The ghost of van Gogh’s ear and the wonders of being misunderstood

I was at a big event conference recently and during one talk there were two people on stage complaining about the fact that many of the issues they were addressing were taboo and therefore had little exposure in the media and in society. And yet, there they were. On stage, in a room with a couple hundred people, at a conference with some thousand attendees and having their talk recorded to be shared on different websites. And journalists everywhere. Somehow the fact that there seemed to be an audience for their talk did not dawn on them. Even though there were a couple hundred people right there. Just in front of them. I find that amazing. Maybe, just maybe, art could be able to teach us something here.

Ever since, on December 23rd, 1888, Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear, failure plays a weird role in the arts. Of course, I am aware that at the time no one took notice of this mentally ill man in a small French town, especially no one in the art world – which is part of the whole issue. I am just mentioning this one event for the sake of my argument and to make things slightly more funny. Years later, when van Gogh posthumously started to be sold for huge wads of money, the world finally took notice of his plight. The ear and the fact that he was financially unsuccessful during his lifetime became the material for 500 Euro questions in TV shows and answers in beginner’s crosswords puzzles. And it became a curse.

The story that society fails to see the real genius that hides in plain sight isn’t merely the stuff that keeps untalented hobbyists painting, it rather might form the basis for much of what is understood as “avantgarde”. Every new avantgarde seems in part to feast on the idea of being misunderstood within the surrounding society. It is almost as if this has become a measurement for the real success. Even collectors and gallerists have fallen in love with this mechanism. “Outsider Art” is an ever-changing sub-genre that carries those who are handicapped in a multitude of ways. Once an outsider starts being valued by the market, new kinds of outsiders appear and take over the classification. And then there are bullshit artists like Jonathan Meese, who make lots of money from being “outsiders”.

This might explain the arrogance that comes out of many art schools. Much of what is created is hard to understand – even for me and I studied fine arts. Some time ago, I went to an “photography” exhibition with works from current students at a big art school. There, I tried desperately to explain some of the works to an architecture professor I met there. Desperately, since much of it remained unexplainable to me. I think that this is problematic. If a professor at the same school does not understand what the stuff is about … well, the works seem to lack something. Not necessarily from the perspective of the young artists though. I believe that there is the curse of the misunderstood artist at work here. To them, not being understood might not be an issue at all, but rather a weird sign of success.

Being misunderstood or mishandled, underrepresented or underreported has become almost something like an accolade, not only in the art world. Of course, the world is full of people who are underreported or victims of a multitude of mistreatings, but these are the people we are not hearing about, because they lack a voice. I am rather talking about complaining on big stages that your ideas are underrepresented – that seems weird to me. Reading or seeing statements publicly that begin with “No one talks about ….” almost feels like theatre of the absurd. And the Internet is full of it.

Sure, if you want to be a revolutionary, you should distance yourself from whatever mainstream there is. That is not new. What is new is the sheer number of people, groups or organizations who simultaneously claim to be “the revolution”. Even a billion dollar news-network like Fox News chips in, by trying to pretend not to be “mainstream”. Everyone wants to be an outsider, since only as such you can be a true revolutionary. So, there are millions of little revolutions with little – or no – agenda in place. Who needs an agenda, if you get your justification from the fact that you are misunderstood? The idea that you might not be represented to the full extend, because your ideas are just not worthwhile, almost never occurs. Everyone just smells a conspiracy theory directed against them.

As we have seen with Fox News, today, even representatives of the status quo claim to be the victim and thus demand the role of the revolutionary.

Yet drowned are the voices that really deserve to be heard. But how to find them, since everyone is so much better connected than those who are truly desperate? Now, this might cause anger, since every little group of equal minded people always comes to an agreement that their cause is the most valuable – or certainly amongst the most valuable. This way journalists, bankers, white nationalists and feminists meet for once on a similar playing field.

Why is it easier to explain the Holocaust than a work by Joseph Beuys?

There is this group of Syrian refugees that I know, that are mostly part of an extended family. Since they are all – on very different skill levels – struggle somewhat to cope with the German language and culture, I take them to different museums from time to time. I find that this is a far better way to teach them some German words or basic concepts than have them cook me some delicious Syrian food and stick with them in their regular environment. There is a huge number of museums in Berlin. And that is great, since it might take a while for us to run out of opportunities.

A work by Joseph Beuys

But whenever I think of taking them somewhere, I also think about the fact that I would not take them to any of the contemporary art venues, like the Hamburger Bahnhof, KW or HDKDW. When talking about this to a friend, I phrased it this way: I could easily explain them the concept of the Holocaust, or why Germans hated the Jews, while visiting the Jewish Museum; but explaining the shit Joseph Beuys has done is beyond my grasp. So, the Holocaust is a much easier concept than contemporary art, and that, I believe, is an issue.

That does not necessarily mean that I myself do not grasp some of the ideaspresented in the Hamburger Bahnhof. Keep in mind, I studied the topic quite extensively and I might even have gained some level of expertise. It is the fact, that much of it is so far beyond the reach of someone less qualified, where the problem lies. It might be that the topics many of these artists work on are just too complicating for mere mortals to understand – I don’t think that this is the case. On the contrary, most of the artists presented in a contemporary setting deal with extremely basic issues and ideas. Yet, the artists and the museums often fail completely when trying to make things accessible.

Other museums, like those who deal with science or history, manage it quite well to make hard to understand topics accessible to a huge fraction of the society – even to people who did grow up in a different country and culture. Sure, they are very often overdoing it in a Disney-theme-park kind of way, with a lot of fancy buttons and lots to touch and awe about. On the other hand, contemporary art functions in a way like “understand it or get the fuck out”. This approach is extremely elitist. It might have to do with a misunderstood concept of Avantgarde. Artists seem to believe that to really be revolutionary, one has to be constantly out of line with society. This is sad.

The opposite of the artistic aura

Today’s art world is out of control. Everything can be – and is – declared art. Much of this art derives its aura merely from the claim of established artists, that a certain piece of junk is their creation and therefore to be considered art. If on the surface of the piece, the work is indistinguishable from a pile of trash, at least the “finger of the artist” has touched the work and therefore it gave the work its artistic aura. Pretty much the same as with corporate brands like Nike, Adidas or as a matter of fact with relics.

So I was very amused, when earlier today I read about a lawsuit that has been filed against painter Peter Doig. I am not going to go to deep into the details – please look it up yourself -, but apparently someone claims to own a painting Peter Doig painted, when he was just 16 or 17. The funny thing is that Doig denies that the painting is his. Now a court has ordered the painter to prove that the painting isn’t his. Let’s put away the fact that proving that you did not do something positively is challenging even at the philosophical level, and focus more on the aura of the work.

Doig (who’s painting sell for gazillions) is ordered by the court to grant a certain work its aura, so that this aura emanates from the shitty painting and therefore the work becomes more expensive.

I think this whole story is amazingly funny, since it tells so much about what is wrong with the art world.

Just a few things:

  • some art is so fuckingly expensive, that even the shittiest, most benign “work” could cost millions
  • because of that, many artist declare the most benign shit “work”
  • it is not about content or quality, just about names and provinience
  • and the audience astonishingly takes that shit

I don’t understand lyric poetry

That might be a terrible outing, but I just can not read modern and contemporary lyric poetry. I just don’t get it. I gave up on the whole genre, but I tried in the past. So I read the first line, then I needed some time to think about what this might mean. Then I read the second line, getting more confused, but I somehow manage to connect line one and line two. But the third line gets me, since the whole things stops making any sense to me. I guess I am a creative person and normally I am perfectly capable to follow the weirdest thoughts, but again, lyric poetry defeats me.

I know, that is definitely over simplified, but the point I want to make here is another. I, like many other people, have a hard time understanding this kind of literature, since I am not trained in understanding this form of language. I am choosing literature as an example here, since literature is all about language and the problem might be most obvious, but today, almost all professional or scientific fields develop their own subset of language.

I am fully aware, that me talking about art with other people in the art world, could be hard to grasp for someone who’s lets say a butcher. That might have been always the case, but I think that the accelerating diversification of the professional field might bring an accelerated diversification in language with it. Some years ago it would have been relatively easy to grasp the language used within another scientific field, but take philosophy for instance and we are almost at a point, where certain sub fields within philosophy have a hard time finding a common basis for communication.

That bothers me somewhat and I think this presents some real challenges to the concept of interdisciplinary work. Most of the time one does not notice the fact that the language in different fields seems to further drift apart, since by definition it is the remoteness of all these fields from one another, that lets this happen. But from time to time I stumble upon it.

Again to philosophy, which could be a fine example. When reading a philosophic text sometimes I get sucked in and find the ideas presented very convincing. But once I look up and look outside the window, I find myself wondering how much the whole thing has to do with the real world. I never got through much of Kant, but how much of him is to be found in me crossing the street? I don’t want to sound arrogant and to be honest, my art and the stuff I am saying about it, suffer from exactly the same dilemma. What I am trying to say with my art, might be absolutely valid within the context created by art. And what Kant is saying in his philosophy might be valid within the field of philosophy.

I did read Vilém Flusser’s short text on photography a few years ago and I did not really think about it much afterwards. It just did not interest me that much. I am invited to participate in an event later this year, that seems to take some influence from this text, so I forced myself to reread it. And while doing so, I stumbled upon a short paragraph, that brought me to writing this text.

“Black-and-white does not exist in the world “out there,” which is a pity. If they existed, the world could be analysed logically. If we could see the world in blacks and whites, then everything in it would be either black, or white, or a mixture of the two. The drawback, obviously, is that such a world would not result in color, but in gray. Gray is the color of theory; after having theoretically analysed the world, it is impossible to resynthesize it. Black/white photographs display this fact: they are gray; they are images of theories.“

Maybe I don’t get it, but right now all I can think of is “what a pile of crap”. The problem here is that the whole text might make complete sense in its own subset of language and therefore in its own subset of perception. But to me, as someone who lives within another subset-system, the whole thing makes no sense whatsoever. In my world, “Gray” is not the color of theory … I didn’t even know that theory needed a color. And in my world being color blind does not necessarily help in logically analyzing the world around.

It might be the case, that I would get, what he is talking about, if I would try to read as much Flusser as possible and therefore manage to dive into his language and thought cosmos. But this is precisely the problem I am emphasizing here.

I think the world is not that difficult on a human level. The world around us, the society we are living in, that should all be somewhat possible to grasp. And when talking about images and photography, it should be possible to express things in a way that could be (almost) universally understood. Maybe. But I might be wrong.

Every man is a brain surgeon

Once more I came across this cursed quote by Joseph Beuys that supposedly every man is an artist. That is cursed, because in fact Beuys was not talking about this, the way this is normally taken as an excuse to have every moron claim to be an artist. In a similar claim, one could state that everyone is a brain surgeon – which is technically true as well, since everyone could try his best to operate on a living brain. Even though I would definitely advice against that. I am just very happy that with brain surgeons, only the most talented are allowed to work in that field. Something we can certainly not claim to be true in the arts.

It might be true that opening the art world to as many people as possible was done with the best of intentions, but I would argue, that in the long run, this has damaged the reputation of art quite badly – maybe beyond repair. This has created a very strange form of political correctness that seems to prohibit one to question the quality of art in general – even though, sucking at art should not be considered protection worthy. But, “there is no accounting for taste” … well fuck, another of that cursed quotes. And another one that is almost always misunderstood. Just because there is a stupid quote, everyone misunderstands, does not mean that something becomes true. There should definitely be accountability for the quality and content (or lack thereof) of ones art. But is there? Not really. There is certainly no way of getting fired from claiming to be an artist.

Sure, we could could say that two different things might unfortunately share one label. That would mean that there is the thing called art professional artists do and the other thing called art that is practiced in elementary school or by hobbyists. This way, calling the stuff pupils do in school art, would have no influence on the professional art world. But unfortunately this is somehow not the way this is understood. Artists do art and hobbyists as well. There is no real difference, other than that one happens to be expensive or happens to be hanging in museums and the other thing is just misunderstood by the people deciding to put up museum shows. But that is bullshit. Again, technically that is valid. You could, in theory, hang every image in every museum, but for that then, there would be no need for museums anymore. Since by arguing this way, you could also classify every space as a museum. And thinking about it, I am quite sure, that this claim has already been made.

So, yeah, I really get it, that people don’t understand art.

Making art as if its still 1980

If anything would be taught at a university level, the way art is, these institutions would be shut down in a matter of days. I am not talking about the role of art – maybe this is somewhat touched by the stuff I am discussing here -, but I would like to address some serious issues I have with art academia.

I get it: people have this weird idea of art being a weird thing, where everything is allowed. What strikes me though, is if this understood in a way that everything is equally valid. If you boil it down to a question of personal freedom, sure you can do whatever you want, but I seriously question that art schools have to follow that non-existing set of guidelines. Sure enough many of them do.

In the institution, where I studied, the joke was that you can not fail your exam. And while I was there almost no one did. One guy, for instance, fixed a chair to a wall, chest high, stripped himself naked, stuck a power cord in his butt, sat on the chair and insulted the professors for twenty minutes. Sure enough he passed his exam. There was discussion amongst the younger students afterwards, if they let him pass just not to spend another year in his presence; but my guess would be, that at least some of the professors found the thing he did important enough for him to be granted the title. That might be just one story, but for me it feels quite revealing. Neither was it intelligent what this guy did, nor important, nor in any way brave. One might say: But you still remember his performance, so it must have left a deep impression on you. True, and once I was walking by a posh restaurant in Berlin, late at night, and a guy vomited out of the entrance door, missing me by a mere inch. Just remembering something does not qualify it as good art.

It is quite sad, that even raising the question of the role art schools ought to play within society would be considered sacrilegious by many. You are not supposed to raise this question; art schools are for artists and they are doing whatever they want to do. And that is that. But I think it would be very important to distinguish between the art world and things that are taught and worked on in an academic environment.

The truth is, that almost all artist are forced to try to compete on the art market after they have finished their studies; but still the role of art schools as institutions of higher education should not be to fulfill the needs and wishes of the art market. I think that this would be completely the wrong focus. An academic environment is one of research and development and why should that be different for art schools? Art should be research as well – it certainly has the potential to do so. And when did we stop looking for progress and development as a key feature of young art?

If you find yourself in a class, where the bulk of students paints black squares on canvas, and you are one of them, there is something wrong with your situation. That might have to do with your professor, but you might have to take your share of the responsibility for the whole situation. Painting black squares was a huge step in the development of art and it raised and solved multiple issues and questions society was struggling with. But these questions were not your questions and the issues were not those of the world that surrounds you.

Doing what other artist did before you, is a very simple way to work as an artist. Doing similar things to what you professor is doing, might even grant you instant gratification. You are doing what he is doing? Well he certainly understands your “intentions” – since these are basically his own – and therefore he has a lot to say about your work. But that is a very strange understanding of the role an artist should play.

This is such an amazing time to work as an artist. So much information is available and so many ways to express yourself. The academic art environment should be at the core of many of the central debates. Why, for instance, are the key players in the field of visual science philosophers or social scientists? When did we lose authority over that topic? Shouldn’t artists be the leading figures here? And since artist, for decades, took their inspiration from a gazillion different sources, academic art could play an important role in bringing together different scientific fields, that are struggling with an interdisciplinary approach.

And every unnecessary black square that is been painted by an art student, not only hurts the reputation of art schools as a place of learning and research. But it also hinders the progress art could make.

Let’s Talk about Failure

If there would be a classification system on my Blog already, this should be classified under “Stuff they never talked about at art school” – but so it appears to me, would be almost everything of importance. So what would be the point then.

Failure and it’s happy little brother success are in fact rarely talked about in art academia, but they are key to the live as an artist. Maybe success is sometimes mentioned, but failure is freakishly avoided. It seems just somehow implied, that success equals financial success on the art market. That then is something almost all people who make art will never achieve – including those who spend at least five or six years to do their MFA. And including those who spend tens of thousands of Dollars on tuition in other countries (aka the US).

Maybe not talking about failure in art school would be a method to protect ones own interests. Once you start talking about it, you might end up questioning your own existence. But that leaves a huge number of young artists leaving university annually with just one semi-official way to measure their success (or lack thereof). That could explain why so many artists stop making art, a few years after finishing art school. They count themselves as failures.

But that is strange. If asked, what art is all about, almost no one would reply that it’s arts first job to provide the artist with a good income. As a matter of fact, I would expect you to fail the entrance interview to art school if that would be your frankly voiced first answer.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that we all believe that we are amongst the chosen few. And that the others might fail, but since we are most talented, we are certainly to succeed. There are these stupid casting shows in the desolate ruins of what was once the TV market, that are playing with just that. We are all special and everyone has the right to dream – or not? But being an artist is not the same as participating in a few episodes of a casting show. Well it is funny to see, that there are even casting shows, that pretend to search for the next hot new artist. Being a one-hit-wonder might bring you some limited fame for a short period of time, but besides that, it won’t prevent you from failing.

I am very angry about the fact that this topic was avoided so vehemently in art school. The question of what success as an artist is, should be addressed from the first day on. And the funny thing is that there would be not one simple answer, but the outcome would be a set of tools for the artist to advance his or her work. The measure of success should be first and foremost the artists work itself. Is it relevant? And what makes this particular work relevant? Relevant to what or to whom? If one really insists, for some people it could even be the question of relevance towards the art market. But that then is just a niche.

Most work might fail that test too, that is because there is just not enough important stuff out there worth making art about – and maybe there is a lack of talent. That might be the case as well. But that does not keep people from producing irrelevant art in bulk. My gut feeling is, that this is somewhat related to the first problem. Too many young artists look at “shit that is been sold on the art market” to judge their own work. Since you are supposed to be successful on the market to be successful as an artist, it seems to be a good idea to follow the herd. But once the market fails its promise of salvation through purchase, you end up being a mere copycat. And that most certainly neither helps your ego nor keeps you motivated to go on with your artistic struggles.

The art market seems to be driven by a keen interest in money and not by any interest in the wonders of art. So valued is the stuff that has the potential of becoming more valuable. It is somewhat like trusting hedge-fonds in their judgment to decide which parts of our culture are most important. But oddly enough that seems to happen in the art world. An artist hyped by the art market has a high chance of being granted access to important museums. Quality of the work very often seems to be not so important. But then art students go to see the museum show and take “inspiration” for their own work to the studio. The art world clones itself.