Lord of the System 2

Ljubljana, 1996

Fig. 1: »aa6«, 1994

Construction is
planning, organisation, arrangement,
comparison and control.
In short: it comprises
all means that resist
chaos and coincidence.
For this reason it befits
the human intention
and qualifies human
thought and deed.

Josef Albers


I flatten black lines in order to stop the lie in its tracks.

Janez Bernik


This text is an answer to a number of frequently asked questions. I have described methods and situations connected with my work. I have incorporated memories and circumstances surrounding the genesis of my work and have added whatever seems relevant: personal associations connected with my work.

I have excluded statements about what the drawings »represent«. I cannot and will not explain, analyse or define creative and emotive motives behind my work or the work of others. The description of an inspiration or of a meaning of a drawing or some other work of art is contained in the work itself. Endless conversations about creativity seem to be insignificant intellectual merry—go— rounds; I think their intention is to present exhausted possibilities and identify with fashion rather than to realise the spirit. For this reason I hope that my creative and technical standards in the present article are based on my work rather than an intellectual dissertation.


We live in a time of new technology, the tools and methods of which sometimes approach creative endeavour. As in any creative work, the craftsmanship aspect of art must suit the demands of expression. Because of this, I do not agree with those who consider craftsmanship to be inferior. Craftsmanship or technical skill is the foundation of our creativity. On the other hand there is a great difference if someone is technically skilled or a good technician. The skill of many, even highly distinguished artists is unattainable, but that is not the same thing. Art is a way of expressing one’s thoughts. It is not a craft. It is like writing literature. One simply uses shapes instead of words. But what you write is extremely important. Bernini gave an excellent description of this contradiction: »Ei [Michelangelo] dice cose, voi dite parole.«

But at the same time, Western man is obsessed with technique and is convinced that anything is possible, even in art. Nevertheless, the history of printing for example teaches us that the greatest masterpieces were not created by docessional printers (who always sold only craftsmanship) but by great painters: Dürer, Rembrandt, Goya, Manet, Matisse, Picasso and Miró, to mention only a few. But these painters had to be good craftsmen as well. It is a vicious circle running from intention to craftsmanship and back. Intention and craftsmanship constantly regulate each other.

We could say that, in craft, intention is subordinated to (or follows) technique. And when technique is subordinated to intention, we can speak of creativity (art). There is craft, »that manual work that highly objectively controls our lives« Johannes Maria Hollenstein on the one hand, and intention, that spirituality growing out of this physical activity, which is another, opposite form of control, on the other. It is like Mann’s Lord of the System, a »teacher of objectivity and organisation, a genius that connects what can be restored, the archaic, with the revolutionary. It is a source of freedom that is also manifested as a habit, memory or ability that is usually regarded as an obstacle. But we know that it is this very ability that liberates us from many hindrances in our lives.« Likewise, Charles Lapicque claims that »there is nothing more complex than work that owes its success to habit.« Collective habits and collective memory are called tradition; these are rules par excellence. According to Schopenhauer, a man who has lost his memory is crazy. This is obviously true, since the logic of our usual procedures is a consistent flow of memories of mutual relationships between objects and us. We obviously live in a time of discarded norms, rules and tradition — in short, in a time everything archaic that could be restored is rejected. It is a time of anarchy and madness.

When I speak of the Lord of the System, I do not mean a Hitlerian lord who sets his own rules but a supreme principle that was present in the original void from which the world was created. Only the Creator is capable of creating ex nihilo. Everything we imagine is already real. A thought cannot invent something unreal.

An artist’s attitude towards this supreme principle is evident in the masterful handling of proportions (I am not referring here to physical proportions). Proportion is one of the most important qualities of the world of art (including music). It can be understood only intuitively, since it is a quality of the thought process combined with what we see. It can be found in the perfect unity of idea, matter and dimensions. It is not concerned with the external appearance of the form but with its inner essence. It can be seen when, for example, we differentiate between individual types of tree; at the same time, not two trees of the same type are identical.

Fig. 2: »1a«, 1995

The operational steps (in my work) are derived from proportion, from the ratio of dimensions or from the basic dimension; this can be described in terms of modular order. This order is based on a module, on a unit that is constantly repeated in a certain work. These modular units have been used in architecture for centuries. But while in a Greek temple the module was hidden beneath the plasticity of the form, it is open in my »graphic« work. In this way I can observe modular order through a unique or multiple manipulation of the basic unit. I develop this until I formulate the basic theme that facilitates different operations. One element plus one element must, apart from their sum, give at least one more interesting link. The more interesting links are created, the more intense they are; the more elements they yield, the more important the result is. Several elements are connected in a structure (complex), where contrasts between different sizes and relationships between different parts become visible.

I usually develop the modular order around a nucleus, from which I receive new formulations: rotational, diagonal, horizontal or vertical movement. The only decision I must make is this nucleus or point from which everything grows or is at least connected with it. This is the first beginning, the fundamental co—ordinates and my own point of view (location in space), which I transfer into a painting or a format.

While looking at a format, I see a composition. I call this process (pre—)visualisation. Through this exercise I foresee the different influences of individual stages in a graphic process and I include them intuitively in the visualisation of the final image. I visualise the possibilities of images in the world around me. I try to define the relationships between the shapes and the values of what I see before me in the sense of the image format and image quality as seen by craftsmanship and material, not only by the eye. Lately I have not strictly adhered to standard paper formats, since the world only rarely takes their shape. But I still adhere to the keys of proportion, which are secure rules defined by past experience, because »with a sufficiently strict structure, I can ›correct‹ a coincidental shot« Georges Braque.

The definition of dimensions as a special operation is not necessary since dimensions are already there in the elements, material and format. I speak of the dimensions of the entire image and, probably more importantly, of the dimensions of a unit or the intensity with which the element establishes interrelationships. The size of the whole, the format and the outline play a much more important role in sculpture and architecture than they do in painting. A painting is separated from its surroundings with a frame (if it is not intended for decoration) and, for this reason, it is much easier for the painting to preserve its intended inherent relationships.

The unity of a creative concept demands simplicity, which does not exclude complexity. Simplicity is not renunciation. Subtle complexity can be achieved by combining simple geometric shapes, and through the harmony of structures (dimensions, etc.), the meaning (spirit) and the palpable (matter). There is a difference between the simplicity of form and the complexity of composition. »Errors«, such as approximate shapes, relationships and positions, create a powerful tension that forces the viewer to dwell on subtle differences. »L’exactitude n’est pas la vérité.« Henri Matisse

The computer is a valuable visualisation tool. Only rarely do I use it for execution. It is my planning tool — a tool in a stage that precedes realisation, which in my case is usually pure craftsmanship. And I never use it as a generator of shapes and composition. This means that I do not use the computer in the same way as most computer wizards do whose work is a direct result of computer manipulation. The computer naturally invites you to experiment. This can be good. But I think that it is better to experiment for a while in one’s own head before one lets the machine process the project. Most people usually focus on the technical, mechanical side of what can be done instead of doing it. In the face of endless new possibilities, they forget the essential.

Many people often confuse two things: owning a computer and being creative. The problem lies with »artists« who are not good or strong enough to make a breakthrough and establish their individuality. Moreover, the computer has become a creative tool of those who are not artists. Everybody, the qualified and unqualified alike, think they can be an artist. As if anybody could do anything. If you buy an expensive piano, this does not mean you can play it. But the prevalent opinion is: »No, no! You are wrong. You need skilful hands to play the piano. No such thing is required for the computer.« This is a complete delusion. Sooner or later, even the computer must be handled just like the piano. For this reason, it is not right to blame the computer for any deficiency. What it offers is possibilities. The tool itself is never problematic. The real problem lies in the handling of the tool. Anyway, the computer has evidently contributed to more varied creativity. It has also helped to bring about better work. In the past you had to be satisfied even if the result was not exactly right; with the computer, however, corrections are very easy. Nevertheless, the freedom introduced by computers has made creative work more complicated since »everything is possible« and changes can be made until the very last moment. For this reason, the finalisation of a project has become elusive. Before computers, everything had to be done in one’s head and, once it was put on paper, the project was finished. Literally finished.

Fig. 3: »24«, 24. 5. 1995

In the past it was possible to make an object in different sizes and there were small differences between individual versions. But in a computer, an element is entered once and for all for all sizes and can only be enlarged or reduced. Try to enlarge proportionally or photographically a conventional printed character in lead that was created for the footnote font in order to fit it to the title font. You will find that it is too smudged, too broad. Everybody with practical experience knows that, when enlarging something, one must not enlarge all parts equally. Width should be enlarged to a much lesser extent than the entire shape. In enlargement and reduction, the artistic law of the preservation of proportions does not hold. This law is only mathematically correct. In other words, in the past there were many laws incorporated into objects and their dimensions (anthropometry) and these were automatically observed when these objects were used. A table was as wide as one could reach. But today we talk about several tens of units (centimetres) or a fraction of a larger unit (metre). In order to get the right dimensions, a manual must be consulted. And ever since we placed the computer between man and product, it has become much more difficult to acquire such experience other than during manual work. For this reason, laws are newly discovered in the form of written regulations and standards so that we can instruct the computer how things should be.

When a technology is still new, people play with it as if it were a toy. Fortunately this does not last long. Some focus on the technical possibilities offered by new technology, but a good artist takes some time to find out how to use the new tool in the right way. Some things do not change. Whatever technology is used, one is still led by talent and effort to achieve the best possible result. The computer cannot help you find out what you want to say. You can do anything you want with a computer, but you will still ask yourself: »What shall I do next?« There are still only two types of artist: the good and the bad. The computer has raised the lower level so that a complete ignoramus no longer creates a complete mess like before, when he was forced to use his unskilled hands. But the upper level remains unchanged.

It is not good that, in schools, students spend most of their time learning how to use individual tools. As a result, schools yield technically exceptional and highly skilled docessionals. But the question is: what can they do? In the past they did not waste time on how things were done in practice. Students were expected to know that already. For example, during the Renaissance, composition was studied much less than it is today, but Renaissance structures still stand whereas contemporary structures have to be restored or replaced within ten years. Achieving the perfect unity of dimensions, matter and spirit is still as difficult as it was during the Renaissance.

Fig. 4: »aa3«, 1994

A good craftsman paints an element. A master of composition paints several elements arranged in a composition. But let us not hide a lack of craftsmanship with a composition and »compositional« insecurity with craftsmanship. For example, we can take the petals of a flower and use them to create something completely different, as if they were no longer the petals of a flower but independent objects arranged by man in a completely different way. Shapes contain only images (ideas) of things. Only in composition (in relation to other shapes and the format) do the individual elements of these shapes come into consideration, for only in composition do relationships between what is below and above, inside and outside emerge. Of primary importance are the arrangement and rhythm, as in music, which expresses itself only tonally. Any materialised thing that resembles a shape already created by nature is separated from the soul. All shapes already exist in nature.

»A shape becomes non—object (abstract) when it creates a new shape that emerges from the human spirit. Abstraction is not transformation, as some would have it. This would imply that the artistic is transformative. But the artistic is not like that. The artistic is simply formative.« In the words of Anthony Caro: »in non—object (abstract) art, art is subject—matter and not content. Significance is implicit and not explicit. The method is the painting itself.« There is nothing descriptive about such works because man can express himself only with pure shapes and pure colours. In this way, non—object (abstract) works do not literally describe and, in this way, we escape into the artistic from the ordinary, from the conventions of the manuscript, where socially agreed significance prevails over content. »Before the letters of the alphabet make up a word, there are symbols.« David Smith