What is art?
The truth is that the pictures on display at this exhibition have been selected because the Association wishes to bring the works of its members into the public eye. Consequently, they have all been painted by mouth or foot. If I now say “Right, and so what?” to all this my comment is only intended to sound slightly provocative. After all, it would be easy enough to put together a collection of an equal number of pictures painted by hand. Yet that alone surely cannot be the reason for staging an exhibition. The reason we hold art exhibitions is because we want to exhibit art. These pictures are on display here because their creators, the Association, a jury and probably the patrons of the exhibition too believe them to be art. OK. But does that necessarily mean that these pictures are indeed art?
Art, in the words of a time-honoured German proverb, comes from ability. Now if this were a universally valid truth then there could be doubt that we are dealing with art here: quite evidently, all the creators of these works are able to paint. The trouble is that this notion of art is trivial, to say the least: we begin to recognise its hollow significance when we talk about “culinary art” or “the art of a good speaker”. No, on the one hand – just because someone can rustle up a tasty bowl of soup without applying an excessive amount of salt to the brew doesn’t make him or her an artist. And, to be quite self-critical at this point, no, on the other – just because someone can give a grammatically correct and halfway comprehensible talk without stumbling doesn’t make him or her an artist, either.
An attentive observer of the scene once confided to me that art comes from making an announcement. OK, but what can or should art announce? What or which message is it supposed to pass on to us? The debate on the relationship between art and power, e.g. under Nazism or Stalinism, reveals that the ruthless insistence with which propaganda intends to convey a message is only matched by the questionable degree to which art is employed to announce the message in the first place. Hence it would seem that the notion of art as an announcement alone doesn’t quite explain our conundrum.
Very well, then. If explanations of ability and announcements prove incapable of helping us find a deeper answer, what for heavens’ sake is art, then? In response I would say that the most important condition which art needs to fulfil in order for us to recognise it as such is that it moves us. This ambitious assertion states that art moves, captures and, in the broadest sense of the word, grips us; that we allow ourselves to become involved in an artwork, or in the here and now in a picture. Why? Because it triggers off something inside ourselves which other pictures are incapable of doing. Frequently, the feelings that art is capable of generating within our inner selves are intense, and indeed highly unsettling. Many artists have seen in this an encouragement to show us pictures of devastation, terror and horror. The great apocalypses by Hieronymus Bosch and Albrecht Dürer down to Francisco Goya, George Grosz or Pablo Picasso belong to this kind of art.
Permit me at this stage to illustrate this point with a little anecdote. The unsettling feeling generated by a picture can sometimes be reinforced by a pithy, interpretative comment. The story goes that when an officer in the German Wehrmacht went to visit an atelier in occupied Paris during the Second World War he ended up standing in front of Picasso’s enormous Guernica canvas, that tableau of terror which attempts to capture the horrors visited on the little Basque town by the German bombers of the Condor Legion in the course of the Spanish Civil War. Apparently, he asked the painter standing at his side: “Did you do that?” Picasso is said to have replied: “No, monsieur, you did that.”
So now, in the surroundings of this wonderful exhibition, I have just spoken of the devastation and destruction that can find its expression in art – and one might think, most inappropriately in view of the paintings we see all around us! Yet one of the reasons I did this was precisely to draw your attention to the fact that it is not just depictions of horror which can make us feel unsettled.
The fact of the matter is that we are deeply, deeply fortunate that art can also unsettle us – simply through its beauty.