Site 7 Bernhard Sachs

On Negation: Bilderverbot – The Prohibition Against Images.

Bernhard Sachs was to have delivered this text at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art on the 16th of September, the occasion of the seventh site of the AMPEdS project in Melbourne, Australia, in 2004. Unfortunately illness intervened and the event had to be cancelled.

Mephistopheles: …And yet one fear will hardly be denied – for time is short and art is long – I dread lest you should suffer from a doubtful guide. Choose, Sir, a poet for companionship.
Goethe, Faust1

The dialectical proposition that the negation of the negation is a positive is manifestly untrue when applied to empirical reality. The same proposition does, however, have some veracity in aesthetics.
Adorno, Aesthetic Theory2

…to Robert Rauschenberg’s question ”So you want to destroy art for all mankind?” he (Duchamp) answered ”No, only for myself.”
D. Gamboni, The Destruction of Art3

The bilderverbot, the prohibition against images, initially a negative theological reflex and recuperated to the predominant theology of the twentieth century, Marxism, the systematic theology without the inconvenience of God, notably by Theodor Adorno, is a species of iconoclasm, a negation that rests on the constitutive iconoclastic aporia – iconoclasm, the negation of images, predicated on a conviction rising out of, and to, a certainty concerning the image’s sheer, intrinsic, ontological insufficiency, is itself an image in a discourse of images.

The prohibition against images has an elaborate provenance. As a species of iconoclasm, and perhaps its most sophisticated articulation, it participates in the fundamental crudeness of prosaic vandalism which at its origin is the language of power and its repudiation. Dario Gamboni, in The Destruction of Art, comprehensively accounts for its various manifestations, particularly for the twentieth century. From the banal response of the alienated from a discourse, whether this is interpreted as a class marker (the avant-garde as bourgeois, realism as proletarian) or simply as the repressive response of ignorance when faced with its ignorance (there are at least two possibilities when approaching the incomprehensible – attempt to comprehend it or destroy it – the latter in this formulation becomes a species also of xenophobia); through the wilful mutilation of the languages of power (the example he concentrates on most attentively is the fate of monuments post-Soviet eastern bloc, but the logic is ubiquitous); to the more sophisticated iconoclasm of each radicalism internal to the twentieth century avant-garde, Gamboni describes the terrain of this landscape of the language of authority and repression. It is a landscape with which we are all too familiar, whether it is petty city councils, the actions of concerned citizens mindful of moral peril threatening the body politic, the articulations of governments, regimes and revolutions - complex, often comical, contradictory, but familiar.

The proscription against images does include, in a more sublimated way at times, sometimes not, the logic of the landscape Gamboni describes, and at its core the problem is also always one of authority, but in the case of the bilderverbot the issue is also with the structure of representation as such. The consistent feature of its ubiquitous articulations rests on the belief that the image is inadequate to its content – that is – there is a fatal deficiency in signification resulting in false consciousness of one form or another. For this reason the treasonous image must be suppressed in order to suppress its false seductions. It is a negation of something – of the truth, of the real (whatever they may be construed to be), it is something by deception. Representation is never what it appears to be. There is something repressed in it, a repression requiring suppression. It is a negation that requires negation.

While the deployment of the concept of the negation of negation is famously Hegel’s, drawn from Spinoza’s construal of determination as negative – that something is defined by what it is not – there is an interesting re-emergence of a variation of this thinking, but without metaphysics, in Saussure and semiotics, where signification itself begins with difference, with language defining its terms structurally in a commensurately negative manner – that is, by creating distinctions through restriction of semiotic possibilities. The shift from metaphysics to language repeats a consistent tendency in twentieth century: the so-called “linguistic turns” in philosophy and art, the tendency which saw the elevation of semiotics itself from an obscure branch of the philosophy, to a crucial role in a far wider cultural discussion. That semiotics itself is open to contention is hardly surprising – it is inevitable. It began from within semiotics or at least the semiotic sense, notably with Barthes, Derrida and Kristeva.

Returning to the treachery of the image, there is in this negation of negation a double suspicion. For, on the one hand, because of its insufficiency, the image is suspicious: its language is in the first instance duplicitous in that it presents a false relation. But, on the other hand, the criticism of the image, the reading of the image as deficient is constructed as suspicious, as anti authoritarian, which it is – a suspicious critique, effectively what in Derrida became the critique of the metaphysics of presence, in Adorno, the principle of non-identity. By this perspective the apparently assertive the positive statement conceals a fundamentally negating structure – there is, as Sartre famously remarked, a worm at the centre of being and being, as presence simply conceals this fact. It is a lie about itself.

A diabolism has been written into this text of absence. The diabolical character of this (theological) negative reflex and its Nietzschean persistence, despite the long overdue erasure of that transcendental signifier in the various secularisms that have recycled this theological language by other means (God as simply a construction in language, and not a very good one at that, except maybe that its instructiveness is as an index of semiological insufficiency, a rather elegant parallel to the language of insufficiency that demands the Bilderverbot in the first place), this diabolical character of the spirit of negation has a significant history itself, from Plato to Goethe’s Mephistopheles, the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century in Europe, the ideological institutionalisation of the French Revolution, Bolshevism, Fascism, Deconstruction, Bob Brown and the Greens, to Lyotard’s 1974 text Adorno as the Devil. (Adorno, as must now be evident, is central to the present discussion. Aesthetic Theory and Negative Dialectics4 are source texts).

And in no insignificant manner the diabolical can be seen to be definitive for twentieth century art. Both modernism and the avant-garde deploy a tabula rasa logic that demands the repudiation of prior cultural moments. Almost without exception each new articulation, each new moment of modernism and the avant-garde has been met with the diabolical pejorative. It can be said that the most significant intellectual developments of the twentieth century, the most significant intellectual developments post-Nietzsche have all concerned absence. By this reckoning the twentieth century, and its forlorn hangover, the twenty-first, are nothing other than diabolical through and through. And on both sides of the equation. Negative existence, and (necessarily negative) critique of that existence.

The iconoclastic imperative which generated the Bilderverbot is also predicated on significations of the diabolical – variously the diabolical character of the world itself; the diabolical character of authority; the seductive, diabolical character of the senses; the diabolical character of images; a diabolical omnipotence of the body and particularly its frailties, that is, omnipotent in its fatal hold on us. With Goethe, an irreconcilable, rather banal, mind-body opposition, the seductions of the senses and the insatiability of the logic of power these seductions inhabit, effects the diabolical slide condemning Faust to the eternal negation of his soul. And, in Goethe and elsewhere, particularly on the side of a legislating authority and particularly one with an ecclesiastical character, art is persistently the diabolical vehicle.

time is short and art is long”.

If we follow the Faustian logic to its conclusion the deception rests on an axiomatic antagonism between art and time – or, that is, in more general terms, between representation and temporality and the arrest of temporality by representation, an arrest that more than one commentator has equated with a falsehood, a tendency to eternalise the present, equated with death even as its other function is immortality. The curious point here is that immortality and death become the same.

So we have at the heart of its language a conflict of diabolisms underwriting iconoclasm’s negations – on both sides of the image. The diabolical negation of the senses, and the diabolical senses, out to ensnare the unsuspecting, the light headed, the feeble-minded, and philosophers, in a perdition of pleasure or at least eternal distraction from the rather anaemic, haemophiliac, bleak character of the essential truths it is imperative for us to arrive at (at least according to the legislating authorities, inevitably, it has to be said - with the possible exception of Margaret Thatcher, although the case can be made that she inhabited the authoritarian persona sensuously, [Faust without weakness?] maybe also Golda Maier - patriarchal). So truth is at stake. Before we continue to glance at truth, a small aside, a semiotic cul de sac, concerning transcendental signifiers and that paramount (appropriately) transcendental signifier, God. Although the question of iconoclasm is rancid with the language of God, for those of you who find the theological distasteful – never to be discussed in a taxi or at dinner – and may find this drift alarming in the relentless agnosticism of post-post modernity, relax. I return to the point that God is simply a bad construction in language. The point with the transcendental signifier is that its signifieds are only ever other signifiers. God is love. God is truth. God is vengeance. God is the indescribable. God is absolute. God is the Law. God is Light. Etc etc. The persistence of the theological then, is easily accounted for in the iconoclastic question. For what it is in actuality is predicated on the signifieds. So God is ultimately incidental to the other signifiers, become signifieds for the transcendental signifier. That is, the relations rhetorically cathected into the figure of God are the issue – these qualities, these relations, these desires, these projections. “God” is what it is – incidental to the question. A clumsy hypostatisation. However even with God and the diabolical alter ego out of the picture (but the diabolical is never out of the picture as it is much more identifiable as actual then its divine counterpart) the relation persists as an ethical pressure, and in its fundamental form, as this mode of signification.

A second cul de sac concerning hyperbole. Iconoclasm and the transcendental signifier – the strange case of Laszlo Toth. The account of this situation can be found in the press of the time and on numerous web sites, but I will draw on the succinct and witty one provided by Gamboni5. On Whit Sunday (here I have to struggle heroically to avoid making the obvious pun), 21 May, 1972, a 33-year-old Hungarian-born Australian, Laszlo Toth, attacked Michelangelo’s Pieta in St Peters’ in Rome with a hammer, shouting, “I am Jesus Christ, Christ is risen from the dead”. The fireman at Mass who restrained Toth was awarded the Knights Cross of the Gregorian Order by the Pope “because he had preserved more than a work of art “the very symbol of the mother of God”.” Gamboni’s account continues: “After his arrest, Toth repeated that he was Christ and stood ready for crucifixion, but also pretended to be Michelangelo. God had commanded him to destroy the statue of the Madonna, because, being eternal, He could have no mother. … Before the court, he charged the judges with pride because they wanted to declare Christ insane, [which they did] and warned them that they would be condemned by him at Doomsday”6 . The 64-year-old Italian sculptor Giacomo Manzu, at the time called for the death penalty for Toth. Artists from the Swiss Institute in Rome proposed the directors of the Venice Biennale give Toth its award – the telegram proposing this, reproduced in the institute’s yearly exhibition catalogue, was cut from each copy under directive from the Swiss cultural administration7. There is a Laszlo Toth art school advertised on the web. In the late 1970’s the “Laszlo Toth Papers” circulated around the Australian avant-garde, if only by reputation. Gamboni, referring to an analysis of the event by Didier Cartier, comments “Toth had simultaneously attacked a sacred object, an element of heritage, a work of art, and a symbol of the Roman Catholic Church, and observed that the hammer Toth had used for his action was a sculptors tool, establishing a symmetrical relation between the destructive and creative “touch”.” Gamboni adds that the Italian psychiatrists had diagnosed delerio profetico. Toth had an alienated biography, and had arrived in Rome with the intention of being “recognised as Christ”. His attempts to meet with the Pope frustrated, Toth concluded the Church “could only accept a dead Christ, and he resolved to attack the Pieta as a symbol of this “incredible” practice”. Pentecost, the occasion of his attack, not only assured Toth effective delivery of his message but also, as Gamboni notes “(t)en days later he would have turned 34, a serious drawback for his identification with Christ”8. Toth’s conflation of Michelangelo and Jesus Christ, Gamboni points out, performs a significant “condensation” 9 – identifications with Christ accompany the “progressive autonomisation of art”, an identification the figure of Michelangelo continues, both as ciphers of creation and isolated genius. One only has to recall Durer’s Self-portrait (1500) in the Bayerische Staatsgemaldesammlung, Munich, to appreciate the significations at play. One only has to peruse the Lazslo Toth case to appreciate the significations at play.

Now to a few reflections on truth. With the fathers of suspicion (Ricoer’s apposite descriptor for Nietzsche, Freud and Marx) and their progeny, the absolute insufficiency in the image amounts to a truth, in the only way truth can be approached as a concept with any seriousness and that is negatively, as a deep, at root tragic, knowledge of fundamental absence or lack; or ironically, as the same. We, like representation itself, (or is that we, as representations ourselves, of ourselves, in a perpetual, contradictory, and hence intimately negating process of deliberate and unconscious presentation) like the unfortunate image, including the image of the bilderverbot– the image of the insufficiency of the image, can only ever say of truth what it is not. At least according to the iconoclastic formulation. And even then there is some doubt about the veracity of the negative. From the Greeks - according to Alain Besancon the first articulation of the gap, of the insufficiency of representation to the represented predicated on divine imaging (or, as we have it, the insufficiency between sign and referent, or rather between signifier and signified as there is some question concerning the reality of this referent) demanding a negative determination is Xenophanes of Colofon who denied the anthropomorphism of the gods, declaring them extra-mundane and therefore indescribable - Plato, the various Ecclesiastical articulations including the famous Byzantine iconoclastic controversy of the 9th century, through to Hegel and on to the twentieth century avant-garde, there has been a consistent philosophical critique of the image predicated on this ground10.

To this triangulation of the diabolical, insufficiency and suspicion (the term here should have been truth, or veracity, or one of its cognates but no-one in their right mind can even utter the word unironically and even then its psychosomatic repercussion is never far away – asphyxia), to this seething, self-consuming morass a fourth element needs to be added, sealing, in its finality, the rabid self-annihilation of the image and its negation as the two terms lock in a paroxysm of cannibalistic frustration, and that is the utopic. The utopic!? The Pollyanna factor? If this is starting to sound like a bad joke, then the joke is on us.

For, as the bitter laughter subsides, we find ourselves back in theology, reconstructed ideologically as its secular return, as fallenness – terminal irredeemability. This is Adorno’s diabolical vengeance – the, as he called it, “unredeemed condition of the world” as truth, but a truth devoid of transcendence – it is simply structural, contained in his deployment of the principle of non-identity. Identity thinking (essentially that things are as they are described and any cursory glance at any newspaper will immediately reveal the fallacy of this proposition) can be punctured by recognition of its fundamental inadequacy to its subject. Sound familiar? It is the old theology, as political turn, as a clarification – and a variation of Hegel’s negation of negation. The recognition of the principle of non-identity provides a way out, a resistance to the irredeemable condition that is articulated by false reconciliations, by the deployment of structures of identity, by a totalising universe of reifications. That is, negatively. The negations of identity thinking are in Adorno’s view the operations of ideology – the linguistic masks, the false pictures of the world, not only manipulated to advance certain interests that can be described as hegemonic, although this is certainly the case, but also, and more fundamentally arising out of the logic of representation itself. Identity thinking is an ontological negation at least by implication – for although Adorno would be reluctant to describe it in this way, what identity thinking amounts to is that the ontological distortions effected by ideology propose an authentic state of the real, but as distinct from Plato, the Ecclesiastical, and even Hegel, this real does not lie outside of the intuitive, is immanent and eminently accessible. For although the regime of this negation is total - there is no outside to it – it is possible through what he terms immanent critique, through the deployment of the principle of non-identity and determinate negation, that is, the operation by which something is defined through its negative terms, to articulate unreified possibilities.

To give this political turn the unavoidable reconstruction for the supercilious space of simulations that we inhabit as our twenty-first century universe, and that we can only by becoming ever more false deny, (that ethical concern once again - here is however a nagging doubt – false in relation to what? – the proposition rests on presuppositions concerning authenticity and inauthenticity) is the linguistic turn. Our situation would demand all that is left is the false significations that we inhabit and inhabit knowingly as false – a situation Adorno and Horkheimer describe in The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception11. Or is, as I suggested earlier, this abject state of signification the truth that theology disguised underneath the transcendental signifier, generating Gramscian morbid forms like the identifications swirling around the case of Laszlo Toth? This is beginning to become Orwellian – falsehood is truth, truth is falsehood. Either way, this is iconoclasm as thinking – the perpetual suspicion of representation per se. For Adorno, the only space for an unreified possibility of this was in aesthetic function. His pessimism and, one could conclude, the consequences of his analysis, lead to the abandonment of Hegelian negation of negation in anything other than aesthetics. In all other applications he had by 1944 already condemned the Hegelian procedure as “mythology”12.

There are two relevant parallels which augment the notion of determinate negation – erasure as deployed by Derrida (rature) and de-collage as performed by Wolf Vostell. Rature, or rather the placing of notions “under erasure” (sous rature) shares a proximity with Adorno’s immanent critique in the acknowledgement that the critique of notions, terms etc is internal to them – is not through an opposition to an exterior idea to which it is contrasted but arises from the slippages in a relentless internal structural logic which does not require such an outside. Both in different ways acknowledge this outside as a fiction, as impossible – with Derrida, the famous assertion that there is no outside to the text, with Adorno the totality of reifications. Both provide a perspective onto aesthetics through the materiality of the sign, particularly for art – which immediately recalls Robert Rauschenberg’s equally famous Erased De Kooning (1953), and various pieces by Joseph Kosuth where language has been struck out in a manner that reiterates directly the graphism Derrida proposes and relies on in Of Grammatology (1967)13. Rauschenberg and Kosuth demonstrate in an overt manner a negation in the sign which can be drawn back to Duchamp, and are predicated, not so much on the trace as such, although this has been its fetishised (reified?) destination, but an analysis that begins with every articulation, every artwork, as a trace, as palimpsestic and indexical, and that this logic is therefore embedded in the structure of the artwork itself as an artwork, that it is simultaneously both a presence and a negation of presence. With Duchamp, this thinking achieves its apotheosis in the readymade, which can be seen to be self-erasing, in the sense that the object erases its meaning – in the palimpsestic sense of rature, that is simultaneously retaining and negating its meanings rather than in the sense of annihilation – as an object and as artwork. If this signification for artworks is acknowledged, then the crucial distinction between artworks becomes one of self-consciousness: of the degree to which the language of the work self-analyses, or to recuperate the Maoist term, self-criticises. Which brings us to Wolf Vostell. The illuminating comparison to be made is the contrast of the two decollagists, Vostell and Mimmo Rotella. Rotella is notable for works constructed by tearing the various layers of accumulations of posters as these are found on the streets of cities, revealing a collision of images. They are primarily decorative objects. In the hands of Vostell, the concept is transformed into a concept – a principle by which artworks strip away ideological layers to expose the inherences they would normally obscure, extend, and articulate. Typical procedures are Vostell’s Cityrama pieces of the early 1960’s which involved among other things bus tours to the “negative” monuments of cities – car parks, garbage dumps and so on.

There is a distinction to be made regarding representation deployed towards political critique by aesthetics that demands the bilderverbot as part of an ideological constellation, and the logic of iconoclasm as inscribed within aesthetics itself, within the logic of representation as part of its language that consequently demands a bilderverbot in and as aesthetic signification. The former results in the vandalism of images of authority or offence – it is predicated on an emphasis on the signified and on the referent, an attention that is then directed back onto modifications of the signifier. The latter results in Samuel Beckett. The former is a struggle over the images of authority. It does not necessarily question the logic of the language of authority as such, and so participates in the reifying logic Adorno so assiduously criticises – it simply takes sides. According to the latter position, representations are intrinsically self-annihilating, iconoclastic. There is, according to this position, a fatal antagonism inside the sign that places emphasis on the signifier and a subsequent modification of the signified which is thrown into insecurity – it is rendered intrinsically unstable, contradictory to the point of autodestruction. This is the space of non-identity Adorno describes. The space that is opened up here is the space within which the utopic, paradoxically enough, can be articulated. Through the constricted, almost paranoid vision that Adorno proposes, the image in self-defeat, the principle of non-identity articulated aesthetically proposes possibilities, not of redemption as such, but of the negation of the irredeemable condition of the world through a resistance to it. This amounts to a constitutive opacity in the image that will always short-circuit the question of meaning, and it is the inability to arrive at final or definitive meanings, or the gap between image and meaning that proposes the utopic moment. It is an argument for obscurity, for a resistance to the imperative to communicate. In fact, it can be construed as a demand for the refusal to communicate, at least in the sense of an immediate transmission of a content, in favour of an irritation in the semiotic field – the image as sign that problematises images. The squeaky wheel gets the oil. The representations that are immediately absorbed, that is, absorbed thoughtlessly or in a way that renders them invisible or transparent to their content closes this space off. This leads to a seemingly curious conclusion concerning so-called political art and accounts for Adorno’s suspicion of it. It participates in an authoritarian logic that reduces representations to a slavish relation to their purpose. As mentioned previously it does not question the logic of power, it simply takes sides in that logic. Interestingly, a significant number of works that would call themselves utopian in motivation are of this nature, which accounts for their one-dimensionality. It is, in Adorno’s terms, a duplication of the language of the problem14.

This is not, it must be immediately added, recourse to some reconstructed transcendental signifier but to its aftermath. Non–identity is inscribed linguistically in the logic of the image, of representations themselves, as an inevitability. That is, this is not a matter of choice, except in the sense of recognition. All images, in Adorno’s terms all concepts, participate in this. Everything is simultaneously what it is and what it is not. Iconoclasm becomes a manner of speech. The character of art’s articulations rests on whether art duplicates or resists the reifying logic that would acknowledge or obscure this state of non-identity. For art it opens up a realistic space for critique. It arises from, and is articulated through, the material of the irredeemable condition as its own.

1Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Faust, Part One, (1801) trans. Phillip Wayne, Penguin Books Ltd, Hammondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1983, p.90.
2Adorno, T.W. Aesthetic Theory (1970) trans C.Lenhardt, ed. Gretel Adorno, Rolf Tiedemann, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1984, p.52.
3 Gamboni, Dario. The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution, Yale University Press, New Haven, USA, 1997, p.295.
4Adorno, T.W. Negative Dialectics (1966) trans. E.B. Ashton, Seabury Press, N.Y. 1973.
5Gamboni, Dario. Ibid. pp 202-204.
6Gamboni, Dario. Ibid. p.202.
7Gamboni, Dario. Ibid. p.265.
8Gamboni, Dario. Ibid. p.203.
9Gamboni, Dario. Ibid. p.204.
10Besancon, Alain. The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm (1994) trans. Jane Marie Todd, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2000.
11Adorno, Theodor and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) trans. John Cumming, Verso, London, (1997).
12 Adorno and Horkheimer. Ibid p.24.
13 Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology (1967) trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1976.
14This fundamental distinction between the utopian and the utopic has been addressed, however partially, in the exhibition Office of Utopic Procedures, Westspace, Melbourne, 2001, and subsequent publication, Bernhard Sachs (ed) Office of Utopic Procedures, Westspace, Melbourne, 2002.

Bernhard Sachs
September, 2004.


Cancelled notice


The Office of Utopic Procedures is a generic term for a series of projects directed specifically to the circulation of symbolic language as a political problem. It is organised by Bernhard Sachs, an artist who has worked and taught in Melbourne for over twenty years. Currently he is also a member of the Melbourne artists group Ocular Lab.