Arif Kornweitz: We want to be artless again
donderdag, 18 november 2021
Terug naar overzicht

In this piece on immaterial authenticity, Arif Kornweitz links the development of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) to the 18th century phenomenon of Werktreue. Originally a measure to evaluate the authenticity of a musical performance, Werktreue became (and still is) a rhetorical instrument for enacting exclusion, appropriated by fascist cultural policy.

Today endless exact copies of an artwork can exist while one original remains highly valuable – due to an NFT (non-fungible token). Often presented as a means to trade digital art, in essence NFTs are a public contract that can certify ownership of anything.[1] With these certificates of authenticity it does not matter if an artwork is redundant, i.e. exists multiple times. What is traded is not primarily the work, but a certificate of its authenticity. What, then, is a work?

NFTs are a technology for virtual scarcity. As such, they further the dissolution of the connection between authenticity and a distinct material version of a work. In what follows, this development is connected to the emergence of the work-concept in the 18th century and the concurrent fetishisation of authenticity as it is employed by fascist cultural policies. Clearly, NFTs are not inherently fascist, but the technology deploys the same notions of authorship and authenticity that fascism cultivates to construct an exclusionary truth.

To draw this parallel, we may look to the history of the musical work. Music was once thought to be the highest of all the arts[2]. It was said to have no material element, consisting entirely of form and content. To preserve this immaterial authenticity for the performance of a piece of music, it was necessary to fixate the meaning of a musical ‘work’. The phenomenon of Werktreue does just that, indicating fidelity of a performance to an original text or musical score. Werktreue emerged in parallel with the notion of a distinct musical work and is a measure to evaluate the authenticity of a performance. It was especially popular in National Socialist cultural policy.

“It’s a conservative wish-fulfillment, a yearning for naiveté. We want to be artless again. We want to reverse the flow of experience, of worldliness and its responsibilities.” — Murray in Don DeLillo’s White Noise

NFTs arguably are distinct from Werktreue, but they share a reductionist tendency. The former are primarily a legal and economical instrument, a contemporary form of contract stored on the blockchain that can be used to make anything unique into an asset. Werktreue is an ideal, a measure of how well a specific work is represented. NFTs and Werktreue are thus concerned with representing and protecting a specific artefact, a certain text.[3] Both instill authenticity as a hollow substitute for a text, allowing its deployment for economical and ideological ends. It is this performance of the authenticity of an immaterial work and its historical origins that matter here.

The emergence of the work
A faithful interpretation of a work, a performance that is true to a text, like a musical score or a theater play, can be considered werktreu. Fidelity to a text is determined according to historical authenticity and to how well a performance reproduces a true meaning of a text. The notion of a ‘work’ is central to this discussion.

Philosopher Lydia Goehr, in her historical study of musical works, states that the notion of a distinct musical ‘work’ emerged at the end of the 18th century.[4] Whereas in the Renaissance scores were interpreted more freely, the emergence of the work-concept tied together composition and performance by instilling authenticity – flowing from authorship. Being based on a distinct work, a performance could now be judged according to how well it respected the work’s historical context and its author’s intent. This resulted in romantic composers such as Liszt looking back to past masters and including historical pieces in their programmes, a new gesture at the time.

This understanding of an artistic work as a fixed relation of composition and performance occurred in parallel with the emergence of copyright laws. In 1803, for example, the Batavian Republic introduced the Boekenwet, a law that protected book publishers from unauthorised reproduction of a work. Rights of the author were not yet protected by this law and even though later laws did concern authorship, rights often remained with the publisher. Copyright law is intricately connected to the reproducibility and dispersion of works.

The notion of a distinct work thus has deep ties with economical interests. Current techniques for ephemeral dispersion of music, such as streaming, are attempts at fixating the work, by allowing access to it while preventing it from being duplicated and owned. Yet the desire for ownership has not vanished, as is evident in the rise of NFTs. And neither has the call for Werktreue.

Werktreue and Fascism
Any discussion of technical reproducibility and authenticity summons Walter Benjamin, whose idea of the aura of an artwork is too often depoliticised and discussed in mere technical terms. Benjamin did not propose the concept of aura in order to critique the technical reproducibility of artworks or a loss of authenticity. On the contrary, already in the introduction of his text, he positions his argument in explicit opposition to the fascist notions of genius, creatorship, secrecy and eternal value; terms that lend themselves for the processing of facts[5] in the sense of fascism. With his theorisation of the artwork in times of technical reproducibility, Benjamin attempted to introduce a terminology for thinking about artworks that was meant to be “completely useless for the purpose of fascism, [but useful for the] formulation of revolutionary demands in cultural politics.”[6]

Benjamin must have been acutely aware of the Werktreue discussion in Germany, where the term was used to shape National Socialist cultural policy. One of its promoters was Peter Raabe, who wrote about Werktreue and branded, for example, atonal music as anti-German. Raabe, who argued in 1923 that German music was deeper and richer than any other[7] and later infamously conducted Beethoven overtures at bombastic NSDAP party gatherings, was also responsible for setting up the organisational structure that promoted a high culture of German music by securing wages for orchestra musicians and by barring Jewish musicians from working.[8] Werktreue became a rhetorical instrument for enacting exclusion – in concert with conceptions of so-called ‘entartete Kunst’, art and music that could not be subsumed under fascist values because its core could not be solidified.

Challenging Werktreue
In the post-war period, the Werktreue concept has been challenged most prominently by John Cage’s work 4’33”, a composition with three movements that consist of silence, leaving the audience to consider all other surrounding sounds in relation to music.[9] Cage’s composition puts emphasis on the interpretation of the performer of the score and the listeners. It is sometimes understood as an example of automatism[10], where the composer is removed from the process of creation. It is also read as an example of a disjunction of art and politics that was supposedly prevalent in the 1950s and 60s. But these readings are unproductive.

As the philosopher G. Douglas Barrett lays out, Cage’s work emerged in one of the most violently homophobic decades in Amerian history. During McCarthyism, gestures of silence and absence can be read as a specific mode of queer resistance. In this reading, 4’33” is about the performance of silence in the face of oppression. Rather than indifference, Jonathan Katz suggests that the work is an example of a politics of negation, a notion that “avoids the recolonising force of the oppositional, that which permits the opponent to solidify and suture through recourse to the excluded other [..] It is then through this negational act of silence – precisely in music – that Cage’s work acquires its genuine sociopolitical force”.[11] It thus seems that performative interpretations contest a work’s supposed core, opening it up to continuous recontextualisation and deformation.

Yet, Goehr stresses, Cage remains in control of the intentionality of the work.[12] Except the actual musical sound, all conditions of a concert are fulfilled. Musicians enter the stage, instruments are present, the audience is seated. No other sounds enter the space. A score that prescribes negation or indeterminacy does not fundamentally challenge the work-concept. Canonical artists like John Cage, Pauline Oliveros or Yves Klein[13], who experimented with silence and gestures of negation, emphasising the role of the performer and listener, still did so in relation to the relatively recent frame of the dominant culture of authenticity and authorship.

Fidelity to originals has been less holy to those excluded from the canon, to those who challenged and deciphered its structure. In 1975, Julius Eastman, a composer opposed to the ‘continued segregation of black experimental musicians into jazz’, challenged John Cage’s stipulation of intentionality in performance. Eastman performed Cage’s Song Books, a score that notes “we connect [Erik] Satie to [Henry David] Thoreau”. Clearly feeling little desire to do so, Eastman disregarded convention surrounding the score which prescribed to ‘perform a disciplined action’, delivering “a bizarre lecture that focused on the erotic, but played on and exploded notions about race, colonialism and sexuality.”[14] Inviting a couple onstage to strip and declaring them “the best specimens in the world” was just one part of the performance that left Cage, who was present, furious about the absence of (his) intentionality and overt sexuality. It is in such disregards of prescribed intentionality that Werktreue found its deepest challenges in the classical realm.[15]

But, while Werktreue has been deconstructed[16] in the post-war period, its force has not been weakened. Today, it resurfaces in neo-fascist cultural policies. Thierry Baudet of the Dutch party ‘Forum voor Democratie’ despises atonal music, abstract painting and modernist architecture. And in Germany, members of the party Alternative für Deutschland handed in a request about the number of non-German actors and musicians at operas and theaters in the state of Baden-Württemberg, routinely criticise theater houses as institutions that spread leftist propaganda and demand the cancellation of subsidies.

When in 2016, a black actor from Burkina Faso is casted in Zuckmayer’s 1931 drama ‘Der Hauptmann von Köpenick’ at Theater Altenburg in Thüringen, local fascist organisations demand a boycott of the theater, leading actors to leave the theater. Nevermind that Zuckmayer’s play is a critique of blind trust in hierarchy, military and uniforms. In the old reductionist gestures, Werktreue artificially renders one possible interpretation of a text as authentic and serves as an instrument for cementing one view of history. It is this nostalgia that needs to be demobilised and challenged.


The desire for authenticity and reductionism go hand in hand. Conservatives and fascists hallucinate an original core in artworks and text, flattening meaning. But text is not flat, it is a fabric with depth and texture. Text stretches and deforms, with each interpretation. Rather than chasing flat fixations of original meaning, we might be better off asking how a reading drapes a text over a body of work, how the meaning of a text adapts to the context of an interpretation. For “it is not the pattern printed on the fabric but the way the fabric floats.”[17]

Instead the drive for authenticity is producing new ways to solidify texts, artworks, musical scores for ideological ends. The problem, the artist Seth Price wrote in 2007, “is that situating an artwork at a singular point in space in time, turns it into a monument. What if it is instead dispersed and reproduced, its value approaching zero as its accessibility rises?”[18] Price reminded us that the readymade is not about everyday objects becoming artworks, but about extending the exhibition space to the everyday. Not about the transfiguration of the object into art, but about the world into a world of art. Yet, in 2007 the art market lagged behind the network.

Today, the relation of value and accessibility has been dissolved. The work-concept has been fully mobilised for the marketplace. Dispersed artworks are commodified by inducing scarcity without an object, not unlike melancholy. A dispersed and reproduced artwork can now be turned into a monument, its value approaching millions. With NFTs, the problem of spatiotemporal fixation has been revived without its reliance on distinct materiality or temporality. What remains is a bare gesture of instilling authenticity. The mystical quality of originals has never been more graspable.

“I don’t trust anybody’s nostalgia but my own. Nostalgia is a product of dissatisfaction and rage. It’s a settling of grievances between the present and the past. The more powerful the nostalgia, the closer you come to violence.” — Murray in Don DeLillo’s White Noise

Arif is a PhD candidate at KIM, a research group on critical artificial intelligence at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design. He is also a lecturer at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy and the co-founder of the online radio platform Ja Ja Ja Nee Nee Nee for which he initiated ‘Speaker, Broker, Stringer’, a performance programme that focuses on the revival of Werktreue. 

[1] NFTs are not limited to digital, supposedly non-physical art. See for example Beeple’s physical artworks that come with NFTs or the following tongue-in-cheek NFT of a twig collected by a dog (
[2] Goethe – Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (1829).
[3] Text here refers to an object that can be read, a structured set of signs (e.g. a digital painting or musical score) that is demarcated (e.g. by a frame or by time signature). This understanding of text is concerned with determining how meanings of different texts are formed. See e.g. Jurij Lotman’s The Structure of the Artistic Text.
[4] Lydia Goehr – The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (1992).
[5] Interestingly, this is sometimes being translated as “data”, suggesting a more literal parallel to NFTs. The original word however is “Tatsachenmaterial”: factmaterial.
[6] Walter Benjamin – Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (1936).
[8] Parts of this structure, the Kulturorchester, were only completely abandoned in 2019.
[10] Taruskin, Richard (2009). Oxford History of Western Music: Volume 5. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-538630-1.
[11] G Douglas Barrett provides an excellent discussion of Werktreue, Cage and Ultra-red in the book After Sound.
[12] Lydia Goehr – The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (1992).
[15] The technique of sampling then elevates this gesture, finally freeing the work from intentionality and proving a fundamental challenge to Werktreue in relation to reproducibility.
[16] For this it would take Roland Barthes proclaiming the death of the author and the ensuing post-structuralism. See f.e. the debates between Gadamer and Derrida.
[17] Keller Easterling – Extrastatecraft (2014).
[18] Seth Price – Dispersion (2007).

Photo: Clara Rojas

Terug naar begin