Look ma, I'm a Lebenskünstler

Published Thursday, January 27 2022 at 11:00 pm
Look ma, I'm a Lebenskünstler
Barbara Owen, Bullfight, 2020. Photographs, paint, birch plywood, 20h x 20w x 3d inches.

As a kid, I wanted apocalypse. I couldn’t spell it, as old notebooks attest, but the world’s potential doom excited me. Comics and cartoons wanted me to desire the opposite outcome: the heroes have prevailed! the world is saved!

Don’t get me wrong; I still embraced the good guys’ eventual success. The world’s continuation meant another day to be a clueless only child, and it was therefore a good thing.

But there was something else in depictions of catastrophe: of explosions, lightning, crumbling brick, gale winds. There must have been, cuz years later, I answered yes to a survey on OkCupid that asked: “In a certain light, wouldn’t nuclear war be exciting?”

Oops. Not the most attractive answer, I soon learned. And I learned it again in 2020, seeing in real time how unpopular my first eschatology was. For years the threat of a shiny new plague had been alarmist fodder for headlines. My lifetime has entertained medical anxieties from anthrax to bird and swine flus to SARs classic. Each one I was scared shitless I’d get. Now here I was, on March 13, 2020, watching Trump et al stride into the Rose Garden for a midday press conference on the pandemic.

Scared and already changed, I waited for Husband to get home from work. I hoped he would be able to stay home the next day. And the day after that. And all the days after. Vacation, as The Go-Go’s once sang, is all I ever wanted. And vacation I got.

The real end of the world wasn’t flashy, or even narrative. It was a change in the terms and conditions of our arrangements. The earth, always spinning stupidly, ravenously, toward another day, never truly abolishes one version of itself. Fragments of the old remain; deeper valleys go undisturbed. My fierce love of beauty, and the capacity to render that word’s meaning as needed: those stuck, as did my supreme love of cleverness. How ingenious people are.

And how habitual, too. This past summer, the stages of grief for whatever-was had stilled. Favorite things returned slowly. Once again I could enjoy the birthright of any anxious twentysomething: I got drunk and went dancing in the city.

Marc Kehoe, night in the studio, 2020. Oil on canvas, 22 x 28 inches.

Before demons were metaphors, they were punitive imps, and before that they were demigods. So we learn in Giorgio Agamben’s The Adventure (Italian: L’Avventura, 2018, trans. by Lorenzo Chiesa), which concerns, to be summary to the point of reduction, the misconception of adventure, and its proper understanding as the channel of life’s contingency.

Agamben suggests that Goethe secretly upheld “the Daimon” as his chief deity, with godhood in this case comprising not judgment but chance and destiny. The formlessness of life is also the essential restraint it places upon us, beings who, Goethe mused, must act:

according to the law which made you appear. That way you must be, you cannot escape yourself… No power and no time is able to destroy such imprinted form, which develops while living.

Goethe’s reliance on his personal daemon meant merging “the nexus of his life and work into a destiny,” which Agamben finds mistaken: “Claiming to arrange the shapeless chaos of our life into a demonic order that unfailingly leads it to success is necessarily superstitious.” Such prophylaxis avoids that “the art of living also involves a reasonable degree of bowing to what we cannot avoid.”

One word from Goethe’s native tongue implies the openness (submission?) to life’s travails that the poet himself may have lacked. German is well furnished with so-called ‘untranslatable’ words, and this one, Lebenskünstler, lacks a perfect English equivalent, but its basic idea is ‘life artist,’ or ‘artist of life.’

The specifics of what practicing life art (Lebenskünst) entails will depend on who’s defining it. A useful page on Randall Szott’s blog titled “What might it mean?” includes many such answers. The Lebenskünstler may be an artist in the colloquial sense, or maybe not. They’re “survivors,” but also “connoisseurs,” comparable to figures as diverse as Oscar Wilde and Seinfeld’s Kramer. Deliberate, but also chill, the Lebenskünstler is a gambler who dispels pressure, optimizing life not like a programmer but a painter squeezing out a tube’s final pigments. A Venn diagram places the Lebenskünstler at the locus of philosophy, aesthetics and life practice: one-third each of dilettante, slacker and bon vivant.

‘Life’ and ‘art’ both being uber-marketable buzzwords, it should come as no surprise that ‘Lebenskünstler’ has already been co-opted by at least one skincare company. This commercial appropriation is richly ironic, given one description by German writer Seymour Gris:

Going back to the 1970s – or maybe even to the 1910s – there has existed a decadent, artistic underground here which has placed little value on "making it" for the sake of making it. The king of decadent Berlin is the "poor but sexy" Lebenskünstler, an archetype who has had a huge influence on culture and nightlife here till this day. The Lebenskünstler cares little about his next record deal or art opening or publishing deal. Instead, life is his art…He feels no guilt due to lack of achievement.

The Lebenskünstler probably isn't native to Berlin, but she likely fares better there than in the meritocratic US, where, while not quite an outcast, her existence and her very attitude toward existence do seem to provoke a certain ire and confusion in the purposeful.

Take George Soros, the liberal billionaire (and conspiracists’ Liebling), who used the word to describe his apparently ambition-less father: “I guess he could be best described by the German word Lebenskünstler, or artist of life…Was he a strong man or a weak man? Even to this day I am in doubt.”

“Weak” is a pretty personal judgment, though not an unusual one for a son to make of his dad. Its nearest relative in public discourse is probably “lazy,” which asserts inactivity as moral failure. Laziness-as-sin is an old trope, but today it is deeply secular, because employment is the sacrosanct marker which measures the fitness of both individuals and economies.

Even some leftists have decided leisure is beneath political concern, because it does not relate to survival (in the barest sense of that word). Security is the non plus ultra; to have money reliably is to have the good life. This is true, on one hand, but on the other fingers we can count no shortage of opposition: think Simone Weil’s tactical starvation, Saint Francis' willful poverty, or, most graphically, Norman O. Brown’s description of money as sublimated excrement.

Excrement or not, after years of working hard in my patently bourgeois job as ‘writer,’ I finally made a living wage in the pandemic. I worked in lockdown until opportunity was arid, and when I finally filed for unemployment, the backlogged weeks lead to a small windfall (well, by my standards anyway).

Here was my birthday present: my share of the accursed share. That term comes from Georges Bataille, one of philosophy's great edgelords, a guy whose unique political economy placed wastefulness above all else. I haven’t read enough to engage his work beyond reference, but I do know this: Bataille never had the privilege of buying a pack of Pokémon cards on the dole.

Owen, Black Lines II. Acrylic and ink on paper, wooden dowel.

A year later, summer 2021, I still had precious cash in hand, something I knew would be harder to get when the writing drought returned. In resistance I embraced the luxurious moment and partied hard when the opportunity arose. I grinned at my bad choices. Injudiciousness is its own reward.

In using a material as irreplaceable as their own life for their art, the Lebenskünstler always invokes risk. A little bit of disconnection from reality may be necessary for these feats. What is cognitive dissonance if not a stylist’s approach to reality?

I thought, for instance, I'll have some money saved up after the pandemic, but I instead found myself with a bill for six pulled teeth. It was late in June and I arrived for the procedure stone-cold sober. In went the novocaine, and then: one two three four five six. I valued my tenacity. My reward was recuperating in bed with anime, Porky Pig, and a softly medicated haze. Only the first afternoon sucked, as I filled gauze after gauze with mouthblood.

Well, better to be missing teeth than to be dead. This is still the “new millennium,” after all, and two decades in, the times have only gotten interesting-er and interesting-er. Why not partake? Twenty years is nothing to eternity, anyway. Eventually every single one of us commoners will be swept into a category of amorphous shapes, a collective that can only ever exist as abstraction. The 21st century, they’ll call it. Just another faceless horde that suffered tragedies undue.

That’s no reason to be nihilistic, of course. To return to Gris’ words on the Lebenskünstler:

Only "now" matters and how you can make the most out of each moment. Screw success and any concept of "the future" because for decades Berliners – think of WWII, the Cold War etc. – have felt there is NO tomorrow (and they are right of course - we will all die).

Kehoe, Three castles, 2021. Oil on canvas, each 11 x 14 inches.

Apocalypse is a shared fear that entails something much more intimate and personalized: our own deaths. Post-apocalyptic narratives, which have progressed from ubiquitous form to true genre, often star individuals or small groups. The consumer of these stories is meant, presumably, to identify with these individuals whose willpower to survive has gone unscathed.

This may sound like Lebenskünst, but it isn’t. What marks the particular un-imagination of this survivalist perspective is the suffocating context. Resourcefulness is depicted, but debased to extremity alone: violence and hunger, animality and competition. It all happens against a backdrop of some outside force that is somehow more inhuman, more unfeeling, like zombies or monsters.

Such fiction functions as glib PR for the world as-is; there are enough people plotting their survival daily even without the threat of zombies or roving murder gangs. These fantastic images, in their latent desire to unlink ruination from banality, only reaffirm Agamben’s idea that adventure is fundamentally mistaken today for “something external—and therefore eccentric and bizarre—with respect to ordinary life.”

Ordinary life is already a process without parameter, except that of death. What shapes the Lebenskünstler’s outlook more than the knowledge of their own finality? The individual-ness of our own ends makes them unique burdens to fulfill.

Is that why I didn’t watch horror movies until adulthood? In film, the rural and the forested are the realm of slashers, serial killers and other assorted sadists, while cities are the terra firma loosened by disaster. Compare the imagery of frightened crowds to that of a Final Girl in the woods, running for her life. The crowd distributes fear somewhat evenly. The individual victim is a long scream piercing night, and then silence.

Maybe, in my own perverse childhood understanding, it was the crowds themselves that excited me in any given apocalypse. They evoked a sense of being within something, sharing it. Now I realize this is the selfsame energy of the city, of a night out, what I pine for when I need release, what we all missed two years ago when the world shut down and everything was atomized.

Kehoe, september duet "a"b, 2021. Oil on canvas, each 20 x 20 inches.

Pre-pandemic, I began to dislike writing. I pretended to faint for an audience of myself alone, peeking through my fingers every now and then, gauging just how much I believed my own act.

Well: I was wrong! Consider it another BAD CHOICE. To abandon writing would mean abandoning my wiretap on the pulse. Like cutting the rope that hangs outside the window, the teenaged means of escape from Goethe’s “imprinted form.” That’s not even mentioning (though I still need to mention it) that writing helped me squeak out a living before. I’d like to at least attempt that again, and on different terms this time around.

I recently found a Xeroxed newspaper clipping, with parenting tips from the year 2000, concerning “the stand-alone child.” A sidebar tells us: “Keep praise appropriate. When it isn’t, an only child thinks the world owes him a living.”

The first part is good advice for art critics everywhere. But the second half? What constitutes “a living?” A wage? Housing? Rights or other basic decencies? I am being annoyingly pedantic here because our responsibilities toward one another, and the lack thereof in execution, seem to define the sociopolitical warfare of our current moment. The question of what we reasonably “owe” to others is hard to answer, and definitely something beyond my ken or this article’s scope.

But to go to the root: none of us ask for entry into this world, and our inability to satisfactorily resolve or even account for this missing consent means numerous options, from brutish to activist, for explaining it away.

The Lebenskünstler knows this much: We are owed life. How we decide to accept this most precious material, that is, the matter of “living” itself, is the subject of Lebenskünst.

Owen, Hillocks and Ladders, 2019. Acrylic and ink on paper, wooden dowel.

About the artists

Marc Kehoe
has attended The Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore,The Rhode Island School of Design and The Art Students League. Recent shows include "The Thrill of Chaos" at Art of Our Century (2020) and "The Art of Coney Island" at Brooklyn Waterfront Artist’s Coalition (2021).

Barbara Owen
was born in Burlington, Vermont and raised in Maine. She is a 2020 MFA graduate in Art Practice from School of Visual Arts, New York and earned an Interdivisional BA in Sculpture and Poetry from Bennington College, Vermont. She lives and works in Rhode Island and Brooklyn, New York.

Works mentioned

  • Agamben, Giorgio. The Adventure, 2018, trans. by Lorenzo Chiesa, MIT Press. Original Italian ed, L’Avventura, 2015.
  • Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, 1988, trans. by Robert Hurley. Original French ed, La Part maudite, 1949.
  • Brown, Norman O. Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History, 1959.
  • Gris, Seymour. "The Easyjet set vs. the Lebenskünstler," Nov 27 2012, in Exberliner. Source
  • Mitchell, Raula S."Lebenskunstler Skincare for the Bath Ritual," n.d. Source
  • Peterson, Karen S. "Pegging the proper place for the stand-alone child," Feb 22 2000, in USA Today.
  • Szott, Randall. "Lebenskunstler: What might it mean?," n.d. Source