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Martin Stommel on how to be an artist - hosted by Gallery70 at the Academy of Arts in Tirana




For a painter this is rather difficult talking about a single subject in arts, it‘s comparable to painting a landscape – but only the trees, or only the meadow, only the clouds. In arts it seems so that every single part is bound to each other in a way, that no single part makes sense without the others.Famous Paul Cezanne had once stated, the colors in a painting would be like a bowl, and any wrong color would be like a damage, like a hole, so that all life of the painting should leak through, like water would leak out of the bowl. Well I think this is a somewhat neurotic view

regarding the colors of a painting, but the idea of accordance is quite old and maybe it should help us in our epochs situation, which is so full of changes. Actually it‘s been the idea of accordance which was most attacked in our times. Since about 150 years the artists image turned increasingly towards a certain heroic misunderstanding. The art critics and museums as well as the art market became accustomed to celebrate artworks, that didn‘t find anymore contact to the main society. This trend aimed at a maximal accordance of the artist with his own idea of his work. But in result there were lots of artists especially after the war, whose success depended fully on the management of dealers and collectors. Agents and interpreters became very crucial protagonists in the art scene, the market for contemporary art grew to the nowadays extent. Also still growing the number of artists, in Germany we probably have about 150.000 artists only of visual arts, even though Germany holds little more than 1 % of the international art trade. The average artist in Germany has no studio of his own and no fixed gallery, working in various jobs to finance his living.

However on it‘s way the art world has won a meanwhile legendary trophy, which is the artistic

freedom. Compared to the freedom of Arts, which like the freedom of speech is a juridical category, I put the artistic freedom rather as a social achievement, it deals with the society‘s claims. As a matter of fact, the direction led to a rejection of all claims, even in his own working process the artists tried to avoid installing any rules. Nevertheless the artistic work is made of decisions, and so the artist could have recognized today, that his decisions, for lack of rules, become arbitrary, it become „any“ decision. Though „any“ decision, was that still a decision, an act of free will? Or could he fall back to a level of total dependence – for example of the market? Would the artistic freedom end up as a marketing gimmick, not even in need of money but with the desolation of an asteroid, that follows the gravitation? Indeed the market is a planet with quite fixed rules and predominantly it targets on majority. In short, it turns the artistic freedom into the freedom to say and do and feel exactly the same things as everyone else. Anyways, like society the art market keeps developing and changing over the centuries, according to the change of the conception of arts and artistic freedom.

For an estimation of todays state of affairs it‘s worth drawing comparison, and I would like to mention Rubens. Peter Paul Rubens has impressed me since my young days, and later, when I studied at the academy of Munich, I spent many days in the Pinakothek in order to draw his figures, the drunken Silen or the Falling into Hell. In Rubens workshop in the early 17th century there worked many students, his influence, his wealth and the production of his workshop were enormous. Until today the art historians investigate on the question, in which paintings and to which degree they find proofs of Rubens hand. The art market is interested in this question, too. Rubens was actually a star of the art market already in his own times. However in this 17th century the artistic work still based on the conception of craftsmanship – and the idea to rap an artist for his willingness to comply with an order would have sounded crazy. On the contrary one of the most influential artist of our time, Andy Warhol, was heavily criticized because of his commercial activity and his factory, where everybody could purchase his serigraph portrait for 20.000 Dollar. And again differently, today, we must admit that there‘s an astonishing silence about the factories, where the slaves of contemporary art managers like Koons,  AiWeiWei, Damien Hirst or others work for 20 Dollars per hour. Whether the Zeitgeist has changed again, or the critics have already been swallowed by commercial interests themselves? When recently a rich man gave nearly half a billion Dollars for a copy, painted by a restorer, the newspapers in Germany did not write this overwhelming joke in big black letters. Instead of that they wrote like: a new painting by Da Vinci was found and sold! - Is it a new form of anxiety, mixed with boring ignorance, that is dominating the art scene?

This diagnosis would match the current tendency in the American and German art scene, which is indeed a revival of rules – whereas the interesting part of these rules lies in its external purpose. There is for example the story of protests and debates against a paintress working on the portrait of a murdered black boy – without being African herself. In Germany occurred a trial because of a poem, installed since a long time at the wall of an university. This poem had to be removed, because it spoke of women‘s beauty – so the accusers claimed that it was discrimination against women.

Last week I read an article by a German art-critic, it dealt with the street artist Banksy. The critic was quite negative, the pronounced sentence was „superficial trash“. The article got more than 150 comments, which is actually a whole lot for an article about art. Nearly all comments criticized the critic, some in a really bad way. The critic had stirred up a hornet‘s nest! Banksy is something like a figurehead of political correctness in arts, and even the fact that he is not anymore a sprayer, but a millionaire, makes no difference at all, as long as his messages fit in a moral code.

No matter which side is right, but the discussions and statements against or in favor of political correctness in artworks are getting omnipresent and they are getting harsh. In any case – what we meet here on both sides is not a fight for the rights of people, as there is no right endangered by art, neither the freedom nor the integrity. It is a fight in favor of a common agreement. So I state a certain similarity between these new rules and the modern absence of rules: This similarity is that it‘s not an appeal for contest, but it‘s the order for alignment.

This tendency is fulfilled at the same time by a general politisation of arts. The most discussed artistic group in this context is the Center of Political Beauty in Germany. This artistic group has almost accomplished the official title of being a criminal ring. They try to sell the German chancellor Merkel on ebay and organize public executions of refugees – of course as a fake. Their general statement is, that our western societies are fascistic and full of evil. I guess they have a lot of fun. But this group is only the very serious clown among many artists and groups that work on reestablishing political arts. Of course it‘s an important right not only for artists, to utter one‘s political opinions and join parties, it‘s quite normal. And what is more, society always claims benefit of every single part and member. Maybe it is generally the core of the matter in arts, to which degree it is getting useful or official. Not only private persons and companies are decorating themselves with artistic and intellectual glamour, but states as well. The political assistance of well-known artists is a strategic edge. The social pull at arts had maybe been one cause for the emancipation that started in the end of the 18th century and soon led to the cult of genius. French theorizers and poets formed on this basis the well-known parole „l‘art pour l‘art“, which aimed at the recognition of a complete independence of arts. Nowadays the same word turned into a battle cry against any kind of artistic autonomy, accusing the artists of antisocial formalism.

Surely it is a relevant question, what is art good for? The funny thing is, that we don‘t ask ourselves this question, before we are already accustomed to arts. For my own comprehension of art I remember an experience in Orwells year, in 1984. I was 15 years old and my mother took me to the opera. It was Puccini. In a way I was shocked and embarrassed of my blood flowing in my head over and over again. But I remember clearly that I understood this Puccini music and the whole show to be effectively realistic. What I saw was more realistic than what happened in so-called real life. This intuition stayed in my mind and it might have been reason for the Circus becoming my subject some 10 years later, too. I found there an ambivalent, a double-bottom world, people that risked their life or sought the audience‘s attention and laughter in a daily routine. As time went by, working on mythological themes, I began to see life being as metaphorical that you could unfortunately not distinguish anymore facts and images. And like all these meanings, I perceived arts to be full of expression, highly social, always carrying a multiple origin and always hunting into the future.

But in terms of „l‘art pour l‘art“, this parole is a mere construction built by littérateurs and it doesn‘t make sense to rebuild it as a determent in order to get some useful artist. „l‘art pour l‘art“ simply does not exist, its a ghost. And generally spoken in respect of use, in my very personal opinion, an artist should not concentrate on being useful. And I mean that not only regarding political activity. For some time in my life I worked mainly on Portraits and landscapes. In that time I also accepted many orders and I sometimes got confused with the ideas and critic of my clients. When for example a smiling person in a red shirt didn‘t give any truth nor composition and had the mere effect to support the clients delight – and of course the outlook on money… I learned, that fulfilling that is not a really big problem once in a while, but as an agenda it doesn‘t work. Its simply not possible to follow both the idea of craftsmanship and that of a completely free artist. Probably in our time an useful artist will sooner or later become a decorator, and this is indeed a very big problem. Instead of artistic working it leads to decorating some clients dreams.

In a way we can see this also at the grand international art events like the Venice Biennal or the Kassel‘s Dokumenta. Most of the artworks shown there are mere decoration of a political conviction, they don‘t influence anything, they delight people that are already delighted by the conviction, no matter what they see. Convenient convictions won‘t help any painting. Concentrating on this,  the painter will not improve. But nobody needs a painter with fine character and bad work, as a bad work also wouldn‘t help any political movement. On the contrary a really good work of art will always bear witness to human mind, it will remind the beholder of humanity. Actually to be a reminder of humanity is the most honorable political challenge you will find.

Open lecture of Martin Stommel with students at the Academy of Arts in Tirana 

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