Shitty Audiences

I was at a conference recently – about smartphone photography. There, quite frequently, people raised the question, if everybody nowadays must be considered an artist of some sort, since everybody takes pictures. This quickly veered off into the question of who should be considered an artist and what might be good – or maybe worthy art – to look at. This debate isn’t new and for my taste, there seems to be a shitload of terrible art – even by established and successful artists and photographers -, in- and outside the classical art scene.

But what gets overlooked is the quality of the audience. Most of the time, the audience of exhibitions is entirely passive. The come to look at pieces of art and they leave. The same is true for visitors to my website. But that seems normal. Some museums and galleries kept the antiquated remnant of the guestbook, but the way people interact with these can be entirely ignored. The internet claims to be interactive, and sites like Instagram enable interaction between creator and audience, but let’s face it, much of this interaction is limited to something that resembles a thumbs-up or -down. That Is just the claim of interacting, rather than the real deal. Sharing stuff is the same thing. If you – as a creator – take notice of the fact that people are sharing your work, it is mostly in the form of a reminder how many people encountered your work without interacting with it.

Sure, we could now bash on the artists, that they are not coming up with “interactive” art works. Why? Just so that it is even easier for the audience to interact? No, I believe that much of the audience is shit. They are lazy and bored. They just want to be entertained. That is all. Most people, I guess, are not even getting what they are looking at, if this stuff reaches a certain depth.

Yes, we can and should talk about the quality of art and artists, but we desperately need to talk about the quality of the audience as well. Bunch of lazy bastards!

Being complicit

I have some doubts about my own work.

I am writing this in Berlin. The weather is shitty, but that is normal this time of the year. From my walk to the gym and the interactions I am having with friends and family I would assume that everything is fine. Not a single of my friends has become victim of a crime recently, nor did anyone – to my knowledge – commit any. As a whole, life seems quite peaceful and from my experience this is the case in all of Germany. My family, based in the very opposite part of the country, should normally agree with me on that. It is just that my mother seems to watch too much TV. It is quite fascinating, that many people still believe that shit is currently hitting the fan. Not that things are desperate in far away places (which they certainly are), but that they are terrible all around them. When talking to my mother who is living in a perfectly peaceful small town, one could get the impression that things are not as nice as they seem. But she is almost always referring to things happening some place else, things heard on the news, that affect her quality of live where she is. No, nothing happens in this small town, but since the world is such a dangerous place, you better ought to be scared. That at least seems to be her conclusion.

When talking about the topic of terrorism, I frequently mention the strange fact that if a suitcase explodes in London, people in rural Germany start being afraid of suitcases. This is what I am talking about. I remember growing up in the 80s that one had a vague fear that nuclear war could start any moment now. But today seems different. The threat from a global nuclear war would certainly have been something that would have affected everyone. Not matter how remote the small town, things would have been devastating. This is similar to the threat level posed by global warming today. Panic is always an option, but rarely a good one.

The things people like my mother are afraid of today seem different. This fear is not about a global catastrophe, but rather about a spillover from rather limited conflicts.

It is strange that, on one hand, the world that surrounds us is more secure than ever, while at the same time the threat level people experience seems to be growing. The wars of the 70s or 80s were far away and they truly felt to be far away. There were demonstrations and outrage over the Russian invasion in Afghanistan or the outrageous suffering in Biafra, but people did not fear for their own lives due to these conflicts.

On the map, Afghanistan is precisely the same distance away from us than it was in the 80s and the fighting in Syria is never going to affect us directly. Yet somehow the conflicts of today seem to have extended their reach. This seems absurd. A major claim of modern warfare is that its tools are more surgical and precise than ever before. And if the conflict is over there, what should we be afraid of? But the conflict, with all its surgical precision, does not claim to be over there anymore. It claims to be all around us.

Propaganda plays a crucial role.

While the reach of these conflicts – and of the participants therein – is limited, propaganda tries to make us believe in the contrary. Maybe ISIS would love to kill us all. It can’t. Therefore, it tries to instill fear by releasing propaganda videos, showing its “unlimited” capabilities. The US surveillance apparatus can not really surveil us all, so why not make us believe it could by not commenting on leaks that claim it can – i.e. the leaks by Edward Snowden? It is all about the story that is being told of the reach something might have.

We could debate now what is real and what isn’t, and surely these threats have some reality to them. Just not to the extend that is perceived. Terrorism has killed people and it will do so in the future. Most people are still not going to experience directly. And most people will not even be affected by it indirectly. Affected beyond the overblown reaction within society. In all cases of recent terror attacks in the West, I would argue, was the most devastating part the reaction from within society and not the results of the attacks themselves. September 11th, 2001 would have certainly found its way into the history books, but only the reaction of the US government, the reaction within other societies, made this attack truly global.

There is the crux and the problem with the artistic approach to these issues. In contemporary conflicts so much of the struggle is about our perception. It seems as if everyone is trying to influence us to behave in ways that are beneficial to their interests. The surveillance system that wants us to censor ourselves as if we were constantly under supervision – even if we are not. Terrorists who want us to be afraid of unattended luggage at airports, since they can not reach us. People in Afghanistan who fear blue skies, since this is the weather best suitable for drone operations and who should best be constantly in fear that the drones might strike them next. Even though there is merely a hand full of drones flying at any given moment.

By telling the tales of terror, surveillance and the like, we might become complicit. These things all feast from the attention granted to them and even though many artists might have the best intentions, they are helping to spread fear.

Plus, there is the coolness factor. I am not going to name names, but there are quite a few artists who are creating extremely polished and posh objects and pieces while dealing with these issues. Of course, that is what you need to do, when trying to make ends meet with your art. Better make stuff that looks appealing, otherwise no one is going to buy it and no museum is going to add it to their collection.

I find this highly problematic. Looking at all these interactive maps that seem to reveal the landscape of surveillance, all these artworks that seem to probe aspects of the surveillance state. All the accompanying texts that read so intriguing. That certainly helps. But whom? Maybe it helps society to some extent to cope with these issues. Certainly, it helps surveillance organizations to polish their PR.

I might be myself guilty as fuck. I could try to excuse myself, by claiming that I am merely trying to ridicule these structures and groups that attempt to influence us against our interests. Yet I am certainly failing to some extent. Even by shedding light on some things, I help these groups in reaching their audience – a audience. I help spreading the word and the word itself is the damaging thing here.

So how should we deal with these issues? Should we ignore them entirely. That does not seem right. I must say I am baffled, and I just don’t know what the right approach might be. To me, there just seems to be the need to question the whole artistic approach to certain topics. And from the way I see it, this rarely happens. Too many artists just find these topics thrilling and think that they are benefiting from the reaction from the media, curators and the audience to their works. Little thought seems to go into their responsibilities. Sex sells and so do violence, terror and fear. Artists need to be aware of that.

TL:DR

Money Money Money

Maybe I am naïve, but the image above is slightly disturbing to me. Of course, artist need to make a living (sometimes even through selling their art) and so do gallerists, agents and everyone else involved in the art world. As a whole art is quite removed from the needs and urges of society, that is nothing new, but sometimes this becomes brutally obvious. Unfortunately, it seems as if this is especially the case when it comes to art that claims to be conscious to the problems in our contemporary society. In this case the artistic sub-genre would be documentary photography. There is always a disconnection between the photographer and the stuff he or she is trying to document. Maybe we are just not able to bridge some gaps between us and the world around. But who thinks it might be a good idea to post an image like this with a price tag? To me that seems quite disrespectful. But maybe it is just honest. Someone just does not give a fuck and tries to make ends meet.

Some weeks ago, I was in Mannheim. They have a posh new museum building for the Kunsthalle. A hell a lot of donations seemed to have been supported the construction. To an extent rarely seen in Germany, almost every room was named after some wealthy dude or dudess. That for itself – to me at least – is highly questionable. Museums – as institutions of social research – should normally be in a position to question precisely the mechanisms behind this kind or donor culture. Interestingly it seems as if the museum just did not get the problem here. This was obvious judging by the main exhibition on display at the time of my visit. The title of the show: “CONSTRUCTING THE WORLD: ART AND ECONOMY” might give a hint of what this was about. Room after room of artists attempting to question the role economy plays in our modern society. Room after room, that is named for some rich person and who’s name is going to stay behind, long after the critical art piece has left. Tricky.

We might all be complicit. Sure, I myself am part of the problem. I would definitely have reacted enthusiastically to a request by the curator to participate in this show. I would not have questioned the museum itself. That has to do with power structures. If I’d question the museum, maybe I am not going to be included. The same is true for the museum itself. If they’d deny the rich bloke his name plaque, he or she would shovel the money some place else. And that is the bigger issue. I am all for taking money away from people in the form of taxes and therefore denying them their little attitudes. Especially if it comes to institutions like universities, museums, libraries. Places that need to be able to openly question everything. But then there are other people’s attitudes. If invited to a show, could I ever really question the curator that curates the show? The museum director whose institution hosts it? Maybe not. Maybe I wouldn’t, since my participation will never be something, I can take for granted.

The Metrics of the Art World and why Art Schools resemble a Cult

When it comes to the importance of a contemporary artist, two different metrics seem most important. The first metric deals with financial success, this tries to take into account sales through the primary market (sales directly through the artist and through a gallery or agency), and through the secondary market (mostly sales through auction houses). Since most participants in the primary market are quite secretive, when it comes to business details, measuring financial success relies heavily on published auction results.

The other way the success of an artist is measured is by looking at how widely his or her work is presented. But not every exhibition is equally valuable, and the field is extremely diverse. Is it merely participating in a group show at a small privately organized off-space? Or is it a solo show at a major museum, curated by an important curator?

There are multiple magazines and websites that offer their own rankings. Some rely more on the first metric, some on the second. Even though there are many intersections, some artist feature more prominently in one metric, while others shine more brightly in the other.

Very often, the artist CV, the paper trail that keeps track of exhibitions and collectors, seems almost more important than the work created by the artist. In most months, the CV available on my website is downloaded dozens of times. Many of the projects on my site receive far less attention than that. To be honest, when visiting the website of another artist, I frequently look at their CVs myself.

The importance of these metrics is deeply enshrined in the art world. Pretty much on each level. Even at art school, people frequently discuss, whether a certain artist deserves his position in a certain ranking, or if his work might be over- or undervalued. Every library of every art school is filled with books on precisely those artists who rank highest in these metrics. It seems quite natural to accept all of this, since every available piece of evidence seems to point to them being extremely important. But the whole thing is complete nonsense.

The art market is precisely that – a market. And an extremely manipulative one. Gallerists and investors push certain artists. Curators follow the pack and show those artists who seem to get more attention than others. Museum directors expect blockbuster shows and choose blue-chip artists. And the audience fells hip, when attending a show of an artist whose name they have heard before. There is little real development involved, it feels more like a mixture of a self-fulfilling prophecy and blatant manipulation.

Thinking about it, I find the way these metrics make their way into the academic setting of the art school troubling. Let’s face it, a vast majority of graduates will never make it in neither of the two metrics. Hardly any artist makes his or her living from selling art. And almost no young artist is ever going to have a huge solo show in a museum. This is true for the most brilliant and talented of the graduates. Only a handful ever make it and when judging their work, the whole thing seems extremely random. And yet, these lists and metrics – consciously or unconsciously – shape the debate on what artists one should look at and emulate. Even though the chances are quite slim that students at art schools will make it in these metrics, this is precisely what these institutions ask for, when recruiting their teaching staff. Imagine a business school that is only able to get five percent of their graduates in business positions, but their teaching staff looks as if everyone is going to make it. This is absurd.

By surrounding students with teachers that made it in these metrics and by constantly referring to artists that made it as well, it becomes a promise. I have spoken to quite a few art school teachers in the past and they all claim that they are trying to address this issue with their students. They also tell me that they are frequently confronted by students who tell them that they try to be rich and famous. It seems as if the way they address this bears little fruit. I also remember my own ideas and dreams, while studying. Now, I feel ashamed of how naïve I was, but no one really showed me an alternative approach.

Like a cult, there was only one possible way for salvation. Just look around you. Everyone you see has found the promised land. You had to hope and to try to emulate the path to success already taken by others to make it in the end. If you are not sure of how the whole system works, don’t be scared. No one understands the system, so just try to blend in and emulate the people that came before you. Maybe you are one of the chosen few.

I am not saying that there are not always a few artists who are going to make it this way and that their work should not be looked at. But focusing on these few seems odd.

Trying to look into the future, things seem somewhat bleak for the classical role of the artist. Everyone nowadays carries a camera around and, oh my God, do people use them. What was once a certain style, a handwriting, developed by artists over a whole career, has now become Instagram filters. Simultaneously, publishing your creations and sharing them with the world is now built right into the tools you use for their creation. These things were long two separate steps, but today sharing has become the driving force behind creation. Everyone creates, and everyone shares – and the world is drowning in images. But the ability to share with others is not limited to people who use the camera, built into their phones, as their creative device. Being creative in general has become part of a modern middle-class lifestyle. And who might blame them? Trying to express yourself is nice, and this is precisely what drives young people to apply to art school. At least that is what most applicants tell during their entrance interview.

I know so many artists who feel miserable, since they have neither made any financial success, nor is their work presented in exhibitions. Many even stopped producing art, since the whole enterprise seems to be entirely pointless. Even though all of them were once praised at art school for their talent and creativity. Even I myself quite frequently feel the need to say, “fuck you all” and stop doing whatever it is I am doing. Judged by cult standards I am a failure and salvation seems out of reach.

The art market is, in its current form, highly unpredictable and seems to care about art mostly as something that can generate revenue. While in art school, having a B-ranking gallerist visit your class, should definitely not be considered the most important day in the semester, but the way I remember it, many people do. The same is true for curators. There are many curators who are doing a wonderful job, nevertheless they have to follow their own agenda. Some feel the pressure of market forces who partly dictate their work, others are driven by other factors beyond their control. And even the most open minded and careful curator will never be able to detect each and every talent, let alone be able to give every talent ample space in upcoming exhibitions, to make their voices truly heard.

When talking about this issue with friends, I encounter resignation. The common remark is that there is just nothing one might be able to do. Some start to talk about all the stuff they have tried to kickstart their career. But maybe all of us try to tackle the issue the wrong way. When talking about raising a certain amount of money to buy a stand at an art fair or when talking about this new concept for an exhibition someone is planning. Even when talking about novel ways to get the attention of a collector/gallerist/curator… we are always merely talking about how to play the metrics game. But these metrics themselves are the issue. And the system they represent.

Maybe at art school it might be possible to teach students that these metrics are actually not that important. I truly believe that the role of the artist within our society will change in the coming years. It must. As mentioned, almost everyone now has the potential to express him- or herself on a public stage. I am not even talking about creativity expressed by AI systems. How long is the aura granted by art schools able to stem against this development?

Art schools should take their role as research institutions far more serious than today. Some schools have programs implemented, but all too often these are focused on an MFA or postgrad level. This does not go far enough. I believe that research should be a key element from the very beginning of one’s studies. And this should aim very high. When a student manages to better understand a certain issue or topic through his or her work, that should be the metric for success. No matter whether the respective work is ever shown or not. No matter if it is ever bought. Damn, no matter, if there results actually a tangible thing from the research. A real object or image. If something is better understood, that alone should be counted as success. Everything else, shows, sales, interviews, should be a mere byproduct. Maybe this way graduates find it easier to define their role within society, without having to rely on the unreliable art market.

I take research as a given term that can certainly be found in many of founding documents for art schools on a university level. But this should not be understood as a call to bring established research structures into the art world. Classical academic research certainly carries its fair share of systemic issues. Research papers need to be written and peer-reviewed in a certain way. Dissertations focus on miniscule sub-issues, take years to write and no one ever reads them. A whole new set of frustrations. No, this is not worth being copied at art schools.

I have no clear vision of how exactly something like this might look. It certainly includes an interdisciplinary approach, that tries to work with as many other fields as necessary. Maybe young artists would have to give up some notion of freedom and liberty. I say notion, since the liberty experienced at art schools quite often is an illusion. For once – as mentioned – the whole system operates under the vague influence by outside forces anyway. And what is this idea of liberty truly worth, if it leads most participants to frustration? It is not as if one would have to give up all freedom and liberty, but once in a while one should let others determine the direction a certain project takes. Personally, I have spent some time as an exchange student in Chicago. The system there was very different from the system in Berlin. Very much like a school, with classes one had to attend, courses that could be failed and homework that had to be made. Quite an extreme contrast and maybe too extreme. But while there, it didn’t feel like I had lost all my liberties. On the contrary, personally this was the most productive time I have had while being a student. And to me that felt extremely good.

Being more school-like isn’t what I mean, when calling for a more academic approach. It rather has to do with each artist’s own approach in creating his or her work and how this is being taught at art school. Schools should put more emphasis on the question how artists might find success once they have graduated and how this success might be defined. Reading all these statistics about how few artists will make their living through art after graduating just does not help. True, there is little we will be able to do about the financial success or about the path into big museums, but then why should we care about these metrics? I am not saying we should ignore them and merely conclude that the ship is sinking and that there is nothing we can do about it. This seems to be the current approach.

In engineering, failure is something most people can agree upon. If a rocket blows up during launch, we might derive some knowledge from the event, but overall it clearly looks like a failure – Elon Musk’s PR department might attempt to spin it otherwise, but let’s discount that. Success or failure in fine arts on the other hand is something that is mostly defined by how every single artist feels about it. Sure, you will find an audience that tells you how pretty things are or journalists who praise your approach. In the end though, one has to believe them to make it count. And I am arguing that we are all trained to look at the wrong things, when it comes to outside evidence for the failure or success of our works.

With this we also have to rethink the role artists play within society. Most higher education in Western Europe is founded by the public. This is true for art schools as well. Naturally society expects something in return. Right now, this comes in part in the form of established artists who have graduated from these institutions. There is a lot of finger pointing going on. Young artists point to the institution that has trained them as proof of some kind of quality and once an artist has established himself, art schools refer back to show what kind of quality and success they deliver. Little to no pointing is ever done towards the nameless hordes that might have graduated in the same year as the important artist. The idea seems to be, that the overall success rate might seem bigger, if you only mention success and no failure.

But what if artists start to redefine success in a way that does not deliver tangible results of that kind to society? There are already quite a few politicians that continuously question the amount of money spent on educating people in fields like fine arts. The return already seems quite limited and, in the future, it might diminish even further. Here, a more active role taken by art schools in contemporary debates might certainly help. I was talking about some of the looming changes earlier in this text. These changes, like the developing creativity within AI systems or the fact that everyone nowadays publishes his work on the same platforms as professional content providers – just to mention two -, are not just going to have an effect on fine arts, but on society as a whole. Many professional fields just come to realize how vulnerable their position actually is.

To me, the strongest selling point for fine arts was always its position slightly outside established structures of communication. Over time, society seems to struggle constantly to develop the right way to approach certain topics and ideas. The changes in speech are quite obvious, certain words come into fashion or fall from grace. But underlying these changes in language are changes in perception at a very fundamental level. Art was always playing a role in these developments. This might have to do with the role of the artist as the jester in society. While everyone had to speak and think in the agreed upon fashion, the artist was able to look beyond the limits of the accepted and poke around. Art can therefore provide a testbed for new ideas and developments. But as long as art stays focused mostly on itself and tries to fill in the nonexistent role of the “avantgarde”, arrogance might spell doom.

I am having issues with the idea of the “avantgarde”. It is the claim that art might storm ahead and open up new fields for society. This is not what I meant, when talking about poking around. Society does not move in a straight line, nor is art able to predict further developments. All art can do is to try things out. If there is enough poking, some of the stuff discovered might even become relevant, but that is mere chance. Most of the claims artists have made in the past, have left little traces beyond the inside of books on art history. Avantgarde feels like “told you so”, by people who make every possible claim beforehand.

It seems difficult for many fields within academia to open themselves to other fields. Sometimes there seem to be common interests and a cooperation seems sensible. But more often it is unclear what the direct benefit of a cooperation might be. Often, funding leaves not enough space for experiments. In countries like the UK, it has become relatively normal though, to open big research projects to artists. This is precisely what art schools should actively try to develop further. Artists as mediators between different fields.

But the way I have experienced German art schools, this might mean that one has to overcome the internal pressure from art students themselves. If you ever wish to see a human hornets nest in action, you should try to give art students the idea of limiting their creative freedom in any way. Best not to disturb an art student in its natural habitat. That is sarcastic, but that might in part be what makes it so difficult to prepare art schools for the future and help young artist cope with their shitty existence. Only working on the stuff, you feel like working on (the students) and not trying to come up with stuff for young artists to work on (teachers) is the path of least resistance. Maybe even the path of no resistance. The last time a professor at an art school ever told me to do something particular was on the day I did my entrance exam. After that no one ever gave a shit. That was absolutely not what I had expected. To be honest, I felt offended. I really expected people to teach me things. I was eager about that. But no. After some acclimatization I managed to blend in by becoming lazy.

I get the call for freedom to some extent, when talking about grad students. They should be able to try out the real live after graduation, while still being in the protective environment of the art school. But this call goes beyond that and seems to include everyone from the first semester on. Art school taught me almost nothing of value for my live now. I have realized that by now. Did I have a good time? Sure. I had a space to work, the tools to work with and no outside pressure to come up with plan-B, since I was already attending one of the most prestigious institutions. But I constantly doubt that this was in fact the right decision. In retrospect, I would have loved someone forcing me to learn stuff and find my role in the structures of society outside the narrow art world.

Since having students take care of themselves is so convenient for the teachers, it might be a lot for them to simultaneously come up with stuff to teach and face the uproar by students who think you try to limit their liberty by actually force them to do something. But someone should try it.

Art Schools – A Ponzi Scheme

Charles Ponzi allegedly writing a check to Jeff Koons. (I allege it by the way)

Of those people, who have attended art school, very few manage to make their living from selling their art afterwards and even fewer get rich. Everyone seems to have accepted that and even while I was attending art school, that was constantly something people were talking about. It is now ten years since I have left art school and maybe things have changed drastically, but from the outside glimpses I get, I doubt it. Back then, the main goal for most students seemed to be the art market. That was the stuff worth hoping for. Whenever a gallerist came for a visit, people got excited. When there was the annual open house event, people were hoping to be discovered or to meet affluent buyers. Very few did. But the excitement remained. Just hope, maybe the next gallerist visiting might discover your potential or maybe the next group of visitors is going to make you rich.

In retrospect, the whole thing has some characteristics of a cult or a Ponzi scheme. The promise to make it in the end keeps everyone involved, even though most people fail in one way or the other.

I think that the focus should be entirely different. Art schools should distance themselves from the art market and understand themselves as scientific institutions. Not sellability should be the focus, but research. This goes even further. Does it really matter how often one’s art is being shown in a museum or gallery? Right now, with the way the art world is structured, it certainly does. I am struggling with the whole topic myself, maybe art should become something that works as pure discourse, without being shown. I am not talking about artist who present this discourse as performative works – that would be once again an attempt to please the established environment of exhibitions in museums and galleries. No, artists should be able to participate merely in the discourse itself and still be considered artists.

Creating stuff has become a key part of modern, middle class lifestyle. Only if you are somehow creative, you seem to be a full-fledged member of society. And not only do people create stuff, the creations are shared constantly. There is this “five stages of grief” thing (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). I wonder what stage the art world might be in. Sure, that is self-help-guidebook nonsense, but poking at these things can be fun.

Revolution as a Reference

Recently I went to an exhibition opening. There were some video projections, the content did not really matter. While holding a glass of wine, I came to talk to an elderly man. He mentioned to me that the videos did remind him of some Fluxus works, he had seen in one of the earlier Documenta shows in Kassel. Back when he was a student there. He went on to complain about Fluxus and the new work he had just encountered. I found that interesting. He could still describe the Fluxus works in great detail, after so many years. He was talking about him not understanding what he had encountered back then. But still, the works had left such a deep impression with him. I questioned him, if, in a week or two, he might still be able to remember any of the content of the new work on display at the place we were just visiting. He was absolutely certain that he would not.

That is quite important, I guess. I am struggling with folks like Joseph Beuys and Fluxus as a whole, but maybe these works did fit the time they were created in. They have been powerful enough, that after fifty-odd years, someone might still be confused to the point of talking about it. They must have been extremely authentic. Maybe this gets lost on me, since I am born many years later and the circumstances, in which I have encountered them is all so different. To him, they certainly had a huge relevance. He did not seem to like these works all that much, but even from disgust might come something deep.

But what would be the relevance of the new work then? I am not mentioning the show, nor the artist, because it would be unfair to boil it down to it being just a reference to some Fluxus piece. But it seems as if it nevertheless misses relevance to today. It did not leave me baffled, nor did it make me feel the slightest bit inspired. The conversation I was having with this nice man, easily outshone the art presented.

There are plenty of “new” works that copy the struggles fought by old ones. The revolution we might need to fight today, would look different than the revolution that was fought by Beuys and CO. So, when young artists create works that copy other people’s struggles, the work might be easily recognizable, but it’s relevance is at least questionable. At least.

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.