There were opportunities during Isabelle Graw’s presentation this past week at the Lenbachhaus to make some some site-specific comments about the collections at hand, and Graw did make tangential connections to work by Joseph Beuys and Wolfgang Tillmans, thought not those which belongs to the museum’s Kunst Nach 1945 collection.
Intensely and yet breezily theoretical (I have heard Graw speak several times, on one of those occasions dismissing the Adorno-Horkheimer ‘culture industry’ works most art historians spend their lives trying to understand as insufficiently complex for her needs in explaining the reification of art) Graw is an engaging speaker, readily admitting that many of her contentions create oppositional paradoxes which thus cannot be argued against. Graw herself occupies dual roles, as professor for Art Theory and Art History at Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Frankfurt am Main and as an art critic and co-founder of Texte zur Kunst, the respectable but for-profit Berlin art journal. Graw also has a heavy amount of street cred coming from a lengthy association with Martin Kippenberger during Kippenberger’s time in Cologne.
Her talk at the Lenbachhaus, Malerei als indexikalisches Medium in der neuen Ökonomie recasts the idea that paintings are “alive” somehow in the sense that they emanate an autonomous value in terms of the role of Painting with a “P” as both commodity and part of the larger “organism” of the process and documentation of the making of art.
Indexical is a word mostly associated in art history with photography, and photography is important to Graw’s current interest, which expands upon many of the ideas she raised in her recent book High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture in the sense that “documentary indexicality” is all but a de-facto given the ubiquity of record-making technology. Additionally, in the trinity of “icon/index/symbol,” “index” marks a definite place and time by compelling a reaction in the beholder. But I think it is the more abstruse “referential indexicality” that most interests Graw in this sense, as she used Diedrich Diedrichsen’s term “Selbstdarsteller” to describe Kippenberger’s performances of himself as himself (as opposed to performing “the other” or just “being” himself).
This was actually very difficult to take away just from looking at photos of Kippenberger and posters and flyers advertising his sort of faux-gebaude installations, but I think this is what Graw was getting at.
Naturally Gerhard Richter was introduced as the exemplar of “meta-type” indexicality (the archive, the artwork derived from already indexical photos, and the relationship to the market of “priceless” selling prices).
The “new economy” part of the talk was more dialectical (again in the way humanities scholars are trained to deploy this word). Per Graw, conditions of the market influence artistic practice at least at the level of production on the level of decisions that happen in the studio, but … artworks are not determined by market forces alone, and exist somewhat autonomously. Gallerists, collectors, curators, and artists seem to banish the market to the sidelines, but of course it is always there, and the price of an artwork is based on the assumption that the artwork has a symbolic meaning, and while it has a price, is simultaneously priceless…
This is a very Germanistik subject, it seems to me, since there is a deep history here already, defined in the 18th Century by Goethe and Schiller (and of course over and over since then) of how art, especially painting, is a truth-producing experience that is impervious to extraneous documentation and also valued much differently even than something else which is very valuable, for example, oceanfront property or, more vulgarly, gold and jewels. So, says Graw, “The symbolic value of artwork is split between market value and ‘epistomological gain’.”
Graw gave the engaged and slightly agitated audience some further examples of these complicated sets of circumstances, using on the one hand “evidence” of John Cage’s somewhat uncontainable and thus unsaleable performances, and on the other Jeff Wall as a sort of aware and hermetic indexical documenter. (I do wish the lengthy aside about Wall had given at least a nod to Michael Fried’s Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. Wall’s work has been exhaustively investigated by Fried (one of his lesser efforts but still formidable) in this volume precisely as examining monumental photography’s connection to both painting and late capitalism…)
In any case, as the audience of about 100 people was quick to point out, a discussion that focuses on the mutable autonomy of the medium leaves out the agency and intentions of the artist. I think the answer to this was that painters, by insisting on being identifiable, are more, not less, late-capitalist-y, presenting themselves as “brands” and paving the way for paintings to be the most prototypical commodity, the branded luxury good.
Graw’s talk is part of a series of lectures presented jointly by the Lenbachhaus and the Goethe Institut. There will be several more during the summer. If the level of discourse delivered by Graw is any indication these discussions really rise about the “here’s some art” museum chat and offer some ways to access the contemporary art being consumed heavily in both Basel and Venice. You can also read a comprehensive post on Graw’s presentation by the Lenbachhaus’s Ronja Lotz on the museum’s blog.