PRINT September 1982

Grim Fairy Tales

METAPHORS OF SHIPS and voyages, of rivers, tapestries, and dreams clog the literature of Documenta 7. But among them is one triumphant image—the Founding Figure of Speech. In a missive to contributing artists, dated September 1981 and rapidly pegged as “The Letter,” Artistic Director Rudi Fuchs described the exhibition as a kind of journey through “the forest of art.” Such terrain, he wrote, could not be surveyed from the “hill” of analysis; no overview or perspective sufficed: “One has to come down and go into the forest. There one encounters the most beautiful trees, wonderful flowers, mysterious lakes and valleys—and people who speak in different tongues.” The traveler, on return, would tell of these adventures, elaborating in “stories” his experiences of excitement, of blossoms exquisite and rare.

Fuchs’ tale of this Wanderjahre, when joined with those of other members of the Artistic Committee, were to comprise the exhibition, “representing,” through their plural accounts, this diverse and complex terrain. Fuchs’ evocative aims, moreover, could not be answered by the conventions of a catalogue. To this end he proposed to forego all customary devices: artists would be represented through “stories,” through statements and photographs chronicling individual careers. And rather than interpretive texts he proposed a tapestry of allusions. Treasured paintings (“paintings we love”), contemporary texts, and historical writings by poets and philosophers would make up “an anthology of our passions and euphoria,” placing the arts “into a spiritual and intellectual context.”

At first glance, Fuchs’ metaphor might be interpreted as a naive one, informed by the excessive rhetoric of Romanticism and reflecting a simple sentiment of wonder. But that impression quickly recedes, as further reading places it within a larger and inherently mystifying discourse—the heritage of 19th-century Idealism—of unique or original objects, privileged as pure expressions of the human mind. Or of human “nature,” for art is perceived, through this metaphor, as existing beyond the determination of social constraints—as discrete, autonomous, organic. The forest is a kind of sacred grove, an independent “world,” as Fuchs calls it, sufficient unto itself; the “world around it, customs and architecture, politics and cooking” is irreducibly outside. With this metaphor, then, Fuchs placed the exhibition within the Idealist tradition, diminishing with the same motion the varied materialist, contextual, or basically social approaches that have dominated recent years.

This vision of an esthetic realm—conceived, seemingly, so “counter-1968”—finds its strongest expression in the catalogue, a typically weighty two-volume book. “It seemed important,” we are told in the introduction, “to disentangle art from the diverse pressures and social perversions it has to bear.” That view became inscribed in specific structural features which distinguish this book from others. One, for example, was the revival of the abandoned categories of esthetics, along with the attendant hierarchy of the arts; for the customary graphics on the covers were replaced by photographs of two statues from the Museum Fridericianum pediment. Symbols of Painting and Sculpture, they were described on the frontispiece, italicized into importance and separated, in the process, from the four representations of surrounding fields: “. . . six figures eight feet in height, representing philosophy, architecture, painting, sculpture, history and astronomy.” Another feature was the conceptual structure of the volumes, for if one volume arranges current work alphabetically, hewing to the customs of catalogue practice, the other orders the “stories” chronologically, through an inner, historical logic, creating a seamless fabric of old and younger artists, nationalities and styles, stretching from the artist with the earliest birthdate, 1902. And yet a third feature was the choice, for the album of allusions, of literary texts from the “symbolic” or “expressive” traditions alone—works by Goethe, Friedrich Hölderlin, and T.S. Eliot, as well as Jorge Luis Borges’ essay on Coleridge’s dream of Kubla Khan.

Among these it is Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” with its two terms describing an internal dialectic, that is seminal to this exhibition; much as Fuchs’ texts dominate those of other organizers, so Eliot’s words color his. For Documenta is about a tradition of modernity that commences slightly after the century’s turn (“It started when James Joyce left Dublin, when Brancusi arrived in Paris, when Picasso discovered the Demoiselles d’Avignon . . .”); if it departs from predecessors in abandoning the linear notion of progress as it was embodied in mainstream Modernism, it is marked, by the same token, by the active role it accords the past. The sense of a continuum of disparate times, dovetailing constantly according to the principle of influence, underlies the strategy of enriching current art with elements rediscovered from memory. This stance repeats Eliot’s “historical sense,” defined as the perception of the living presence of the past; like his, it implies the “simultaneous existence” and “simultaneous order” of a culture. And it acknowledges the scope of regional variations (“Every nation, every race,” Eliot writes, “has not only its own creative, but its own critical turn of mind.”). It is unity within diversity, “common language” amidst “dialects”—the organic tradition embodied. We hear Eliot echoed in Fuchs’ essay, in the heroic location imputed to the artist as “one of the last practitioners of distinct individuality”:

The individual mind is his/her tool and material. The artist seeks a dangerous adventure, but his route is within the culture which produced him. . . . The artist as individual is part of the tradition of all. This great unity between culture and individual, these necessary links from individual to individual—that, maybe, is our theme in the exhibition, the elusive object of our search.

Given this inherited, inherently exclusive definition of culture as a detached precinct of Mind, it is not unexpected that works by Walter Benjamin should be missing from the treasured texts. For if Benjamin’s words have been excessively used, frequently abused, and, paradoxically, elevated to a critical canon, it is because they comprise a reflection on those widespread conditions that Fuchs would rather repress. Benjamin’s critique of Idealism—grounded, as he said, in “outmoded concepts” of creativity, genius, eternal value, and mystery—was directed against the isolation that denied to art any practical function; natur-philosophie was its object. And his advocacy of techniques of reproduction over unique and irreplaceable objects was impelled by those changes made in art by mass society and its attendant phenomenon, the audience. Changes from individual productions to collective texts; from autonomous “wholes” to contingent “parts”; from art conceived as a humanistic reflection—the mirror of the self—to art as a discursive practice, informed and determined by social conventions. From pedestal to ground.

Documenta might be seen as an operation of salvage, aimed at reinstating the conditions of privilege eroded by this newly expanded social role. The need to redeem esthetic experience from its current position in spectacle is an underlying theme, phrased in reactionary terms: “. . . our culture suffers from an illusion of the media (we see more reproductions than pictures),” writes Fuchs; “The feeling for the essential gets lost. We are aware of that in the ugly details of everyday life.” He further questions “. . . whether there is still a culture out there in the world that is capable of taking up art and supporting it . . . [of] making something of it above and beyond its mere exhibition.” By proposing to separate art from ideology, the organizers construct a counter-ideology, whose metaphors are altars, pedestals, and those velvet ropes that preserve the respectful distance of Aura. “Documenta 7 seems to show a more respectful attitude toward the lofty symbol,” Coosje van Bruggen admits. “The placement of art on a pedestal as ‘sacred’ has apparently been revived.” To “honour the dignity of art” requires “real” walls and “quiet” spaces—museumlike situations alien to “makeshift” ’70s environments, and protected (as Johannes Gachnang says of the Strindberg Museum) from the public’s “prying hands.”

Curatorial candor provides a catalogue watchword. “During the preparations for documenta 7,” we are told by Gerhard Storck, “the question of the function of art today did not get an airing.” With seeming ease the organizers ignored the central question of artistic practice. Instead, Storck continues, they chose to concentrate on “what such a large-scale exhibition could achieve at all. Opinions varied greatly, but there was one fact which everybody accepted—the intrinsic value of the individual works. So it was argued that the exhibition should presentworks of art as phenomena with their own intrinsic value, though if possible in connection with each other.” (italics added). The result is that Documenta, as Storck unabashedly describes it, became “a garden for the individual blossoms, a garden with a fine architectural enclosure.” And that in attempting to make an “open” exhibition, free of a limiting theoretical approach, its organizers reinforced the most restrictive and reactionary of views.

Documenta’s exclusions could be seen as extensions of that view. One could predict, given the absence of social considerations, that women would be poorly represented, just as one could expect, given categorical definitions, that architecture would be nearly excluded, despite its reemergence as a reference for other arts. It is only “natural,” given those premises, that there would be little attention to books or to video, with the questions they raise as to audience and distribution, or to the ephemeral art of performance. And that film would be represented solely as an adjunct to objects. And that the Fashion Moda store would be placed at a physical distance from the main enclosure, in a kind of ghetto or social sphere. It is only “natural” that there would be such a confusion evident in Documenta’s installation as to the artistic uses of the photograph as record, reference, and analytic tool. And that the sole token to photography as an independent practice would be the work of Robert Mapplethorpe—exquisite images of statuesque nudes and flowers, already assimilated into the masterpiece canon.

Kate Linker reviews exhibitions regularly for Artforum.