“The Michelangelo of Profilicity” – Hans-Georg Moeller on Salvatore Garau

Garau’s invisible sculpture “Buddha in Contemplation” at the Piazza Della Scala in Milan, Italy. “Buddhist art”, explains Hans-Georg Moeller, “just like Daoist art, has been depicting emptiness for more than a thousand years since this notion is so central to both these philosophical and religious traditions.”  The marking does not so much serve the purpose of preventing passers-by from accidentally running into the sculpture – it wouldn’t do it any harm – but rather guarantees the visibility of the work, not unlike the temporal frame that John Cage, for example, requires for 4’33”, or the exhibition frame that saved Duchamp’s “Fountain” from being mistaken for a urinal – two examples of a modern art tradition within which Moeller also locates Garau.

The Work of Art in the Age of Second-Order Observation

On June 3, 2021, the online magazine artnet reported that the hitherto little known Italian artist Salvatore Garau, “auctioned off an ‘Invisible Sculpture’ for $18,300.” The sculpture, it was added, is “made literally of nothing.” The buyer of the sculpture, we are informed, “received a ‘certificate of authenticity’ and a set of instructions” for its display: it “must be exhibited in a private house in a roughly five-by-five-foot space free of obstruction.”

It is neither new nor especially provocative today to create and sell un-created art. There is a well-established category for such works—the term “work,” as paradoxical as it is, is still used in this context—and for the people that make them: they are “conceptual artists.” This is to say that instead of focusing first of all on making material objects, these artists wish to somehow visualize, represent, or, as in this case, stimulate ideas.

Garau’s “Invisible Sculpture” is far from original and firmly rooted in a tradition of art that consists in presenting or exhibiting something—or nothing—rather than making it. Marcel Duchamp, for instance, created his famous “ready mades” already more than a century ago.

Thanks to its paradoxical quality, nothingness has often, and long ago, featured prominently in conceptual art. In the early 1950s, John Cage “composed” 4’33” (“Four minutes, thirty-three seconds” or “four thirty-three”) a piece of non-music simply instructing the performing musicians not to play their instruments for precisely that duration. At roughly the same time, Robert Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings” were made, consisting of several panels that show nothing except their white surface.

As it is common for artists, Garau has exhibited a whole series of similar works. In May and June 2021, the invisible sculpture “Afrodite Cries” was displayed in front of the New York Stock Exchange, its exact position indicated by a white circle on the ground. A few months earlier an invisible “Buddha in Contemplation” was to be imagined in front of the famous Scala Opera House in Milan. This time, for a change, its location was indicated by a white square.

The title “Buddha in Contemplation” signals to the public that Garau wants to be associated with Buddhism. Buddhist art, just like Daoist art, has been depicting emptiness for more than a thousand years since this notion is so central to both these philosophical and religious traditions. Referencing Buddhism and Daoism in contemporary Western conceptual art is also not new. John Cage, for instance, had done exactly this many decades ago as well.

Just as obvious and old as Garau’s artistic method and subject is their critique. One of my favorite songs as a teenager was “In the Gallery” by Dire Straits, recorded in 1978. It is about the death of an artist named “Harry” who, as the lyrics go, “had to work in clay and stone” and made realistic statues for and about the working class, including “a fine coal miner” for the National Coal Board, which had been running the publicly owned coal mining industry in the UK until it was eventually privatized. Harry, however, made no career and not much money as an artist. The song compares him with more successful peers, saying: “And then you got an artist, says he doesn’t want to paint at all / takes an empty canvas and sticks it to the wall.” Such “phonies” and “fakes,” as they are called in the song thrive in the art business, because, as the lyrics continue, it is the “dealers” who “decide who gets the breaks, and who is going to be in the gallery.” This simple song still resonates with me, as do its lyrics—and it calls to mind a story I’ve been liking since my childhood: Hans Christian Andersen’s 19th century tale of the “Emperor’s New Clothes.”

My intentions here, however, are neither aesthetical nor political. As conventional as Salvatore Garau’s art may be aesthetically, and as problematic as it may be politically, I want to approach it from a theoretical perspective instead. Analyzing Garau’s invisible sculptures, I will be making five brief points that I hope to be of philosophical relevance. The first is about how these sculptures confirm the relevance of the concept of “exhibition value” coined by Walter Benjamin in his groundbreaking essay on The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in the 1930s. The remaining four points are about how those invisible sculptures illustrate Niklas Luhmann’s more recent concept of “second-order observation” and the notion of “profilicity” that is derived from it.

1) Garau’s brief instructions for the buyer of his sculpture express perfectly what can be called with some irony—especially given the unfortunate philosophical connotations of this expression—the “origin” of his works of art. According to the artnet report, the instruction stipulates that the sculpture “must be exhibited.” Invisible art can only be perceived when exhibited as art. Its invisibility makes it entirely non-existent if not explicitly displayed. You may stumble across Harry’s “fine coal miner” in a thrift store and see it for what it’s worth. This is impossible with Garau’s “Buddha in Contemplation.” It is precisely its exhibition, and nothing else, that makes this Buddha existent.

Moreover, it is most fitting for Afrodite Cries to make its home in front of the New York Stock Exchange. This location perfectly symbolizes the symbiosis between value and exhibition in modern art described by Benjamin. The higher the value of the exhibition venue, the higher the value of that which is exhibited. This is also the case vice versa:  The higher the value of that which is exhibited, the higher the value of the exhibition venue.

Hans-Georg Moeller is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Macau, China. He is concerned with social and existential questions against the background of Daoist philosophy and Niklas Luhmann’s theory of society. He is the author of “You and Your Profile, among others: Identity after Authenticity” and “Genuine Pretending: On the Philosophy of the Zhuangzi”, “The Radical Luhmann, The Moral Fool: A Case for Amorality” (all Columbia University Press) and “In der Mitte des Kreises: Daoistisches Denken” (In the middle of the circle: Daoist Thought) (Suhrkamp/Insel). He has created two very successful YouTube channels that present philosophy in a contemporary form: Philosophy in Motion (bringing to life weirdly fascinating stories from the Daoist classic Zhuangzi), and Carefree Wandering (which is dedicated to “rambling without destination”, a kind of ‘strolling’ on the net that reflects on current issues and trends from a philosophical perspective).

Tellingly, the artnet headline on Garau’s work not only highlights its invisibility, but also the price it achieved at an auction. “Pure” exhibition, an exhibition that does not generate value, is not an exhibition. If the invisible sculpture had not achieved a price, we would have hardly heard about it in the news. It would have remained simply nothing.

This is the first thing we can learn from Salvatore Garau:

The origin of the work of art in our society lies in its exhibition–and in the value generated by this exhibition.

2) Traditional aesthetic approaches to art made sense of it within the framework of first order observation. Someone looks at, or listens to, a work of art. Thereby the artistic quality of the artwork—traditionally often called its “beauty”—is revealed. Some have attributed this artistic quality of that which is seen or heard to the work of art itself. In this case, beauty was supposed to be a property of the work. Others attributed beauty to the “eyes of the beholder.” In this case, beauty was believed to be created through experience, or reception, however you prefer to call it. Others yet would point to the resonance between a work of art and its audience, and accordingly a more dynamic aesthetics could be proposed, based on the interaction between subject and object.

Salvatore Garau’s invisible sculptures enable us to move beyond such traditional aesthetics. Today, art lies neither in the aesthetic properties of an object nor in the aesthetic experience of a subject. Clearly, the “Buddha in Contemplation” has no objective properties whatsoever. And whatever aesthetic experiences those who look at the empty space it occupies may have, they are hardly relevant for the Buddha to become a work of art. In order to see that the “Buddha in Contemplation” is a work of art we need to switch to second-order observation. It is revealed as art only by being communicated as art in the self-referential social system of the art world. When we read about it in artnet, when it is sold at an auction, when it is exhibited in New York and Milan then, and only then, do we know that it is art.

This is the second thing we can learn from Salvatore Garau:

To observe something as art in today’s society, it is insufficient to simply observe or experience an artwork. You must observe that it is being observed as art. In this way, even if there is actually nothing to be observed in the mode of first-order observation, it is still art.

3) When observing a work of art in the mode of second-order observation, all we observe is communication. We read an article about “Afrodite Cries” on the web. We watch a video on it on YouTube. We hear a philosopher talking about it on a podcast. We see that it is presented to an audience in an exhibition or know it has been sold to someone for a price. Written or spoken texts, filmed videos, staged exhibitions, and paid prices are different forms of communication. In art, when moving to second-order observation, we move beyond the aesthetic and into the social. Second order-observation does not observe material objects, personal experiences, or anything material or psychological—at least not directly. Instead, we observe communication about material or psychological or other events. When we observe the “Buddha in Contemplation” as art, we cannot but see it as communicated, or in society. In this sense, second-order observation, that is the social sphere, frames and enables first-order-observation—that is, for instance, the psychological experience of objects.

This is the third thing we can learn from Salvatore Garau:

You cannot contemplate the “Buddha in Contemplation” without having been told about it first. Second-order observation frames everything in communication.

4) Obviously, Salvatore Garau doesn’t literally make any artworks. So, what does he do? By organizing exhibitions, having his art auctioned, and providing opportunities for it to be reported on, he curates a profile—his profile as an artist in the art scene and beyond. His actual activity as a sculpturer lies not in sculpturing material sculptures, but in sculpturing his own second-order observation identity. Profiles are identities produced for and emerging in the mode of second-order-observation.

This is the fourth thing we can learn from Salvatore Garau:

Today, artists do not simply create artworks. More importantly, they curate profiles—a second-order observation identity. While the Buddha in Contemplation remains invisible, Salvatore Garau’s profile is seen ever more clearly.

5) We now understand that the certificate issued to the buyer of Salvatore Garau’s invisible sculpture has been misnamed. It should not have been called a “certificate of authenticity,” but a “certificate of profilicity.” By creating his invisible sculptures, Salvatore Garau depicts not Buddhist or Daoist emptiness, but illustrates how profile curation works today.

The fifth and final point is:

Thank you for enabling us to understand so clearly how a profile-based identity is created and curated, Salvatore Garau. You are the Michelangelo of Profilicity!