[This text was originally published in C Magazine #92.]
In David Markson’s 1996 experimental novel Reader’s Block, sparse, isolated sentences about a protagonist referred to only as ‘Reader’ are interspersed among a much larger number of equally sparse, isolated biographical fragments from the lives of well-known painters, writers, philosophers, composers, etc. These fragments are rarely flattering. For example:
“Emily Dickenson became so extravagantly reclusive in the second half of her life that for the last ten years she did not once leave her house.”
“When Rembrandt’s possessions were sold at bankruptcy in 1656, they included paintings by Raphael, Giorgione, and van Eyck. And seventy-five Rembrants.
And did not bring in enough to discharge the bankruptcy.”
“Fighting with his wife, drunk, Paul Verlaine once threw their three-month-old son against a wall.”
In the universe of Reader’s Block, so many artists were anti-semites, so many more suicides. Their struggles with poverty and isolation, and in fact with life itself, more often than not got the better of them.
This vision of the artist as someone destroyed by his or her vocation seems somehow outdated, a relic from the past. Certainly enough contemporary artists are poor and/or drunk. But I suspect a more entrepreneurial model now holds sway over our idea of what an artist might represent in the world. No longer encapsulated by an individual’s solitary engagement with his or her own genius, a more social and relational set of images now comes to mind when we think of artists today.
This change, perhaps a demotion within the realm of symbolic value, is part and parcel of an art context where anything can be art, a context in which, as the critic Sven Lütticken writes “the objects nowadays exhibited as art no longer derive their legitimacy from a tradition or an artistic medium, but from the fact that their artistic status is initially dubious”, a context in which it is often remarkably unclear just exactly what ‘special quality’ the artist actually brings to the work.
However, it is important to remember that this situation is only made possible because the contemporary work of art is in fact set in stark relief against an art-historical backdrop. An empty cardboard box sitting in the middle of a room in a museum would simply not mean anything to us if museums weren’t also places where paintings by Rembrandt once hung (and of course still do.) The radical break obtains meaning and resonance only in relation to a history from which one wishes to escape.
This might seem like an obvious enough point and of course many contemporary works of art are based explicitly on art historical precedents while many catalog essays work overtime to contextualize contemporary work within a historical framework. Nonetheless, the paradoxical complexity of the dynamic between contemporary art and art history is difficult to overstate. While the original movements of the avant-garde derived their power and energy from the incredible strength of will it took to break with the hegemony of convention and tradition, in the contemporary world tradition no longer rules society to anywhere near the degree it once did and to break away from such a weak master is not an especially impressive feat.
I certainly have no desire to argue for a return to tradition. I simply believe further consideration can be given to the degree to which any seemingly radical gesture (most of which we no longer find especially radical) would not be possible without a series of conventions for it to be radical in relation to. While the previous, more romantic, conception of the artist hinged on the artist’s will to push forward and break with tradition; the current more entrepreneurial conception of the artist hinges on our understanding that these traditions have now been demolished and therefore the artist is free to run wild amongst the wreckage: for profit, pleasure or in the name of some multi-faceted ideal that, for lack of a better term, we continue to refer to using the word ‘art.’ While, for the historical romantic artist, a forced break with tradition had the potential to be a brave and meaningful action – or at the very least had the potential to be a metaphor for a brave and meaningful action – for the contemporary artist, continuing to run wild long after all traditional boundaries have disappeared, it is more likely to seem a bit aimless, perhaps even becoming a metaphor for how aimless and powerless we often feel living in the contemporary world.
In a sense, one of the things that is so remarkable about the contemporary artistic project is how often this potential aimlessness continues to accrue meaning in relation to the entire history of art and how often this essential relationship, without which so many contemporary artistic gestures might seem only aimless, is taken for granted. The fact that it is taken for granted, pushed into the background (where it must remain silent in order not to draw undue attention towards itself) in part serves to mask the essential weakness of the dynamic between contemporary practice and art history, serves to create a certain aura of mystery around some of the most basic reasons why contemporary art still continues to be thought of as ‘art’. But it is also possible that many artists working today simply aren’t aware of the degree to which the core values of their practice are derived from a) how fully the romantic ideal of art and of the artist continues to hold sway over our imagination and b) how powerful the modernist ideal of a break with tradition continues to be.
At any rate, to whatever degree any artist may or may not be aware of this reality, there is no question that in certain fundamental ways our current, more entrepreneurial, cliché of the role a contemporary artist fulfils is (perhaps unconsciously) built upon the historical foundation of an older, more romantic, position and would not be possible without the aura of this previous conception. And for artists who are insightfully aware of this slightly paradoxical situation – that for their work to be effectively contemporary it must continuously break with an art-historical tradition that at the same time it’s very status as a work of art also depends upon – one of the more positive side effects is that it allows them an enormous degree of play, both with their own individual persona as an artist and with the seemingly old-fashioned romantic idea of being an artist in the first place. There are far too many examples of this type of playfulness to mention here but as a particularly complex and reified example I will focus on the 1991 work Heavy Burschi (Heavy Guy) by Martin Kippenberger.
As an artist, Kippenberger was particularly aware of his public persona, always perversely engaged in an almost confrontational process of negotiation between the creation of his own persona and the creation of his art. For Heavy Burschi, Kippenberger asked his assistant to make a series of paintings based on images from the entirety of Kippenberger’s previous work. However, upon seeing the finished paintings he was extremely unsatisfied with them. He ordered all fifty-one paintings to be destroyed, but first had each one photographed, reprinted to its original size, and framed, exhibiting the reproductions in a single installation along with the remnants of the original paintings which he now placed in a giant dumpster in the middle of the gallery.
This multilayered, hyper-ironic approach to a certain kind of power dynamic implicit within the romantic idea of the ‘great artist’ is of course, on one level, an extremely cynical ploy, embodying the very abuses of power that it also serves to draw attention to. Thematically, it is also rich and complex. Among many other possible readings, this gesture of destroying fifty-one paintings, paintings filled with motifs from his entire oeuvre, and then displaying the destroyed remnants along with reproductions of the originals, originals that were in fact somehow copies of his own work to begin with, evokes a relationship between Kippenberger’s very entrepreneurial and contemporary artistic persona and a more romantic idea of artistic integrity that we associate with the past.
Great artists of the past, depending on the period we are referring to, often had assistants as well. The names of their assistants have generally disappeared into the ether of history while the names of the artists are continually being renewed and further established. To be a bit pithy about it, history is written by the victors. Kippenberger makes this relationship explicit within his work, at the same time toying with his own persona as a cynical artist, as someone who doesn’t actually have to make the work himself, doesn’t have to suffer in his pursuit of it, and yet in some ironic sense ‘suffers’ anyway when he finds himself unhappy with the results of the work he has commissioned from his assistant. Heavy Burschi is a work by an artist who clearly isn’t trying to make you think he’s a nice guy. To the contrary, it openly explores the out-dated notion of the artist as someone who can get away with behavior that would, in other circumstances, be unacceptable, get away with such behavior in the name of the higher calling of art. Kippenberger updates this notion and brings it into the self-referential present, at the same time undermining the romantic idealism previously associated with it. The ethically problematic behavior at Heavy Burschi’s core resonates with a history of artist biographies that are equally problematic. It also gives one a feeling that Kippenberger is almost the last of a dying breed, that artist’s are no longer really like that, that we now like to believe that things have changed.
Of course, Heavy Burschi was made at the beginning of the nineties when such an emphasis on irony most likely seemed more fresh and relevant. But the manner in which Kippenberger thematizes his role as a contemporary artist, in dialog with a romantic ideal that is both past and yet remains deeply instilled within us, continues to feel consequent. Kippenberger is simultaneously an old fashioned romantic artist and a contemporary parody of that role and in embodying this double condition he tells us quite a lot about what it’s like to be an artist today.
The old fashioned romantic model (which evokes obsession and suffering) may very well contrast with the more contemporary entrepreneurial model (which involves travel and networking) in many ways, but there is never any question that the relationship between them is essentially a symbiotic one. The present needs the past as a tradition that covertly continues to validate its status as actual art. And the past needs the present in order to maintain it’s vaulted position as historically sanctioned great art. While much contemporary art downplays this ever-present dynamic, in doing so it creates a potential misunderstanding about what we are actually looking at when we look at contemporary art.