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by Patrick Frank

Affirmative Critique

1. Affirm what you thematize
The term ‘affirmation’ has been given a variety of meanings in philosophy and in the arts. What is referred to also in logic as affirmation, namely a positive statement that something is the case – such as the sentence ‘Zurich is a clean city’ – was extrapolated by Adorno[1] to apply to the social: for him, acting and living affirmatively meant uncritically affirming the reality of life. Adorno profoundly distrusted the conformist mentality often associated with affirmative speech. He vehemently opposed such an attitude to life and showed how, in its interplay with the culture industry, it also left its mark on art. Hence Adorno’s understanding of affirmation is not a logical-descriptive definition, but a moral one: you must critically oppose the totality of capitalist-controlled life. Because he considered ‘affirmation’ a sign of that conformist mindset, the term ‘affirmation’ appears in the most diverse contexts. He writes, ‘During the first phase of Romanticism, an artist like Schubert, who was later so exploited by affirmation [...]’;[2] ‘Among the human rights of those who foot the bill of culture is to polemically oppose the affirmative, ideological totality’;[3] ‘Works that are pleasing to the affirmative ideology’,[4] and so forth. Adorno subsumes everything under the concept of ‘affirmation’ that characterizes a powerless, alienated society guided by habit and the pursuit of pleasure, and its subjects. Because of the significance Adorno still enjoys in New Music, the Adornian spell of the concept of affirmation continues to be in effect there to this day. That ‘affirmation’ need not automatically be uncritical is demonstrated by Nietzsche’s philosophy, however: his life-affirming philosophy, which opposes all escapism – whether through religious concepts of the hereafter or philosophical concepts of metaphysics – understands ‘affirmation’ first of all as a fundamental embracing of what constitutes our life: we and our mysteriously functioning body (which Nietzsche gave primacy over reason) in the face of approaching death, from which there is no escape.

2. Expose yourself consistently to affirmation, i.e. –

Our interpretation of the concept of affirmation, by contrast, is not a moral one – we do not know what you must do, and are not concerned with this. ‘Affirmation’ here re-approaches the descriptive use of the term and first of all describes the direction of movement of the (compositional) material that can develop a critical effect today. Since critique is intended, and thus addresses social matters, a moral option is eo ipso implicit; this does not, however, lead directly to the choice of which compositional material should be preferred and which denounced. The categories of ‘abstraction’ and ‘concretion’ are no longer easy to define; atonal is no more ‘abstract’ to our ears than tonal music is ‘concrete’ (to use a very simplified example). Rather, abstraction and concretion are determined in relation to their contexts.

3. Learn to affirm what you normally negate, i.e. –

Artists do not invent material; they find and (re)shape it. Every found material is taken from a context – whether material gained from a tradition native to art or material derived from non-artistic disciplines, activities or habits. But the context, which clings to the respective material as the atmosphere clings to the earth, cannot be erased: there is no ‘pure’ material devoid of context. Certainly, however, the context is often concealed beneath the visible and audible surface of the material. Whether it is given attention, is explored and influences artistic thought and work is another matter.

We agree with the statement that ‘only [the] vividness [of the sensuously unmediated] reflects the gaplessness and roundedness of artworks’.[5] Affirmative thought abandons the assumption that it can positively or negatively influence vividness or intelligibility. We are in the enviable situation of being able to make the abstract seem concrete and vice versa. This only succeeds, however, if the context is brought out of its hiding-place: something concrete from an alien context seems abstract in our own one, just as something abstract from our own speaks concretely to us as a consequence of the familiar and the habitual.

4. Seek out painful affirmation.

The aim to address and criticize social matters remains. But the method has changed: because affirmative and negative strategies are equally valid, possibilities open up for new affirmative strategies that augment the familiar ones of irony and subversion. Negativistic and affirmative strategies can be schematically represented using the three categories of presentation, intention and relation.

Presentation refers on the one hand to the material of what is presented, and on the other hand to the manner of presentation.
Intention refers to the aim of the presenter. As the present reflections concern the examination of critical strategies, intention is always ‘critical’, initially negative.

refers here to the connection between presentation and intention: in so far as the critical element forms part of the presentation, the relation between presentation and intention lies in making the aim of the presentation transparent; then we describe the relation as ‘transparent’.
If the critical aim is concealed in the presentation, the relation is described as ‘non-transparent’.


In use of the affirmative manifesto: Program choice and context (nature) affirms the underlying topic  (parts from Nietzsche's affirmative philosophy). Scene from part 1, Incarnation. Stadtwald, Zurich, 2019.

In use of the affirmative manifesto: Program choice and context (nature) affirms the underlying topic (parts from Nietzsche's affirmative philosophy). Scene from part 1, Incarnation. Stadtwald, Zurich, 2019.


In use of the affirmative manifesto: Program choice and context (500th anniversary of H. Zwinglis) specifically confirms the underlying topic. Final scene from ‚Und was erlöst uns heute?', Gessnerallee Zurich, 2018.

In use of the affirmative manifesto: Program choice and context (500th anniversary of H. Zwinglis) specifically confirms the underlying topic. Final scene from Und was erlöst uns heute?, Gessnerallee Zurich, 2018.

5. Seek out the self-evident and negate it affirmatively.

First, regarding (1) irony: the affirmative aspect concerns what is presented ironically. A specific content is presented – affirmed, in the language-logical sense – even though a negation is intended by means of ironization. The ironization in turn refers to the critical intention, which means that the relation between presentation and intention is transparent.

In (2) subversion, the affirmative aspect not only presents the content, but also the performative element of the actual presentation of content: the conveyor of content corresponds both in content and appearance (looks, behaviour, language, etc.) with what is covertly negated. The decisive difference – for our purposes – between irony and subversion lies in the relation between the presented and intended sides of the critique: for subversion, it is central that the negative intention remains hidden; in this sense, the relation between presentation and intention is non-transparent.

A third variety of affirmative critique has differentiated itself in roughly the last twenty years, first in the political sphere, then in an adapted form in the arts: (3) hyperaffirmation – structurally a hybrid of irony and subversion. In hyperaffirmation, the affirmed is not only presented, but maximized in its presentation using varying procedures. The goal of this specific maximalism is to push the affirmed to the point where it switches to the intended negation. What is critically intended is carried out performatively (affirmed), but in a maximized fashion (hyperaffirmed), in such a way that the absurdity and wrongness of the criticized are broken open. On the presentation side, in the field of art, this is a performative affirmation, like subversion; because of the tendency towards maximalism, we refer to it as a maximalist-performative affirmation. The relation, however, as in irony, is transparent; hence it is transparent that critique is intended. In its artistic form, hyperaffirmation can be read as a radicalization of irony, as postmodern irony without irony.

6. Compose with affirmations and negations; affirmative composition does not exclude negations

(0) Negation
Presentation and intention: negation; relation: transparent. Exclusion of the negated.
(1) Irony
Presentation: ironized affirmation; intention: negation; relation: transparent. Inclusion of the negated.
(2) Subversion
Presentation: performative affirmation; intention: negation; relation: non-transparent. Inclusion of the negated.
(3) Hyperaffirmation
Presentation: maximalist-performative affirmation; intention: negation; relation: transparent. Inclusion of the negated.

One can generally observe that affirmative strategies include the negated (criticized) in the material, while negativistic strategies exclude the negated from the material.

7. Seek out complexity in affirmations.

The application of the strategies for affirmative critique outlined schematically above, which often reveal themselves in practice as hybrids of irony, subversion and hyperaffirmation, are not only of concern to artists. We have known at least since Foucault, who characterized critique as ‘the art of not being quite so governed’, that critiques directly or indirectly thematize power structures. Curators in New Music, a relatively small number of individuals who run long-standing and important festivals more or less as the sole decision-makers, hold considerable power.

Curators and artists are connected by a hierarchical power structure. The curator gives the artist the chance to present their art; it is the artist’s task to design the work and the curator’s task to design the (festival) programme. The traditional hierarchy can only be upheld if the boundaries of the work and the (festival) programme are clearly separate. Both curators and artists play with those boundaries; the result is that the roles of ‘artist’ and ‘curator’ become more fluid: the curator becomes an artist and the artist a curator. If a curator carefully stages performances of the complete string quartets by Shostakovich in different spaces, played by several string quartets, he or she adopts the mindset of an artist.[6] If a composer receives a commission and decides that the work they present requires further premieres by other composers (and they choose these themselves), he or she becomes a subversive artist-curator.[7]

In use of the affirmative manifesto: From Freiheit – die eutopische Gesellschaft, scene from the subcontract  to T. Reinholdtsen. Gessnerallee Zurich, 2016.

In use of the affirmative manifesto: From Freiheit – die eutopische Gesellschaft, scene from the subcontract to T. Reinholdtsen. Gessnerallee Zurich, 2016.

Curators both support and do not support composers’ careers. They support – simplistically put – what is considered worthy of support. In terms of the categories outlined above, this means that the curator supports (affirms) what they judge as worthy of affirmation. As a consequence of thinking artistically, curators could apply the outlined affirmative thinking more extensively to curation. It will not have escaped the attentive reader that the headings here have been spread across the text and are not directly connected to it. Headings 1-10 are to be understood as an affirmative manifesto and can be applied to curatorial work:

8. Your taste is not a judge: if your topic demands it, affirm music that you negate.

The strategies of irony, subversion and hyperaffirmation include (affirm) the criticized (negated). In concrete terms, this can mean that a curator might affirm what they are actually negating – that they choose something for presentation that they would reject for aesthetic, political or other reasons. But why should they do so?

Let me give an example from my artistic-curatorial work. The Zurich Ensemble Tzara invited me to curate the programme for their 2019-20 season. Because I am not a curator, however, I turned down the curatorial assignment – but carried it out nonetheless, compositionally. I declared the curatorial task a meta-composition; it consisted of several compositions, performed at three ‘concerts’ referred to here as ‘parts’. The meta-composition (the season programme) is entitled Das Glück des Ja-Sagens, consisting of Menschwerdung (Part 1), Affirmations (Part II) and Das Glück des Nein-Sagens (Part III). The meta-composition is based on a chapter from Deleuze’s book about Nietzsche (Nietzsche and Philosophy), ‘Knowledge, Morality and Religion’. I transposed these three fields to New Music – how did they manifest themselves there? Religion became the imperative of truth, morality became the imperative of critique and knowledge became the imperative of structure.[8] These subjects led to the choice of works, concert locations, texts and performance. In order to present the given subject artistically, it was also necessary to have performances of works that I would not actually have performed for musical reasons.

All speech thematizes (includes) what is criticized; not to affirm it but, on the contrary, to negate it through exposition. If curation is understood as speech, or as the narration of a story, it is logical to enrich the story with points 3, 4 or 5 of the affirmative manifesto (no story without a villain!): 3. Learn to affirm what you normally negate, i.e. – 4. Seek out painful negation, 6. Curate with Affirmations and negations; affirmative curation does not exclude negations – etc.

9. Your taste is your judge: you decide how the music you negate should sound.

The automatic assumption, especially in New Music, that a work is composed by one author, shows a clearly attributable authorship determined by a clearly defined beginning and end to the work – framed by the ritual of applause – cannot be aesthetically justified.[9] Rather, this perpetuates the tradition of the primacy of the genius: they stand out from the crowd of working composers and must develop alone and purely, undisturbed by the all-too-worldly. Yet where the ghost of genius lives on, all the hopes placed in genius also live on: it paints a musical picture of truth more directly than any philosophy could conceptually define it. In this picture, it is serious and hates humour; it is male; but above all, it must be pure: that is why it cannot embark on experiments with others. We suspect that here too, the negativistic-exclusionary perspective reveals itself: negation and exclusion of the other in order to preserve purity.

If we turn our view towards an inclusion of the negated as an affirmative-critical act, automatic aesthetic assumptions begin to shift. And that’s the point – to challenge aesthetic thought through a shift of perspective. It is anything but easy to artistically present the paradoxical – the affirmation of the negated – as paradoxical. If no questions arise, if the paradoxical is weak or undeveloped, the side of intended negation vanishes and the (ironic, subversive, hyperaffirmative) affirmation is simply a plain affirmation – and loses all critical force. When it comes to the success of affirmative critique, nothing is certain.

10. Seek out hidden affirmations and uncover them.

Translation: Wieland Hoban

Born 1975 in Rio de Janeiro, Patrick Frank is a composer and cultural theorist. For 15 years has been creating art projects dealing with contemporary issues: SEIN / NICHTS (2003), Project Limina - zur Indifferenz in Kunst (2007), the law of quality (2010), Project wir sind aussergewöhnlich (2013), theory opera Freiheit, die eutopische Gesellschaft (2015), for the 500 anniversary of Zwingli’s Und was erlöst uns heute? (2016), curation / meta-composition of the season programme of the ensemble Tzara, Zurich: Das Glück des Ja-Sagens (2019-20).

He has conducted workshops at the Darmstadt Summer Courses 2016 and 2018, held numerous lectures at festivals of New Music and has regularly published cultural theoretical texts in Positionen, MusikTexte, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, dissonance. Currently is writing his PhD at the Collegium Helveticum, Cultural Analysis at the University of Zurich with Prof. Sylvia Sasse.

He has received numerous prizes, including from the city of Zurich (2007). He also operates the only existing analogue photo machines in Switzerland.

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