in Frieze | 04 SEP 92
Featured in
Issue 6

Modernism's Last Stand

Documenta IX

in Frieze | 04 SEP 92

Critics have already proclaimed Documenta IX 'without standards', 'a dud of the first order', 'a running circus', and a 'grand fiasco." And it's doubtful, excepting perhaps some puff pieces in the European dailies and some jingoism on German television, that the show will garner any less negativity in subsequent reviews. Jan Hoet's Kassel extrava-ganza was a flop, and everyone knows it. But what does it mean to recognize the show as a failure? Does it mean that the curator is under-educated in contemporary art? That his art ignorance is coupled with the additional stupidities of sexism, racism and generalized Euro-centrism - That his self-aggrandizing egotism occupied all the space in his head and left no room for attending to the art he did select? Of course.

But the failure of Documenta IX didn't begin and end in the short space between Jan Hoet's ears. Hoet, after all, was chosen by the city of Kassel and the government of Germany. He was supported by a team of curators. And he was willingly fol-lowed by the186 artists and as many dealers who participated in the show. Jan Hoet is merely a symptom; the hegemonic ethnocentricity of Europe is his cause.

Hoet cannot be held solely responsible for the exhibition's failure because there was nothing in the show, in its selection, installation, or critical focus, that belongs solely to him. Even if, as so many critics have already suggested, Documenta IX's only concept was the glorification of Hoet's ego - all those art pieces which flattered Hoet by presenting his portrait, in watercolour (Marlene Dumas); his body, in wax (Guillaume Bill); his knick-knack collection, imported from Ghent (Haim Steinbach) - it is ahistorical to ignore the prove-nance of such egotism. If, as the American painter and Documenta participant Pat Steir has suggest-ed, that 'the artists were like the brush and hammer and nails from somebody else's (Jan Hoet's) work'; it is equally valid to remember that Jan Hoet is simply one little, if loud, brushstroke on a larger cultural canvas.

To consider Documenta IX in any meaningful way, we must ask ourselves how such a dismal exhibition came into existence; it is not enough to just proclaim that the show is 'bad'. We must ask ourselves what structures of power and systems of thought are in place that permitted such a disap-pointing show to take the place of what could have been an actual opportunity for presenting what is vital in today's international art? Why were 16 million deutsch marks allocated to it? What was it anyway?

On the organizational level, Documenta IX proved that allocating responsibility for 'the largest exhibition of international contemporary art' to one man was mistake from the start. Had the show been organised by a team of curators drawn from different art centres around the world it could never have resulted in the parochial show that it was. But Documenta began, in 1955, as a public relations tool for post-War Germany, and there are no signs that indicate that the purpose of the exhibition has significantly changed.

The values of High Modernism', which have become institutionalized as the blueprint for Euro--American art making, were the reigning criteria that produced the selection of art presented in Docu-menta IX. High Modernism is an overdetermined Euro-American aesthetic; its criteria for judgment are hermetically sealed within its own historicity. Of the 186 artists included in Documenta IX,146 were Western European and North American.

Modernism believes in the 'universal'. About the absence of African art, Hoet explained that 'everything is still closely linked to ethnic-cultural backgrounds there, its people are not striving for that universal capacity I need for Documenta'. Art from Eastern Europe was similarly excluded because Hoet claimed it didn't meet his standards for 'universal dialogue.'

High Modernism disavows content: it most emphatically disavows 'consciously political' content. The most political artwork included in Docu-menta IX was Jacques Louis David's 1793 Death of Maraft in The Way to Documenta, Hoet celebrates the Impressionists because 'they are not polemical or politically committed'. In anticipation of those who might criticize Documenta's exclusion of, for instance, the anti-racist, gay, and feminist inspired art that has emerged in New York during the last decade, Hoet says: 'Those of us who are slightly familiar with the world know that a new sociological approach of art has become increasingly popular. That a trend has been started, even to only accept what can immedi-ately be placed sociologically, Poverty, AIDS, censorship, war, human alienation, etcetera, anecdotes are beginning to resurface. That makes me suspicious. Take AIDS, for example. Aren't we better off with science than with art for that? With a less selfish policy towards a more humane world order in the case of poverty? And with a polemic in favour of peace than that of war? Don't get me wrong! I am not saying that artists should not be interested in those problems. An artist may commit himself to a cause, for example. But he must do so by incorporating the symptoms into his work."

The only art objects 'censored' from Documen-ta IX were eliminated because of their content: paintings by the Phillipino-born painter Manuel Ocampo containing images of swastikas. Ocampo's five paintings were seized from the walls on the day of the opening by Hoet and his assistant, Bart de Baere, who told the painter that he 'wasn't an artist, but just wanted to cause trouble." Four of the paintings were put back into crates while the fifth was moved to the gallery basement where it was displayed in a workroom, behind saws and other tools and equipment.

The curatorial parameters that determined Documenta IX were identical to the aesthetic ideology put forth in the first Documenta of 1955. The reigning ideology of both exhibits was Mod-ernism, specifically the particular definition of Modernism that has dominated Euro-American art since WWII. Documenta's founder, Arnold Bode, conceived of Documenta as a vehicle for re-introducing Modern art to the German population. Documenta was the post-War counterpart to an earlier, anti-Modern art exhibition organized by Hitler's National Socialists in 1937. That now infamous exhibition, 'Entartete Kunst' (this term has an untranslatable connotation of racism, but is usually translated as 'Degenerate Art'), consisted of more than 700 objects confiscated from German museums and private collections. The artworks were mocked under categorical titles such as 'Vilification of the German Heroes of the World War, 'Destruction of the Last Vestiges of Race Consciousness' and 'Complete Madness'. The comments and observations of contemporary critics were pilloried on the walls as well. This 'exhibition of shame 'included works by Max Beckmann, Marc ChagaII, Otto Dix, Max Ennst, George Grosz, Wassily Kandinsky PauI Klee, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Pablo Picasso, and others."

Documenta I included many of the same artists - Mondrian, Picasso, and others - who had appeared in the1937 'Degenerate Art' show. In re-establishing the ties of German art with European Modernism, the first Documenta hoped to correct the Nazis' aesthetic misjudgement. After the war, Modern art became, for Western Germany and for the former Allied nations, a metaphor for all that was good in Europe, and, by a rather simplistic and convenient extension, all that was bad about the Nazis. The introduction to the Documenta I cata-logue explained the Nazi attack on Modern art as a profound and wretched break from the great 'European spirit, isolating herself and rejecting, in a bizarre excess of iconoclasm, all that this endeavour had achieved in every intellectual sphere."

In their shared desire to deny the relationship between Hitlers extremism and the normative values of Euro-America (especially racism and anti-semitism), the United States, Germany and other European nations adopted Modernism as a symbol of their de-alliance with fascism. And a funny thing happened on the way to post-WWII Modernism. Its re-definition, led by American critics, was guided by the particular ideological needs of the United States and its war-torn allies. Whereas before WWII, European Modernism, German Modernism in particular, had included the political and satiric contributions of many post-Dada practitioners, by the 50s, Modernism became identified with abstraction and, eventually, formalism. Artists such as John Heartfield, George Grosz, Kathe Kollwitz and other politically-inspired German Expression-ists were relegated to a minor place in an art historical narrative which not only placed form above content, but, in the words of the quintessen-tial Modernist American critic Clement Greenberg, advised artists to 'avoid content like the plague.'

The most significant loss in the narrowing of Modernism's definition that occurred in the late 40s and early 50s was that content, but especially political content, became an absolute taboo. Although American abstraction had emerged within a Marxist derivative criticality (during the 30s and 40s, many New York intellectual and artists were self-identified Trotskyists), by the early 50s it had, like other cultural movements in the United States, been 'sanitised'. Even before the McCarthy period purged accused-Marxists from Hollywood and Washington, the visual art community in New York had transformed itself. The discussion of visual art in New York abandoned its allegiance to the critical debates inspired by Marxism and reframed itself within a dialectic of spiritualism and formalism until, eventually, formalism won out.

As Serge Guilbaut has argued, during and after WWII, abstraction became a signifier for the 'Free World.' The triumph of the individual and the universal was read into abstraction, especially that of Jackson Pollock and other members of the New York School, and used as a Cold War tool to combat not only to lurking memory of Hitler's Fascism, but also the 'red fear' represented by the Soviet Union. Both Hitler and the USRR, had, after all, denounced abstract art and encouraged social realism as the only acceptable art. Many European artists chose to rally behind 'the universal' as an oppositional to 'the national' because nationalism was understood to have been responsible for German fascism. For American artists, 'the univer-sal' held out the hope that the United States could begin to put forward its own 'High Culture'; as Guilbaut has observed, 'America was now on the point of making the transition from colonized nation to colonizer.'

At this historical moment, 1992, the values of High Modernism constitute a serious ideological obstacle to the development and expansion of art. An embracement of High Modernism is an uncriti-cal acceptance of a Euro-centric world view, of an aesthetics that privileges form over content, and of an ideology that over-determines the quality of art according to criteria that have long since become institutionalised. To escape the treadmill of formal-ism, we have to be willing to jump off. We must ask ourselves, as Jan Hoet didn't 'What do we expect from art, and why?' Only by confronting our own assumptions and taking issue with our own preju-dices can we be in any way prepared to produce, receive and understand the art that is most vital for today. Accepting the values of the past prohibits any promise that may be possible in the future.

1.Roberta Smith, The New York Times, June 22, p.C13; Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times, July 5, p.H27; the author, QW, July l2, p40; Kim Levin, The Village Voice, July 14, p95. Based on personal conversations with critics, Documenta IX seems not to have made a favourable impression on the European art community either.
2. As quoted in Kim Levin, ibid. 3.1 use the term 'High Modernism' here to refer specifically to the idea of Modernism that emerged and assumed dominance after WWII; there has never been one 'Mod-ernism'.
4. Jan Hoet, 'Letter from Couvin, 'in The Way to Documenta IX, Edition Cantz, Stuttgart,1992, p49.
5. As quoted in Kim Levin, ibid.
6. Hoet, ibid., p.46
7. De Baere's insulting comments to Ocampo were confirmed by the artist's dealer, the Fred Hoffman Gallery in Santa Monica. De Baere had seen Ocampo's Documenta works months before the exhibition's opening, had expressed his appreciation - and even attempted to purchase one of the five paintings which he after claimed were 'not good enough' and 'looked like poster art, not painting.' De Baere's radically altered aesthetic judgement seems to have been influenced, if not mandated, by Hoet. It is significant that neither Hoet nor de Baere were honest with the artist concerning their reasons for removing Ocampo from the exhibition. It was left to the artist and his dealer to deduce that the swastika imagery was the reason the curators withdrew the paintings. Similarly, de Raere has consistently claimed that it was Ocampo's decision to show the one painting in the workroom; actually, Ocampo was given the 'choice' of the workroom or nothing.
8. Georg Bussman, 'Degenerate Art - A Look at a Useful Myth', in German Art in the 20th Century, Painting and Sculpture 1905-1985, catalogue for the exhibition of the same title organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London; co-published with Prestel-Verlag, Munich, 1985, pp.113-136.
9. Werner Hauftmann, introduction to the catalogue Documenta l, Kassel,1955; as cited in German Art of the 20th Century, p.114.
10. Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom and the Cold War, Translated by Arthur Goldhammer, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1983, p.174