New York

“The Topsy-Turvy World: Moral Satire and Nonsense in the Popular Print”

Goethe House

This exhibition of popular prints on the theme of the world turned upside down—a world in which animals play human roles, and vice versa, and in which in general everything is duplicitous—reminds us that high art must remain in touch with common sources, if not so much to sustain its esthetic sublimity as to retain its cultural point, without which it becomes vacuous. While most of this work is illustrative and garrulously communicative, and as moralistic as it is funny it also has the ambition to be art—to take us into a world of images that have an integrity of their own. The caricatural dimension of many of these works denotes the separateness of art, if not its radical autonomy Paradoxically their vulgarity is of-ten so extreme that it seems like an artistic device: absolute vulgarity becomes a peculiar refinement.

Is the separateness of art a sign of its “unspeakableness,” in a sense no different in kind (if at the other end of the continuum) than the unspeakable reality addressed by these works? Isn’t art the realm of the crazy, which Erich Fromm defined as the unthinkable/unspeakable, so that to deliberately present the crazy through art, as these prints do, is to put it to its best and proper use? One quick image, having instantaneous impact, says more about the insanity of the world than a volume of inadequate words. Good art doesn’t make this insanity palatable; it forces it down our throats before we know what is happening—we’re thrown off our guard just because of our eagerness to see. And how this popular imagery caters to that eagerness!

The world turned upside down is an old theme, particularly in the version that depicts the world as a double-faced woman, one of a group of “Masquerades” that were among the most inventive, esthetically dynamic works in the exhibition. Others tended toward a visual simplicity that, while at times appreciable for its bluntness, dissipated in effect because it was read just a little too quickly. What was especially interesting about the exhibition was the way many of the artists borrowed high-art imagery to make their low point about the craziness—zaniness—of the world. Die Fette Küche (Fat people at table, 1563), by Johann Fischart, uses as a model Pieter Breughel II’s engraving of the same theme, returning the image to its popular source while maintaining the cutting edge of its social criticism. The recirculation of fine-art iconography in these populist works reminds us of the porousness and relativity of the boundary between art and illustration.

This exhibition demonstrated that there is no image or style that can avoid being used and abused; these are, after all, forms of currency to be exchanged for meanings. These works seem to address a very contemporary situation, in that they suggest that the more an image or style remains an end in itself, exclusive of communication value, the hollower it becomes. No doubt there comes a point when we fee] that what we are looking at is no longer art but everyday talk in an all-too-familiar visual language. But in many of these works the determination to make their message unmistakable leads to a peculiar undermining of that language, forcing a needed reassessment. These works, which humorously express a great deal of dissatisfaction with the world—which seem to institutionalize dissatisfaction—are artistic in that they implicitly originate in the belief that this is not necessarily the best of all possible worlds. Art and humor are ways of confronting and enduring, overcoming through articulating, the misery of being in the world. If this is so, who can deny that these popular works articulate a fundamental dimension of art—its funniness?

Donald Kuspit