October 29, 2012

Zeitlos. Art Criticism or How To Chase A New Pig Through The Village

Café Zeitlos
Timelessness once used to be a compliment. It no longer is. Recently I sent a writing sample to an art magazine. It got rejected. The chief editor explained to me that my art criticism is “timeless”. The art magazine focuses on “actuality” he said while asking me to send in some new proposals that meet this need. I checked out the magazine to see what he was exactly talking about. An article about a museum exhibition on Brazilian art ended with the statement that it made one wants to travel to Brazil. Should the writing about art be like a kind of tourism brochure, laying out the latest hot spots? A few days later the chief editor wrote me again: Unintentionally he had deleted my response with new proposals, could I send it once more? I was a little baffled because I had not given actuality a real thought yet, let alone write proposals about it. Only one of these beautiful German idioms had popped up in my head : “jeden Tag eine neue Sau durch das Dorf jagen.” (“to chase a new pig through the village every other day”).

Apart from my education in history I blame the café in the street for my inclination towards the timeless. Café Zeitlos is at the corner of Waldemarstraße and Manteuffelstraße. I've been watching that mysterious door while drinking my daily coffee in D'Espresso at the opposite corner, pondering about where this bizarre entrance leads to. As the case may be, I'm probably under its spell. Also my occasional job as a tour guide in the museum might have something to do with it. Not that museums imperatively exhibit timeless art, far from. Most museums safely and cautiously bet on what happens to be on “the list”. It's rare that an artist gets discovered by an institution of contemporary art. Yet inevitably there is art that proves to be lasting and makes it, mostly a few decades after its making, into the museum canon. I happen to give a museum tour addressing the difficult question “what is art?”. I'm in favor of interaction but for this particular tour I prefer a monologue, avoiding being irritated by unnecessary exclamations and variations on the question by the visitor. To make my point I lead the listeners to my personal highlights of the museum. Since I like a positive approach I avoid answering the tough question by pointing out its negative. So throughout these guide tours I came up with a few guidelines on how to define “good art”.

“Good art” is, in my opinion, not so much a subjective issue, depending on the onlooker. There are a few characteristics that define good art. 1) Good art might at first sight look simple, yet is in essence multilayered. Actually, I'm a fan of “simple” ideas. 2) Good art makes one reminiscence for at least one hour. I would love to give one-hour guide tours focussing just on one art piece. 3) Good art opens up a space of negotiation. It does not give definite answers nor does it repeat hierarchies or reveals what one already knows. 4) Good art displays self-reflexivity, irony, and humor. 5) Good art avoids a thinking that revels in “either ... or” categorizations. And of course, last but not least, number 6) Timelessness is intrinsically part of what defines good art. Good art might have been made decades ago, yet it does not loose its critical acumen for the present. As a consequence, art criticism is about laying bare the contemporary significance of an art work, but it tries also to point out how it reaches beyond that actuality.

How to make it on “the list” is a very different discussion, as well as which strategies art criticism can use to get the ball rolling. Fame can reach one in unexpected ways. The most exhilarating is maybe to hover for an instant in its presence and to seize the occasion. My friend, the painter Ali Mongo got eternalized in a juxtaposition with Steve Jobs in the San Francisco Chronicle and in that coincidental confrontation he made a very good point: 

Steve Jobs and Ali Mongo in the San Francisco Chronicle

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