Critique of pure unreason

I certainly would have welcomed a clever book, something along the lines of “A Guide to Latin American Art”, sorted according to countries and of course recently updated, in order to prepare myself adequately for the tasks that lay ahead of me. But that was plain wishful thinking and ultimately nonsense.

Paper doesn’t blush

There simply is no single source for “Contemporary Art in Germany”, France, nor for any other region. If a book with that claim does happen to be published, it is quickly dismissed as useless. The mere decision of whom to include, and whom not, regularly leads to disputes in artistic circles. Being able to memorize a few names currently in circulation may well be the greatest use to be had from a guide of this sort.

Ultimately, I didn’t find anything really suitable in terms of literature to make myself better acquainted with the art of the Latin American continent. I plowed through several texts by way of my “academic” research, but all said and done, I resorted to scanning the existing images and virtually inhaling the visual impressions I gained from the diverse publications. All that remained then was to travel to Latin America and gather personal insights on the spot.

My unconditional belief in the written and printed word had long ago dwindled while I was still studying. I prefer to rely on the immediate reading of the artwork itself, on my personal view, and on the experience inherent in it. In this instance, I was required to do pioneer work anyway, since there were no pre-existing models available. So I devoured any material I could get my hands on—initially, written references and later on an exponentially growing number of oral sources, too—evaluated them in a discursive, simultaneous process, and categorized them according to criteria of usefulness for my purposes.

 

Copying is easier than thinking

It is my conviction that we build far too heavily on secondary literature for assessing artworks. What is more, we even do so without assuring ourselves of the reliability of the particular source. Any good wine carries a designation indicating its origin, the DOC or Denominazione di Origine Controllata, and that is something that our literary sources lack. Reproduction is definitely easier than independent, inspired reflection. Thinking, after all, can be painful, disturbing, or tiresome. That’s why students diligently copy from all sorts of web pages, always hoping not to be caught. In a way, we are back in pre-Enlightenment “Dark Ages”. Imagine students of literary sciences no longer reading the original texts, but rather referring exclusively to second hand material for analysis and interpretation—who would seriously value the results? And why should this be any different for the visual arts? All too frequently, the impression prevails that many colleagues are afraid of their own ability to judge—unless we are actually dealing with disability here…

 

Not all colleagues are truffle hogs

Time is a scarce commodity in our pseudo-productive society, and often enough, we use lack of time as an excuse for intellectual lethargy, rather than to sit down on our behinds and truly and thoroughly look at an artwork until we have developed our own understanding of it. Perception and comprehension go hand in hand, after all. All perception is automatically accompanied by thought, and together they form the starting point for a stimulating, discursive communication with ourselves!

Augustus of Primaporta, 1st century, Marble, Height 204 cm, Vatican Museums, Rome

Kritiko in Ancient Greek means “being able to discern”, and it is the root of such words as “critique” and “criterion”. Descriptive art observation was something that still existed in “Classical Archaeology” (Greek and Roman antiquity) when I studied it in the late 1970s. We downright hated having to count Augustus’s curls in order to classify the particular portrait we were dealing with. Nevertheless, what we regarded as a “merely” pure formalism established the virtue of looking closely, thus providing us with the basis for scientific analysis. Why is it that the close look is nowadays disregarded in the science of arts, while at the same time it is the conditio sine qua non in natural sciences?

I think it is definitely beneficial to recall that dated three-step methodology: observation–description–interpretation. The approach no doubt holds its merits for contemporary art. It is certainly useful to be able to identify the elements that an artwork is composed of, and to understand how they interact—or precisely don’t interact. The method is well-suited for regarding “old” art, as well. “Being old” does not make art any better—a Rembrandt is not automatically good simply for being a Rembrandt. Unfortunately, the “normal” art historian is not automatically a critic at the same time, and is often not capable of distinguishing quality differences.

Oral and visual sources are highly significant to me. To look and to listen, to take time to contemplate, to be open for surprise, to marvel, to rethink, to experience and learn something new—this is what it takes to engage in art.

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