One of the most accurate and still relevant attempts to define contemporary art contains the idea of the ‘open artwork’ which doesn’t necessarily have to face the restrictions of fine arts’ traditional media such as painting and sculpture. The term was coined by Umberto Eco in the 70s and has been referenced amongst others by Juliane Rebentisch in her book “Theorien der Gegenwartskunst” where she dates the beginning of contemporary art back to 1965 with the upcoming interest towards performance art, multimedia installations and positions challenging the convention of the artwork being treated as a hermetic physical entity “speaking for itself”. And although we can get a clue what the open artwork is about, it’s still very hard to capture the true meaning behind it, since technically every artwork could be considered as open. The trait of “openness” is kind of inherent in all art or let’s say in the definition of art in general, so we could say that technically one could read and interpret a Botticelli painting from as many countless perspectives, as you could read let’s say a Hito Steyerl multimedia installation despite of the fact that the painting is formally self-contained while the Steyerl work obviously isn’t.
I think what Eco was really trying to say is that the open artwork is by and for itself fragmented or unfinished and yet to be completed by the viewer, exhibition text, the context it is shown in, the artist’s identity, gender, origin and of course their insta handle.
One of modernisms many great promises was to find absolute truths about art in general within its’ specific medium, ranging from Rothko claiming to have captured the basic human condition in the form of painting with his works aiming to “make the viewer cry, like a piece of music would” to Clement Greenberg’s ridiculous debate on what makes a “good” painting where he states that for a painting to qualify as good, the layers of paint should be painted as thinly as possible to emphasize the flatness and two-dimensionality of the canvas and therefore to maintain the integrity of the medium by avoiding any type of haptic qualities of the motive itself that could refer to the medium of sculpture or, more precisely, equip the painting with “sculptural qualities”.
Postmodernism on the other hand had the only challenge to break with the conventions of modernism, trying to break free from absolute statements about anything really while proclaiming those modernist concerns as sentimental and old-fashioned. Contemporary became anti-modern so to say with its’ most important concern to question this wholesome “the artwork speaks for itself” modernist approach on art. And what is it really about? I mean ask literally anyone to explain what relational aesthetics are or what poststructuralism means, the joke is that no one really can.
The wholesome in the context of contemporary art seems not to be of interest anymore for quite some time. Why then make a topic about it? Well, we kind of think that the wholesome should have a comeback, starting from a personal level at least.
‘Being wholesome’ in internet language is being used to describe people and situations who are happy, nice and comforting in a way. Since we have been forced to be calmer than usual in the last couple of months, ate our veggies and did some yoga self-care, most of us at least tried to become the most wholesome version of themselves bearing in mind that this radical shift from the daily consumption of this cheap vinegar-tasting white wine at gallery openings to the charcoal-infused liquid of your choice could possibly change the way we think and work, and eventually produce art.
There are historically a few different conceptions regarding calmness in relation to (artistic) production. Stefan Zweig claims that calmness is the only true force of creation since though the absence of constant outside stimuli you start feeling yourself and become wholesome. In his infamous book about Marie Antoinette he is applying this idea to a moment where Marie Antoinette, most probably the least wholesome person in history, is forced to take a break from her lavish lifestyle by the doom of the revolution, locked up in the Conciergerie in Paris waiting for her trial. And this is the point where for the first time in the eyes of Stefan Zweig she gained a clear, strong character, and was finally able to tap into the full potential of her personality.
In other words, if Marie Antoinette had been a fine artist, following this theory she’d probably had made her best work in that quiet and lonesome period of her life.
And then there is of course this cliché of the suffering male genius artist, feeding off his inner turmoil and pain, lonely but at the same time never coming to rest, sublimating his unfulfilled desires and unstable personal and financial situation into a genius body of work – which then again is representing an idea of wholesomeness back again manifested though the artwork in the form of paintings and sculptures that are supposed to say so much about human existence that the viewer is left with no other option than to cry because its so overwhelming and touching and huge and rothkoesque.
There is this passage in Robert Musil’s 'Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften Teil 2' where Ulrich the main character talks about the two different ways of passionate living. The first one is defined through dispersal and to act upon every kind of emotion you feel just to express yourself and tranquilize the emotion itself through its outlet – to stay in context, just think of the ambitious start up instagram artist who films basically every brushstroke they make just to show everybody how productive they are and who is constantly participating in buck wild group shows that also basically only exist on instagram where it’s not really important what you do, but how much you do as an artist. This type of artist is more susceptible to post pictures of them in front of their work than any other type, as if the work itself isn’t enough but it has to match your outfit as well.1 They most probably also walked at this Balenciaga show in the blue room at Paris Fashion Week last year.
The other one is characterized through the withstanding to act while eventually letting your emotions come to a climax which then again turns your life into more like an intense dream of feelings instead of acting in real life – just think of the talented 32-year-old semi-figurative painter in every art school – let’s call him Max – who is too sensitive and shy or too proud to go to all the openings, rather staying in the studio and go home watch a Fassbinder movie with his loving girlfriend instead of having that coke-fueled night out with this super important collector at Café Engländer or whatever. Max is studying for 12 years at the Academy of fine Arts in Vienna and is talking about his diploma project since two years but “didn’t find the right moment yet” to really finish. When he has finally done his diploma consisting of 7 middle format semi-figurative paintings that refer to Francis Bacon, Picabia and the relation of bodies in space he will move into a bigger aka 2 room apartment, where he lives in one and works in the other and will be happy to work as a part time museum guard to be able to continue affording what he loves the most: to paint semi-figurative middle format paintings.
While I could boil down these two antitheses to terms like animalistic and vegetarian, realist and idealist, hedonistic and ascetic, Faustian western and esoteric eastern, Luther and Calvin, Steppenwolf and Hermine, you should probably read the actual passage in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften2 instead of this to really get what I mean.
While those ideas about artist lifestyles do not necessarily give us a hint about their actual work or its quality, the circumstances of artistic production inevitably do have an impact on the output.
In a more literal sense this has been an issue of the creative industries for a couple of years now where pro-wholesome advocates in the form of white Instagram girls and, more recently, Andy Kassier3 have propagated concepts and ideas about self-care, calling upon their followers to not get exploited in the industry and to not force yourself to keep up at the pace of the hypercapitalist market. The basic message is: turn your phone on airplane mode more often, take a bath and most importantly, take all the time you need to dedicate your time to the things you really wanna do in your life. And to be able to do that, especially when you’re young, most of the time you’d kind of need a stable financial background, supportive and liberal and rich parents, etc... so being wholesome equals being (white and) privileged?
And also isn’t it kind of weird that this idea of wholesomeness which is all about deceleration is being commodified and used to accumulate social and/or “real” capital back again?
Then again if you’d really want to make being wholesome a priority in your life, you probably shouldn’t work in the art industry in the first place. So I think the whole thing is about making the idea of wholesomeness desirable for a bunch of young artists who are failing at it on a daily basis, and selling it to them as the real holy grail of an art career: The wholesome is having your shit together and two Siamese cats while still being successful, quirky, woke and beautiful at the same time, so basically it’s about being Chloe Wise full stop
Having finally found THE wholesome artist, what is wholesome art then or art that seems to address questions and ideas about the wholesome? If the white picket fence is the ultimate wholesomeness symbol for white middle class American families, and a perfectly curated Instagram account for us, what is the ultimate symbol for the wholesome in the arts?
One immediately has to start thinking about this Alex Da Corte installation at the Viennese Secession, first of all because of its Gesamtkunstwerk character, its comfyness factor and of course because it’s in pastel colours. I mean, every kind of art that contains pastel colours can be considered as wholesome – no brainer. And what about Henry Moore? Do you think his work is wholesome? Slide into our dms and let us know.
Fact is, the wholesome can be understood in so many different ways and it’s really interesting to think about it. But if there’s one thing you can say about it, the idea of the wholesome is for sure romantic. Romantic in the already mentioned Wagnerian, Alex Da Corte Gesamtkunstwerk kind of way that has btw gained a lot of interest in the last few years since Instagram stories of a Yayoi Kusama Infinity Room or a postmodern Gesamtkunstwerk Anne Imhof performance may be a bit more appealing than a 1080 x 1920 pixel depiction of a god damn painting. Then again, paintings do look damn sexy on iPhone screens, especially those naïve figurative colourful ones…
So, is the wholesome not contemporary anymore or is the wholesome the most contemporary there is?
Writing this text very wholesomely in my favourite third wave coffee shop4 sipping on my third iced flat white, I realize that this text in its form and content is the least wholesome amalgamation of words I myself have read or written in a very long time. It’s full of unclear references, it doesn’t have a coherent structure or agenda nor is it written in a proper scientific-paper-kind-of-way and ends with a damn question about nothing really, where you are not even eager to find out about the answer. So I guess the circumstances in which creation happens are not so important for the outcome after all…