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Un Magazine 7.1

Editorial: Mutter, ich bin dumm

Jarrod Rawlins

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1/22

Editorial

Image from The Turin Horse 2011, dir. Béla Tarr with Ágnes Hranitzky, copyright TT Fimmuhely

I meant to read all about Nietzsche in preparation for this editorial, but I didn’t have the time. Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher who lost his mind in Turin, a city where I once spent a short, but very enjoyable, amount of time. Apparently, a coach driver was whipping a horse in Piazza Carignano and Nietzsche was overcome with empathy and grief and threw his arms around the horse’s neck and began his mental collapse. Soon afterwards, he found himself on a train to Switzerland with no clothes on. The first story, about the horse, is what many people who don’t know about Nietzsche know. ‘I don’t know anything about Nietzsche, I only know about the horse.’

Because I didn’t have time to read all about Nietzsche I read an essay by Geoff Lowe and Jacqueline Riva in a book on the Italian artist Paola Pivi, from which the above paragraph was lifted and altered (only slightly) to suit my purpose. In their essay, ‘The Nietzschean Audience’, Lowe and Riva discuss how Nietzsche has been considered partly responsible for the philosophy of Nazism, when in fact there is evidence in Nietzsche’s writings that he was opposed to anti-Semitism. I didn’t leave time to do my own research into Nietzsche’s writings, but I am comfortable trusting theirs.

I remember reading somewhere that Žižek doesn’t even watch most of the films he critiques, but I couldn’t be bothered spending hours searching the internet trying to find the quote to make a reference because because of the internet I don’t need to worry about that any longer. Just as Žižek is criticised for his lack of argumentative rigour, I too have chosen to embrace a lack of research rigour here.

In 2011 Hungarian directors Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky made a film about Nietzsche, which is not about Nietzsche. The Turin Horse began after Tarr heard the above story being retold and had wondered what happened to the horse.

I guess when I started with this theme I was thinking about research in contemporary art in this way—if we accept that our understanding of research practice in science is that it produces ‘new’ or ‘important’ or ‘significant’ knowledge, then what knowledge, if any, is produced by an artwork? Is it possible for an artwork to produce new or important or significant knowledge? And if it does, what form does this take? It may turn out that the way to think about it is more closely aligned with The Turin Horse.

If Tarr’s film is the artwork, and it tells a story of the Nietzschean horse’s life after the well documented incident of January 1889 in Turin, and there is no recorded knowledge of the life of the Nietzschean horse, then it is reasonable to assume a degree of research was undertaken to create the film, which then poses the question: has the artwork produced new or important or significant knowledge? I guess the answer is yes and no, which was the answer I was hoping to find when proposing the theme. Not because it doesn’t matter whether the artwork has produced any knowledge, that would be the easy way out. But because when theories of knowledge production and research and art come together, the problem is empiricism.

Academic research is largely built on an empirical methodology. And when research and art come together formally they do so within this institutional framework. This empirical research method favoured by the university denies the rationalist position of reason. The creators of The Turin Horse may have undertaken a kind of empirical research into the life of a peasant coach driver and his horse in late-nineteenth-century north-western Italy. However, to create a story of the life of the horse and coach driver they must have relied somewhat on their senses, they must have made a priori assumptions because they did not know the truth nor is there any empirical method of locating it in this case.

In The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts, Hans-Peter Schwarz claims that, ‘It does seem to be high time to stop doubting whether art-based research exists at all and accept that it has long ago become an everyday occurrence in most art universities’. All true, but what does this mean?

Maybe research in art is about what is not known, not asked, such as what happened to the horse. Maybe research in art is limited to a priori assumptions therefore creating an uncomfortable silence within the institutes it now finds itself inextricably bound up within. While we can’t know empirically what happened to the horse, we do know what happened to Nietzsche, because evidence exists. But even that knowledge is nothing more than a scientific assessment of the correspondence, which means we cannot truly answer the question: do we really know what happened to Nietzsche?

No we don’t. We know about the incident with the horse. We know that after which Nietzsche had gone mad. We know the last words he uttered were ‘Mutter, ich bin dumm’. We know that he was coprophagic (I’ll leave you to look that one up on Wikipedia). We know his sister attempted to conceal any information about her brother’s madness in order to preserve the family reputation. But this is not empirical knowledge. It is only through logic or theory that we can be certain that all of these truths were probably a result of Nietzsche’s syphilis.

After being led by the recent writing of James Elkins to ask the question—if we accept that our understanding of research practice in science is that it produces ‘new’ or ‘important’ or ‘significant’ knowledge, then what knowledge, if any, is produced by an artwork?—I am left to make the argument that under these terms no knowledge is produced by an artwork because of empiricism, i.e., if what we know of Nietzsche is research, then The Turin Horse is the artwork.

I haven’t seen The Turin Horse. But I plan to watch it sometime soon.