This article presents the international movement New Tendencies (1961-1978) as one of the first large scale international art movements that made artist-led research a core concern. New Tendencies adopted ideas and methods from Gestalt psychology, a holistic, experimental form of psychological research, and combined it with the idea of liberating the viewer from alienation. This paper will primarily focus on the first phase of New Tendencies, from 1961 to 1963, when the movement developed its new aesthetics and poetics. The viewer was made a participant in the work by creating a relational field between work and viewer, whereby visual research was meant to replace the notion of art. This happened in the social context of the time, characterised by rapid modernisation processes in industry summarised by the term “automation”, and by a cultural Cold War in which art was exploited by both East and West.
Art as Visual Research
Initially, for a brief period after the end of the Second World War, when Paris was still the undisputed capital of art, it seemed as if geometric abstraction would become the dominant style (Pellegrini 1966). But then “innate human nature’s primal scream” (Meštrović 2011) made itself heard. Abstract gestural painting, called abstract expressionism in the United States, and art informel in Europe gained the upper hand through influential critics such as Clement Greenberg in the United States and Michel Tapié in France. Tapié argued that because of the horrors of the concentration camps and the atom bomb, the whole project of modernity and with it the modernistic emphasis on form had become deeply compromised (Taipé 2003). Therefore, Tapié advocated formless painting, an expression of unmediated psychic forces.
During the 1950s abstract expressionism and art informel became more dominant. The activities of institutions like MoMA, acting – knowingly or not – as front organisations for the CIA-financed Congress of Cultural Freedom, helped New York become the capital of modern art (Saunders 2001; Guilbaut 1985). According to this master narrative, the West demonstrated the values of an open society by actively supporting a specific type of modern art, while in the Eastern bloc the doctrine of socialist realism, according to which painting and sculpture had to follow a figurative style, was enforced by authorities.
New Tendencies broke through that dual opposition by launching an abstract art movement from a socialist country. This movement and network emerged in 1961 from Zagreb, capital of Croatia, which was then part of the non-aligned Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Rubinstein 1970). After Yugoslav leader Tito’s break with Stalin in 1948, Yugoslavia kept an equal distance between the market oriented West and Soviet Communism, developing a “third-way” socialism. A centrepiece of Yugoslavia’s new ideology was the notion of self-management (Rusinow 1977). Through the introduction of worker’s councils and through forms of participatory democracy on the local level, Yugoslavia wanted to present itself as an ideological alternative to Stalinism (Rusinow 1977).
In the arts, moving away from socialist realism was not done over night. Artists and critics fought to get abstract art gradually established over the course of the 1950s. There was no official government line on art, but as observers noted, a kind of aestheticised modernism was established, against which New Tendencies reacted (Denegri 2003). As I argue in more detail in my book (Medosch 2016), there was a correspondence between a climate of rapid modernisation in peripheral Yugoslavia and utopian modernistic ideas from constructivism, Bauhaus, and de Stijl. Yugoslavia was similar to Latin American nations such as Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela, which were also rapidly developing and where the formal vocabulary of abstract modern art symbolised an optimistic claim to a rationally organised, better future (Ramı́rez Mari Carmen 2004).
Yugoslavia’s special political status allowed both artists from Warsaw Pact states such as Czechoslovakia and Poland, as well as artists from the West, to visit Zagreb. Yugoslav artists could travel freely to many Western nations and international traveling exhibitions such as a retrospective of the work of Henry Moore, and Contemporary Art of the United States of America, _which included all the famous abstract expressionists of the era, were shown in Yugoslavia in the 1950s (Denegri 2003).
After the initial domination of abstract expressionism and informel in the 1950s, around 1957, a new voice was beginning to be heard from studios and artist run galleries around the world. The artists who came of age in that period did not make the painful experience of the war their main concern, but instead focused on how to avoid such errors in the future. They equated war and National Socialism with irrationalism, influenced by books such as The Destruction of Reason by György Lukács (published in German in 1953 and in French in 1958) (Lukács 1958). New Tendencies reconnected with the interwar abstract avant-gardes through influential figures such as concrete artist Max Bill, and institutions attempting to create a New Bauhaus, such as the Institute of Design in Chicago and the College of Design in Ulm. In 1955, gallery Denise René in Paris held the Le Mouvement exhibition, which opened up new pathways for kinetic art in Europe, showing classics such as Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs together with works of a younger generation of artists, for instance, Jean Tinguely and Jesús Rafael Soto.
In Düsseldorf, starting in 1957, Zero group, initially formed by Otto Piene and Heinz Mack, started holding one evening exhibitions in their studio and published the magazine Zero. (Kuhn 1991) Zero were strongly influenced by Yves Klein, who at the time was in the middle of his blue phase and creating a grid consisting of gas flames in Krefeld (Kuhn 1991). Zero also had intense exchanges with Milan, where Piero Manzoni and Enrico Castellani together initiated Azimut/h magazine and gallery (Damsch-Wiehager 1996). In Milan, Lucio Fontana acted as a mentor for the emerging kinetic scene, whose spatialism provided the blueprint for a new understanding of space. In Paris, Victor Vasarely and Jesús Rafael Soto played a similar role for young Spanish, French and Latin American artists who formed Equipo 57 (in the eponymous year) and Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV) in 1960.
The first New Tendencies exhibition was the result of a chance meeting of the Brazilian painter Almir Mavignier and the Croatian critic Matko Meštrović in 1960 in Zagreb. They discussed that year’s Venice Biennale, which they found disappointing, and decided to propose an exhibition to Zagreb’s City Gallery of Contemporary Art curated by Mavignier, and an exhibition of Croatian art in Ulm, curated by Meštrović. Mavignier had been studying at the famous design college in Ulm since 1953, and had become a teacher there in 1958 (Hoffmann and Schmidt 2002). Ulm’s curriculum was very advanced, with an information department where Max Bense (later followed by Abraham Moles) was teaching information aesthetics. At Ulm, information theory and modernistic design, the electronic mass media and principles of good form were part of an extremely rationalistic design discourse (Bonsiepe 2009). Following the leading scholar on the Ulm college, Paul Betts, we need to understand that the college’s modernism was meant to redeem modernity from national socialism (Betts 1998). In Germany, the educated bourgeoisie (Bildungsbürgertum) insisted on a strict separation between high-culture (art) and science and technology. Since the Nazi regime had endorsed technology, technology’s role in war had become just another excuse for the educated middle class to continue its ignorant stance towards the role of technology and science in a modern society. Ulm was set up to change that, to give the most modern possible education to future “designers” of a new, democratic German society.
The first New Tendencies exhibition in 1961 manifested to the participating artists that they were a movement. From that moment the search began for a shared, common agenda. In 1962 participants of the fledgling movement met several times in Paris, but also Zagreb and Italy. Within a relatively short time the movement united under the banner Nouvelle Tendance – Recherche Continuelle (New Tendencies – continuous research) (Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel 1962).
The full meaning of visual research in the New Tendencies movement only reveals itself when we consider the artists’ political and aesthetic goals within the context of their time. Between 1961 and 1963, a series of manifestos and position papers was published by groups and individuals involved in New Tendencies, assuming a neo-avant-garde position. Neo-avant-garde, because in statements such as “General Propositions,” (Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel 1968) the artists made a radical break with the art of the past and fundamentally reconsidered the role of the artist in society. This was not just a revolution of style but of a mentality, an approach, a way of making art. The artists and theorists involved declared as obsolete “the unique and isolated artist; the cult of the personality; the myth of creation; the production of unique works of art and art’s dependence on the market place.” To counter that they suggested, among other things, “to eliminate the category ‘work of art’ and its myths,” and to “liberate the public from the inhibitions and warping of appreciation produced by traditional aestheticism.” In order to achieve that, the artists were in search of clarity, struggling to: “limit the work to a strictly visual situation; establish a more precise relation between the work and the human eye; anonymity and homogeneity of form; […] to stress visual instability and perception of time; and search for nondefinitive work.” (Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel 1968)
Argentinian artist Julio Le Parc, GRAV’s chief theorist, penned a further statement clarifying, that for him, the key aspect was a new relationship between work and viewer (Le Parc 1962). Le Parc’s colleague François Morellet, also member of GRAV, added in a short pamphlet of his own that he saw the solution in “programmed experimental painting” (Morellet 1962) which contained nothing less than the artist’s definition of research.
New Tendencies objected to the cult of personality and disproved of the commodification of art from a position that could be broadly characterized as that of an unorthodox, postwar New Left. In Yugoslavia, but also in Marxist circles in Western Europe, one key dividing issue between the New Left and the Stalinist orthodoxy was the question of “reflection.” Stalinist objectivism had claimed that the superstructure objectively mirrors the economic base, which was also considered prior to it (and thus more important, or more “real”). Intellectuals in former Yugoslavia successfully argued that the semi-independence of the superstructure was an appropriate Marxist position in 1960 at the conference of philosophers and sociologists at Bled. The reflection of the base in the superstructure was not an automatism, but was carried out by the reflecting human mind. Especially under unfree conditions of repressive social forms, be they capitalist or Soviet communist, the sphere of art and culture could be seen as a realm of freedom, providing compensation for a paucity of economic and political freedoms. The partial autonomy of the superstructure was, in other words, the guarantee of independent, free thinking for critical artists and scientists. In 1963-4, Praxis journal and Praxis group were formed in Zagreb and Belgrade. Praxis also organized the Korčula Summer School, an annual meeting of the international New Left from 1964 to 1974. Although there were few direct connections between New Tendencies and Praxis the two initiatives had overlapping interests in the “partial autonomy of the superstructure.”
Praxis and New Tendencies had to find a delicate balance between pushing against the boundaries of existing knowledge without angering the regime. Praxis’ core topic was self-management. Many articles questioned how it fitted into Marxist philosophy, whether it was a reality in Yugoslavia or just official ideology (Mikulić 2009). Praxis’ critique of the Yugoslav system was coming from within that system, from a journal that was funded by the socialist state and whose highest public representatives, including Tito, were among its readers. Claiming the partial autonomy of the superstructure, whether in philosophy, the social sciences or art, provided the philosophical foundation for epistemic pluralism. It was of key importance – out of their own leftist convictions – to remain firmly on the ground of dialectical materialism, while on the other hand the partial autonomy was stretched to its limits. French philosopher Henri Lefebvre provided the ground with his re-evaluation of the philosophical young Marx in Dialectical Materialism where he defended Marxist philosophy against Stalinist deformations (Lefebvre 2009). Other key thinkers who published in Praxis and came to Korčula Summer School were Ernst Bloch and Herbert Marcuse.
Their re-reading of Marx led them to the idealist roots of Marx in the shape of the dialectical philosophy of Georg Friedrich Hegel (Hegel 1986; Marcuse 1971; Bloch 1962) A re-reading of Hegel, as if Hegel had already known Marx, 1 provided the philosophical underpinnings for New Tendencies’ artistic research. The activated spectator of New Tendencies moved through the dialectical relationship between subject and object, between the individual and society in an exemplary manner. The participatory artwork was the physical manifestation of the Hegelian process of mediation between subject and object, between the particular and the universal. As we shall see, the key to this was the aesthetics of the relational field, an immaterial “visual structuralism.”
In order to achieve their goals, New Tendencies called for an unprecedented scientification of art. The artists did not define themselves as scientists, but developed an experimental psychophysical research practice. The turn to quasi-science enabled them to defy all traditional categories of art and work towards an “ethics of a new collective life” as Italian N group put it (Gruppo N 2009). In order to achieve the quality of research any individual handwriting in the work had to be avoided. The research process was based on the artist first identifying a form or shape and then varying it according to precise methods such as rotation, permutation, or creating series and progression. The individual elements themselves had to be as anonymous as possible – no personality cult but also no fetishization of forms.
Morellet worked with grids, rotated against each other in certain angles. The title of those works was then designated by those angles (see for instance illustration #1: 4 Double Trames 0°, 22°5, 45°, 67°5 (4 Double Grids 0°, 22°5, 45°, 67°5)). Le Parc used black and white squares, like on a checkerboard, but placed some of them as cut-outs on movable strings to create foreground-background relationships (see illustration #2). The idea of research was to define a method and then carry it out, without any further spontaneous intervention. Such a controlled experiment should give artists the possibility to start understanding their own aesthetic decisions better, to paraphrase Morellet (Morellet 1962). Swiss artist Karl Gerstner had written a book on this type of experiment calling it Kalte Kunst (cold art) (Gerstner 1957). His work was technically demanding and of the greatest exactitude. It could be made by professionals in a well-equipped workshop only. Morellet consciously used the term “programmed art” in one of his statements at the time, (Morellet 1962) because he wanted to reduce his subjective decisions and use random numbers and systems instead (Medosch 2015). The act of creation was to be analyzed rationally, and not left to inspiration. Morellet’s description of his algorithmic method predates Sol LeWitt’s “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” in which a similar statement about art as an algorithm were made, by several years(LeWitt 1967).
In 1962, the Italian groups N and T, GRAV and a number of individuals (Enzo Mari, Getulio Alviani) participated in an exhibition which traveled through showrooms of office equipment company Olivetti. In an article called “Programmed Art” Italian theorist Umberto Eco wrote that those works, some driven by electrical motors and moving parts, were not fully determined by the artist’s intentions but created a “field of possibilities” between work and user (Eco 2011). At the time, Olivetti was getting into the computer business, with the first fully transistorized commercial computer. Industrial automation was also making rapid progress at the industrial plants of Olivetti, but also Fiat. For the more leftwing members of New Tendencies, such as Padua based group N, this created a schizophrenic situation. Their work, shown in Olivetti showrooms, was aiming at liberating the viewer from the control loops of industrial society. N were joining capital from the inside, so to speak. At the same time, militant researchers from Quaderni Rossi magazine – a close precursor of “operaismo,” the Italian “workerist” autonomous Marxism movement – infiltrated the workforce to find out the weakspots of Olivetti’s cybernetic labor regime.
In my previous work I have already stated that optical, moving and dynamic works of New Tendencies aimed for overcoming alienation (Medosch 2012). The audience experiences its capacity to actuate change in the exemplary situation of an encounter with an artwork. For this reason, Le Parc had emphasized the importance of the spectator. In literature contemporary to New Tendencies, it was pointed out that their art created a relational field. Jack Burnham’s entire take on New Tendencies in a subchapter of Beyond Modern Sculpture is providing substance to this observation (Burnham 1968). New Tendencies saw themselves at the end-point of a long-term process of the secularisation of art. The way how art was understood shifted completely, from representing a higher truth (god) to an entirely worldly relationship between work and viewer, where all the assumptions had been made clear. This structural turn regarding the ontology of the artwork is of key importance, as it is foundational for the art of the late 20th century. In the same ways as Peter Osborne can rightly claim that all contemporary art is post-conceptual art, (Osborne 2013) all contemporary art comes conceptually after the opening up of the artwork to establish a relational field with the viewer. All contemporary art is relational (not just Nicholas Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics) (Bourriaud 2002).
New Tendencies tried to create visual research for advanced industrial societies characterized by a rising level of industrial automation. Building new, more highly automated plants drove up initial costs of investment which in turn reinforced the demand for advertisement and marketing in order to sell those mass produced goods. Those tendencies, which had created a new (lower) middle class of wage labour professionals in the USA already in the early 1950s, (Mills 1963) reached Europe with some delay in the early 1960s. The need for marketing industrially produced consumer goods spawned an entire new industry. The societies of advanced mass production, also known as Fordism, (Aglietta 1979) were characterized by close control loops in the factory, the school, the army and in the leisure sphere. The media sphere turned the human element into providers of “feedback” in informational loops, as introduced by Norbert Wiener in his cybernetic theory (Wiener 1948). Umberto Eco’s “fields of possibilities” (see above) between work and viewer brought the viewer into an interactive relationship with the environment which was not fixed but changeable. New Tendencies was convinced that it was possible to intervene in the societal subject-object relation by creating formally innovative abstract art.
New Tendencies explored known effects from Gestalt psychology or invented its own effects on the basis of Gestalt principles. Gestalt psychology had been created by researchers in Germany Austria and Italy (Ash 1995) in the 1910s and 1920s as experimental psychological research within the discipline of philosophy. It has made many contributions to psychology and philosophy for which it is possibly under-recognized. Most people associate it with the principle that the whole is more than a mere sum of its parts, but this is an age-old philosophical insight of Aristotle (Ash 1995). Gestalt psychologists in early 20th century Germany fought against the prevailing “atomism” in experimental psychological research. Leading philosophers of science such as Ernst Mach had claimed, based on Bishop George Berkeley, that we do not perceive things but only elements, color-tones, lines, dots. Machism became the target of a vitriolic polemic by Zimir I. Lenin in “Materialism and Empiriocriticism.” (Lenin 1947) Lenin, armed with Hegelian dialectic, argued that scientific neo-positivism was not really materialist at all but a one-sided belief in matter and isolated facts that amounted to another form of idealism.
From a similar angle, but without ideological overtones, Gestalt psychologists Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka and Georg Köhler argued that the primary objects of scientific interest are not atomistic sensations such as color or light intensity, but structured wholes, Gestalten (Ash 1995); and that the brain is constantly involved in forming perceptual hypothesis and is using those hypotheses to adjust what it sees (Koffka 1950). In other words, perception is not a passive and mechanical process but involves communication and exchange between the organs, the eyes and the receptor cells, but also the visual cortex and the parts of the brain engaged in visual perception. That means that we often see what we want to see. Based on our intentionality, we focus on aspects of reality and suppress others (Gregory 1977). The whole perceptual apparatus can not be meaningfully separated into a passive perception apparatus and the mind, as there are feedback loops between the perceiving mind and the more outlying parts of the perceptual system. From psychological research into perception, researchers progressed to more generalized theses on “Gestalten” (configurations/forms) developing Gestalt theory which applied the basic principle also to emotions, actions, social groups (Ash 1995).
Gestalt researchers often used optical illusions to advance their science. Gestalt textbooks are full of examples, such as figure-background jumps, virtual forms/geometries which only exist in the mind of the viewer, or the phi effect (virtual movement). It is important, however, to differentiate, because those are “illusions” only in a certain sense. Certain configurations of forms and movements can confound the eye and create a dazzle, an optical effect, that is nevertheless very real. While the object that is seen – the dazzle, a vibration, an uncertainty – does not exist, it is based on very real brain chemistry – most effects are repeatable and intersubjective.
The artists involved in New Tendencies used some optical illusions of this kind, but also created some of their own through their experimental practices. But the dazzle was also an obvious weakness in terms of art discourse. It provides a perceptual shock-and-awe experience, but this wears off quickly. I had thus trouble understanding for a long time why New Tendencies was so intent on working with the dazzle. The artists produced a whole range of different types of effects and constellations, often involving movement. Sometimes a work is static, a painting that uses optical effects, to create movement in the mind of the viewer. Sometimes the viewer needs to move just a bit to create a dramatic, dazzling effect – for instance when figure background relations suddenly change. The Italian artists of group N used that effect in their series Dynamic Visions (see illustration #3). Sometimes the work uses moving parts, electric motors, mirrors and light sources to create different forms of movement at once. The other Italian group, T from Milan, became experts in those types of work (see illustration #4). And sometimes the whole range of dynamic, visually interactive experience was deployed in large scale cooperative artworks, such as the Labyrinth created by GRAV, first in 1963, and again on the occasion of a 1964 New Tendencies exhibition at the Louvre in Paris.
As Jacopo Galimberti has pointed out, GRAV’s Labyrinths were based on an explicit concept of cooperation, giving up individual authorship (Galimberti 2013). Their way of working together was different from the type of “teamwork” in capitalist production (where experts take on different parts according to their specalization) but was also conceptually different from the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk (the synthesis of all arts that leads to a new work, but under a unified aesthetic regime). In groups such as GRAV, N and Equipo 57 every artist did the same work. They were all on an equal footing and cooperated, like scientists, in a laboratory situation. The notion of visual research made working in groups easier, so that those groups functioned like open universities, where through shared research a visual commons was created.
Their experimental research practice created works that involved the viewer and created a dazzle in the eye, a real optical illusion. In the group work Labyrinth in 1964 this amounted to strong visual shock tactics, consisting of strong stroboscopic lights virtual movement (the phi effect) on a grand scale. Later, GRAV resorted to more subtle and playful effects, for example in A Day in the Streets of Paris (1966). The works are seeking the active cooperation of the viewer to engage; who gets rewarded with a strange sensation, a dazzle. Now, it becomes clear that the dazzle has a specific ideological function.
The dazzle is the moment of reversal, the turning point (German “Umschlagpunkt”) in Hegelian dialectics. The dazzle’s physicality, its realness (the fact it can be seen by a wide range of people without any previous knowledge of art history or theory) is evidence of its quasi-objective existence and thus makes it useful for a polemics on materialism and art. One of the most advanced statements from this period was co-authored by the painter François Morellet and the scientist François Molnar, the text “Pour un art abstrait progressif” published on the occasion of the second New Tendencies exhibition in 1963 (Morellet and Molnár 1963).
Morellet and Molnar apparently felt the need to defend abstract art against the accusation of being not in tune with dialectical materialism. The second Zagreb exhibition of New Tendencies had suffered from a delay of six months because of a speech by President Tito in which he had made unfavorable remarks against abstract art (Kolešnik 2010). In an act of anticipatory obedience the opening of that exhibition had first been called off, then, after realizing the mistake, was finally put on again, albeit delayed by six months. Morellet and Molnar’s statement can but does not have to be interpreted in that context. In general, there was a tension between dialectical materialism and modern art because of the introduction of the doctrine of socialist realism in 1932, (Bown 1991) a line that was also followed by communist parties in Western Europe. Yet the argument cuts deeper than party policy and goes to the heart of a self-understanding of a “progressive” artist as Morellet and Molnar saw themselves.
Molnar and Morellet may have feared that abstract art could be found guilty of formalism which was widely used as a smearword against modern artists by Stalinists. Yet even without such a polemic, formalism in visual art could be seen as the equivalent of scientific neo-positivism which Lenin had chastised. And indeed, some forms of modernistic painting are truly formalistic insofar as they present isolated visual elements. Such an aesthetic, as Clement Greenberg had argued, was the result of a purification of painting, cleansing it from any social and historical content (Greenberg 2003). But this type of abstraction was not what New Tendencies had in mind. At this stage it is important to remember that dialectic materialism was strongly based on Hegel whose philosophy was the high-point of idealism. However, even Lenin, in his notes on Hegel, accepted that “a smart idealism was closer to smart materialism than bad materialism.” (Lenin 1971) Marx’s version of dialectic offered a turning point from idealist sublation in the “world spirit” (Hegel’s circular philosophy of history) to real change in the world (revolutionary Marxism) (Marx and Engels 1972). In the context of this turn, dialectic was the giving way of an idealist philosophy of consciousness to the conscious application of rational tools to introduce change in concrete history (Lenin 1963).
Morellet and Molnar tried to reconcile Hegel’s philosophy of history and its Marxist-Leninist interpretation with art reinterpreted as visual research. Their stated aim of a final demystification of art meant to strip it bare of any residue of religious content. The market, however, was creating its own mystification by applying commodity fetishism to artworks. As Meštrović wrote, art was treated contradictorily, as a myth and as a commodity at the same time (Meštrović 2011). New Tendencies hoped that by reducing the relation between eye and artwork to something strictly visual and by avoiding the word art altogether, it could be freed from the ideological baggage of art in a bourgeois society. The moment of liberation arrives with the dazzle – when a Gestalt effect physically works in the mind of a viewer. This is the moment when the subject recognizes her or himself in relation to the environment and a mediation between subject and object is realized.
The Hegelian dialectics between subject and object is not a static opposition of dualistic categories but a fluid movement, a constant becoming of one category out of the other through acts of negation (Bloch 1962). Hegelian dialectics is not about opposites but about this movement, this process. Like dialectical materialism, Gestalt psychology is also all about movement. The most interesting developments occur between a moving object and a viewer, or between a moving eye and a static object. The Gestalt subject is constantly forming perceptual hypotheses not in the abstract but as a real person placed in an environment. Hegelian philosophy of history is constant movement from thesis, via antithesis, to synthesis. Social struggle, antagonism between master and slave, (Kojève and Fetscher 1958) oppressor and oppressed, is the “principle of self-movement” of social entities. The interest in movement in New Tendencies does not stem from a fascination with all things moving, but from a methodological and intrinsic interest in the “principles of self-movement” which collectively become forces of history. Gestalt psychology posited that the visual field was defined by a bipolarity between self and environment. The moment of transition, when the subject who has recognized its subordinate position is about to change that, this Hegelian “close of argument” (German: der “Schluss”) is congruent with the dynamic relation between work and viewer resulting in the dazzle.
On the basis of this analogy, the name New Tendencies receives a new interpretation. The founders of New Tendencies have contradictory versions of stories about where the name came from. According to Mavignier, it was based on an exhibition in Milan in 1960 that showed “new tendencies in German art” in which he had participated (Mavignier 2011). Yet this exhibition had had no clear concept and had brought together Informel painters and artists of the new direction for which Zero and Mavignier stood. It is thus not a direct precursor of New Tendencies conceptually. Meštrović claims that the name was his proposition, but this cannot be independently verified (Medosch 2009). In German “Neue Tendenzen” is a generic term, it can be applied to everything. But what if the intention behind choosing this term had been much more specific?
The tendency itself is an important component of Hegel’s dialectic. The tendency, in such a reading, is a discontinuous form of movement; for a long time a movement (in history, in time) follows a certain logic; but then it reaches a Hegelian turning point (Umschlagpunkt) which results in a qualitatively different movement from then onwards. A revolt, such as for instance, the Haitian revolution, 2 can brew for many years in the underground – with pressure and counterpressure as principle of self-movement - until conditions are reached which enable an all-out revolution, an actual change of government and the liberation of the Afro-Creole workforce to become citizens in their own state (James 2001). The tendency within New Tendencies is not just any form of movement but a specific movement that tends towards such a pivotal turning point.
My conclusion thus is that the relationship between work and viewer in the visual field in the artworks created by New Tendencies realizes the abstract logical form of the Hegelian close of argument in a model situation. The structure of the work carries out the logical conclusion of a historical situation - it is equivalent with the realization of the tendency itself. The content of each work is nothing else but a demonstration, in the abstract, of Hegelian turning points, each one marking a point in history when such a circuit is closed, when the dialectics of master and slave, capital and producer, ordergiver and orderreceiver experience qualitative change and the objects of history turn themselves into subjects. What has been called the dazzle is the moment of awareness to be part of such a dialectical movement, the moment of self-consciousness of individual and collective political subjectivity (see illustration #5).
New Tendencies, during its first phase, produced environmental artworks that created a new situation between work and viewer, a dynamically evolving situation which was structurally analogous to a historical tendency, in the Hegelian sense, playing itself out. The work carried out in a both abstract but also very real way a mediation between subject and object. The artwork literally becomes that relationship, that movement, the kinetic artwork is identical with, although played out on another terrain, the Hegelian, dialectical movement. In this contained is also an element of time. Hegelian, Marxist views of history emphasize the sudden jump: a long and slow build-up, the tendency, leads to a sudden explosion, the qualitative shift (Lenin 1971). The kinetic art work realizes such a qualitative shift as if under laboratory conditions, in the miniature world of art. The modernistic expectation to go pregnant with the future at any moment becomes realized in the artwork that materializes such a leap inside its own structure – the moving artwork or the work that demands movement leads to a dazzle, a sudden psychological jump which may be analogous to the expected revolutionary jump in quality. This can also be related to the political idea of self-management which was so important for Praxis philosophers and New Tendencies artists. The moving artworks are rehearsal of dialectic, historical situations that fulfils Adorno’s “promesse de bonheur,” the utopian promise of art for a better life, for a few seconds. For the duration of experiencing the dialectical situation through the artwork heteronomy is sublated and autonomy – political self-management – becomes realized as a possibility.
The dazzle, however, is also a quite mechanical effect, and the translation to that next layer of political self-consciousness does not necessarily follow. Already quite early on there was an internal critique by the Brazilian artist Waldemar Cordeiro that New Tendencies relied too much on the infrastructural level of perception and reduced the viewer to a virginal retina (Cordeiro 1965). New Tendencies continued to gain influence for a number of years, but it was during those early years between 1961 and 1963 that the relation between the redefinition of art as visual research and the notion of the sudden qualitative jump, the leap into a future beyond alienation and heteronomy, was strongest.
I suggest to recognize New Tendencies as pioneers of artistic research, in that their research practice was directed by political motivations. Their work, although non-figurative, was not “abstract” in the conventional sense, because what really mattered was not what the artwork was showing but the dynamic relation between viewer and work. Such an art of the relational field was foundational for future contemporary and media art practices. New Tendencies was a precursor of contemporary and media art, digital art and postmedia art practices. Its unique contribution as a large international art movement was to combine critical leftist viewpoints with a positive - so not positivist - relationship with science. The artist’s notion of science was a holistic one, informed by Gestalt theory. Subsequent political events and a change in the structure of feeling of the cultural and artistic left have made such a combination of leftism and science for many years untenable. Recovering New Tendencies thus means to recover a leftist political position that joins in with artistic practices based on scientific research.
This article is based on research carried out when writing the book New Tendencies – Art at the Threshold of the Information Revolution (1961-1978), MIT Press (forthcoming), as well as further research conducted since.
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Susan Buck-Morss claims that Hegel was aware of the Haitian revolution and that it shaped his understanding of the master-slave dialectic. See _Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History _ (Buck-Morss 2012). ↩