The skillfully sent gesture of art

Marlen Wagner, Gestengeschick, Performance

The Momentum of Gesture in Art und Religion (11)

Note: The German text plays a lot with the words
“Geschick”, “Schickung”, “Schicksal”, “schicken”, “schicklich” etc.
– word plays that are difficult to translate.

The appearance of angels in church services, even those with new messages, would probably come as a great surprise to the faithful. The liturgical office is reserved for the priests, even if they as persons for the officium of the service actually play no role at all. For what is conveyed “ex officio” is the belief that the Word of God has already been sent and that these sendings are now affirmed with gestures. This belief would be massively shaken if a different spirit suddenly blew in a liturgical situation – in other words, if something happened in the ritual that would transform it into a playground of art. Religious orthodoxy therefore immunises the ritual against the danger of a presence of mind that is not represented by a gesture, but comes into play in a gesture.

But where there is danger
The rescue also grows.

These lines from Hölderlin’s poem Patmos can also be understood as a skilful gesture of art towards religious ritual. But how is rescue possible and what is there to be rescued and who or what rescues from what? Perhaps what is really needed is poetic courage (Dichtermut) and stupidity (Blödigkeit) (the titles of two versions of a poem by Hölderlin) in order to use artistic skill to save that spirit which is gesturally designated in mechanically performed rituals but is not present in them.

Art finds in the momentum of gestural movement a possibility that is prevented by the rite: To let something new emerge. With the ritual repetition of the same thing, faith aims to persist in eternity, not at the origin of something new. (That the Catholic Church is basically itself the katechon, which delays the parousia of Christ by repeating Jesus’ sacrifice in the celebration of the sacrament of the Eucharist for the living participation of the congregation in his meal and his as a meal in permanence, belongs to the mysteries of the liturgy).

Rite and ritual only allow a leap into faith, not a springing out of it. The prayerful ritual, in which the eternity of faith is mechanically invoked, is contrasted with the living movement in which presence of mind is embodied. (The momentum of a gesture in art proves itself precisely when it succeeds in seizing the opportunity to transform chronos into the present).

Decisive for the success of art is – in the words of Walter Benjamin – “only the where of the spirit”: “That it is present in the moment and in space, it only creates by entering into the voice, the smile, the silence, the look, the gesture. For only the body creates the presence of the spirit. (Denkbilder, The Way to Success in Thirteen Theses. 13th Thesis)

A skilful gesture is therefore a gesture that testifies to presence of mind. It is an unconsciously successful gesture, not a consciously induced one. Dancers know this well: the more “consciously” a movement is made, the greater the risk of a misstep. Presence of mind requires an inspired mechanical action that is not exhausted by having artistic technique at one’s disposal, nor is it exhausted by mechanically praying after it.

Hölderlin distinguishes between téchne (τέχνη) and mechané (μηχανή). However, he does not describe as “mechanical” the functioning of a mindless machine, but rather an action that, on the contrary, is highly enthusiastic, for mechanical skill testifies for him to presence of spirit. Something other than pure technique is involved in the unconsciously successful gesture.

Art practitioners thus display an artistic dexterity that cannot be reduced to technique. Skill presupposes technique, not consciously incorporates it. It requires, through the embodiment of artistry, the transformation of the technical into a part of what skill encompasses. Technique without skill is empty, skill without technique would be spirit without body, i.e. fate.

Religions proclaim divine destinies as the destiny of human beings. Believers are to fulfil their destiny according to their faith. What this is, however, is determined by the dogmatists of the churches. Art practitioners protest against this when they insist that art is not about fulfilling a divine destiny, but about letting one’s own destiny take its course.

For Hölderlin, inspired artists are also gifted with the ability to let the “living possibility of the spirit” take effect in their actions before they are seized by God. And this is made possible by the fact that they encounter this God with “bold, often even blasphemous words”. Thus, by keeping God “at a distance” in this way by those who make art, their art can be animated by inspiration. This distinguishes them from those who are inspired by God in faith.

And thus the fate (Schicksal) of the faithful is different from the Geschick of those who make art. Poets, according to Walter Benjamin – and this must indeed seem encroaching to believers – seize God when he has become an object “in his dead infinity”. However, this only sounds blasphemous as long as the Kingdom of God is confused with the Church.

The translation of enthusiasm (ένθουσιασμός) into “Begeisterung” transforms the destiny of God into the destiny of the artificer. The éntheos (ἔνθεος, ἔνθους) contained in the Greek word is thus understood not as being enthusiastic about God but as being seized by a God, having God in oneself. By finding enthusiasm in Begeistetsein and not God, art practitioners can seize the possibilities that their being begeistet, their being inspired, offers them. They do this with gestural means that do not find their measure in the Word of God, but in their own measure, that is, according to their own skill. Accordingly, art is a skilful activity.

Teachers of the Church consequently see it as presumptuous activity, a vice that can become a mortal sin if the arrogance of hybris is consciously practised. For from the point of view of ecclesiastical dogmatics, it must be presumptuous to allow oneself to be inspired by that spirit which makes even the angels dance.

If Hölderlin, as a practitioner of art, attaches great importance to the distinction between mechané and téchne, between artistic skill (Geschick) and artistry, then this makes us think. If we were to follow this track here, we would perhaps encounter the sense of possibility of the man without qualities with Robert Musil. Or share with Wim Wenders the curiosity as to why the angels under the Berlin sky are so drawn to artistry. Or accompany Pina Bausch when she realises her dance theatre programme and says: “I’m not interested in how people move, but what moves them.” Contemporary art is apparently not only in theatre little inspired by the interest in the deus ex machina (god from the machine), but rather by the pneuma en mechané (spirit in the machine), which not only makes theatre a space of possibility.

Well also are and sent one to something we,
When we come, with art, and from the celestials
Bring one. But ourselves
Skilful hands we bring.

Friedrich Hölderlin: Blödigkeit, Sämtliche Werke. 6 Volumes, Vol. 2, Stuttgart 1953, pp. 65-66,70.

Hölderlin’s translations of Greek texts and his preoccupation with Plato’s theory of the origin of the world in the Timaeus clearly show from where, for him, art derives its skill (Geschick) and this its presence of spirit (Geistegegenwart). Not from an immortalised God, but from a living and moving spirit (Geist) inherent in creation and creative activity. With Klaus Heinrich, one could also call this “Triebgrund” or with Julia Kristeva, also referring to Plato’s Timaeus, “Chora”, as the moving medium of artistic inspiration.

Fear not the poet, if he nobly rages, his letter
Kills, but it makes Geister alive the spirit.

Robert Krokovski