(DaRK PaRTY decided it needed a better education on contemporary art. Who better to interview than an art historian? Meet Merete Jankowski, an art historian who works as an advisor and curator for the Danish Arts Agency under the Danish Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Her job is to curate, inform and advise the Danish government about contemporary international visual art and to promote contemporary Danish art to the world. Born in Germany, but raised in Denmark, she lives in Copenhagen.)
DaRK PaRTY: What is your definition of art?
Merete Jankowski: Personally, I believe art to be any object, gesture, thought or deed defined or considered to be art by whoever has conceived of the work in question. If you tell me something you create is art, I will consider it art.
DP: Is it fair to say there is no such a thing as good or bad art or is it more accurate to say there is popular and unpopular art?
Merete: I’m not sure that I accept the premise of your question. It seems to me as if you only give me the chance of saying that if there is no objective criteria for good and bad art, then what is conceived as good and bad is really only a matter of popularity. For me, the quality of an art work hasn't got the slightest thing to do with whether it is popular or not - at the same time, the quality of an art work is not something eternal, objective and unchanging. On a socio-cultural level, quality is something that is ascribed to a work of art; it is not something that is inherent to it. On a personal level, I find that a good art work - regardless of whether it interests me thematically or not - is one which successfully manages to bring across whatever idea, point or notion the artist had in mind with it. It’s bullshit that many people think contemporary art requires no skill of execution. If you understand video art or installation art well, for example, you can easily discern whether the artist knows what he is doing or is just fumbling around. You can see professionalism of execution no matter what the material.
The making of art is like writing - no matter the genius of your idea, it requires some experience with presenting your thoughts in writing to make it come out of your head the way you intended.
DP: I once saw a modern art sculpture that was a plastic grocery bag duct taped to a stick at an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Is it fair to categorize that piece with classic pieces of art such as Di Vinci's "Mona Lisa"? Merete: I think that in a sense you stumble slightly in your own question. Conceiving the "Mona Lisa" as a "classic piece of art" is a thoroughly contemporary idea - at the time it was conceived, "Mona Lisa" was considered a piece of handiwork similar to that of a well-fashioned table or a well-cobbled shoe. Your definition of "Mona Lisa" would not have made any sense to Leonardo. I mean, come on..."Mona Lisa "is not even Leonardo's name for the piece. The name is a modern invention, as well!
I think the “Mona Lisa” is less of an art work, conceived within the definition of art that defines my practice, than the contemporary art piece you mention. Honestly, we only lump these two pieces you mention together because of tradition. And I think that actually both works would gain immensely by being liberated from one another (an impossible idea, of course).
The idea of the museum as we know it today is barely two-hundred years old - it is really a semi-Hegelian conception having more to do with showing off your wealth and attempting to rewrite history than anything else. I have never understood how one could make a volume of "Art through the last 1,000 years" or a museum show presenting a millennium of art chronologically and still keep a straight face. To me, this is a decidedly unscientific approach to art, as what you are doing is basically creating a fiction linking objects together which have little or nothing to do with one another.
As a contemporary curator, "Mona Lisa" does not matter to me. Just as Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp does not matter to a Renaissance specialist.
DP: What is the biggest misconception about art that the average person has?
Merete: That art means “good” or that labeling something "art" suggests quality. Most people use the word "art" like that: If they don't like a piece, they say "That's not art !" thereby meaning, "It’s crap." That concept is completely alien to me. If I find a work of art to be crap, it does not remove its status as art. Because whether something is or is not art has got nothing to do with the quality of the piece considered. This of course has to do with that most people's conception of art rests on 18th-century standards for art. They judge contemporary art by standards that belong to a previous century.
What I find REALLY funny is that people do not only judge contemporary art anachronistically, they also judge OLD art anachronistically - as was seen in the way you spoke of "Mona Lisa." I often think of...think if people viewed science in the same way as most people view contemporary art, judging the achievements of modern science by the standards of Newton and Galileo - then they would read Einstein's relativity theory and stand next to the Hubble telescope saying, "That's not scientific!"
Or what if people today judged the writing of English fiction by how English was written by Shakespeare, Donne and Milton? Then they would browse through all of our English-language Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners pointing their fingers and shouting, "These guys can't even spell – yet they win prizes?"
I’m sure my examples seem overly silly to people - but in my world they are no more silly than standing in front of a plastic grocery bag duct taped to a stick and saying "But that's not art!"
DP: What artists or works do you most admire?
Merete: I wouldn’t say that I decidedly admire any artists as such, but Sophie Calle, Andy Warhol and On Kawara are probably the artists who have mattered the most to me on a personal level. Discovering all three of them profoundly changed not only my views about art, but my life. All three have been major sources of personal inspiration for me.
I stumbled - and stumbled really is the right word - upon all three of them when I was very young, and they will always have a special place in my heart - in the same way that your first love will always remain special to you no matter who you fall in love with later on.