Securing the evidence. The things that art can, wants or leaves open

By Walter Kugler, October 2014

We are all more or less familiar with the pumpkin – particularly at Halloween. But what for heaven’s sake is a pumpkin doing in a museum? As happened in the “Museum of Money” exhibition in the Städtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf in 1978.

There it lay, a fully grown pumpkin on the floor of a rectangular room on whose walls 31 school blackboards had been hung up, with ciphers of all different types written on them which could thematically be read as an attempt to approach the concept of money. A triangle and an electric light bulb were suspended from the ceiling which shed its light on a stack of printed matter Aktion Dritter Weg (Third Way Campaign). A video recorder and a monitor were also in the room. “And that is supposed to be art?” many a visitor to that installation by Joseph Beuys, cryptically called “Das Kapital Raum 1970–1977” (Capital Room 1970-1977), asked themselves.

Wise man or fool?

As frequently as the question is raised as to whether this or that work – be it a poem, a picture, a sound piece or a sculpture – is art, as diverse, profound and, above all, contradictory are the answers. In view of the wealth of literature about art and the arts, about artists and works of art it might be seen as a sign of ignorance or presumption if we leave the mainstream here and the standpoint as well as the perspective are a little “displaced” – wholly in the meaning of Wittgenstein who once said: “Only when one thinks even much more madly than the philosophers can one solve their problems.” Because it is the peculiar feature of art that it does not exist as such; there are only works of art and artists.

Perhaps this is what Pablo Picasso had in mind when he answered in response to the question what art is: “If I knew, I would keep it to myself.” The question “What is art” assumes that there is a clear certainty, a set of rules of what art is or is not. And whatever the result of such determinations might be, they all have in common that they left the sphere of art a long time ago. That is not something to be upset about because just as our metabolism cannot function without the nervous and sensory system, or respiration and the blood circulation, so art is also dependent on other assets such as for example science and technology, but also religion and ethics.

The year 1978 was not the first time that a pumpkin in a work of art drew attention to itself – if we ignore still lifes which in accordance with this genre keep depicting various constellations of plants, fruit, dead animals and other things. There is, for example, Albrecht Dürer’s engraving St Jerome in His Study from 1514. The eye of the observer is directed into the study and towards St Jerome sitting at his desk in the back of the picture. A lion lies at rest in the foreground. And then that strange shape hanging from the ceiling: a pumpkin (or its gourd variety) hollowed out from below calling forth the association with a lampshade – a civilisational phenomenon that would take another 400 years to enter into our everyday lives. Dürer was a highly educated man and also a great artist who took a decisive step into the modern age with his Self Portrait from 1500, a pictorial interpretation of the Imitatio Christi as a symbol of the imitation (imitatio) of the divine creation (creatio) by the artist.

The historical background to the story in Dürer’s painting was a dispute between the church fathers Jerome and Augustine about the “ridiculous gourd issue”. Jerome, entrusted by Pope Damasus with the translation of the Old Testament, had in the absence of a Latin word for the leaf of a gourd, which had given longed-for shade to Jonah outside Ninive, chosen the word for ivy which triggered a storm of indignation in Rome and prompted Augustine to severely criticise Jerome’s translation skills. Jerome defended himself and pointed out that it was first and foremost a question of the function of a word – providing shade against the sun – and not of the name.

A good thousand years later Erasmus of Rotterdam took up this theme again in his critique of the Orthodox theological exegetes who appeared increasingly to misconstrue the power of literal meaning. He was interested in the living word and not ossified philology. Hence his exclamation: “Better to be a fool with Jerome than a wise man, however famous, with the tribe of modern theologians.” Some people also considered Beuys to be a fool. But the example of the pumpkin (gourd) shows us that behind many of his works there was a whole cosmos of knowledge and inner activity.

Like potatoes in the cellar

But what turns a work into a work of art? Is it its history, is it the mastery of its creator or its equally backward and forward-looking vision? All these things may certainly apply but initially we experience a work of art like an open field whose meaning and purpose is encrypted and eludes any unambiguous determination. It sets signs of life in which dying is already inherent. It points to that piece of emptiness which is also inherent in all thinking, in every truth. For the viewer, reader or listener it is about the release of something which is captive between spirit and matter, the sacred and the profane, form and function or, as Hegel put it in his Jenaer Realphilosophie, about the “night of the world”. Because: “The human being is this night, this empty nothingness which contains everything in its simplicity, an unending  wealth of ideas, images, none of which he remembers at that moment or which are not present. This is the night, the interior of nature which exists here – pure self […] it is the night of the world which approaches.”

Until the early 1800s, people did not speak about “art” but about the “fine arts” or also the “liberal arts”. “Liberal arts” were those subjects in antiquity which were only for free citizens and not for slaves. They included – and did so until the start of the modern period – grammar, rhetoric, dialectics, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronony. A concept of beauty (Gr. kalon) was associated with the “fine arts” which signified that something was beautiful which was appropriate to be seen in public, which was worthy of it. In contrast ugly (Gr. aschimos) was what had to be hidden from the public, what did not find approval.

It was not until the start of the Enlightenment that a concept of art began to develop, also as a result of the new philosophical disciplin of aesthetics, which still concerns – but above all challenges – us today. As part of the process art began to be detached from its (pre-) determined relationships such as in architecture, smithery and others. Art acquired a quality of its own and henceforth aspired to be nothing other than art. It embarked on a path of independence. In the words of Kant, it set a marker for the independence of aesthetics as opposed to the practical purpose of things. That did not mean something special, separated from the world, setting out on its own trajectory but something independent setting itself alongside all the other things familiar to us.

The work of art, Heidegger says, is ultimately a thing like all other things: “The picture hangs on the wall like a hunting rifle or hat … The works are despatched like coal from the Ruhr region … Beethoven’s quartets lie in the publishers’ stock rooms like potatoes in the cellar.” The connection between art and life becomes evident even if the patterns of our thinking stll want to make us believe that art is something elite, separated from life.

A special feature of art is its ability of transformation. But even that is not new and has a tradition. Thus we find the concept of the “art of midwivery” in Socrates for example. That does not mean that the activity of midwives is included as such in the arts but the gesture which underlies this activity. The art of midwivery as Socrates understood it is an educational principle in the sense that the student is like a person giving birth and the teacher is his or her midwife who with the help of a sophisticated methodological system of teaching asks questions of the students in such a way that they are induced to come to a solution or obtain knowledge of a situation through their own effort.

Delicate empiricism

This transformation process can be understood as a precursor of Beuys’ extended concept of art. Beuys spent his life pondering questions of art, its nature and, above all, its creation, the dynamic of which lies in working with new materials which for him also included the social life. He abhorred questions about art as such or its nature. What mattered to him was concrete perception, the experience of things and processes.

Here he was moving on to terraine which Rudolf Steiner had already worked – thus for example in the lecture of 29 September 1920: “Here it is the case that questions such as ‘What is the nature of art, what is the nature of the human being’, which entail an explanation, will stop altogether. It is a matter of increasingly learning to understand what people such as Goethe meant when he said in the introduction to his theory of colour: we cannot actually speak about the nature of light; the colours are actions of light. And anyone who gives a complete description of a colour event is also saying something about the nature of light. So anyone who deals with the facts of any given field, any given field of art in a form which comes close to the experience of this field of art, gradually provides a kind of reflection on the nature of the field of art concerned. But that will be completely overcome that definitions are put at the top or in some other way without any context, that questions are thrown up: what is the nature of the human being, what is the nature of art, and so on.” Goethe once put like this the value he accorded to experience: “There is a delicate empiricism which makes itself intimately identical with the object and thereby turns itself into real theory.”

Chronicles of seeking souls

The numerous works of art in various genres of the last three thousand years lie spread out before us today like diaries of an event which both de- and encrypt the secrets of human development. These chronicles of seeking souls bear witness to events which make visible and audible to us the relationship between human beings and nature, spirit and matter, divine and earthly, but also despair and hope, destruction and meaning, trust and mistrust, rationality and irrationality. And they also tell us that works of art are not suitable for giving us clear concepts and knowledge of things and processes. On the contrary, they are given to us to keep longing alive and challenge our will to form concepts ourselves. And they remind us that superficially art does not serve any purpose and cannot be instrumentalised.

The Russian painter Marina Tsvetaeva in utmost agitation about art critics once described the task of art as follows: “What does art teach? Goodness? No. Thinking, becoming more knowledgeable, understanding? No. It cannot even teach itself anything because it is – given.” And this given thing is a gift, not infrequently packaged in the most wondrous way. But we have to find the instructions for opening this gift ourselves.

About the author: Dr. Walter Kugler studied music, education and politics, wrote his doctoral dissertation on the self-management of Waldorf schools, lectured at the University of Cologne and taught at the Kassel Waldorf school from 1979–1982. Since 2008 he has been professor of fine art at Brookes University Oxford. For many years he was the co-editor of the complete works of Rudolf Steiner, led the Rudolf Steiner Archive for ten years and curated numerous exhibitions on Rudolf Steiner’s works in museums worldwide.