Force and Form
Resistance in the art of Fen de Villiers
“Our religion, morality, and philosophy are decadent forms of man. The countermovement: art.” -Nietzsche
1. Introduction: Resistance
In Wilhem Worringer’s classic Abstraction and Empathy we read: “the value of a work of art, what we call its beauty, lies, generally speaking, in its power to bestow happiness.” Is this not self-evident? Art is a power, and great art is a power that bestows happiness. What is this happiness we feel upon watching great art? In the presence of great art, we feel our capacity to act increase, we feel our powers accumulate and rise higher and higher, we feel more alive. And as life is nothing but the power to act, art brings us closer to ourselves. Great art connects us to something otherwise invisible, the hidden forces and powers that reside in us. In normal life, these forces are scattered, our energy wasted on a myriad of insignificant objects. In the artwork, the artist is able to concentrate these forces into a harmonious whole, and can thus as Francis Bacon said: “unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently.”
Great art shows us an ideal, which ignites in us the desire to approach this ideal. Great art shows us the ideal of life at the peak of its capabilities, at the heights of its strength, and invites us to join the dance. What specific ideal art shows is specific to the artwork, but alike in all great art is the idea of force, bestowed onto the individual through form. In art as in life, there is only one law, as Nietzsche says: “I teach the No to all that makes weak - that exhausts. I teach the Yes to all that strengthens, that stores up strength, that justifies the feeling of strength.”
In Worringer’s study, he attempts to show that abstraction is one among many strategies that has been used throughout the history of art to reach this strength-bestowing quality of the artwork. By showing form and colour in their purity, they gain in force, and are thus able to carry over more force to the spectator. Abstraction is a means towards force, and in a sense all art is abstract. All art abstracts from the shattered state of the world to mould matter into harmony. It abstracts from life in ruin, to show us life at its heights. Our times have made great use of this idea. But has this not gone too far? Abstraction can abstract from all that obstructs the power that art tries to express, but losing itself in its own method can also abstract from this power itself.
Abstraction should here not only be seen as an artistic method that is opposed to figuration. Rather, modern art is characterized by an all-encompassing abstraction from everything that makes art art: its power to concentrate force into form and thus bestow happiness by returning the onlooker to life. Most importantly, modern art abstracts from figuration, but it also abstracts from the essential relation between content and form (idea and aesthetic). It speaks of “conceptual art”, which means as much as separating the idea from its aesthetic form, and arbitrarily valuing the one over the other. But is the power of art not precisely that it shows us how content and form cannot be separated? How the content of the power that we call life is essentially aesthetic? Modern art renounces its end of bestowing happiness, that is, of strengthening the individual. It chooses instead to weaken the individual, to burden him with guilt and remind him of his insignificance. It chooses to portray the “problems of today.”
This is the situation of modern art: obsessed with the intricacies of method, it has lost sight of life. As it abstracts from all that is valued most, it is time to abstract from modern art itself. In this age of decline there are individuals who do so, there are artists who resist. Fen de Villiers is one of them. Not only that his art, by the arbitrary historical circumstances it finds itself in, exists in resistance to what is “fashionable” today. Its resistance is not only made up by its untimeliness, his art also expresses the idea of resistance as its subject-matter. It is not only because he is opposed to his contemporaries that his art struggles with them, it is also that his art expresses what it means to struggle.
When we look at the sculpture of Fen de Villiers, it comes as no surprise when we hear that the artist is inspired by the movements of Futurism, Russian Constructivism, and Vorticism. With its sharp lines and robust shapes, de Villiers’ monumental sculptures remind us of the spirit of modernism. Our artist reaches back towards these movements. But just like these movements, our artist reaches back further, to something more primitive, more primordial, more archetypal. Something that is not the sole possession of some movement of old. As the Vorticist BLAST manifesto reads: “the Art-instinct is permanently primitive.” And it is perhaps in reaching back to this primal art-instinct that de Villiers reminds us of the modernist movements, and not the other way around. What is this art-instinct? And how does our artist give it expression? The artist’s words tell us all we need to know:
“When I see art, it has two possible effects on my spirit. It either lifts me to a higher vibration, or it lowers me. My philosophy over art is that it should make us feel more alive rather than deadened.”
The art-instinct shares in what is perhaps the most primordial drive inherent to life. A drive that moves life to lift itself up to a higher and higher vibration, to express its essence to a greater and greater degree. By sharing in this process, by expressing it, the artist uplifts our spirits. That is, he tries to ignite in ourselves this most primordial of drives; called Eros by some, Will to Power by others, simply Life by still others.
It is this idea of the ever-increasing power that is life that the artist tries to express. This idea is, as the artist rightly calls it, archetypal. Archetypal not of some-thing, but rather archetypal of life itself understood as this endless drive to increase its own capacities, to grow, to gain in strength and power, to express itself to greater and greater degrees. Life seeks to express itself, and in doing so is eternally involved in a struggle with all manners of thinking and living that suppress this expression. This is the resistance of de Villiers’ art. Against his contemporaries, because of the historical circumstances he finds himself in. But before this and more importantly, untimely by essence, because it expresses this resistance that life must forever put up against all that seeks to suffocate it. In the struggle the archetypal characters of de Villiers are engaged in, we see a portrayal of the eternal struggle of life against history. The resistance the flame of life must engage in for eternity, against the tyranny of history that attempts to dim it.
If de Villiers grasps back to the modernist movements, I believe this is because he recognizes in them a means of expressing what he knew in himself all along. These movements have been called “vitalist” movements. It is this, the pursuit to express through form the force of life that seeks to continuously overcome itself, that unites our artist with his predecessors. In the process of creation, it is an idea that determines the form and means of expression, and not the specific forms of expression that determine the idea. With de Villiers, this idea is life understood as a power of self-overcoming. This is what assures the continuity between Fen de Villiers and the vitalist modernists: a deep reflection on a similar principle, on a similar idea that yearns for expression. Before the artist is inspired by the specific forms of expression of his predecessors (the colours they used, the shapes they drew, the materials they used), it is an idea that causes this inspiration to emerge in the first place. We are inspired, not by those who teach us something, but by those whose work makes us proclaim “I already knew this from myself! I recognize myself in this! This is me!”
This is why with de Villiers there is no mere revival. There is rather a picking up of a vital idea where the modernists left it behind, a breaking through again of something much more primordial. For in all honesty, the blind comparison between our artist and Boccioni or Epstein is only possible for those fixated on seeing resemblance, incapable of grasping the singular essence of de Villiers’ work. Incapable of seeing in de Villiers’ work what breaks through their limited frames of reference. In de Villiers there is a revival, but this is not a repetition of specific forms, lines, colours, aesthetic patterns, etc. It is rather an inner repetition, a re-actualization of a primordial idea that his predecessors actualized in a certain way, and de Villiers actualizes in an entirely new way. As the BLAST manifesto told us, the art-instinct is permanently primitive. It is primitive, for it taps into the primordial object of all great art: life that seeks to raise itself to a stronger and more intense degree of expression. And it is permanently so, for wherever and whenever an artist is able to tap into this force, it strikes us as if it were the first time we were struck by life. In de Villiers there is no mere repetition, but a violent breaking through of that which is both eternally archaic and eternally new, by essence.
As the title of one of his exhibitions suggests, de Villiers is intent on breaking through our modern frames of reference. What is this frame of reference that our artist attempts to break through?
You need not know much to realize that art is in decline. Wherever we look, whatever museum we enter, we are plagued by sculpture and painting that expresses nothing: pathetic inert objects that come from nowhere and lead nowhere. Art that, as de Villiers says, deadens us. For fear of giving them more oxygen than they deserve, it is of no use to ponder the various artistic ideas that have led to this situation for too long. Although we should mention some, before we put them to death. The idea that everything can be art, that abstraction is more powerful than figuration, that the artist does not construct but deconstructs, that the concept is more important than the aesthetic, that art must play a social-political role, etc. What is common to all art grown out of these parasitic ways of thinking is its weakness: it simply fails to express force, and it fails to ignite force in the viewer. It fails to give life, it fails to strengthen. Art finds itself in a sadomasochistic condition. For how could an artist, a living being whose task consists in carrying life to greater and stronger degrees of expression by means of his work, fail to express precisely this? And instead, express exactly nothing? Both in content and form, artists no longer express life in its growth, but life in decline.
We are witness to a paradox: living artists that turn against everything that makes art living. We must admit that even these inept expressions of life express life. We must therefore also conclude that expressing life is not enough to speak of art. What is needed is to express a strong life: life in growth. Life in its struggle for self-overcoming. Life in its attempt to increase itself, an attempt that is coextensive to its essence.
Surrounded by this ruinous situation, the task that de Villiers takes up is a reversal. A reversal of all ways in which weakness is celebrated and sought for by modern art. Not everything is art, but only that which expresses life in growth, that expresses strength. Art expresses life, and not some dead concept. Art is construction, not deconstruction (which is after all only another word for destruction). Abstraction is a means, not an end. Aesthetics can not be separated from the idea expressed (for isn’t the magic of art precisely that it shows that these are, in life, one and the same?). Art must play no social role, but must strengthen the individual, for not all life is worth expressing, only a strong life is.
It is this that de Villiers teaches us: art should vitalize. How could we have forgotten? How could we, in our pursuit for new forms of expression, have lost sight of what it was all about? How could we have abstracted from this life-affirming task that drives art, and remain only with dead objects representing dead concepts?
Let us remind ourselves of what Kandinsky himself meant with “abstract” in his theoretical writings. In a very basic sense, there is both an inner and an outer aspect to every shape, colour, or form we perceive. There is the colour red as I perceive it with my eyes, but there is also an inner experience of this colour: the feelings it makes me feel, and the affects it ignites in me. There is what I perceive with my eyes, and there is also what affects me internally, what changes me. It is this inner aspect, invisible to the eye, that Kandinsky designates as “abstract.” These inner contents are abstract because they are invisible, they are abstract vis-à-vis regular perception. There is thus a duality of abstraction. There are the “abstract” affects and forces the artwork ignites, and there is abstraction as a method of abstracting from what is figurative. For Kandinsky the latter is only useful insofar as it can be used to ignite the former to a greater degree.
We are here confronted with the remarkable situation that, in Kandinsky’s sense, a realistic painting can be completely abstract. That is, it can, by a method that has nothing to do with abstraction, ignite in us an entire universe of inner and thus abstract contents. Likewise, an artwork of abstraction can fail to ignite those inner and abstract contents. For Kandinsky, all art is in this sense abstract: all art has as its sole goal to ignite in the viewer abstract forces and affects. All art is focused on increasing the viewer’s capacity of feeling, on increasing his powers. To make the viewer, as de Villiers puts it, feel more alive.
Could we say that the decadence of our times is rooted in a mistaking of what is mere method, for an end in itself? It is this same flaw that characterizes the decadence of our times on all levels. The mistaking of scientific method (the abstraction from all that is sensible, affective, and living) for reality itself. The mistaking of physical health for virtue. The mistaking of immunization for immunity. The mistaking of society for community. And in art, the mistaking of the abstract method for an end in itself.
The opposite of what is beautiful and thus strengthening, is not what ignites the wrong powers in us, what ignites a so-called ugly power in us. The ugly is rather that which fails to ignite any power whatsoever, that which is incapable of making us feel anything. There is no essence of the ugly, for the ugly is that which is void of essence. The ugly is that which exhausts and depresses, that which fails to express anything. It can thus hardly be called art, which exists for the sake of increasing the capacity to feel. The ugly is what is weak. As Nietzsche says, ugly art is not art at all, it is rather the contradiction of art. The ugly is what is void of power, and as art is precisely that activity of life that seeks to express the power that is life to its highest degree, ugly art does not deserve to be called art at all. How little art there is in our world. In light of this, and contrary to the sophists of today, not everything can be called art. Only that which is able to uplift us is art.
If we stay with Kandinsky’s framework for a while, then what is the significance of the forms and shapes we see in de Villiers? If all aspects of a sculpture (colour, shape, form, material, etc.) have both an external and an internal existence; external as perceptible with our eyes and internal as forces felt, then the forms and shapes do not only have an external existence, they are more importantly and more primordially the expressions of a certain force. As de Villiers says: “sculpture is energy realized as form.” As the artist teaches us, the manipulation of matter that is his activity is an experimentation, a groping in the dark that seeks nothing but the emergence of certain forces. Externally speaking, matter is dead, but configured in such a way that it is able to ignite in us certain affects and forces, it becomes alive. Matter is dead, but sculpture is living energy. This is what form means, and what de Villiers seeks. A certain configuration of energy (the inner content of the material, its forceful aspect) that is able to uplift our spirits, that makes us feel more alive, and brings this power of feeling alive to a greater and stronger expression. As Nietzsche says: “one is an artist at the cost of regarding that which all non-artists call “form” as content, as “the matter itself.”” That is, the artist is he who realizes that form is not just a designation for how matter is configured. There is also form in a higher sense: a delicate constellation of inner energy that is able to ignite forces in the individual. The sculptor is he who realizes that there is an inner aspect to form, and before the specific choice of external materials, it is this inner form that is the inner subject-matter of sculpture. It is here that sculpture happens, it is here that form is built out of raw energy. In the world, form is just form. In life, every form is a force.
A word should be said about the artistic process. In moulding his matter, the artist seeks the form laden with force. He seeks that constellation that most intensely expresses a certain force in the individual. This is what Kandinsky called being guided by the principle of inner necessity. According to this principle, what determines the choice of colour, form, material, or shape, is not this colour, form, material, or shape itself considered as an exteriority, considered as a certain quantity of extension in time and space. Rather, what determines this choice is the interior affects or forces that these colours, forms, materials, or shapes express. Thus, in the case of de Villiers, what determines the choice of material and form is not the possibilities of this external form itself, but rather the ways in which it ignites a certain force in the individual. When this is achieved, the result is an undeniable balance and harmony. Once again, it is the force that uplifts the individual that acts as the principle behind the process. When this is achieved, we feel a harmony, a balance, born out of the way the force expressed by the painting aligns with the force which resides in ourselves. Like Spinoza said, what is good and beautiful is what aligns with our own nature, and what aligns with our own nature is what strengthens us, what increases our capacity to act. This is why de Villiers’ sculptures are so powerful, they remind us of what we are. In an environment surrounded by weakness and decay, these sculptures remind us of the strength that we are capable of, the strength that we are. Like a long-lost key, the forces these sculptures throw at us fit into our souls.
“The task is to bring to light, what we must ever love and honour and what no subsequent enlightenment can rob from us: the great human being.” -Nietzsche
All art expresses an idea. It is the idea that gives life to matter and seeks expression through its forms. In this sense, it is not that impoverished art (that in all rigour cannot even be called art at all) doesn’t express an idea, it is rather that it expresses weak ideas. Weak, that is, ideas that are opposed to all that makes life stronger and that find their origin in a weakness of will. Born out of the artist’s weakness and incapacity to conceive of a strong idea, these ideas exhaust, they weaken. Consequently, the spectator is infected with this weakness. And as all ideas are born out of a will, the will of the artist is of vital importance for his art. This is why art is never neutral, but abides by aesthetic rules. Because the life from which art is born is itself never neutral, but either strong or weak, either beautiful or ugly. One cannot will oneself out of willing, one cannot have a neutral will or no will at all. One either has a strong will, or a weak will. One either wills strongly, or one wills weakly. Like the will from which it is born, art is either empowering (beautiful), or it is weakening (ugly).
This is why the horrors that litter our once precious museums are not innocent. They cannot be ignored, for they have an effect: the weakening of all who watch them. Malebranche once said that it should be considered a crime to write a bad book, for all the energy it wastes in those who read it. The same can be said of sculpture, painting, and all the other arts. It is not only a crime for the egotistical reason that one wouldn’t want to waste time. It is because art is vital to life, for the rules of art and the rules of life are the same: what is good is what strengthens, what is bad is what weakens. Life is aesthetic in essence. Art is an expression of a life, and life is also impacted by art. If life is nothing but that inner force that seeks to express itself to greater and greater degrees, then what is art but the concentrated activity of simulating this process, of sharing in the creativity that is life?
In this sense, no art is innocent. It either strengthens life, or it weakens it. And is there a crime greater than the latter? A sin more opposed to the flourishing of all that is powerful, grand, and living? By essence, art is an ethical praxis. As the forms we see are able to express forces in us, forces that either strengthen or deaden us, the artist’s task is an ethical one. For the beauty art is able to express is not there to merely amuse the spectator, it is there to change him. Art is transformative. For the feeling of the beautiful is nothing else than “the increase of the feeling of power.” True art transforms for the better, that is, it creates stronger individuals. Bad art transforms for the worse, that is, it weakens us. If ugly and weakening art dominate over empowering art on a societal level, what sort of situation have we dug ourselves into? A situation in which the depressing force of the ugly is everywhere, and drags everyone down with it. In this sense, the ethical role of the true artist can not be underestimated. Through the essential tie between aesthetic strength and the feeling of power, the true artist offers a resistance to the spiral of exhaustion, and give us back what is lost: life.
All art necessarily expresses an idea. This expression either strengthens life, or it weakens it. The latter is in all seriousness an expression of self-hatred. A life, the artist, expresses that which weakens life. He is thus opposed to his own essence: life.
Not only is the strengthening of life the result of an idea the artist chooses to express. Life itself, understood as a force that seeks nothing but its own intensification, can become the proper idea that drives an artist to expression. This is the case with Fen de Villiers. He expresses the idea of life understood as force and power itself. Through an unrelenting dynamism and explosiveness of forms, he seeks to express this primal instinct of self-overcoming that is life. This primal effort to break through the chains set by its environment. To venture beyond the known and ordinary into new ground, like the sculpture Breakthrough expresses like no other. De Villiers here once again separates himself from his contemporaries, who seek precisely to give expression to all that is ordinary: the ordinary man in his ordinary city with his ordinary desires. Art as a “picture of our times.” This is of no interest to de Villiers. For if art seeks to express the essence of life, why choose to express that which is ordinary? Is it because one believes life to be merely “ordinary”? It is not hard to come to this conclusion in a time when what is ordinary is life in decline, when what is ordinary is life turning against life. But what is ordinary is no measure for what is true. The ordinary teaches us nothing about life, but only about death. We learn about life where it is at its peak, at the thresholds of the unfamiliar, where the vital force that is life breaks away from the ordinary, and into the strength that is its essence. This is where we learn of what we are capable of, of what we are, and this is what art should express.
Where life currently is, is no measure as to its essence. What life is capable of, this is the measure. And art can show us what life is capable of, even if we are not yet up for the task. Art shows us an ideal, and ignites in us the strength to approach this ideal. De Villiers is not interested in expressing just any life, for not all life is equal. What is sought is a strong and heroic life. Life at the peak of its activity, where its powers have concentrated to such a degree that they are waiting to explode. His art is no picture of our times, for our times are times of weakness. His art is a vision for the future.
Man is driven by forces, by ideas. He is driven by them either way, the question is where they come from. Is this from a drive to affirm, to strengthen? Or from a drive that denies, that weakens? Man is driven by forces, by ideas, either way. The question is if these ideas comes from himself, or if he is merely a tool of circumstance. If we take into account that art is either uplifting or deadening, how do we explain that artists would choose to create the latter type of art? Although there are no doubt people out there who willingly create deadening art, this is no explanation for the scale of the destruction of our museums which we observe at present. I take it to be a symptom of artists no longer following the principle of inner necessity. They are by and large no longer guided by that inner life that naturally makes them seek what is life-affirming and strengthening. Then what do they follow? They follow the whims of circumstance, whatever ideas are floating around at present, whatever “hypes”, whatever fashion of the day. It is a certain laziness, a certain incapacity to form one’s own ideas, to follow one’s inner necessity. A desire to be guided every step of the way, and to renounce the terrible destiny of forging one’s own path. A desire to follow the world, instead of following life. It is precisely a slavish form of art, following the “nudges” of ordinary life, forgetting that life resides precisely in that effort to overcome the ordinary. No ordinary idea ever led to greatness, like no ordinary life ever lead to new frontiers. Modern art, having lost sight of life, is guided only by the world.
Does the idea stem from an inner necessity: life calling us to be expressed to a greater and greater degree? Or does it stem from outer determination, a product of its times, merely the rotten fruit of a rotten society? In the end, it is our weakness that is to blame for the weak art we create. Why is there no life in our art? Because there is no life in us. Fen de Villiers offers an alternative. It is in him that we find an invigorating and powerful art that is what Nietzsche called “untimely.” Not of these times, not of the past, but for a time to come. A time when art will once again uplift, inspire, give life, and break through the nihilism of our times. With Fen de Villiers, a movement is born.
Wilhelm Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy. Translated by Michael Bullock. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1997.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power. Translated by Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale. New York: Random House, 1968.
Friedrich Nietzsche. Werke in drei Bänden. München 1954, Band 3, S.
David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon. London: Thames & Hudson, 2008.
Fen de Villiers, Monumentality
 Nietzsche, The Will to Power, §794.
 Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy, 13.
 David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, 17.
 Nietzsche, The Will to Power, §54.
 BLAST Manifesto, II.7.
 Fen de Villiers, Monumentality, 2018.
 Nietzsche, The Will to Power, §809.
 Fen de Villiers, Monumentality.
 Nietzsche, The Will to Power, §818.
 Nietzsche, Die Philosophie im tragischen Zeitalter der Griechen. (Own translation from German).
 Nietzsche, The Will to Power, §804.