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The aesthetic moment –
An attempt to grasp being made speechless
Lecture at the Ash Wednesday for Artists at the invitation of the Cologne Artists’ Union, Maternushaus, February 2009
Thanks you very much indeed for this opportunity to address the “Academy” at the Ash Wednesday for Artists 2009. I find this invitation slightly embarrassing, for in my youth, after finishing my studies, I decided against the Academy in favour of the Museum. This preference was not only about working more closely with original artworks, but also a desire to come into contact with people to discuss them with. So in the absence of the works, I would like to take the opportunity to share some of my experiences with you in this forum, as a museum curator and art communicator. Fortunately, the Academy and Museum have belonged together since Antiquity, since Plato founded his Akademia in the grove of the Attic hero ‘Akademos’ in the Northwest of Athens and established a Museion there, an Institution of the Muses, dedicated to the cult of the patron goddess of the arts.
1. The aesthetic moment
With such inspiration, I am ready for the challenge of thinking about the “aesthetic moment”. This first instant of an encounter with art would probably be more likely to suggest a philosophical approach than a purely empirical investigation, based on the experiences of a curator mediating between the artwork and the viewer. Hermeneutics as the “philosophy of understanding” would be especially appropriate in this regard, particularly as in the 20th century the focus has mainly been on “understanding through practice”, a nonverbal form of coming to terms with existence that occurs well before scholarly comprehension. Aesthetic experience can then be appreciated as a never-ending quest for insight. But I do not want to have recourse prematurely to hermeneutic models of explanation, but prefer to approach the phenomenon of the aesthetic moment entirely from the point of view of encounters between art and the beholder. In this respect I am also aware of the relevance of theology, but as a non-theologian can only present an outline here. There is also a danger when speaking about aesthetics of falling far short of the profundity of perception informed by the senses that it entails. “I too must therefore crave some measure of forbearance” – as Friedrich Schiller wrote in his first “letters about the aesthetic education of people” – “if the following enquiries should remove their object from the sphere of sense in attempting to approximate it to the understanding.” My title of this lecture “An attempt to grasp being made speechless” is thus more than a rhetorical backdoor – as the attempt could fail.
When talking about aesthetics, comprehension is treated as a highly dynamic process of perception that is built up in its complexity from concepts and intuitive experiences, along with intellectual reflections, whereby these interwoven strands of our consciousness can hardly be separated from one other. Addressing you as an art communicator, I will first endeavour to consider my topic from all sides, drawing on my experiences with art, artists and viewers. Next, I will describe its scope, in order finally to draw conclusions for art outreach.
Of all creatures Man probably “can be defined as the most aestheticized being or one inclined to aestheticize” and there has probably never been a society “that is completely oblivious to beauty, in spite of the sustained effort involved in procuring food, providing a roof over one’s head and keeping safe.” (Meyer 1990, p.41, transl. CB) There certainly seems to be a substantial need to see beauty, although this may be more or less pronounced. I am less concerned with a theory of aesthetics here than the actual process of experiencing the world, becoming aware of nature and art through the senses. In keeping with today’s occasion, I will focus on art. Sufficient to say – to make things easier – that art clearly deals with something for which no other term would be applicable. The American painter Ad Reinhardt hit the nail on the head in 1962 when he wrote, “Art is art-as-art and everything else is everything else…” (in Kosuth 1969, p.152). In this lecture I am concerned with the first moment of an encounter with art, one that can move us, captivate us, be unsettling and make us speechless. It is precisely this first brief instant of being at a loss for words that interests me, which soon gives way to classificatory comparisons and thought – the attempt to grasp intellectually. This is by no means intended as a rejection of the insights of art history and certainly not as a devaluation of cognitive appraisal, but for today I want to explore the value of the nonverbal starting-point of an act of seeing, because this seems to me to be a precondition for everything that is to come, and its intensity cannot be increased by anything that follows.
Every one of us who is able to look back at various experiences with art probably recognizes these moments or similar ones: you enter a room containing several works and immediately sense “that special something” or you feel drawn to one work in particular; you look at a painting and find yourself being deeply and inexplicably moved in that instant; you visit an artist in their studio, look around, and know at first sight from the works dotted around the room whether you are about to encounter something interesting or not; you leaf through a pile of drawings and just by viewing them can select the special ones without much further thought and thus make an aesthetic judgement. In such situations things exert an incredible fascination on us, so it is not surprising that the term “fascination” comes from the Latin fascinare, to bewitch.
These are temporal moments of the shortest duration, which happen “in the twinkling of an eye” (Augenblick) as I like to say, as the “eye” and the relationship between the eye’s gaze (Blick) and the seen object are necessarily linked to aesthetic experience. “The eye whereby the beauty of the world is reflected by beholders is of such excellence that whoso consents to its loss deprives himself of the representation of all the works of nature,” according to Leonardo da Vinci: “Because we can see these things owing to our eyes the soul is content to stay imprisoned in the human body…Who loses his eyes leaves his soul in a dark prison without hope of ever again seeing the sun, light of all the world” (cit. in Ackerman 1978, p. 108). The interconnectedness posited by da Vinci of world, eye and soul is a fundamental precondition in art history: the relationship of the eye to the world is in fact the relationship of the soul to the world of the eye as once aptly put by Erwin Panofsky as follows, “The world of mere reality, accessible to subjective sensory perception, lies, as it were, before “natural” nature; the world of the visionary and phantasmagoric, created by equally subjective imagination, lies beyond “natural” nature.” (Erwin Panofsky 1955, p. 271) Since all conceptions of the world take place within the subject, not without, every attempt at arriving at normative aesthetic categories tends to falter. The aesthetic moment is bound up with the subject. To clarify this point, as I will attempt below, it may be helpful to employ a parallel with music. For many of you will agree with me when I remind you that listening to music can move you to tears without you knowing why, and no research into how the piece touches you so intimately has come up with an explanation. Similarly, you might venture a comparison between the atmosphere at the Cologne carnival and the way the American artist Louise Bourgeois thinks about “joy” in her work. With reference to her abstract drawings, she pictures the case of someone of the opposite sex attracting your attention for a fleeting moment. You cannot deny the effect, but it lasts for only a couple of seconds, as you are married and hastily turn your thoughts in another direction. (Bourgeois 1995)
Intuition plays the predominant role in the aesthetic instant, that moment of nonverbal emotionality that often arises spontaneously in the encounter with the artwork, for intuition often knows a lot more than oneself – or at least sooner. When viewing art, intuition is always one step ahead of us; while we are thinking things over, trying to find a path to form an opinion step-by-step, intuition forges ahead with lightning speed and decides in the fraction of a second whether we should continue to engage with something or not. Intuition teaches us directly whether an artwork could become part of us, whether this appropriation would be worth it, independently of whether we like it or not, and if in the case of art we will ultimately find more in the work than the mere factual material we are looking at. – What is it, that provides our intuition in these moments with a secure foundation? Is it a specific colour connected to certain experiences stored in the subconscious? Is it the gloss or matt surface or a material texture that catches our attention? Is it a Gestalt, appearing very similar or nearly so to something already present in our visual memory in a quite different context, which as such has already been anchored there? Is it a proportion that we feel is harmonious or a figure in a room that moves in a way we find pleasing? Probably in the end it is the sum of all these possibilities, in various combinations and proportions. Probably we experience a hint of beauty that links up with some kind of counterpart within us. So it might be a tiny detail – a single word, a voice, an odour, a brush mark – that captivates because it evokes something within us.
I think that at this moment the beholder and the artist come closest in the way they experience the artwork and in their knowledge of the intuitive evaluation of artistic quality: “There are always only seconds of pure insight”, according to Ewald Mataré 1950 “seconds of pure insight in which a good work should emerge, at best only one, and all the later effort, the so-called execution, is an endeavour to render those seconds of experience in all other parts effectively.” (Tagesbuch (Diary), 9.12.1950, cit. after Mataré/Schilling 1997, p.376, transl. CB) What the viewer experiences in the instant of acknowledging this artistic creation is what the artist apprehends as the real source of the piece as he handles the material, and this remains puzzling and must indeed do so. “Where does this meaningful element come from? What makes us beholders or listeners? How does this work convey consistency and atmosphere? Where does “Nature parallel to Nature” begin?” The Cologne painter Michael Toenges asked himself such questions without knowing the answers: “If a picture functions or resonates or is harmonious, then that is how it is – but why? ...I will go so far as to claim” says Toenges “that we as people can paint but will never find out exactly when that special something creeps into a painting that distinguishes a painting from a concoction.” (Letter dated 6 May 2008, transl. CB) What applies to the viewer is also true of the artist, who finds him- or her-self overwhelmed by this experience of the origin of the artwork. Toenges again on this point: “My work seems to me to be a success when it surprises me. Then there comes a moment when the picture presents itself to me and for a brief instant lights up as a unique, wilful continuum, separate from me, autonomous and vibrant, incontrovertible and powerful.” (Unpublished manuscript, 12/2008) – In its radical subjectivity the aesthetic moment brings artist and recipient together. Both sense the profundity of the artwork, without being able to comprehend why, according to rational criteria.
II. Speechlessness and revelation
What underpins the scope of the aesthetic moment? I assert that the experiences made in this instant cannot be repeated with the same intensity however hard one might try through contemplation, nor be fully comprehended. I will attempt to approach these moments more closely. What happens to us when we make this experience of being at a loss for words, what kind of connection is this with us, what do we share with the artwork? Clearly the work emits a signal that in this first instant finds us off our guard and can thus be overpowering. It is a moment of naivety, of being childishly unencumbered in the sense that all expertise and all acquired criteria and categories have not taken conscious effect. “Irresistibly seized and attracted by the one quality, and held at a distance by the other, we find ourselves at the same time in the condition of utter rest and extreme movement, and the result is that wonderful emotion for which reason has no conception and language no name,” as Friedrich Schiller wrote on viewing the Juno Ludovici. (Schiller 1795 p.64/ 1954) As we intuitively sense “that this has something to do with me” and allow ourselves that wonderful “emotion” we find our own counterpart in what we are looking at and accept a shared mutual understanding with the work, for a moment without reservation. A few years ago Joachim Plotzek described the unconditional acceptance of the other as an absolute precondition of every dialogue, including a dialogue with art. The principle of dialogue accompanies those of us working in a museum all the year round. It is an intimate moment of personalities meeting, the personality of the viewer and the personality of the work. The presence of the artwork as our opposite number, this manmade object, content to be itself and thus an autonomous thing, allows us in these moments to appreciate the reality of its existence, and thus not only to be in accord with the work but also with the world. Thus the lived experience of art can bring great joy and a feeling of happiness that needs no comment, no different to a walk through the woods or a sunset. In the aesthetic moment we are very close to Creation, in its entirety, beauty, its undisguised truth. Martin Heidegger investigated thoroughly this experience of being in his treatise on The Origin of the Work of Art, first published in 1936: “The curious fact here” – he writes – “is that the work in no way affects hitherto existing entities by causal connections. The working of the work does not consist in the taking effect of a cause. It lies in a change, happening from out of the work, of the unconcealedness of what is, and this means, of Being.” (Heidegger 1935-1936) Heidegger also sees the beholder as being very closely tied to the artist, for he continues, “all art as the letting happen of the advent of the truth of what is, is, as such, essentially poetry. The nature of art, on which both the art work and the artist depend, is the setting-itself-into-work of truth.” This nonverbal and subconscious “letting happen of the advent of truth” presupposes the knowledge – of the artist or the beholder – that the real content of the work, that which makes art art, cannot be named. As the philosopher Walter Warnach wrote: “a great artwork has a totally new dimension, something more than matter and awareness, that the creative process introduces mysteriously, even if it requires a bright mind to complete the work, which includes something which cannot be named, going beyond the artist’s intention.” The artwork develops beyond its creator. Therefore, the question often posed “what was the artist thinking of?” is completely beside the point. We have to assume that whatever he or she intended has found a form in the work and communicates through this, for intention alone does not make a work. And yet what the artist was thinking is only one of innumerable individual ways of understanding the artwork. Warnach calls “this new dimension in the artwork its ‘historical form’ or its ‘temporal form’, … that unmistakeable mark in the make of the picture, in which an epoch with the whole gamut of its field of tensions finds expression, while simultaneously the unfolding of sensation throughout the history of Man makes its mark.” (Warnach 1982, p.785, transl. CB)
Artist and beholder arrive at this dimension of the work through unconditional “letting happen”, through an openness that might be called naïve, as there is no hurry to acquire additional information and ask questions about utility. Herein probably lies the greatest challenge, as we are accustomed to ask directly what objects are good for. The painter Willi Baumeister distinguished in his study of The Unknown in Art between “non- objective” vision and “functional” and “use-oriented” seeing, whereby the first act of looking entails opportunities for expression that the use-oriented process of seeing no longer possesses; as he wrote in 1947, “…great works are always simple, self-evident, without pose.” (Baumeister 1947) What Heidegger describes as the ““letting happen of the advent of truth of being” is experienced by the artist and viewer as revelation. It comes from within, according to Louise Bourgeois, for the artwork is not a replica of something external but a revelation with a healing effect: a copy is perfectly useless, other than to impress the students. (Bourgeois 1995). Thus the artwork constitutes itself through its efficacy. The question of the nature of art can only be answered in terms of the impact of the work, the impression that the beholder receives and consolidates. “Beautiful are the things which please when seen” (pulchra sunt, quae visa placent) as Thomas Aquinas already knew. We speak of the aesthetic moment as a revelation that is hindered rather than promoted by the intellect; a revelation that comes to life in the dynamic in-between space of the work and the viewer, between eye and the soul, mediated through the senses, lending wings to fantasy. “The picture should reveal and restore at the same time,” as the painter Werner Schriefers advised: “I am a painter and practice painting in the sense of an action and a technique that creates beauty. …The colour palette should be a sensation and so finely differentiated that the whole perception of colour and the world is rendered visible. I understand the world not only philosophically, but always also as a moment that produces a signal in the eye, whether this be an experience of colour in the botanical gardens of whatever. … I wish,” confessed Schriefers, “that people were really much more open and enjoyed using their senses more, so that they could appreciate my pictures like a plant that they cannot categorize into a species or lineage, and grasp a picture through its beauty.” (cit. after Schriefers 2004, p.134f., transl. CB)
In the speechlessness of that aesthetic moment the real potential of art unfolds. “My interest is in an experience that is wordless and silent,” as the American painter Agnes Martin said, who died in 2004, “and in the fact that this experience can be expressed for me in an art work that is also wordless and silent. (…) If we can perceive ourselves in the work – not the work but ourselves when viewing the work then the work is important. If we can know our response, see in ourselves what we have received from the work, that is the way to the understanding of truth and all beauty.” (Agnes Martin, “The Still and Silent in Art”, Writings 1998)
However, it would be totally inadequate to equate beauty, in the sense of “truth revealed”, with the experience of harmony. This widely-held misunderstanding has to be discussed with visitors over and again. For through being “irresistibly seized and attracted, and held at a distance by the other” – as Schiller expressed himself in response to the ideal of Antiquity – getting close to a work can also give rise to a sense of ugliness and provoke a strong adverse reaction. For this reason the series of examples of the aesthetic moment must be extended to include such an occurrence: you experience an inexplicable aversion and distance to the artwork, even though you cannot deny its tangible depth. I have often met with these situations in conversations with visitors and concluded that, concealed beneath the apparent lack of understanding or even dislike of the work at first sight, there may be a very personal connection, evoking deep dismay that becomes apparent on closer inspection. The depth of personal consternation becomes here a measure of the degree of rejection. The viewer then notes that the work means him and no other. He does not experience mutual understanding with the work in the form of consent, which might please him or her, but a gap that shocks and threatens his own self. By being dismissive, he is instinctively protecting himself, as he senses that the engagement with this work has hit home and could bring about a change: “…would not, from all the borders of itself/ burst like a star” – as Rilke wrote at the end of his poem about the archaic torso of Apollo – “for here is no place,/ that does not see you. You must change your life.” (Rilke 1995, transl. Stephen Mitchell)
The aesthetic moment can stretch us to our limits just because it can throw our whole existence into question; it can bring joy and happiness but equally cause sadness and pain. The connection between beauty and truth, which embraces the apparently repulsive and what is found ugly and may in turn cause suffering, is the central message of the Christian aesthetic, as was elucidated by St Augustine drawing on Neoplatonism. Trelenberg argues that, according to St Augustine (On the Free Choice of Will) “clearly, things exist that are abject and ugly (cloaca = sewer), but through their connection with superior creatures (creatura superior, homo) are beautified, adorned (ornari) and can be ennobled, so-to-speak. In the order of being the lower can be embellished by higher things, and is thus refined. Then the familiar thought comes to mind …. that things become beautiful by enhancing each other, harmonizing well and, being complementary, can contribute to a kind of unity (quandum sui generis unitatum).” (Trelenberg 2004, pp.39-40, transl. CB)
The incarnation of God and Christ’s death on the cross allows these paradoxes to be resolved and enables St Augustine to say that although Christ hanging on the cross is an ugly sight, this deformity becomes beautiful to us. (Sermon 27: pendebat ergo in cruce deformis, sed deformitas illius pulchritudo nostra erat) Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote his dissertation about St Augustine, traced this train of thought a few years ago in a lecture on “viewing beauty”: “He who believes in God, the God who revealed himself as Love, unto the end, in the deformed form of Christ on the cross (John 13,1), knows that beauty is truth and truth is beauty, but he also learns from Christ’s suffering that the beauty of truth involves being wounded, experiencing pain, the dark mystery of death and only by accepting pain, not by an avoidance strategy.”
Whereas many viewers might find this connection odd, for artists it is quite familiar. I have got to know many artists who struggle against virtuosity in their own art practice, through acts of destruction, suffering for the sake of beauty in their work. Not being artists, we should not imagine the daily work in the studio as a nice stroll – it seems to me to be akin to Jacob wrestling with the angel. “They are monks” as Herbert Falken once said about artists, “monks who go into isolation in order to experience something that it is no longer possible to experience in this society.” (Interview with the author, in: Plotzek 1996, p.47) Falken speaks of the loneliness of the artist and that this is why the artwork first comes into its own in communication with the beholder. The art historian Roger Fry writing at the beginning of the last century assessed the “empathy” of the viewer with the artist who made the artwork as the most important component of aesthetic evaluation: “We feel that he has expressed something which was latent in us all the time, but which we never realised, that he has revealed us to ourselves in revealing himself.” (Vision and Design | 1920, p.20) Michael Toenges makes a similar point: “Where this ‘picture‘ – in so far as we think we recognize it – stuns us, we know for that instant that there is more than humble clay. And with ‘we’ I always mean that my work is to no avail if it does not enable me to address the Other. First in that moment when my part in (the creation) of the picture leads to your part in recognizing it, then the picture becomes a picture!” (Email dated 11.01.2009, transl. CB) – Is the aesthetic moment in the end and above all an act of intimacy and love? Who has not experienced that almost tangible appeal of these moments and felt a desire to take up the invitation, to go in search of that contact, exploring the scents and sounds, words and voices, colours, shapes, materials and surfaces. After all, it was Eros who showed the way to beauty in Plato’s Symposium. This is why “the love of the beautiful, the good and the true … is to be understood as striving to achieve immortality.” (Kluwe 2008, p.316, transl. CB)
The scope of the aesthetic moment is absolutely existential for the instant of “allowing oneself to be moved,” amounting to a radical confrontation with death. The knowledge of beauty always entails a hidden feeling of loss, according to the French philosopher and art historian Didi.Huberman: “Now we are beginning to understand that every visible representation, however silent and neutral it might appear to be, becomes ineluctable if it harbours a loss … and therefore gazes at us, affects us, haunts us.” (Didi-Huberman 1999, p.15, 25, transl. CB) I maintain that the rejection of works of art, the protective shield of supposed non-understanding, has to do with fear of this confrontation in many cases, and an avoidance of the fact of death. The humane but also specific and lasting work and all the sensations its details offer confront us with the fragile transience of our own bodies. This lived discrepancy can grow into unconditional faith in an aesthetic moment. Didi-Huberman points in this context to a connection with the clarity of the Gospel of John, when the evangelist approaches Christ’s empty tomb and the simple words are “he saw and believed” (John 20,8). The absent body means that the loss of the human is acutely felt in the present, underpinning dumbfounded faith before the next words “for as yet they knew not the scripture” (John 20,9). “It is precisely the lack of the body” according to Didi-Huberman – “that sets the whole dialectic of faith in motion for eternity. …Not to see in order to believe all.” Didi-Huberman 1999, p.15, 25)
III. The museum as a place of aesthetic education
We have seen that the possibilities for insight offered by the artwork as revealing truth grow in that decisive aesthetic moment beyond words, in that very state of being rendered speechless. Let me ask in this concluding section what the consequences for art scholarship, for the museum and the communication of art result from this. Or is the claim of an artwork to be a revelation out of date? “We can no longer do much today with a definition of art as the path to making a metaphysically-grounded unknown visible” as Werner Spies wrote in 1989 in the heyday of postmodernism, “even in the best works an expression of spontaneity and belief have given way to irony and playing around with knowledge.” (Spies 1995, p.182, transl. CB) Has art thus become more profane, or does this apply more to art scholarship and art communication? It seems to me that all approaches to contemporary art in terms of a Token of Belief or as a connection between Gegenwart-Ewigkeit (present-eternity) (titles of the two exhibitions curated by Wieland Schmied in 1980 and 1990 respectively) can say something specifically about art and the Church but would not be understood as fundamental statements about art. Although a growing interest in spiritual content can be observed, as for example in the recent exhibition in Munich entitled Spuren des Geistigen (traces of spirituality), the translation here of the title from French into German, from “sacred” into “spiritual” presented the theme as less a question of faith and more of an intellectual game.
Perhaps the misconception in art communication has already begun if one speaks – for want of a better word – of art as an “idiom”. Here the hidden structures of meaning of the artwork are likened to vocabulary, to words in a foreign language, which – as they are used customarily in a community – can be translated to form comprehensible sentences. That may be plausible but: doesn’t a comparison with language suggest that an artwork could be captured in words, could be translated into verbal language? And doesn’t it follow that the ability to make a representation of reality then comes to the fore, focussing on what one can already name instead of the really artistic, on the invention of reality that cannot be named? Perhaps the true value of an artwork will become clearer if I revoke the connection between art and language for now and claim: art is not a “language” and it has no language, because art is art. It cannot be understood by means of language but must be understood through its own means. The “vocabulary” of art consists of lumps shaped from a material that appeals to the senses. We should always remain aware that language here is only a tool to help us experience with our senses, a vehicle of communication. Let’s say that language is like a ladder that we can climb without ever being able to reach the sky. Painters above all have always demanded this other manner of appreciating an artwork, and I am not speaking here only about the abstract painters of the 20th century. “The specific painterly content of a picture is all the greater as the interest in the object itself lessens,” as Max Liebermann wrote for example, “the more the content of the picture has become painterly form, the more exalted the painter…. Otherwise how come there are so few artworks among the thousands of Madonna pictures?” Max Liebermann, Die Phantasie der Malerei , German cit. after: Harrison/Wood, 1998, p. 75, transl. CB)
Ladies and Gentlemen, have there ever been more visitors to museums and exhibition than there are today? Never before have so many people felt the need and had the opportunity to engage with art. And yet as an art communicator I have the impression that this wealth of interest in art has not been met by a concomitant increase in awareness of the existential significance of art for the individual, and how necessary culture is for society, nor has the status of an artist improved. I can find no other explanation for the prejudices that persist against any kind of work of art and the accusations that artworks are designed as a provocation. The visitors have not even got the message that the highly acclaimed art of the past enjoying wide distribution in accordance with market forces was once just as contemporary and mainly regarded as a provocation. You will have noticed that I do not trust the quantitative popularity of globalized MoMas and Guggenheims. Otherwise how could the suggestion of doing away with the Artists Social and Health Insurance Fund (KSK) be put forward, first proposed recently by the German Chamber of Trade and Industry and later supported by the Standing Committee of the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology; this fund which for most artists in our society is their only health insurance and pension scheme, however meagre, as we well know? (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 20.12.2007 and Focus 19.9.2008) Art is, if not a purely marketing factor, then in many cases a plaything for curatorial inspirations, a way to supply visuals in exhibitions concerned with art historical theses and conceptual themes. Please forgive me at this point this short polemical aside, but it helps me to demonstrate clearly how much of what happens in the so-called “art business” has become customary and expected standard-art, contradicting the real potential and concerns of art. Instead of giving space to the dumbfounded, art communication receives an all-round fix that suggests something significant could be communicated in a few lines, on captions, through audio-guides or in exhibition catalogues. In a world that regards itself as an information society and in which you can only survive if you process as much information as possible on a daily basis, making decisions just as fast as you can, art is reduced to the factual, to the material and a story, to material values and the name and position in the rankings. Thus visitors find themselves going down the same cul-de-sacs again and again as soon as no information is provided, meaning that they have to confront a work by themselves. Sentences like “it says nothing to me”, “I don’t understand it” or “what did the artist say about it?” testify to utter helplessness. Clearly, their state of awareness has in no way been altered – a situation in which the aesthetic moment has been overridden. For art communication holding sway over museums and exhibitions, with its very substantial personnel and economic dimensions, failure could not be greater. After exhibitions from Rembrandt to Richter with public appeal have established who the heroes of art really are and all “isms” of art history have been run through from A to Z repeatedly, it is time for the visitor to be taken seriously as a viewer, not as a mass to be counted, but as a sentient individual and to confront him or her with the idea that there is nothing to “understand” about the artwork before it has been experienced. “Nothing is found in the intellect that was not first in the senses,” as Thomas Aquinas well knew (Disputed Questions on Truth/ Quaestiones disputatae de veritate)
From many conversations with visitors, I know that “it says nothing to me” in the face of an artwork does not exist. Every work communicates with the beholder, so long as the latter is prepared to admit the vulnerability described above and thus “the letting happen of the advent of the truth of what is”. There are always intuitive experiences in front of a piece that can penetrate into consciousness. However, a precondition is that the viewer experiences the artwork as part of his or her own reality and does not confuse it with artificiality, placing greater trust in intuition and making one’s own experiences than in the words of a “guide”. The relevance of an artwork should not be left to the experts but is for the individual to find out. Art communication that aspires to enable a visitor with an untrained eye to find their own voice must aim above all to make an aesthetic moment possible, and promote the pleasure in seeing as a first premise. So art communication starts with being struck dumb, aware of the presentation of the work in space, respecting its aura. If the museum wants to take its task of being a place of aesthetic education seriously, the artwork should not appear to be a mere servant of art history but a potential form of encounter for the discerning person. “The awakening sensation, not information or acquisition of knowledge are the aims of art reception,” as Alfred Lichtwark wrote, no lesser figure than the father of art pedagogy at the close of the 19th century: “The knowledge and insight required for viewing an artwork should always be generated, never merely imparted.” (Lichtwark 1897, p.35, transl. CB)
Ladies and Gentlemen, art does not belong to art history, any more than religion belongs to theology. It owns itself and its central characteristic is the revelation of the unknown, the intuitively experienced and the inaccessible to rational cognition. This is where its quality lies and from this the need for the viewer to behave creatively when faced with art follows. Until today, art history and the instruments of its communication have suffered from a concept of knowledge that is not its own and cannot do justice to its subject matter, until intuition and subjectivity become absorbed into scientific methodology. First “when intuition is combined with exact research” – according to Paul Klee – “it accelerates the progress of research remarkably. Exactitude carried by the wings of intuition is at times superior. … We document, substantiate, justify, we construct and organize: these are good things as far as they go, but we do not arrive at a totality.” (Paul Klee, 1928) So at the end of this lecture I return to hermeneutics, which nearly fifty years ago recognized in relation to the humanities that “the certainty, that the use of the scientific method vouchsafes, is not enough to guarantee truth,” and since subjectivity must also play a part, no “reduction in the scientific value but, on the contrary, the legitimation of the claim to be of especially human significance” is the result. (Gadamer 1990 Vol. 1, p.494, transl. CB) For art history as really a “humanistic discipline” (Panowsky) this is especially true.
The verbal silence of the work that the beholder shares with the artist entails being bereft of speech in the face of beauty, a beauty that embraces pain and loss, which are essential premises; a basic experience of the human condition during the short duration of the aesthetic moment. Here we step into the real sphere of art, which defies being put into words. I observe with great concern that this unique potential of art to achieve insight, which I regard as existential, plays an ever lesser role in our schools under the pressure of continual reforms and so-called “learning assessments”; this development will end in aesthetic illiteracy. As Pope Benedict says: “ We should not underestimate the significance of theological reflection, precise and careful theological thought – it remains an absolute necessity. To despise or reject the shaking up that happens when the heart meets beauty at a true level of recognition diminishes us and erodes faith and theology. We have to find this form of knowledge again – that is the prime challenge of the present hour.”
He who knows the art museum of the Archbishopric will have long realized that I am talking about Kolumba. Every museum is a collection, a place of fragments, of things that have lost their original context, whether that was a church interior as a place of liturgy, or a studio as the artist’s workplace. In dealing with these fragments the museum can do nothing better than to place them in new contexts, and every kind of exhibition creates such a novel framework. Kolumba tries not to think up these contexts but to engage dynamically with the in-house collection to develop juxtapositions of exhibits according to aesthetic criteria. Thus situations arise in which it is not possible to explain what you see directly: the works, however apparently different, should correspond with each other in the ideal case. The museum does not follow art history but would like to enhance it. The aesthetic moment is the aim of the presentation and the curator’s tool at one and the same time. We create juxtapositions that are open to question in the best sense of the term, regarding these as exciting interrelationships with an appeal that cannot be approximated in words. We try to contextualize the works underpinned by their aesthetic presence. We try to create spaces that can be lived so that, years later, they will remain in the visitors’ memory. So the main concern of the museum is to encourage thinking about art, evoke astonishment, promote finding pleasure in the works, recollection and wonder, giving scope to one’s fantasy and faith and thus quite possibly becoming “rapt”, for why should devotions and a museum be mutually exclusive?
I have deliberately used quotations from artists whose works have found a home in the Kolumba collection. This should help to connect this afternoon with the evening, when you can check all the theories against reality. Our institution aims to make the aesthetic moment possible through its architecture, with its collection and presentations, facilitating dialogue and thus be like a “sacred building with the dimensions of a museum” – just as you, your Eminence, described Kolumba at its inauguration – as a place of revelation. This takes place in presentations that are changed annually, the current one being held under the title of a painting trilogy by Felix Droese: Man Leaving Earth. With this title, which we did not have to invent ourselves, as we received it as a present, existential questions are addressed along with the childish play of fantasy that you will encounter again in the exhibition. Check for yourself what the art critics have said: whether Kolumba does everything “very differently – and therefore everything right” (Monopol, 9/2008), or whether we “invest contemporary art with a spirituality that it does not possess (Die Zeit, 20.9.2007).
I have come to the end of my lecture and doubt very much that I have been able to do justice to the joy, serenity, happiness and sadness that an aesthetic moment can mean for each and every one of us. It remains one of the most pleasant of puzzles: why does something touch us and in what way, why can we see something long before being able to understand it? Here in the “Academy” we have gingerly climbed a few rungs of the ladder, in order to ascertain that there is something that “cannot be said”, as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein noted at the end of his Tractatus logico-philosophicus: “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.” And yet the attempt to come closer to language as a means has been worth it, and we should always try, as Wittgenstein recommended, to cast the ladder away so-to-speak, after having climbed up it. For “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” (Wittgenstein, 1921).
Willi Baumeister: The Unknown in Art, 1947 (www.willi-baumeister.org); Louise Bourgeois: Drawings and Observations. Bulfinch. 1995; André Chastel (ed.): Leonardo da Vinci: Trattato, 1882/1956 para. 24 (12) in James S. Ackerman “Leonardo’s Eye” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 41 (1978) pp. 108-146; Georges Didi-Hubermann: Vor einem Bild /, Munich/ Vienna 2000/ Devant l’image, Minuit, 1990/ Confronting Images. Penn. State Univ. Press 2004; ibid: Was wir sehen blickt uns an. Zur Metapsychologie des Bildes , Munich 1999/ Ce que nous voyons, ce qui nous regarde Minuit 1992; Roger Eliot Fry, Vision and Design , London 1920; Hans-Georg Gadamer: Wahrheit und Methode , Volumes 1 and 2, 6th Edition, Tübingen 1990/ 1993; Martin Heidegger, Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes , Stuttgart 1960; The Origin of the Work of Art https://sites.google.com/site/heideggerandpoetry/1935-the-origin-of-the-work-of-art; Charles Harrison/ Paul Wood (eds.): Kunsttheorie im 20. Jahrhundert, Stuttgart 1998; Otfried Höffe (ed.): Immanuel Kant. Kritik der Urteilskraft, Berlin 2008; Thomas Kellein (ed.): Ad Reinhardt. in Joseph Kosuth, Art After Philosophy, 1969 ; Paul Klee, Exact Experiments in the Field of Art, 1928; Stefan Kraus: Gegen die Erwartung – Für die Erfahrung, in: Peter Noelke (ed.), Zwischen Malkurs und interaktivem Computerprogramm. Vorträge des Internationalen Colloquiums zur Vermittlung an Kunstmuseen, Cologne 1997, pp.23-27; ibid.: Plädoyer für ein lebendes Museum. Das Erzbischöfliche Diözesanmuseum in Köln, in: das münster 1/03, pp.27–36; Hans Maier et al. (ed.): Schönheit, Internationale Katholische Zeitschrift Communio, July-August 2008; Agnes Martin, Writings, Berlin-Stuttgart, 1998; Sonja Mataré/ Sabine Maja Schilling: Ewald Mataré. Diaries 1915 to 1965, Cologne 1997; Heinz Meyer, Das ästhetische Urteil, Heidelberg 1990; Erwin Panofsky: Meaning in the Visual Arts, New York 1955; Joachim M. Plotzek et al (ed.): Herbert Falken. Arbeiten der 70er und 80er Jahre, Cologne 1996; Joachim M. Plotzek: Kunst für alle, aber mehr noch für den Einzelnen, Cologne 1995; ibid.: Von der Dialogfähigkeit der Kunst, Cologne 1996; Joseph Kardinal Ratzinger: Der Sinn für die Dinge. Die Betrachtung des Schönen, Vortrag anlässlich eines Treffens der kirchlichen Bewegung „Gemeinschaft und Befreiung“, Rimini 2002; Günther Regel (ed.): Paul Klee. Kunst – Lehre, Aufsätze, Vorträge, Rezensionen und Beiträge zur bildnerischen Formlehre, Leipzig 1987; Friedrich Schiller: Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen. In einer Reihe von Briefen / On the Aesthetic Education of Man, transl. Reginald Snell, New York 1954/2004; Margret und Thomas Schriefers: Werner Schriefers. „…arbeiten wie der Vogel singt“, Bramsche 2004; Werner Spies: Schnitt durch die Welt. Aufsätze zu Kunst und Literatur, Ostfildern 1995; Jörg Trelenberg: Das Prinzip ‚Einheit’ beim frühen Augustinus, Tübingen 2004; Walter Warnach: Vom Bewusstsein in der Kunst , in: Karl-Dieter Ulke (ed.): Walter Warnach. Wege im Labyrinth, Schriften zur Zeit, Pfullingen 1982, pp.771-788; Katharina Winnekes: Museum der Nachdenklichkeit oder die Quadratur des Kreises, in: kunst und kirche, 4.1995, pp.226-229; Ludwig Wittgenstein: Tractatus logico-philosophicus. Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung , Frankfurt 1963
© Kolumba/ Stefan Kraus 2009
Publication – including excerpts – only with source references
Art museum of the
Archdiocese of Cologne
Dance Ecosystem (2020)
The Defence of Childhood (2010)
A museum in alterity (2009)
Aesthetic Moment (2009)
Art for All (1995)
Museum of Reflection (1995)
History of the Museum (1995)
Art and Architecture (1994)
Idea and Task (1994)