Editorial of Febrary 12th 2009

Mathilde Arnoux


François Michaud TOO MUCH REALITY ?

Seminar of Febrary 12th 2009

Mathilde Arnoux is an art historian, research director, and head of the French-language publication service at the Centre allemand d’histoire de l’art in Paris. Her research bears on cross-cultural perspectives and how the image of the other is formed. She has published La peinture allemande dans les musées français, 1871-1981 (Paris: Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 2007) and has edited, in collaboration with Thomas W. Gaehtgens and Friederike Kitschen, Perspectives croisées. La critique franco-allemande 1870-1945 (Paris: Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 2009).


        The objective of the research project being presented to this seminar is to investigate the notion of the real in the visual arts in France, the Federal Republic of Germany, the German Democratic Republic, and Poland from the 1960s until the late 1980s. The ambition of this project is to reexamine the ideological stakes in effect that presided over the interpretation of art during the Cold War period and to offer a new reading of the connections, parallels, and differences between artistic practices in the West and those in the East, starting from an analysis of the use made of one and the same notion on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

The Origins of the Project

        This project originates in the conjuncture of a variety of observations made while undertaking prior research projects. Examination of foreign art exhibitions in France and, in particular, exhibitions of German art have revealed the highly political character of those events, which reflected the diplomatic relations between the countries involved. It appears in this context that classical art could be connected to a political discourse as soon as it was invested with a racial psychology aimed at ascertaining national bases. On the other hand, in the case of the art produced beginning in the late 1950s, such art was presented in a more direct way as intrinsically bound up with sociopolitical aspirations, which is something that has caught our attention. There was no longer a need to apply any sort of pseudoscientific methodology in order for works to be politicized, since “they adhere to their time, are anchored in social reality, and play an organic role within it.”(1) Such works are presented as having a sociopolitical dimension in and of themselves, and numerous shows that present works from the second half of the twentieth century have based their discourse on this specificity attributed to contemporary works.(2) Once this sociopolitical content of the works in question has been established, that content is often presented as being articulated around practices characterized by the subversion of artistic traditions, the quest to connect art and life, or a waning of interest in artistic beauty. This articulation of supposedly engagé artistic content with a supposedly engagé artistic practice seems to constitute a guiding thread for art criticism and art history from the 1960s to the late 1980s. Nevertheless, in light of the profusion of different kinds of expression during this period and with a view to establishing some reference points, art historians and art critics have grouped these practices by their affinities: the détournement of objects is related to a drift of Pop Art and its commentary on capitalist society, the return of figurative art in the mid-1960s is said to proceed from left-wing concerns, and while those who participated in performance art fit less easily into these predefined compartments, they all would attest to an interest in some conspicuous social concerns. A series of keys for reading works has been manufactured, and the works themselves were gradually shut up in the intentions attributed to them, the result most often being that they are isolated from one other.
        Moreover, it is clearly apparent that the history of art from the 1960s to the end of the 1980s in Europe concentrated mainly on so-called Western Europe, while the so-called countries of the East are almost completely absent from art-history books. And yet, visits to museum collections in the so-called countries of the East, in particular Poland, have led us to discover an entire body of largely unknown works and have thus brutally confronted us with the realities of the kind of propaganda that had prevailed in virulent fashion on the Western as well as on the Eastern side of the Iron Curtain.
        In studies of artistic exchanges during this period, this same one-sided attitude toward the West is quite flagrant. Of course, the USSR sometimes comes up when it is a question of certain forms of figurative representation, but most often it is the English-speaking countries that are presented as having played a major role. From this standpoint, research on the artistic relationships between France and Germany is extremely rich, because such relationships have freed analytical study from this concentration on the contributions of English-speaking peoples. Whether one is talking about the geographical, political, and moral scars left by World War II, the biased ways in which each country has tried to assume responsibility, or the desire to build up a strong bilateral relationship as part of the effort to construct European integration, such research touches on questions that pertain to European identity. It must nevertheless be noted that the Germany in question here is the FRG and that most of the time the GDR is left out.
        Finally, the image one has of the arts scene from the 1960s to the late 1980s includes a great variety of expressions, which one most often tries to arrange in terms of movements and groups. The idea still prevails that these arts scenes belong to one or the other of the two major blocs, that of the West or that of the East, though in the latter case most of its manifestations are unknown. Each of these blocs appears clearly demarcated and both bombard one with a benchmark social model set up as an absolute truth in opposition to that of its great rival. What is thereby created is a bipolar world verging on Manicheanism, which can no longer be considered satisfactory today, and its bases are to be questioned.

The Questions

        These observations led me to question the content of the sociopolitical investment in works from this period, and the accuracy of analyses sustained by a highly determined form of ideological criticism. For, the discourse of critics about the artistic forms of expression that developed within the context of the Cold War was highly determined, and numerous discourses from the era were marked in a conscious or unconscious way by the ideologies of the time. These discourses endeavored more or less clearly to rally diverse forms of artistic practice to the Western or Eastern sphere of influence and to discern therein some form of engagement, a stand, the possibility of exchanges between East and West almost never being envisioned.
        Should not the chronological distance we enjoy today in relation to those events, the disappearance of the Iron Curtain, and the collapse of the Eastern bloc commit one to undertake a reinvestigation of those works and the discourse that has been applied to them, just as questions have been brought to bear on the nationalistic bases for the history of art in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Behind the bloc logic underlying numerous discourses from critics, what were the ambitions of the artists themselves? It is time to free oneself from analyses that rest on a strict separation of East from West and on a one-to-one opposition between the Communist bloc and the capitalist bloc, an approach that ultimately ratifies the Cold War propaganda, all the more so at a time when one is increasingly inquiring into the bases for European identity. Following the lead here of other disciplines, it henceforth seems to be of capital importance to reestablish the history of artistic ties that were able to exist between East and West. The idea has therefore arisen of posing this question in relation to the Franco-German pair, where research has been quite abundant, and of adding in Poland on account of the crucial ties it shared with both countries. In reconstituting the ties among artists in France, the FRG, the GDR, and Poland, one can ask what they shared in common and look into whether, beyond the formal relations that led to the gathering of artistic trends into groups, it is not possible to establish connections on the level of the ideas that guided the creation of works and to verify whether each bloc’s models were as determinative as the readings of the time had suggested to us. It is undoubtedly in inquiring into what these countries might have been able to share around one and the same notion that the bases for a reflection on contemporary European culture can emerge.

The Notion of the Real

        While reflecting on these questions, we have been struck by the recurrence of the notion of the real in discourses on the visual arts from the period. This notion constitutes a key reference point for artists who situated their artistic production in connection with their own construction of reality. As employed in this context, the notion of the real is therefore polymorphic, and yet it may be noted that it can be understood from a temporal standpoint (the real as what is current, the present), a physical or material standpoint (the real as the surrounding world, the world of concrete objects), or else the real can be considered as what is true. These varying acceptations of the term correspond to the very ambiguity of the term’s definition, and each one raises unique questions within the framework of this project.
        When the real is considered as a temporal dimension, works approach it thematically by making current events into the subject of the work (Hans Haacke) or they seek to establish an equivalence between art and life, the unfolding of present time constituting one of the characteristic features of the work, as in performances that investigate what unites art with reality. Nonetheless, contexts change everything, for the goals are not the same when art joins life in a capitalist system (Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg’s Leben mit Pop, a performance-art piece at the Berges furniture store in Düsseldorf on October 11, 1963) or in the Communist system (Autoperforationartisten from Dresden), in a free society or in dissidence. In the former countries of the East, an artistic approach that accentuates the physical presence of the artist as an individual agent took on a quite unique political dimension, one that was distinct from the significations those practices took on within a Western social context. To what does such a search for an abolition of boundaries correspond? How is one to comprehend this concern to connect art with reality? Is the life that art thus seeks to join still a life that is lived or is it a projection of the one of which one would be dreaming? In relation to what sort of illusion is the reality with which art seeks to create ties situated? In order to take a fresh look at such practices, one must take the variety of contexts into consideration and take into account, too, the contributions of theatrical experiments undertaken during this same era that interacted to a great extent with the visual arts, particularly in Poland with Tadeusz Kantor and then Jerzy Grotowski. Likewise, one must look into the practices of conceptual art, which were not confined to autotelic investigations. The notion of reality constitutes that in relation to which conceptual artists often situated themselves in an engaged way, seeking through performance art a way to make the broadening of the limits of art coincide with the broadening of the limits of freedom, as in the works of Zofia Kulik and Przemyslaw Kwiek, who form the KwieKulik duo.
        When the real is associated with a physical or material dimension, it penetrates into works through the inclusion of fragments from the surrounding world, concrete objects that one introduces into the work or that constitute it. Such practices often have been associated with a desire on the part of artists in the West to make a more or less engaged statement about the consumer society of the capitalist system, an analysis that is of course inadequate and all the more so when it comes to understanding the similar practices that were developed in the East. Beyond conventional interpretations highly determined by the political context of the time, more attention must be paid to what the introduction of fragments from the surrounding world into the very matter of works implies. Far from being a simple ode to the capitalist system, those practices inquire about the abundance of things, the constitution of an “archeology of the present,” and raise the question of what the everyday and the immediate may preserve as markers of the past. In what way can reality constitute a reservoir of memory? One must therefore look into how reality intervenes via various practices that introduce objects from the surrounding world and inquire into the works of the New Realism, Fluxus (Wolf Vostell and Joseph Beuys), Wladyslaw Hasior and Wlodimierz Borowski in Poland, as well as the works of the Türenausstellung in Dresden in 1979.
        The real can also merge with the notion of truth. It then proceeds along the lines of a discourse aimed at distinguishing itself from mere propaganda, from an erroneous reading. Through the works created, such a discourse seeks to achieve an authenticity distinct from interpretations that are deemed unjust. The notion of the real is central, since it represents what is elusive. Art then comes to take a stand in the world, and it does so in particular through a recourse to figurative representation. One must question what the return to the visible world as an iconographic reservoir says about the artist’s positioning in society, as in the case of works by Jörg Immendorff and Anselm Kiefer. What questions are being raised in the rejection of raw everyday reality by the artists of the Narrative Figuration movement? As has been shown in recent research on the figurative art of GDR artists Wilhelm Tübke, Wolfgang Mattheuer, Arno Rink, and Volker Stelzmann, such figurative art does not fit any single analytical framework and the study of such works reveals ambiguities and incoherencies that are worth lingering over.
        Finally, photography, with its original connection to the issue of the rendering of reality, raises fundamental questions for this project. What does the idea of an equivalence between reality and the photographic image conceal? What effect does the artistic act have on the way in which reality is grasped? What is being investigated in the search for objectivity on the part of Düsseldorf artists and in the seemingly neutral shots of an Evelyn Richter in the GDR? Is reality as it is transmitted through photographic works truly lacking in any message, as Roland Barthes thought? These questions investigate the implications of subjectivity in artistic attempts to capture an original object.
        The real thus can intervene in works from many of these angles. Usage of this notion in the visual arts employs this ambiguity in a way that allows us to connect it to a number of works, as is shown by the recurrence of the term in the art-historical writings of the time that deal with some nevertheless highly varied topics.
        This notion is summoned up in the titles of the works by Peter Sager (Neue Formen des Realismus--Kunst zwischen Illusion und Wirklichkeit [Cologne: M. DuMont Schauberg, 1973]), Christopher Carrell et al., eds (Polish Realities: New Art from Poland [Glasgow: Third Eye Centre, 1988]), Hal Foster (The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996]), and L’art du réel aux USA 1948-1968 (exhibition catalogue [Paris: Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, 1968]). It also stands out in the chapter headings of books by Michael Archer (“The Real and Its Object,” in Art since 1960 [London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997]), Catherine Millet (the sections entitled “Art Sticks to the Real” and “Back to the Reality of Things,” in Contemporary Art in France, trans. from the French by Charles Penwarden [Paris: Flammarion, 2006)]), and Klaus Honnef (“Die Inszenierung des Wirklichen oder die Macht der Fotografie,” in Kunst der Gegenwart [Cologne: Taschen, 1988]).
        The notion of the real is therefore highly pertinent for an investigation of this period, which was highly determined from a political standpoint, torn as it was between two societal models, each of which laid claim to the truth and, beyond the artists’ statements on which analyses often relied, reveal in fact major incoherencies and ambiguities. This notion allows us to reintroduce the human factor where doctrine had tried to gain the upper hand.
        In identifying this pregnancy of politics and ideology in works and in the interpretations thereof, it is not a matter of questioning or denying the friction between the two blocs during the Cold War, as that is an established fact. We propose, rather, to undertake research that, in benefitti

ng from the chronological distance now separating us from the Cold War, attempts to return to the works themselves and endeavors, while taking this context into account, to touch on their particularity in order to free them from an understanding that has been overly determined by how they were read at the time they were created and that has been marked by the false opposition between capitalism and communism.
        By investigating how works were articulated around one and the same notion (the real), it is a matter of opening up new interpretational outlooks that would benefit from cross-cultural perspectives and from the intersection of ideas in works that at first sight one would not be led to believe share points in common. This undertaking also benefits from the contribution of aesthetic reflections on artists’ approach to reality, for this notion plays a key role in the field of aesthetics, and it seems obvious that we are dealing here with a terrain that is particularly propitious for an encounter between art historians and philosophers. The cooperative work is to be structured around a study of borrowings from aesthetics in critics’ discourses and an analysis of the ambitions articulated by artists themselves while being careful at the same time to discern what they actually grasped thereof.
         The objective of this approach is to do a history of art that takes both East and West into account while underscoring the nuances and the absence of any strict cohesion with respect to a political ideology that was being attributed to works one wanted to turn into testimony for an overly caricatural view of the Cold War.


1. Catherine Millet, L’art contemporain en France (Paris: Flammarion, 2005), p. 34. See Contemporary Art in France, trans. from the French by Charles Penwarden (Paris: Flammarion, 2006), p. 34.
2. See, for example, Après le classicisme, exhibition catalogue (Saint-Étienne: Musée d’art et d’industrie, 1980) and Art Allemagne Aujourd’hui. Différents aspects de l’art actuel en république fédérale d’Allemagne, exhibition catalogue (Paris: ARC/Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1981).


Boheme und Diktatur in der DDR. Gruppen, Konflikte, Quartiere, 1970-1989. Exhibition catalogue. Berlin: Deutsches Historisches Museum 1997.

Jeneseits der Staatskultur: Traditionen autonomer Kunst in der DDR
. Ed. Gabriele Muschter and Rüdiger Thomas. Munich: Hanser, 1992.

Kunst und Kalter Krieg. Deutsche Positionen 1945-1989. Exhibition catalogue. Nuremberg: Germanisches Nationalmuseum, 2009.

Nader, Luiza. Konceptualizm v PRL (Conceptual Art in Poland. Language-Attitude-Strategy). Warsaw: University of Warsaw and Foksal Gallery Foundation, 2009.

Piotrowski, Piotr. In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-garde in Eastern Europe, 1945-1989. Londres: Reaktion, 2009.

Vissault, Maïté. Der Beuys Komplex–L’identité allemande à travers la réception de l’œuvre de Joseph Beuys (1945-1986). Dijon: Presses du Réel, 2010.