Michael Lingner

Art as a system within society

There is no art that exists outside of public space, only the choice between different types of public forums, each involving its own conditions of communication.

Many well-known artists, art critics and art historians are of the opinion that, since the early eighties, the most interesting art has been done on public sites. You only need to think of the last DOCUMENTA's in Kassel where many significant works were installed outdoors. And hardly a large city in Germany worthy of its name has failed to commission similar art projects these last years. RUDI FUCHS has organized an extensive exhibition in Stuttgart this year that opened in June, 1992. Under the title PLATZVERFÜHRUNG (SITE-SEDUCTION), twenty artists set up their works at eighteen different locations in and around the city. The catalogue is unique, since it consciously caters to the needs of tourists. Along with the location of the artworks, it also points out other sight-seeing attractions in the neighborhood and even goes so far as to include the addresses of good restaurants.

This example leads me to another point that needs to be mentioned at least briefly. The reason that art for public sites has mushroomed in such a way is partly a question of economics. In the eighties it was discovered that art was an important economic factor. Meanwhile, several reports have scientifically studied the existence of what is known as indirect profitability. Because of the out-of-town visitors at large exhibitions, the hotel and restaurant industry, for example, makes higher profits that in turn provide increased tax intake, more than making up for the public funds spent to finance the project, to say nothing of the enhancement of the city's image with all its accompanying financial advantages. Art in outdoor sites is spectacular and highly visible, so that communities that can boast of such projects try to make full use of the economic possibilities at hand. Art often then has the sole function of providing a trademark for the city, so it can advertise and enhance its image and project up-to-date urbanity.

Naturally, such projects are of solid interest to the artist as well; they are a welcome source of income and, at the same time, provide him with an upswing in publicity and, possibly, reputation. This background of monetary profit-should not be forgotten. But it should be seen as marginal, since to explain a specific artwork out of purely financial motives is inadequate: alone, the intention of becoming rich is not sufficient to produce a work that is good. That is why I would like to concentrate on reasons that lie within art itself; reasons that today lead so many artists, especially the younger ones, to commit themselves to public projects. My own thoughts on the matter are directed toward the question of what in the artists' commitment it is that derives from the way contemporary art itself is evolving. Or put another way: in which context do these public artworks make sense? And against which background do they become understandable and possibly even capable of providing art with guidelines for the future? This complex problem is what I wish to present here in 3 steps.

First of all, I would like to look back in time at recent German history and to consider the questionable intentions behind the so-called ART-ON-ARCHITECTURE PROGRAMME (KUNST AM BAU) when it was first conceived and that eventually caused it to fail. This failure is what very much later - namely in the seventies - led to the more promising concept of art for public places. Second, after this excursion into cultural politics, I would then like to take up the history of modern art and show the line of development that made art for outdoor locations once again possible and even necessary. In the final and third part, I would like to introduce several specific art projects that seem to me exemplary of what art can be when it is placed outside of the usual institutions.


It is surprising that today art for public sites has managed to become so significant and so attractive when viewed against its not-so-distant past. In Germany, it goes back to a law, passed by the BUNDESTAG in January 1950, governing art-on-architecture, that is, it goes back to the beginning of postwar reconstruction. The law reads: In order to encourage the visual arts, all building construction work commissioned by the government, whether new or reconstructed, is to devote a sum of at least 1% of the building costs to the work of vocational artists. The works of art must be used to embellish the building construction under commission. This law was a result of a motion proposed by the now defunct BAVARIAN PARTY and was based on the argument that after having enjoyed a state-supported art education, the artist was also to be given a chance to improve his prospects for earning a living. The state saw this as its duty, since in postwar times there were too few art patrons and private collectors. On the other hand, it was hoped that this would exert an educational influence on the artist who would then feel himself bound to make a special effort towards the critical public. Beyond this, it was there to commission concrete and useful works, in contrast to what was then called the meaningless exhibition industry. Representatives from the ranks of the artists were to be called on to help in the selection process. Above all, it was stipulated that the taste of the general public be considered and that artworks on public buildings be overruled when they are extravagant and, for the majority of the people, not understandable.

Though moderate, the tone of this passage is unmistakably aimed at modern art, and this part of the ART-ON-ARCHITECTURE ruling is still valid for today's Germany. It recalls the ruling that preceded it under the same name, ART-ON-ARCHITECTURE (KUNST AM BAU): in May 1934 Goebbels sent out a circular advising an appropriate percentage of building costs to be made available to commission visual and applied artists.

In contrast to the 1950 federal law, this ruling was valid for all public buildings - at a federal, provincial and communal level. Naturally, the motive here was, above all, Nazi propaganda and visual uniformity (a prototype of what we would today call corporate identity, whereas the motive behind the federal law actually was to patronize art, even if it was art with a clear anti-modernist tendency.

However, some of the BUNDESTAG'S intentions appeared to be progressive, at least at first; they were to be guaranteed by law and aimed to ensure the support of a large majority. These intentions can be summed up in the following:

1. This was an opportunity, publically and officially, to rehabilitate modern art, which had been banned and persecuted by the Nazi regime.

2. By the artistic embellishment of public buildings, one hoped to accomplish a general beautification of postwar architecture and so create an example. What these hopes came to in reality, you can see in the relevant literature, i.e., H. RAVE, BAUKUNSTVERWALTUNG, published by the BUNDESMINISTERIUM FÜR RAUMORDNUNG. I must add here that this, of course, is a negative selection, but one that still today is representative of the way the law was, and still is, most often applied. If many examples are found within the military, this too is representative, since there is hardly any area where so much government ART-ON-ARCHITECTURE was carried out as it was in defence forces construction.

The mostly negative effects of this law stem from different and quite basic factors. Still today, the usual way a public competition is decided is by jury, as a rule by a selection committee in which only one-third is made up of experts. The larger part consists of community politicians and administrators, representatives of the client commissioning the building, and other so-called socially relevant groups. Such a committee is bound to seem intimidating to experimental artists and to confirm their prejudice toward state-supported art. The fact that really contemporary art was, and is, hardly ever successfully included in the programme had a lot to do with the art being produced at the time. In the fifties, Expressionism could hardly have been more unsuitable for ART-ON-ARCHITECTURE. In addition, the architecture itself was, and is, often so unattractive that most artists kept, and keep, their distance. Instead of the best artists committing themselves to public art, a caste of regional ART-ON-ARCHITECTURE artists sprang up, who either worked in completely regressive styles or whipped up a blend of modernist art for the occasion. The resulting negative effects of this well-intentioned law are easily summed up:

1. Instead of rehabilitation, modern art in the form of ART-ON-ARCHITECTURE has yet again been discredited.

2. The horrors of postwar architecture have not been revised, but at best papered over.

Architectural sins of commission do not only apply to single buildings but to city planning in general. A architectural macrostructure that is so faceless - as is the case with much typical postwar, functional construction - turns any attempt to create identity and foster an artistic microstructure into an abuse of art, doomed to failure. And vice versa, where architecture itself has aesthetic qualities that in addition to its function allow its form to develop autonomously, then ART-ON-ARCHITECTURE becomes superfluous. This is just as true for historic architecture and is so under the same paradigmatic formula of form follows function as it is for classical modernism or the so-called postmodern.

The formula that above all is valid for modern art thrives on the autonomous unfolding of its medium. By its placement in outdoor locations, art in relation to architecture faces a dilemma of principle, which even the most favourable circumstances cannot resolve. Exactly when the public artwork as well as the adjacent architecture are the best examples of their kind, their respective aesthetic qualities become effective only in strictest autonomy. Modern art means just this: that autonomous art and architecture do not only NOT rely on each other, but relativize each other artistically all the more, the more they have been successfully integrated. Abolishing such an integration - like abolishing the ART-ON-ARCHITECTURE proposals which seemed so ideal - is no solution. A destructive competition would arise between art and architecture based on the absolutist aesthetic claims that their respective autonomies entail - to the detriment of art as a whole.

In this respect, it is less a question of artistic quality than of a basic structural difficulty that explains why placing autonomous art in outdoor locations is so seldom successful, to which the few examples by well-known artists testify. An additional fact, which I do not intend to elaborate on, is that art must increasingly compete in public places with the pomp and glitz of downtown shopping complexes. Nor will I dwell on the following art-immanent problem: that most outdoor works are in fact only relocated or upscaled from smaller models originally meant for exhibitions or museums. The really significant difficulty, underlying all the other ones, in placing modern art in a public context is, and this is my hypothesis, that up to now art has been exclusively concerned with its own autonomy.


In this second step, when I outline the historical development and speak of the autonomy of art, I do not mean the social or political autonomy that is guaranteed as the freedom of art and expression in civil constitutions. I mean artistic, aesthetic autonomy, something art must achieve on its own. Ever since the French Revolution that wrested power from the nobility and the church, creating the basis for the social autonomy of art, art has worked to assert its own aesthetic autonomy. This autonomy consists in throwing off the injunctions, expectations and interests that society imposes on its aesthetic design. Without wanting to claim a strictly linear development, I see this emancipatory process as divided into phases of self-determination which are in general that of content, form, taste and concept.

What is concretely meant by this? Autonomy of content means that art no longer submits to a given function or subject matter. It rejects being predetermined as a painting for a church altar or a portrait for a monarch and sets out to invent its own content. Reacting directly to the French Revolution, Romantic Art made nature, which till then had functioned as staging, its main content. CASPAR DAVID FRIEDRICH thematized nature as beautiful countryside, while RUNGE sought for the principle behind nature and found it in growth and decay. Here nature serves both artists as initiator and at the same time as vehicle of their emotions. Formal autonomy makes a break with every kind of naturalism. The forms that make up the painting are not taken from the world of reality but are abstracted from it according to criteria immanent to the painting itself. The artwork loses its function of imitating nature and gains absolute freedom of form in non-figurative art, whether expressionist like KANDINSKY or constructivist like MONDRIAN. Autonomy of taste consists in making the ugly and the trivial art-worthy. DUCHAMP declared his readymades art, SCHWITTERS made even waste material into art, and both devalued the conventions of taste and the aesthetic ideals of their time. And through BEUYS, the use of extremely cheap and unworthy materials had its greatest public shock effect. In any case, art has now won the freedom to consider itself above society's taste preferences and to utilize any conceivable material. The decisive step to what I have called conceptual autonomy is then accomplished when the artist no longer just wants to determine the validity of art content, form or material, but also the concepts and theories on art. Concept Art of the Sixties, as formulated by KOSUTH and WEINER, took the view that it was working out a new definition of art. KOSUTH insisted that the artist himself, and not official figures like art critics, think through and determine what art is. By renouncing any morphological resemblance to traditional art forms, the artist makes it difficult for us to recognize the works as aesthetic objects, so that they need to be conceptually defined. Thus, artistic self-determination no longer involves just the objects but also the definition of art behind them. As far as aesthetic autonomy goes, this is the absolute culmination.

For the record, with reference to this topic, the following is a resume:

1) Following the French Revolution, art stops functioning as a medium for divine manifestation or sovereign will. Without a function, say, as altar painting or monarch's portrait, a work of art can only represent itself. As a result, there is nothing for art to do but to bank exclusively on its aesthetic qualities and to develop these for all their worth. Art must now invent and substantiate everything it is and aspires to be completely from within, so that it becomes almost compulsory to claim more and more aesthetic autonomy. It is important to see that this autonomy has always been asserted in the face of a society that wants art to embody ideals of the Beautiful, the True and the Good. Therefore, every step art took towards greater autonomy was seen as a provocation. These provocations can only be properly understood and properly effective in aesthetic context.

2) In order to aspire to a maximum of aesthetic quality with a maximum of self-determination, art has had to refuse any function that others would like to assign it. Its freedom to be art for art's sake is essential to this autonomy.

3) Autonomous art must create its own content, form and material as well as its own self-image. For this it needs the highly individual and purely personal invention of the Artist. In this way autonomous art becomes a medium for the self-determination and identity of free subjects. Art, in its production and reception, is dependent on the space that privacy grants it. Therefore, any public requirement made of the private artwork is an unreasonable one, since in the end it requires its dissolution. It goes without saying that such art, in order to preserve its autonomy, is so rebellious, so lacking in objectives, so individual and private that it inevitably appears presumptuous to the public. I conclude therefore: autonomous art - according to its own definition - and the public commissions addressed to it are basically irreconcilable. Or, as the Hamburg art historian MARTIN WARNKE formulated: The traditional concept of art produced according to its own rules is not suitable for art in public places.

If art history's latest stand ended and were aptly recorded here, we could simply forget the theme of public art. Classical or high modernism was effectively brought to an end after autonomy had been established, but development did not stop there. What followed in 1920 was the advent of the avant-garde, notable for the fact that its drive for artistic autonomy was not so much directed against society but chiefly against itself. Avant-garde art subjects itself to a constant triumph over its own traditions so as to become autonomous of what has - in the meantime - become socially acceptable. Its ever more extreme self-reference culminates in the Concept Art of the sixties. AD REINHARDT expressed this high watermark of autonomy with his well-known tautological definition: Art-as-art is nothing but art. In order not to collaborate in such a logical short circuit, art had no choice but to behave autonomously towards its own, till then damned, idea of autonomy.

It is exactly this strategy that the art proclaimed as 'postmodern' follows, by liberating itself from the compulsion to be autonomous towards all previous artistic products. It no longer pays homage to the avant-garde dictate that tradition must be innovatively overcome, but uninhibitedly helps itself to all the inventions art history provides. It is logical that aesthetic autonomy cannot be taken any substantial step further. If art would reverse the postmodern negation of autonomy, it would fall back into the same avant-garde position that preceded it. To demonstrate the threat such a vicious circle entails, WERNER HOFMANN, the former director of the HAMBURG KUNSTHALLEN, cited a parable that HEISENBERG used to recount and applied it to art: With the sheer unlimited expansion of its power, mankind [and here we can insert 'autonomy'] is in the situation of a captain whose ship is so strongly built of iron and steel that the magnet of his compass points only to the ship's own iron mass and not to the north. With such a ship, it is impossible to reach any goal; it would only run in circles.

What is to be done? Is there an alternative to postmodernism's 'anything goes' that is currently threatening to put art at the mercy of whatever is fashionable? To answer in slogans - I think of further art development not in terms of postmodern but of post-autonomous for, which art need only give up that moment of autonomy that allows it no final purpose. Because - if art has come to the end of the road of aesthetic autonomy, it seems to me unavoidable that it will look to extra-aesthetic goals and functions in order to survive and evolve. In analogy to the discussions on science theory as they were held at THE MAX PLANCK INSTITUTE in Starnberg during the seventies under the name of FINALIZATION, it would mean that art, having reached its stage of so-called basic theoretical maturity, instead of only following its own inner logic, would now be ready to react to external impulses. In order not to lose its autonomy, however, art must set its own extra-artistic or heteronomous social ends in strict self-determination, that is, autonomously. It will need to invent potential functions that can be artistically elaborated or to adapt to those already available. By setting up extra-artistic, that is, heteronomous, functions for itself, that is, autonomously art becomes a part of the he-autonomous structure. This is a rediscovery of a mental image of FRIEDRICH SCHILLER, one that he called 'he-autonomy' in his letters to KALLIAS. It is a type of autonomy and can only be carried out in society, not used as an instrument against society. From which it follows that art and its productions must be brought into the process of social communication. It is obvious that, as a result, art will be faced with the possibility and the necessity of venturing into the public arena. The question in the style of the sixties, What's in it for society?, is a phoney one if art itself is social, that is, has become a system within society. For art, it becomes a question solely of extending those possibilities that are open to it, especially those in public areas. The legal prerequisites have already been established in the federal LÄNDER of Bremen, Berlin and Hamburg by augmenting the ART-ON-ARCHITECTURE law. State grants here are independent of the requirement that new construction be federal, and now any project in any public area can be subsidized. Above all, artists can now. act he-autonomously and make suggestions for public art projects in their own name and not have to wait for official competitions and contracts.

If art has become a system within society, the systems theoretician, NIKLAS LUHMANN, then assumes that its basic element would not be the work itself. Just as the economy does not thrive on products but on financial transactions, and just as the legal system is not based on law courts but on behavioural norms, so similarly, LUHMANN states, an art system consists of a special kind of communication that is event-oriented, not object-oriented. Art today no longer lives in the works, but in the communication of the productions that are called works.

The work has the junction of initiating communication, keeping it going and giving it a common object-character. The work organizes the way participation in this communicative event takes place, reduces its randomness and regulates the expectations the participants have. In order for art to continue to exist and in order for communication to be on-going, works are needed. However, artworks exist, so NIKLAS LUHMANN claims, only when, and in so far as, possibilities for communicating them can be counted on. In art, he goes on to say, it is solely communication that needs function, while everything else that is necessary to this is of secondary importance.


In this third part, I would like to present some examples of this new post-autonomous and communicative type of art in the public sphere: the CLEGG AND GUTTMANN OPEN-AIR LIBRARY, a project realized last year in Graz (1991), and two other projects. With the intention of manifesting that art's autonomy and exclusiveness has been overcome, CLEGG AND GUTTMANN supplied a system - an open-air library accessible to the general public - that organizes a network of communication between all participants. Set up in rural areas outside of Graz, this work consists of three libraries, each placed in a different natural setting. Each of the three scenically-integrated bookcases is simple and functional, is built of wood and has a glass door which renders the books visible, but protects them from the weather.

The libraries must make do without librarians and without supervision; there are only notice boards on which the library rules are printed: each person may take out a certain number of books whenever he wants and is then supposed to return them after the set time. By exchanges or donations, the libraries can also be enlarged. One of CLEGG AND GUTTMANN's essential ideas is that setting up and carrying out sanctions without physical impostion ... becomes an exercise in self-administration. [...] The development of forms of communication and forms of common decision-making ... that [can serve] in other areas is important here. As an institution, OPEN-AIR-LIBRARY could substantially 'contribute to a self-defintion of community'. (C & G, 1990)

A very important part of the CLEGG AND GUTTMANN project is the documentation collected on the actual use of the library. Personnel for this purpose have been hired to supply regular reports that are kept at a central location open to the public (the Graz Art Society), and where the visitor can find a model of the libraries, a map of their locations and basic information on the project. He can then react with suggestions and criticism, which again is documented. This documentation, and above all the libraries themselves, are witness to the choice of books and the participants' use of them, as well as their reading habits and their intellectual preferences. These together make up a portrait of a community. This portrayal function, once delegated to painting and photography, is here fulfilled by other means.

At its present stage, CLEGG AND GUTTMANN regard their library project as a prototype. For this reason the documentation serves not least of all as a basis for evaluating the actual feasibility of such a scheme. In keeping with its role as prototype, CLEGG AND GUTTMANN conceived their Graz project as an experimental trial, of which the library rules are a part. Above all, the three libraries are each furnished with a different choice of books, under the assumption that selection and usage are dependent on them: one library has been supplied with a representative cross-section, another with a purely random selection and the third with the books the population requested. Thus, CLEGG AND GUTTMANN have made their model of an OPEN-AIR LIBRARY itself into a model, a field experiment for studying social interaction and communication.

If the artwork should function as such a communication programme, the cycle of extreme self-reference, which autonomous avant-garde art entails, must be overcome. Instead of reflecting on placement in an 'imaginary museum', artistic practice - when confronted with public space - is forced to come to terms with the real conditions under which its product can be communicated as art. It is unavoidable that the works then take up and create specific functional contexts and situations. By means of these outside references, art's hermeticism becomes breachable and points of contact are established. The artistic quality then becomes dependent on the quality of communication. Here, above all, the responsibility lies.

The work consists of a mobile house structure with two large and two small square rooms. The three sides of one large room are glassed in with one red, one blue and one green window pane, and the ceiling has a square skylight that allows a view onto the heavens. A walk-on plate-glass window of the same size as the skylight is set in the floor of the other large room; here the only light falls through four narrow wall slits, making it almost completely dark. The one small room accessible from outside serves as entrance and hallway, the other small room accessible only from inside serves as a toilet. The mobile house structure that has been set up in Hamburg near the Dammtor Railway Terminal, on the border between city and garden landscape, has all the equipment that three people would essentially need for a 24-hour stay. The work's purpose and ways of use are to be found in the communicative process between the participants. The work's form is made up of the forms in which communication develops between those present and those arriving, whereby the work is a medium that allows observation of the natural changes (i.e., of the light) and of the social changes (i.e., through strangers).

Since the modern movement, art and the possibilities it offers for new experience are no longer limited to specific places and objects, but can take place anywhere. The deciding factor here is the aesthetic standpoint, which itself is dependent above all on the respective definition or concept of art. The practice of art, then, is to a high degree taken up with work done on defining the concept of art. In TEXT-IMAGES / IMAGE-TEXTS, ON TOUR this consists of reflecting on the generally accepted basic principles behind art - at its very source. By turning these principles into the theme of communication at public sites, differentiations and decisions emerge as the basic requirements of an aesthetic theory. In this way transitional shifts between the intellectual concept and the aesthetic possibility of art can be found in the transition from one site to another. Art that is not site-specific can only take place by means of specific communication and thus becomes, in its most comprehensive sense, a phenomenon of transition.


Niklas Luhmann, 'Das Medium der Kunst', DELFIN, Nr 7, 1986.

Niklas Luhmann, 'Das Kunstwerk und die Selbstreproduktion der Kunst', DELFIN, Nr 3, 1989.

Martin Warnke, 'Kunst unter Verweigerungspflicht', catalogue text, SKULPTURENBOULEVARD KURFÜRSTENDAMM, 1987.

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