Unbenannte Seite

Moritz Wullen


»Art« is a handy five-letter word, encased (in German »Kunst«) in hard consonants and sounding definitely streamlined. Like »snappy«, »art« is a word that stands firmly in place like the proverbial number one and cannot be shaken. In common parlance it is accordingly reified: art is made, art is exhibited, art is sold. If the sum total of all that is spoken, disputed or written about art throughout the country could be condensed into imagery, the result would be the sight of something truly monstrous: a ball of plasticine the size of a cathedral, as old as humanity and furrowed down to the last square centimetre with the traces of creative fingers.

So much then for the conventional figure of speech. Modern theory has advanced somewhat: it speaks of art as a communications system. According to it, art is not a firm medium placed in being from nothing so that humankind can knead it and form it but instead represents a field of gravity for all sorts of communications processes with and about art, whose centre lies mysteriously in the dark. Somehow, one suspects, everything revolves about only one thing but it is thus one thing that remains in a blind spot. Art is made, art is talked about and that is all done with astonishing ease. The question addressing essentials, »What is art?«, however, causes embarrassment to even the greatest and most learned of art historians. And that is the trouble with the theory which purports to view reality as processual: what flows cannot by its very nature be nailed down.

And even a theory of this kind can be outdone. After all, to be truthful, one is forced to concede: there is no concrete evidence for a system or a field of gravity called »art«. Nowhere does the scholar encounter an area in which communication on art condenses to a significant core. From no command centre are regulations issued governing what art is or is not. Even in the holy of holies professing profound knowledge of the history and essence of art—such as art historical institutes or great museums—no one can say for certain why something designated as art is art. And it is not just that a central fixed point is lacking. Even the mere context of these processes is in a bad way. An introductory seminar on art theory at Berlin’s Humboldt University, an exhibition vernissage at the Heilbronn Art Association, a symposium in the Warburg House in Hamburg, a debate on the question of whether »Beuys is art« over afternoon coffee in Berlin-Wilmersdorf—all these events are reduplicated at a dizzying rate, perhaps even within the space of a minute, without any event being the slightest aware of the other.

Then it might be as follows: art, not as a system based on processes but a void in which individual events flare up sporadically, simultaneously, staggered, at fairly lengthy intervals. Anyone who so desires can bring into play the powers of interpretation with which the human consciousness is endowed, an awareness that, as is well known, tends to read more into the world than from it. Then one may just possibly recognize the timing according to which flashes of lightning follow on one another like dancers or stellar constellations, where events simultaneously illumine the night. However, there is no guarantee that these phenomena of order exist in fact and not merely in the imagination. Consequently, what is called ‘art’ proves an extremely weak postulate. Rendering this postulate as such intelligible would certainly represent a challenge to art itself – not least a technical one: eight 3000-watt strobe lights are the least in this connection. The titles, too, should be chosen with care: > LIGHTNING perhaps, > EMPTY SPACES, > BLINDING DARKNESS or—with even more pronounced emphasis— > WHITE NOISE. It may be that art really is nothing other than this last.


Art, not as a ball of plasticine, not as a system, but merely as an eventful space in which things flare up in juxtaposition which may not even belong together: every attempt to find an answer to the question of the substance and essence of art is throttled from the outset by the image thus conjured up in the imagination. Only individual events are to be added up; the overview remains impaired. The only thing that might help would be to artificially arrest one of those events—between flare-up and extinction—to conserve it under laboratory conditions and to zoom microscopically in on its most intricate inner workings. After all, with sufficient persistence it might be maintained: even if art cannot be grasped overall and in general, its mystery may nonetheless lie hidden in the very singularity of the art event itself.

That sounds easier than it is. First of all, one should not confuse art events with works of art. It does not help much to submit works of art to the microscope or the mass spectrometer. Investigations of this kind do say a great deal about the material properties of a work of art but nothing at all about its aesthetic quality. Even if a painting of Caspar David Friedrich’s were ground into grist, thoroughly shaken up in centrifuges and broken down under the microscope into its elementary particles, no art molecule would be found. A picture of that kind only exists in the category of event, with deceptive singularity. Entire accumulations of events are involved here: a work is conceived, designed, corrected and corrected again, then commentated on, perhaps sold, exhibited, reproduced, studied, analysed—the German Duden dictionary alone sets the limits on what might be enumerated. Every work of art is a composite of innumerable communication activities, which flare up no less fortuitously and the sum of which in turn approaches infinity.

Elucidating in simple imagery the frustration caused by peering so close up would not be without charm. It would conceivably entail > writing—words, phrases or whole sentences—in pure light, with a flashlight or sparkler. Even a high-speed cinematograph equipped with all sophisticated accoutrements imaginable would not be able to reproduce the whole fluid movement on a 1:1 scale. What would remain would always be just a flawed enumeration of artificially rehashed events, which would remain indomitably silent on all the countless grey zones in between. And every event frozen in a photographic snapshot could be sieved artificially down to the last pixel and beyond with an even finer mesh—until the headlong fractal downhill run ended in the abyss of infinity. There is no purchase anywhere. In every point of light or shade, only an endless variety of more nebulous, blue-tinted seething worlds awaits being zoomed into visibility.

Curiosity about art is accordingly doomed to remain idle speculation, no matter the direction one's musings on it take one. If one approaches the problem from externals in the firm conviction that an object does not become a work of art until it is in a communicative context, further investigation becomes literally mired in the ultimate realisation that communication on art as a meaningfully coherent whole simply does not exist. All that can be verified is talk about art here, writing on art there and the threads linking the two are much too fine for knitting a theory from them. The converse is also true: if one approaches the problem from within, as it were, by arguing from the object itself, from its structure and identity, one’s thinking becomes distracted in a boundless inner life and becomes confused by the circumstance that, with every presumably finest resolution, only the grainy antechamber to a sphere of infinitely finer thought pixels has been entered. However one sets about it, art remains in a cognitive blind spot.


Art as a human enigma—it was not always so. Earlier ages had it easier. From antiquity on into the late 19th century, the tightrope of philosophical acrobatics on art was firmly tied to both the conceptual and the material side. As far as the concept is concerned, dispute of course waxed hot and heavy on how it was to be modulated. That does not, however, change in the slightest the certainty that a concept of this kind was available and possessed its counterpart in reality. Art was somewhere out there, thus the general conviction, as a metaphysical given. And, consequently, art theory viewed it as a challenge to formulate with the intellect this very instance in words in the way painting, for instance did in pictures. The thought that art might exist merely as fiction was not even admitted. Matters stood similarly with the respectably firm trust in its material consistency: there were painting, sculpture and architecture. Of course the transitions were fluid at the margins. Even a drawing – provided it was executed with sufficient care—was entitled to claim in exceptional cases the predicate of being art and even objects found in nature have occasionally had the privilege of being presented as enjoying equal status. On the whole, the rules governing the application of the concept of art to the world of material realities were just as intelligible as the possibilities for reflecting on it. In other words, aporia in matters related to »art« did not yet reign.

It is difficult to say just when aporia set in. However, there is a visual marker in history which is so lurid that at the latest the end of the old and the onset of the new art must be placed at this point. What we are talking about here is Kasimir Malevich's squares, of which the red one – matching the natural powers of this colour—is among the most clamorous. This remarkable marvel of more recent art history subverted the traditional concept of art in two ways at once. On the one hand, red was—taken of and for itself—a stupid surface with no holds barred, which differed qualitatively in no respect at all from the painted wall of a house or from the door of a hackney-carriage. The canvas, until then the support of something special, indeed the picture as such, revealed itself all at once as an utterly commonplace object. The work of art as object, up to then no one had perceived it in this light, and thus at one blow the door to the intractable question was also thrust open, where in fact the sensorily perceivable boundary between objects of art and non-art is to be drawn. And to this blurring of material criteria was added a confusion of ideas. Distinguishing between what was to be said about a work of this kind and what was a priori to be eliminated became unfocused. A red square might signify anything or nothing, especially without an instruction manual—a giant tomato pressed into a cube, a road sign in its original state or a »meditational surface whose fascination the viewer cannot withstand« (so might a writer on art put it).

The object itself is tacit. Communication leads nowhere—Kasimir Malevich's Red Square consequently represents not just the historic beginning but also the anticipated visual gifts of all problems and all the aporia indulged in by modern art theory. Moreover, even today it is the most subversive, the simplest and most intelligible commentary on what is known as the »discourse of art«. A commentary of this nature is not actually made for the rarified air of museums and catalogue paper. On the contrary, it is suited to the great philosophical lobbies of the 20th and 21st centuries, where thousands of people stand about in contemplation, lost in thought yet receptive to the unexpected—railway platforms, underground stations, etc. It might even be worth venturing to deck something out in > red flags, especially a fine arts academy…

Catalogue text
> Gunda Förster
Kunsthalle Mannheim | Hatje Cantz, 2004