Some thoughts on the reception of art. “What is this?” was a comment I read this morning under one of my artworks on LinkedIn, where I maintain a viral account about art. At least my artwork caught the attention of a painter from California who came along with this question. This triggered some thoughts that regularly come to mind when I see or create art, because his question touches on both the basic principles of reception and the basic principles of art making. Let’s see if we can shed some light on this. In art, reception (from Latin receptio ‘reception’) refers to the understanding of a work by the recipient (viewer, reader, or listener). The term encompasses various ways of perceiving and processing works and ranges from the understanding of the individual to the reactions of critics, the cultural establishment, and the public.
The reception-aesthetic question starts from the openness of meaning and significance offered by a work of art and tries to understand the history of the category of art, be it music, dance, theatre…, as a process of aesthetic communication. It is only under the sensual perception of the recipient, which varies according to expectations, education, and understanding; that work becomes meaningful to the viewer, reader, or listener. That is, a meaning becomes manifest. The openness of the work of art as well as the respective new conditions resulting from cultural and social developments therefore repeatedly pose the task and offer the opportunity to understand a work of past or contemporary art and to include it in one’s own context of interpretation. Until now, a work of art has been interpreted by the recipient. This in turn is determined by many factors over which the artist has no influence, such as the recipient’s education. Doesn’t this also mean that the work of art, the song, or the novel experiences a variety of different interpretations?
Different people have received a specific education from home, school, college, and so on. Innovative contemporary art has, at all times, also been able to provoke public rejection because it did not conform to expectations in terms of techniques of execution, modes of representation, habits of seeing, modes of use or moral views. In general, such indifferent or negative reactions of the recipients depend on the identified traditional forms, their evaluation and the perceived discrepancy with the formed expectations. Each of us can cite examples of this: One of the most important artists from Germany, Joseph Beuys, is still difficult for many people to understand even many years after his death. The art community in Germany is often divided into two halves when it comes to his work: Beuys lovers and Beuys haters. Reactions towards his work range from indifference to its unintentional destruction. In 1973, for example, two women at a social celebration of the SPD local association in Leverkusen-Alkenrath cleaned a baby bathtub Beuys had provided with gauze bandages and sticking plasters in order to wash glasses in it. Beuys’ “Fettecke” also caused a stir.
It was simply wiped away in 1986 during cleaning work at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. This fate was also shared by many other works of art by other artists, freely following the motto “is this art or can it be wiped away?”. The development of an artist’s reception is based on the changes of the recipients and their changing norms of expectation and, on the other hand, on the changes of the artist himself. Beuys, for example, was known for using all kinds of materials and objects. Similar to Rauschenberg, he collected everyday objects, but changed them and combined these things into extensive combines. In the Beuys Block in the Landesmuseum Darmstadt, this becomes clear very quickly, as the viewer seemingly finds himself in a jumbled and already broken-looking collection of goods. No light fare. But what does this mean for the artist himself? Of course, an artist does not stand alone in a cultureless space.
Even if the artist made the effort, it would probably be almost impossible to withdraw from artistic or social traditions, so that the creation also finds itself more or less in a cultural coordinate system of whatever kind, submitting to consciously or unconsciously set references and, in this way, also implicitly contain a certain provocation of the habit of reception. The artist can be more or less aware of this. The recent debate about the ongoing Dokumenta XV in Kassel makes clear how difficult this seems to be. A 20-year-old agit-pop poster by the Indonesian artist group “Taring Padi”, which has already been presented several times at international art exhibitions, contains depictions that can be interpreted as antisemitic not only in the context of German historical consciousness. Yet no one seemed to have been so bothered by it until now. The huge canvas offers a hidden picture of seemingly countless figures, so one must look closely, which can only have been the case incorrectly, at least in the responsible run-up to the Dokumenta, otherwise this canvas would certainly not have been hung up in Kas.
Written By Dieter Hanf