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CURATORIAL KARAOKE
by Bazon Brock
 
Recently we saw what happens when a big boss offers his sweetheart special favors, as World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz had to step down amid reproaches and taunts. Yet Documenta 12ís big boss, Roger M. Buergel, who unhesitatingly named his wife Ruth Noack as chief curator of the primarily publicly funded event, has, as far as I know, received no admonishments from the art press or other art-world bodies, much less any recrimination from D12ís shareholders or advisory board.

Even the powerful German labor union ver.di, which has a section for artists and curators and which is known for its vigilance when it comes to work rules, has remained silent, as if beguiled by this artsy partnership. Whatís more, all of this was accompanied by murmurs that poor Buergel was actually under Noackís thumb, and therefore deserves our sympathy. †

So why didnít Noack apply for the directorís position herself? Who knows. We hear from the powers-that-be that Buergel, in his application for the artistic directorís job, failed to announce his intention to give his wife the top curatorial post. In recent scandals at both Volkswagen and Siemens (involving bribe-taking and philandering, among other transgressions), those involved apparently had the best of intentions. No doubt the same can be said for Buergelís idea to delegate the Documenta esthetic decision-making to his wife.

But it does cast some doubt on Buergelís suggestion that he sought to undermine the nepotism and conflicts-of-interest that characterize todayís art business. Whatís more, his claims to act for marginalized artists in the Third World are dubious. As if Muslims canít get things going in Europe on their own; like Chinese or African artists actually need European subcultureís benevolence.

From an endless chain of D12 embarrassments, we will cite "the forcefield and fascination" of Buergelís new star, Ai Weiwei, the praise of whose "critical-cryptic dealings with everyday objects, cultural assets and cultural traditions" was destined to become a mantra. Ai Weiwei erected D12ís central emblem, Template, an eight-winged symbol of triumph that represented the artistís rescue of discarded cultural treasures from Chinaís Qing dynasty. But to construct his avant-garde monument, Ai brutally drilled through the antique wooden doors and windows with very modern, stainless-steel bolts. And, these havenít even been durable, since a storm knocked the entire structure down on June 20, 2007. †

Itís a great idea: The rescuer prosecutes his alleged opponents, but uses the same practices as they did. Since heís their prosecutor, however, each transgression becomes an act of altruism. And Ai Weiweiís 1,001 Chinese guests, who were housed in barracks in Kassel and forbidden to travel outside the city, were supposed to evoke warm and fuzzy feelings about the new China taking its place in a world of global interchange. The wealth-weary karaoke curators see this as working through the misery of asylum. . . putting real people into the roles of asylum seekers.

Thatís not even enough to be cynical brio. It just demonstrates the egotistical power of impervious stupidity.

And the highest expression of the untouchability of any artistic and art-historical knowledge is the random historical credentials of the Documenta works originating outside of Europe, found in the Wilhelmshoehe castle as well as here and there in the Neue Galerie or the Aue-Pavilion. These artworks allegedly document the migration of esthetic forms through all eras and cultures. But the fact that these forms are ornament, not art history, seems to be overlooked.

Such differentiation isnít enough for the curators. In their random showdown between cultural forms from within Europe and without, they only want to prove that theyíre progressive, via party chic and ornamental terminology. Where no historical knowledge is demonstrated, any boundary crossings into the past or cultural-religious "otherness" remain arbitrary and therefore meaningless. What are on view are a whole lot of opportunities that are frivolous and hip, but in no case sensible when it comes to determining the relationship of avant-garde and tradition, of new and old, familiar and foreign, secular and sacred, cultural and artistic.

For these opportunists of newly networked power, itís never a matter of speaking about historical thinking, despite any claims that "modernity is our antiquity." The powers-that-be donít even balk at faking Documentaís own history, adding the fillip that the event was founded after World War II to issue "ethical as well as esthetic lessons" coming from "the experience of pure contingency, which conceals, at least potentially, the possibility of completely different relationships." What nonsense. On the one hand, you cannot potentially conceal possibility, because possibility only represents the translation of "potential." And the meaning of "contingency" lies mostly in being able to recognize the coincidental emergence of facts, not randomly dodging their validity or changing them to suit yourself.

These power-hungry judges of public opinion simply demonstrate autocratic attitudes, with which they align their personal preferences with general demand. The triumphal statements uttered by Eduard Beaucamp (the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writer who is considered godfather of German cultural criticism) and his followers -- on the "antiquating of the moderns, on the failure of uniting art and life and a present that just circles around itself" stand for the validation of stubbornly repeated platitudes.

And now even these are presented "as lessons you can learn in Kassel." Why do these gentlemen still talk about modernity as if they never heard of the "struggle of modernity with antiquity" 100 years ago? They randomly assign eras to terms without taking the dynamics of historical, of psychosocial or neurophysiological developments into consideration.

All in all, Kasselís communications strategy represents nothing more than an average mail-order catalogue of terminology. Itís a "Kassel Sears catalogue" for intellectually lazy lovers of consensual prejudices who present themselves as nonjudgmental. People who donít know anything specific canít stumble over prior knowledge. They stylize themselves as heroes of "bare life" because they read a few op-ed lines on Giorgio Agamben, but then shamelessly steal the recognition from the people who really are fighting for their lives. Itís like Marie Antoinette, who enjoyed "bare life" in Versailles as an amusing country society game, grabbing a goatís udder as she watched others hauling manure.†

If you ask any visitor to Europeís four "Grand Tour" sites this summer -- Venice, Kassel, MŁnster or Basel -- where he or she found an intellectual challenge, was confronted with the new, or was convincingly presented with high-quality work, the prompt answer is "in Basel." This result clearly indicates that responsible, knowledgeable and eager people are active at the moment, especially in commercial art.†

Today, art dealers seem to be better communicators than curators. They consider the evolution of a workís impact so comprehensively and sustainably because they have to connect their passionate interests with their futures -- via economic success. The more success, the more possibilities for exposure. They donít have time to play around with connoisseur attitudes or playing intellectual referee.

Dealers have to look ahead with an eye toward developing their artists and planning the potential value of their artistsí works. Short-term successes are at most a means to long-term ends. Dealers also need to have varied forms of intelligence -- social, emotional, cognitive and creative. They are confident and autonomous enough to orient themselves on the example of others, but also know that itís impossible to simply imitate a recipe for success. The level of visitor discourse in galleries is infinitely higher than in exhibitions put together by the prevailing pretentious mega-curators.

Dealers have accepted their roles. But you often canít tell whether or not curators (and, actually, journalists) just want to stay harmless, so they can never really reach their own demands of authority through artistic-scientific authorship. Dealers are fully responsible for the consequences of what they do and donít do. Curators, on the other hand, preventatively hold captive the zeitgeist, the dumb public audience or the event organizer, in that they claim that their liberty in making decisions is endangered when theyíre forced to justify themselves. Dealers know from experience that the malicious talk about dealers manipulating the art market comes from the sheer hubris of wannabe manipulators.

To sum up, 2007ís summer art marathon is underscoring a trend thatís been visible for a while. Itís that the beneficiaries of public funds just throw around phrases that guarantee that theyíll continue to get and enjoy these funds. Itís like in the sciences, where research results determine what should be researched next. In exactly this way do this yearís Documenta directors offer the results of their deliberations.

If we knew what results we were searching for, then the exhibition itself would no longer be necessary. Meaningful artworks are confrontations, incontestably, because their results cannot be anticipated. After 600 years of art historical, esthetic and psychological criticism of the process of establishing meaning in art, meaning can now be determined out of thin air. So Documentaís works about migration, cultural imperialism, urban development, political propaganda, etc., are just a college course if this criticism of the construction of meaning canít be made evident again -- evident at least on the level of what should be criticized, as mere ideological appearance, or perceptive manipulation, or optical illusion.

Hardly anything on view at D12 possesses this kind of demanding, comprehensive "critique of evidence" through the creation of evidence. The level of "evidence critique" on the "war of images," on neocolonialism or on sheer market interest isnít enough to inspire viewers to dedicate more than a couple of minutes to each piece. With these works, you canít even talk about the audienceís educational needs, or even their intrinsic educational value. Every art fair offers and demands infinitely more to and of its visitors.†

At least you can see the reasons for D12ís endless nightmare in the random pathos of its "rulers," who neither put issues up for public discussion nor are subject to internal criticism. This is because they surround themselves with a network of opportunists and weenies. For them, the possibility of a solid honorarium is even worth nodding towards obvious inanities. And journalists simply brazenly, or even unsuspectingly, communicate these heavyweight, lucrative advertising messages along with prepaid opinions -- actually just media fascism, democratically legitimized.

The same thing happens in the commercial world -- but there itís discovered, like in the Volkswagen, Siemens or World Bank scandals. Itíll be a long, long time until we can call the artistic and cultural curators on their comfortable invulnerability -- hidden by the alleged protection of artistic, scientific and religious freedom. But when? When capable dealers, with excellent pieces by artists whoíve made it through at least 15 solid years, offer the Documenta audience the chance to orient itself on such works.

Exemplary success, not idealized grandeur! We all live by the examples of others who are capable of accomplishing what we obviously do not yet have the power, talent or courage for. But such examples let us imagine what it could mean for people to be allowed to again hope for endings as achievements.


BAZON BROCK is professor for esthetics and theory of design at the Wuppertal University. Among his many activities, he has collaborated with artists such as Joseph Beuys and Wolf Vostell. He has authored many books, including Aesthetics as Communication. Biography of a Generalist (1977). This article was originally posted in slightly different form on www.artnet.de.