Can artists be better inventors?

Visual artsDemocratize art

In a media environment that is characterized by participation and participation, art appears increasingly elitist and remote. Modernism has left us an art world in which the viewer's views count for nothing. If we want to give the works a meaning outside of the market again, it is not enough to convey or explain them better. There is more to it.

The public art institutions can give the viewer a voice again and take their judgments seriously. The decision about what to see there should be resolved by the hierarchies of the art world and the mechanisms of the market. Stefan Heidenreich is thus continuing the discourse on curators and exhibitions of the visual arts on Deutschlandfunk that we began this year with essays by Ulf Erdmann Ziegler and Jörg Heiser.

Stefan Heidenreich, born in 1965, lives in Berlin and is an author, art critic and essayist for daily newspapers. From 2016-18 he taught art theory at the Düsseldorf Art Academy and the University of Cologne. Most recently he published the books "Birthday. How it comes that we celebrate ourselves" (2018) and "Money. For a non-monetary economy" (2017).



Anyone who likes to look at art may have wondered why nobody is interested in what they like and what they don't. It would be easy, at least in museums and public art institutions, to give the viewer more say. Users of digital platforms have long been used to expressing themselves about everything they see. The museums should respond. And not just by asking the visitors, but by finding ways to let their audience decide on the program. Whether better art will come out of this is an open question. We will not know the answer as long as no one tries to involve the viewer in making the exhibition. It's not an easy task. Because it means nothing more and nothing less than reinventing exhibiting.

Art as a communicative act

When asked what museums should show, viewers have next to nothing to say. Exemplary exhibition visitors come, see, be amazed and remain silent. Maybe they can explain one or the other work of art to you. But nobody cares what they think of it. In the broader population, the art of our time seems like an aloof cult that experts and initiates think up for a few rich collectors. The fact that part of the dearly traded art is then made available to the common people is like an act of grace from feudal times.

The viewers weren't always so left out. On the contrary. The cultural historian Benedict Anderson was able to show how art and its large institutions were virtually reinvented at the beginning of the 19th century in order to give the citizens of the emerging nation states a common self-confidence. The romantic art theory of the time gave the viewer and the art critic a central place. Friedrich Schlegel saw the criticism as the completion of the work of art. Art was understood as a collective, communicative and identity-creating act. The remnants of this founding phase are still standing. Museums are flourishing, even if they have become something completely different from then.

Art lessons can still be found in most curricula. However, after one had to realize that art is not just creativity and that the creative industries, in which one had so much hope in the 90s, did not grow as big as hoped, the MINT subjects mathematics, computer science, natural science now apply and technology as the way to the future. In England, art was blown out of the secondary school curriculum last year.

In fact, a lot of art seems to have fallen out of time. The visual arts have a hard time in a world where new generations, who view old media like television as a kind of broken Youtube, are used to making their own choices everywhere.

The market determines the rank

When it comes to the question of which names are valid and exhibited in art, the market has the say; and there in the end a very small group of very rich collectors determines what prevails. At least that's what a recent study by the economist Magnus Resch revealed. Artists, gallery owners, curators - the rest of the art business - are in the unfortunate position of being dependent on this market.

In any case, the voice of the art viewer counts for nothing in this world. Hence two questions arise: How did art get into this unpleasant situation? And what can be done to get them out of it?

Let's start with a term that has fallen into disrepute: beauty. From the high point of view of the art world, the beautiful stands for cheap and simple-minded amusements and uneducated culture, for the "taste of the petty bourgeois", to use the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Modern art had to be new, experimental, irritating, puzzling, revolutionary, complex, and sometimes disturbing or shocking. Even after the end of modernity, nothing has changed in that regard.

Beauty as a quality or judgment

Today, beauty has been left to advertising and design, or to the cosmetics industry with its multi-million dollar make-up artists and influencers.

The disappearance of the beautiful from art is not simply due to a whim or a mistake in history. There are very simple and material reasons for this. And it is worth taking another closer look at the concept of beauty. If what counts as "beautiful" is what we like, then we have long been living in a world of beauty again, namely a digital world of "friends" and "likes". Beauty, if we only understand it as a common expression of pleasure, but it can form a bridge from the romantic observer included in the work of art to the network users of our time. Both give meaning to the work of art by recognizing it as beautiful.

Let us assume that the beautiful exists in two different ways, as a quality and as a judgment. One kind of beauty is sought in the things themselves, as a quality. It comes with the claim to objectivity and truth and is precisely why it is so popular with art experts. You can determine the aesthetic of works of art and argue about it. The information theorist Max Bense was one of the last to try to derive beauty from numerical relationships. And in its fixation on the predictable, this absurd-sounding attempt already seems great again today. The same debate has since continued in philosophy, among other things, whether as an aesthetic appearance in Martin Seel's or in the concept of force in Christoph Menke's.

The social concept of beauty does something completely different. What counts here is what you like. The judgment takes the place of the property and thus the relationship of the viewer to the work. In that case there is no need to search for the one truth, because every person comes with his or her own taste and can say what he or she likes. It does not have to be that everyone agrees on one point of view, as the philosopher Kant still thought possible. In his Critique of Judgment, he assumed that the judgments of all, if only free enough of any interest, would tend towards a common denominator. It is actually a political problem. The question is how everyone can have their opinion and still live in a society and under a government.

Social beauty creates community

The coming together of the many judgments is a political act. If each and every one comes along with his or her own judgment, a common cause emerges in the discussion about it, a res publica, a republic of speaking. When we talk together about what we like, a social concept of beauty emerges in the first place. Ever since people everywhere on the net have been expressing their preferences through likes and comments at every opportunity, we are surrounded by this kind of social beauty, with all its unsightly side effects. The question is not how we can shield art from this form of expression, but how we can make this form of digital and networked beauty productive.

Democratizing art definitely means giving a place to the second kind of beauty, i.e. social beauty. One could put it a bit cheesy: let's turn museums into places of beauty again. That would make art something that a lot of people like, not something that few people buy. The romantic concept of the beautiful always means the common judgment and creates a community in common judgment. The question of social beauty is about this community.

The modern art market gets by entirely without the beautiful, it needs neither the social beauty nor that of the experts. The decisive value of a work of art lies solely in its exclusivity. What one owns, no one else can have. Everything else is secondary. The work of art of our time is the unique selling point that has become the thing. The story that takes us there runs parallel to modernity. To be more precise: the modern age and the art market are one and the same.

Art as a social avant-garde

At the dawn of the modern art market, there is a peculiar decision to marginalize photographs and other reproducible images such as lithographs in order to give priority to paintings instead. Art has thus become the only form of culture that had nothing to do with industrial modes of production and instead stuck to a standard of craftsmanship. In addition, museums had begun to arrange works of art in a chronological order since the beginning of the 19th century. The order of things determines what can be added. Those who sort by quality are guided by the evaluations of the experts. By contrast, those who organize their exhibits according to the time they were created are always looking for something new.

The museum as a time-oriented store and the market with its striving for exclusivity worked together fruitfully. Art became an expression of progress. The artists saw themselves as a social avant-garde and the emerging art market encouraged them to do so. Art thus became the engine of the revaluation of all values, which the conservative values ​​of the 19th century well deserved. The fact that the general public fell by the wayside didn't matter at first, on the contrary. The louder the outcry of the suspended with their outdated concept of beauty, the sooner art could claim to be really ahead of its time. The artist became a public shock.

Of course, the mockery of the petty bourgeois who stayed behind, which Honoré Daumier so beautifully shows in his engravings in the Paris salons, also had side effects. Little by little, the art caravan left its former audience behind. Especially since there was enough visual entertainment beyond the avant-garde in film and photo. And so modern art gradually turned from a symbol of progress to an elitist cult. As long as state educational and exhibition institutions vigorously promoted art, it was not noticed that it was about to run into a dead end.

The market and museum balance tipped when the state withdrew from museums and exhibition halls and left art to the market alone. Since then, collectors' large amounts of money have been wandering around in search of new investment opportunities. Postmodernism followed the temporal order of modernity. And then everything became contemporary.

Actors in the art business depend on collectors

That doesn't mean that art needs the authority of states. But the market alone creates movement. In order to create lasting meaning, memories, archives and institutions are also required. In the meantime, almost all actors in the art world have made themselves dependent on the collectors. Let's go through the actors one after the other.

Curators usually exhibit artists represented by large galleries. They are dependent on loans or have exhibitions cross-financed by collectors and gallery owners. The program becomes a promotional event. This applies not only to small, but also and especially to large houses and large exhibitions. Artists who are not represented by a gallery can hardly be seen there anymore.

The gallery owners try to rally the wealthiest collectors possible. Small livestock is not worthwhile, it generates too little turnover and too much effort. All vie for the collections of the rich clientele. Better galleries have employees who have nothing to do but organize sumptuous dinners for VIPs. The triumphant advance of the major art fairs has turned gallery owners into nomads. Since then, they have been traveling after the collectors with their vendor's trays and waiting for one of the multimillionaires to make their stand happy.

Art magazines, in turn, rely on the galleries that buy advertisements from them, and accordingly distribute the reviews of the exhibitions. Critics only get good fees if they work as advertising writers for catalogs and galleries.

Perhaps the art historians would still have had a chance to remain an independent voice in the art world. But their judgment has no power. Because they decide neither what is exhibited nor what is bought. If they want to be heard as experts at all, they have to endeavor to provide the preferences of the collectors with intellectual décor.

The power of a few very wealthy collectors has a historical correctness. If one believes that art is supposed to depict the world, then a truth about our society actually becomes visible here: the age of a new financial feudalism.

The art has adapted to the demand. It has become one of many luxury asset classes. There are still old collectors who want their collection to convey the impression of intellectual or cultural-historical significance. But the market delivers that too. There are always artists who hire experts to enclose their work with intellectual ornament, and curators who use the works in a demanding environment.

The viewer remains indifferent

Some viewers today may wonder how it is that many works of art seem strangely puzzled and in a way seem inaccessible. But the more puzzling and incomprehensible a work of art comes across, the sooner it fulfills the promise of being something very exclusive. And a cult of the exclusive seems to have existed for a long time.

For museums, especially when they are paid for with public money, this cult is a dilemma. You have an obligation to the public. Even if the number of visitors is correct, there is a lack of response, the viewers remain unresponsive. Attempts have been made to solve the problem through better mediation. Since then, museum employees have been striving to bring the works of art closer to the public in guided tours and lectures. Unfortunately, mediation is not a solution, but part of the problem.

To democratize art, on the other hand, would mean giving meaning again to the many voices of the viewer. You have to be able to decide what should be exhibited. Viewers comment on social media. But it is not enough to count these votes and then continue as before. In order for art viewers to counterbalance the market, their voices must actually be given weight.

The plan to democratize art and its structures is not easy. It is probably not enough to let the audience vote on social media about what to display. The result of such a network democratic exhibition would probably be very strange, to put it kindly. According to the judgment, or perhaps also the prejudice of the experts, the project would almost certainly be a catastrophe.

Perhaps, however, a healing catastrophe from which there is something to be learned. Because at second glance, the idea isn't that bad. At best, it could show two things: that today's art world isn't the only one possible. And that there are still ways of confronting the judgment of the market with other procedures.

However you do it in detail, the attempt to democratize exhibiting would be a social experiment that rebels against the ruling institutions and power relations. As such, it would again fit very well into the history of art, which can be told as a long series of revolutions.

The majority want stupidity and spectacle

There can be no safe and valid recipe for such a path to democratization. It is well known from politics that rule by the majority does not always lead to the best solution. We know from the digital media that the "wisdom of the crowd" does not necessarily tend to be clever, but occasionally also to dullness and spectacle. Day-to-day political affairs show that only a small proportion of viewers take part in a decision-making process and then force their choices on the rest. We see in social media that the urge to participate swings up to emotional ecstasy in the networks, which then only leaves hatred and sacrifice.

With democratization, we are dealing with a process that depicts the political conditions on a small scale, namely in art. This is not a misfortune, but the goal of the exercise. Namely, to organize a better politics of art than the representation of market power and elitist cult, with which we are now confronted.

In some places we can already glimpse this possible future. Visual platforms like Instagram are already having an effect on exhibitions. "Instagramability" becomes one of the most important aesthetic criteria. In other words, a work of art works well if it looks good on Instagram. What becomes known is what can be shown well on the mobile phone. The art critic Michael Sanchez had already drawn attention to this effect in 2013 in the magazine "artforum". This aesthetic is only slowly spreading in Europe. Other parts of the world are much further along.

Particularly noteworthy would be China, where it is good form to post exhibition visits on the WeChat network. There is a lot to learn from dealing with contemporary art in China, and not only the good things, but also the disadvantages. Art has become a folk cult there. Art halls are being built everywhere. Visiting exhibitions documents social progress. In the possession of works of art the beginning prosperity. There is hardly anything left of the social spectacle.

A cycle of ever new trends has developed that can best be compared with the music culture in this country.

Every few years there is a new trend, one as decorative and meaningless as the other. In the constant influx of new things, everything really does flow. The political reservations about any kind of discourse or reflection make it almost impossible to produce anything of lasting meaning in this short-lived art establishment.

One of the artists' great concerns is their "autonomy", the idea that they have to be completely free in their work. But let's look at what this autonomy actually means. Artists know exactly what collectors and curators are interested in, and they usually deliver that too, often under gentle pressure from their gallery owners. They can only behave genuinely autonomously towards the viewer. Ultimately, autonomy becomes an intellectual excuse not to have to take the audience into consideration. Exactly the opposite would be necessary: ​​instead of ignoring the viewer and offending them at will, artists should reflect on the attitude of romanticism. That would mean approaching the viewer and understanding them as allies in the effect of their works.

It will not be easy to find fellow campaigners in the attempt to democratize the exhibition. The distrust of the audience's abilities is too ingrained. All those who run existing institutions are too involved in the company. This is also known from political life. The stronger the pressure to change structures, the more tightly these structures hold together.

Let the viewer have a say again

Presumably one will have to look for new allies in the circles that have fallen out of the current operation or never got into it. There are three large groups here that could probably get something going together: First, the many less wealthy collectors that nobody cares about. They make up the "long tail", with which overall more sales can be made than with the few big ones. Most are disconnected from the art world and can no longer gain access, even if they wanted to.

Second, there are the many artists who have not or could not adapt to the market. However, they should be willing to expose their work to the judgment of a large audience in a very different way than before, and this is what many fear.

Thirdly, the viewers are the most important, and that means above all those who have learned to say what they like on social media. They are the key to turning museums into places of beauty again, in the political sense of social beauty and common speech.

Neither the market nor the curators would have to be abolished in order to democratize art. On the contrary. In the long run, everyone involved will benefit from the fact that the viewer can have a say again. The market would have the chance to find a new balance. Curators are given a new task that is much more fulfilling than chasing after gallery owners and collectors. They have the opportunity to grow a social process to transform their institutions into laboratories of democratic participation.

The situation will not be easy for the artists. It will probably happen again, which has been the case several times in the course of art history. Much of everything that has emerged over the past few decades is left to the market for which it was produced. Outside of this market, very few works have any value.

End of the cult around the object

Such a change can be compared with the beginning of modernity. The premodern late romantics and history painters such as Bouguereau, Cabanel, Kaulbach or Makart have become dinosaurs of art history with their pompous and sometimes also grandiose swell. It could be the same with many works of our time that, viewed from the perspective of a future art, appear what they are: luxury objects with empty promises of exclusivity.

For the concept of the work, the relation to the viewer brings some very fundamental changes. A few years ago, during a discussion in the rooms of the magazine "Spike", the artist Simon Denny stated that he sees his task in creating the best possible exhibition experience. Correct. But if it was really only about that, one could do without the production of individual pieces.

That means: The cult around the original can finally be given up. Everything that does not change anything in the viewer's experience, but only serves the marketing of exclusivity, can be left to the market.

This does not only apply to the egg dance around the individual pieces. What is the self-imposed ban on repetition among artists that goes hand in hand with the claim to exclusivity? Why shouldn't artists, like all other cultural workers, repeat, imitate, sample, remix? And how funny are they to make copies of other works? Everything that we have long known from music should be appropriated again by artists happily without limits. Whether there is one or 20 versions of a work simply does not change the perception of the viewer at all.

The philosophical rumor that an original has a special aura is nothing more than intellectual exclusivity marketing. Perhaps one would have to move on to leaving the original pieces entirely to the market, and consistently exhibiting only copies and reproductions in the large institutions that are concerned with the experience of the viewer.

The whole democratization project is based on the assumption that meaning is not something that works of art simply have. Meaning arises through active reference, through use, if you will. We do not find this idea in romance alone. It is also confirmed by today's philosophers who refer to a sentence by Ludwig Wittgenstein: "The meaning of a word lies in its use."

So what exactly the path to a democratization of art looks like can, as with all social movements, only be shown in the process. It is important not to lose sight of the meaning of the whole company. It's about giving art back a broad social meaning.