Speak Out!

Are we dominated today by an overproduction of opinions on the lowest level? Is everyone blathering much too much? It’s not true; in fact, there is too little talking. Timo Feldhaus examines the history of the opening and explains how good it would be for the artwork for audiences to gather in front of it again.​

We need to talk.

It is the early twenty-first century, and the show is starting. The cleverest are there; the most beautiful are there; the craziest are there; the newcomers and the powerful, and they are boring each other to tears. They stand in front of the very latest output of the most current art production and remain silent.

Do you sense it as well, the silence? Do you sense that nothing is happening? In the early evening, the best time, between 6 and 9 p.m., when everything is possible.

People standing at an opening, a good old custom, tightly packed together under harsh light, drinking a beer, and in the deafening, roaring silence all expectations about the event dissolve into boredom. All that remains is the ash of anxiety, the greatest despondency. The young are anxious because the old have already experienced better things; the old are afraid because something new is happening that they might not be able to understand. Some find it very difficult to make decisions on their own; others have decided for everything already far too long ago. All of them are tired of the performing self being used by someone else, like data, only to go online and in the end be used against you. So the situation presents itself such that no one feels any desire to say anything at all (funny, critical, uncalculated, considered) about it, which then flourishes, which then from that moment no longer belongs to you alone but to the space, to us all, to the plexus. So you look at your phone. Which isn’t bad. Indeed, it’s good! Something comes out of the telephone. People stand around at the opening and look at the display, in essence because they want to know whether there is already something about the situation in which they are participating at that moment on the telephone. They are thinking, after all, that it’s going to happen anyway; someone will do something about it. I don’t have to, I can’t, I don’t want to; the stream is flowing. But it’s not the stream’s fault.

The point is to recognize the time from six to nine as a production process again, as the other, freer side of academy, institution, and market. When you enter, you are aware of your responsibility. And open your mouth again! After the following roughly thirteen minutes, you will blather again; you will go out and talk.

The art opening emerged in the seventeenth century; and it emerged in a hurry. Under Louis XIV, beginning in April 1667, the members of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture organized public presentations, at first at irregular intervals, of paintings, sculptures, and prints in the Louvre. From the 1730s, this exhibition, known as the Salon de Paris , was held every two years, and attracted large audiences. Admission was free, and the visitors were composed of broad strata of the residents of Paris. Meanwhile, the participating artists had stress. There was not always enough time for the final brushstroke; the painting, just grabbed away from the easel, barely dry, needed final dashes of paint and, above all, a final polish . On the evening between the installation and the opening of the exhibition, the participants were soon encountering one another regularly, with the varnish pot wobbling in front of the canvas. This transparent coating is primarily to provide a shiny, protective surface, but it also alters the colors. With that act, the work was finished once and for all; it was in fact impossible to keep painting afterward. Over the course of time, it became a habit to pay tribute to this varnishing, which preceded the official exhibition opening, with a celebration in the circle of friends and patrons. The application of the varnish transitioned seamlessly into the serving of beer. Logically, it became larger and larger. And louder. In the nineteenth century, the Salon became established as the focus and stage of the French art world.

During this period, the profession of the painter evolved into an attractive profession with opportunities for above-average income. And in the slipstream of regular exhibitions, modern art criticism evolved as well. Denis Diderot wrote eight reviews in all. Charles Baudelaire wrote about the exhibitions several times. The poet put his final review of 1859 to paper in his mother’s home, far from the actual events. It based entirely on memories and notes from a brief visit to the exhibition. The reviewers of the Salon developed a form between analysis and literature in which spoken dialogue was mixed in and even invented; old men and children appeared, and a mute woman found language again standing before one painting.

The art opening anticipated much that is found on Facebook today: the pleasure of superficial chattering, the seeing and being seen, understanding the social directly as a social network. Now where people are caught up in the reaction to yearn for true friendship again and lots of unpleasantness radiates from the digital network that explodes the frame work, the goal is to provide a new foundation for this specific form of being together in public: to hide, to pull together, to maintain information density, to overheat indoors. At that moment when it becomes clear that the disappearance of all the promises of bohemia goes hand in hand with the progress of total connectivity, the opening gets a new opportunity.

The signs of the time have already been recognized: Jerry Saltz is asking himself why the art world has gotten so conservative and predictable. In the latest issue of Texte zur Kunst, there is a discussion of the extent to which “the model of cultural exchange playing out within closely delimited geographical and social boundaries, like that of numerous underground scenes in the previous century, could give way in large sections of the art world and within the broader society as well to an acceptance of the mainstream as a channel of the legitimate cultural production.” For weeks the Spike editorial staff has been discussion whether to found a new mendicant order to recapture the lost paradises. All of that culminates in the opening, which has degenerated into a zero space, almost like a reaction to the insanely overheated market of recent years, just cooked down some more.

Be a gambler again, visitor! And don’t act as if you were all the same. After all, you are a gallery owner, you are a critic, you are his friend, you are the son of the rich lady over there, and you, you are the artist!

Increase the profile of your role and laugh about it; don’t be a corporate public. In the social history of the opening, the high points of art history are mirrored. Consider: For the opening of the Galerie Dada in 1917, Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara sent out an invitation that promised not only “Modern music, Expressionist dances, literature” but also “entertainment program”: “Puppet theater, raffle, Sibylline cabinet.” The 1960s and 1970s brought Fluxus and the happening, screaming and fighting; it ranged from political action art to the art opening blood of Nitsch’s Orgien-Mysterien-Theater. People were always pleased with the latest techniques to scandalize and saw themselves and their era flickering in them. All the naked people, the tender ones, the quarreling ones. Under the glow of neon lights, one of the most important insights about art emerged: namely, that it’s not so much about the work in the space. That, under circumstances, art is much larger. And the people who turn their backs at the opening not only think of themselves as far too important but are in fact actually important.

The Enlightenment aesthetician Jean-Baptiste Dubos described taste as an “impression soudaine” or “sentiment subit”—a sudden, unexpected sensation. Exploding immediately in front of a work of art, it destroyed the gradual progress of discursive reflection and became the venue for emotions. Taste was not an ability that the subject obtains through cultivating administration; taste is energy, power that expresses itself and affects the subject uncontrollably.

“Everything else, the ‘who with whom’ and the questions about the art and the good and bad conversations are like the wilderness toy. Just hanging a painting on the wall and saying, ‘That is art,’ is horrible. The whole plexus is important! And also the nice ‘going out to eat’, from mozzarella and tomato to spaghettini. Someone has to keep the soup simmering,” as Kippenberger always knew.

Today we are living a new postpragmatic, anemic life, but in the very near future we will become aware again of the sanctity of the situation. We will awaken, prick up our ears, open our heads and mouths. Here, from 6 to 9 pm, there is always the possibility of intimacy in the crowd—good panic, talk, behave, misbehave. Because the crowd of visitors at the opening includes many eyes, brains, and hearts, their fusion was described in early reviews of the Salons as a thermodynamic process in which a completely new social substance emerged. Diderot duplicated himself by means of the opinions of the multitude in order to invent himself by diving performatively into the crowd as an art critic. Out of the confusion of tongues of the disordered crowd, we evolve as an audience that ultimately socially varnishes the work of art. Only when the painting is talked about does it shine with a double luster. The glimmering of the social, the magic of the multitude — an art opening is always also an opening up; it is time to understand that again: to speak, as a delicate surface protection and added brilliance. Conserving and stabilizing, it lends the work under it endurance for a limited time.

Translated by Steven Lindberg