Art Basel 2017 & Documenta 14

June 22, 2017
The title of Art Basel's special installations section said it all...
The title of Art Basel's special installations section said it all...

Contemporary art can be a punishing obsession for its true believers but rarely do the art die-hards get the chance to attend four major events during a single visit to Europe. The Venice Biennale, which has been running since the second week in May, has now been joined by a uniquely bifurcated version of Documenta, the mega exhibition held every five years in the German city of Kassel. This year’s home town launch on June 10 provided the sequel to the first part of a show that had opened in Athens in April.

June 10 was also the day Münster unveiled the 5th installment of its Skulpture Projekte, a city-wide extravaganza that rolls around every ten years. There was a smaller window for Art Basel, the world’s leading fair for contemporary and modern art, which ran from June 13-18, but this market-driven juggernaut crammed months of action into only a few days.

One could write a great deal about these shows but space permits only a few reflections. As I’ve already reviewed the Biennale, and didn’t make it to Münster or Athens, that leaves Kassel and Basel – a most tantalising comparison.

I begin with a quotation from Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, which I’ve been reading on trains between German cities. In a statement that seems to contradict his own ambitions, the high-brow composer, Adrian Leverkühn, pronounces a vision for the future of art:

“Art’s entire mood and outook on life will change, believe me – meaning, it will become both more cheerful and more modest. It is inevitable, a stroke of good fortune. A great deal of melancholic ambition will fall away from art, and a new innocence, yes, a harmlessness will become its portion.”

I thought of this statement as I looked at the politically constipated, incoherent offerings in Kassel; and the hyper-professional presentation in Basel, where sales were the order of the day.

Mann’s novel was published in 1947, with Germany still in ruins. It would be another eight years before artist, Arnold Bode, would initiate the Documenta, as a way of showing that a new Germany embraced the most progressive cultural forms.

By 1955 the Modernist adventure was already sputtering to a conclusion that would arrive in the 1970s, in the farce of Post-Modernism. In retrospect, “harmlessness” was already well-advanced in modes of post-war abstraction that embraced radical ways of splashing paint around but abandoned social content. Could anything be less engagé than a massive stain by Morris Louis, or a hard-edged abstraction by Frank Stella?

Such works were tacit admissions of art’s inability to change the world, but they spread cheerfulness among collectors and curators who were thrilled by these big, bold, empty, eye-catching canvases. What Leverkühn’s prediction did not grasp was that a thoroughly harmless art would be presented as if it were a call to revolution.

At this year’s Art Basel it was fascinating to see how the abstract art of the 1950s and 60s had become a highly desirable commodity, fetching prices in the millions, with European artists such as Piero Manzoni, Lucio Fontana and Hans Hartung being treated like Old Masters. Even works by contemporary artists that dutifully echoed the styles of the sixties were selling for sums in excess of US$500,000.

It’s staggering to contrast the commercial buzz of Art Basel with the arrogance and complacency that distinguished Documenta 14. The show felt like a throwback to the Utopian fantasies of sixties counterculture at a time when such ideas have never seemed more inadequate.

This year’s theme, Learning from Greece, was tinged with irony, for Greece is not only the cradle of western civilisation but the dysfunctional economy that has put all Europe under strain. Many Athenians have not been especially delighted to be included in Documenta, which they have denounced as a patronising exercise.

Marta Minujin contributed a full-sized Parthenon of books to a Documenta with a Greek fetish

Marta Minujin contributed a full-sized Parthenon of books to a Documenta with a Greek fetish

It’s not just the Greeks who should be complaining. The Documenta has a budget of 37.5 million euros, and is put together over four-and-a-half years. This has resulted in an exhibition with inadequate signage; maps that are barely readable and give no indication of what might be seen at each venue; a catalogue that provides little useful information; and a philosophy of “antieducation” that means labels reveal nothing about the most enigmatic works.

There are more than 160 artists included in the show (including three Australians – Bonita Ely, Gordon Hookey and Dale Harding), but the overall standard of work is woeful, and hardly flattered by a wilfully careless presentation.

Judging by his catalogue statement, this year’s director, Adam Szymczyk, views the show as a political rather than an aesthetic project. He is aware of the apparent contradiction of taking an anti-establishment stance when vast sums of money are being injected by the city of Kassel, and firms such as Volkswagen, but he makes no attempt to deal with the problem.

Instead he recycles a farce of opposition that treats audiences with contempt, bestows a moral purity on the organisers, and heaps scorn on the forces of capitalism that have paid for the entire event. He even sounds vaguely bemused that generations of avant-garde art activities haven’t been able to forestall the rise of today’s right-wing populism. One sample sentence will give you the flavour:

“All this has occurred despite the fact that the neocolonial, patriarchal, heteronormative order of power and discourse, which is precisely the hegemonic order supporting the neoliberal war machine today, has long been the primary target of critical analysis and emancipatory actions.”

All these avant-garde activities have proved utterly harmless, as Mann might say, but neither innocent nor modest. On the contrary, the tone is smug and hypocritical.

One turns to the shameless commerce of Art Basel with a measure of relief because each art dealer, risking their own money and competing for attention with another 270 galleries, was obliged to do their very best. There is no innocence to be found in the upper echelons of the art market, which enjoyed a record-breaking year, but one can appreciate its amoral concern for quality.

On the evidence of Kassel and Basel the art scene today is truly a world turned upside down, in which the alternative to the market place is a set of political attitudes indistinguishable from the sheerest decadence. What remains of art’s “melancholic ambition” is an affectation funded by government and corporate sponsors. It’s the high-end art dealers who have all the reasons to be cheerful.

Documenta 14
Kassel, Germany
Until 10 June – 7 September, 2017

Art Basel,
Basel, Switzerland
13-18 June, 2017

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 24 June, 2017