[SYMPOSIUM] Reality(ies), Fiction and Utopia


Franz Erhard Walther, Elfmeterbahn (Nr. 5, 1. Werksatz), 1964. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012. Photographie: Timm Rautert. Courtesy Franz Erhard Walther, KOW BERLIN, Timm Rautert

Reality(ies), Fiction and Utopia in the art of France, West Germany, East Germany and Poland between 1960 and 1989

International meeting of the ERC Starting Grant-OWNREALITY organized by Mathilde Arnoux and Clara Pacquet, Paris, Centre allemand d’histoire de l’art, 10, 11, 12, 13 April 2013

The ERC-funded project “To Each His Own Reality. The Notion of the Real in the Fine Arts between 1960 and 1989 in France, West Germany, East Germany and Poland” organised an International Meeting in Paris at the Centre Allemand d’Histoire de l’Art on 11, 12 and 13 April, 2013.

This meeting was structured around three Research Workshops bringing together established researchers, postdoctoral researchers and PhD students, focusing on the themes of Reality(ies), Fiction and Utopia. During the initial months of the project, collaborative research carried out by art historians and philosophers and the comparison of the viewpoints of these researchers from different backgrounds highlighted the plurality in our understanding of the real – and reality (or realities) – and the need to reduce the risk of misunderstandings in interpretation through a process of defining and positioning material, as much in terms of historiography as geography and the artistic discipline concerned. Conceived as a work-in-progress, each workshop was organised around discussions and debates, with the aim of comparing and analysing participants’ different understandings of reality and exploring the pertinence of a plural definition of the term.

The workshops

With the aim of encouraging dialogue, each of the three workshops associated the notion of reality with another term that both represents its opposite and indirectly defines the particular reality in question:

This workshop has examined the meaning of the term “reality” according to whether it is used in singular or plural form by artists, critics and theorists in contexts in which its definition is either imposed or freely interpreted. It addressed the implications of the imposition of a single definition versus the possibility of choice (singular or plural definitions), with the idea of evoking the various aspects of “reality” as compared to “realities” in artistic, political, aesthetic, phenomenological, sociological or psychological contexts. Perceptions of realities instead of one reality can involve very different approaches. Subjectivity can come into play, with the belief that each experience is unique, but also an awareness of a diversity of possible interpretations, which is more objective in terms of empirical knowledge. Reaching beyond the confines of an established reality also requires a desire for openness, a search for freedom. Yet is it not a fundamental aspect of reality to be considered as a single entity, in the sense of relying on an outside authority to establish what is or is not accepted as “real”, beyond individual viewpoints and their inevitable variations? Conversely, what implications does this have for the desire to view reality in relative terms? Indeed, is it not the work of artists to explore this tension between a given reality and embracing other systems of meaning that offer a potential for plurality?

In this workshop, we have considered the notion of reality in relation to fiction. Fiction and reality are commonly seen as opposite concepts, understood in terms of their difference, or otherness. However, this difference is not absolute, and any form of fiction can be composed of reality, and can even generate it. At the same time, all forms of reality exist because they also depend on arbitrary elements related to fiction, myth, symbolism and the imagination. We like to see fiction as a tool that is capable of capturing reality through the use of enunciation (cinema, literature, theatre) or assemblages of forms (light, colour, compositional devices, materials, movement), which are artificial and bring us a new understanding of this reality, which would otherwise remain multiple and formless, and therefore incomprehensible. In spite of its ability to reveal things, can fiction not also be used as a means of domination by creating and propagating myths? Do all artifices, once constructed, inevitably become real, and as a result, dangerous? The use of artifice in fiction subverts the information we receive directly from the world around us, reaching beyond it to another perspective which does not express reality in terms of social consensus, an established order or even an illusory fact, but aims to represent “true” reality, which cannot exist outside this process of representation. We had therefore examined the connection between fiction and truth, fiction and knowledge, and consequently between reality and truth, posing the questions: Is fiction actually a tool that allows us to distinguish reality from truth? What are the heuristic qualities of fiction?

The dialogue between notions of reality and utopia is a central theme of the Cold War period. The meaning of “utopia” underwent significant changes over the years, particularly on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain after the death of Stalin. The meaning of “reality” is not the same when utopia is conceived as a future social and political ideal to be achieved through commitment, as when it embodies the failure of a system of government, or when equated with an ideal that is not intended to actually exist. Ideas of reforming, transforming, taking action and rendering things visible raise different issues according to the relationship between utopia and reality. Interpretations of the aims of art (autonomy, formalism, protest, subversion) must be defined differently according to the particular environment studied. Is reacting to the here and now considered to be at odds with artistic practices that regard themselves as autonomous? How do such practices propose to exert an influence (or not) on the world? Was this contrast not calcified within the context of the Cold War through the polarisation of avant-garde and academic systems of representation, of the practices of East and West, thereby conveying a political message? This workshop aimed to explore the different points of view raised by these questions.

Whole programm of “Reality(ies), Fiction and Utopia”: here.