Value added – value subtracted
When is contemporary art good and when is it bad? How can this be assessed and who can undertake such an assessment? And furthermore, can people who are not experts talk about this, since they are often dying to say: “this is not art at all!”? There are known cases of destruction of valuable works that were not recognised as art at the right time. An example: the story about how a cleaning lady in a German museum scraped the residue away from a water container, thus destroying a sculpture by Martin Kippenberger worth € 800,000. Similar situations happen almost regularly, even in such renowned institutions as the Tate Gallery and to such recognised artists as Joseph Beuys.
The problem with defining and evaluating contemporary art has been an issue for a long time. All over the world, people complain about its incomprehensibility, real or assumed elitism, and cynicism. Many point out the lack of criteria and reliable tools, recognised by the majority of real, or only potential, recipients, used in order to verify questionable judgments on artistic topics — in a nutshell — on wide-spread relativism. In Poland, the blame for this state of affairs is often passed onto the audience. The average Pole does not read and does not go to either the museum or the theatre. Their aversion to culture is said to arise from their lack of aesthetic sensitivity, for which, in turn, school curricula, that are outdated and overloaded with content, are, of course, to blame. This is my account of the reflexive train of thought characteristic of Polish intellectuals. In recent years, the reasons for this aversion started to be looked for on a deeper level, namely, in the social structure, with the memory of poverty and the fact that the majority of Poles came from the countryside preserved therein, as well as in the ways of thinking formed back in the age of feudalism.
However, let us not forget that low participation in culture and the troubles of contemporary art with its own identity are two separate problems, which, at times, tend to overlap. There exists a problem with evaluating art and there is nothing to indicate that it is going to disappear. For several decades, reviewers have regularly proclaimed the death of its various disciplines. As such, we have reached the end of painting, drawing, sculpture, performance, poster art and so on, and a number of times at that. The end of the arts as an institution also took place, at least in the form in which we have known them (since the beginning of the modern period). In a widely-read essay, Jean Clair described the end of museums in the traditional sense of the word, which abdicated in favour of institutions dedicated to entertainment, and, earlier Arthur Danto promoted the idea of the end of art, which was to be marked by Andy Warhol's exhibition of boxes of the Brillo washing powder in the 1960s.
Humanists examine the deadlock intently, but their actions resemble the efforts of Sisyphus. XI Seminarium Metodologiczne Historyków Sztuki [the 11th Methodological Seminar of Art Historians], which was held in 1986 in Nieborów, had both diagnostic and remedial intentions. The participants agreed that a crisis had ensued. Mieczysław Porębski observed: “three converging pathways of the syndrome threatening the fundamental value of creative work”. These were: textualisation, musealization, and conceptualization, that deprive art of its main value: a concrete, unique existence. Maria Poprzęcka demanded room “for artistic failures, creative defeats, analyses of unsuccessful works”, that is, reliable negative evaluation, which is also missing in this day and age. Elżbieta Wolicka tried to outline a vision of a new order of carrying out assessment that would be based on: “the intuition of the complementarity of opposing but not contradictory values, on the sense of the criteria and scales of cultural assessment, complementing rather than excluding each other”. To some extent, the author has taken into account civilizational changes, closely related to the twilight of modernist cultural formation and the advent of what, following Zygmunt Bauman, we call liquid modernity. However, she did not predict the power and inevitability of change, hence elegantly dodging the matter of problems that trouble contemporary culture. Nevertheless, it is worth paying attention to the concept of intuition which she brought up, and which intellectuals will soon be using as the primary source of judgments on art.
These kinds of diagnoses which, incidentally, have been rendered many times in different places and across varying timeframes, contrast with the rapid pulse of the art world. The global circulation of art, is probably doing this well for the first time in its relatively short history. As such, are the pessimistic humanists talking about the same artworks that have, over the last dozen or so years, scored triumphs at gigantic exhibitions scattered around the world, from Venice, through São Paulo, Havana, Gwangju, Moscow, to Istanbul, Dakar, Sharjah and Porto Alegre? At the immensely popular art fairs, from Basel, through Singapore, to Madrid and Miami? In commercial galleries springing up like mushrooms after the rain? The contrast between this diagnosis and reality is striking.
Let’s stop for a while at the international art biennials. They show what art is used for in the modern world and what values are sought in it. Although the first one of them, the Biennial in Venice, was established over one hundred years ago, in 1895, and other important events of this type emerged around the middle of the 20th century (São Paulo, Sydney), the real boom for these gigantic ventures took place in the 80s, to explode at the turn of the century. According to the estimates made by a specialist organisation – the Biennial Foundation – their number has already exceeded two hundred and is still growing.
The role that these impressive art festivals play in the life of the host city or region is multifaceted: symbolic, brand-establishing, economic and social. The reason for their popularity cannot be attributed only to art, which is a pretext. Cities use art for their own purposes: to be a testimony of their openness and worldliness, and strengthen their position in the globalised world. The biennials are also of benefit to local communities, expressing their aspirations and offering them a sense of pride and belonging. German critic and curator Peter Weibel spoke in this spirit, warning that one should not only see politicization of the biennials and the instrumental treatment of them by the authorities, because they offer the audience: “space for a critical meeting with political and social problems, for which there is often no place in existing institutions”.
Specialist employees ready to act anywhere around the globe have appeared around biennials. The artists produce works, whose message and form fits the format of these usually effective, and, at the same time, socially engaging exhibitions perfectly. A narrow group of curators moves around the world from one place to the next, because employing someone with a recognizable name to build the biennial reduces the risk of failure and increases the chance of getting a return on the investment. The brightest star in the group was the Swiss Hans-Ulrich Obrist, invited to so many places that probably even he lost track and did not know where he was at any given moment. Modern art offers artistic celebrities of Obrist’s calibre the opportunity to travel, enjoy good food, and attend parties, as well as gain fame, money, and power.
As part of the biennial model, art becomes an instrument of urban marketing, a cog in the machine of the entertainment industry, an opportunity to adopt a proper lifestyle. It is a tool for building media careers. It sometimes happens that art criticises the hegemonic attitude of the Western approach to organising such events; it speaks in the voice of the excluded, provides small countries, ethnic and political communities with an opportunity to gain prestige.
Since art meets so many different needs of the modern world, why do intellectuals talk about its crisis? The reason for this is that they measure the artistic products of modern times with inadequate standards. They apply fixed, rigid criteria to that which is variable, contextual, relative. Art in the old sense is either in a state of perpetual perfection, looking for novelties and ideal identification with the medium, or strives for transcendence, adhering to some spiritual system.
The search for the fundamental value of art is an expression of nostalgia for a classical pattern, which was the only one that had clearly defined qualities and was widely recognized. This pattern does not fit today’s era. Andy Warhol’s silk screen-prints reproducing ordinary photos from newspapers, basketball balls sunk in Jeff Koons’ aquariums, and thousands of other works, do not have the aura of uniqueness; we do not see their mastery. They show us the artist’s charisma, the magic of his name, his image, in a word: the commercial brand they have managed to create. By the same token, the division of art into disciplines, still used in art schools, does not make much sense at a time when artists – such as Paulina Ołowska – can exhibit ceramic objects, fabrics, costumes and not be their creator. What’s more, the artist also exhibits works by other creators (neon signs, garden sculptures), copies of others’ creations, opens a cafe, creates cabaret shows. Other artists – such as Oskar Dawicki – are able to create painting exhibitions without even touching the brush, by employing subcontractors.
There is no single universal definition of art or an artwork. Since the memorable gesture of Marcel Duchamp, who, at the beginning of the 20th century, decided to treat a bicycle wheel on a stool, a bottle dryer, and a urinal as works of art, the power to label things as art has been transferred over to the artist. Decades later, in the 2nd half of the century, the centre of gravity found its place in the environment: an artefact that had been accepted by the world of art became a work of art. The considerations by Arthur Danto on the subject of artworld have been creatively developed by the philosopher George Dickie, who proposed a theory according to which art is what institutions approve of and exhibit. Over the last hundred years, in parallel with civilizational changes, a radical departure from the essence of a work of art took place. Today, we define them through the environment: the utilitarian, functional, historical context... The new status of art has also been considered by Polish theorists. Jerzy Ludwiński developed a vision of the “era of blue”, which was to constitute the ultimate goal of avant-garde transformations, that assumes the dissolution of art in reality, and the utopia of universal and instant interpersonal communication. On the other hand, Świdziński created a less visionary and more pragmatic theory of contextual art, inspired by the Polish experience of living in isolation behind the Iron Curtain.
Theories are one thing, but the functioning of the art world is best regulated by market principles in the broad sense of the word. Still, it might be said that there is public art, participatory art, relational, critical or socially-oriented art: these are the types that, at first glance, are not subject to marketization. However, they are also bought, most often by the state or other authoritative bodies, which award grants for their production and thus guide artists ideologically in the direction desired by the grant provider. As for the proper art market, those who enjoy the most recognition are the ones who have succeeded in the west, and they don't really sell any works in Poland because of their high prices. Success has made them credible in the eyes of the local environment, making their works desirable at exhibitions in local galleries or museums. Among them are Wilhelm Sasnal, Paulina Ołowska and Piotr Uklański, who has lived in America for years. Besides, market value doesn't always translate into artistic value: the choices of those investing in art do not necessarily correspond with the taste of professionals; there are perhaps too many examples of that. Random examples include the works of Franciszek Starowieyski or the late works of Edward Dwurnik.
The situation in Poland is a peripheral chip off the global situation. The bitter words of the aforementioned Peter Weibel, refer to this:
[...] “the contemporary art system works like a stock exchange. Former collectors became market operators. They buy artworks [...] for a good price and count on selling them quickly for a much higher price. Few artists and works are able to follow these rules of capital. Hence, 90 percent of the global artistic production is a waste from the point of view of the market, its subcontractors and suppliers, such as museums, galleries and private collectors. All the new museums built by owners of renowned brands such as Prada and Gucci (François Pinault) and LVMH (Bernard Arnault) show that a certain kind of art has become structurally and systemically part of the luxury goods market and the financial industry”.
Such processes can also be observed here, although admittedly, to a lesser extent. They can be seen, for example, in the case of Grażyna Kulczyk’s activities as a patroness of cultural events at the Stary Browar in Poznań and in her efforts to create a museum that would accommodate the collection of pieces of art she has accrued. After the collapse of negotiations with the cities of Poznań and Warsaw, the millionairess pursues her idea of a museum in Switzerland’s Susch.
The answer to the question of how modern art should be assessed cannot be provided by art criticism. As James Elkins, a specialist in the analysis of contemporary literature on arts, points out, nowadays more critical texts are being created than ever before, but they have no influence on shaping the opinion about a given work. Publications are just an addition to the portfolio of those artists, whose works commercial galleries are trying to sell at the highest possible profit. That is why nowadays we are dealing with “the phantom of criticism”. Judgements, opinions and analyses have become a kind of little theatre played out to keep up appearences, regardless of the fact that there is no audience.
In the colourful history of criticism, let us especially clearly mark those moments, when attempts to introduce certain kinds or even entire systems of valuation were made. During the Baroque period, the first modern academies began (“free artists’ associations under the protectorate of the ruler”, as Maria Poprzęcka wrote): in Florence, Rome, Bologna and Paris. The last one – Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture – opened in 1648 – gave rise not only to a new education system. but also – indeed – criticism. The theoretical and organizational activity of 17th and 18th century thinkers associated with the Academy, such as Charles Le Brun, Charles Perrault or Roger de Piles, introduced operative networks of concepts, which were employed in the analysis of art. There was a belief that art is the work of mind and should be judged on the basis of the appropriate selection and treatment of a subject, not the ability to evoke emotions. It was these assumptions that gave rise to the conviction that the art could be learned and that rational, universally applicable, immutable principles governing it make it possible to objectively evaluate any work. In the 17th and 18th century academies, theory had primacy over practice. “Tables of principles” regarding drawing, the proportions of human figures, expression and colours multiplied. Report cards given to painters by Roger de Piles were the result of this code. His Balance des Peintres employed four criteria (composition, drawing, colour, expression), within which it was possible to award points on a scale from 1 to 20. De Piles’s evaluation amazes the contemporary viewer, for he awarded Rafael a score of 18 points for his expression, while Caravaggio did not get a single point.
The establishment of the academy marked the beginnings of art criticism. The first attempts, made by Étienne La Font de Saint Yenne in 1748, were met with strong opposition from artists who expressed their indignation that someone outside the academy would dare judge art. The reason for this commotion was, of course, the protection of their own interests. The term “art criticism” was used for the first time not by a French author, but by the English painter and writer, Jonathan Richardson. In the book, An Essay on the Whole Art of Criticism, from 1719, he introduced strict categories used for the assessment of a painting. A table designed by him made it possible to award from 0 to 18 points for such criteria as inventiveness, composition, drawing and colour. The goal was to create a system of unbiased assessment that would be available to everyone.
During the 19th century, the literature on art grew in strength. The famous case of critic John Ruskin, who lost in court proceedings against painter James Whistler after accusing him of deceiving the audience, shows how much the words of reviewers, who could ruin an artist’s career and diminish his earnings were being reckoned with. As early as 1829, Eugène Delacroix published a scathing article On critics, in which he accused them of craving for the ability to exercise power over artists: “These vigilant gendarmes exist to teach you, the audience, how you should feel pleasure, to send you ... [the creators]onto the scene using strings, the ends of which they hold...”.
However, neither Whistler nor Delacroix managed to stop the ongoing processes. The moment of art criticism’s greatest glory was undoubtedly the middle of the 20th century, when it was not limited to analyses, but told art what shapes and meanings it was to take. It owed its rise to three authors: Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg and Lawrence Alloway. However, the end of the 20th century marked the decline of its power. On the pages of the British “Guardian”, Adrian Searle gave art critics the following piece of advice: “You can be as creative and as mischievous, as serious or as funny as the mood takes you or the situation demands...”. Contemporary criticism, at least declaratively, is not based on a specific set of concepts and verifiable criteria. However, by maintaining that the shape of texts depends solely on his own mood, the author hides the real requirements directed towards published statements (attractiveness, accessibility, addressing emotions, fulfilling the advertiser’s conditions etc.).
In one of her texts, Dorota Jarecka asked a question: Who decides that something is a piece of art and how do they do so?.She replied to herself immediately: “the group consisting of the heads of the following institutions decides: the Museum of Modern Art, the Foksal Gallery Foundation, the Raster Gallery, the Zachęta Gallery and the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Kraków, the Museum of Art in Łódź, plus Anda Rottenberg”. In the next paragraph, she continued the countdown: “Abroad, these are respectively: Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Adam Szymczyk, Okwui Enwezor, Massimiliano Gioni, Klaus Biesenbach [...] and the heads of the Frieze London fair [...]. Now and then, there appear newspaper articles that expose this gang, but to no avail, because everyone has known about it for a long time.” The text carries tension caused by the fact that the author poses an extremely significant question and jokes about it. By ironically referring to the institutional theory of art (in the version, which says that nowadays people have become institutions) and to the texts appearing in the media from time to time and aiming to blow the cover of the “mafia” that’s in charge of art, she says that the act of defining something as a piece of art can only be based on the piece itself. Returning to the essential understanding of a piece of art, the author does not defuse the tension present in the initial question. How do you sense the existence of an artistic essence? Who has the credentials to do so? One can discern evasion in the text: the author’s ironic reply to the question she poses remains true, regardless of whether Jarecka is mocking it or not. Yes, the status of a piece of art is determined by a small group of people who are at the top of the hierarchy of the artworld, yes, these people are institutions – Jarecka’s text seems to be saying – but we have to accept it because that’s how the world of art is structured. Let’s not be bothered by the issue of power, and let us not talk about values.
In response to the question about the criteria for the assessment of good and bad art, Anda Rottenberg admitted: “I do not have the feeling that I can objectively determine that. I can only say that I either respond to something or I don't. Some things have persuasive power over me and they attract me in, others do not [...] I use the sum of intuitive convictions, supported by years of being surrounded by works of art”. This is what the situation looks like from the point of view of a person mentioned by Jarecka among the ranks of the elite endowed with the power to transform items into works of art. And there is no reason not to believe her.
The ideological envelope of today’s art can be unbearable. People who are not experts in it may feel repelled by its hermetic, environmental language. The discrepancy between the declared, noble ideas, such as criticism, opposition to social injustice and exclusion, the struggle for equal rights, and so on, and the use that is made of such ideas is sometimes striking. Meanwhile, these ideas can be used as marketing slogans, covering up the struggle for prestige, power and money. That is something we must remember.
There is no easy answer to the question of values in contemporary art. It is you – the viewer, the reader, the listener – who chooses whom you’re going to listen to: yourself or the expert. Speaking of experts, be cautious and choose someone wise, whose knowledge is supported by achievements and life experience. The choice is yours; there is no other way.
Elaborated by Magdalena Ujma-Gawlik,
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.
 Jean Clair, Museums' crisis, trans. Jan Maria Kłoczowski, słowo / obraz terytoria, Gdańsk 2009.
 See e.g. Arthur C. Danto, After the end of art. Contemporary art and the pale of history, trans. Mateusz Salwa, Universitas, Kraków 2013.
 Mieczysław Porębski, Zagrożona wartość, [in:] Sztuka i wartość. Materiały XI Seminarium Metodologicznego Stowarzyszenia Historyków Sztuki, Nieborów, June 26-28, 1986, edited by Maria Poprzęcka, Zakład Wydawnictw “Sztuka Polska”, bm. bd., p. 15.
 Maria Poprzęcka, Jak mówić źle o sztuce? [in:] ibid, p. 81.
 Elżbieta Wolicka, Kilka uwag na temat wartości i wartościowania w historii sztuk. [in:] ibid, p. 65.
 See e.g. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid modernity, trans. Tomasz Kunz, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2006.
 An adequate name for the increasingly globalizing world of art — Artworld — was proposed back in the 1960s by Arthur Danto, cf. idem. The Artworld, The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 61, No. 19 (1964), pp. 571–584.
 Peter Weibel, Introduction, [in:] Biennials: Prospect and Perspectives, Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe 2015, p. 3.
 Jerzy Ludwiński, Epoka błękitu, Open Studio, Kraków 2003.
 Jan Świdziński, Konteksty, Galeria Labirynt, Lublin 2010.
 Peter Weibel, Introduction, [in:] Biennials: Prospect and Perspectives. International Conference at ZKM (27.02.-01/03/2014), Centre for Art and Media, Karlsruhe 2015, p. 3, zkm.de/media/file/de/2015-publication-prospect_and_perspectives-zkm.pdf (access 23/08/2018).
 James Elkins, What Happened to Art Criticism? Prickly Paradigm Press, Chicago, 2003.
 Maria Poprzęcka, Akademizm, Wydawnictwa Artystyczne i Filmowe, 3rd edition, Warsaw 1989, p. 22
 Quote from: ibid, p. 52.
 Quote in: Francuscy pisarze i krytycy o malarstwie 1820-1876, wybór i oprac. Hanna Morawska, vol. 2, PWN Warszawa 1977, pp. 16-17.
 Adrian Searle, Do not trust your prejudices but believe in your instincts, [in:] Our critics advice, “the Guardian”, 8.07.2008, www.theguardian.com/arts/youngcritics/story/0,,2289650,00.html (access 10/11/2017).
 Dorota Jarecka, Kto i jak decyduje o tym, że coś jest dziełem sztuki? “Notes na 6 Tygodni”, notesna6tygodni.pl (access: 28.08.2018).
 Należy sobie ufać Anda Rottenberg w rozmowie z Łukaszem Białkowskim, “Znak”, No. 736 (September 2016), p. 27.