch and move, challenge and surprise. But dictators hate surprises more than anything else.
Nothing scares authoritarian regimes more than art and free creation. Why would Hitler burn mountains of books and paintings and ban all arts? Why would Stalin — the master over life and death of almost 300 million people, a man who commanded the biggest army and secret service that ever existed — be afraid of the poems written by Anna Akhmatova? Why would Mao be so obsessed with destroying China’s entire cultural heritage? Why would FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, while denying the existence of organized crime in the United States, put so much effort into harassing and investigating every artist of any significance from Hemingway to John Lennon?
Rulers throughout history have always hated those who stood out from the masses — the geniuses, the poets, artists, witches, and saints; and usually they burned them or put them in dungeons, concentration camps, or mental institutions, thinking of what a nice and peaceful slave camp this planet could be without them.
On this planet, creating means to stand up, to rebel, to resist, it means striking back. While I am pessimistic about the conditions we face in the short run, in the longer run I remain optimistic. We need to remember empires can fall over night. What may seem to be invincible now evaporates tomorrow without a trace. Power in this regard is defined by its moment in time, whereas the creation is timeless.
Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist and writer, whose work specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.