The end of normative notions of art
What we are now experiencing in the second half of the 20th century is the collapse of all previous attempts to squeeze art into the straitjacket of normative notions, i.e. to publicly stipulate what is and what is not art. Until roughly up to the emergence of impressionism each historical group had imagined that it possessed such universally valid notions of art, ones which abrogated others and which were often aimed at destroying other kinds of art. Non-conformist views of art held by contemporaries and contemporary artists were discouraged and suppressed either subtly or brutally. The history of artistic judgement – and here modern researchers of aesthetics are all in agreement – is above all a history of misjudgement, even though both art history and the practice of collecting and criticising art hinted at other, more accurate ideas about quality, and frequently did so at a very early stage.
With the Nazis’ iconoclasm, denigration, persecution and destruction of modern art movements the 20th century once again experienced a sweeping attempt to enforce normative artistic judgements against dissident thinkers and artists. At the same time, however, the enormous dimensions of this artistic persecution caused people to revise their opinions on the extensive liberalisation of the notion of art and on judgements of quality, on the way they have or ought to have a determining influence on art life in the present day, for there has been no lack of attempts to regulate art and artists, to force them to comply with traditional, normative ideas and views. The fact that notions of art in support of an extensive concept of the creative, one free from normative regulation, have indeed ultimately prevailed is of enormous significance for individual artists and the public. They help each of the latter to find a ready access to art. They create a climate of tolerance and a mutual respect of what appear to be contradictory artistic concepts. In addition, they bolster overall interest in art, enhance the opportunities of the art market and the art trade, and facilitate access to new talents and ideas in modern art. This coincides with the fact that we have witnessed a worldwide surge of interest in visual art, in art exhibitions, art fairs, art collecting and art literature since the start of the 1970s at the very latest.
The art market in general has expanded significantly. More art is being purchased by far more people than ever before. This is true both of original artworks and reproductions, right down to artcards and calendars, as a result of improved living standards and the liberalisation of artistic notions.
The end of normative notions of art does not mean that laws and regularities are absent from these questions, that the answering of questions about art and artistic quality has become a matter of mere arbitrariness, anarchy or charlatanism, as many contemporaries fear. It only means that such rules are not normative, i.e. are not norms in the sense of a prescribed art system. And it means – secondly – that notions of art and quality are much more comprehensive and complicated than was once assumed.
From what we know today about the field of aesthetics it would appear that the structure of the aesthetic or artistic and of the corresponding notions of quality is so complicated and elusive when put down on paper that any attempt to simplify by force or to pre-empt an artistic judgement inevitably leads to grave misjudgements, injustices and deformities of art. Consequently, the contemporary art scene and public bodies involved with it categorically reject such attempts. Increasingly, they tend towards the so-called ‘artistic exception’: if art objects are incriminated on the grounds of offending common decency, of posing a danger to children and young people, of infringing upon political considerations or the rights of the individual then the same objects are acquitted – providing they are recognised as being art. To an even greater extent this also applies to public, blanket judgements on art when greater or lesser artistic skills are ascribed to certain social or ethnic groups. Turning at this point to the specific case of handicapped artists and their interests, it follows from the above that anyone who disputes the quality of their artistic works simply because they are the products of disabled people and/or ‘do not meet general quality standards’ does not have a leg to stand on: such lines of argument are completely baseless and lack the scientific support of experts in the field.
General quality standards in this sense – i.e. preconceived and socially sanctioned judgements – no longer exist and can no longer exist given the way that the arts have evolved up to the present day. Nowadays, the judgement of experts has become decisive. In our case – as in all other cases of art – such experts generally proceed from the works which mouth and foot painting artists themselves have already created, the standards they have consequently set for themselves and the ways in which these works stand in relationship to comparable, generally recognised works of art. After all, an expert judging a work along the lines of Beuys cannot proceed in any other way, for to use the criteria of the portrait art of a Rembrandt or the Madonnas of a Raphael would neither do justice to Beuys nor to the latter.