Villem Flusser on Artistic Freedom

With his statements in Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Vilém Flusser opened a new understanding of photography, and gave the term a new meaning. While he describes the photograph as a “flyer-like image distributed by the apparatus,” the Photographer for Flusser was a critic; a gadfly: “a person who attempts to place within the image, information which is not predicted on the program of the camera-apparatus”[1] His call was imperative: “Play against the apparatus!”—a subversive, liberating thought; its realization, a symbolic act in the struggle of humans against the stubborn, soulless, non-human agency of the apparatus. Flusser argued that we should master the apparatus by beating it at its own “games.” The experimental photographer, especially one who is working in the realm of contemporary art can benefit immensely from Vilem Flusser’s philosophy because he effectively elevates their roles in the hierarchy of artistic practices. No other modern media theorist and philosopher has campaigned so fervently for photography and its reevaluation.

Flusser saw the photo as the first “post-historical” image, in which linear, numerical texts are placed in the picture (he sometimes called them pixels). In contrast to the “prehistoric” images that were created before the invention of linear writing and the “historical” ones, which are in direct or indirect contradiction with linear texts, images are projections of a magical consciousness and thus potential starting points for history. They compute new historical possibilities. They are drafts, not documents. “But only now do these dormant utopian virtualities reveal themselves to us.”[2] Photos are not retrospective objects but “an outlook on opening horizons.” With this reversal, Flusser has created new freedom and movement—both in thinking about and dealing with photography.

Other photo theorists are primarily concerned with the photographic document and, under their respective ontologies, definitely spread pessimism and melancholy about it. For example by rejecting the existence of a photo’s own “syntax,” a photographic style—I think of Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes or Pierre Bourdieu and others who still call it an “illegitimate art” —Flusser saw “bright opportunities” for future generations. He saw a “different,” creative use of the technical media, a use that invents its own rules and its own lexicon. He did not stir up fear of technology, but helped to overcome it. This is something peculiar about Flusser: despite his sharp criticism of the prevailing conditions of image making, his arguments ultimately gave hope.

He was able to identify the few who are already struggling against the apparatus; the avant-garde among photographers, who break the rules of the apparatus and developed alternatives to them. Their interventions override the technical-aesthetic conventions and dare to to make a fresh start.
These Photographers, however, hardly know how to assess the scope of their action and how to measure them. They are still in a limbo because they do not know that they have already started to set up and implement a new program. “Freedom in the context of the apparatus” is the only program that must be seriously supported and fought for in the future: “The apparatus is the goal of history.” We have to live with it, whether we like it or not. Either the apparatus surpasses us or we surpass the apparatus.

The cultural history of photography since the middle of the 19th century can be seen as the story of the gradual appropriation of the apparatus by humans. It can be read and interpreted as a sequence of emancipatory steps in such a way that the creative powers of man ultimately assert themselves against the program of the apparatus. Imaging—Flusser calls them “imaginative”— ​​tendencies in photography dominate the image-taking, depicting tendencies; the artistic competence of man gains strength. The documentary quality of the medium, on the other hand, is becoming less important.

Flusser denies any fetishism of the apparatus and neither does he call for the destruction of the apparatus. The constructive element in his thinking is evident throughout.

For instance: Vilém Flusser sees nature and culture as two diametrically opposed variants. While one generates information through an aleatory dice, the other proceeds methodically and strategically in order to establish a game of chance “that turns against chance”[3] through development and progress. Homo ludens focuses on the improbable and plays against entropy in order to win over culture and society.

According to Flusser, game theories are better suited to describing social processes than social theories, since they can be formulated mathematically.[4] The ludic is superior to sociological thinking because it is “harder” and is able to quantify phenomena more precisely. Artists do not yet have to worry about calculating their incompetence, and for the time being they can still rely on their empirical parameters such as “intuition” or “inspiration.” People in general do not have to be accused for the time being that they are more interested in games like football than in games like poetry, because competence in football is less esteemed than of poetry and therefore corresponds better to their competence bordering on idiocy. For Flusser there is no doubt that art is a kind of game, that painting or photography can be approached with the same criteria as bowling or poker, and that these categories can be expressed in the form of algorithms. According to this logic, aesthetic phenomena and artists like Picasso appear as formulaic variables or programs that unify the input process and transform their works like an image processing software into an output.
However, his argument operates at a rhetorical level in order to deconstruct the myth of an original and virtuoso artist genius. More important than formatting the artist in a program is the visualization of the change from traditional ideas of a solitary artist into an organized movement. Board games are shaped by the competence of those involved, who represent the respective product of the game repertoire multiplied by the game structure. The greater and more diverse the skills involved, the more productive the game will be. This rule remains valid at least up to the point where incompatibility and incongruity arise within the apparatus. With the acceptance of the artist as a radical, uncompromising individual, this threshold may be reached quickly, whereas in the area of ​​scientific research, technical production, economic planning or political decision-making, there is a more developed pragmatic game. Groups are seldom found in the art system at the moment because the market values ​​originals, signatures, and subjects. But there is a lot to be said for a collective boom, which is already apparent in an upcoming generation of artists.
Playing against the apparatus requires changing the concept of art, which blurs the boundaries between art, science, technology, politics, etc., and eliminates the division between producers, consumers, curators and critics. It is crucial that each player participates in different groups in order to contribute, expand and supplement them with new ones. The artist transforms from a dictator of his ability, who displays his limited competence in the white cube, to someone who gets his hands dirty: “an artist who opens his system and contaminates it with other competences.” The aphorism “everyone is an artist” does not accurately capture the thoughts of Flusser. What he is really saying is that “everyone’s a little of everything.”

Society’s hope therefore lies in dilettantism, in organized thinking or in systemic interference and not in isolated specialization.
The social model of the playful training and expansion of individual competencies for the purpose of their common entanglement counteracts the synchronization and aims at an idle life. The playful idleness becomes the scholé (leisure) of life[5] and networked board games become cosmic schools “in which the decision for a zero-sum or plus-sum game is at stake: A zero-sum game is one in which one player wins and the other loses and therefore the total remains the same, a positive-sum game is one in which all players can win.”[6]

Artist groups and organized society players in general should partake in positive-sum games, the participants of which pursue the goal of becoming competent. This is the difference to previous forms of society, which were an end in themselves, because life is aimless.” Playing loses its playfulness in that society and submits to the projected goal of increasing competency, which in turn should serve the purpose of informing culture as a negentropic process. The game that Flusser equated elsewhere with an activity that is “an end in itself ” turns into the opposite. The player becomes an arbiter, who is a person playing with the  apparatus and acting forin the functions of the apparatus.[7] The tipping point, in which game theories begin to give way to the flow of social theories, has been diagnosed as a loss of ideology and depoliticization. Since the late 1980s or from the decline of Marxism and the fondness for the free market, critics defame Vilem Flusser’s player “as an official of the hegemonic rules of capital.” In addition to solidarity, networking and integration, working communities still seem to be of importance to artistic solitaires as spoilers of the game in order to experimentally keep a contingent social order.

This connects Flusser with another great Jewish thinker on photography, Walter Benjamin, whose few pages in Short History of Photography (1931/1972) is known to be one of the most cited and most sustainable texts in this area. Benjamin contemplated the important consequences of the invention of photography for the global culture:

At about the same time as the formation of the technology for reproduction, the conception of great works was changing. One can no longer view them as the productions of individuals; they have become collective images, so powerful that the capacity to assimilate them is related to the condition of reducing them in size.[8]

Flusser’s Toward a Philosophy of Photography shook the understanding of photography. He was not a philosopher working from the inside but as an “outsider,” a critic. His thoughts always aimed at the practical, the feasible. They formed a spiral that becomes more and more open towards its edges and touches other territories. Watching recordings of his lectures and interviews on Youtube, I observed that those who were able to experience his “live” lectures were often surprised by the twists and turns that his free-wheeling speech took. He often dealt with the given situation directly and combatively and allowed himself to be carried away by interjections or marginal notes. But he also demanded calm and concentration. He often interrupted his speech and asked outright whether he was still being followed: “Give me ten more minutes.” He rarely exceeded the time he had set himself. He was very disciplined. In a crowded lecture hall in São Paulo, he dominated the auditorium to finally calm down at the entrances: “It is still too loud there! You should close the doors! ” Flusser paced the stage with his hands folded on his back, his lecture is a dramatic event, a spectacle. He was always good with surprises and attention given to him. He embodied his own dictum to “play against the apparatus,” the essence of artistic freedom derived from his speech and writings.



[1] Flusser, Vilém. 2000. Towards a philosophy of photography, p. 84

[2] Eisel, Erik. Writings. Edited by Ströhl Andreas. University of Minnesota Press, 2002. Accessed February 27, 2020. P.131

[3] Ibid p. 202

[4] FLUSSER, VILÉM, and Rodrigo Maltez Novaes. The History of the Devil. Edited by Zielinski Siegfried. University of Minnesota Press, 2014. P. 203-204

[5] “Celebrating.” In Writings, edited by Ströhl Andreas, by Eisel Erik, 165-71. University of Minnesota Press, 2002. Accessed February 27, 2020.

[6] Flusser, Vilém, Mark Poster, and Nancy Ann Roth. Into the Universe of Technical Images. MINNEAPOLIS; LONDON: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. p.100

[7]Flusser, Vilém, Mark Poster, and Nancy Ann Roth. Into the Universe of Technical Images. MINNEAPOLIS; LONDON: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. p.

[8] Walter Benjamin, A Short History of Photography, Screen, Volume 13, Issue 1, Spring 1972, Pages 5–26,

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