Gustav Metzger (1926-2017), German-born and British-based artist, passed away in March of this year, leaving behind a legacy as a profoundly radical and political artist and activist. Known for Auto-Destructive Art and his ‘art-strike,’ Metzger’s work deals heavily with critiquing the overconsumption inherent in the capitalist-driven international art market. What is perhaps a little less appreciated in his work, is his understanding and concern for the negative environmental impacts of this overconsumption and his keen observation and reflection of the dialectic between art and ecology, in particular relating to his own work.
Metzger is most well-known for developing Auto-Destructive Art. This concept was originally developed through a manifesto in 1959, which set out the terms of its definitions. Auto-Destructive artworks comprise of any number of an extensive list of materials including acid, ballistics, cybernetics and human energy, with individual works lasting from as little as a number of seconds to a maximum of twenty years. Metzger produced and exhibited Auto-Destructive artworks, including paintings and sculptures to reflect the destruction he perceived in the world. Citing Sigmund Freud’s ability to expose human inhibitions, and further to address the need to confront these and talk through them, Metzger views the project of Auto-Destructive art in a similar way, grappling with destruction head on, rather than ‘denying and prettifying’ .
Auto-Destructive art also subverts the notion of the art object as commodity or artefact, as it is stipulated that the remnants of the piece must be removed from the gallery and destroyed upon completion of the destruction process – the artwork’s life. Metzger demonstrates an instinctive literacy of nature, understanding the complex relationships between the human actors of the artist and audience, the physical materiality of the artwork, the systematic nature of markets and galleries, and the conceptual subject of what is being communicated and its relation to nature. In essence, Metzger undermines the modern notion of culture capturing nature, instead presenting culture as a part of and subject to nature.
Metzger was inspired by the work of the Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer. He warmed to Vermeer’s identity as an artist on the edge of society, with few friends and patrons . This is evident in the failure of Metzger to encourage any other artists to join his call for an art strike.
Artist and filmmaker Ken McMullen also suggests that Vermeer relatively small artistic output is similar to Metzger’s, limited output. McMullen diplomatically refers to Metzger as ‘not overproducing.’ However, it is important that this is not treated as a euphemism and rather Metzger’s oeuvre should serve as a reminder to artist and scientists of the merits of over-production.
The main project of focus here is that commonly known as the ‘Art Strike,’ though Metzger declare this as the Years Without Art . At an exhibition entitled Art into Society-Society into Art at the London Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), he presented no artwork in the gallery space, but simply a text in the exhibition catalogue outlining his call for years without art. A few years later, between 1977 and 1980, Metzger ceased producing art. During this period Metzger refused interviews, publications and exhibitions. While Metzger had hoped for participation from other artist, he completed the strike alone, with limited attention .
The idea of a moratorium on art production predates Metzger’s project and similar projects have proceeded it too. ‘Art Workers Coalition’ influentially staged day-long strikes in opposition to the War in Vietnam and for the increased representation of women and black artist in galleries . In the early nineties Stewart Home staged an art strike to try and disrupt the mechanisms of the art market . Unlike these examples, I would argue that Metzger’s ‘years without art’ stands out as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. The goal was to challenge what Metzger referred to as the reformist nature of political art production, in favour of a revolutionary stance . The strike is as much a deliberate practice as it is a form of protest.
Metzger states that state supported art acts as a ‘cosmetic cloak’ to justify this ‘horrifying reality’ . This is a debate that is not often raised in relation to the state supported science, research and universities. In the case of both art and science, critique more commonly relates to the issue of reduced funding, low wages and privatisation – which of course are valid debates and legitimate struggles, however, in the academic sphere this only challenges certain aspects of scientific production. Perhaps a more common debate that echoes Metzger’s pronouncement is the view that the social sciences act as a similar ‘cosmetic cloak’ for the natural sciences .
In his book ‘Factories of Knowledge, Industries of Creativity,’ Gerard Raunig writes about the labour of knowledge and cultural work . Raunig includes a chapter on Metzger’s Art Strike, contextualising it within a broader post-Fordist critique. Although the book challenges the role of state and capitalist power structures in science and knowledge production, along with art production and creative industries, Metzger’s project is not explicitly extended to offer a potential intervention and disruption in contemporary science in the form of a strike .
Cornelius Castoriadis is arguably bolder when he argues that ‘[f]or the first time, in a non-religious society, we must face up to the question of whether the expansion of knowledge itself should be controlled. And of how that can be done without producing a dictatorship of minds’ . Indeed, it is much easier to imagine a scientific moratorium imposed by Donald Trump or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, than to imagine a celebrated scientist opting to stop publishing and presenting, as Metzger stopped producing art, to challenge the current scientific modus operandi and take time out to reflect on their own practice. Castoriadis’ motivation is to avoid the mindless production of knowledge to the detriment of human life, in favour of a precautionary principle approach to knowledge .
Prominent degrowth scholar, Serge Latouche, draws on Castoriadis here to contextualise a call for ‘a moratorium on techno-scientific innovation’ . His intention here is to create the space for the reassessment of what kind of scientific developments are beneficial for society. Latouche is most likely thinking in terms of engineering and infrastructure rather than philosophy or social sciences. However, in light of the argument of social sciences as the ‘cosmetic cloak’ for the hard sciences, perhaps the distinction is not so strong. In light of the Anthropocene inherited and perpetuated by many privileged people who are scientists, it is primarily for the re-assessment of meaningful science, that an academic strike like the art strike of Metzger is desirable.
Many aspects of this scientific malaise described come under the notion of Scientometrics, a concept developed by de Solla Price , which measures numbers of citations, publications, presentations, etc. as a proxy of scientific influence and value. As universities adopt these Borgesian methods of assessment more and more, researchers are encouraged to focus on quantity not quality. I would argue that academics should take inspiration from Metzger and stand up to credentialist measurements.
One of Metzgers final projects, Reduce Art Flights/RAF, also provides a very meaningful and transferable message for the scientific community . Metzger presented a leaflet in an edition of 5,000 as part of the Munster Sculpture Project in 2007, which was designed to replicate British Royal Air Force (RAF) propaganda posters . Metzger was particularly concerned by the dramatic growth in international Art Fairs at the time  and in one of his most explicitly ‘environmental’ works sought to discourage unsustainable practices. He understood that the art world only accounted from a small proportion of the problem, but he nonetheless hoped that people outside this sphere would take heed too. Academics at all career stages face significant pressure to fly to conferences and present work as a validation of their reputation, which a serious impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Metzger’s project provides the impetus to Reduce Academic Flights, by favouring remote participation and local engagement and outreach above international travel and fieldwork.
During the 1960’s, much of Metzger’s earlier ‘conventional’ paintings were permanently stored by his friends. It was not until Documenta 13, a contemporary art exhibition in 2012 in Kassel, Germany, that these early works were again shown . I would argue that this demonstrates how there is a time and place in which a work can be displayed in its rightful context. The relative absence of these works gives them a special meaning and context. They do not appear in a torrent of artistic output, but are rather part of a careful decision-making process. This needs to be observed to a greater degree by the scientific community. At times, the idiom that less is more, can be ignored at great cost, which chimes with Metzger’s admiration of Vermeer.
Metzger’s legacy as an artist and a thinker leaves a great debt to all who are concerned with understanding the challenges of communicating ecological issues and messages. Metzger demonstrated modesty and reflexivity, vital characteristics for those working with sustainability and ecology in positions of privilege. The death of Metzger will no doubt bring about his increased commodification, which he fought to avoid. Though articles like this one will play a part in contributing to the commodification of his legacy, Metzger has demonstrated, in life as in death, in countless ways, the auto-destructive nature of art and life.