BY Kito Nedo in Opinion | 26 MAY 12
Featured in
Issue 5

Big Letters, Little World

What’s behind the tabloid press’s fascination with contemporary art? And how do artists profit from it?

BY Kito Nedo in Opinion | 26 MAY 12

Olaf Metzel, Auf Wiedersehen (Goodbye), 2006, Construction of the installation in Nuremberg (Courtesy: the artist, Photograph: (1) Kulturreferat, (2) Roman Mensing)

Tabloid newspapers are not usually very interesting. There’s no real reason to buy them or to spend time reading them. Still, Germany’s Bild – one of the world’s biggest-selling newspapers – is an exotic phenomenon and thus interesting in its own way: the power associated with it, its alleged or actual influence on politics and society, the way stories are twisted, the endless lewd sexism … Finding a copy in a café or on the train, one plunges into an alien world with its very own cast of characters. Fascination and revulsion soon take hold, as well as amazement at this little world with its gigantic letters.

Sure, reading this paper regularly could dull the intellect. But if there’s one lying around, I always like to pick it up. This doesn’t happen often, since Bild is never found in the art world. Indeed, it’s a rare thing for anyone to deal with the subject as openly as gallerist André Schlechtriem, who once praised the Bild iPhone app in a questionnaire for the left-leaning daily taz. Most people involved in the arts seem to collectively abstain from reading Bild. Perhaps this prolonged period of abstinence was why the critics at the press conference to mark the opening of the Bild-sponsored exhibition ARTandPRESS snapped up all of the free copies in record time.

Bild’s involvement in this exhibition at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau went far beyond the usual bounds of a media partnership. For the first five weeks of the show, the newspaper presented a large daily feature about selected artists and their works, almost like a mirror image in print of the show. The comic potential of headlines like ‘Laufschrift des Schreckens’ (‘LED Horror’ for a piece on Jenny Holzer) went beyond what one would usually characterize as ‘unintentionally hilarious’. Every day, the editorial staff expressed their delight at presenting an art show that was not only ‘sensational’ but also the ‘most important exhibition of 2012’. (Didn’t anyone tell them that 2012 is a documenta year?) Such statements may smack of blithe ignorance, but perhaps they were just referring to the paper’s circulation: with a print run of almost three million, Bild reaches an estimated 12 million people every day – numbers that documenta can’t even hope to attract.

Nevertheless, the harmony surrounding the show was deceptive. The rapport between Bild and art is actually more of a love-hate relationship. Consider a campaign the newspaper conducted against a public sculpture in Nuremberg. In the Football World Cup summer of 2006, curators Raimar Stange and Florian Waldvogel organized Das Große Rasenstück (The Big Piece of Grass) with contemporary art in public space. For the exhibition, Olaf Metzel surrounded a gothic fountain in the city centre with a temporary 17-metre sculpture made out of disused stadium furniture. With headlines like ‘Art Outrage On Main Square!’, Bild agitated against the installation, calling the sculpture itself a ‘carbuncle’, ‘gaga art’ and ‘tower of trash’. Nasty stuff.

Jonathan Meese, Poster design for Bild-Zeitung, (Courtesy: Jonathan Meese . Com, Photograph: Jan Bauer . Net)

In light of this past, it’s rather surprising that Metzel had a large installation in the ARTandPRESS show. Could he really not care less? Is it all just a matter of appearing in the media at any price? The true master of this art is Jonathan Meese, who seems able to move through the Bild universe without friction. He has also managed to inscribe himself with the same instinctive sureness into the educated middle-class canon of the venerable weekly newspaper Die Zeit. Since the appearance of his book Ausgewählte Schriften zur Diktatur der Kunst (Selected Writings on the Dictatorship of Art, 2012), he has joined the illustrious circle of writers with the hallowed Suhrkamp publishing house. But Meese is not scandalous in the way the late Jörg Immendorff was with that incident involving cocaine and prostitutes in 2003. Meese is just Meese; he likes his mother, not cocaine and prostitutes. He promotes the cult surrounding his person so resolutely that his mere existence has become news. Which is why he can appear in the famous ‘What do you think of Bild?’ advertising campaign (in this series, celebrities answer the question, which is a reference to the paper’s slogan ‘Bild: Dir deine Meinung’ inciting readers to ‘form their own opinion’). The resulting billboards were above all advertisements for the artist himself. Meese always fits, like a universal adapter: ‘Dictatorship needs no opinion’. Suddenly, Bild looked slightly outmanoeuvred.

In the light of this exhibition, maybe one shouldn’t worry about art being besmirched by the evil tabloids; it was more interesting to see Bild violating its own mass media principles. Why would Bild, of all newspapers, with its circulation of millions ‘ruling the street’, have such a longing for the museum – a place that doesn’t exactly stand for broad coverage? Perhaps the newspaper – faced with a changing media landscape – has a creeping premonition of its own death? And Bild would like most of all to be buried in the museum. Its makers have discovered that art and the museum are old-fashioned media with staying power for future gener­ations, not just for one day. And artists have discovered the newspaper as a medium that lets them get their work in the public eye. As long as this exchange functions, who cares about principles?
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Kito Nedo lives in Berlin where he works as contributing editor for frieze and as freelance journalist for several magazines and newspapers. In 2017, he won the ADKV-Art Cologne Award for Art Criticism.