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//How Much Actionism Does a Society Need?// - Lucien Kayser

How Much Actionism Does a Society Need? - Lucien Kayser

An artist, for me, is someone who goes tunnelling underground all around in all directions, until in some place the earth eventually caves in.

Otto Muehl, 26  January  1962, from a letter to Erika Stocker

One aspires to a consistent sacralisation of art, and through it, to a profound spiritualisation of life, which will enable man to become a true priest/preacher/evangelist of being.

Hermann Nitsch, invitation to an exhibition in the Loyalty Club, Vienna 1960



Before we try to find an answer to the eponymous question, it makes sense to probe further and to try to pin down the issue of the distance separating Malherbe’s statement that a poet is no more useful than a juggler, and, for one, the opinion that the theatre is an institution which functions as the bastion of morality. In other words, we have to answer the question as to which function is ascribed to art or – more generally – to culture and what they are responsible for. It’s ‘la faute à Voltaire, la faute à Rousseau’, as Victor Hugo’s Gavroche, a ‘gamin de Paris’, sang on the barricades shortly before his death.

What is literature capable of? – Jean Paul Sartre enquired, and maintained that, in the context of a child’s death, its role was meagre. And what about an image or painting, which at least is fit to be used as a mirror, or a seismograph? There are images which accuse mercilessly; there are others which are enclosed, self-contained. They are art for art’s sake. This is the exact opposite of the vision held by Viennese Actionists, the opposite of what they wanted to effect with their art, although even within the parameters of their own endeavours we can observe colossal differences. It’s enough to look at the two quotations above. Even if we limit ourselves to the main protagonists of Viennese Actionism, so, in alphabetical order: Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, it immediately becomes obvious that their attitudes were decidedly different. What they did have in common was revulsion towards the status quo, their strong desire for an aesthetic change, and, looking further ahead, also a desire for a transformation of life and society.

In today’s discourse there is no term more overused than ‘deconstruction’. In comparison to what was considered possible and desirable at the time, deconstruction is really child’s play, a mere game. According to Otto Muehl’s statement, published in his notebook at his own expense and devoted to The Festivity of Psycho-Physical Naturalism, deconstruction is ‘a conscious, creative butchering of bodies, notions, ideologies, opinions, institutions and monuments. The sense of deconstruction lies in the destruction of debris, and in this way it makes way for a new reality.’

This statement immediately highlights two issues: on the one hand, the paradox of creativity, which can be based only on destruction, arising from it naturally; on the other hand, the close connection between the material (body) and the spiritual and the almost automatic veering from the individual to the collective, from a person to the community.


Half a century has elapsed. From today’s point of view, the circumstances in which Actionism sprang up and took its first steps seem almost unimaginable. This happened in a particular city, in a particular country – in Vienna, in Austria – where the scars of war were still visible, as well as those of the difficult 1950s.  But even more visible still were the numerous taboos, which for many years had been waiting to be broken. Let’s not forget that the Actionists were sent to prison, had to flee abroad and seek refuge in irony and in proclaiming the Austrian Government in Exile.

The invitation to the Action Citizen Brus Views His Body from 1965 is an eloquent commentary on the-then situation in Austria, or, at least, it shows how the situation was perceived by the Actionists:

‘I find art which has clear-cut aims – ‘manifestos’ – suspect. But I know exactly how to describe what annoys me.

An Austrian with his Metternich in his trousers.

An Austrian as an infantilised village idiot.

An Austrian as an unbiased arts patron, not only of old art, but also of contemporary art, well, even of the most recent (Protocol 68).

Art Nouveau’s fooling about.

An Austrian as a religious moron.

An Austrian: he who feeds the mentally ill distinctions of the state and destroys healthy persuasion.’

Only twenty years separates the action Art and Revolution, which took place in July 1968 at the University of Vienna, from the exhibition Aktionsmalerei Aktionismus. Vienna 1960–1965 in Kassel, in 1988, which was opened in the presence of the Chancellor of Austria, Franz Vranitzky. How times change… State approval had taken a while to arrive a long time after the police and the organs of law enforcement had been called into action, because the Republic had – apparently – been in danger due to a defamation of its symbols.

The question, then, is not only how much Actionism society needs in any given moment, but  just as importantly,  how much Actionism it is able to bear.  And, possibly, both those points of reference are in opposition to each other.

Radicalism in the creation of art was directed against the dominant artistic trends of the period. In Vienna, those were represented by Galerie Nächst St. Stephan and Monsignore Otto Mauer. The story which Alfons Schilling recounted, in January 1962, in his letter from Paris to Monica Uhlig, in which he compared the situation of artists operating in Vienna and in Paris, points to an important aspect: ‘Here [in Paris – comment of the translator from the German] there is nothing for ‘scribblers’. Everything is for artists only. Prettily packed in expensive, aromatic tubes.’ So, the materials were meant only for artists, they were the means of producing beauty, not destroying it. After all, André Breton had prophesied that ‘la beauté sera convulsive ou ne sera pas’. In Vienna, ‘scribblers’ met in the Galerie Junge Generation, which belonged to the Socialist Party. The contrast between their art and what a leading gallery presented [ a reference to the Galerie Nächst St. Stephan - comment of the translator from the German] is also meaningful in societal terms.

Günter Brus and Rudolf Schwarzkogler did not recognise the limitations of their own endurance. Brus was the first to explore his[1]; later, he did a U-turn and incisions in his skin were replaced with lines on paper. Schwarzkogler died in 1969, jumping out of the window of his flat in the 4th district. ‘All bodies are no more than apparitions, images of imagination, states, which the will of the spirit has created.’ As for Nitsch, from the very beginning he was totally orientated towards his Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries, that is, a performance which went on for six days, and which he finally managed to produce in August 1998 in Prinzendorf (not without a notable reluctance on the part of the local church authorities, reactionary politicians and persistent defenders of animal rights).

Otto Muehl’s own life (in which he deliberately bypassed any moral or legal assessment of his activities) and the commune that he had set up proved to be more conducive to collaboration, or rather, skirmishes, with society and especially with its representatives such as politicians and law enforcers. In his Zock Manifesto in 1970, Muehl formulated the ideas which formed the basis for creating his commune. There, he presented the postulate for creating a new society. Friedrichshof, Gomera, communes throughout Europe… Muehl’s initiatives of expanding living communes were so warmly received and supported that, in the summer of 1977, the-then Austrian Chancellor, Kreisky, entertained a delegation from the commune[2]. After all, a commune was an example of radically internalised socialism.

Deformation, transformations in the political arena, a new social sensitivity – the eponymous question remains open. Towards the end of the 1980s, a criminal investigation began into the case of Otto Muehl.  In June 1991, he was arrested and sentenced to 7 years’ imprisonment for sexual relations with an under-aged girl.


Günter Brus reached the limit of what is bearable (from the point of view of the actor and the audience). This was too far for the severe judges of social mores. Trial by jury sentenced the artist to 6 months in prison for defamation of Austrian national symbols, immoral behaviour and indecent behaviour. With his family, Brus fled to West Berlin.

Günter Brus is an inconvenient artist. Inconvenient for himself – after parting company with the canvas, he reached out for his own body, to torture and mutilate it. He is also inconvenient for his country (but, then, Austria is not known for making life easy for its intellectuals) and inconvenient for us, the recipients of his art.

Günter Brus called his last action which took place in Munich in 1970 Breaking Test [Zereissprobe]. A year later, his book Irrwisch appeared and his first exhibition of drawings took place in the Michael Werner Gallery in Cologne. One thing led smoothly to another. This was a continuation of the still insolent, untamable creativity, but by different means. ‘The line has the impact of a stab in the heart’, Günter Brus commented on his action Walk  in Vienna, during which his body was painted white and ‘cut’ all the way down with a black line. In his drawings and works which combine image with literature[3], a line divides, separates and preserves the significant character of an incision. It releases that which we are only too eager to cover up and to sweep under the carpet. Günter Brus has no intention of waiting for the unpredictable and the disempowering return of the one who has been banished.

In spite of the great fantasy and colourfulness of word and image, Brus focuses on pointing out the wounds. The dual split, present in the Bretonesque beauté convulsive, the aggressive beauty of those artists of the late 20th century who were too easily called decadent, is characteristic of Günter Brus’s work. Essentially, they were true realists, who reacted faster and were more sensitive than others.

Günter Brus was similar to Cioran, a thinker and a bard of pain and death. For both, profound emotional experience is a rapture or a horror, or even both those at once. Brus himself is a poet of annihilation, whose drawings record that which is about to become extinct. What makes this apparent is not only the transformation which took place when the artist was at the edge of a precipice, a step from self destruction. To be an artist inspired by annihilation means also getting to know the heart of the matter [Grund der Dinge] at all cost: ‘to view the purest crystals, one has to have the courage to descend to hell; even if this should be the greatest absurdity.’ Because that is where words, lines and colours resonate, clashing and blending with one another.


‘This is my Bayreuth’. This is a reference to Prinzendorf, in Lower Austria, in the country‘s largest vineyard region, close to where the Iron Curtain was drawn, until European borders reopened. There is a baroque castle there, complete with a chapel, which used to be property of the Church, situated amidst an exceptional, undulating landscape. Wagner and Bayreuth, Nitsch and Prinzendorf: in both cases, the locations were carefully pre-selected as the venues to arrange the artists’ own ceremonies – to  celebrate  the Gesamtkunstwerk.

The art of Hermann Nitsch absorbs all the senses; it synthetically spreads its seductive powers. But, just like Richard Wagner’s musical dramas, it does not content itself with merely indiscriminate penetration and blurring of boundaries. The point here is more than the fusion of painting and theatre. The artist’s action aims further still; it reaches the level of glorification of existence and mysticism. The spectator is confronted with a singular experience of the universe and being. According to the Manifesto from 1968, (the participant) becomes ‘subjected to a more intensely aesthetic and mystical understanding of the world’.

All creativity is, from the very beginning – both in theory and in practice – focused on a genuinely ritualistic celebration of life, which lasts over six days and nights. A feast and a sacrifice, death and resurrection – a new mysterium.  Later, it was to become the point of reference for other, earlier actions, which took place in Prinzendorf an der Zaya, but also elsewhere.

In his essay written for the catalogue of the Lenbach exhibition (1988), Armin Zweite tracked numerous threads, looking for inspiration and traditions which Hermann Nitsch brought together in his Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries. The Dionysian myth which Nitsch evoked was omnipotent and it illuminated all activity. From Christ crucified, whom the artist called a repressed Dionysius, back to the god of tragedy, wine and intoxication. ‘Simply, the god of creative impulses, in whom elevation and destruction are combined… the fundamental forces of being, which arise in the face of the conscious, the intellect, but which should be incarnate in the life that we experience and which we finally must become aware of.’

Nitsch’s actions are meant to lead to abreaction and catharsis. Ritualistic ancient victims gain a new stage-setting and are brought back from the world of the outcasts. However, Nitsch incessantly emphasises that his Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries, unlike the conventional theatre, is authentic.   The killed animals are real, so are the butchered and gutted carcasses and the blood spilt. In spite of all the real dangers of a Dionysian rapture, in the theatre this abreactive euphoria becomes tamed. It takes places within the framework and rules of a game, it  is securitised; it is visualised and enters our consciousness as an aesthetic phenomenon.

The stage setting of Nitsch’s Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries was brought deeply underground. The artist wanted to see it buried six storeys down, under the residential building; a labyrinth of vegetative forms with rooms, passages and corridors, like the vagina or the heart. There was also the project of the temple of the Holy Grail, where wounds are constantly opened and where people and animals continue to wait for the healing power of the piercing spear.

As for Nitsch’s Actionist paintings, they glisten red with blood, oil and dispersive paints, spilt over the surface of the canvas starting with its top edge. Nitsch admitted, ‘I SPILT EVERYTHING AND STAINED EVERYTHING FROM TOP TO BOTTOM’.  In the attic of the Prinzendorf estate, there are long rows of large-format paintings, their upper parts covered in deepest black, as if a wide river had overflowed onto them. Below, there are more or less thick rivulets which flow down to form stains on the floor. ‘With sublimation into all the colours of the spectrum, the exclusive concentration on the red colour scheme (blood) has been avoided.’ So, it’s not only red and black, Eros and Thanatos. The palette is now the equivalent of the inexhaustible richness of life.

The Viennese painting from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century already evoked cult and ritual. In celebrating the ritual, the berobed Nitsch is reminiscent of the similarly dressed Klimt. As a witness to the painting action, the robe will be later hung on the edge of the painting, stained and splattered. ‘The painter’s “bloody sweat” has been imprinted on the shirt” – traces of passion and death. Even so, the painter has survived, Phoenix-like, to live a new life and perform new actions.


There is a prevailing opinion that the destructive dimension of Actionism has survived today – when there are almost no taboos left to break. This last statement is, of course, relative, as it does not apply to every country and every corner of the planet – there are still too many transformations that have not, as yet, taken place. Moreover, it is a reasonable concern that, with the crisis intensifying, the old habits and authoritarian structures will at least attempt again to take over human thinking and conduct. The question regarding freedom will remain topical.

On the other hand, now more than ever, society needs particularly the creative dimension of Actionism and it needs it especially in artistic production, where Actionists proved their, now almost completely extinct, radicalism. Their work was one of the greatest need, a result of objective circumstances, enhanced by subjective judgment. It seemed to Actionists that such activities, flawed as they were and complete with all the dangers arising out of them, were absolutely necessary.

‘Anything goes’ – as the Vienna-born philosopher Paul Feyerabend put it, his words addressed to academics. His statement, notoriously misinterpreted, does not, however, imply total randomness in post-modern thinking and, in consequence, also randomness in artistic production and discourse. Feyerabend positions himself ‘against the coercion of the method’; that is to say, against the impoverishment of the concrete. Perhaps this is the message of Viennese Actionism and that is why it would be a mistake to reduce this phenomenon to merely an artistic one.


Translated from French by Małgorzata Jędrzejczyk


Lucien Kayser - (born 1945)
Art critic, curator, graduate of philosophy and French literature at the Sorbonne, the École Normale Supérieure and the Centre Universitaire in Luxembourg. Lectures in philosophy and contemporary French literature in Luxembourg. Visiting lecturer in Salzburg. Collaborates with the Luxembourg weekly cultural magazine d'Lëtzebuerger Land and Radio 100,7. Currently, President of the Luxembourg AICA section.



1. Zereissprobe [in German] –  an endurance test; also the title of one of Brus’s last actions, during which the artist carried out considerable self-mutilation.

2. B. Kreisky – a member of the  Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ), which during the 1970s had a prevailing majority in the Austrian Parliament.

3 Reference to Irrwisch, a book by Brus which demonstrated both his writing and drawing talents.