PRINT September 1982

The Dignity of the Thorn

THE FEW STATEMENTS THAT Rudi Fuchs, artistic director of Documenta 7, made about his understanding of and involvement with art stick in one’s memory; these statements seem epitomized by such words as “consecration,” “temple,” “dignity,” “tranquillity,” “devotion,” and so on. His attitude is crystallized even more by the pictures chosen for the exhibition posters, of the 19th-century statues on the gable of the Fridericianum, showing representatives of the “sublime arts.” And in the press kit we found the image of the statue of the Count of Hesse, the emblem of the old royal dominion over Kassel.

A broad gold column has been installed by James Lee Byars in the entrance hall of the main building. From it one’s glance is quickly and easily drawn to the right, to a wall coated in gold by Jannis Kounellis; the glance moves to the left, arriving this time at an installation by Luciano Fabro—here, too, intimations of “dignity.” Outside, a glittering baldachin overhanging the main door is also by Fabro. Does all this represent the triumph of the 19th century, of the idea of the royal pedestal, over everything striven for by art and artists in this century? Is it all over with Dada, the Bauhaus, Picasso’s Guernica? Is it all over with the ’68 revolt in art and politics, and all its ideals of abandoning the pedestal for the sake of a humane vision of society and of the responsibility of art in society? Did the major and minor artists who contributed to Documenta do so to become great or small on the restored pedestal, far removed from vulgar calls for participation, for having a say in things? Did they mean to be shown as golden, absolute, detached, without the schism between the workday and the “long Sunday,” as Mario Merz once formulated it?

It is tempting to speak of the dignity of art. It is still more tempting to oppose the dignity of art to the technocracy which threatens us all. Technocrats need no utopias; they fare very well with things as they are. But do they need art to be dignified on a pedestal? Yes, for they can use it as decor, irradiating the lethal murk of the world with “dignified” gold. How would the technocrats fare under Fabro’s baldachin, or in front of Byars’ column, if these works functioned the way Fuchs, even contrary to the history of his own vision, seems to be suggesting? They’d be all right—technocrats want dignity. They would fit even better into the basement space in which the props for Hans Jürgen Syberberg’s Parsifal film create a pseudo-artistic environment. But even the murkiest technocrat is not as sinister as Syberberg’s odious association with German myth. Have we learned nothing? Wagner could not know fully how he would be used; Syberberg should.

What, after all, does Fuchs actually believe it means to offer art a holy temple to protect it from the “disrespectful misuse” of the last few years? What else was the ’68 revolt about, if not finally taking art seriously, finally respecting it as a decisive interference in the inhumane mechanisms of power which then as now preferred above all to see art in the harmless atmosphere of the “temple”? To mention just a few of the most varied artists at Documenta, what else do Joseph Beuys, Mario Merz, Jannis Kounellis, Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman, Joseph Kosuth, and Klaus Staeck want if not to create unrest, to be a thorn in the side of power, to challenge and undo the pragmatism of politics and the view of art as consecrated decor, to kindle in everyone the spark of creative sensibility and of revolt against normative thinking?

In the early ’80s, our situation is different from that of the by now almost symbolic year, 1968. The world seems, perhaps is, nailed shut. But, now as then, thinking is a political act, just as, in a negative sense, the implied consecration of art and the rejection of social responsibility are political acts. So too is the supposedly nonpolitical playing with stage props of Syberberg. The retreat from political responsibility creates a vacuum—who or what will fill it? Will it allow the powerful to become more powerful while art becomes more sequestered, more “consecrated”? After the events leading from the turn of the century up to 1933, nothing seems more likely.

Today we place a gold cord in front of the Mona Lisa. Whom could she, the smiling woman, possibly hurt? Why, then, did Leonardo da Vinci’s contemporaries probably want to burn him? When Hans Haacke spreads a red carpet and places a cord in front of his painting of Ronald Reagan, and dedicates it to Marcel Broodthaers, he pricks with the same thorn in power’s side. Sigmar Polke plays his role similarly, and does not let it be forgotten what subversive force is contained in his paintings. Giovanni Anselmo, Robert Barry, Joseph Kosuth, and Lawrence Weiner also do not let themselves be shaken, slowly proceeding and continuing to provoke intellectual concentration in defiance of sensuous excitation. The question will probably still be posed as to what is actually sensuous—the excitation of the stomach or the head, or perhaps, after all, something that affects the whole body. Marcel Duchamp provided the temple, the museum, with a urinal. What would Duchamp think of Fuchs? And what does Fuchs think of Duchamp? We should be insulted by his insinuation that we have no respect for the “dignity” of art. In any case, I place as much stock in the dignity of the thorn as in that of the rose.

I love gold. But I love it more when Kounellis’ miserable coatrack with its forgotten black hat, in front of his golden wall, reminds me that gold can be dangerous. I love Maria Nordman’s solemn, empty space because it quiets me and unsettles me, throws me back on myself and denies me the falsity of self-assurance. A mere glance at Gilbert & George’s monumental photographic panels, on the other hand, leaves me as cold as the Syberberg cellar. What irritates me about them is their confirmation (perhaps not at all intended) of entrenched power. What irritates me about Fuchs is not his staging (which at least in, part is utterly beautiful), not his choice of significant artists, not his challenges to my practiced way of looking, but the (surely careless) thoughtlessness with which he has provided the technocracy with ammunition—the pedestal, the concept of consecration, the suggestion of the royalty symbol. A premonition of the danger must have germinated in the team of organizers: in his catalogue essay Gerhard Storck quotes Bertolt Brecht, a model for the radical conception of art in our century. And Germano Celant continues to write about the confrontation of politics and art as the challenge of our age.

Documenta 7’s conception of consecration, and its accompanying problems of what this means for art, can be traced in the exhibition’s stress on the media of painting and sculpture. These arts, in comparison with the newer, technological media, lend themselves more readily to being placed on pedestals. I don’t take issue with Fuchs’ evaluation of the importance of painting in contemporary art. Even here there is, however, a changed situation in what painting connotes, to which Fuchs was not prepared enough to react. The young generation that has just started, the so-called artists of the ’80s, were shown, more in a succession than in a dialogue, in confrontation with artists who had posed artistic questions for longer than the last decade. But the creative unrest in the new art occurs on a broad front; it is not confined to its most obvious exemplars, the “angry young painters.” With a different motivating conception Documenta 7 might have demonstrated, in its selection of the new art, a core of philosophical/political activity (the situation today, after all—which is the concern of Documenta—is still determined by the challenges of the ’70s). To have sifted this out for show would have been an opportunity to attack one-sided simplistic interpretations of the new art. Instead, to its detriment, the angry, the thoughtful, and the serious are juxtaposed with many trivial young artists, betraying a lack of attention on Documenta’s part.

This is the era of the mass media. To practically exclude its investigation in art is to prevent its creative flowering, and is a consequence of this concept of traditional consecration. According to Fuchs, we need consecration and noble guiding lights again; but that route has already been traveled. Caution!

Annelie Pohlen reviews exhibitions regularly for Artforum.

Translated from the German by Martha Humphreys.