As the end of summer is approaching, here’s a digital postcard from my recent trip to Germany. Adjacent to the Haus der Kunst, the infamous exhibition space in Munich built by Hitler in the 1930s as a showcase of German art, now a temporary exhibition space devoted to cutting-edge contemporary art and blockbuster historical exhibitions, runs a tributary of the river Isar where surfers practice their skills in freezing water hundreds of miles away from any coastline.
Isar surfers. Click for movie.
Inside, an exhibition on the history of the Haus der Kunst displayed several paintings Hitler had purchased for his personal art collection from the annual exhibitions of German art, all very much in the anti-modernist style of the national-aestheticism propagated by the Third Reich.
For the National Socialist ideologues, the aestheticization of politics, was crucial, as Hitler’s secretary of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, stressed in 1933 in an open letter to the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, written in response to Furtwängler’s protest of racial discrimination: “Art must not only be good, it must also be conditioned by the exigencies of the people or, rather, only an art that draws on the Volkstum [i.e. the "Arian," character of the German nation] as a whole may ultimately be regarded as good.”
Hitler’s art purchases on view at the Haus der Kunst, Munich, August 2012. Photo: Klaus Ottmann
Pictures taken in Havana, Cuba, during our second Phillips Collection trip to visit the 11th Havana Biennial, May 21–28, 2012. The (pre-revolution) building in the center was designed in 1958 by the Cuban architect Antonio Quintana Simonetti. It houses the Ministerio de Salud Pública, the Ministry of Public Health, as well as murals by Afro-Cuban surrealist painter Wifredo Lam and the Cuban revolutionary artist Raúl Martínez.
Calle 23, Havana, Cuba, May 27, 2012. Photos: Klaus Ottmann
Brice Marden, Ru Ware Project, 2007–2012, Oil on linen. Nine canvases, each: 24 x 18 inches. Matthew Marks Gallery, New York
In my book The Genius Decision: The Extraordinary and the Postmodern Condition I raise the question: How does one account for those rare and extraordinary works of art that set themselves apart from others? The experience of extraordinary works of art cannot be explained solely in geographical, cultural, or formal terms. In fact, the extraordinary in art cannot be explained at all. The event of the extraordinary in art remains inexplicable – a mystery that is traditionally described by the notion of genius. Even Sigmund Freud, when confronted with Leonardo da Vinci’s “unanalyzable artistic gift,” admitted to the failure of psychoanalysis in explaining artistic creation: “We should be most glad to give an account of the way in which artistic activity derives from the primal instincts of the mind if it were not just here that our capacities fail us.”
What distinguishes the experience of extraordinary works of art from other experiences is that it succeeds in uniting the shared experience of beauty with a noncommunicable personal experience of the sublime – a division that found its most extensive philosophical treatment in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment, first published in 1790. Kant distinguished between a communal, pluralistic judgment of taste, the sensus communis aestheticus (which refers exclusively to the beautiful and is characterized by a universal comunicability without mediation of a concept) and a private, individualistic feeling of the sublime. Within eighteenth- and nineteenth-century aesthetics a fundamental change had taken place that shifted attention from the beautiful to the sublime, changing an originally populist notion of art into cultural elitism.
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