Dear Professor Didi-Huberman,
Dear Dr. Rottmann,
Dear Professor Kern,
Dear Professor Sherman,
Dear Professor Falckenberg,
Dear Professor Luckow,
Dear Dr. Ohrt,
Dear members of the Hamburg Parliament,
Ladies and Gentlemen.
in “Sacred Emily”, a poem written in 1913, Gertrude Stein, the mother of modernism, included an unusual line: "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose."
This was an avant-garde experiment which dispensed with full stops and commas, and even a hundred years later it has lost none of its enigmatic charm. The syntax may be fairly simple, but on the level of semantics and pragmatics the utterance is in fact rather complex. We discover once again that art has a habit of making a mockery of positivist conclusions.
Aby Warburg, at the end of the line in question, might well have written a pithy comment: "AT!" - "Achtung Tiefsinn" – "Be wary, it's profound."
This is what he always did whenever he selected and arranged images in such a way as to demonstrate that more and more links between them could be ascertained, and that in fact it was the relationships which made it possible to say something about a work in a holistic sense.
Those of us who look at pictures must obviously spend more time on "learning to read" them.
The exhibition devoted to Aby Warburg's Mnemosyne demonstrates that this is not always as easy as it seems.
Learning to read in this kind of way makes it imperative to include in one's deliberations certain things which cannot be seen.
Aby Warburg did not expect to find what he was looking for in one particular picture. He found it in relationships and in "moving accessories," and in this way overcame "border police inhibitions," as he called them. He fulminated against the notion that disciplines were clearly distinct, an idea to which scholars at the time still tended to subscribe.
The very idea of comparing masterworks of the various epochs with coins or advertising posters was clearly not the done thing.
But as it turned out, it was not impossible. And such discoveries and their interconnection demonstrate that the here and now always has a historical dimension. Warburg shows that time does not simply disappear. In fact it accumulates, and vibrates in other things beneath the surface. He shows that knowledge can never be complete and final because a work of art is never complete and final. New interconnections keep appearing, and they provide a new framework for the various different parts.
Today, in the midst of 'pathos formulas,' we are presenting awards to two people who are in pursuit and fully aware of the complexity of things. First of all we are presenting the sponsorship award to you, Dr. Rottmann.
Your book "Aesthetics from Below" teaches us to see what we can so easily overlook. The cobblestones and the tarmac. We realize once again that it is not only what we see, but also how we see it which helps us to understand the nature of reality. As a result of your interest in subjects which one could easily consider to be of peripheral importance you have opened up new avenues of research for the discipline of art history.
And today we are presenting the Aby Warburg Award 2020 to you, Professor Didi-Huberman. We just pretend you're here.
How in fact can we actually read a picture? How can we look at a picture on the one hand without believing in its message, and how can we look at a picture on the other hand without reducing what we see in objective terms to precisely this, and to nothing else? These are questions which come up time and again in your work. And you have been able to find answers in the course of your research into Warburg, and as someone who uses his methods, in symbols and in their referential systems.
You have expanded on Warburg's work, have incorporated new elements such as films, and have tried to promote new approaches and new kinds of interpretation. As far as you are concerned, understanding, as defined by Warburg, emanates not only from the visible picture, but also from the "copy", from what you call the "subsequent life of images", from the pictures which reappear in other pictures.
Professor Didi-Huberman, you have placed Warburg's ideas on a new and up-to-date footing and are helping to make his work known on an international level. In the words of the jury, you have adopted his methods in order "to develop a personal and inimitable way of approaching the culture of images in its entirety."
Later on, in Professor Bill Sherman's laudatory speech, we are going to hear more about this.
However, I would like to dwell for a moment on this particular kind of sensory understanding, on what one might call intelligent listening. For what is true of reading and of seeing is equally true of listening.
What is said is not always the same as what is heard. However, we sometimes tend to ignore that. Sometimes what is heard seems to contain far more than what is said – because we have incorporated ideas of our own into the sentence.
In point of fact many other sentences, as Gabriele von Arnim has said, sound impressive only "until one has stripped away the paint." We will understand much better and indeed much more if we are prepared to think about the circumstances under which people speak and listen.
Here it also seems apposite to include the things that are not said, even though we know that what this tells us is in fact to some extent a figment of our imagination.
It was the sociologist Erving Goffman who stated that what we need is a conceptual language of relationships and not of qualities. And we need it in order to form a holistic picture. In point of fact qualities are inflexible. If we see them and nothing else, it will create the impression that we are dealing with identities cast in concrete which paradoxically become even more inflexible as a result of interaction.
And thus every position one adopts can easily become a pose if it does not manage to establish links to other positions, if it denies that there is a need to keep developing, if it denies the idea that others may also be right.
That is an important consideration. And for this reason we must not only be prepared to hear, but also to listen. Reason always resides in the plurality of its voices, as the philosopher Jürgen Habermas has said, and never in a mere quality or in a fleeting moment of comprehension. It is not imprisoned in a picture, in a figure, or in a human being, but initially emerges as a result of relationships and by taking into account both time and space. It can be discovered only in an interactive manner - and together! In fact this mutual interaction is the basis of our existence as an organized society.
The pandemic has just demonstrated this in a very dramatic manner, both with regard to our social relationships and the structural density of our symbolic resources. And we have become acutely aware of the relationship between reading, seeing and listening. Pictures from Wuhan and from Bergamo, and TV series such as "Lenox Hill," which was made in a New York hospital, first made some people aware of the existence of the virus.
The images provoked fear, and made it impossible to conduct a meaningful discourse. They could not be placed in a familiar context. In fact, they were very upsetting, and very emotional, and they led inexorably to a state of emergency. It goes without saying that we all hoped that this state of affairs would soon be a thing of the past. The various societal systems that generated knowledge and order were at variance time and again, and rarely in agreement.
There were the sober findings of laboratories, the grandiloquent political statements, the anxious conversations at the kitchen table. We no longer understood what was going on.
And there were many things that we had to learn to read in a completely new way. Familiar things such as shaking hands, which is a completely normal way pf telling someone that he or she is welcome, were suddenly frowned upon. Christmas was suddenly suspicious because it was the feast of conviviality. We began to draw comparisons, which could never be totally precise, and always remained no more than a matter for conjecture. Can cultural venues be compared to churches? Are galleries more like museums, or like High Street shops? These were some of the questions we asked ourselves.
"God is right there in the small print," Warburg once said. But sometimes we thought that it was not God, but the devil. And time and again we had to rearrange our "tables." This was possible only with the help of imaginative flexibility and a keen awareness of the interconnection between the various different insights.
We learnt that things which are good in economic terms may not necessarily be good when it comes to virology. And that things which are good when it comes to virology are not necessarily a good idea in political terms. It was all a matter of seeing things in perspective, of interrelationships, and of recognizing that no one discipline has the final word when it comes to interpretation. In fact it is more like a node in a dense texture of relationships which can tell us something about the resilience and coherence of our society.
This is what a politician thinks about as he saunters through the exhibition. For this, ladies and gentlemen, is a palace of hermeneutics, of the theory and methodology of interpretation. And the two scholars who are receiving awards today are past masters of this kind of decipherment.
As it happens we planned on two previous occasions to present today's awards after the jury had completed its deliberations. The members of the jury are: Andreas Beyer, Margit Kern, Andrea Pinotti, Barbara Plankensteiner, Birgit Recki, Bill Sherman and Sigrid Weigel, and I should like to take this opportunity to thank them for their enthusiasm and their wholly admirable verdicts.
The first attempt to present the awards was exactly one year ago. And of course this means that the last award ceremony, which was for you, Professor Weigel, was five years ago. But now at long last we are going to go ahead with the ceremony, here in the midst of Warburg's Mnemosyne in the truly wonderful Sammlung Falckenberg in which, ten years ago, the exhibition curated by Professor Didi-Huberman, "Atlas: How to carry the world on one's back," was shown. So now, as Shakespeare once said, the wheel has come full circle.
I am so pleased that today we can finally present the awards to you, Professor Didi-Huberman, and to you, Dr. Rottmann. I am delighted to begin with Dr. Rottmann, and so I give the floor to Professor Margit Kern.
Thank you all so very much.