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.
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
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.
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
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