Christian Jankowski’s exhibition at Klosterfelde in Berlin should be of interest to anyone concerned with the aesthetics of kitsch. Kitsch if we remember was what the champion of classical abstraction, the art critic Clement Greenberg put forward as the antithesis of true art (Greenberg). Greenberg’s attack on kitsch was informed by Marxist aesthetics and one of the problems of Marxist aesthetics is that it cannot determine what ought to be the essential role of fine art in the context of capitalism.
Christian Jankowski, Rooftop Routine, video installation exhibited Klosterfelde, Berlin 2008.
One can see this clearly in the remarkable tour de force of Marxist aesthetics that is Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (1984 orig. 1974) in which Bürger examines how the avant-garde has tackled the goal of bringing art into everyday life.
There is absolutely no doubt that the notion of bringing art into life has been extremely enduring in avant-gardist aesthetics, especially in fine art. Unfortunately, as Bürger indicates, fine art has been largely unable to translate this notion into an effective strategy. One of the main barriers lies in fine art’s resistance to mass production (Benjamin 1973). The failure of transgressive fine art to enter into everyday life in the manner of other media such as music, performance, drama, literature, film, etc., is due to the fact that it is so inescapably sealed up in the confines of the art museum. The best that fine art has been able to do is suck everyday life into the gallery/museum which is the case for the work by Jankowski being examined here.
Fine artists not only realise that they are effectively hermetically sealed off from society but also see all around them the more powerful visual forms of capitalist visual culture such as film, music videos, television, advertising, consumerism etc. What can they do other than crawl into the comfort of an idealisation of fine art as somehow “superior” or “higher” than capitalist culture?
In the other Klosterfelde gallery in Linienstrasse there was an exhibition of tacky guitar-CD Players
One has to admire the way in which Jankowski embraces popular culture because the alternative is so pompous. And pretentiousness appears to be the fate of Marxist aesthetics, because it is evident in both Greenberg and Bürger’s analyses. Bürger reveals a Greenbergian-like, fundamentally elitist standpoint when he uses terms such as “sublation”, a Hegelian notion (Aufhebung, literally: lifting up or up-lifting) that can be understood more easily in terms of sublimation, a making sublime, which is to say an idealisation of an all-too-human everyday. And this emphasis upon idealisation shows its true colours when Bürger pours scorn on what he refer to as “pulp fiction”—which translated into visual aesthetic terms becomes very akin to Greenbergian “kitsch”. Bürger notes:
The avant-garde intends the abolition of autonomous art [art separated from life] by which it means that art is to be integrated into the praxis of life. This has not occurred, and presumably cannot occur, in bourgeois society unless it be as a false sublation of autonomous art. Pulp fiction and commodity aesthetics prove that such a false sublation exists. (Bürger 1984: 53-54)
So do we understand Jankowski’s work in terms of a “false sublation”, a false “up-lifting” (Aufhebung) of our everyday spirits? This is very difficult to accept if the only alternative is a Greenbergian subscription to High Culture, putting fine art on a pedestal and defining it as better than everyday life: which fundamentally means better than human life.
And is it not the case that the Duchampian Readymade put paid to elitist notions that the objects created by fine artists were somehow better than those that already existed in everyday life? A position that was reinforced by John Cage’s iconic work 4’33” which proved that the world around us is as significant as anything that can be produced by High Culture. Both the Readymade and 4’33” have become articles of faith to post-conceptual artists.
In the light of such aesthetic breakthroughs, which provide the groundwork of contemporary art, mustn’t we accept what appears to be Jankowski’s position which is to wholeheartedly embrace popular culture? But, of course, Jankowski actually isn’t embracing popular culture because he is not working in the sphere of popular culture. Instead, he is working in the fine art gallery system.
Consider the objects assembled by Jankowski for his Klosterfelde 2008 exhibitions: the hula hoops, video of the people who use them; the tacky Akura guitar-cd player (click image above to see its packaging). Jankowski is not taking art into life but rather life into art in a manner that can be traced back through postmodern appropriation of the 1980s, to pop art and further back to Cubist collage. And in every instance “low culture” is alchemically transmuted into High Culture. Which is a little mind-bending because major theorists such as Greenberg and Bürger tell us that the two are antithetical. Clearly, they are wrong because the fine art gallery system is saying something entirely different.
Also examine Jankowski’s poster for the second part of his Klosterfelde 2008 exhibition “And Your Bird Can Sing”(above). Here we see a “relational aesthetic” event conceived by Jankowski in which the workers in the Akura factory are assembled for a group photograph. I doubt Jankowski took it himself, although it would be better if he did. Today we never really know whether artists produce the objects put forward in their name because what is important is the “idea”.
What strikes me about this apotheosis of the “idea” in post-conceptual art is that it is remarkably similar to aesthetic idealisation and sublimation. After the Readymade the actual art object does not really matter that much but there is still reliance on an aesthetics of idealisation because we are supposed to worship the wonderful “idea” in the artist-genius’ head. That is what we are supposed to do in the case of Jankowski. How wonderful it was of him to see the simulacral Akura “Guitar Effect Audio System” as a “work of art”. And how groundbreaking it is that he engages in what Nicolas Bourriaud calls “relational aesthetics”—which is in reality the old saw “art into life” warmed up for the latest generation of artists.
Look at the expressions on the faces of the people dolefully clutching their fake guitars in the Chinese factory. Do they express the joy of totalitarian capitalism? Or is this the point? Are we supposed to notice that these people are alienated or bored to death in a manner akin to the female models in David Maljkovic’s video Lost Memories from these Days, 2006-8? Is Jankowski actually a hero of Marxist revolutionary art? Well if so how do we square this with the fact that Jankowski is a fine art success story, an art star in the capitalist maketplace that is the fine art gallery system?
And in true art-into-life style he even pictures his success in this exhibition by recreating his old Berlin apartment: a typical contemporary artists “garret”:
Thankfully, his devotion to everyday life won him the accolades of the fine art system allowing him to move to the artistic nirvana that is New York as well as having an improved pied-à-terre in Berlin. He shows us a video of a comforting log fire he has in his new apartment where he apparently sings to himself (we hear him singing). Jankowski’s television-fireplace possesses an interesting art reference to Jan Dibbets’ TV as Fireplace, 1969. It is a very pertient reference because Dibbets used a very radical medium for art of time: broadcast television. Media Art Net reports:
On the last eight evenings of 1969, WDR 3 television marked the close of transmission by broadcasting in colour the picture of a burning coal fire. There was no mention of the artist or the art character of the broadcast – and precisely this reticence enabled ‘TV as a Fireplace’ to blend into everyday life almost as if it had always been part of it. Dibbets demonstrated that TV is a collective experience. Even if lone viewers and families were in separate living-rooms, they were united, like prehistoric cave-dwellers, by a communal fire. The relaxation and diversion the piece offers is not dependent on this cultural-historical background, however, and it is hardly surprising that videotape cassettes of open hearth fires were commercially available 20 years later. (media art net)
Returning to Jankowski’s old Berlin apartment which is now a work of installation art (what used to be called “sculpture”)—God knows how much it costs; a lot, I would imagine. If we wander around it we find a series of television monitors with curious videos that show Jankowski in conversation while making food with a famous German television chef. In a rather surreal manner there are video projections onto the wall behind the couple as they engage in cooking. The representation within representation seems to figure our all-pervasive media representation, or mediatisation—what Guy Debord termed “the spectacle” and what Jean Baudrillard referred to in terms of “simulation” and “hyperreality” (Baudrillard 1994). According to Debord and Baudrillard, in a world where reality is backgrounded by mass media representation, only the surface remains: depth, intellectual and human, has been made redundant.
And so we can say: goodbye sublation.
 When the fine art gallery system recognises you as an “artist” you are a “made man” or woman, it really doesn’t matter what you produce and it really doesn’t matter what anyone outside the fine art gallery system thinks about what you do. This system has enormous power. In Marxist terms we might understand the fine art system in terms of surplus value. There is an excess of wealth in the capitalist system and it has to be used up in some way. Consequently, totally useless and vapid art objects that acquire the magic title “work of art” can accumulate unbelievably high monetary value. We can also understand this phenomenon in semiotic terms. In a semiotic system individual components have no value in themselves, they only require value due to their relationships within the system. The fine art gallery system defines what is and what is not art but it has absolutely no standards of judgement to do this in the wake of the Duchampian Readymade and the domination of what Hal Foster (1983) has termed “antiaesthetics”.
Baudrillard, J. 1994. Simulacra and simulation. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press.
Benjamin, W. 1973. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. In Illuminations. London: Fontana.
Bourriaud, N. 1998 Relational Aesthetics. Dijon: Les presses du reel.
Bürger, P. 1984. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Guy Debord. 1977. The Society of Spectacle. New York: Black & Red.
Foster, H., ed. 1983. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Port Townsend, Washington: Bay Press.