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Art on the cutting edge?

Brigitte Werneburg asks what contemporariness means in the artworld today

Is the Winter Collection 2007 that Marc Jacobs designed for Louis Vuitton an homage to a) Jan Vermeer, b) Adrian Brouwer, or c) Jan Steen? These are the kinds of questions with which today's readers of fashion magazines are confronted. The answer is pretty easy, since the Marc Jacobs Collection is named "Girl with a Monogrammed Bag," clearly referring to Peter Webber's recent film, "Girl with a Pearl Earring." That film has helped bring renewed popularity to Jan Vermeer's 1665 painting, "The Girl with a Pearl Earring." What you should also know: Scarlett Johansson, who plays the lead female role in the film, made a guest appearance at the presentation of the Marc Jacobs collection.

Louis Vuitton's Winter Collection 2007. Courtsy Louis Vuitton

The question is drawn from the "big Elle test" in the magazine's special edition on "Art," which presents stars like Samuel Keller, who just took leave from his role as head of Art Basel and Art Basel/Miami Beach, or gives tips for "art shopping." There's nothing about Art Summer 2007. Though put together with little knowledge, these 20 pages make it very clear: Art is the theme of the hour. You can't get around it. Even if they simply miss the looming, critical mass of great contemporary art events in early June, like the Biennale in Venice, documenta 12, the sculpture projects of Muenster and Art Basel. Oh well, these events will attract millions of visitors anyway. Because it seems nothing better justifies claims to hipness than interest in contemporary art.

Clearly, this is not only true for unmitigated consumerism and lifestyle, but also for societal or political engagement. Even demonstrators at the G-8 summit don't - or don't wish to - avoid art. "Art goes Heiligendamm" (feature) or "BALANCE!" is the name of the project in which politics becomes aesthetic, and aesthetics becomes political. The greater good therein may not be really clear. But this only underscores the true role of art. Art is needed because - according to popular consensus - only those who bring art into play are truly up-to-date.

"Check List Luanda Pop" at the Biennale in Venice. Photo courtesy La Biennale

Where art is, you'll find the weltgeist, or world spirit. Or at any rate the world market, if you prefer the Marxist reading of Hegel. Art's protagonists show up by the hundreds in their private jets at international art fairs. They bid at the biggest auctions in New York and London and generate ever new, ever more abstruse price records for contemporary art. And then the world market is also enamoured of world history. At least in the form of art history and the "Girl with a Monogrammed Bag." Is it this linkage of market and art that lends art its current cache? The certainty of its meaning as the medium for expressing contemporary questions, themes or attitudes per se? The certainty of being able to count on attention to and interest in art, at all times, from all people and in all places? And if not, to confidently demand that attention? Whether it's about daily small talk, about the World Economic Forum in Davos, about the consumers of tabloid journalism and celebrity TV or about the so-called big politics, which - oh, come on now! - know by now that art just has to be included in the planning of a G-8 summit.

Actually, the circles are growing of those who not only merely tolerate the preoccupation with art, but actually kiss up to it. The way they express their new-found interest may be somewhat disenchanting. But in fact, most of them pursue quite different interests and goals, and only relate to art in order to profit from it. But what else would it mean to be a standard-bearer of contemporary attitudes toward life? If not to defy the "embrace of success," as Kaspar König, director of the Museum Ludwig in Cologne and co-curator of the "sculpture projects muenster 07," put it? The progression of exhibitions, fairs and satellite fairs, gallery weekends and biennials, projects in increasingly extravagant locations, best of all on the security fence at Heiligendamm, cannot get their act together these days even with help of the most elaborate personal organizer.

Bruce Nauman: "Square Depression" (Foto: Arendt/Mensing/sp07)

Right after the Venice Biennial opens on 10 June, one big event follows the next. Both documenta 12, with its 480 artworks by some 100 artists, and the "sculpture projects muenster," with only 37 objects scattered throughout the city, open a week later, on June 16. Conveniently, Art Basel takes place between the two, from June 13-17. But perhaps the heavyweight international collectors whom Europe wants to entice will already have blown their wad in Venice? That's not an issue, at least not officially, at the Biennale, which still hasn't become a sales exhibition. But it is an issue at the very first "Corniche Art Fair." This parallel event is the brainchild of Jean Jacques Aillagon, director of Venice's Palazzo Grassi (which belongs to Francois Pinault, mega-collector and owner of the Christie's auction house), and of Daniella Louxembourg, art consultant to, among others, Ronald S. Lauder, and co-owner of a gallery in Zurich together with Simon de Pury, head of the Phillips auction house.

But not only the market is lining up: museums are, too. On May 31, Anselm Kiefer's one-man show opened in the Grand Palais in Paris; on June 3, the MoMA in New York opened its solo exhibition of works by Richard Serra. The "Made in Germany" show in Hanover, a collaboration of the Sprengel Museum, the Kestnergesellschaft Gallery and the Art Association of Hanover, has opened as well. The MoMA in Berlin exhibit now has been replaced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibit of 19th century French masterpieces from its collection. In the words of Berlin's Neue Nationalgalerie, which promoted the show far and wide: "France's greatest beauties come from New York." Art is immigrating or emigrating to and from all corners of the world. Especially to finance capitals like Dubai, Shanghai or Singapore.

Galerie Hans Mayer, Düsseldorf, at Art Basel. Courtesy MCH Swiss Exhibition (Basel/Zurich) AG

It's just not easy to say whether this trafficking in art inflicts collateral damage along the lines of the "migration of form" that Roger M. Buergel, director of documenta 12, and his wife and co-curator Ruth Noack track down in Kassel, or whether it behaves in just the opposite way. To unlock that question, the oldest exhibit of documenta 12 presents a key in art history: a 19th century Persian drawing in which, oddly, a river flows in Chinese manner - because the unknown artist had studied the art of China and assimilated the style. At any rate, today's emblematic work, which opens the door wide open for migration of form and lifestyle to all corners of the world and all levels of education and wealth, is called "Girl with a Monogrammed Bag."

No, you still don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. But maybe a little more Marxist theory is needed to really see the world spirit reflected in the world market. Because disbelief remains. It prompts scepticism when you see how those who feel their rightful place is on the spearhead, nevertheless chronically feel they are in the wake of events. The turnover rate with which art is purchased and rejected nowadays sends a clear message: Did the person who bought yesterday and already doubts his purchase today ever believe in being on the qui vive? It's also questionable as to whether there is any sensation at all. Exhibits, fairs or record-breaking auctions are planned and agreed upon as if in a war room; in other words, manipulated and staged. It is not the art event that prevails, but rather marketing strategies and insider dealing.

Despite all the legitimation power and dominance of the attention economy, art lacks drive – as they used to say in the 60s and 70s, when contemporariness still defined a moment of imperative. Anyone who took art's side knew: It will change your life (or at least your drug consumption). On the other hand, the current claim of art to be the cultural trend-setting medium leaves one without alternatives. The preoccupation with art is evidence of economic and societal success – not a counterproposal. One regularly is confronted by conformist behaviour. Defiance and deviance must be fully assimilated – if you wish to be successful. Gallerists, artists, curators, art dealers or critics – they're all smart, flexible and obliging; and in this setting they are assertive and extremely disciplined. It doesn't hurt to be a child prodigy, as long as one is as nice and polite as Jonathan Meese. And one almost needs enigmatic arrogance as a trademark in the exceptional case of art, if you live a life as inconspicuous and as virtuous as that of Roger M. Buergel.

sculpture projects muenster: "Kirschensäule" by Thomas Schütte (1987) on Harsewinkelplatz. (Photo: LWL-Landesmuseum)

At the same time, art – which is no longer alternative – basks in a diversity of possibilities. Almost everything has its justification: figuration, abstraction, New German Painting and (John) Bock performances, video art, and kitsch just as much as the sociological evaluation of the world; every genre, every style, every aesthetic approach and every societal or political influence and point of reference, every network and every niche counts. Probably the feeling of being chronically in the wake of events also arises from this diversification of art production and distribution, which inevitably supports private idiosyncrasies about what can be considered the state of the art. The prevailing taste in the art business is actually the taste of those who prevail, and the fact that they for the most part share their preferences does not mean that they know what "cutting edge" means; much more, they try to find or invent it through alternating exchange. But which art is also interesting and important? There's no agreement. Because the other participants in cultural life react just like Pinault, Flick and co.; they, too, construct and communicate their own standards, each in their own network.

Always, and in all ways trendy, for art the question of whose rules have greater convincing power and perhaps even greater validity in the long run can no longer be answered. No one knows of a public dispute about an artist or an artistic position. The dispute revolves around personal data or tenure, as was recently the case regarding Peter Klaus Schuster in Berlin, general director of the State Museums, or in the case of the restitution of a Kirchner painting.

"What is to be done?" asks documenta 12. And of all things, it brings up Lenin's famous-infamous text of 1902 , in which he argued that the revolution should be managed professionally, instead of as Marx did, betting on its inevitability, its inescapable drive. Buergel and Noack don't question the status quo. At the head of documenta 12, they fight on the side of the institution and the management. So those who – thanks to a huge staff - define, invent and promote in a quite calculated manner, can still think of themselves as being on the spearhead. Only more such big events can help assuage doubts about the purpose of such home-grown productions, and about the forced productivity of the machine. They are always keeping up the suspense so nicely, and are actually always up to date.


The article originally appeared in German in die tageszeitung on May 30, 2007.

Brigitte Werneburg is cultural editor at die tageszeitung, and publisher of "Inside Lemke. Ein Klaus Lemke Lesebuch."

Translation: Toby Axelrod

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