Shadows of the World in Art. Time, Name, Medium

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Swiss Pavillon. 51st Venice Biennal. Catalogue edited by Stefan Banz, p.21-30


The changes that have occurred in the technological and economic basis of culture in our own time cannot fail to have an impact on the art world too. Whether in the form of a collision, as in the early days of Modernism, or whether the new cultural edifice merely casts a shadow across the world of art, depends on the position that art carves out for itself in the changing cultural situation. The harbingers of comprehensive change may already be observed in many aspects of cultural life. The new Welthaltigkeit of art is just one of these.
The relationship between art and the outside world has always been ambivalent. Every work of art, by definition, relies on internal and external references. It refers to other works of art, past and present. And it refers to events and things outside of art. The relationship between internal and external references, between references to the other and to the self have been discussed by art historians through the years in very different terms – on the basis of autonomy and relationality or, equally, with regard to Modernism as an avant-garde movement or as an illustration of the everyday world. Now, in our own time, we see a turn towards to the world on many fronts. Works of art illustrate political and social conditions, economic upheavals and ethnic differences; they portray phenomena associated with certain subcultures or with popular culture. Art comments, documents, reflects. Its main points of reference are located beyond its own boundaries and it is read as a statement concerning the conditions that prevail in the outside world.
This relationship between the world and art also contains within it a more broadly based spectrum of change, for the state and the art market – the two poles of art – are drifting apart. The institution of the museum has weakened, although ever larger, ever more splendid, new museums are still being built. The time scale of collecting and classifying art is changing. The so-called general public is baffled by contemporary art, only to be attracted all the more powerfully to themed spectacles.
These upheavals affect not only art but cultural production as a whole. For the digital data flowing around the world spells the end of the model of a cultural economy that has supported popular culture for almost 150 years. This is not without consquences for art itself. For the history of Modernism could not be more closely connected with the emergence of modern media.

Cultural Change

The idea that culture has its own historical order – a naturally-evolving history and relationship to history – dominated the last century as much as the certainty that in the reproducibility of things we had established the firm foundations of cultural production. Both these premises have become unstable. But this is not to say that their weakness heralds the end of art. On the contrary – it opens up new directions.
Modernism has traditionally been ordered along historical lines. Works were categorised in terms of time and regarded as an expression of a particular time. And this historical order even has its own identifiable beginning. It dates back to the epochal threshold in the sciences and the new order of scientific disciplines that became apparent around 1800. The birth of the history of art is also connected with that period, as was the founding of the great museums. As institutions weaken in our own time, history no longer has the same compelling power as a framework within which events may be ordered. Museums turn their attention to temporary exhibitions; the astonishing rise of the status of the “curator” owes everything to this strategy. The task of storing and preserving works of art is neglected or left to collectors, who have a different approach to the concept of permanence. If anything, they adopt the logic of the data bank, creating temporarily valid connections whereby the date only counts as one of many possible variables.

At the same time the model of popular culture relying on technical media is no longer on a firm footing. From the perspective of art, this can scarcely be seen as merely a coincidence. For Modernism, as a movement, had itself been generated precisely by a collision between technical visual media and the institutions of art. Consequently the moment when both these media and the institutions display weakness affects contemporary art to its very core. To declare yet again that Modernism has come to an end would be to misunderstand the situation. We are not dealing here with an end, a marker in time, a moment comparable to the “afterwards” of Post-Modernism. For it is precisely the notion of “afterwards”, the concept of a chronological sequence, that no longer applies. So-called Post-Modernism was simply another variant following within that same temporal logic.
In order to understand just what is changing, let us take a look back at the beginnings of Modernism. In the 19th century art had ground to a halt within the context of a market dominated by the Salons and art academies. The pictorial aims of the painters of that time could easily have been fulfilled by photographers. But during the course of jockeying for position with the technical media, painting won over the institutions to its side, despite or precisely because the museums still clung to the notion of the technically obsolete productions methods used in traditional, manual picture production. Painters gave up any attempt to create a likeness of the world since they could not hope to compete with photography in this respect. But just as they shed the duty to create likenesses, they also invented a number of stylistic innovations, each of which is registered as a new avant-garde in the historical order that prevails in the museum world. What was hailed as the revolution of Modernism turns out, from a different point of view, to have been a successful bid by painters to adapt to what the art institutions wanted -namely innovation per se. For anything new serves the historical categorization fostered in museums. Modernism subsequently found its stability in the interplay of the art market and the museums whereby collectors would discover something new, retrospectively validating the museums and stabilizing the market by their acquisitions.
Anything “innovative” involves the self-reference of art to art. In order to be regarded as new, a picture need only demonstrate its difference to all other, earlier pictures. The movement within which painters searched for innovation strongly resembled a flight from photography and its compulsion to create likenesses. By the early 20th century this had led to fully-fledged abstraction. From that point onwards the art of depicting the visible world played a negligible role in painting. Painters left that to the technical media of photography and film. This in turn leads to two distinctly different visual cultures: one – popular – with its economic foundations in the new modes of technical picture production, the other artistic, able to remain faithful to traditional production methods because in doing so it serves the art institutions and the historical order they still maintain.

Since that time, self-referentiality in art has been the dominant strategy. And what started with painting has since spread to all the media that art appropriates. That there is nowadays a lessening in the commitment to self-referentiality of art is symptomatic – as in the early days of Modernism – of a change in the structures of popular culture.

The cultural model of Capitalism emerged at the same time as Modernism in the late 19th century. Both have their roots in the same technical foundations – negatively so in the case of Modernism and positively in the case of popular culture. The grammophone record and cinema film are examples of storage media which themselves become saleable goods. What may be heard and seen on these storage systems became the reason for buying these goods in the market place. The stupendous idea – or so it would have seemed in the early 19th century – of buying these goods in order to take possession of images or sounds becomes the basis of the cultural economy in the 20th century. The cultural output of the new media and popular culture openly competed with the traditional, partly state-owned institutions which continued to purvey the repertoire of feudalism in the modalities developed during the Enlightenment. Their claims to hegemony gradually diminished. They survive only on their own home ground, as opera houses, concert halls or museums in the late feudal form of old and modern palaces. The exhibition form embodied in the Venice Biennale with its national pavilions highlights the competition between the state-subsidised arts in different countries.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the 19th-century business model prevalent in popular culture has been in decline. For the value of the storage systems that are its basis is going down with the rise of digital data. Data of every kind can be copied and transmitted by any user. The music industry was the first to be hit by these changes, but it is only a question of time before the film industry will have to cope with the same developments. However, this does not necessarily mean that the popular culture business as a whole will no longer be viable. New avenues will open up in step with hitherto unknown economies of time and distribution. They will appear as alien as did the notion, a hundred years ago, of buying manufactured goods in order to hear music.

The in fact craft-based, outdated production methods of artists have become unexpectedly relevant in the face of present changes. For if the reproduction is devalued and if cultural value no longer derives from reproduction and distribution, the original gains meaning in a new sense. The point at issue is not the original on the art market, fetishised as a material object, but the uniqueness of an invention, of an idea, the value of which derives from the attention it attracts. The source to which it is attributed can vary. In the output from digital data, producers often remain anonymous or operate under changing addresses and aliases; in art, in keeping with ancient traditions, they line up behind particular names.

Time and Names

Names in art are a form of shorthand. Group shows use lists of names. No advertisement, no catalog, no invitation without names. The name precedes the work. Not infrequently works are bought unseen, simply for the sake of the name. Collections and themed exhibitions are often not conceived according to their projected contents but as lists of names. In the run-up to major exhibitions the publication of the make-up of such a list can create greater interest than the contents of the exhibition.
What is it about names and art? Where does the intrinsic value of proper names come from and what does it say about art as a cultural form? Every cultural form has its own relationship to names. Where authors are traditionally regarded as the holders of the rights to a particular work, their names are given due prominence. But this ceases to apply in the multi-stage production methods used in the new media. As long as music is played from a written score, the composer’s name still counts. Otherwise the interpreters are more important. In the history of film, the name of the production company, that of the actor and of the director come to the fore one by one. In that situation names are used to serve the demands of advertising. In other areas of cultural production, such as computer games or commercial photography, names are scarcely mentioned.
The history of art, too, has been through different stages in terms of the value attached to proper names. In the Middle Ages, a time that now seems so nameless, sculptors used to chisel their names in large letters above the church door. But there is a crucial factor missing here. We know nothing about them as individuals, for there are no biographies to complement the works and the names. Art history, in a form that we would recognise today, starts with Vasari and his Lives of Artists, which in turn sowed the seed of the power of the artist’s name.
The name provides metadata on the work; its use and its appearance are dependent on the format. The name of the artist says a number of things. At one and the same time it serves as biography, product name, trade mark; its use is determined by the laws of the market place and the museum alike. The author does not have the license to relinquish his or her name. The artistic work draws attention to the name and endows it with a certain value. But this relationship has done an about turn. The name now dominates the artist and the work. It’s not possible to step outside the shadow of one’s own name. Artists’ names even prevent them from separating life and work. They don’t have a ‘second body’. The power of the name forces life and art together.

The power resident in a name has advantages and disadvantages. It gives artists a position which appears to put them beyond any form of outside control. Unlike most other cultural production methods, where names, authors and decision-makers are involved in variously complex production processes, the power of the artist’s name can give him or her a seemingly incontestible position. At the same time, this autonomy exists in name only. For in the sense that a name first has to be created, it can also be devalued again once it is in currency.

Names lead lives of their own. The biography that connects the name and the life can only be written in retrospect, when the work justifies the name. All those involved in the system of art – in the market place, the dealers and gallerists, the museum staff, the collectors, the artists themselves – often put a considerable effort into imbuing names with significance. Thus the name becomes the prime means of distinction.
In the early years of Modernism, it was customary to link names and styles. For a number of decades now, such groupings have scarcely occurred. This is in itself indicative of the ineffectiveness of the principle of chronology. When the difference between the new and the old is regarded as substantial, it is generally groups rather than individuals that can profit from this distinction. If the distinctive nature of the innovation diminishes, all that remains is the criterion of some undirected difference. Just such a situation developed after the demise of Classical Modernism. The art of the preceding decades had been characterised by its far-reaching fragmentation. Every individual artist saw him or herself under pressure from the all-pervasive competition to be distinctive. Every last drop was drained from the sea of possibilities until all that was left to fill the overall picture was an entropic gurgling, a gentle sea of wavelets. The only noticeable difference was between the two shores containing this sea.

The State and the Market

For some time now there has been a perceptible division between two areas of art. The interplay of the museum and the market place, which functioned well in the early days of Modernism, is disintegrating. To judge by the number of new museum buildings, the power of the museums would appear to be on the increase. In fact it is in decline, for the institutions barely have the disposable income needed for them to pursue an independent acquisitions program. These palaces to art are no more than empty shells. As a result, museums are starting to give over their exhibition space to private collections. State-subsidised culture is on the run and concentrating on temporary themed exhibitions, not least in order to legitimise its own existence. This has lead to a remarkable reversal. The matter of storage, which was once regarded as the museums’ prime function, has shifted into the hands of private individuals. At the same time, the institutions are starting to operate within certain time limits and are avoiding expensive acquisitions. These institutional politics are seen most vividly in the growing power of curators and the concomitant short-term, event-based exhibition praxis. As a result of the curtailed time-dimension of state-subsidised culture, a new conceptualism has emerged in art. All too often new approaches by curators are promoted by partially state-subsidised contracts, while collectors tend to be content to support marketable trends as though it were some kind of an investment game. Which position will prove to be sustainable depends very largely on whether the institution of the museum rediscovers its power as a repository, even if the contents are no longer categorised according to their historical nomenclature.

The separation of the state and the market as they drift apart even affects individual works. The state and the market demand and promote different production methods. Different rituals prevail in the two camps. They still encounter each other in physical spaces, the common format for all art, only to veer away from each other again. The bigger the collection, the more durable it has to be. The act of collecting always implies an artificial boundary line, within which the aim is for completeness. The collector concentrates on a segment of what is available on the market and attempts to make acquisitions either in order to part with them again at a higher price or to preserve them in a museum display. Since the fact of being new and up to date are major considerations in the building of a collection, artists tend to be successful if their works manage to tap into the self-referentiality of the latest trend.
The state fulfils an administrative role and sees to the relevant rituals. Commissions and juries assess applications by curators and artists. Lists of names are compiled by state-employed exhibitions makers. Unlike the self-referentiality of the latest trends, the emphasis on Welthaltigkeit comes above all from the state sector where the relationship to people, things and world events can serve as a form of legitimation. Compelled to adapt to administrative procedures, the artists turn a critical eye on the world of their hidden patrons. Paradoxically, this means that precisely the art which is most politically motivated and critical is generally subsidised by the government agencies.

Views, Viewers

With its immense freedom and autonomy art in the modern era has wholly liberated itself from the viewer and from aesthetic judgements. Art has no need of either, neither exhibition visitors nor their views. Visitor numbers are counted by the hundred thousand, but the visitors themselves don’t count. It’s up to them to content themselves with the programs conceived for the exhibitions they attend. No visitor is going to influence the selection by his or her opinion. Whether a work finds favour or not is all the same. Any deficits are attributed to the visitors, not to the art; hence the importance placed on mediating art and its consequent misuse for didactic ends. This function has its theoretical parallel in the construct of the viewer. Reception theory attributes an exemplary aesthetic experience to the figure of an imaginary exhibition visitor. In so doing, it posits a discourse of control with no philosophical basis. The public encounters the works of art like a feudal lord’s subjects gazing at his closely guarded treasures. In keeping with the spirit of the Enlightenment, we imagine museums fulfilling their duty to narrow the gap between the viewer and the art – art that has consistently distanced itself from its public during the course of Modernism. In the early days of Modernism, the views of the public at large were regarded as a counter-indicator. The avant-garde defies convention and with every new scandal effectively devalues public outrage – the institutionalised face of exclusion. The irony of history is that precisely those works that provoked the greatest outcry in the first place -but since elevated to the canon of Modernism – now pull in the crowds. Yet this is not because the taste of the masses was ahead of its time, it is simply a sign of the willingness to bow to authority on the part of ordinary people who regard the canon laid down by the museums as a given.

Nothing can hide the fact that the arts are an elite cultural form. But the notion of the masses and the elite can no longer adequately reflect the cultural and social conditions of the present day. It smacks of a sociological approach that reckons with averages and standard deviations. On closer examination the two groups multiply in complexity in direct proportion to the disappearance of the notion of an identifiable, unified general public. In the same way that the masses fragment into a multiplicity of communities and cultural multitudes so, too, do elite groups diversify, following different interests, be they financial, cultural or political. Cultural life today cannot be slotted into rigid social categories; it is better described according to the interplay of distinctions and forms, according to its agents and multipliers and other diverse identities. Thus the negative aspect of elitism is reversed. Precisely because it operates in a whole range of cultural niches, without being economically locked into the structures of popular culture, art now has the potential and the necessary detachment to address cultural issues as a whole. What once was elitist, can now become the core of a cultural form with the capacity to integrate a wide diversity of languages and cultural expression.

Materials, Contents

What is the material of art? Unlike other cultural forms which deploy specific media, storage systems and channels, the visual arts are not confined to any particular physical or media-based frameworks. Consequently artists no longer reach a wide public through any single medium, but can work in any medium they choose. The restriction to specific technical means has always been a blind alley, as we can see in the case of so-called media art. For a long time there was a widespread misconception that the deployment of new technologies and media was in itself an artistic aim. The works became testbeds for ongoing technical progress. And like the devices involved, they fell into disuse if they were without content pointing beyond the mere display of technical possibilities. The same mistake was made by net art with the changing formats and protocols available on the internet.
Modern technology has had a greater influence on other cultural forms than on art. Videos, computers and the internet have had an immediate impact on the economic conditions of popular culture. In the art world they at best symbolically heighten distinctions. The new media and technologies are not the material of art.
The notion of “appropriation”is the closest we can get to defining the material of art today. At first the aim being served by appropriation lay in the self-referentiality of art to art and its connections. But the logic of appropriation has long since left behind the constricted circle of self-referentiality. It finds its sources outside art. A regressive model has become a general principle which allows art to appropriate almost anything it likes- be these theoretical constructs, pictures, media figures, comic heroes, political interventions. The medium used to effect the appropriation is secondary. It depends on the source and the intended statement.
Through the strategy of appropriation, art finds itself in the privileged position of an observer. It is now in the position to engage with any cultural and political phenomena and to treat them according to its own rules.

In the cultural upheavals of our own time art, as a production model – however outmoded it may have seemed compared to media-based cultural forms – may importantly be anticipating future needs. This is due to three main factors: its institutionalised permanence, the traditional mode of authorship and the possibility of appropriating anything it chooses from beyond its own boundaries.
Unlike media-reliant cultural forms which attract momentary attention, without having recourse to a storage system and hence some form of permanence, art requires a much deeper sense of time. Because works of art are documented, stored and remembered, they are removed from the unending circulation of whatever is up to date at any given time.
The model of authorship, however absurd its manifestation in the trade with names, gains new importance with the failure of media-based distribution routes for popular culture. Liberated from the power of the processes of reproduction and the industry of distribution, the author takes on a new role which resembles that of artist. The original, which has long been a relic of outdated production methods, acquires new meaning if reproduction and distribution are devalued. There is a new nearness to the author, because there is no longer anything separating the source and the user.
The transition from the old media to digital data ultimately means that artistic content and themes can relate to each other across any apparent boundaries in terms of the relevant media or physical forms. The convergence of different media is in step with the strategies of artistic appropriation.
In a changing cultural climate, which is rapidly leaving behind it the economic model of the last century, art is establishing a new position for itself, by taking up and reflecting the world in all its many languages.


*The term “Welthaltigkeit”, which has only recently established itself in German usage, has no exact equivalent in English: it suggests the quality of being rooted in the real world as we know it, but also, paradoxically, containing that same world. It makes a play on two possible meanings of the verb “halten” – to hold – as in -to hold on to- and “to contain”.

translated by Fiona Elliott