Martin Kippenberger thanks the cleaning lady

Over the past two days, a short piece of news has spread like wildfire in the print and online editorial offices of the world, even though the news originated in the cultural sector: Cleaning lady scrubs away artwork!

Behind this headline is the overzealous action of a cleaning lady at the Ostwall Museum in Dortmund. She simply cleaned away limescale stains in a plastic tub that was under a wooden frame in the middle of the exhibition space. Dirt in a museum – where do you find that! The only bad thing about it was that it was a work of art by Martin Kippenberger. An installation in the room that had once been conceived by the artist exactly as it stood there.

Up and down the country, the incident is treated like a curious anecdote that is passed on with a smile and spreads like wildfire. Whether in the office during a coffee break, at the regulars’ table in the evening or – here the environment even adapts to the subject – during, before or after exhibition openings. Martin Kippenberger’s work “Wenn’s anfängt durch die Decke zu tropfen” (When it starts to drip through the ceiling) has unintentionally caused a global sensation. Or was it not completely unintentional? Kippenberger’s original intention certainly comes very, very close to the action, as many works in his oeuvre were designed to provoke. Provoke in the sense of questioning art, its reception and value, its originality and its absolution by the artist himself.

If I imagine an ideal society – allow me this excursion very briefly – then there would be no need for arguments or counter-examples when it comes to defending art and artists. Because in this, my ideal society, people would simply have less envy and hatred, less short-sightedness and less loyalty to principles, less attachment to the good old days when everything was much better. In this peaceful environment, people would be more willing to approach each other, exchange opinions, ask more questions and think about answers – in different and much shorter words: In my ideal world, people would be more open and tolerant towards those who think differently.

However, in such a society, this article would not even be necessary. In this social structure, which is based on taking pleasure in the success of others and not in their failure, there would have been no point in dragging the unfortunate cleaning lady into the public eye. Then her mishap would have been one of thousands that occur every day in the course of cleaning work and therefore not worth a single tired word.

But since this ideal society has never existed and will never exist, articles like this one are necessary – not to build a moat with those who think differently from me. But much more to show that you can confidently fill in this gap, because it is a stumbling block for everyday coexistence, which is only possible without taking sides for or against art through a large portion of tolerance.

Replik von Duchamps Fountain

Replica of Duchamp’s Fountain at the Musée Maillol, Paris – Photo: (c) Micha L. Rieser

Let us return to Kippenberger’s approach to art, which did not exclude provocation. With this deliberate social attitude, Kippenberger was by no means at the beginning of this art-historical development. The “Fountain” by Marcel Duchamp at the beginning of the 20th century marked the start of the process that many call the decline of art par excellence. Others consider it to be one of the most ingenious ideas in the history of art. Duchamp’s aim was to completely redefine the authorship of a work of art and to declare everything that exists in the world to be a work of art. He submitted an industrially manufactured urinal, to which he added a pseudonymous monogram, to the Society of Independent Artist in N.Y. for an exhibition. With this act and the placing of the monogram on the object in 1917, Duchamp actually achieved a coup. Although the exhibition featured such illustrious names as Brancusi and Picasso, it went down in art history for a work that was not even shown there. Duchamp’s submission was rejected by the committee.

If you ask inexperienced people, i.e. those not familiar with art history, what they think of Kippenberger’s art in this context, you usually get the same answer that Duchamp received when he submitted his urinal. “That’s supposed to be art?” The act of exhibiting an object such as the urinal or Kippenberger’s installation made from “poor” materials is first and foremost perceived as pure provocation. As a mockery, to put it politely, of the exhibition audience, who actually go to an exhibition to be edified by beautiful things.

“Common sense”, as it is often so devastatingly quoted, insinuates that Kippenberger – let’s stick to the current occasion – deliberately reached into the provocation box in order to generate attention and – not to forget – money with his work. For, as we now know, Kippenberger’s work is estimated to have a market value of 800,000 euros. Knowing the supposed value of the artwork, the headline consumers feel doubly cheated. Not only is something that is completely incomprehensible to them given the aura of art by being exhibited in a museum, but it is apparently also possible to achieve prices that are so astronomical that many ordinary people would not even be able to earn such a sum. Admittedly: This humiliation, if you perceive it as such, hurts. After all, it shows that there are obviously people, indeed artists like Kippenberger, who firstly understand more about the art business than the art philistines themselves and secondly can really capitalize on this knowledge. And what’s more, with things that many people have at least as individual components in their garage or cellar. So people ask themselves what the difference is between their junk and the installation in the museum. In fact, they don’t really ask themselves that, they just realize and scratch their heads as to why something like this is being shown in an exhibition at all.

But here I say STOP: Ladies and gentlemen, STOP!

Let me briefly explain, as unemotionally as I am able to do so, what works of art such as “Fountain” or “When it starts to drip through the ceiling” are all about, without writing a great art historical treatise. Or rather: let me explain why your categorical rejection of contemporary art not only hurts people’s feelings, but is ultimately also more than questionable in terms of democratic policy.

As I’m sure you know, there are now hundreds, thousands, even thousands of works of art on display in galleries and museums around the world that very few people even begin to understand in any way. And yet these exhibitions are visited, articles are written about these artworks and museums buy an – admittedly – tiny proportion of this art production. This means that if you were to think even a little about the subject, even if you know nothing about art, you would have to come to certain logical conclusions. For example, that contemporary visual art is obviously a part of our social and economic life that represents a certain value, even though many people have no idea about it. If you have no idea about something and are confronted with it – regardless of whether it is visual art, literature, dance, music or simply a new idea that looks at the traditional from a new perspective and can even knock it off its pedestal – there are two basic reactions from people. Some fundamentally reject the new, as it disrupts the familiar, the habitus they have acquired, the explanatory models they have known! Others, on the other hand, become curious and begin to question: What is it? In what context did this new thing come about? What was the idea behind it and why am I finding it difficult to understand this new thing?

People who belong to the second category definitely find it much easier to find their bearings in the contemporary art world. Because they at least have the chance to experience something new, to learn something new, to broaden their horizons. If they make just a little effort – to return to Marcel Duchamp and Martin Kippenberger – they could, for example, learn that it has been possible for almost 100 years to define an object as a work of art, even if it does not fulfill any aesthetic criteria, was not created as an artefact or was simply created as a joke. In order to do a little more educational work here, because after all I have set myself the goal of making you a little more art-savvy with this article, I would also like to mention Joseph Beuys, who had a similar fate to Martin Kippenberger. Or rather, two of his works experienced what it means to fall victim to the cleaning mania. But by using materials such as grease, which until then had not been included in the art world, Beuys added another aspect to art history – more than 50 years after Duchamp’s revolutionary approach to art. Namely, his socially expanded concept of art, in which he counted human action that takes place in the social environment just as much as the production of artworks themselves as part of art production. Suddenly – which can only be abbreviated and inaccurately described here – not only was every object worth exhibiting, but every person was also an artist!

These two outstanding artists – Duchamp and Beuys – had a decisive influence on the art scene after them with their ideas. Their main concern was to question art itself. And it is precisely here that many an audience’s approval is skewered, as these ideas are no longer something that is tangible, but rather abstract thoughts that you first have to absorb and think through for yourself in order to grasp them, agree with them or reject them. In order to understand Duchamp and Beuys, and with them a large part of the art scene after the Second World War, you have to inform yourself about them, you have to use your own intellectual capacity and at least try to analyze these ideas without bias.

I have to like a work of art, everything else doesn’t count for me! If you have to explain art, then it stops for me completely! These are just two of several statements that art connoisseurs hear again and again. Or people who simply go to a museum with contemporary art and open their ears a little. These arguments are also common in the case of Kippenberger.

Malewitsch, Kasimir - Schwarzes Quadrat auf weißem Grund

Schwarzes Quadrat auf weißem Grund, 1915 (c) Hungerberg

At this point, I would like to tell you a little story that touched me personally and fits the topic very well. 13 years ago, a large-scale exhibition entitled “The Color Black” took place in Graz. The art-historical highlight of this exhibition was the “Black Square on a White Background” by Kasimir Malevich. My then 15-year-old son went to this exhibition with his classmates as part of a school project. When he came home, he told me that he had seen one of the most beautiful paintings he had ever seen. And he raved about Malevich’s painting. I was very surprised, because I had never expected my son to be so captivated by a Suprematist work, and I had never spoken to him about Malevich or Suprematism before. When I was at a school event a few weeks later, one of my son’s teachers came straight up to me to say the following: “I would like to thank you, because your son has achieved something that no one on the teaching staff has ever managed before. He had taken sides with incredible passion for the painting “Black square on a white background” when a classmate made fun of it and said that he could have done it too and that this painting was not art! My son then – completely unexpectedly – stood up in front of his classmate and asked if he even knew what kind of art was at its peak at the time when the picture was painted. It had been Art Nouveau, with its exuberant forms and flourishes, which kept the whole world in suspense and adorned it – and the opposition Malevich showed to this art form with this painting alone was an incredibly heroic act. For he could well imagine the scorn and ridicule the artist would have had to endure when he presented this work to the public! After this passionate partisanship, the young art despiser would have meekly turned on his heel and sought shelter in the group so as not to have to face further debate and instruction. But the young supervisor in the room, an art student as it turned out, had walked straight up to my son, held out her hand to him and, while shaking his hand constantly, declared loudly: “Thank you for this performance, you can’t imagine how good it feels. You know, I’ve heard this argument that it’s not an art and that you can do it a million times a day and it’s just good that you’ve spoken up here.

To put it bluntly, I was blown away by the teacher’s story. Not because of my son’s knowledge of art history, but rather because he had taken sides for an artistic position of which he had previously had little or no idea. I was touched that he had stood up for the artist behind the artwork. That he verbally stood up for someone who thought differently from the majority of people at the time and also expressed this different way of thinking artistically. So, without giving it much thought, my son had taken sides for the expression of opinion and diversity of ideas, which – especially where art is concerned – is still trampled underfoot by the majority of the population today.

Statements such as “This is supposed to be art”, “It should be banned”, “It’s unbelievable that it costs even one euro”, etc. etc. massively restrict and undermine precisely this freedom of opinion, the right to take a very personal stance. If you took a poll on the street, the majority would argue that art like that of Martin Kippenberger should not be exhibited in museums. You don’t need to be a clairvoyant to make that statement.

But I would like to take a closer look. Because if you look behind the statements rejecting art, it quickly becomes clear that there is a completely different level of meaning behind these complaints. Most complainers are not concerned with whether a particular work is art or not. It is not about whether certain objects can be granted this status or not, but rather about the artists behind the artwork itself. It is about the people who make art, who want to enter into a social dialog with it and – if they are lucky – can also make a living from their work. In most cases, it should be briefly noted here, more poorly than well anyway. The point is that creative people are not only having their work unthinkingly denigrated at the stroke of a pen, but are actually being denied the very activity of working on and with art. Giving free rein to ideas and putting them into practice is what each and every one of us would like to do, but due to personal sensitivities and circumstances very few of us are able to do. Recent studies show that the majority of the Western European population is dissatisfied with their professional fate. And dissatisfaction fuels envy. If, as in the case of Kippenberger, sums of money are reported that the majority of people can only dream of, then this envy quickly turns into hatred, which is then expressed in the statements already quoted. Then the killer argument of taxpayers’ money, which is “paid by all of us” and should not be wasted as it is an exhibition paid for by the public purse, must not be forgotten. This – it has to be said out loud – extremely stupid argument always comes up like the Amen in prayer. In another article, I have already tried to make clear what it is about indirect profitability that makes part of the art business possible in the first place. For this reason, it should only be noted here that the money generated by our taxes, which is spent on art subsidies, benefits people and not objects. It should be pointed out that it flows back into the economy, where it secures jobs for many people.

Very few of us deny the working population who work in consumer goods production, administration, politics or, for example, in the chemical industry – to pick just a few areas of our lives at random – their right to work or question the meaningfulness of it. Although, as we all know, much of what people do is simply insane or, as it often turns out later, even poses a great danger to the community. Here, however, it is the mass of people who justify these actions and, above all, the system in which their actions are integrated. This is only questioned by a small minority, just as only a small minority is interested in contemporary art. Although this does not necessarily have to be a common interest group, in the case of artists this is often the case. Everyday things are not questioned by the majority of the population, according to the motto – what I and my neighbor do can’t be wrong! However, financial crises, oil rig disasters, reactor accidents, contaminated groundwater and even small regional and national political mistakes speak a different language. A large number of people are responsible for all of them, who worked diligently to ensure that these disasters could occur in the first place. However, they are in no way blamed for their actions, they are not denied their regular monthly income, their legally regulated vacation, the opportunity to take sick leave and retire at some point. Artists who are successful with their work, on the other hand, often find themselves in the situation of having to justify the money they have earned. Isn’t that more than strange? With the best will in the world, I can’t think of a single case where artists have caused damage to the community. It’s usually the other way around. Society doesn’t suffer any damage through art, but in the best-case scenario, added value, which then also proves to be sustainable, for example when a work of art enters a museum where it can be viewed by many people who then draw their own conclusions and insights from it. So why is it the art scene, of all things, that constantly has to justify its actions? Is it perhaps a welcome outlet that can be used to release some pent-up frustration? Does it serve as a bruiser for all those frustrated people who can never fulfill their wishes and desires in life and envy such fulfillment to all those who could achieve it?

Anyone who is surprised that this article has not been about art for some time now should know that I am more than tired of defending art against all those who are unwilling to understand it, engage with it and think about it. I am simply so prepotent that I am not holding up an art mirror to them all, in which they would not recognize themselves anyway, but I simply assert quite soberly that they are simply moving on very thin ice with their tirades, denigrations or ridicule of misunderstood art. On an ice that they could break into with a bang if someone from the art world were to try it. After all, these statements all contradict the principles laid down in the Declaration of Human Rights and can therefore also be brought before the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Articles 18, 19, 23 and 27 in particular regulate everything that the already cited “common sense” – (we urgently warn against anyone and everyone who uses this term in their arguments) – rejects in connection with contemporary art, which requires explanations in order to be understood.

Article 18 (excerpt)

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion …

Article 19

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 23 (excerpt)

    1. Everyone has the right to work and to free choice of employment…


Article 27

2. everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests which accrue to him as author of scientific, literary or artistic works


To put it bluntly, these rights apply to both art consumers and art producers. Both, mind you.

If we look at the matter from the artists’ point of view, every point mentioned here can immediately be used as a counter-argument against those statements that are celebrating such a joyous comeback all over the country and would prefer to ban contemporary art from the exhibition stage.

To return to the argument about wasting taxpayers’ money, it should be explicitly stated here that a democracy only really proves to be a democracy and not a dictatorship if minorities are also given their due.
And artists are just as much in the minority as their active supporters. For both groups, however, it is essential to engage with art, either to produce art or to look at it and think about it. Even if this is incomprehensible to many. For me personally, reflecting on contemporary art, regardless of the genre, is an essential part of a fulfilled life, even of my personal happiness. I definitely know what I am talking about, as I have also had times when it was not possible for me to think about art and write about it. Times when I felt so deprived that I pulled out all the stops to get back to what I consider to be spiritual nourishment, without which I wouldn’t really feel well. I am, however, and I freely admit this, a huge sports philistine and don’t know the first thing about soccer. For me, there wouldn’t need to be a single soccer club or a single stadium, but I wouldn’t dream of speaking out against it and looking askance at all those who earn their money from it or sacrifice a lot of their free time because they simply enjoy soccer and it’s like an elixir of life for them.

In the end, what probably makes the whole thing ironic in the sense of Kippenberger is that the oh-so-funny colportage and the associated subliminal approval of the cleaning lady’s action and at the same time the rejection of the artwork – makes it much better known worldwide than it has been to date.
Even, or perhaps especially, among those who were previously unfamiliar with the name and perhaps thought that Kippenberger was a tongue-in-cheek amicable description of a notorious smoker. The attention that this work of art is now receiving, however, contributes to an increase in the value of Kippenberger’s oeuvre as a whole, which at least benefits his heirs or the owners of his works. Why this is the case is another story entirely, but forgive me if I do not shed light on the mechanisms of the art market here.

One thing is certain: if Martin Kippenberger had lived to see the incident and the publicity surrounding his work, he would certainly have thanked the cleaning lady! Perhaps he would have given her one of his smaller works – which she, in turn, would certainly not have been able to do anything with.
But she would certainly have handled it very, very carefully.

Dieser Artikel ist auch verfügbar auf: German


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