Profession: Artist Ruthless Criticism

Translated from Die Jobs der Elite: Eine marxistische Berufsberatung [The Jobs of the Elite: A marxist career guide], GegenStandpunkt Verlag, München, 1987.

Profession: Artist

The fact that artists have to be able to do something that not everyone can do – read music; take a breath while singing; adeptly wield a chisel or brush; credibly contort their face and figure; strike an entertaining note when telling a story, etc. – is one of the prerequisites of their profession; this does not make it special and may even, in the case of genuine artists, prove to be an entry requirement that has to be overcome and abandoned in the course of a career. In any case, the respectability of the learned artistic craft initially makes orchestral musicians, commercial artists, assistant directors and the like only lesser employees. Artistry, which is their ambition – at least in their younger years –, begins with the deeper meaning they attach to their sound or color compositions, their scripts or their vocals; and it meets with success when the audience searches for a meaning in songs and sounds, splattered colors and shaped metal, literary fictions and their theatrical presentation, and there is broad agreement that it has found one of significance. In order to give the audience direction in such palaver, there are frustrated artists who have not achieved the necessary technical skills in any profession and who therefore purely theoretically identify – or miss – the deeper meaning in the beautiful sounds and entertaining play that might otherwise be lost: the art critics.

Art critics and true artists are allies in the fight against the banal truth that all the professions making up the art world produce occasions and objects for the free play of the imagination, i.e. entertainment and pleasures of fantasy, and nothing else. They suffer from the fact that their works are at home in the sphere of social luxury. Because they don’t want to be “mere” hirelings of amusement – as if that weren’t already quite a lot in the age of Frank Elstner [German gameshow host] and the Eurovision song contest. But of all things, mockery of any entertainment need met by shows about stupidity or nationalistically infected chirping, by crime thrillers with no suspense but several layers of morality, etc., is what puts them in the category of entertainment according to a distinction probably invented by the art critics, while seriousness is supposed to pertain to art. In any case, this is the prejudice demanded by the makers, representatives and advocates of art. What is required is the willingness to let the products in question teach you about certain not-at-all everyday questions of meaning and then to adopt an attitude as if you were “taking something,” that is, at least something like a completely new insight, “home with you” – like after a church service.

After all, art wants to be a service: to something highly sublime which it grants the audience insight into – and indeed a deep insight that can’t be replaced by ‘merely rational’ thinking and argumentation. The question: into what, for God’s sake? would show the deepest lack of understanding of art. False abstractions such as ‘life,’ ‘fate,’ ‘the tragic,’ etc. are always in play; but above all, one must never express the “serious” content so that it becomes painfully obvious that the philosophical profundities are as barren as can be imagined. The art critic must very demonstratively struggle for words to make it clear that art and art alone is the language of the unspeakable; and the audience must sharpen its “artistic sensibility,” not to increase its enjoyment, which at best might have to do with a knowledge and rediscovery of counterpoint or the golden ratio, but rather to be privy to the message of the “unspeakable” which the counterpoint, etc., which is not at all heard, is supposed to “have said” to him. Art is successful when the audience, with or without critical guidance, imposes on itself the discipline of letting what is presented remind it of its crude Sunday philosophy of life.

The only question is what the artist can actually do to achieve this effect. Because for him – in contrast to the audience – it is not enough to methodically affect an attitude of deeper meaning; the critical experts and the community are not so blind that they take the intention for the deed. A bit of persuasion is required before even a dirty bathtub can pass as a work of art. On the other hand, final results of this kind only make it particularly clear once again that the path to recognized artistry does not go through an ever-increasing perfection of craftsmanship – even a Thomas Mann had to put up with being classified for a while as a “mere” writer as opposed to a true and actual poet.

In order to attain the rank of a recognized artist, the entertainer must find his own highly personal trick for inculcating the work of entertainment with the empty gesture toward deeper meaning – which one does not think up oneself, but receives as a message and a mission. It is possible to exploit the fact that ideological messages are logically as well as really incompatible with enjoyment and entertainment. Conversely, it becomes something of a recipe: to interrupt or to ruin the fun games performed by the imagination can give the impression that the artist is somehow terribly serious about his opus. What Brecht meant to be the termination of a sanitized artistic luxury and a transition to the seriousness of real life, i.e. to practically effective knowledge, the “alienation effect,” is not only a dramaturgical gimmick in his works; that is something like the “artistic device” of art in general.

Of course, it differs depending on the craft and also varies in difficulty. In the reproduction of works of art, artistry, the creative aspect that transcends technical know-how, pretty much coincides with the affectation of superiority that demonstrates the mastery of the performers or their director or conductor in relation to the notes or text at hand; and one can be happy if this artistry does not completely ruin the enjoyment of the work. In making new contributions to the history of art, the amorphous material – words, sounds, colors, brush strokes, etc. – offers more freedom to ensure that it is unenjoyable; the difficulty here lies more in the fact that something like a narrative, a piece of music that can be identified as such, a work suitable for viewing and possibly attractive, etc., must still emerge. The result must be something that attracts the art community’s attention. After all, their art appreciation is usually even more of the hypocrisy that exaggerates a need for sophisticated entertainment and only exceptionally an insanity that supersedes this. Hence the artist who liberates himself from all conventions in the interest of his unspeakable message is still left with the suffering that is part of his profession: having to entertain an audience, one which is not at all adequate to him and endowed with bad taste, so that he can entice them to the intended edification.

After a quota that is not imposed by any state authorities – even with public promotions through state commissions and prizes, democratic authorities usually follow the judgment of the art loving public – the number of elite artists that is needed to bring honor to the domestic culture of the nation is then reached in every branch. In any case, there is no lack of ambitious young talent for the endless continuation of the ridiculous spectacle of producers of the freest and most luxurious entertainments slaving away in all seriousness at producing the message that they are now slaving away on the most important philosophical questions of meaning – by means of imagination and its pleasures. At least everyone involved gets their money’s worth: the question of meaning, which is actually best and most appropriately raised by the posturing of cultured twits; the audience, which does not even want to treat its imagination to any fun unless it has earned a right to it through moral brooding; the art critics, who sensitively trace every feeling that inspires their interpretations and sing the praises of theatrical events to the public and delve into passionate tones of wonder so that the vast majority can easily spare themselves any enjoyment of art – they get a vital share in the culture business through the culture section of the newspapers; the state, which uses this business to adorn itself with the lie that its power is based on spirit, meaning, morality and other sublime things – and not the other way around; and of course the artists. They compete with their suffering from the dichotomy between jest and seriousness; they flirt with it and deny of course that they are keen on the applause they depend on, even though, after all, they have always been called to a profession of a higher kind. And in the abundantly flowing subsidies that a government devoted to national culture provides them, they discover plenty of attacks on freedom – the true, artistic one – simply because government clients flat out miss the right message in a lot of deliberately original and daring products of the imagination and turn off the money tap. Then democracy and the West is routinely in danger for the freest public officials, who are there in order to relieve artists of their mundane everyday worries and the crude tastes of the masses, so they do not just favor the Karajans [German conductor who popularized classical music], Derricks [long-running German detective show] or Siegels [German composer of top 40 hits].

If, on the other hand, the suicide rate among the culture sponges remains within reasonable limits, then the reassuring certainty can be drawn that the healthy bourgeois relationship between meditative hypocrisy and material calculation is by and large doing fine, even among the professional eccentrics of bourgeois society.