THE END OF THE ARTIST as we know it

November 2018

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In July 2017 the art critic Sabine Vogel published an article entitled ‘The End Of the Arts’. Following lines echo her essay and reason why the letters I and T should be added to arrive at the title ‘The End Of The Artist’ – as I believe that not the ARTS but rather the concept of the ARTIST, which we’ve gotten accustomed to over the last 500 years, has come to an end.

The second council of Nicaea in 787 AD saved us from Byzantine Iconoclasm and kept the veneration of icons going. The Roman Catholics stood by the image as a representation of the divine while the Jews and later the Moslems forbade them – a decisive move that would lay out the foundation of Western supremacy over the world. As the image had grown increasingly important over the centuries those who had banned them from their believes fell behind. Later in history some of the ‘non-Christians’ or rather some ‘heretics’ among them either hooked on to this overwhelming concept or they would turn into copycats. Images rule Western culture and they rule the world. Today it seems as if the image has won out against all competing senses humans enthrall. The entire world, regardless its believes, submits to the power of the image. Think of the photo of the little boy’s body that was washed ashore at a Greek island during the climax of the immigration crisis in 2015. A single image changed the minds of millions of Europeans, who until then had not been sympathetic toward the suffering of refugees who had tried to save their lives by crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

Now why would the image become so important? Throughout the history of the Christendom only a few priests succeeded in mesmerizing their listeners, only a few were as eloquent, charismatic and magnetic as the Florentine monk Girolamo Savonarola or the German Martin Luther in 15thcentury, preachers who had the power to lure people into the church’s message by means of eloquence and outstanding performance. Those who were in charge of the Roman Catholic Church must have understood at an early stage that an excellent painting, placed on top of an altar instead, is more capable of transmitting the metaphysical better than the average priest. The image touches and pulls on an emotional level in a more neutral way than a human being ever could. The image is flawless insofar as sympathy or antipathy for a person are not involved. A painting is a soulless object, a ‘neutral’ gadget that can nonethless much easier transmit the mysterious than a human ever could. My means of its manipulative power it can emanate ‘magic’ and therefore take over the hearts of the believers. An excellent painting succeeds in manifesting the collective desires of its beholders, it unifies their longings – it ‘nails’ them down. Knowing that the artists needed freedom in order to create this effect the Catholic Church would give the artists leeway in their interpretation – sure also because of the desires of its male representatives. 

Our current definition of what an ‚artist’ encompasses in his work, his doings, his life-style constitutes itself at the dawn of the Renaissance. From there on ‚we’ are promoted from craftsmen to something ‘divine’ or at least close to it. We are successfully elevated toward independence in our interpretation of the world. Sure we keep sticking to the rules and current dogmas, yet the New Testament keeps serving us the foundation to our work; but we add contents by reintroducing and incorporating antique ideals and legends of the past. From now on the nobility, the kings and queens accept us as ‚interpreters’ of the beauty and the divine and keenly await our inspirational escapades. Yet, we are still in the age of commissioned works. One could say we form the shadows of the rulers and the rich. During those times artists are socially highly valued and appreciated (if only Caravaggio were able to read these lines as the man suffered his entire life from not being accepted by those who had no talent and yet ruled his universe.) If in the late 1800’s a rather unknown Sicilian genre painter would participate in a show at the Künstlerhaus Vienna –there were no galleries back then– and he’d sell a mount Aetna landscape painting, it would make him enough to live princely with his family for three years. During pre-emancipation, pre-democratic times artists were happily dependent on those who commissioned them and they were willing to give in to the fashionable tastes of their collectors.  

At the end of the 19thcentury our final step of emancipation is being taken. We go beyond our boundaries as the Impressionists kick off a romantic, individual interpretation of the material world. Surrealism, Dadaism, Futurism etc. follow suit. For a couple of decades of the 20th century –intercepted by WW2– artists become the drivers and the others ride along with us. The interpretation of the world in terms of images is solely ours from now on. We brand the bourgeois society. It is on them to follow us, not the other way round. We have reached ‘full independence’ in our doing, we have gained supremacy over the themes and topics we want to focus on including the choice of the materials/medium we want to be using. The arts have become ‘democratic’. 

Along with this liberation comes a division. On the one hand we fall deep in the social hierarchy: ‘You’re an artist? OMG? I feel sorry for you.’ On the other hand if one of us reaches the top of the art hierarchy then everyone will lick our toes, less because one is a good artist but rather because one has become a decisive economical asset. Da Vinci died a millionaire, so did Michelangelo and Bernini and the great Dutch painters as well. The concept of mass-producing art factories existed long before Andy Warhol reinvented it and other smart-ass 20th century artist carried it on. Getting to the top and fulfilling the demands of the market, that can never be satisfied, is every artist’s desire. Once the formula of a unique individual expression is found the artist’s production turns into a doubtful repetition of content, an endless perpetuation as there is no time left to experience anything, no time to breath, no time to reflect, absorb, digest or turn the world upside down. Post WW II the contemporary arts have not only become a pillar of the capitalist system, no, they have rather become its spearhead. Joining the market means submitting to its rules. 

Artists must fulfill the obligation of the Western holy grail of individuation – more than any other member of our society. He/she has to have something outstanding about their personality, something off the norm, something unique that is supposedly only found in one single human being. Fierce distinction triggers admiration. This construct is based on the idea that each and every of us is different from the others – a principle the West has been holding up from its very foundations on. The concept stands diametral to Far-Eastern thinking where the individual counts little since everybody’s conditioning leads to the desire to be equal, to be as little distinguishable from the norm as possible. Care for the others for the sake of all is the principle notion. Japanese artists did not used to be able to explain what they were doing, how they reached their conclusions and materialized them into artwork. They would say: ‘It came from my heart, it is about feeling, I can’t explain’ Only when artists like On Kawara came up or when Takashi Murakami had Western art historians set up a theoretical framework for his doing, only then they were accepted into the Western club of an outstanding individual approach. Murakami’s work is a reflection of Japanese Manga culture embedded into what is conceivable by Westerners. There is a reason why his work is placed as a follow up model on American Pop-Art. Kawara’s numbers are the epitome of Western rationalizing – splitting up time by means of a mathematical system. 

Van Gogh is the epitome of the Western concept, he stands representational for many generations of artists who do not necessarily have to cut off their ears in order to prove their artistry but should be -for being taken into serious consideration- on the verge to mental illness. Only a border-liner will be recognized as a genius and genius is the material our world desperately needs, at least we are made to believe so. The artist must be admired, the artist must be feared, the artist must behave as if he was not part of the society, the artist has the right, rather the obligation, to offend, he/she is considered a prophet, he/she mirrors the state our society finds itself in. His genius allows him to speak a language through his works that can be recognized at first glance. Only this way a name can be attached to his product, a name can be remembered, recalled, praised and used for all the others who want to distinguish themselves. The longing for and statement of difference is passed on to the collectors – it helps them distinguish themselves from all the others who drown in wealth. It elevates them off common grounds. Why else would the Medici back then as well as rich Russian oligarchs today, just like all nouveau riche throughout all times, acquire art? Status symbols, proof of their existence. And because the artist’s doing is -in the romantic sense- fit for eternity his work has the power to carry the collector along into infinity. Wealth is simply not enough. Who would remember the Medici if they had not linked their existence to artists they nurtured?

The status of the artist in the 20thcentury creates a monster of hubris, a know-it-all, a person who is so much a fish out of the water that he/she really is convinced to be better than, to be above the rest of mankind. Did any of those geniuses ever reflect the social framework that allows them to act like this? Who gave them the talent? Do they really believe that they owe it to themselves? There is no self-sustainable genius. Talented people who still have a trace of decency in them will state: it was 50% talent and 50% hard work. But other people work hard too. One owes one’s talent to unknown forces – you may call them ‘the universe’ or ‘the genes’ or ‘god’ if one is a believer or simply luck, born under the right star… 

Marcel Duchamp’s legacy of modernity is not yet overcome – how could it? Sure, the arts cannot always be innovative, but how come so many artists these days paint as if Cezanne, Duchamp and co. never existed? Aren’t they aware of the steps ‘our gods’ of modernism, our predecessors, have taken? Are they still struggling to fend of the necessary nihilistic concepts of modernism? Or are they trying to chase away the ghost of the past? Is it like Bürgel’s Documenta 12 title: ‘Is modernism our antiquity?’ Or is it outright ignorance, neglect or incapacity not to pay attention to what the past forebode? 

Along with its WW2 victory America demands and reaches supremacy over the artistic discourse and the chosen artists in the post war era – Paris is out, New York is in. The first Documenta in Kassel/Germany 1957 pays tribute to these new facts. The pre-war art trading bridge between the two nations is being rebuilt but from now on it is the other way round: American artists produce, send their emanations for exposure to Germany, then their works go back to the US and are being sold –multifold risen in price– to collectors there. As a trade off German artist who are willing to follow American patterns are being allowed to the very top too. The British, as always, cook their own cup of tea with the Americans. 

What American artists produce post war is content wise driven by critics and theorists. The artists willingly submit to their interpretations and fill in their works. It is not a conspiracy theory to state that POP-ART was promoted by the American state department throughout the world. Like the church in previous centuries the American administration used images to convince the world of its intellectual supremacy. How noble to use art instead of the picture-manipulation-machine that Hitler and his devoted Leni Riefenstahl had come up with in order to direct and oppress the masses. Yet film -from its foundations– was created to appeal to the proletarians, the low classes, art instead has always been directed toward the educated – the lucky few who believe themselves to have more understanding of the world than most. Jackson Pollock’s ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM is now even being questioned by American art-historians as a unique invention since it was the Japanese artist group GUTAI that had developed it out of calligraphy a few years ahead of the Americans. But in the 1950ies the world was neither ready for Japan heading a debate nor for Japanese artists participating in the art world. Japan had lost the war, America was the shining winner and along with it its intellectuals and artists took over. The globalization of the arts will only reach us in the 90ies of the 20thcentury.

As the iron curtain falls in 1989, the former East that had never really distinguished itself from Western industrial concepts, starts toddling along. Basically they are being annihilated by the capitalist world. India and China rise and start copying our faulty concepts, they rise due to the sheer numbers of their peoples and they become increasingly competitive – again only for as long as they are willing to stick to our rules of running and eventually destroying the world. As soon as entrepreneur collectors from the emerging economies, the Russians, the Chinese and the Indians join the art market the price tags attached to contemporary art works turn astronomical. These days contemporary art outdoes manifold what first class art from the far past is being traded for. Money laundering triggers the hype. Seeking a safe haven in an unsafe world is another decisive factor behind this phenomenon. And only now artists from so far neglected parts of the world are welcomed into the market, under the condition of bringing about works true to Western ‘iconography’. Whatever enters the market must be understandable for Western senses. A bit of exoticism won’t hurt, is even wished for, but if the art is not decipherable, it will be considered folklore and therefore declared non-art. Any artist, no matter from where he/she might be, must submit to Western intellectual concepts and iconography, they have to meet the demands of the West in order to be taken seriously. 

‘Art cannot, except at the price of death or decay, assume the mantle of science or morality; the persuit of truth is not its aim, it has nothing outside itself.’                   Charles Baudelaire

Most of the 20thcentury artists refrain from doing commissioned work. As described above their attitude had formed into: ‘Look at me, I am the artist, you wish to live and feel the way I do, then think what I think, admire the manifestation of my existence, I am your guru.’ If today a corporation offers a young contemporary painter to produce 300 red paintings for their new headquarters, sure 99 out of a 100 would party the night away and deliver asap. I am from the generation that would react to an offer like this as follows: ‘Currently I am on a different path, I cannot do red paintings right now but you are more than welcome to have a look in my studio – any red painting you’ll find will be yours.’ 

These days artists are at everybody’s disposal and service. We have done a full cycle. Collectors commission us to create things to their liking. Cruise lines commission curators to design the interior of their ships. It is no more: ‘Go to Venice, study Veronese, find an artistic answer reflecting our times’, no, it is rather ‘I’m tired of my Ferraris, do something that draws all the attention of my admirers and make sure it wins more of them.’ Medici? Trump? Beyond the talent it needs an orchestrated effort of powerful people within the art world/market to push an artist to top desirability. Only considerable investment will maneuver an artist to top prices, to top selling – in the interest of the collector’s personal financial gain.  

Artists must be in charge of the narrative. Damien Hirst is a devilish master of the narrative. With utmost sensitivity he meets the Zeitgeist and passes the train of the market in a vehicle that he himself invented. Theaster Gates’ Afro-American mind instead is more communal than the average white artist’s could ever be. His mission is not to beat or corner the market. Instead he’ll have a group of impeccably dressed Afro-American intellectuals sing a gospel in the Smithsonian library while they dance in circles like African tribesman. Magic. Black Charismatics they call themselves. Gates work is deeply political, yet never obvious, never upfront. 

Don’t we all long for this moment when we get to see/feel art that deeply touches us? Art that does not appeal to our minds, art that hits our stomach or our soul, if one would like to call it that way. That moment when we lack words, when the non-verbal touches a cord only art can touch. Think of visiting a show – rarely you will discover a piece of art that does something to your existence by evoking an unknown feeling you cannot name. It is mysterious, magic. You cannot explain or express why it is this way. Language fails. In the aftermath you can come up with lots of words, but in the very moment the very feeling that took you over cannot be described in words. That’s the ART’S SURPLUS. That’s what distinguishes art from the humanities and all the other disciplines. Only art can make the beholders lose their breath out of sheer wondering. Not many artists throughout history succeed to do so though. 

From the 1980’s on artists increasingly go into discussing their issues with experts in public.  We join THEIR DEABTE and make ourselves dependent on the spoken word instead of answering by our means. We make ourselves dependent on (mainly) French philosophers like Lyotard, Virillio, Focault etc. From now on many artists base their thinking on those philosopher’s writings, they illustrate the philosopher’s world. Entertainment? Forced reflection? Hasn’t it always been like this? Haven’t the arts always referred to writing e.g. the bible? Yes, artists always had to incorporate all fields of knowledge and believes into their work, they transform knowledge, they elevate it to a different level of human conscience. We start our job at the point where all the other disciplines have come to the end of their wisdom. We add our surplus on top of their findings.Art needs no wisdom, art needs no moral, artists need not be eloquent intellectuals. At the end of the 20thcentury we have become dependent, we draw from and base our artistic practice on the humanities, on natural sciences, economics etc., we reflect on them, not the other way round. This is when Baudelaire’s prediction fulfills itself, the moment when we submit to other expert’s interpretation of the world is the moment when we give up our independence and this is when we lose it over all and the moment that we make ourselves dependent on other disciplines is the moment when artists become human again. We have given up and lost our surplus, we gave up something only artists could provide.  

And the artists talk more than ever. Eloquence is in demand. An artist who cannot explain his intentions has a hard time to be taken seriously. I never forget a discussion at the Viennese academy of fine arts in the 1980’s entitled ‘ART and REVOLUTION’ at which three art historians confronted two artists. One of them, namely Franz West, had not shown up. The artist present lacked the power to invite the theorists into his world, he would meet them in theirs, he would submit to their language, their diction, their terminology. And they sunk him like a leaking ship. 45 minutes later a drunk Franz West entered the room and mumbled in nasal Viennese: ‘Oh, you are around, I thought I was early.’ Laughs in the audience. Franz slowly moved up the podium, took a seat and was immediately nailed by the theorist’s questions. Remaining silent Franz leaned back. Looking at the ceiling he went: ‘Sure…,…the sky is blue.’ Silence. The rest of the evening the art historians on the podium discussed what the artist might have meant with those grave words and how they should be interpreting him…  

This anecdote is not about the good old times, about the artist serving as a projection wall for outcasts in the society, about the artist sacrificing his health and himself for the sake of his genius, his outstanding existence, talent, integrity, independence, freedom. It is about the supremacy of interpretation. Artists should never forget that they should remain the ones the secondary field draws from. They are the origin and all the curators, theorists, art historians, critics and the like should remain observers and interpreters of our doing. It is on them to be dependent on us and not the other way round.

In the 1980’s CURATORS in the contemporary art field did not exist the way we define them now. I vividly remember the times when the new job description established itself. Our historical art museums had had specialists who carried the title curator but the definition of their job was different from today’s. The art world worked perfectly well without curators. It needed a new profession we were told as someone had to sort out the mess within the pluralistic art production. Order? Only a few years in the curator’s names on invitations turned out to be more prominent than the endless row of artists they had invited to submit to their themes. It went all the way to the point when the artists were not even mentioned on the invitations anymore. The curators had taken over. No isms – theme shows instead. The latest list of the most important people in the art world contains a 90% majority of curators, theorists, gallerists, collectors, museum directors etc. A meager 10% are artists, some of them big names, some of them having made theory the core of their ‘art’. In the far West – at art schools in LA – students pay 30K and more in tuition fees just to find themselves facing teachers who will do no more than provide them with a reading list and discuss their content at the end of the semester. Theory based on science. Empiricism. The arts have been substituted by words. Words that lean on rational explanations of what the arts are doing. And the majority of the artists willingly fit into this system. They submit their production to the theorist’s likings. 

The curators throw theme shows, cram as many as possible of us into one building or one city. Any political crises means that an endless number of artists will, in co-ordinance with the curators, reflect on it. Chris Dercon noted in an art discussion in Helsinki in spring this year: ‘Much too long we’ve been expecting the arts to react and find answers to all problems of this world, including the latest American president.’ If Dercon is right then we deserve to be sub-summed under the slogan ‘creative industries’. What is the difference between buying an IKEA poster, a reproduction of a famous painting and an artist who is willing to submit and produce to a curator’s theme or a collector’s artistic ideas? Haven’t we learned to readjust Walter Benjamin’s ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’ to our digital age? 

It was also in the 80ies that a new term describing an artist hit the German-speaking art world: ‘POSITION’. ‘Position’ substitutes the word artist. Artists are not being called artists anymore. Curators diminish us to positions. The artists happily gave into being declared a position. There was no revolt among the artists as obviously they did not realize that this derogative term had been created to categorize them. How could the artistic community (there is none, there will never be one as there is no solidarity among artists) not have sensed what that term would do to us, how language, how phrasing determines a standing within a society? POSITION turned us into ‘gadgets’ that can be moved around to the liking of the curator/theorist like game pieces in ‘Mensch Ärgere Dich Nicht’ (Parcheesi board game). We get kicked about, we get run over, yet like lemmings we are happily willing to fit into the framework of a game that has been taken over by others. 

The arts reflect changes in the society. As the middle-class vanishes in the industrialized world it triggers the vanishing of the middle class artist. ‘Middle-class artist’ understood as in ‘serving the local need for art’, not as a reference to the quality of art, not as a reference to mediocrity. What it is meant to express is the decision to resist the seduction of joining the race of making it to the top by squashing everyone around and fulfilling the market demands. Art is not masturbation. Art serves the community. But BLUE CHIP or not BLUE CHIP ARTIST has become the predominant questions. 

Is the only answer artists can come up with to all of the mentioned issues to become curators and theorists themselves? Is the answer that we become scientists, philosophers, economists etc.? Is the answers that we turn into an amalgam of theorists, scientists, artists etc. and make art as a collective expression? Why have we lost the ability to answer by our means or what used to be ours? Why are we not in charge of the debate in terms of other disciples reflecting on us? Why is the debate no more dependent or modeled after what we emanate? Why are artists willing to submit to the curator’s and theorist’s concepts? Why do artists not insist – as they used to – to design their own life and let the others follow and interpret it? Why did we give up the supremacy over the topics we address which so many generations of artists before us fought for and gained to our advantage? Is the concept of a da Vincian Renaissance ideal of a ubiquitous educated artist outdated? Have the artists submitted to a world in which everything has been split up into fields of different interest? There are experts for each aspect of our lives, but are the artists still experts in their own field? 

In the digital age there seems to be no use for the concept of the ‘genius artist’ anymore. New generations prefer electronic screens to decorate their walls. If anything will remain of the concept of an artist then it will be those who create investment art. The near future will see nothing but investment art. The rest will be nothing but divertissement. Joseph Beuys’ and Andy Warhol’s predictions have become programmatic: ‘Everyone is an artist’ and ‘Everyone will be famous for 15 minutes’. Everyone wants to be an artist or filmmaker these days and everyone believes he/she is. Apps, Selfies and permanent availability have compromised the approach of the outstanding creator, of a blessed few who interpret the world by means of images. Today we are all outstanding and each of us is so very proud of being unique, of being an artist. 

Not the arts but the artists are dead.