„We must reduce our Expectations of Art“

Interview with Philipp Oswalt

Nicolas Wefers
Philipp Oswalt

Mr. Oswalt, are the Bauhaus and the documenta really closely related or is there simply too much that differs between them?

The Bauhaus as a cultural project of the Weimar period stands for a democratic, progressive, liberal and socially committed Germany and undoubtedly had an international effect. And documenta stands for the same thing after 1945 in the Federal Republic. Both projects are borne by the hope and expectation that art and design can exert a positive influence in society. That is the promise of both brands - even if that has shifted over the course of the years. And here we are already talking about the differences. At the institutional level we are talking about an academy of design and a series of major exhibitions. In addition, the Bauhaus focusses almost completely on applied design, while documenta concerns free art. To that extent, they are both almost complementary.

If both represent the vision of wanting to change society for the better, have they not both failed, albeit on a high level?

This is difficult to answer. With the exhibition “bauhaus I documenta. Vision and Brand” we are consciously not making a judgement. What does one measure success or failure by? What is the yardstick? You see it in the development of brands that they are both socially effective. The Bauhaus and documenta are well known. There are many creative people and people interested in art who relate to that. In the case of the Bauhaus jubilee we also see that it has a certain broad effect. And that is, first of all, something positive in this brand development which I, however, also see critically. A value canon was established to which people relate positively. It is something almost like a group formation. The difficulty, especially for the Bauhaus, is whether this promise is really fulfilled. But, despite my criticism, I would also always say that the positive thing about the Bauhaus jubilee is that we as Germans finally celebrate a different cultural inheritance than Prussia or Luther and that we are engaged in a social dialog about this heritage.

How do you generally regard the idea of art and design as motors of political and social change?

If we consider the last book by Moholy-Nagy, which was published posthumously, then it ends with the vision of a global think-tank of progressive scientists and artists. They advise a world government and show it which way to go. That is actually the idea of the vanguard of the 1920s: the art engineer who knows the direction in which things are moving. I think that we have understood through the confusion we experienced in the 20th century that this is not desirable. We do not want a government of the knowledge elites, of the expert world. I believe that we have a different understanding today. The designer is part of a social process to which a lot of other things belong too. Turning designers and artists into heroes is problematic, even if it is accepted and promoted by them because it naturally increases their value.

Many young creatives experience the present as having an excess demand, on the one hand from the conditions of production and the engagement with sustainable material, the climate crisis, social responsibility and social injustice, on the other. Is that a concern of documenta?

Since its tenth show, documenta has looked intensively at society and has considered in many ways the themes of a critical modern reflection of colonialism and eurocentrism. I think, also relatively productively. The documenta still sees itself as a critical room for reflection. The next exhibitions will continue along this way. This is also productive and meaningful. It only becomes problematic as soon as we expect artists to provide solutions. This is very alien to my concept of art. There is a social tendency to delegate difficult issues to art. I also remember talks by politicians in the Bauhaus context which formulated such expectations. For example, Mr. de Maizière, who wanted to see a new Bauhaus at the opening of the exhibition in 2009 to solve the political issues which were pressing at the time. This always makes me think: politicians, you have to do your homework yourselves! Neither artists nor designers will be able to solve political questions. Society must address them with the instruments which it possesses. We have to reduce our expectations of what art can do.

Are we really talking about the entire society?

There is naturally a problem of elitism both at documenta and also at the Bauhaus. Even if the success of the brands shows that they address and reach many people, it is always the better educated and better earning people who visit documenta or the Bauhaus. Given the background of growing social inequality, they both address these problems but they produce this condition at the same time. Both institutions engage in elite discourses. Which is not saying anything against the discourses, but that must be reflected critically. And not always take the self-perception of the actors for the truth.

Thank you Mr. Oswalt!

    [Translation SR]

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