Writing on art and architecture, Hanno Rauterberg is an author and journalist who has won a number of prizes for his work. Studying art history in Hamburg and Florence, his degree thesis was the legendary baptistry doors competition held in Florence in 1401 between Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti.
Thoroughly grounded in art history, Rauterberg is equally at home when writing about the art and architecture of our own times. For art-lovers throughout the German-speaking world, his full-page reviews of exhibitions in the weekly newspaper, Die Zeit, are a much savoured weekend highlight.
“Many people,” he writes, “are enthusiastic about modern art and architecture but nevertheless are perplexed. What can one say about it? If through reading my articles, readers regain the courage to trust their own judgement and learn to substantiate their opinions – then I’m happy.”
In his book, And that’s Art?! – A Quality Check, Rauterberg takes contemporary art and the world in which it is ensconced to task. Knowing the art world as an insider, he explains how a culture of hysterical hype has arisen, revolving around works that are by and large devoid of quality. Examining ten of the most prevalent trends in art, he finds that from a viewer’s point of view, they frequently fail to achieve their declared aims. In some cases, where the intention is to shock or horrify, this is due to overuse. In other cases, good intentions are naïve and misplaced. Most often though, the strategies adopted are based on false premises. Repeatedly it is found that the lack of connection to a medium leads, not to freedom and release, or the regaining of a lost innocence but simply in third rate art. All too often, instead of new heights being reached, unsurpassable depths of banality, tedium and predictability are presented as if they were some amazing revelation.
Erwin Wurm, The artist who swallowed the world, 2008
Rauterberg’s analysis draws its strength from his understanding of what contemporary artists are about and what it is that they are trying to achieve – all be it without success. To this effect, his analysis of unsuccessful trends covers both the beginnings and origins of the strategy concerned, along with an explanation of why it arose and if it was appropriate then, why it is no longer appropriate now.
As a viewer, one often has the feeling that voicing criticism against contemporary art will lead to charges of being conservative, of being over-critical, of being unwilling to understand or of being downright disobedient in daring to ask whether what the art world says is art, really is art. Associated with this is the phenomenon identified by Rauterberg, that in contemporary art, the sublime no longer consists in a feeling that is experienced by a viewer through the appreciation of a work of art but rather has become a “Wow!” effect, experienced by someone when they learn that a sloppily cobbled together piece of work has commanded an absurdly high price. This feeling of astonishment and incredulity shows that for all its hollow emptiness and the mindless vapidity of its hype, the world of contemporary art is capable of turning rubbish into gold. It also shows that in contemporary culture art has become something that is defined by a select group of experts which it is the task of the viewer to accept and passively consume. As it is Rauterberg’s s aim to debunk this usurped and misappropriated authority, the second half of his book establishes a set of criteria by which a viewer may approach a work of contemporary art and what questions he or she should ask and what resonances, he or she might expect when endeavouring to enter into a dialogue with such a work. Thus Rauterberg is not against contemporary art per se he is simply against what is quite plainly bad art and the institutionalised hyping thereof by a corrupt and degenerate system of museums, gallerists, curators, theoreticians and critics. Rauterberg’s criteria are formulated in general terms and his programme of appreciation is not partisan to any particular school or style. Not an artist, he has no need or interest in taking sides. Instead his aim is to return the viewer back to the centre stage position where he/she rightfully belongs, this being where the reception of art should both begin and end. While along the way, the voicings of theoreticians, critics and artists themselves sometimes have a part to play, at the end of the day, in a democracy, art ought to be made for the viewer and not for the art world nor for the investors who invest in what has been hyped so much that they think that it cannot do anything other than rise in value. That a whole book should need writing in order to reinstate what during the Renaissance was self-evident shows just how awol contemporary society has been allowed to go. Summing up, Rauterberg concludes with a quote from Friedrich Schiller:
“In the midst of a terrifying realm of natural forces and yet situated at the very heart of an ordered realm of law, our aesthetic yearning for culture secretly builds a third realm, where human beings are released from the bonds, both physical and moral, of all kinds of chains.”
For Rauterberg, this means that contemporary art
“should have no need to continually prove its independence nor must it take refuge in the bathos of having to repeatedly overcome itself or demonstrate its progressiveness. Rather, in a dignified and sovereign manner, it should have the freedom to choose for itself its own themes and subject matter, calmly reviewing and inquiring into the nature of the cultural and imaginative sleights of hand, that over the centuries, it has assembled. In this respect, happiness lies neither in a blind veneration of tradition nor does it consist in an outright rejection of all that is past but only in the totality of what is and what could be.”
This might sound high-minded and rarefied but if the viewer is to be accorded a place in the equation that has anything to do with the principles of humanism, then the third realm must be accorded a degree of openness that allows artists the space they need to execute genuine art that is worthy of the name as opposed to zealously following trends that are supposed to shoot them into stardom but in fact simply evoke boredom in the mind of any half-way informed viewer. Thus while the viewer should be open-minded about what he or she lets him or herself in for, so too must artists. Entrusting themselves to the realising of an idea through interaction with a medium, they should have the generosity to let the medium have its say and accept the fact that not every idea turns out as planed and that in order to achieve success, failure may also be encountered along the way. For Rauterberg, contemporary artists suffer from a complex and feel themselves intellectually inferior to composers, writers and philosophers. They thus feel the need to soop up their works with high-minded concepts and good intentions which in turn make them think that craftsmanship and material realisation are no longer important.
Eric Fischl, The Bed, the Chair, the Sitter, 2002
As an example of a work that engages the viewer in a discourse and raises questions that resonate in the viewer’s mind even after he or she has left the exhibition space, Rauterberg takes a painting by Eric Fischl. In the painting, The Bed, the Chair, the Sitter, a couple is depicted with a man in between a pair of sofa chairs whilst below him, a woman sits on the floor. Enclosed in their space, the man looks downwards engrossed either in his own thoughts, or in something physical that the viewer is unable to identify. Is it an aspect of his clothing, the woman’s back, his shoes or something on the floor? Meanwhile, the woman, in an almost contorted pose, looks out of the pictorial space into that of the viewer. Yet her gaze passes the viewer by, as if he or she did not even exist. In previous centuries, proud citizens had had portraits painted of themselves as testimonies of who they were and their social status. In The Bed, the Chair, the Sitter, this is no longer the case and yet the tradition lingers on in the background. In a previous age the couple would have been shown sitting on the chairs, looking out at the viewer, challenging the viewer to look at them. Although in Fischl’s painting there is no direct eye contact, the couple depicted do appear to some extent to be aware that they are being looked at and to this effect the painting is staged. Yet there is also a feeling of their being caught unawares and a banal moment of privacy has suddenly been transfixed and brought out into the open. The marital bed, never shown in traditional portraits of a man and wife, is visible in the background and although the viewer cannot see whether the sheets are unmade or not, the pillow is crumpled. This possibly interrupted privacy highlights the luxury of privacy, a notion that we take for granted but which during the Middle Ages hardly existed. With privacy, we have time to come round from the events of the day and are offered the chance of conducting an inner dialogue that enriches us and enables us to consciously develop and examine ourselves. Only by realising who we are, do we have the chance of becoming all that we could be. The displaced gaze of the couple and the conundrums raised by their poses, along with the questions of “What are they doing?” and “What were they doing before we interrupted them?” resonate with an ambivalence that is a hallmark of our age.
With these questions art-historical analysis stops and one arrives at the hidden crux of the matter, the one, single, overriding issue that must be addressed if we as a species are to have a future. Although everybody knows that we must redefine our relationship with the environment and give up a whole range of things to which we have become accustomed (such as cheap flights, cheap food, and cheap electronic products) nobody wants the first step to be initiated just now. Related to this is the fact that globalisation in its current form, is a new form of colonialism from which everyone in the West benefits. Yet instead of having the courage to confront these issues, we prefer to immerse ourselves in spurious discussions such as “Should the Tate Gallery have toilets for three sexes?” and “Is it sexist if a manufacturer charges more for pink razors than for blue razors?” While this and a host of other questions are interesting, they evade the real issue and a culture of spurious discourse has arisen in which messages of ambivalence and lack of commitment are repeatedly asserted. This is compounded and made easier to carry off, as almost invariably, standing for something entails endorsing the infringement of the interests of someone else. If we remain non-committal however and proclaim the relativity of any position that one might care to adopt, we not only evade this problem but at the same time distract ourselves from the real issues at hand. Thus instead of standing up for what we believe in, we find it easier to bury our heads in the ever shifting sands of spurious discourse, secretly hoping against hope that the unmentionable will somehow resolve itself without our actually having to do anything. In this way, behind the chic ambiguity of Fischl’s work, there is the hypocrisy and cowardice of our age.
This ambiguity and reluctance to stand for anything or to confront real issues provides the clue to understanding why the so obviously unsuccessful works identified by Rauterberg are nevertheless accepted. For if all that matters is the propagation of messages of vapid ambivalence, then why not carry this ambivalence over into the formal realm and produce works that are themselves only half successful or deliberately put together in a shoddy or couldn’t care less fashion? At the other end of the spectrum but leading to similar results are zealous projects with a social focus where the message is everything and the flagrant lack of concern for the formal realisation is seen as emphasising this. This however only works for converted acolytes, leaving other viewers with a feeling of exclusion and of not being addressed. For insiders however, sloppy craftsmanship and the use of a deliberately tasteless aesthetic provide a convenient subtext that enables the whole endeavour to be relativised as “a nice try”, with the art world mantra of staged ambiguity remaining as intact as ever. At bottom, the matter is about caring and in the creation of art, the point is to care, not only about the big themes but also about each and every formal detail associated with the realisation of a work. If one does not care about all of these things, then one should quite simply not be making art. This however brings the argument back to the art market itself, which as Rauterberg diagnoses, is only interested in investment, hype and staged attitude. In the world of contemporary art, the concept of art being enjoyed or of being something that gives a viewer strength, or some sort of uplift is alien. Nothing more than a lifestyle accessory, contemporary art is the perfect expression of a degenerate society that is not prepared to compromise its prosperity regardless of what the cost to others or the future might be. To this effect it embraces a deceitful ploy of faining to have lost its way and of maintaining that surface and artifice are all there is. This however is not something that the viewer must accept and everywhere there are talented artists producing good work which the contemporary art industry ignores but which viewers are free to discover should they wish.