Aesthetics / Art / Creativity / Philosophy / Uncategorized

Thoughts in a Museum


File:August Macke 016.jpg

Visiting a newly opened collection of modern art in Hannover’s the recently extended Sprengel Museum, it seemed to me that the history of 20th century art can be described as a series, or rather, a network of reflective steps of thinking or perceiving.

Any knowledge we are using, either to interpret what we perceive, to think or to do something, defines a closed “space”. We can leave that space and take a vantage point outside that bit of knowledge. From this meta-level or point of reflection, we can critically think about that piece of knowledge and make changes to it. This operation of creating an external reference on existing knowledge is at the heart of creativity. It is at the heart of philosophy and also, it seems to me, at the heart of modern art.

At a given time, an artist is using a certain chunk of knowledge, a bunch of ideas and concepts, ways of seeing, methods and practices etc. that result in works of art of a certain stile. This knowledge might be the result of a tradition in which the artist was trained, but to an extent it might be something he or she developed himself. At the beginning of the 19th century, there was still some norm artists had to follow. At the end of this century, this norm had begun to dissolve. Just as western culture as a whole became more and more self-reflexive, so did the knowledge used by artists. Step by step, different aspects of art seem to have been called into question.

By ceasing to work within the paradigm defined by a body of knowledge – or maybe we should better call it a practice – and by looking at this knowledge from the outside and identifying its previously unreflected preconditions and matters of course, artists changed their use of color, of perspective, the way real objects where mapped onto pictures, the very concept of a picture as a representation of something, the role of randomness vs. design, the two-dimensionality, the materials used, the goal or purpose of the work of art, the concept of beauty, etc.

For each work of art, the knowledge or practice from which the artist created it could be approximately reconstructed. If you look at the pictures in such a collection, going from room to room and from one “ism” to the next, you can see the different “turns” artists took. You can see how they started with one practice and then made certain changes. Each “turn” involves stepping out of the framework used at a certain time and making certain changes to it, from the outside, generating a different and new possibility of art and redefining the rules of the game.

Going from one room to the next, one can follow this history. There are sequences of turns or breaks and in following them, our perception and thought is changed as well. Taken this way, a walk through such an exhibition is a philosophical experience.

In medieval times, artists used to work inside a given paradigm. They often did not sign their works. What we view as “medieval art” today might have been more something like a craft with painters organized into a guild. Later, individual artists appear but at the same time, a standard paradigm was developed that defined the goals and methods of art. There even might have been some development that was perceived as objective progress, e.g. in the development of perspective. In the late 19th and early 20th century, this standard paradigm collapsed. What emerged was a new definition of the artist in which taking new turns and not following the tradition even became defining characteristics of the work of an artist.

The possibilities of making such turns might have been exhausted and maybe the next turn to take is to think about this role of the artist. There are inexhaustible possibilities to create individual works of art and each might take a small turn in itself, but is there may be only a limited number of basic ways this can be done(?).

So the development of art in the 20th century might have been something like the Cambrian explosion in the history of life, an epoch that wiped out the earlier Ediacaran faunas and created a large and diverse number of different new phyla of animals. After that, a lot of innovation still happened but the basic body plans of animal evolution had been defined.

Perhaps that “Cambrian” explosion of art is finished and artists have to start working along given ways. And just as the golden ages of animals came after the Cambrian, this might not be so bad after all.

From the new exhibition, I started following one such path, the Dadaist art of the Hannover based artists Kurt Schwitters (and his part-time Russion companion El Lissitzky). This collection of Schwitters and related artists alone justifies a visit to this museum.

(The first picture is from It shows one of the paintings – from 1912 – of August Macke in the exhibition, an artist who died in World War 1. In some of his paintings, he is still quite close to impressionism, but in this one, he is on the brink towards Cubism and more abstract forms, just about to take a turn.

The second picture, from shows a cover of the Dadaist journal “Merz“, co-authored by Kurt Schwitters and El Lissitzky. Both artists also worked as graphics designers in the 1920s, e.g. for the Hannover-based ink- and pen-producer Pelikan.)

9 thoughts on “Thoughts in a Museum

  1. Reblogged this on Creativistic Philosophy and commented:

    An attempt to show that some of the concepts being developed on this blog can be applied to real world questions (if you count art as part of the “real world”).

  2. As an artist, this is giving me something to think about. One thing is: what about artists who are already outside the “official” art world? Self-taught? “Outsider” art? And can anyone be “outside” today when there is so much communication of images (I think so, no reason for it, but I do).

    • I do not think that it matters much if you are outside the “official” art world. Who defines what the official world is? And who cares. I think a degree only matters if you want to become a lecturer or professor in an academic institution. Artistic creativity is something you cannot learn in a school. You can learn techniques and you can learn something about the history of art, but you can learn that outside any institutional framework as well. It might have played a larger role in the past when there still was something like an art canon. But art has splintered into countless directions.
      It would be interesting in terms of sociology to find out what is really the siginificance of art degrees today. A lot of the art market is hype based and having studied at certain institutions as the student of certain artists might be a hype factor. Hype is used in the attempt to create speculation bubbles so that prices go up and in that respect, having a degree might be helpfull. But this has nothing to do with the actual artistic quality.

      • My experience tells me that your last paragraph is exactly right – Young people I meet who have gone to art school often express disappointment that the world does not value them, saying – But I have an art degree from —-. I also think you are right about the hype thing, in fact, I think it is a driving force in who is successful in art these days and who is not. It’s kind of like American Idol, say – who would have known of Carrie Underwood if she had not been on the show? But that exposure made her a star when of course there are plenty of people with as much to say that didn’t get that exposure and so – they are singing in bars.

  3. As an artist too I find both the post and Claudia’s response convincing . Here is another ‘what about’ to add – many of the turns/breaks initially referred to were themselves inspired by works outside the official art world eg Japanese woodcuts , African carvings , archaeological discoveries in Egypt (& in the 20C Central/South America) . These works are still outside the canon . And some of us are too ! As to the communication of images ; what you don’t see you don’t know is being excluded . And there is also a heavy weight of context which we take for granted in European post mediaeval art – especially those of us who have been trained in this tradition – and yes there is one .

    • I absolutely agree. There where lots of influences from other cultures especially during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In some cases it went both ways, for example, last year I visited a fascinating exhibition in Bonn about Japanese impressionist painters and Japanese art collectors.
      The exhibition here in Hannover contains one painting (I think by the expressionist painter Emil Nolde, if I recall it correctly) that shows, in the painting,the depiction of an object (I thin a mask) from a Papuan culture. Nolde had taken part in an expeition to the German colonies of “Deutsch-Neuguinea” and this clearly influenced him.
      There is clearly a connection between the increasing European expansion and the increasing contact of Europeans with other cultures, culminating in the colonialism of the late 19th century and the first half (at least) of the 20th century, and the development of European art. Objects from other cultures became available in museums and in trade and some artists had their own collections. This is definitely an important point.
      I am not sure there still is something like a canon. Of course, since money is involved, there should be some power structures in the art market, so there should be attempts by some people to define something like a canon, but who is in the position to do so? Maybe it used to be the museums, the galerists and the critics writing in art journals and newspapers, but I see their influence reducing since the internet is offering more opportunity for artists to reach the public directly. I guess that most artists are economically in a difficult situation but I don’t see this as a result of being outside of any canon. It seems to me that the art market is a speculative market characterized by hype and speculation bubbles. Prices might go up somewhere by chance. Once prices go up, this attracts buyers. There is a feedback process here, but it starts with random fluctuations and perhaps some hype. There is no real connection to artistic quality. Having money and connections probably helps, though. Personally, in art and music, I am not interested in all that hype. There are “important” artists whose stuff does not speak to me and there are artists nobody knows whom I find great.

  4. Well I’m in the position of one who has been recently ‘qualified’ in the academic sense as a mature student and yes there IS still a canon which I would define more negatively as whatever academics or critics have heard about . Hence when in my research I referred to Moghul miniature painting my tutor talked about the twin Sikh sisters who had just then made a bit of a splash . She was unaware of the fact that miniature painting in India (as in the Persian empire) had a long history predating Islam and hence the Moghuls . She was also unaware that the sisters had complained about the tendency to exhibit non Western art as ‘folk’ rather than ‘contemporary’ art . This of course affects prices . I think galleries still have a large role as gatekeepers , defining what art is & is not , certainly here in the UK . In South Africa I had heard that they were ‘managing’ the transition from folk to contemporary art for Black African cultural products – not , I imagine , out of pure charity !

    • Sorry it took me so long to come back to you. Due to private reasons, I did not have much time over the last weeks.
      Is it possible to define this canon positively? Or does the content not matter at all and it is just a power structure?

      History lessons in “Western” countries are still extremely eurocentric. When I went to school, the Persian Empire appeared in history lessons only in connection with the Greco-Persian wars. India appeared just twice: in connection with Alexander and as a British colony. Nobody showed us a map of the Persian Empire so we did not realize how marginal Greece was at the time, let alone the rest of Europe. We did not learn anything about the Persian Empire, the Iranian-speaking peoples of the steppes, the Turks, the Mongols, the Chinese, the Kushan Empire, the Mauryan Empire, the Moghuls etc., etc. What I have seen in the history books of my daughter is hardly better. People learn absolutely nothing in school about African cultures. Nothing about the history of Mesoamerican cultures. Nothing about the history of Japan or Korea. etc. etc. etc.

      Maybe there is not enough time to cover all of these areas of the world in school, but the problem is not even made a topic. Not only do people not learn anything about the history of most of the world, they are not (made) aware of the fact that there is a lot missing. This seems to be even true in many African countries where the school curricula and school books are often taken over from France or the UK.

      School curricula in history are, to a large extend, still on the level of the late 19th century. Maybe minus the racism, but the level of Eurocentrism is still the same. Non-Western art is shown in separate “anthropological” museums. Why is ancient Roman or Greece art not shown in the same museums? As you say, there are these strange categories like “folk” art. In music, you also have this category of “folk” or such strange concepts as “world music”. As the examples of school curricula or museums show, these strange distinctions are to some extent institutionalized. In the universities it is the same. The structures of university departments in many cases still reflect these 18th and 19th century distinctions.

      How do you position yourself as an artist against this? Is this a problem or a topic of your art? Does an artist have to adapt or subdue in order to play the galleries/museums/art-collectors game? Personally, I find a lot of the contemporary art showing up in these “official” channels rather uninteresting and bland (although there are lots of exceptions). On the other hand, I see a lot of interesting street art and a lot of things I find interesting on the internet.

      • Oh lots of interesting points here . Here are some points in reply , at random . Curating in museums is variable so there are partial exceptions to the general tendency to put classical stuff alongside whatever the country is most proud of as in the Prado where you can see late Roman bas-reliefs downstairs and Goya and Velazquez upstairs . Countries with a colonial past as well as many invaders have more variety to show . I’m thinking of the British Museum where you can see ancient artefacts from every British colony alongside home-grown stuff up to Saxon times ; also Madrid’s archaeological museum which have the peninsula’s riches from Neolithic to Islamic/Gothic times – thus taking in Celtiberians , Etruscans & Phoenicians as well as those tiresome Greeks & Romans !
        I guess personally I was luckier than some , 1 because my mother (the Asian part of Eurasian) had already done her own research to try and even out her Eurocentric education , 2 because my school history teacher was a Communist and so when teaching British Colonialism taught us brief histories of India & Africa so that we would realise some of what was lost & 3 my artwork started with ‘crafts’ and craftspeople have huge respect for bygone inventors of techniques ; from wherever . As it happens the most advanced , inventive work in pottery was being done in the Far East , Middle East & the Americas when European potters were still poisoning people with low-fired lead glazes . Similarly in textiles the best weaving in Classical times came from India & Egypt and India continued to lead in dyeing techniques up until azo dyes .
        Too much detail ! More interesting is your last question about how I position myself as an artist ? I’m still working that out . I have to refer here to my 2 essays written for the HND and my MA written thesis all 3 of which are on my blog . Apologies for not having put in the illustrations to the essays – I didn’t then know how .

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