What is Art?

Remarks on an art project of Karin Meiner and Manfred Hammes.


Inquiries among artists, art critics or so-called experts become interesting at the moment when problems within art business occur, i.e. when a spanner is thrown in the works. Particular trends or movements may evoke such inquiries, too.
The result is an accumulation of absurd answers, whereas the choice of artistic medium, intention of the question and selection of the people who are interrogated may already give a clue to a certain tendency.

Without regard to these periodically arising attempts of defining or commenting on art, basically every artistic practice in itself represents a definition of something that could be considered as art. In this case it is actually decisive in which context it occurs; everything that, according to social conventions, appears as art is a confirmation of conventions, as defined by Foucault, managed by the institutions.
For some artistic practices it is a fundamental desire to overcome, transgress and transform such conventions. Performance art in particular is considered as a practice that moves away from a fashioned.
Only the function of a white, neutral presentation room of art allows the determination of certain practices which would be stigmatized as unconventional behavior in the so-called public space.

Within their artistic investigation "What is Art?" the two German artists Karin Meiner and Manfred Hammes do not rely on the definition of the White Cube. At different occasions - in public or in semi-public art spaces - they ask passers-by to write down a statement concerning their definition of art. Together with their statements the participants are then photographed by the artists, and the resulting polaroids are presented on the spot.

The two artists expose their project to the risk of not being recognized as a piece of art. But as the undertaking has been running for such a long time (since 1991) they have gathered a huge number of different statements from different places which they preserve in a sociological manner (see also projects by Stephen Willats from the early 1970s who interviewed laymen and let them arrange their answers in an exhibition). On the occasion of the symposium »At the edge of the century« the philosophy-historian Terry Eagleton for example replied to the question "What is art?": "Art is a social construct".

But this project should not be restricted to an empirical point of view, it also transports a whole string of artistic statements.

Given the way they formulate their question the artists influence bystanders by suggesting that they themselves have the job of defining art by participating in the project.
This activity renounces an authorial achievement in the sense of the artist`s signature, and instead reflects the opinions of the actually non-involved. Thus the art practice becomes a first-hand reflection of situations.

It is the humorous aspect of the project that should be mentioned as well. The relaxed way manifested by casually adressing passers-by distinguishes the project "What is Art" from the nowadays widespread so-called service rendered art.
This is the case when laymen are intrumentalized in art productions on the spot and the resulting are then sold as artistic concepts (e.g. Tobias Rehberger who lets the museum staff knit). This practice can be regarded as an instrumentalisation of the actually non-involved.

But those who give an answer to the question "What is Art" do so voluntarily and have the possibility to comment on their statement with gestures and facial expressions. The two artists carry on this humorous intercourse with the public in a sovereign manner since the time they, together with friends, have toured the country with their Dada-revue.

The form of presentation of the polaroids of "What is art" on a tableau unmistakeably refers to the art context, within which both artists are busy with painting, too. For that reason the project can definitly be called an art project, although it adapts very flexibly to the situation in which it takes place: Art is not, what you expect of it (Seth Siegelaub).

Stefan Römer Cologne 1999