ArticlePDF Available


Einstein's and Duchamp's work are quoted for their respective redefining of physics and art. The consequences of this redefinition for contemporary art and historical concepts of art are discussed with a focus on creation, creativity, and style. As an illustration, John Ruskin's interpretation of Venetian Gothic and its reference to economic reasoning is confronted with Arthur Danto's concept of a definition of art. A discussion of Nicola Atkinson-Griffith art work "Secret of the World" concludes the paper.
Artdefine, 4-12-2002
Re-defining Arts,
Readymades and Secrets
Manfred J. Holler
Verlag von Kosuth-Aufsatz?
Einstein’s and Duchamp’s work are quoted for their respective redefining of physics
and art. The consequences of this redefinition for contemporary art and historical
concepts of art are discussed with a focus on creation, creativity, and style. As an
illustration, John Ruskin’s interpretation of Venetian Gothic and its reference to
economic reasoning is confronted with Arthur Danto’s concept of a definition of art. A
discussion of Nicola Atkinson-Griffith art work “Secret of the World” concludes the
Institute of SocioEconomics, IAW, University of Hamburg, Von-Melle-Park 5, D-20146 Hamburg,
Germany. e-mail:
1. On Defining
Einstein published his first papers on his special theory of relativity in 1905. Although
Newtonian mechanics works well enough for objects of moderate size and moving at
moderate speeds, it is inadequate to describe the motion of very small objects, such as
atoms, or very fast ones, such as cosmic-ray particles. Einstein’s special theory and the
later developed quantum mechanics bridge the gap. In 1915, Einstein announced his
general theory of relativity which replaced Newton’s theory in describing very large
systems and makes possible investigation of distant planetary systems and the
universe as a whole. Gravitation was no longer the same. Mass and energy tuned out to
be the two sides of a coin: E = mc
. The lapse of time is different in different frames of
reference: time became relative. Einstein’s work redefined Physics, if not our
conceptions of the physical world.
In 1917, the freshly created New York-based “Society of Independent Artists”
organized an exhibition to which Marcel Duchamp contributed a urinal entitled The
Fountain. The piece carried the signature of a fictional R. Mutt. The now famous art
collector Walter Arensberg bought the piece, thus turning immediately into an object
of the art market. Alfred Stieglitz made an exquisite photo of The Fountain which was
then published in the journal “The Blind Man”, published by Marcel Duchamp,
Beatrice Wood and H.-P. Roché. Arensberg lost the original version of The Fountain
in the course of time, but authorized copies are still exhibited today in many important
museums: “Art ‘lives’ through influencing other art, not by existing as the physical
residue of an artist’s ideas” (Kosuth 1974,148).
In 1995 April, the Hamburger Kunsthalle (Museum of Fine Art) exhibited a
white earthenware and heavily damaged urinal entitled Ghost Falling Down the
Staircase (“Gespenst die Treppe herabstürzend”) by a German artist of the name of
Klaus Kumrow. The piece is an obvious reference to The Fountain while the title
points to Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (“Nu descendant un escalier”)
which was first exhibited at the Amory Show, New York, in 1913. This painting
crowned Duchamp as the most famous modern artist in America even before he
arrived there. Duchamp’s painting created a scandal – not because it violated moral
norms but because it did not violate moral norms. The awaiting audience had its
expectations upset. Instead of sexual sensation they were confronted by a cubist
painting in which even the staircase was difficult to identify. Octavio Paz (1978, 8)
remarked: “The Nude is an antimachine … we don’t even know if there is a nude in
the picture”.
Kumrow’s Ghost is an artifact of the ongoing dialogue of the artists with the
concept of art. It also demonstrates the substantial inertia in this dialogue as it took a
while before the art world was aware of the dialogue. It seems, however, that there is
still enough power in this project to feed a second and third generation of artists. In his
first major one-man exhibition in Europe, On the Other Side of the Borders (“Jenseits
der Grenzen”) at the MAK (“Museum für angewandte Kunst”) in Vienna in 1996,
Chris Burden exhibited his “Flying Steamroller” which was kept in the air by a
counter-weight of 40 tons. Unfortunately the 12 ton steamroller was lifted into the air
only every second hour instead of every two minutes as the Burden originally wanted.
By this limitation the show, which not only included the steamroller but also a the
sculpture “Samson”, a 100 ton piece, did not match the machine concept which the
artist had in mind.
Chris Burden’s “Flying Steamroller” was also part of the 1997 Lyon Biennale.
Here the steamroller was made to ‘fly’ by a mechanical system which included a
counter-weight of 16 tons. It was a favorite with the audience.
The piece demonstrates
nicely just how unlimited art can be. Burden is convinced that art has an impact on
how people think. He sees himself “more like” a scientist or an experimental
researcher with a strong interest in problems such as what is art, and how is art related
to the real world, to life, to our perception.
He quite literally added weight to these
questions, questions which are in fact identical with those attributed to Duchamp’s
Fountain of 1917. Doubtlessly earlier works of art also raised these questions but it is
Reported by Amine Haase (1997).
Interview with Johanna Hofleitner, published in Kunstforum, 134, May-September 1996, pp.336-345.
fair to say that at least in the view of conceptual artists, the discussion was dominated
by formalistic issues: problems of color and form, perspective, representation, etc.
If everything can be art, then of course art has no longer physical limits.
Lawrence Weiner, the conceptual artists whose work is perhaps most directly related
to words, remarked that the space of words is infinite while the physical space of a
painted canvas is defined by its edges (sometimes, however, by the edge of its frame).
Weiner concludes that words are the adequate means for the art project – as is a
dialogue with an infinite space of possibilities. However, the dialogue is strictly
limited to artists, i.e., to people who work in the art context.
Marcel Duchamp was credited for raising the function of art as a question and
defining it as its content of art, thus “giving art its own identity”. “With the unassisted
Readymade, art changed its focus from the form of the language to what was being
said. Which means that it changed the nature of art from a question of morphology to a
question of function. This change – one from ‘appearance’ to ‘conception’ –-was the
beginning of ‘modern’ art and the beginning of ‘conceptual’ art. All art (after
Duchamp) is conceptual (in nature) because art only exists conceptually” (Kosuth
1974, 146). “The ‘made-ready’ and the tradition of the readymade has shown us what
the process of art is; the path of that showing has meant the development. through its
self-reflection, to the critical location of an ideological self-knowledge; this alternative
tradition sees art, simply put, as a questioning process” (Kosuth 1991, 18). Here the
“made-ready” is the constructive appropriation of the object which is a precondition
such that the process of art is accountable and demystification is possible. “The
practice of the ‘made-ready’ has clarified, within its constructions, how specific
elements (or forms) used within art, as within language, are by and large arbitrary; the
sense can only be understood in the systematic whole. And it is such a systematic
whole that not only makes possible the production of further meaning, but joins the
viewer/reader and artist author within a social whole as well” (Kosuth 1991, 23). This,
of course, also holds for the unassisted readymade.
Duchamp’s readymades entered the art world through the reactions of his fellow
artists, the art critics, and the public. Following Duchamp’s path, in the second half of
the 1960s, some artists no longer sought dialogue with the art audience but with art
itself. Art is a very complex and demanding partner and one that is not always very
spontaneous in its reaction. The dialogue is also not without complications. Moreover,
the objects of the dialogue are ideas and the regular art audiences –- museums,
galleries, collectors and art critics –- had to rest content with traces of them since
objects were seen as conceptually irrelevant to the condition of art. Often these traces
were words which are difficult to hang on walls. I am talking about conceptual art
which is seen as an inquiry into the foundations of art. Its content is to question the
nature of art. By this, Joseph Kosuth (1974, 148) claims, “art ‘lives’ through
influencing other art, not by existing as the physical residue of an artist’s ideas”. “The
‘value’ of particular artists after Duchamp can be weighed according to how much
they questioned the nature of art; which is another way of saying ‘what they added to
the conception of art’ or what was not there before they started” (Kosuth 1974, 146).
There is a potential of conceptual growth in this definition.
2. Creation, Creativity, and Style
The use of readymades as art naturally challenges the notion of the artist as creator
which is widely shared by the audience. However, it also concurred with the focus on
creativity (or originality) as one of the core principles of Abstract Expressionism.
Oscar Wilde summarizes this view in his Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray: “The
artist is the creator of beautiful things”. By creation it is meant something new,
something which did not exist before. Wilde was a proponent of aestheticism and to
him “living” meant “living beautifully, down to the last detail. Despite its apparent
superficiality – or indeed, because of its apparent superficiality – the insistence that
“Originality, like abstraction, was an important way predicated on the denial of politics”" (Gibson 1997,
every aspect of lived life be exquisite and unconventional was part of a philosophical
and artistic project of subversion” (Mendelsohn 2002, 18).
The Middle Ages lacked a concept of beauty as a general principle and an idea
of the artist as creator: the creation was God’s work with the result that the fine arts
did not exist. In the tradition of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas made a distinction between
the servile and the liberal arts: manual arts were servile, and the superiority of the
liberal arts was due to their rational subject-matter and their being arts of mind the
rather than the body. The belief in the inferiority of manual activity and the low social
status of the artist in these fields are most likely the result of the verdict that the artist
can make new compositions, but he cannot make new things. Only God– and Nature
under God’s Law –can create new things: “The artist can help or hasten the productive
rhythm of nature, but he cannot compete with it” (Eco 1986, 96). Not surprisingly, this
view has an echo in Marcel Duchamp’s perspective on art as a craft. He “denounced
the superstition of craft. The artist is not the maker of things; his works are not pieces
of workmanship – they are acts” (Paz 1978, 23). Duchamp’s readymades are a
straightforward consequence of this view.
In the middle ages, beauty had not yet been discovered as a general principle for
characterizing art (at least in some periods), although there were clearly pioneers in
this direction. St. Bonaventure (1217 (1221?) -1274), for instance, “distinguished two
reasons for the beauty of an image, even when the object imitated was not beautiful in
itself. An image, he said, was beautiful if it was well constructed, and if it faithfully
represented its objects” (Eco 1986, 102). It should be noted that at the time of St.
Bonaventure, angles and devils were common objects of representation. One need
only look at the great works of Giotto (1270? - 1337), the Tuskan father of art, and his
Roman “rival” Pietro Cavallini (1250? - 1325?). The question is, then, what
guaranteed their faithful representation? Tradition, style, or the words of the Scripture?
If there is no creation in art, can there be progress? Paul Feyerabend (1984, 29)
remarks: “There is no progress in art, but there are different styles and each style is
perfect in itself and follows its own law. Art is the production of styles and art history
is the history of their sequence”. Here, Feyerabend draws on Alois Riegl’s work on the
Late Roman art industry and his interpretation. In his book on the Spätrömische
Kunstindustrie, first published in 1901, Riegl (1973 [1901]) analyzes the early
Christian art which is widely considered as a rather primitive imitation of the art of
antiquity – cleansed of some of the characteristics which are thought to contradict
Christian ideals. However, the critics overlooked that the early Christian art reveals a
completely different understanding of the representation of space than in antiquity, a
fact which is later most eminently amnifested in the gothic cathedral. This
understanding necessitates a more isolated presentation of figures in space which often
violated the proportionality of figures in size, shape and position to each other. This is
not a decline, but change of style.
Le Style c’est l’homme (méme). (“Style is man himself.”) There are many
interpretations to this quote made by the 18
century natural scientist Comte de Buffon.
The definition has often been wrongly taken to mean that style is a personal
idiosyncrasy to be cultivated deliberately. But as Heinrich von Stein (1857-1887)
claimed, Buffon is to be understood in general and not specific terms: The human
dimension lies in the stylizing of the material, in giving material a style, in its “rational
presentation”, and not just in collecting it (see Wölfflin (1984 [1905]). Style is
characteristic of human productions at their best, not something to be added as an
ornament. In his Discourse on Style (1753), delivered on his admission to the
Academie Francaise, Buffon protested against the artificialities of the day, in favor of a
simple direct manner, suitable for intelligent communication. Can we classify
Duchamp’s readymades and the “made ready” à la Kosuth as a farewell to
In his recent book, Paths to the Abolute, John Golding points out that, in a
special sense, Mondrian, Malevich,and Kandinsky accepted nature as object to be
“made ready.”
They drew inspirations from science and from various kinds of
mystical thought. Kandinsky was particularly interested in the ‘fourth dimension’ and
See Flam (2002) for an excellent review.
in Theosophy. Malevich was obsessed by the scientific and mystical properties of
geometry. Mondrian “sought an art that would give expression to a higher order of
reality by transcending subjective experience and eliminating what he called the
‘tragic’ from his painting” (Flam 2002, 12). The abstract expressionists of the 1940s
and 1950s, i.e. the painters of the New York School, considered painting as a means to
discover nature. Robert Motherwell’s psychic automatism implied that painting started
with a process of “doodling” or scribbling – it “really was what the hands did, acting
on their own” (Danto 1999, 30). It was a method to abandon consciousness and to find
out what is there: Nature.
When Jackson Pollock was asked why he did not paint from nature, he
famously responded, “I am Nature.” “Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist
paints what he is.”
3. Defining Gothic
”If there is to be a definition of art that fits contemporary art as well as all previous art,
it has to be consistent not only with the fact that there are no limits on what can be art
but also with the possibility that artworks and mere objects can resemble one another
to any degree whatever” (Danto 1999, 8). Art defines itself and definitions change with
styles; but it seems that there are patterns which repeat each other. Even the readymade
can be found in earlier art periods. Venetian Gothic is such an example. According to
John Ruskin, it seems that Venetian Gothic was defined by economic reasoning and
the use of readymade inputs can produce an economically efficient form of art.
In his three volume essay on architecture, “The Stones of Venice”, John Ruskin
elaborates on the impact of economic necessity on the construction of churches and
palaces and the fashioning of their decoration. He did not denounce this impact as
improper. “Suppose a nation of builders, placed far from any quarries of available
stone, and having precarious access to the mainland where they exist; compelled
Quoted after Flam (2000, 12).
therefore either to build entirely with brick, or to import whatever stone they use from
great distances, in ships of small tonnage, and, for the most part, dependent for speed
on the roar rather than the sail. The labour of cost of carriage are just as great, whether
they import common or precious stone, and therefore the natural tendency would
always be to make each shipload as valuable as possible” (2001[1851/53], 83). Ruskin
speaks of “natural circumstances which give rise to … style”. The concept of
“precious stone” reflects scarcity and the natural tendency reflects the invisible hand of
some sort of competition, either through alternative employers of ships or of
alternative opportunities of usage. In any case, by economic reasoning, the
transportation of precious stone will drive the transportation of less precious stone out
of the transportation market and out of being used. Obviously, Ruskin assumes that the
Venetians builders and their employers engaged economic reasoning. He proposes that
they obey the scarcity argument of value – which will become an essential ingredient
of main-stream economics just several decades later.
“But in proportion to the
preciousness of the stone, is the limitation of its possible supply; limitation not
determined merely by cost, but by the physical conditions of the material, for of many
marbles pieces above a certain size are not to be had for money” (Ruskin
2001[1851/53], 83). This reflects the neoclassical idea of scarcity: if substantial
demand faces an endowment, which is relatively small and, at least in the short-run,
given, then the value of this good is high.
However, inasmuch as the supply of marble is a matter of costs, then, as Ruskin
observes, “there would also be a tendency … to import as much stone as possible
ready sculptured, in order to save weight; and therefore, if the traffic of their
merchants led them to places where there were ruins of ancient edifices, to ship the
available fragments of them home” (2001[1851/53], 83). This reasoning matches the
modern theory of semi-manufactured products.
Ruskin concludes that the scarcity of material and the recourse to pre-prepared
products determined the Gothic architecture of Venice which he prefers to all other
In his Elements d'économie politique pure, Léon Walras relied on scarcity to derive the value of goods from it.
The first edition of this book appeared in two instalments in 1871 and 1874.
styles which can be found in this city. “Out of this supply of marble, partly composed
of pieces of so precious a quality that only a few tons of them could be on any terms
obtained, and partly of shafts, capitals, and other portions of foreign buildings, the
island architect has to fashion, as best he may, the anatomy of his edifice. It is at his
choice either to lodge his few blocks of precious marble here and there among his
masses of bricks, and to cut out of the sculptured fragments such new forms as may be
necessary for the observance of fixed proportions in the new building; or else to cut the
coloured stone into thin pieces, of extent sufficient to face the whole surface of the
walls, and to adopt a method of construction irregular enough to admit the insertion of
fragmentary sculptures; …”(Ruskin 2001[1851/53],.83f.).
Another result of the practice of Gothic architecture to integrate “pre-
manufactured products”, is the variety of the size and shape of shafts which
characterizes most buildings. “The architect cannot lay aside one column in a corner of
his church till, in the course of traffic, he obtain another that will match it; he has not
hundreds of shafts fastened up in bundles, out of which he can match sizes at his ease;
he cannot send to a brother-tradesman and exchange the useless stones for available
ones, to the convenience of both. His blocks of stone, or his ready hewn shafts, have
been brought to him in limited number, from immense distances; no others are to be
had; and for those which he does not bring into use, there is no demand elsewhere. His
only means of symmetry will therefore be, in cutting down the finer masses to equality
with the inferior ones; and this we ought not to desire him often to do” (Ruskin
2001[1851/53]), 88).
The cutting down of the finer masses violates the principles of jewellery which
are an immediate consequence of scarcity and the value which derives from it. “Since
the value of each shaft depends upon its bulk, and diminishes with the diminution of
its mass in a greater ratio than the size itself diminishes, as in the case of all jewellery,
it is evident that we must not in general expect perfect symmetry and equality among
the series of shafts, any more than definitness of application” (Ruskin 2001[1851/53]),
Incrustration and the shallow cutting of decoration, both typical for Gothic
architecture, are other consequences of the principles of jewellery and the scarcity of
finer masses of marble. Ruskin (2001[1851/53]), 89) points out these implications of
his architectural theory which is an immediate result of sound economic reasoning.
Either Ruskin has learned quite a bit of economic reasoning from reading Adam
Smith’s Wealth of Nations
and is readily applying his knowledge, despite the
negative evaluation he will give in his later years about Adam Smith’s work,
or it is
true for him that “logic is unnecessary for men who can reason” (Ruskin
2001[1851/53]), 314). In any case, the ideas he developed were quite original.
However, if we want to make use of these ideas we should not hesitate to work like a
Gothic architect and follow the principles of jewellery: we should accept his style of
economic reasoning about art.
4. Secrets of the World
To conclude, I will present a made ready à la Kosuth (see above). Not only did I
already publish earlier versions of this text (Holler 2002a, 2002b), but there exists
plenty of work on “secret”, the central concept of this section. What is new is the
particular perspective offered here which aims to illustrate the notion of an art concept
called ARTS&Games. There is as yet no formal definition of this concept, but
substantial activity: festivals, workshops, seminars, and publications. The core of this
work can be described as “playing over concepts.” One set of work is on Scandal and
its Theory (Holler, 1999). Here I will report on the playing over another concept, “the
secret”, and the results I presented at the “de-fine arts” workshop at Vienna, February
In the Preface of his The Political Economy of Art, Ruskin boasts that he "“had never read any author on
political economy except Adam Smith twenty years ago” (Cook and Wedderburn 1903-12, volume XVI, 10).
In his major work in political economy "“Unto This Last” (1970 [1867], 22), John Ruskin reproduced in a
footnote Adam Smith’s well-known consideration that, in the end, work discipline is implemented through the
decision of the customers: “It is the fear of losing their employment which restrains his frauds, and corrects his
negligence.” As a comment to this “modern insight”, Ruskin asks “a very earnest request to any Christian reader
to think within himself what an entirely damned state of soul any human creature must have got into, who could
read with acceptance such a sentence as this: much more, write it; …”
In 1996, I had the pleasure to organize and to attend the weekly microeconomic
research seminar at the University of Hamburg when the Glasgow based artist Nicola
Atkinson-Griffith asked the participants to write down their personal, private, and
public secrets. More recently, I took the liberty to replicate Nicola’s work at a seminar
on guru management which I gave to students of jewellery making at the Technisk
Skole in Copenhagen. I have to confess that I did not ask for Nicola’s permission to
replicate her work, but I do not feel guilty: pieces of art belong to the public – at least,
the ideas, questions and experiences which they provide. If not, then they have to be
kept in secret. A constituent element of Nicola’s work is the discussion which it stirs
and the questions which it induces. Replications are a means to find answers to
forthcoming questions and new arguments for the discussion.
Nicola’s 1996 Hamburg experiment was attended by close to 40 participants –
nearly double the usual number who regularly attend the seminar. More than ten
participants were attracted by the fact that an artist was presenting some material (they
would not attend a seminar in microeconomic theory) and another ten participants
were economics doctoral students from other departments. They were attracted by the
expectation of spending two hours on problems that have no obvious relation to their
regular work. They were trapped by their curiosity – the curiosity which is the heart of
research work. The rest of the participants were members of my department, external
and former doctoral students, and guests. This heterogeneity will be important for the
interpretation of what follows.
After Nicola’s lecture on some of her previous art work, she distributed to each
participant a sheet of paper with the three categories labelled, “personal, private and
public secret” together with a greyish-green envelop, donated by my department (it
looked very bureaucratic). Immediately, discussions started between neighbouring
participants as to the difference between public, private and personal secrets. After a
while the bilateral discussions turned into multilateral discussions and in the end there
was a general discussion which ended with asking Nicola for a resolution. Most
participants appeared satisfied with Nicola’s response.
The discussion then turned to the question of whether or not the secrets were safe
with Nicola. No one, it seems, doubted that Nicola would try to keep the envelops
closed and keep the secrets secret. The question, however, was whether she actually
had the ultimate power to do so. What if she gets robbed on her way back to Scotland,
or if somebody broke into her home while she is in California? The general conclusion
was that Nicola could guarantee that the secrets will be kept secret but that there was a
very small probability that she might fail.
The discussion then moved on to the quest for secrets. Isn’t such a question
tasteless, impolite or even immoral? Why not go looking for something else?
However, even days after the experiment nobody could think of something equivalent
to a secret. A branch of the discussion led some participants to discuss the nature of
information as complementary to a secret. For example, it was argued that one can
destroy the secrets in the greyish-green envelops, as locked away in a steel box in
Glasgow, by making the information in the envelops public knowledge. (I was
thinking of exam questions which are a secret only up to the exam day when the secret
is destroyed.) Discussion about asymmetric and private information, which are basic
concept of modern microeconomics, continued to dominate lunch conversations for
several weeks in connection with questions of trust and power.
Slightly more than half of the participants returned a closed envelop to Nicola.
Some of the other half claimed that they abstained because they could not work with
the classification into public, private, and personal secret. Others felt like under a
shock: they could not cope with being asked to write down their secrets. I had the
impression that the number of abstentions and the arguments which supported this
reaction could not be differentiated between the group of economists, trained in
rational choice modelling, and the other participants with no similar training. (I must
admit that I did not undertake a systematic survey and therefore cannot claim scientific
status for this observation). I felt myself much too involved and some arguments
became only clear days after. Needless to say, my curiosity was not satisfied and I took
the next opportunity, albeit five years later, to replicate Nicola’s experiment.
The Danish artist Sten Bülow Bredsted arranged that I led an 8-hour seminar on
guru management with master students of jewellery making at the Technisk Skole in
Copenhagen on 20-21 February 2001. It was felt that the students should become
aware of the interactive relationships in which they and their work is embedded and
get some training to succeed in their social nexus. We discussed the concepts of
strategies, players, and preferences and looked for Nash equilibria in Prisoner’s
Dilemma and Battle of the Sexes games. We learned that it was Johann Wolfgang von
Goethe (1749-1832) who invented the sealed-bid second-price auction and that its
remarkable properties were first analysed by the late William Vickery who was not
only awarded a Nobel Prize for this work but also gave his name for this type of
auction. We also learnt how to share property when we get divorced or inherit a house,
a garden, a model T car, and a dog jointly with our brothers and sisters. Trust,
reputation, morality were reduced to rational choices and the forming of corresponding
beliefs (i.e., assessments). It seemed that all members were quite happy with this
perspective – at least, in the class room.
Things changed dramatically when after more than seven hours of the seminar
about rational thinking I asked the students to write down their personal, private, and
public secrets. Of course, I promised not to look into the greyish envelops, and to
defend the sealed envelops with all my strength until my last breathing day. In the end,
only four out of the eight seminar participants gave me their sealed envelops. All of
them argued that this was a real challenge and some of them considered it an immoral
demand to ask them for their secrets.
It took quite some time until the waves of emotions calmed down and we could
start to discuss a game-theoretical approach to analyse the various strings of
expectations, mistrust and rejection. In the end, it was felt that situations of conflicting
interests and expectations tended to be less threatening to friendly or successful social
interaction when interpreted as a game and transformed into game models, which we
then tried to solve either by applying game theoretical reasoning or simulation, i.e.,
playing games.
In its most abstract form, a game is defined by the set of players, by the sets of
strategies from which each player can choose his or her plan of action, and by the
payoffs of the players which express their interests in the game. Nicola’s Game of
Secrets (NGS) is characterized by the fact that the set of players is ill defined: in
general, we know the interviewer and the respondents. Furthermore, there is no perfect
guarantee that the envelops will not be opened. However, making secrets known may
imply bringing new players into the game, for example, through activating those
agents who share the secrets or are even objects of the secrets.
By the design of the game, it is as yet not clear what the interviewer will do with
the secrets – in addition to keeping them secret. Will he or she exhibit the secrets in a
public space, or incorporate them in his or her art work, or just simply lock them away
in a steel box? Is it in his or her interest to inform others that he or she has the secrets
or will he or she open the envelops one day in the dark room – or destroy them
unopened? The payoffs and interests of the respondents are even less obvious. For
those who have decided to return a sealed envelop, the social pressure of the situation
causing them to obey an instruction or to support science or art seems to be a major
motivation. Some confessed, however, that they enjoyed writing down their secrets
and that they felt better after.
Obviously, however, neither the social pressure of the situation nor the possibility
of a mental sensation is sufficient to convince everybody to follow the temptation of
submitting secrets. Moreover, there is no guarantee that those who contributed a sealed
envelop actually wrote a secret on their sheet. There is no proof at all that they
contributed a secret. Perhaps the secret they contributed was a lie, and not a secret.
This has to be considered when we discuss the strategies of the respondents. The
contents of their writing cannot be controlled before sealing and hence for as long as
the envelop is sealed. This is implicit to asking for secrets and promising to keep them
secret. All that could be observed, depending on the setting of the experiment, is
whether a respondent contributed a sealed envelop or not.
It seems that the set of strategies for the interviewer and the respondent are very
large and difficult to define. There are however prominent strategies which are
candidates for an equilibrium such that no player can improve his position by choosing
an alternative strategy, given the strategy choices of the other players. A strategy
combination which satisfies this condition is a Nash equilibrium. Note that it implies
that the strategies are mutually best replies to each other. Obviously, to write down the
weather report of yesterday, or another story of no information and no interest, and the
decision not to open the sealed envelops are such mutually best replies which have, in
addition, the nice property that they do not invite new players who would like to steal
the secrets in order to exploit them.
As soon as this solution was accepted by the participants in the Copenhagen
seminar, they were less critical of me asking for their secrets. They admitted that it
takes more than an 8-hour seminar to internalise interactive thinking in a way such that
it cannot be challenged by “immoral” demands such as writing down secrets. As a by-
product of this exercise, we learned some peculiar features of the nature of secrets. I
may hand a secret in a sealed envelop to you and you may carry this envelop to the
other side of the globe. Still I can destroy this secret by publishing the information
which is in sealed envelop. But it could also be that there is no information in the
envelop and you merely think that you carry a secret with you.
This report has been published in 2002 as symposium in the quarterly journal
Homo Oeconomicus together with the reactions of eight artists, social scientists, and
economists: Sofia Blind (Geilnau/Lahn), Leonard Dudley (Montreal), Petra Grünig
(Berlin), Joanna Hofmann (Poznan), Karola Koch (Hamburg), John Sedgewick
(London), and Ben Spencer (Glasgow).
Cook, E.T. and A. Wedderburn, eds. (1903-12): The Works of John Ruskin (39
volumes). London. George Allen.
Danto, Arthur C. (1999): Philosophizing Art: Selected Essays, Berkeley. University of
California Press.
Duve, de Thierry (2001): Dan Graham and the Critique of Artistic Autonomy, in: Dan
Graham Works 1965-2000, Düsseldorf. Richter-Verlag.
Eco, Umberto (1986): Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages. Translated by Hugh Bredin,
New Haven and London. Yale University Press.
Feyerabend, Paul (1984): Wissenschaft als Kunst. Frankfurt. Suhrkamp-Verlag.
Flam, Jack (2001): Review of ‘Paths to the Absolute: Mondrian, Malevich,
Kandinsky, Pollock, Newman, Rothko, and Still by John Golding’. New York Review
of Books 48, (April 26), 10-14.
Gibson, Ann Eden (1997): Abstract Expressionism, Other Politics. New Haven and
London. Yale University Press.
Haase, Amine (1997): Panik in der Kunstwelt, Kunstforum 138 (September-
November) , 254-269.
Holler, Manfred J., ed. (1999): Scandal and Its Theory (Homo Oeconomicus 16).
Munich. Accedo-Verlag.
Holler, Manfred J. (2002a): Shall I give you my secret: An ARTS&Games
reconsideration. Homo Oeconomicus 18, 539-543.
Holler, M.J. (2002b): Artists, Secrets, and CIA’s cultural policy, in: B. Priddat and H.
Hegmann (eds.), Finanzpolitik in der Informationsgesellschaft. Festschrift für Gunther
Engelhardt. Marburg. Metropolis-Verlag.
Kosuth, Joseph (1974): Art after Philosophy, in: G. de Vries (ed.), Künstlertexte zum
veränderten Kunstverständnis nach 1965. Köln.
Kosuth, Joseph (1991): No Exit. Ostfildern /Stuttgart. Edition Cantz
Mendelsohn, Daniel (2002): The Two Oscar Wildes. New York Review of Books 49,
(October 10), 18-22.
Paz, Octavio (1990): Marcel Duchamp: Appearance, Stripped, Bare. New York.
Arcade Publishing.
Riegl, Alois (1973 [1901]): Spätrömische Kunstindustrie, Darmstadt.
Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.
Ruskin, John (1970 [1867]): Unto This Last. Four Essays on the First Principles of
Political Economy (ed. by P.M. Yarker). London and Glasgow. Collins Publishers.
Ruskin, John (2001[1851/53]): The Stones of Venice (abridged version, edited and
introduced by John Morris). London. The Folio Society.
Wölfflin, Heinrich (1984 [1905]): Die Kunst Albrecht Dürers (Preface to the1st
Edition, reprinted in the 9
Edition). Munich. Bruckmann.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
The paper examines the nature of secrecy based on an art project by Nicola Atkinson-Griffith. It applies the idea of political obfuscation and shows that it can be cast as a policy of secrecy. This is illustrated by the CIA's Cold War cultural policy in the 1940s and 1950s that made Abstract Expressionist painting the American art form and which came quickly dominate Western aesthetic culture. This policy was neither suggested by a majority of voters nor by the political establishment. A brief discussion of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Orwellian Loop concludes the paper.
Review of ‘Paths to the Absolute
  • Jack Flam
  • Mondrian
  • Malevich
  • Kandinsky
  • Pollock
  • Newman
  • Rothko
  • John Still
  • Golding
Flam, Jack (2001): Review of ‘Paths to the Absolute: Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky, Pollock, Newman, Rothko, and Still by John Golding’. New York Review of Books 48, (April 26), 10-14
Finanzpolitik in der Informationsgesellschaft
  • Hegmann
Hegmann (eds.), Finanzpolitik in der Informationsgesellschaft. Festschrift für Gunther Engelhardt. Marburg. Metropolis-Verlag
Panik in der Kunstwelt
  • Haase
Haase, Amine (1997): Panik in der Kunstwelt, Kunstforum 138 (September-November) , 254-269
Abstract Expressionism, Other Politics. New Haven and London
  • Ann Gibson
  • Eden
Gibson, Ann Eden (1997): Abstract Expressionism, Other Politics. New Haven and London. Yale University Press.
No Exit. Ostfildern /Stuttgart The Two Oscar Wildes
  • Joseph Kosuth
Kosuth, Joseph (1991): No Exit. Ostfildern /Stuttgart. Edition Cantz Mendelsohn, Daniel (2002): The Two Oscar Wildes. New York Review of Books 49, (October 10), 18-22.
Unto This Last. Four Essays on the First Principles of Political Economy
  • John Ruskin
Ruskin, John (1970 [1867]): Unto This Last. Four Essays on the First Principles of Political Economy (ed. by P.M. Yarker). London and Glasgow. Collins Publishers.