RIP Otto Muehl


“Birth” – Otto Muehl – 1983

On Monday, May 27 Otto Muehl, a figure central in Maggie Nelson’s Art of Cruelty, died at the age of 87.  As readers of Nelson’s book will be aware, Muehl was a founding member of the Viennese Actionists, who became famous for transgressive and often extremely violent art.

A few relevant passages from Nelson’s text:

“It is the assignment of the artist to destroy art and come closer to reality,” Actionist Otto Muehl declared. With some measure of pathos, Muehl later explained his response to this assignment as follows: “Because I knew no other way than art to get to reality, I intensified my actions to extremely aggressive undertakings.” [p. 20]

“Indeed, whenever I read an articulate excoriation of the Viennese Actionists—such as those written by artist Carolee Schneemann or feminist Germaine Greer—the work can seem quickly ridiculous, a witless testament to a ludicrous white-boy repression, Austrian-style, literally trying to whip itself up to Wagnerian proportions… “Is no one going to make my dick hard?”—a flaccid Otto Muehl reportedly yelled during a 1971 performance, a performance at which Muehl’s sacrificial goose was seized (by the British poet Heathcote Williams, urged on by Greer) before it could meet its fate. Goose-less, Muehl ended up shitting on the stage instead.” [p. 22]

“But if the possible relationships between women and cruelty or violence seem inevitably shaped or even generated by the misogynistic and/or patriarchal social structures from which they emanate, then the same must hold true for those of men.  There’s no reason, for example, why work by … Otto Muehl and countless others cannot be, indeed should not be analyzed in this light. (Indeed, much of it has been… the work of the Viennese Actionists is, in many respects, an aggressive exploration of sexual power relations and taboos, not to mention deeply linked to the various post-Nazi psychoses plaguing postwar Austria…)

In other words, if, when it comes to the subject of cruelty and women, it turns out that one cannot disentangle contingency from essence, then there is no reason why such a disentanglement should suddenly become possible when it comes to men.” [p. 71, 72]

As referenced in the first quote above, Muehl actively sought to eliminate the space we tend to assume exists between art and the artist’s life.  This is particularly interesting to consider in light of Nelson’s own work, which frequently foregrounds her lived experience, while simultaneously asserting its own artificiality, its own subjectivity and made-ness (the lineation of her aunt’s diary and journals in Jane: a Murder is a neat microcosm of these tendencies).


“Vincent Van Gogh as Billy Goat” – Otto Muehl – 1984

In reviewing the coverage of Muehl’s passing today, I am struck by the editorial choices required of members of the media, especially when sharing news of a death.

Consider the following headlines:

Otto Muehl | Radical artist, 87
Controversial Austrian artist Otto Muehl dies
Otto Muehl Dead: Controversial Austrian Artist And Co-Founder Of Vienna Actionism Dies At 87
Otto Muehl, Austrian artist imprisoned for sex with minors, dies at 87
Viennese artist and convicted paedophile Otto Muehl dies

– Philadelphia Inquirer, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Washington Post, and Rueters respectively

"Rasputin" by Otto Muehl

“Rasputin II” – Otto Muehl – 1985

The violence of representation is a recurring theme in Nelson’s work:

Language… accomplishes this feat [of violence] by the simple act of naming, of representing—that is, when I say apple, I can no longer produce for you this specific apple, right here in front of me, even if that is what I meant to indicate; I must now rely on the constellation of letters that spells the term “apple,” which must serve as a stand-in for the thing itself. [Art of Cruelty, p. 216]

Indeed, the newspaper headline seems a particularly potent (and, in the case of death, grotesque) example of this phenomenon.  For a figure such as Muehl, the effect is heightened.

Perhaps, if space allowed and one were feeling generous, the words of Theo Altenberg, written almost three years ago, would be appropriate:

Muehl (who, now aged 85 and very ill, lives a secluded life with a small number of loyal followers in southern Portugal) embodies the full schizophrenia of the 20th century: anarchy and monarchy, communism and fascism, artist and petit-bourgeois, taboo-breaker and paranoiac, victim and perpetrator. As a person, Muehl failed spectacularly. But as an artist and visionary, he made an important contribution to widening our concept of freedom.” –


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