“Art & Economy”

Expectations could only be low: A corporation, Siemens, was hosting an exhibition on the theme of art and economy. Would there be room for critique, or would art just play the role of court jester? Such concerns were hardly assuaged by the room set aside here for the self-representations of firms that had agreed to answer questions about the politics of art in their business. As one might expect, these self-portraits dealt more or less openly with credibility, distinction, and power. They culminated in photographs of CEOs: modern-day courtly portraits, every last one of them a manly hero in a suit posing in front of the artistically high-carat appointments of his executive suite. Were such photographs not already familiar from newsmagazines, we might even, given enough goodwill, have suspected them of irony.

The artistic section of the exhibition, with thirty-two participants, went rather on the offensive in its criticism of art and business as a marriage of convenience. In this spirit, Matthieu Laurette, acting as a kind of consumer activist, makes a living from the money-back guarantees of manufacturers and touts this-rip-off as artistry. Claude Closky strings together thousands of imperatives from printed advertisements, whose promises of happiness become, in their numbers, mutually ridiculous: FEEL THE DIFFERENCE, PICK YOUR PLEASURE, or just BE HAPPY. A photo by Clegg & Guttmann shows a shady crowd that looks like a Mafia clan but is identified as the executive management of a couple of corporations. Harun Farocki’s films of managerial seminars have no need of artistic treatment. In and of themselves they reveal their dyed-in-the-wool philosophy and the very peculiar slang of such events, which culminates in the words of a bank-branch director: “If someone has visions, they should go out to the fields or else to therapy. Here they'd do more harm than good.” How could anything be further from art than this understanding of business?

For its series “Economic Visions” (so they do exist?), Siemens invited artists to find a business partner to sponsor their project. The results ended up being rather one-dimensional, as in Eva Grubinger’s simple documentation of a transfer of project funds in the amount of thirty thousand deutsch marks to the Deutsche Bank and Siemens in order to get the same number back in Euros, or Swetlana Heger’s extension of her artistic identity as advertising space for luxury goods. It's as though they wanted to beat business with its own methods in a single brilliant chess move in hopes of making a profit (payable in peanuts) afterward. This reflects the age-old tension between patron and artist, but real critique is found elsewhere: as ever, in art that has its origins in freedom and can autonomously approach the theme of economy.

Not that insipid projects meant as models of cooperation between art and business weren’t juxtaposed with more critical works. Indeed, the artist roster for “Art & Economy” contained names like Farocki, Closky, Clegg & Guttmann, Louise Lawler, and Santiago Sierra. But only older works by those artists were included. If the organizers hadn’t shied away from conflict, they could have animated these known quantities by inviting some politically active artist to do a new site-specific intervention. Then we might have seen immediate, even discomfiting reactions to the specific exhibition politics of the corporate art project. Business does not (yet) seem prepared for the institutional critique that museums have learned to desire.

Nina Möntmann

Translated form German by Sara Ogger.