Art and the reception of art
by Dr. Klaus Grabowski
I should like to begin my thoughts on art and the reception of art with a few reactions I heard when I said I would be speaking here today. The first was: “Oh, mouth and foot painters – such poor people, aren’t they? But it’s amazing what they manage to do in spite of everything!” These and similar statements, uttered in a tone of the utmost compassion, may indeed be well meant but have very little to do with the artworks on display here. After all, Vincent van Gogh did not start to become a great painter when – or specifically because – one of his ears was missing. Nor is Jackson Pollock considered a pioneer of modern art because he succumbed to alcoholism. And to cite a more recent example, the fact that Jörg Immendorff suffers from a progressive, incurable disease does not automatically turn his paintings into works of art.
The second reaction I came across was: “Ah, you mean the ones who paint greeting cards, don’t you?” The low opinion conveyed by this utterance could clearly be discerned in the speaker’s tone of voice. Well, now. Does that mean that everything printed on greeting cards must necessarily be discounted as art? For if that was the case there would be few examples of genuine art that remained, simply because in all museum shops across the world almost everything on display is also available on cards. From Matthias Grünewald’s Madonna im Rosenhag and all of the great works by Leonardo da Vinci or Albrecht Dürer to the classic modern age with countless works by Klee, Macke and Nolde right down to Magritte, Warhol and Dali and a huge number of others: they are all available on cards on which you can send your greetings. And I heard another objection, this time opined with regard to the subject matter: “There are mouth and foot painters, aren’t there, who copy their pictures from photos” – with the same undertone suggesting that such works can hardly be said to constitute true art.
Yet those expounding such arguments do not appear to have followed the development of art. According to this view, neither Andy Warhol’s portraits of Marilyn Monroe nor Gerhard Richter’s great cycle of works about the history of the terrorist Red Army Fraction in Germany which he called “18 October 1977” and painted on the basis of “wanted” or press photos might hardly be deemed works of art. The New Leipzig School also adapted this procedure – and ended up by scoring a resounding success among international art collectors.
In the meantime the development I have referred to has once again moved on: the fact that everyday objects can also be considered art was made clear by Marcel Duchamp and many others after him with their objets trouvés or ready-mades. Furthermore, the borders between advertising graphics and art have weakened – if not entirely ceased to exist – ever since Warhol came out with his reproductions of Campbell’s soup cans. But that’s not all. Things get even more complicated if you take a look at Elaine Sturtevant’s works. Under the title: “The brutal truth” she has meticulously reproduced works recognised as being icons of the modern age to such an extent that they cannot be distinguished from the originals. Yet in doing so she has opened up a new view of these well known works. As a result, an American flag as depicted by a Jasper Johns is no longer purely a work by that artist; and Josef Beuys “Fat Chair” becomes more than just a work by Beuys once Sturtevant has placed it in an entirely different context. All this is irritating and unsettling; but no more than René Magritte’s picture of a pipe with the caption: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe). The question of the identity or non-identity of pictures and reproductions (a question alien to archaic societies in which the picture is the idol) can be answered quite simply. Pictures are pictures: they are not reality. Reality resides in the fact that pictures can at times be artworks.