A member of Munich’s “Discursive Salon” from the early 1920s presents the most malicious, confident judgment as “madly nice!” This is reported by Serenus Zeitblom, Adrian Leverkühn’s biographer in Thomas Mann’s artist novel Doctor Faustus. In contrast to the respective forms of acclamation typical of their period—“dandy,” “hot,” “super,” or “cool”—“madly nice” marks a reservation on the part of the person giving the praise. He might approve, but at the same time would like to demonstrate his superior position due to embarrassment, a disgust at avowals, or the spirit of negativity. The result is verum falsum, a matter significant due to its falseness. But the confirmation of the significance of the false is not accepting the falsehood itself.
In contemporary language, the verum falsum is called a “fake.” The fake of a madly nice Rolex on the arm of a dealer is a cognitive challenge: clearly the watch wearer is so self-aware that he is playing with our assumption that the watch must be a cheap fake, otherwise he would be at risk of having it stolen. But it is precisely because of this logical assumption that he can dare hide a genuine Rolex that has come into his possession on his wrist. Verum falsum thus says that a statement that “x is proven to be false” is true.
C. O. Paeffgen was always seen as especially intelligent in the community of artists and their dealers. He saw through the phrases of high art discourse, but knew at the same time that it was impossible to achieve anything in the art world without recognizing the necessity for communication. With this insight he presented the results of his own work, which left the impression of wanting to emphatically, even pathetically, comply with the postulates of artworks, yet unmistakably stress the romantic, or in modern terms, satirical irony.
Richard Rorty developed this attitude in his theoretical concept of the ironist. I would suggest that Rorty’s reader supplement the original text with illustrations of Paeffgen’s elaborations to experience succinct and obvious evidence of that concept. The description of Paeffgen’s creations as succinct—that is, brief—yet striking like a historical stone inscription, corresponds to the marking of statements as statements. Like a punch line, the statement can do without any argumentation, for it is formulated in a way that suffices in terms of interest—beyond any act of derivation by the author. The concise statement stimulates communication because it contains its own justification.
Paeffgen developed a series of motivic-statements as standard forms: heart/arrow, mouse, ribbon, moon, and question mark. In the realm of visual art, they are akin to the striking form of expression that Robert Gernhardt achieved in literature. The most famous statement of form in this tradition is Christian Morgenstern’s figure of the space between in a picket fence. Paul Klee developed an entire range of interstitial beings. He called them “interstitial ghosts.” Truly spectral are the standard formations that A. R. Penck revealed in the mid-1960s in a Buchhandlung Walther König edition—as it were, the interstitial ghosts of Socialist Realism.
Standards take their fundamental nature from the experience of any person considering how non-self-evident the supposedly self-evident actually is. Anyone forced—by accident, illness, or social fate—to explore what was once considered self-evident, can no longer see the occupation with banality as banal. I myself, many years ago, when confronted with Paeffgen’s ribbon motif in a gallery performance, was able to recall that repeated attempts to tie my shoelaces for the first time consciously achieved a level of abstraction. I imagined myself in the position of the person who had previously tied the shoelaces. Awareness emerges in the ability to consider oneself and one’s actions as other.
This is the art theory maxim “I is another.” Paeffgen has stated over and over with humor and irony that the artist Paeffgen is someone other than himself, which is why he can infectiously laugh about the curiosity, banality, and succinctness of all artistic activity. Others have transformed the art of hammering a nail into a metaphysical exercise, or the fearful leaps of ladies in stockinged feet when confronted with house mice into interpretive dance. Anyone who still seeks to express a love infection with guaranteed authenticity is forced to imitate the awkward drawing of a heart penetrated by an arrow, which when seen on walls and fences in urban spaces seems nothing more than a mere scribble. Those who, filled with emotion, want to serenade the moon will accept the irrevocable kitschy absurdity of the act, following John Cage’s example, when the howling is transformed into a musical sign. In all these practices, the question mark is an emblem of an orthopedically and orthographically contorted individual, who after a brief experience as a tourist in Spain considers it legitimate to always place a question mark before each expression of attitude.
We can see how exemplary Paeffgen’s technique is today in the standard communication in text messages, chats, and Twitter. The emoticon as a sign for feeling and thought bring complex social media relationships into expression. ¿Paeffgen’s standard forms are madly nice—is this perhaps only understood by the Twitter generation? ;-)