The Human and the Digital   /   Spring 2018   /    Essays

After the Vernissage

Travels in the Contemporary Art World

Greg Jackson

Support (detail), 2017, by Lorenzo Quinn, Venice Biennale; Matthias Scholz/Alamy Stock Photo.

What, after all, can art really say for itself?

Berlin. Mid-June. The streets of Neukölln bustle with hipsters and immigrants, the young, the artistic, tourists. English runs like a thread through the German streets of bespoke shops and laid-back cafés. Stalls in an outdoor market line one side of a canal overhung with trees, on the banks of which small groups drink beer and watch the waterway’s idle traffic. It is a still, muggy day, the kind when people dress in loose, casual clothes.

Turn the volume down and you would be forgiven for seeing Brooklyn, which makes me wonder: What is this life we have come to live, we who compose the ranks of today’s urban bohemians, flâneurs, and dilettantes of the creative class, seamlessly transposable from Zurich to Istanbul to Mexico City? To put a finer point on it: Since the symbolism of our lives suggests an attitude toward art, politics, and money, what is our attitude toward these things beneath the posture and pose represented in the style that adorns the life? This style, after all, dominates the culture’s image of itself—its idea of “cool,” at least—from Pepsi commercials to glossy magazines to Anne Imhof’s 2017 Venice Biennale Grand Prize–winning performance piece, Faust. Does the superficial artistry of our lives reflect a deeper or shallower commitment to art? Does the stridency of our politics reflect a stronger or weaker sense of conviction? Where do the aesthetics of commerce and the aesthetics of art begin and end?

I was poised to ask these questions in part because my writing career had stopped bringing in money; in part because I had traveled to Europe from Israel (where I had just participated in the Jerusalem Book Fair and fielded a week’s worth of questions about literature in our political moment, the Age of Trump); and in part because I had decided to accompany my girlfriend, N., who studies and writes about the art world, to the summer’s international exhibitions. It was an unusual year. A rare confluence of major shows had left Europe speckled with pop-up art destinations. Having never been to a single glitzy exhibition of the sort, I figured I could do them all in one go and aggregate a composite picture, the gee-whiz hot take of the outsider or innocent.

Traveling as I did to these exhibitions with N., however, I could only repeatedly encounter the depth of my own ignorance. There was so much to know—about artists’ careers and institutional intrigues, curators’ sensibilities and deep currents in the market’s evolving taste. Compared with N., I knew none of it, and so anyone who believes that comment is only available to or interesting from initiates may dismiss my thoughts and responses as too amateur, too literary, too credulous or skeptical or insufficiently aware of their unoriginality. Guilty as decoupaged. I only offer, in the place of expertise, curiosity and a willingness to ask dumb questions, to start the conversation a few steps back, among the crowd outside the gallery door with its faces pressed to the glass. What does visual art mean right now, what can it mean, to a world as fraught as our own? That’s what I wanted to know.

The irony was that this was the question I had been asked incessantly in Jerusalem. What were writers’ political responsibilities? What could literature do? A poet came in from Tel Aviv one day to give a talk with me about the revolutionary potentials of literature and the “new social order.” Neither of us knew what this meant. Neither of us, at least, could find the delusory courage to believe in what we imagined it might mean. There is just nothing to say that in itself, as a bald statement of art’s purpose, does not typify exactly the deadness of experience and thought that art seeks to avoid. Can we ask the question at all?

On the other hand, can we ignore the question? This alternative seems more problematic still: letting the meaning and relevance of art fade into the mist of its own inarticulacy, until the logic is circular and art is successful because it is successful, our authority to judge art’s success having been dictated by our fluency in the current norms of how art’s success is to be judged.

Where did this leave me? Nowhere very good. Stuck between the poverties of ignorance and the vacant jargon of cosmopolitan “knowingness.” Could I experience the art without any of this mediation and simply report back on what I felt? The short answer is no. The principal experience of the art I encountered, I found, was not the art itself, but the uncertainty and complexity of my own subjective response. The foremost experience was an experience of myself, and so this piece is perforce about me.

But in the manner of such things I am not really “about” me, but rather the pressures, stresses, contradictions, and sensations visited on and in this body of mine. And it is art’s purpose, I believe—if I can propose one, after decrying such reductions—to help us explore exactly this strange predicament through the adjacent and defamiliarized proxies of what we have encountered so many times that it now fails to register at all. Art’s purpose, in short, is to bring the very possibility of experience back from the dead.

A Suspicious Project

Over the weeks I spent in Europe, I would see far more art than I had ever seen in one go. In addition to the Venice Biennale, documenta, and the Skulptur Projekte Münster—which take place every two, five, and ten years, respectively—I would visit the Kunsthaus and Löwenbräuareal in Zurich, the Hoffmann and Haubrok Collections in Berlin, the Fondazione Prada and Palazzo Grassi in Venice, and the Julia Stoschek Collection in Düsseldorf. I would see art in upwards of a hundred venues (depending on what you count), encounter perhaps ten thousand works by perhaps a thousand artists, view at least a snippet of several hundred video works, and sit for more than an hour and a half in the frigid cavity of a former German tank factory, watching a wordless performance about the horrors of wartime bombing. (Needless to say, I would do and experience virtually everything in between.)

This was a suspicious project—the completist’s belief that he might understand a subject by exhausting it—but I wanted to see how this rare synchrony of exhibitions would respond to the political moment. (Perhaps I mean hell-scape….) I wanted to see whether art could hold its own against a reality that kept outdoing it, whether along the vanguard of the imagination new responses were being dreamt up, new visionary flights, or whether the anchors of mammon and hipness kept art listlessly tethered at a safe elevation.

I had also imagined something bracing and meaningful about the scene, prefigured in my mind as impossibly pretentious and decadent. If the art failed to startle and discomfort me, perhaps the art people would themselves. Instead, I got neither, and the crowd showed itself more closely to resemble the mass art-tourism we have come to expect on Fifty-Third Street between Fifth and Sixth Ave or loitering in the courtyard of the Louvre.

We had missed the vernissages, after all, the glamorous spectacles attended by celebrities and scenesters, billionaires and Russian oligarchs who park their yachts off the Riva dei Sette Martiri and San Biagio and host lavish parties floating on the Canale di San Marco. Opulence and luxe were not in the cards. Our trials instead had to do with the lack of air conditioning on hot, steamy nights, the indignities of travel, and the renovation that descended on a friend’s Berlin apartment while we were staying in it. This claimed the bathroom, and soon after the kitchen, dividing the apartment like a field hospital with giant sheets of plastic taped everywhere, not unlike a certain kind of installation.

My friend R., whose apartment it was, was away traveling, and once the work got going in earnest his roommate jumped ship too. In fact, the only other art-creature willing to endure the inconvenience and suffer, as it were, for art was Warren Niesluchowski, a famous itinerant on the international art scene. Warren had been living in the apartment for several weeks when we showed up. The night we arrived he was due to travel to Vienna for “Joan’s” opening but had gotten waylaid by a last-minute translation job that had come over the transom from “Hans.” As I would later learn, these turned out to be major art-world pooh-bahs, the artists Joan Jonas and Hans Haacke, but in the moment I was happy to let Warren’s esoteric flow chart of impressive friends wash over me since I could not make head or tail of it and since Warren refers to everyone by first name.

Warren, who looks to be in his mid-to-late sixties, is thin and mostly bald on top, with long white hair down his back like a tonsured monk gone hippie. He maintains a respectable art-world style despite having no permanent residence or home and carrying everything—his whole life, it seems—in a few colorful, stylish bags. One can’t help wondering how this self-described nomad lives. Freelance work for artist friends seems to be his main source of wherewithal and serendipity appears to play a major role in his life.

Warren embodies at least one contradiction of the art world perfectly: the proximity of outrageous glamour and fame to precarity and the specter of outrageous failure. The line between genius and idiocy, success and ostracism, riches and economic irrelevance, is nowhere thinner than in art, where it is always possible that the emperor has—literally—no clothes.

Art life, in its way, offers a unique possibility for poverty alongside prestige and minor fame. What has currency in one milieu may not have any in scenes above, below, or adjacent, and if you move between worlds, as I do, it is quite easy to feel out of place in every one of them—too poor for the yuppies and bankers you went to college with, too spoiled with social capital to have any cred with anarchists and activists.

Having little money and no steady income isn’t fun. The flip side is that such comforts generally come with terrible compromises for the artist, and once secured, comfort becomes pretty much the least interesting and inspiring state imaginable. Does art require keeping one foot out the door of respectable life? Artists after all bear a responsibility for saying what needs to be said, and what needs to be said is often what is not easy to hear. But the corresponding need to achieve, perpetuate, and reproduce success lures artists of all stripes away from the unpopular, the unlikeable.

I do not propose to answer every riddle here. It doesn’t seem fair to condemn art simply for its success, to say that what has pleased the upper echelons of tastemaking and market judgment has ipso facto “sold out.” But I begin to get the sense that the terms of success, in this age when art’s production can’t properly be separated from art’s financial afterlife, have diminished the work and left it comparatively inert, unable to startle or offend—first, because the risk may be too great for the artist, who needs to live and eat after all, and second because the very setting of exhibitions and major shows testifies to the culture’s predigestion of any shock, its broad-minded self-approval in sanctioning the offense. Art’s success may leave it unable to change the world because this success points back to the world as it is—the world that venerates it—and art’s ability to move you always stems from its caring more about you than caring to please you. Even art that hates you cares more about you, in its way, than art that only wants you to like it.

Sometimes a Fire Extinguisher Is Just a Fire Extinguisher

Visual art has the misfortune of sharing many qualities with money. It is portable, storable, and difficult to counterfeit. It generally preserves value, and it is basically useless, as things that work best as currencies are. In other ways it differs from money, but once the use value of a thing turns mostly into exchange value, that thing becomes an asset, an article of wealth, and the effort to preserve or increase its value becomes the principal activity around it.

The use value of art, we like to think, is its aesthetic merit, but with pricey art it is more often a kind of self-branding. Andy Warhol understood this. “I like money on the wall,” he said in 1975. “Say you were going to buy a $200,000 painting. I think you should take that money, tie it up, and hang it on the wall. Then when someone visited you the first thing they would see is the money on the wall.” What counts is not what the artwork means to its owner but what its market value says about its owner. Art’s price reflects not a need for art but for a high-denomination currency with artlike properties. Artists have long understood this and played along the boundaries of what art can be: Warhol liked to paint dollar bills.

At the Haubrok Collection in Berlin, which specializes in conceptual art, N. and I saw an intriguing entry in this thematic category: a can of artist’s shit that is part of a 1961 series by Piero Manzoni titled, aptly enough, Artist’s Shit. Actually, we saw a replica of the can. Manzoni made ninety of these, each about the size of my fist. One of the cans recently sold at auction for more than $300,000, making the Haubrok’s too valuable to display (since it is easily stolen). Instead, sitting on a windowsill like a misplaced can of beans was the replica, perfectly reproduced to match the original in appearance, size, and weight.

Any comparison of art to shit wants to play off the attitude of common taste to contemporary art in all its antiaesthetic perversity. (Manzoni’s idea is rumored to have begun when his father told him “Your work is shit.”) It probably also refers to defecation as the first “productive” act a human performs and to the experience of natural, spontaneous emission that goes along with making art. Many will recall the stir Chris Ofili’s painting The Holy Virgin Mary, which incorporates elephant feces, caused at its 1999 exhibition in the Brooklyn Museum. Then-mayor Rudy Giuliani took particular offense at what he described as artists “throwing elephant dung at a picture of the Virgin Mary,” and he tried to rescind the museum’s funding.

More interesting, in the case of Artist’s Shit, is that no one knows what’s actually inside. Opening the can would destroy the value of the work, so most collectors won’t try. In 1989 the artist Bernard Bazile turned opening one of Manzoni’s cans into an artwork of his own (Boite ouverte de Piero Manzoni), only to discover packing materials and a smaller can inside, which he left unopened. Is it all a sham, and if so does this change the quality of the work? If there is no shit, the question is not “How do you sell expensive shit to rich people?” but “How do you not sell expensive shit to rich people who intend to buy shit?” The first is a commentary on art, the second on the market. And why does the replica can, which almost certainly contains no shit, draw our attention at all?

There is a German saying that goes Ist das Kunst oder kann das weg? (“Is that art or can we throw it out?”). In 1986, a janitor famously threw out Joseph Beuys’s Fettecke, a five-kilogram hunk of butter affixed to the wall of Beuys’s studio, provoking a scandal and forcing the state to pay thousands of dollars in damages. A modern twist on the phrase—“Art or trash?”—might go “Art or infrastructure?” At the Haubrok, a modular-duct artwork was indistinguishable from the actual basement ductwork among which it was displayed. Outside, a regulation soccer goal turned out to be a piece of art. In Venice, I spent about five minutes inspecting a rather beautiful and elaborate fire extinguisher before realizing that it was just a fire extinguisher. The actual work on display in the room was by John Waters, the American film- and trouble-maker, who had a series of pieces that exhorted viewers to “Study Art” for “Fun or Fame,” “Breeding or Bounty,” “Prestige or Spite.”

Why make art? That question may be easier to answer than “Why look at art?” or “What does art mean?” So Waters implies. The context in which an artwork appeared spoke to me more loudly at the summer’s exhibitions than the wall text, certainly. Through all of my encounters I could discern nothing so clearly as the attitude the surroundings cultivated. The prettiness and grandeur of Venice made the art seem fussy, complicit, and ornamental; the austerity of Kassel, where documenta is held, made it appear self-serious, German, humorless. Aside from the Haubrok, whose setting was unpretentiously East German, the collections could not escape some imprint of their collectors’ wealth. Münster, for using the city as its staging ground and placing the pieces at significant removes, gave the art a sense of eclecticism verging on the arbitrary. There may be no best or proper way to display art, no “right” context, but the settings were familiar: the caverns of contemporary museums, the white cubes of galleries, the repurposed former industrial space. The hip unpretentiousness and vaguely Marxist solidarity of the industrial art space has, after all, become a pretension all its own.

It is not enough for the nebulousness and subjectivity of art to claim whatever questions or challenges you put to it as part of its intention. You can’t say art is “commenting on” whatever you criticize it for just because that’s convenient and no one can prove it’s not. The entire language around what an artwork is doing or is about grows hollower and more vacuous the more commentary and wall text you encounter. This piece…interrogates…reexamines…explores…critiques. But what do these critiques and interrogations conclude? What do they decide or find out? On this score artists and critics fall dumb.

Visual art does not have the same responsibility to articulacy that the narrative arts do, which makes it somewhat foolish to go down this path of saying, in words, what an artwork does in the first place. But the explanations and the critical discourse that encircle art are anything but foreign and irrelevant to artists themselves. They inform the expectations artists internalize and incorporate into their work. And the very nebulous nonsensicality of the commentary on art therefore becomes a license for artists to take a muddled approach to their own work and the ideas behind it. It becomes enough to gesture at points of resonance with the culture without saying anything. If any plausible association couched in suitably vague language works, whythis work in particular and not some other?

Art has many problems. What is merely pretty is boring. What is only technically adept says nothing. What is saleable seems calculated when art is ever more the province of the rich. Artists may disdain the economic system that enriches them and imbues their work with glamour and prestige, yet too much disdain imperils the very platform from which their disdain carries any weight. The arts bequeath glamour and prestige to the rich, of course, purporting all the while to work toward a radical agenda on behalf of an audience that has little access to this art. Elite consensus and market judgments are all that lie between artistic stardom and terminal idiosyncrasy, and the tenuousness of these arrangements makes everyone dependent on exactly whom they resent. This might prove a fertile conflict if one did not sense that the disdain and resentment had become a posture, an ingrained attitude devoid of much conviction or passion. Nothing is more perennially unhip than conviction.

There is no rule that art must justify itself. Marshall McLuhan said that “art is anything you can get away with,” and for my money it’s the best description out there. Art survived the age of mechanical reproduction not simply by limiting its reproducibility, but by embracing it, by, in instances, turning from object to process, becoming an event or moment or experience and recapturing its aura by evaporating into thin air, into memory or hearsay, or by so subverting its own commodification that the aura became not the artwork itself but the space the work created. Art will similarly survive the age of digital reproduction, by becoming what binary cannot represent or else by accepting its own endless appropriation. Art will always find gaps to slip into, taking a sledgehammer to exactly what seemed essential to its status as art, if need be, to preserve this very status. Art has survived worse, and it will survive this.

But art’s problems matter for us, for the culture at large, since we need art. The twin pressures of the market and reproducibility focus ever less of our attention on the art itself and ever more attention on the conditions that give rise to it. Art becomes more fully about (merely and overwhelmingly) its context: It designates a space “a space in which art occurs,” a person “a person who can afford art,” a city “a city that values art,” and these spaces, people, and places in turn tell us what to think about the art. The ability of art to mean anything beyond “an experience of art” in the general sense has shrunk and shrunk until—in my own admittedly subjective opinion—you must labor in art’s presence to wrest from it some meaningful kernel that has not been expected of you. In so doing, you encounter mainly the knotty cultural status of art per se, its expectations of you and your expectations of it. This is all interesting, except that the work itself has disappeared. Why does it matter that the piece engendering these productive conflicts is this work and not that? In losing the piece, the idea that something meaningful is happening becomes harder to justify, it begins to collapse, and the hollowness of this labor—the sense of your own insufficiency and the work’s—becomes the overriding experience of art.

Seeing Nothing as It Is

Another option is simply not to care—to lean into the market, to the commodification of art, and to abandon any pretense to making work that resonates with the emotional experience of viewers. Thus the gaudy spectacle of Damien Hirst’s exhibition Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice last summer.

The one positive thing I’ll say about the show is that the sixty-foot statue Demon with Bowl, which filled the atrium of the Palazzo Grassi, was genuinely impressive and cool. The idea of its weight alone, bound in the body’s sensuous and exaggerated curves and balanced pendulously in a back-slung pose, is awe inspiring. Made of a resin painted, mottled, and fatigued to resemble aged bronze, the giant sculpture is meant, within the show’s fictive conceit, to be a copy: an “Exhibition Enlargement.” This is a bit strange, since none of the works are authentic in any sense. They are meant to pass, jokingly, for ancient statuary and artifacts retrieved from the wreck of a ship, the Unbelievable, recently “discovered” in the Indian Ocean off Tanzania, which had belonged to a wealthy emancipated slave from the first century. (Hirst had these artifacts built and sunk, then filmed and photographed their “recovery”; the former slave’s name, Cif Amotan II, is an anagram of “I am a fiction.”) Why then put forth the collection’s most impressive piece as an ersatz enlargement? I don’t know.

Demon with Bowl is based on a William Blake painting called The Ghost of a Flea. One wonders how much thought Hirst put in to choosing the source material for this artisanal marvel. Blake’s appropriation of old symbols in a personal mythology fits the concept of Hirst’s show, it’s true, but the appositeness ends there. Not only is Blake’s painting miniature where Hirst’s statue is monumental, but Blake’s politics were profoundly anti-commercial, anti-establishment, and anti-empire. Hirst’s mix-and-match pilfering of mythical and modern icons from other cultures may not be exactly pro-empire, but it tiptoes up to the line. The show is estimated to have cost around $100 million to put together (the entire budget for documenta, which featured more than 160 artists in more than thirty venues in Kassel, came in at under half that), and since Hirst made three copies of each piece, it has been estimated that the show could sell for as much as $1 billion in its entirety.

Blake would have loathed this cynical, meretricious, profit-seeking idea of art, and he would have loathed the lack of generosity and self-criticism in the show itself. The exhibition guide explains Cif Amotan II’s rise to wealth by noting, “Ex-slaves were afforded ample opportunities for socio-economic advancement in the Roman Empire through involvement in the financial affairs of their patrons and past masters.” Inspiring stuff, no? (Why, by the way, Cif Amotan the second, if he was ostensibly the first to ride this wave of nepotism out of bondage?) Blake abhorred slavery and the grim exploitation that commerce and finance represented. Does Hirst identify with his imaginary Amotan, a freed dependent made rich through financial involvement with patrons and benefactors, possibly including his former owner? Perhaps.

Imagination meanwhile is not just whim and fancy, as artists tend to know, not just the ability to envision the new—“something rich and strange,” in the show’s epigraph from The Tempest—but the ability to see the past and present clearly, to see things for what they truly are. Hirst’s show helps us see nothing as it is. In fact, the idea that an elegantly equipped crack diving team will swoop in to pull up and preserve our lost past in some heroic feat of conservational derring-do may get things exactly wrong in Venice, which is sinking. A little way across town at the Prada Foundation, a very different show with an inverted theme was taking place. Three late-career German artists—conceptual photographer Thomas Demand, filmmaker Alexander Kluge, and stage designer Anna Viebrock—had installed an elaborate multimedia collaboration called (quoting from Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”) The Boat is Leaking. The Captain Lied. What boat, what captain? I don’t know, and the show itself had little do with the current exigencies—global warming and the migrant crisis—that its title seemed to invoke.

On the other hand, Cohen’s song implies that no one has been fooled into believing the captain’s lie. Quite the opposite: It is one of those things “everybody knows,” per the song’s title. And this sense of dirty little secrets hiding in plain sight describes the Prada Foundation show pretty well. Whether Viebrock’s stage sets, which fill the Fondazione and furnish the very space through which you move, or Demand’s photographs, which present eerie, staged, near-photorealistic reconstructions of scenes made out of paper, or Kluge’s films and videos, which probe the texture and layers of artifice and life, the thematic confluence of these artists’ visions asks whether life is a fiction like art, a public spectacle with a “backstage.”

Consider Cohen’s song again: “Everybody knows the fight was fixed / the poor stay poor, the rich get rich / that’s how it goes.” And “Everybody knows the deal is rotten / Old Black Joe’s still picking cotton / for your ribbons and bows.” The theme of slavery was never far from the collective consciousness of this year’s art; nor was the way in which financial arrangements recreate indenture and servitude. In Cohen’s song, these truths carry the uncontroversial air of rhyme’s resolving inevitability. But how easy it is to admire Cohen’s music, to find oneself moved by its humanity, and to turn from this to the hardheaded calculations that make up a life. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment of a stacked deck, but how deep is my commitment to reshuffling it? Unfortunately, I am busy, I need to eat and pay the rent, I want to be happy to some degree, and I can’t easily free myself from a web of arrangements that actively and passively help to keep the status quo in place.

So here’s another problem with art: The revelatory force of its message lasts only so long. As a political tool art can reorient us powerfully, but like a spell or enchantment, its power expires. It dies because art is only a proposition, a dream. And in Venice, where art’s entanglement with extraordinary wealth is everywhere manifest, the force of any political statement about bondage or freedom can’t reverberate for long without taking on some pretty odd overtones. Anne Imhof’s performance piece in the German Pavilion, which won this year’s Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale, similarly set its sights on interpersonal hierarchies and the mediation of art and life. The performance, which disappointingly was not taking place during my visit, featured terminally cool Berlin youth grappling and posing and doing various things, often beneath a glass floor Imhof had installed for visitors at the German Pavilion to walk on.

I have heard praise for Imhof’s piece from those who saw it in the flesh. What I can discern in online videos, superimposed on my own visit to the pavilion, however, is a certain vacancy beneath the mediation and façade, the transparent flooring, the conceit. Are we walking on the performers and thus oppressing them, or does their unapproachable and hip aloofness make them inaccessible and superior to us? And is there anything inherently meaningful or political about this style of languor, blasé disaffection, and dress: that of haute couture as urban-derelict, the theater troupe Punchdrunk as a WTO protest? Maybe this is, or isn’t, the point. Like the Fondazione Prada show, Imhof’s seems to draw attention to a subterranean, backstage reality only as a way of showing the stylized arrangement of the foregrounded, familiar “real.” Neither show proposes what the deeper truth may be. And this sends me back to the familiar, superficial reality with the knowledge that it’s all a sham but without the sense of an alternative. We are stuck with the performance. There is no escape.

In all this I sense contemporary art’s fatigue with its own pretense to accomplishing something radical or political, the hollowness of the language by which artists convince themselves otherwise, their hopeless complicity with a world of wealth whose excesses and practices are increasingly hard to justify, even with heroic bouts of dissonance. Imhof’s piece is titled Faust. What deal have we artists struck, and with whom? More still to the point: Did the captain even have to lie?

Art’s Sly Ability

The history of the major European art exhibitions offers few answers, but it shows how deep the roots of contradiction and complicity go, how perennial the questions are themselves. It is a braided saga of money and politics, and art’s sly ability, in the long run, to outlast and transcend both.

The Venice Biennale is far and away the oldest of the international shows. First held in 1895, it is a year older than the modern Olympic Games and began as a somewhat stodgy affair, run by the city, to showcase Italian art. The Biennale was slow to catch up with the times and shed the conservative bent of its municipal authority. In 1910, the exhibition withdrew work by Picasso for fear of scandalizing the public, and the Futurist poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti dropped leaflets on the nearby Piazza San Marco denouncing the Biennale’s backwardness.

The 1920s saw the exhibition take fitful steps toward the evolving taste of previous decades. The show now featured Impressionists and Postimpressionists, as well as early Modernists and the work of African sculptors. This curatorial boldness, however, provoked a backlash from the traditionalists in city government, who appointed an oversight board to rein in the Biennale’s new director, an arrangement that lasted until 1930, when the national government—the Italian fascist state—stepped in and took control from the city.

Under national management the Biennale expanded to include music, theater, and film. In broadening the exhibition’s profile and scope, the Fascisti laid the groundwork for its postwar prominence as the sort of international World Fair-ish venture symbolically meant to reject nationalism and fascism. This wasn’t the only irony. A natural through-line also ran from the Futurism of the original anti-Biennale poet Marinetti to the fascist movement that took Italy by storm in the twenties and adopted the Biennale as a prominent showcase for its new state. Hitler visited the Biennale in 1934, immediately recognized the symbolic platform it offered him, and oversaw the German Pavilion’s redesign in lurid Speerian style, notably installing a grandiose stone flooring. This flooring would get smashed to bits in 1993 by Hans Haacke, who had been chosen to represent Germany that year. (Recall the particular attention Imhof’s Faust paid to reimagining the pavilion’s floor in 2017.)

Of course, fascism in Italy was never opposed to modern art the way its counterpart in Germany was. Italian fascism grew in knotted sympathy with the artistic avant-garde of the day, which envisioned a new age of progress unbound by tradition. This isn’t perhaps as strange as it seems now, since certain fascist latencies live deep in art’s DNA: an interest in violence, in totalizing systems, in the radical reformation of society, and in the aestheticization of life. Art’s vitality rests partly on these uncompromised and reformist visions, and since art is more often at odds with political power than in cahoots with it, its pigheadedness is on balance a good thing. But art is not innocent, and its current posture in adopting inclusive, radical, and leftist values is not inherent to it.

documenta’s history is similarly bound up with the legacy of twentieth-century fascism. The brainchild of painter and art scholar Arnold Bode, documenta was initially intended as a one-off to coincide with a biennial horticulture festival taking place in Bode’s hometown of Kassel in 1955. Kassel, site of the Henschel tank factory, had attracted heavy Allied bombing during the war, and documenta was intended to help the city emerge from the rubble on a new footing with the world.

But Bode did not mean to forget or elide the past. As a university lecturer in Berlin during the thirties, he had found himself at odds with the Third Reich and forced from his job for failing to adopt the party’s taste. It was precisely those artists and artworks the Nazis had censored and derided—so-called degenerate art—that Bode wanted to reintroduce to German audiences. The inaugural documenta, shaped by this agenda, was a great success. Featuring works by Kandinsky, Matisse, Picasso, Paul Klee, Oskar Schlemmer, Max Beckmann, and many others in the bombed-out Fridericianum museum, it attracted 130,000 visitors and upstaged the horticulture festival altogether. People were hungry to see this difficult art, it turned out.

documenta continues to enjoy a reputation for staying au courant with the aesthetic and political developments of the day, in part because it has helped over the years to bring marginal movements into the artistic mainstream: minimalism, process-based art, conceptual art in the manner of Beuys, and Art Brut (“outsider” or “naive” art). But the exhibition is not entirely free of the ironies of history itself. From one of the press releases in my media kit: “International art exhibition documenta 14 opens in Kassel: Volkswagen Group again main sponsor.”

Stop the presses, right? (How perfect is that “again”?) The release comes, unsurprisingly, from Volkswagen itself, and as you may know, VW’s deepest roots lie in the soil of Nazi Germany, when Hitler wanted a “people’s car” (literally, Volkswagen) that ordinary citizens could afford. So the sponsorship of a major anti-/postfascist art show by an at least casually once-fascist car company is…well, basically par for the course. The layers of historical paradox and complexity are not easy to tease apart.

Volkswagen’s press release, suffice it to say, does not get into this. It does however attribute the following statement to Benita von Maltzahn, head of cultural and social engagement for Volkswagen Group:

 

Art and culture lay the groundwork for progress and development in our society. Encountering and engaging with different ideas and perspectives enriches our thinking immensely. The documenta brings together the most important and influential ideas of our time from around the world and in this way, gives a large number of people access to viewpoints and positions, enabling them to further understanding [sic].

 

A bit drab and soporific, yes, and still I can’t imagine an American company saying anything half so positive about contemporary art. And it’s the truth, even if Benita takes all the sparkle and jazz out of it. Art does lay the groundwork for progress and development in society. From the way our world looks to the way we know how to look, the forerunning experiments of art prefigure just about everything we take for granted as “normal human life.” All this begins with the play and dreams and senseless, useless churn that art really just sort of is.

Art teaches us what desires and possibilities exist in us that we haven’t yet realized. Not always, of course. At its best art does these things. I am not uncritical of art, as these pages show; nor am I credulous or fawning when it comes to this or that artwork’s own self-regard. When art is working, it must cause some discomfort, because discomfort is the sign of thought. But discomfort is not enough. Neither are idiosyncrasy and strangeness, nor casually adopted political attitudes, nor the patina of critique. Within the world that accepts art’s cultural significance as a given, I chafe like the next guy at its complacency and mediocrity.

But I side with Benita all the same in believing that art is, basically, a kind of humanistic and normative R&D project, pushing out at the frontiers of culture to help us discern what, and what else, we might be. So when I find myself in the culture at large—its broadest catchall basket, where art is viewed with suspicion or seen as frivolous and pricy waste—here I switch and become art’s most quixotic defender, at last resort, if need be, invoking Shelley’s suggestion that we imagine a world without art, as a proof by contradiction or reductio ad absurdum, since even the most practically minded philistine would blanch at the aridity and gloom of an artless world.

Which brings us to the relatively brief story of the Skulptur Projekte Münster, an exhibition that has taken place only five times so far, at ten-year intervals, beginning in 1977. The project started in the aftermath of a civic controversy around the installation of George Rickey’s kinetic sculpture Three Rotary Squares (pretty much what the name suggests). The need to explain and defend the legitimacy of public art, particularly art like Rickey’s, sparked a series of lectures, on the heels of which two local museum directors organized the first Skulptur Projekte. Over the years, the city came to embrace the decennial fair and the sculptures it left ornamenting the streets and parks. By its third installment, in 1997, the whole thing had come full circle and turned from a didactic imposition on the city to a cherished tradition supported financially by the city. Today it is undeniable that quaint and medieval-seeming Münster is a far more visually interesting place for the litany of sculptures that dot its landscape.

And here we encounter history’s cautionary note for the art skeptic: The latest art that supposedly scandalizes everyday people, that seems invasive, parasitical, and scarcely art at all, is almost always embraced in time, becoming the cherished artifacts of our culture and past, a great store of symbolic value and of nonsymbolic wealth. We should remember that art predates and prefigures commerce. Art will outlast it too.

Present and Future Tense

Stuff—property—lies at the heart of settled life. The need to possess and protect it is what gave rise to our laws and bureaucracies, to the formalization of our sexual coupling in marriage, and to the governments we now seem to hate. We guard our things and become, in guarding them, their servants and retainers. The most valuable and desirable things are always the most purposeless and symbolic, the most imbued, like money, with the shimmer of status and the possibility of exchange. “Why are man’s real treasures useless?” asks the travel writer and novelist Bruce Chatwin, unable to answer his own question.

Chatwin is adamant that all we mean by “civilization” is “living in cities.” Citycivil, and civilize share a common root, which goes back to the idea of lying down, of sleeping repeatedly in the same place. Chatwin’s alternative, what he calls the “nomadic alternative,” is not terribly realistic or viable these days. Even for Warren, our brief roommate in Berlin, it seems to be getting old. Contemporary economic life exerts extraordinary pressure on conformity and risk aversion. Warren accidentally left a tattered envelope of cash in the apartment when he departed for Vienna and wrote to us worried that it had been lost. I had the sense that this disintegrating pouch held Warren’s life, although obviously, in the literal sense, this wasn’t true. The money inside would not have covered one hospital visit in the United States.

How should we weigh the present against the future? Every time my dentist gets in touch to tell me I am overdue for a cleaning, I wonder: Must I participate in this ritual, must I subscribe to an idea of life so staid and prophylactic? We don’t know what we will wish we had done more or less of on our deathbed, we don’t know when death will come, so the proper privilege to allot this moment vis-à-vis future moments is unclear. We play it safe, keep our options open, our dental health intact. We prefer money to things and, where possible, investment and profitable lending, because fungible value is noncommittal and points to the future. But what the future is and offers depends entirely on what we do in the meantime. Money doesn’t grow on trees, they say, and I have confirmed this. But trees don’t grow on money either, and if I had to build a civilization from the ground up I would take trees over scraps of paper. Money lays a claim on the future, but can the future pay?

One of the thematic threads running through the summer’s exhibitions was the idea of improvised, temporary, and nontraditional sleeping arrangements: tents, campers, sewers stacked as strange, claustrophobic apartments. Beyond the most immediate political referents lay the question of staying or leaving—a sense of displacement, of not being at home in your home. Have our cultures, like our countries, become ill-suited and unaccommodating relics that immure more than free us? Where is the hazy point at which our words, our language and concepts, turn from being our tools to our masters? Samuel Beckett wrote in French to efface style from his prose. Style can trap us or set us free. As the author Bruno Schulz (whose paintings were on display at documenta) wrote, “Our language has no definitions which would weigh, so to speak, the grade of reality, or define its suppleness.” We call on the ineffable poetics of language and art to catch the realities that have escaped our words.

On the other hand, we know that fascism is foremost a stylistic invention. From Visconti’s The Damned to Bertolucci’s The Conformist to Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi rally films to the coordinated mass events of North Korea and the military youth pageants of contemporary Turkey (featured in the video I, Soldier at documenta), the lure and spell of power derives most potently from spectacle and lives most fully in the story spectacle bespeaks—the binding illusion of power’s reality. Style is about what life should look like. Politics is not so different. Today’s stateless marauders—terrorists—attack the story of our power as the point of greatest leverage. We are as weak or strong as our story. We cannot get by without a vital culture to reaffirm the symbolism of the traditions, values, and narratives that guide us.

So we need the arts, especially now that the presumptive belief in their power and role is so tenuous. Art without moral conviction, without the authority of conscience, is soulless and looks to financial and political patronage for legitimacy and strength. But art that looks only to the moral convictions currently popular among the right-thinking comes off as pious, sanctimonious, and ultimately self-interested too. It is a narrow path, but it is walkable, and art that doesn’t walk it will bring contempt on the whole project and category of art. Sizing up the Marcel Breuer–designed wing of the Cleveland Museum of Art as a “fortified bunker,” Chatwin wrote: “It is of some psychological interest that the more exquisite the Oriental objects [a museum] houses, the further they are buried underground in black stone crypts, while in the park outside, trees and children gasp for air, and streams and ponds are oily black and perhaps inflammable. Such observable disparities turned people against art, particularly valuable art.”

But the artists did not make the air unbreathable or the ponds flammable, and it was certainly not their idea to lock up art in vaults to preserve its worth. Art won’t cleanse the air or streams, of course. It will probably insist on not doing whatever you insist it should. It promises simply, at best, to teach us to value what life permits—life in its endless variety, its vastness and its dullness, the life we return to when the vernissage concludes.