Hans-Michael Herzog

Hans-Michael Herzog
Photography: Humberto Vélez

Born in 1956, Hans-Michael Herzog studied art history, philosophy, and classical archaeology at the University of Bonn, and was awarded his PhD in 1984 with a focuson Venetian Proto-Renaissance Sculpture.
From 1987 until 1989, Dr. Herzog worked for the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, München.
Between 1989 and 1999 he was Curator of the Kunsthalle Bielefeld.

From 2000 to 2015 Dr. Herzog has been the Artistic Director and Chief Curator of theDaros Latinamerica Collection based in Zürich, Switzerland. From 2005 to 2009 he was the Artistic Director of the Daros Collection, also based in Zürich. He was Founding Director of the Casa Daros in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Critical writer on art and architecture, Dr. Herzog has been responsible for numerous exhibitions and publications, largely on international contemporary art. These include: Manolo Millares (1992), Kunst um Kunst (1993), Jürgen Klauke: Prosecuritas (1994), The Body / Le Corps (1994), Sean Scully: The Catherine Paintings (1995), Langlands & Bell (1995), Jonathan Lasker: Paintings (1997), Ronald Bladen: Sculpture (1998), La Mirada – Looking at Photography in Latin America Today (2002), Cantos Cuentos Colombianos: Contemporary Colombian Art (2004), Le Parc Lumière: KineticWorks by Julio Le Parc (2005), Fabian Marcaccio: Paintant Stories (2005), Seduções:Soares, Meireles, Neto (2006), Guillermo Kuitca: Das Lied von der Erde (2006), Carlos Amorales: Dark Mirror (2007), Face to Face (2007), Painted! (2008), For You / Parausted (2009), Antonio Dias: Anywhere Is My Land (2009), Luis Camnitzer (2010), Nicola Costantino (2011), Wifredo Díaz Valdéz (2011), Illusions (2014), Made in Brasil (2015), Cuba – Ficción y Fantasía (2015).

Priceless Value

El Cerro, Puerto Rico, 2017, Fotografía: Cortesía Chemi Rosado Seijo
El Cerro, Puerto Rico, 2017, Photograph: Courtesy of Chemi Rosado Seijo

I believe in the power of art! I believe in the effective strength and the driving force that the best art can exercise over aesthetic, social and political affairs.

‘Culture’ is a vague, all-embracing concept. Depending on individual interests, it is often misinterpreted and preyed on by differing prejudices. There is no question that the idea of culture is closely related with nurturing and education. As a result, it prevails in affluent classes, at least at first sight. Having said that, when we expand the concept, understanding it as the creation and transformation of consciousness, the parameters shift completely. Sustained cultural consciousness can only be created if it is coupled with an awareness of the ethical reach of culture, which, at once, is closely bound with aesthetics. The mere fact of having seen Michelangelo’s David and knowing where it is located is not in itself a qualitative sign of cultural consciousness.

I wish to outline how the aesthetic component can be a gateway drug or a Trojan horse to create cultural consciousness. I am convinced that aesthetic culture is innate in humans; something that exists, however diffusely, as a real and latent need, or as an unfulfilled desire, at all levels of society including the very poorest. As a notable example, I wish to speak about a work by the Puerto Rican artist Chemi Rosado Seijo, who choose a community in his home island for an interesting experiment.

His socio-aesthetic project was based on offering the residents of El Cerro, in Naranjito, the possibility of painting their houses green. Each family could choose its favourite tone of green for its home. Together with a group of artists, he painted the first one. These were then followed by others, until reaching a total of two hundred. The project led to a powerful process of identification and social integration in the municipality. People started to argue, to quarrel, to understand and to reflect, as it was all about creating something that would transcend the drab monotony of the day to day; of doing something crazy; of submerging a whole community in green and, in so doing, to paint a picture.

The process involved all the local residents, bringing them together over a period of several months in close and rewarding interaction. Resonating with Joseph Beuys’s concept of art as “social sculpture”, the whole community was visually, aesthetically and socially transformed in a continuous process. For the first time, people passionately and intensely thought about the aesthetic appearance of their barrio, which, thanks to this transformation, took on a whole new look. By means of observation and subsequent evaluation of the before-and-after, the local people accrued a capacity to perceive their reality with greater transparency and intensity, in terms of housing and ways of life, both as individuals and as a group.

El Cerro, Puerto Rico, Fotografía: Cortesía Chemi Rosado Seijo
El Cerro, Puerto Rico, 2017, Photograph: Courtesy of Chemi Rosado Seijo

Their socio-aesthetic stance gradually shifted. They now knew how to differentiate one tone of green from another; they knew how to differentiate the barrio of before from the one that came afterwards, and from the barrio into which it was becoming. However insignificant this process might appear, its real importance is powerful. Only when I learn to differentiate, can I change something in this world. However, to do so I first have to want to do it and this wish or desire can be awakened through aesthetics and art. In other words, when engaging in a discussion on beauty and ugliness—which is to say, on issues that are not directly related with primary human needs—they dared to begin a conversation that, no matter how superfluous it might seem, is anything but.

In this way, a very simple action was able to create an awareness of the capacity for aesthetic differentiation—which is directly related with the capacity for social differentiation—and to then trigger reflection and subsequent political action. It managed to instil a sense of self-esteem in the local residents. It took on an ethical value. The major qualitative step consists in discovering this value in a specific situation and in recognizing—and to continue to understand—that it is fundamental, absolute and sustainable; opposed to mere materialistic or ephemeral values. In short, acknowledging and concerning ourselves with the aesthetic qualities of our surrounding world can act like a Trojan horse to infect ourselves with aesthetics. And I am not talking about some bronze statue outside the town hall, but about projects conceived and created through individual and collective initiative.

This inevitably leads to stronger social ties, to a constructive discussion with reality, with what is close to oneself personally, and to a critical analysis of what pertains to the other. For instance, in a discussion on “my tone of green is prettier than yours because …” I have to defend, affirm and even reconsider my recently acquired point of view. And it could turn out that in the end I choose a different tone than I had initially decided on. Which leads me to a different discussion: perhaps not one of everyday consequence, but more critical and geared more towards values related with aesthetics and what is often called “good taste”. From the outset, I weigh up my own personal taste in a discussion that suddenly puts me beyond simply aspiring to cover my basic everyday needs. Only when I have reached this level of self-esteem, will I be able to recognize and respect other people’s values. And this brings us straight to the heart of the constructive development of all social cohesion.

Art is more than a simple commodity and the artist is more than an executor of passing fashions. Art and artists have something to say to us. Art is anchored in society and profoundly implicated in all human experiences. At the same time, art transcends all contexts, giving us a glimpse of what is possible beyond them.

On criteria and critique

Time is a scarce commodity in our pseudoproductive society and we often brandish the lack of time as an excuse for intellectual apathy, instead of sitting on our backsides to observe a work of art seriously, in detail, until we develop our own understanding of it. After all, perception and understanding go hand in hand. All perception is coupled with a thought and together they create a starting point for a stimulating and discursive conversation with ourselves.

Augustus de Primaporta, siglo I, mármol, altura 204 cm, Museos del Vaticano, Roma
Augustus of Prima Porta, 1st century, marble, height 204 cm, Vatican Museums, Rome

Kritiko in ancient Greek means “the power to judge or discern” and is at the root of words like “critique” and “criteria”. Descriptive observation of art was something that still existed when I was studying Classical Archaeology (ancient Greece and Rome) in the late-seventies. How we hated having to count the curls in Augustus in order to distinguish between this or that portrait. However, what we saw as a “mere” formalism instilled in us the virtue of observing close-up, thus furnishing ourselves with the foundations for scientific analysis. Why is methodical observation ignored today in the study of the arts, while it is conditio sine qua non in natural sciences?

I believe it would be of great benefit to recall the outmoded three-step method of observation-description-interpretation. This approach has its merits for contemporary art. It is unquestionably useful in identifying the elements of which an artwork is composed and in understanding how they interact or precisely how they do not interact. The method is also useful in observing “ancient” art. The fact of being “old” does not improve a work of art: a Rembrandt is not good just because it is a Rembrandt. Unfortunately, the “normal” art historian is not automatically a critic and is often unable to distinguish differences in quality.

Political correctness replaces religion

Tiziano Vecellio, Annunciazione, 1535, 166 x 266 cm, Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venezia
Titian, Annunciation, 1535, 166 x 266 cm, Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice

With the passing of time, art emancipated itself and became “free”. And it remains so, at least until relatively recently. Today, art has found issues to address. Now it is no longer the “Ascension” or the “Immaculate Conception”, but “Climate Change”, “Global Warming” or “Gender Equality”. Take, for instance, the 13th Sharjah Biennial in 2017. During the press conference, the curator complained bitterly that despite their considerable efforts, she and her team were unable to find an ideal position for the biennial on the issue of global warming. Poor things, just imagine the frustration!

Pixy Liao, Home-made Sushi, 2011
Pixy Liao, Home-made Sushi, 2011

Meanwhile, calling an artwork “Untitled” is frowned upon, particularly because it gives the spectator the pain—or pleasure, if you prefer—of deciding what the theme of the work in question is about. In our infantilized society everything has to be explained and spelled out so that we are never mislead, deceived or duped. And God forbid we would get any absurd ideas. Absolutely everything has to be classified and made explicit, discernible and legible! Ambivalence is obsolete and uncertainties unnecessary. Safety is the maximum priority in all aspects. Not only is in-security unacceptable today, but it is downright frightening, both in political and in social terms.

Nor is art exempt from the obsessive search for supposed efficiency in our late-turbocapitalism. Any ambiguity is immediately met with rejection; this is also because anything bordering on complexity overwhelms our usual train of thought. It is only logical that this situation produces extreme anxiety when we are faced with poetic moments in art, given that poetry is not disclosed in literalness. It is precisely between the lines where poetry flourishes. It is vague and allusive; it yearns for interpretation and, in consequence, it has a revolutionary and anarchic potential (in other words, unwelcome in these times).

Not to speak of emotions! Some years ago, I had the honour of being invited to give a paper at a symposium in Berlin organized by Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. There I met a conceptual artist from the USA, then very prominent in Germany. In response to my controversial and humoristic demand for more emotion in art, she coldly and condescendingly replied that unfortunately it is impossible to completely avoid some traces of emotion from making their way into artistic production. She viewed these traces as bothersome and contaminating, though ultimately they were no more than insubstantial traces. I was disconcerted back then—and indeed I still am now—that, of all the disciplines, the so-called visual arts would be the one to do away with emotion, while the opposite is true for theatre, music, literature or whatever other expression.

In short, many people are opposed to any kind of contamination and impurity in artistic and intellectual matters. In the end, every dirty corner attracts more dirt, creating a bacterial breeding ground without which, so to speak, there can be no fermentation or growth or development. It would entail an incalculable number of potential risks, prevent cleanliness, order and clarity, and would lead to anarchy, thus challenging all the balances of power in today’s world.

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