Can art create a better world? In our interview, Jonathan Meese – one of the most important contemporary German artists – calls for a radical new beginning, founded on individuality, respect and doing away with established realities.
Florian Haller: Whether it’s international relations, our economic model or consumer behaviour – at the moment we are busy rethinking our entire world. But of course that doesn’t necessarily mean that nothing we had before is of value. You were once quoted as saying: “Art is the destruction of the prevailing order.” Isn’t that a very negative way to look at the world?
Jonathan Meese: That’s just a kind of rallying cry, of course. I do tend to make a lot of proclamations and manifestos and a certain amount of exaggeration is par for the course. Art is destruction, yes, but that’s not what it sets out to do – it’s just something that happens. For instance, art destroys ideology. Or mediocrity. The concept of “average” doesn’t exist in art, which is why there is no democracy there either. But art doesn’t destroy the past – it calls it into question, examines it, classifies it anew. Sometimes it is supposed to eliminate the obstructive taste it leaves behind. Or its naysayer negativity. I’m not negative in the slightest. On the contrary, I hate bitterness and resentment.
From a personal perspective, what have you destroyed in your own life?
Jonathan Meese: I have burnt a lot of bridges. For instance, I have no time for people who have betrayed me. Or who want to stop me from looking to the future. There are people who are always out to scare you. This fear of moving forwards is something that we should do away with. Is the future going to be horrible? No, it’s going to be great! That’s also what you have to tell children instead of harping on resentfully about how terrible everything is getting.
Is it the idea of creating something new that drives you?
Jonathan Meese: Yes. Art creates new things, embraces them, guarantees them and never fails to endure them. Most people are no longer even able to cope with a new thought. They get caught up in the old vicious circle of religion, politics and mindless conformism and think that the next guru who arrives on the scene is going to rescue them if they worship him. That’s a load of nonsense. Nothing is coming to rescue us. You have to sort yourself out and learn to come to terms with yourself.
The coronavirus has forced us to learn that the hard way …
Jonathan Meese: Yes, that’s the most important thing about this whole coronavirus situation. People can no longer stand themselves because they can’t relate to themselves anymore. Which is why they are taking to the streets in their thousands, thinking they are being individualist free spirits. But you can only be individualist at home. If you’re standing on Alexanderplatz in Berlin with 50,000 other people, you’ve pretty much subordinated yourself to a guru-led system of conformity. It doesn’t matter if the guru is Greta Thunberg, the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin or Angela Merkel. Or you say that you stand behind what you think and do and will do that alone. People always think they’re strong when they’re with a big crowd. But the strongest people are those who go it alone.
Do you drive your art or does art drive you?
Jonathan Meese: I give myself over to art. By this I mean that I get rid of the ideologies, religions and everything else that gets in its way. And then I am free and the field of art is there to be cultivated. The field of Jonathan Meese’s art, which can then grow larger – as large as the whole world. I have complete trust in the total freedom of art. But I don’t need to throw myself at its feet. At the same time, it’s not something I can choose or reject. I’m not a conformist – I don’t choose anything. I’m not even interested in voting – that’s just zeitgeist and has nothing to do with art. Art is something timeless – it is what has survived. Every god and every political system has had its time, but art is always there and is still going strong. Why don’t we allow ourselves to be ruled by the strongest and most amazing thing we have? Art!
When you’re working on your art, do you have a concept in mind?
Jonathan Meese: No, I put myself in the hands of art. Whenever I don’t know what the next step is, I just go to sleep. That itself is art because I dream when I’m asleep. I’m in a place of longing, in an alternative world, in another time. Rather than having a concept, it’s all about giving yourself free rein and letting it happen. After all, art is the great liberator, freeing us of emotional baggage, misgivings and fears.
How do you achieve complete artistic freedom?
Jonathan Meese: When, for example, I’m painting a picture, I don’t let myself think of the person it’s for. I never create art to please someone or to satisfy their needs. I do it simply for the sake of creating art. And if someone loves it, great. Most young artists ask what they should do. To which I can only answer: do what you think and what you want. But please don’t do what I’m doing. Lots of people come to me and tell me that they want to do what I’m doing. But that’s not how it works. I can’t do what they’re doing and they can’t do what I’m doing. Otherwise we’d have a guru-type situation all over again. I don’t want people to see me as some kind of guru. That’s horrendous. They need to do what they do with love, respect, humility and radicalism. And if they have nothing to offer, then they’d be better off sleeping.
Your work regularly deals with art and reality and you also use virtual reality, like in the VR installation you created with your mother in 2018. What is the relationship between art and reality?
Jonathan Meese: Art allows us to rise above this dreadful reality that we are currently experiencing. And we should make room for other realities. For Catholics, there is only Catholic reality, for SPD members, there is only SPD reality and for the CDU only CDU reality. This kind of thinking is wrong – it is petty-minded nonsense. I find the idea of wanting to force Germany into such a small reality quite obscene. Art is above our reality, above our lives – it is what allows us to survive. Art is above all things. Of all the things that once existed, only art has always survived. Let that sink in for a minute.
In a recent interview, you said that censorship was back again but it was the artists who were censoring themselves. What did you mean by that?
Jonathan Meese: There are several aspects to consider here. There are artists who are terrified of making a wrong move and end up producing obligingly compliant work. Other artists realise that they are not really very good at what they do and become political activists instead. They feel safe in a group and look down on individualists. They even look down on Van Gogh. An artist like that is almost impossible to find these days – someone who simply does their own thing. People like that are almost laughed at. To young artists, I can only say: don’t censor yourselves, don’t actively serve any clientele, never get sucked into the guru system – just do your own thing and stick to your guns.
How exactly have you seen artists censoring themselves?
Jonathan Meese: There are artists who claim that people shouldn’t paint certain things anymore. That’s hard to get your head around. And there are actually artists who want to destroy old sculptures without contributing anything themselves. Those are the destroyers who want to destroy something that is far more impressive than they are. If you’ve nothing to offer yourself, all you can do is destroy things. True to the 1968 mentality of tearing down things that you feel oppress you. That’s another of those collective efforts. I hate collectivism. Most artists nowadays are collectivists-by-necessity that only make an appearance in groups, completely anonymised. They no longer have any faith in their own ability and start censoring things so they at least have something to put their names to. They say a white person can’t paint a black person or vice versa. So does that mean I can’t paint an animal because I’m not one myself? It goes without saying that artists should be allowed to paint, write or say anything and that they should avoid sanitising the past. There are certain words or phrases that were normal in the past that are no longer acceptable today. But I can still accept them with a little humour. Like a statue of a slave trader. It’s a bronze sculpture, the guy is long dead and it’s ancient history. You have to be magnanimous with stuff like this. I wouldn’t destroy a single sculpture from the past but rather put another one next to it to counteract it. People should take things to the point of absurdity – including themselves and their way of thinking. And stop just making it about themselves for once.
How do you react if someone tells you that you can’t do something?
Jonathan Meese: If someone tells me that I’m not allowed to paint something, I really feel sick to my stomach. And then I’ll get stuck into painting it. I wonder why these people don’t invest their energy in the future instead. It’s not as dependent on the past as people think. The fact is that art is different from culture. Culture is what used to be; art is what is coming. And it usually comes like a lightning bolt with a completely crazy idea that people initially can’t imagine ever working. How many times in my life have I heard things like “You can’t do that”, “That won’t work”, “That’ll be the end of you”…? I was kicked out of the Bayreuth Festival and removed from the German Literature Archive in Marbach because apparently I’m too radical. There are so many times that I’ve been censored, insulted and shown the door. You have to get up again each time and say: it’s about the future, about taking a risk – a personal risk.
Is it art’s job to be radical?
Jonathan Meese: Yes. You have to be radical towards anything that is not art and radical towards yourselves and other people. With a good dose of humour thrown in. As I said before, art does not tolerate half-measures. We can’t accept mediocrity any longer. Art is not up for negotiation; the future is uncompromising. Art is uncompromising. It can’t be defined by politicians or religious types. Politics is the opposite of art, the enemy of art.
Where does art come from? Where do you get your inspiration?
Jonathan Meese: Art always comes from the child within me. You have to play freely. And I’m even freer than a child because I know what it means not to have that freedom. I am so free – that is my only real quality. But these days, being so free in your thoughts and actions also leaves you open to attack. Other people constantly want to show me where they personally draw the line and lure me into their clientele. But I have zero interest in that. I want Germany to be ruled by art – I want the political parties to leave the stage and for us only to serve art. And that day will come! It’s just a question of how long it will take.
What role does the current crisis play for art?
Jonathan Meese: Art is independent of everything because art is what always remains. But I’m noticing that, as a person, I’m getting softer, almost considerate! I am liquefying myself. And I’m fine with that. But many people around me are finding it hard to deal with. They say that these are tough times and that I need to toughen up.
Looking to the future from the current crisis situation, what kind of a future do you envisage for yourself and for the rest of us?
Jonathan Meese: We just need to have a rethink and question ourselves, and to straighten out ourselves and our egos. To really see if we want to carry on as before rather than opening up to change. Everything that we are currently experiencing – the US elections, for instance – all of that comes and goes, they’re just temporary phenomena. None of that is of any importance to art.
Lots of people are very concerned that a large part of what we call creativity will eventually be taken over by AI.
Jonathan Meese: I think artificial intelligence is brilliant. And I really love it when robots and computers take over certain functions – because this opens up other “playing fields” again. All we need to do is identify these other playing fields and get to know them. We also need to constantly examine, question and rethink things. This fear of robots is a load of nonsense. The constant insistence that we need to carry on as before because we are the be-all and end-all, the pinnacle of creation, is nothing but presumptuousness and hubris. Yes, we are amazing but something better might come along. Perhaps the most amazing thing really is the supercomputer Colossus from that film. Or maybe Darth Vader is the most amazing person who ever existed.
What is your idea of a good future?
Jonathan Meese: We can finally start to turn Germany into one coherent work of art. Right now, we have the opportunity simply to say: okay that’s it, we’re going to put it all in a museum. I would put all political parties and religions into a museum. Start again from scratch. Just be open for a change. We should also question things that we always thought were set in stone for all eternity and cheerfully admit we were wrong about lots of things. But you have to take risks. You also have to risk people thinking you’re a nutcase. You also have to risk losing friends, encountering obstacles, having to deal with resistance. And not just in art but everywhere. In other words, we have to prepare the ground for something new.
What are you personally doing to help bring about this future?
Jonathan Meese: I’m ploughing my own furrow and doing things the way I want to and how I think best. Unfortunately, there are lots of artists who are only interested in depicting reality. They look in the newspaper and see a subject they can do something with. But that’s wrong, that’s just day-to-day politics. Many artists just want to make reality even more real. That’s the biggest mistake. It produces so many victims; it’s so cynical. Art doesn’t produce any victims – it just simulates them. If you see it through seriously, with love and humility, you can relocate all wars to the stage, to the screen, to advertisements and to the pages of a book. We need to come to terms with evil – but through the medium of art! We need a Bond supervillain to help us with this. A whodunnit where someone is murdered. We need it in all these fields that are art, plain and simple. But not in reality. We need to combat reality with something other than reality itself.
Thank you for this interview, which was certainly anything but mediocre!
This interview first appeared in TWELVE, the Serviceplan Group’s magazine for brands, media and communication. In the seventh issue, you will find further inspiring articles, essays and interviews by and with prominent guest authors and renowned experts centred around the magazine’s theme “Rethink!”. The e-paper is available here.