Theodor Adorno

Balance by Chris Hall

Anubis, weighing a heart against a feather in the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Anubis, weighing a heart against a feather in the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

The bourgeois want art voluptuous and life ascetic; the reverse would be better.  Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory.

What is good art, and what should it do?  

Good art doesn't give the world what it wants – it gives the world what it needs.  Sometimes these wants and needs are not the same thing.  So what does the world need right now?  A spiritual respite?  A healing antidote to modern life ills?  Maybe the hard shock of reality (better the hard slap of truth than the soft kiss of a lie)?  Perhaps a taste of its own cruel medicine?  How about a celebratory carnival bacchanalia, to counter society's puritanical excessiveness?  

Though I have yet to come to a definite conclusion as to what the world needs, I do know that whatever it is, it must complement, be in equal measure, and in balance.

Adorno seems to think that the people of the world need to live fuller, “voluptuous,” less repressed lives, and that art is best when it functions in a more spiritual role.   I can see how this might be a good thing.  But if the roles are currently reversed, who will budge first?  We can't all be crazy or all be ascetics.  There must be a balance, or the scale will completely tip over.

Perhaps it is not what the world needs, but what the community needs, or what each individual needs, at one particular place at one particular time, hence the diversity of art practices in the world today and also through out history.

Museum Mausoleum by Chris Hall

Rembrandt van Rijn,  Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo , 1658.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo, 1658.

The German word “museal” [museumlike] has unpleasant overtones.  It describes objects to which the observer no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying.  They owe their preservation more to historical respect than to the needs of the present.  Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association.  Museums are like the family sepulchres of works of art. - Theodor Adorno, "Valery Proust Museum" 

Art Museum:  (noun) Where good art goes to die, having served its purpose.  

Art museums are a kind of Valhalla for art, where the dead and dying warriors of art, those works deemed worthy of remembrance, hope to find a kind of immortality.  We display these works, cordoned off by velvet ropes in solemn chambers, like one would display a corpse at a funeral party.  And if you think the metaphor a bit ridiculous, I point you toward the tourist attraction that is Lenin's corpse.  And this is if the art is lucky.  Many a good work will find itself buried in the back, like the artifacts in the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  

Museums, as an institution of power, lends to the work it displays a kind of legitimacy, seriousness, authority, and finality, making the art, in a way, beyond reproach, beyond critique.  A living, breathing art, however, provokes and challenges; it fosters dialogue and invites critique.  A museum, with its death pallor, can be suffocating to this dialog and the power of the art becomes neutralized.  And who views the art at the museum?  The cultural and intellectual elite – coming to pick over the relic bones of the saints.  And can the dead speak?   If the art is displayed in a museum, does it still have the power to convert?  If the art is historic, perhaps the art's message is no longer relevant.  If the art is contemporary, there is a good chance the dialogue will stop, as the art is essentially preaching to the choir.  The conversation may also stop because people may not be willing to challenge the legitimizing air of the museum.   Don't misunderstand me, I love museums, particularly when I am in a reverent mood and feel like I want to worship at the alter of my fore-bearers.  When I am in that mood, a trip to the museum can be a refreshing, even holy experience.    But if I want see art interact with real society, the dirty, democratic, open to debate over a beer society, I have to go elsewhere.

Yes, a museum show signifies to the world that you have arrived, but it also comes with a cost.  There is something to be said about the living, breathing, street scrapping art, fighting it out in galleries and on city walls.  Art is for the living and it must invite dialogue and critique, from those within the art world, but also those outside of it.  It is necessary for art to escape the narrow corridors of the art institutions, and to breathe the fresh air of the real world, if the art is to live free.  Sure, it is a dangerous world for art, outside the legitimizing protection of the museum, but as Dave Hickey writes in The Invisible Dragon, “Art is either a democratic political instrument, or it is not.”

Anselm Kiefer by Chris Hall

Anselm Kiefer, The Starry Heavens Above Us, The Moral Law Within, 1969/2010

Anselm Kiefer, The Starry Heavens Above Us, The Moral Law Within, 1969/2010

Art is difficult, it’s not entertainment.  Anselm Kiefer  

To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.  Theodor Adorno


Born just a few months before the end of World War II in 1945, Kiefer grew up among the ash and ruins of postwar Germany.  Kiefer’s work directly addresses Adorno’s statement, that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” and questions how beauty and culture can continue to have any meaning.  Kiefer also wants to understand how the Nazis leveraged art and culture into killing.  In this respect, Kiefer’s body of work is primarily reflective of the new German word Vergangenheitsbewältigung.  Invented in the late 1950’s, Vergangenheitsbewältigung translates roughly as “struggle to come to terms with the past.”  Kiefer believes that one can not progress into the future until the past has been properly dealt with.  Although much of his early work addresses issues specific to Germany, his output in more recent years has expanded into more universal concerns.

Anselm Kiefer began making work in 1969 and would become a student of Joseph Beuys.  Kiefer’s first opus, his Occupations, had him traveling around to different sites in Europe, sometimes in his father’s Army uniform, and then having himself photographed giving the Nazi salute.  It may seem a bit shocking, but there is a moral heart to Kiefer’s work.  Kiefer wants to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust remain fresh in collective memory.

Some of Kiefer's Occupations. Click to enlarge the images.

In his paintings and sculpture, Kiefer reexamines German history, mythology, and culture, everything from Wagner operas, German Romanticism, the poetry of Holocaust survivor Paul Celan, the architecture of Albert Speer, and the Third Reich, but he also references theology, occult symbolism, alchemy, mysticism, and the Kabbalah.   The weighty subject matter is often mirrored in the physicality of the works itself, which are often large scale and monumental.  Epic in size and scope, Kiefer’s work become visions of the apocalyptic sublime.  His paintings are mixed media endeavors, dense and heavy with impasto paint mixed with straw, dried flowers and plants, lead, sand, broken glass, ash, clay, shellac, gold leaf, copper wire, rusted metal, broken ceramics, woodcuts, charred photographs, and wood.  Kiefer uses a variety of application and reduction techniques, including a blowtorch.  

Some of Kiefer's early work.  Click to enlarge the image.

In the 1990’s Kiefer’s focus grew from focusing on Germany’s role in civilization to the fate of art and culture in general.  He began to explore universal myths of existence about the trauma experienced by all societies, from inevitable destruction to continued renewal and rebirth.  By examining the past, Kiefer seeks personal, national, and universal healing and absolution of collective guilt.  In 1999 the Japan Art Association awarded Kiefer the Praemium Imperiale for this lifetime achievements.  The explanatory statement reads:  

Kiefer worked with the conviction that art could heal a traumatized nation and a vexed, divided world . . . Only a few contemporary artists have such a pronounced sense of art's duty to engage the past and the ethical questions of the present, and are in the position to express the possibility of the absolution of guilt through human effort.

Some of Kiefer's later work.  Click to enlarge the image.

Kiefer is known for keeping giant studio complexes which he turns into site specific monuments with his painting and sculpture.  Most recently Kiefer purchased the decommissioned Mulheim-Karlich nuclear reactor plant.  In 2010 Kiefer’s studio in Barjac, France was the subject of a documentary called Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.  The 35 hectare studio complex was built in the ruins of an abandoned silk factory.  You can watch the documentary on Youtube.  Here is a trailer for the film.

I first saw Anselm Kiefer's work sometime during the early or mid 1990's, either at the Cincinnati Art Museum or Atlanta's High Museum of Art.  I have always been attracted to his willingness to tackle the big subjects, life, death, and the possibility of re-birth as well as his use of mixed media and his painterly technique.  I also agree with Kiefer's stance on anti-art, that is he bemoans it, but acknowledges it's right to exist.  For these reasons I am happy to call Anselm Kiefer both an influence and an ally.

Art: The Uncommitted Crime by Chris Hall

“Behind every work of art is an uncommitted crime.” 
Theodor Adorno

What does Adorno mean by this?  Is crime a metaphor for an action or protest against the state?  If so, then is he implying that we should put the paintbrushes away, and instead work using more practical tactics toward making a change in society?  

Is painting doomed to only produce feelings of catharsis or nostalgia in the artist and viewer?  

Is art but a release of pressure from a steam kettle?  

Can art ever change the world?

No, art can not change the world, not directly anyways.  Art can not force change, it can only influence change.  Art changes people, and people change the world.  

So the question is, how effective is art at changing people’s perceptions?  

I haven’t an answer for that, yet.  I’m still hopeful that art can have some kind of impact on people, inspiring them to action, to work towards the good of all humanity.  This is why I still paint.