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‘Why Germany would win the World Cup of modern art too’

Anselm Kiefer’s “Grane,” Woodcut with paint and collage on paper mounted on linen
Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Unlike the stance taken in my last column (, I’m all in with art critic Jonathan Jones’ view that Germany is the global champ in art as well as in soccer.

He means Germany’s formidable lineup of artists - Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Amselm Kiefer, Sigmar Polke, Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters and Otto Dix – and the trivialities of British artists Damien Hirst, who preserves dead animals in formaldehyde in the name of art, and America’s Jeff Koons, who duplicates banal objects. Jones rightly tags them “the commercial, over-hyped and celebrity focused lightweights that they are.”

Jones stops short of answering a question his views raise: Why do German artists best those in other lands?

My answer might start with the fact that German universities were the first to teach art history as an academic subject, which signaled that Germany takes visual art seriously.

Current art writing that comes out of Germany may also be a factor. Certainly Hirst would think so. While panned by critics in other lands, he got so upset with an anticipated pan in the German magazine Monopol that he banned the magazine from printing pictures of his work. Monopol ran the pan anyway along with a blank space where the picture would have gone. An editor there said he decided to keep the layout of the pages – including the unchanged text of the critic (who once referred to Hirst this way: "Who put the 'con' in contemporary art?")

Then I'd mention a couple of leading art critics who offer unwarranted adulation of both Hirst and Koons.

I’m thinking of Jerry Saltz, art critic for New York Magazine who named Koons “the emblematic artist of the decade—its thumping, thumping heart…His work embodies our time and our America: It’s big, bright, shiny, colorful, crowd-pleasing, heat-seeking, impeccably produced, polished, popular, expensive, and extroverted.”

And NY Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, who has praised Hirst’s hacking up of cow carcasses: "The show left me somehow, unexpectedly, smiling ... It's a sense of something vivifying beyond, or besides, his infatuation with death and dead animals, that makes Mr. Hirst's work likable, and makes his art different from the merely slick and chilling ..."

It’s understandable when Christie’s chairman and international chief Brett Gorvy calls Koons’ Balloon Dog “a definitive icon of the 20th century…the ultimate masterpiece… (that) transforms a collection to an unparalleled level of greatness." After all, Gorvy is in the business of selling Koons’ work.

Part of this mix in trivializing art is Italy’s ridiculous focus on exhuming the graves of Da Vinci and his model for Mona Lisa, along with France’s ridiculous public relations campaign to keep Mona Lisa in the news and tourists mobbing the portrait - the rest of the art in the Louvre be damned.

All of which goes to a point that German art writer Heinrich Wolfflin made in his “Principles of Art History.” He said that on spite of all deviations and individual movements, there’s a definite type of imagination that a culture dictates.

If that’s true, isn’t it possible that more serious art writing can affect such culture? At the very least, shouldn’t critics know junk when they see it and say so?

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