'Transgression' and Its Consequences

A new film unveils a Sixties radical's cruel destructiveness.

jyTo the art world, Otto Mühl was that always wonderful thing, a “transgressive” and “radical” artist who, as Margalit Fox wrote in the New York Times after his death in May, founded “a school of radical performance art,” Viennese Actionism, that “sought to upend what it saw as the stultifying bourgeois conventions of the postwar years.” What could be more admirable? The Art Newspaper joined in the posthumous huzzahs, calling Mühl a “pioneer” who “continues to stir controversy.” And Art in America remembered him as a “far-left liberal who continually rebelled against esthetic and social boundaries” and who “was surrounded by controversy in both his art and personal life.” Hey, what's not to like?

To be sure, all three of these publications acknowledged that there was a, well, not-so-fabulous side to Mühl's legacy. As it happened, Mühl had been arrested in 1991 on charges of rape, forced abortion, and the sexual abuse of minors, and spent six years behind bars. This little detail, admitted the Art Newspaper, raised moral questions about “the collection and display of his work.” But, as a glance at Mühl's exhibition history shows, such concerns did not actually seem to stop anyone from collecting or displaying his work. Last fall, for example, he was featured in an important show at the Tate Modern in London alongside such artists as Jackson Pollack and David Hockney. A review of the Tate show mentioned that unfortunate six-year gap in Mühl's résumé, but suggested that the exhibition had appropriately addressed that aspect of his life by juxtaposing his works with the creations of a feminist artist who “address[es] issues of gender, queerness and subversion.” (No, I don't get that either.)

What was Viennese Actionism? Reacting, in the early 1960s, to the then recent Nazi nightmare, its proponents sought – in the words of yet another Mühl necrology – to “shake Austrian (and Western) society out of a consumerist complacency and provoke meaningful debate about the National Socialist past.” Like the artists of the contemperaneous Fluxus movement, the Actionists “questioned conventional understandings of art by incorporating everyday objects, animal flesh, their own bodies and its fluids and by-products such as urine and excrement into art works that emphasized process over product.” But for Mühl, a former Wehrmacht lieutenant, making inanimate art works turned out to be insufficient. Inspired “by Arthur Janov's primal scream, bioenergetics, gestalt therapy, and the orgasm-as-liberation teachings of psychologist Wilhelm Reich, especially the maxim that 'the family is the breeding grounding of all disease,'” he founded something called the Action-Analytical Organization and, under its auspices, established a commune in Friedrichshof, Austria, where his goal was to make artworks out of people.

Well, that wasn't the only goal. Another, as he explained in a 1973 manifesto, was to discover “the meaning of sexuality and communication.” But perhaps the chief objective was to show the world how to extinguish, once and for all, the nuclear family, which he described as “filth.” “People living in couples,” Mühl maintained, “are responsible for war, torture”...and the list went on from there. At Friedrichshof, he prohibited romantic relationships and encouraged free love, providing round-the-clock opportunities for sex without so much as a hint of emotional attachment or responsibility. He also encouraged “self-exposure,” arranging daily get-togethers at which members performed for one another, demonstrating through (for example) dance or painting just how far they had liberated themselves from family bonds. Mühl's experiment proved popular: starting with two homes and twenty children, he ended up with 500 members. At its peak, Friedrichshof was Europe's largest commune. “We are working to build a new culture,” he proclaimed. “It's a brand new philosophy.” He envisioned it as “the first living piece of art in the entire world.”

One of the many people who were drawn to Friedrichshof was a young woman – now in late middle age – who, she recalls, simply “wanted to live in a collective.” Having just broken up with her boyfriend, she was adrift, directionless – and obviously scared to face the adult world and its attendant responsibilities. When she first set foot in Friedrichshof, she later testified, it was like being on a “different planet”: some of the people there “cried all day”; adults were “walking around with pacifiers.” What did she make of it? “It was great.” She moved in at once. “We thought it was a personal psychotherapy,” she now says. “We thought we could change society.” Soon she was pregnant – she wasn't sure by whom. She had a baby boy, who grew up at Friedrichshof. Not until 1991, when he was twelve years old and the commune finally dissolved, did he experience life in the real world. When he did, he felt the same way that his mother had when she first saw Friedrichshof: “I felt like I was on a foreign planet.”

That boy, who is named Paul-Julien Robert and who is now in his early thirties, has made a documentary, partly about growing up as a piece of Muhl's art work, but mostly about the deep and lasting psychological damage that that experience has bequeathed him and his childhood friends, a couple of whom we also meet in the film. The documentary, which in German is entitled Meine Keine Familie (My No Family), a play on the expression “meine kleine familie” (my little family), and which has been given the English-language title My Fathers, My Mother, and Me, is narrated by Robert, who tells us: “We were all actually meant to become the perfect followers.” That, for all the liberatory rhetoric, was really Friedrichshof's only goal. “For me to have an opinion...took years,” he says. Mühl – who thoughout the film, as at the commune, is known simply as Otto – was so certain that Friedrichshof would prove a beacon for future generations that he had every single day's activities filmed. The result was a VCR archive containing thousands of hours' worth of material, some of which is included in Robert's documentary – and which shows that Otto, far from liberating anybody, was a despot, a bully, and a psychological abuser of children. In one clip from the archive, we see Otto, who had thundered against the evils of the mother-child bond, mocking small children to their faces, in front of all of his followers, for being motherless: “You can tell, they don't have mothers! They look neglected, a little gray. Unloved, like mice!” The children weep. The adults sit there, witnessing this abuse but unwilling to stand up to it – and perhaps too brainwashed even to recognize it as abuse.

The evidence is damning: Otto was a sadist, a psychopath. His art is full of images of Hitler, and his commune was supposedly meant as an effort to overcome the social conditioning that leads to Hitler-like tyranny; but he himself was a little Hitler, tyrannizing adults and children alike. “You gave up all the responsibility as adults!” Robert says to his mother on camera after showing her footage of Otto tormenting children. Her response is a blank look. Much of this documentary consists of scenes in which Robert confronts his mother – politely, but consistently – in an effort to grasp what, exactly, she was thinking all those years ago, and what she thinks, and feels, now. Why did she join the commune? Why was she so meekly submissive to Otto for so long? We learn that when he was four years old, the commune ran out of cash, and his mother was one of several members who, leaving their children behind, went off to various European cities – in her case, Zürich – to earn money to keep Friedrichshof going. Robert, consequently, grew up largely without her. How, he wants to know, could she have left him there for so long in the care of others? Didn't she miss him? Did it occur to her at all to worry about how he was being treated?

Robert is well-mannered and plainly a gentle soul. But you can see the torment in his eyes. Part of the reason why this film is so effective is that however strong his emotion, at no point does he so much as raise his voice in anger. His mother, for her part, while deserving of commendation for agreeing to take part in this project, is utterly affectless and profoundly defensive. She has plainly closed the door emotionally on her whole experience at Friedrichshof. After all those years of submission, of prolonged childhood, of arrested development, she would appear to be incapable of maturely confronting her own culpability, of critically examining the choices she made, of taking responsibility for what she did to her child, and of allowing herself to have any feelings about what Robert has had to go through as a result of her choices. She seems benumbed, like a combat veteran who won't, or can't, look back.

While the children at Friedrichshof were being emotionally badgered, the adults were engaging in “sexual experimentation” with one another. The documentary includes archival clips showing this side of the commune, in one of which we see a dozen or so sweaty, slippery naked bodies writhing on a floor, looking like so many fish at the bottom of a barrel. Which one of the men with whom his mother rolled around on the floor was his father? As in the movie Mamma Mia, there were three main candidates. One was Christian, who allowed himself to be listed on Austrian government forms as Robert's legal father, and of whom Robert's mother says: “I didn't know him better than the other men” and “I have barely any memories of Christian.” In archival footage, we see Christian in his last act of “self-exposure” at the commune, in which he dances around and talks about how “liberated” he felt. He committed suicide shortly thereafter. In the documentary, Robert and his mother visit Christian's now elderly dad, who is still bitter about what the commune did to his son: “To fall into the trap of a man who has so much power...renouncing your own family and society...I'm going to stop talking about it now because it's too painful.”

The film introduces us to another man who might have been Robert's father – Theo, who explains that he entered the commune because he wanted to overcome his father's “authoritarian generation” and find “a father who hadn't fallen from grace.” He sees now what a fiasco the whole thing was: “self-exposure” yielded a kind of “emotional ecstasy,” but provided no “intellectual confrontation with one's problems.” We also meet Egon, who after the commune's dissolution took a DNA test that showed he was almost certainly Robert's father. When he left Friedrichshof, says Egon, “I hadn't really arrived in the adult world” because “the commune had always somehow demanded of me to stay infantile.” A man with whom Robert grew up at Friedrichshof makes much the same point: “As soon as you showed a will, you were punished.” All his life, he says, he's had trouble making even the simplest decisions for himself.

My Fathers, My Mother, and Me is several things. First, it is a wrenching piece of personal testimony that probes questions about family guilt, resentment, and responsibility that have been with us since Aeschylus. Second, it is a masterly and beautiful piece of filmmaking, with production values on a level that puts most other documentaries to shame. (The cinematography is just plain gorgeous.) Third, it is a powerful indictment of the reckless liberatory movements of the Sixties and a haunting portrait of their human consequences. To watch it – indeed, simply to look into Robert's eyes as he tries to get his mother to understand, admit, and show the slightest sign of regret for what she has done – is to stare into the puerile, foolish, narcissistic heart of the Sixties social revolution, and to think of the countless children, now adults, who ended up paying the price for the hubris of the Otto Mühls of the world and the fecklessness of their disciples. Reflecting on all the harm this man did, one is nearly as disgusted by art critics' reflexive applause for his “transgressiveness” as one is by the cruel, evil, and destructive forms that that “transgressiveness” took. Paul-Julien Robert doesn't spell out any of these points; he doesn't have to. It's all there in the blank stare with which his mother responds to his futile cries of the heart.

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