6th Swiss Scultpure Exhibition Biel

Peter F. Althaus

How to Respond to Works of Art – some polemical thoughts1

There is a fairly venerable tradition in art history that one could trace – albeit with very different aspects – back to the Renaissance (to Vasari's semi-documentary Vitæ, for example). It actually seems surprising that to do so should reveal the greatest possible range of responses to works of art, which in their turn might be examined, for example as expressions of highly diverse modes of perception, but that it has been left to the past twenty years to make them the object of study. Occasions for such a pursuit might be found, on the one hand, in the theoretical study of communication in the broadest sense, whose significance becomes evident as our lives grow increasingly complex and fragmented. On the other hand, they also resulted from the need to establish organisations and institutions to compensate for alienation and lack of solidarity.

Communication research, especially research concerning its impact (called "pragmatic" by the experts), considers art and works of art as media, and by no means the most important or highest-ranking of them all. And so the study of how we respond to art is related to its de-mystification: the work of art is no longer created by a unique, wild-grown mysterious genius but the expression of what may be a particularly attentive and sensitive man who conveys his understanding of the world around him as he perceives it. Seen from outside, then, a work of art is a message from an individual whose personal "filter" reveals our society's constraints, dependencies, modes of thinking and perceiving, etc. in a certain place and at a certain, historically defined point in time. Depending on the means available to the "perceiver", i.e. whether he has learnt and practiced the necessary "idioms" (codes), understanding this message may occur at various levels, even involving the same object.

The work of art – as, of course, any other object – is perceived in a certain referential context which in part depends on the perceiver's physiological and psychological situation and personal experiences, in part on external circumstances (spatial and temporal relationship between subject and object), and in part on the perceptual conventions of a specific social setting (conditioned by education, say, and status, occupation, religion, and the like). In other words, the object is "recognised" on initial contact, i.e. it is related to something that already exists in the perceiver's visual memory, and conceptually attributed (it is identified). Whether or not such identification is objectively correct does not matter here; similarities or associations will often suffice (take, for example, optical illusions) for recognition to provide a sense of satisfaction: the new object can then be integrated into the perceiver's existing conceptual world, is therefore no longer an irritant, and no longer exerts a stimulus. The more rapidly something is "recognised", the less incentive there is for further consideration ("Aha, a Picasso!" often seems to render further consideration superfluous, or at least compellingly leads such consideration to the knowledgeable utterance, "a good Picasso for 1967.").

Motivation and expectation exert a decisive influence on perception, which always selects, i.e. is partial perception. I am inclined to see what I wish to see (i.e. my beloved among the street crowd, five times a day) and I am inclined to see what I expect to see (i.e. that the man in the white coat carries a stethoscope around his neck). We tend – for it is much less strenuous – to find the same stereotypes over and over again, according to the law of perception that makes us complement the missing details in simple geometrical shapes (to see the "good shapes") before the perceptual process has even been completed. Perception could also be described as a compromise between received sensory stimuli and desires and expectations. This is why we tend to resist having to change our perceptual habits, which is what the artistic avant-garde demands us to do. Firstly, because this upsets our well-honed world-view, our frame of reference. But also because we fear being excluded from the communicative party of art connoisseurs if we fail to understand the latest codes right away.

Not to be able to hold one's own – this is not something anyone in the enlightened art scene can afford. However, what is particularly alarming in this context is the effect of the above mentioned "inclinations" in the field of the fine arts, i.e. an elementary area of sensory perception (or so one should think). As soon as a coloured piece of canvas in a frame hangs on a wall, or its reproduction appears in an art magazine, the notion of "Art" as a frame of perceptual reference clicks into place. Duchamp has already shown us that all it takes for our mode of perception to change, is to physically, or linguistically, transfer an object into an art gallery. While the frame of reference called "Art" in some people arouses precise expectations based on a traditional connoisseurship which will allow for only minimal retouchings, it will cause others to resign and to avoid making any judgment of their own, and yet others to see a free space where everything goes and any expression of criticism might only tarnish their open-minded image; and so on. In the context of the official art scene, very few people indeed fail to respond with a specific form of "art appreciation behaviour". This immediately robs art, whose intention it is in most cases – like all communication – to change things, of its opportunity to be received as something that demands commitment, and to bring about real change in our social setting. Which is a shame.
Peter F. Althaus
1 Translator's note: I have done my best to preserve the convoluted sentence structure and repetitions of the German original

@ Translation from English, June 2008: Margret Powell-Joss

  • En Cuentro Volcado, Torres Manuel, expo 1975
    En Cuentro Volcado
  • Figur I, Engel Michel, expo 1975
    Figur I
  • Sculpture I, Brunner Gottfried, expo 1975
    Sculpture I
  • Element 100, Luginbühl Bernhard, expo 1975
    Element 100
  • bild2, Camesi Gianfredo, expo 1975
  • Hast noch der Berge ja…., Gerber Hans, expo 1975
    Hast noch der Berge ja….
  • Neugierig, Demut Trudi, expo 1975
  • Nostalgie (Kuh), Pedretti Giuliano, expo 1975
    Nostalgie (Kuh)
  • Maternité, Rehmann Erwin, expo 1975
  • Pavillonskulptur II, Bill Max, expo 1975
    Pavillonskulptur II
  • Lieudit II, Grossert Michaël, expo 1975
    Lieudit II
  • Löwenturm, Roth Dieter, expo 1975
  • Segelflächen-Skulptur Nr. 3, Pfenninger Kaspar, expo 1975
    Segelflächen-Skulptur Nr. 3
  • Nathan, Tschannen Jürg, expo 1975
  • Animus und Anima, D'Altri Arnold, expo 1975
    Animus und Anima
  • Begehbare Platten, Lüchinger Thomas, expo 1975
    Begehbare Platten
  • Toro, Rossi Remo, expo 1975
  • Refuge, Müller Robert, expo 1975
  • Die Verschwörung, Hotz Roland, expo 1975
    Die Verschwörung
  • Cheops-Pyramide, Signer Roman, expo 1975
  • Eisenplastik 5, Odermatt Josef Maria, expo 1975
    Eisenplastik 5
  • Karyatide II, Stocker Ludwig, expo 1975
    Karyatide II
  • Sitzende, Steiger-Crawford Flora, expo 1975
  • Enlacé, Torres Manuel, expo 1975
  • Figure Xa, Presset Henri, expo 1975
    Figure Xa
  • Fragrant piece (men, Ducimetière Gérald, expo 1975
    Fragrant piece (men
  • « Dimensionn unique » (Transmutation forme de terre) Unité II, Camesi Gianfredo, expo 1975
    « Dimensionn unique » (Transmutation forme de terre) Unité II
  • Sculpture, Ischi Pierre, expo 1975
  • Grosses Rad, Küng René, expo 1975
    Grosses Rad
  • Projekt Spielplastik M 1:10, Megert Christian, expo 1975
    Projekt Spielplastik M 1:10
  • bild1, Camesi Gianfredo, expo 1975
  • 1974, Kretz Walter, expo 1975
  • bild3, Kathariner Alois, expo 1975
  • Drahtplastik, Bodmer Walter, expo 1975
  • bild2, Vetter Konrad, expo 1975
  • Spiralen-Frau, Benazzi Raffael, expo 1975
  • „Bitte kommen Sie doch …“, Brand Heinz, expo 1975
    „Bitte kommen Sie doch …“
  • Selbstbildnis, Keller Gottfried, expo 1975
  • Fanfare, Müller Robert, expo 1975
  • Buluu, Huser Theodor, expo 1975
  • bild2, Nussbaumer Lorenz, expo 1975
  • „Ist das wieder eine fatale Sommernacht…“, Weber Willy, expo 1975
    „Ist das wieder eine fatale Sommernacht…“
  • Metabolicium, Seibt Dieter, expo 1975
  • Chaos I, Tinguely Jean, expo 1975
    Chaos I
  • Holzsäule farbig, Kaufmann Walter, expo 1975
    Holzsäule farbig
  • 3 Elemente (Reliefs), Imfeld Karl, expo 1975
    3 Elemente (Reliefs)
  • Findlingskopf, Kunz Peter, expo 1975
  • Rückhalt (Relief), Schaub Mischa, expo 1975
    Rückhalt (Relief)
  • Begehbares Figurenfeld, Hutter Schang, expo 1975
    Begehbares Figurenfeld
  • Tubs C, Huber Hans Rudolf, expo 1975
    Tubs C
  • Objekt III, Villiger Hannah, expo 1975
    Objekt III
  • MAL 3-teilig, Fischli Hans, expo 1975
    MAL 3-teilig
  • La Siciliana, Weiss Max, expo 1975
    La Siciliana
  • 1975, Brand Heinz, expo 1975
  • Wind – Pendelrad, Witschi Werner, expo 1975
    Wind – Pendelrad
  • Grosse Stehende, Steiger-Crawford Flora, expo 1975
    Grosse Stehende
  • Die Plattform Noah’s, Gerber Hans, expo 1975
    Die Plattform Noah’s
  • Holy Gost, Kohlbrenner Beat, expo 1975
    Holy Gost
  • Katharsis, D'Altri Arnold, expo 1975
  • Windharfe, Küng René, expo 1975
  • « Wo sich die Winde zum Spiele finden… », Hanselmann-Erne Adelheid, expo 1975
    « Wo sich die Winde zum Spiele finden… »
  • Lichtplastik, Metzler Kurt Laurenz, expo 1975
  • „High-Time“ Kapelle, Siegenthaler Albert, expo 1975
    „High-Time“ Kapelle
  • Croce, Rossi Remo, expo 1975
  • Findling I, Pösinger Franz, expo 1975
    Findling I
  • bild2, Kathariner Alois, expo 1975
  • Ago con Pelliccia, Paolucci Flavio, expo 1975
    Ago con Pelliccia
  • Stilleben – nature morte, Egloff Anton, expo 1975
    Stilleben – nature morte
  • Barke, Egloff Anton, expo 1975
  • bild1, Kathariner Alois, expo 1975
  • bild3, Camesi Gianfredo, expo 1975
  • Hardsoftly – S 30, Bucher Carl, expo 1975
    Hardsoftly – S 30
  • Aldebaran, Ramseyer André, expo 1975
  • Grosser Boss, Luginbühl Bernhard, expo 1975
    Grosser Boss
  • Wasserorgel, Werro Roland, expo 1975
  • Gartenobjekt, Roth Dieter, expo 1975
  • Figure XIIa, Presset Henri, expo 1975
    Figure XIIa
  • Kopfgruppe, Kunz Peter, expo 1975
  • Kampf, Flückiger Carlo, expo 1975
  • Steinflügel, Sigrist Kurt, expo 1975
  • Saul und David, Zschokke Alex, expo 1975
    Saul und David
  • bild1, Vetter Konrad, expo 1975
  • Danielle, Schwarz Heinz, expo 1975
  • Lozziwurm, Pestalozzi Ivan, expo 1975
  • Stele (4-teilig), Grunder Mariann, expo 1975
    Stele (4-teilig)
  • Vorprojekt künstlerische Gestaltung Kinderspital Bern, Megert Christian, expo 1975
    Vorprojekt künstlerische Gestaltung Kinderspital Bern
  • Véronique, Schwarz Heinz, expo 1975
  • Klappwürfel, Vetter Konrad, expo 1975
  • Kreuzfrau, Eggenschwiler Franz, expo 1975
  • Eisenplastik I, Wiggli Oskar, expo 1975
    Eisenplastik I
  • Die Frau und die Schlange, Wyss Josef, expo 1975
    Die Frau und die Schlange
  • Cuscino con Agio, Paolucci Flavio, expo 1975
    Cuscino con Agio
  • Don Quichotte, Richier Germaine, expo 1975
    Don Quichotte
  • 1975, Brand Heinz, expo 1975
  • Palais, Hefti Bernhard, expo 1975
  • bild1, Nussbaumer Lorenz, expo 1975
  • Fluidrose, Ponçet Antoine, expo 1975
  • Glasskulptur 75/6, Mauboulès Jean, expo 1975
    Glasskulptur 75/6
  • Objekt I, Villiger Hannah, expo 1975
    Objekt I
  • Mère et enfant, Gisiger Hansjörg, expo 1975
    Mère et enfant
  • Baumstrunk, Huser Theodor, expo 1975
  • Säulenweib, Meister Peter, expo 1975
  • Figur V, Wimpheimer Willy, expo 1975
    Figur V
  • PH-PH, Berger Ueli, expo 1975
  • 1974, Kretz Walter, expo 1975
  • Komposition (Gegensätze), Teucher Otto, expo 1975
    Komposition (Gegensätze)
  • La Spirale, Oppenheim Meret, expo 1975
    La Spirale
  • Piano rhythmique, Linck Walter, expo 1975
    Piano rhythmique
  • 1974, Kretz Walter, expo 1975
  • Marbre rouge de Vérone, Müller Manuel, expo 1975
    Marbre rouge de Vérone
  • Sunrise, Fontana Annemie, expo 1975
  • Hermes-Brunnen, Oppenheim Meret, expo 1975
  • Eber, Probst Jacob, expo 1975
  • Durchbrochene Gestaltung, Fahrni Samuel, expo 1975
    Durchbrochene Gestaltung
  • Isolquart, Granwehr Florin, expo 1975
  • Plastik auf rundem Sockel, Suter Paul, expo 1975
    Plastik auf rundem Sockel
  • Redner, Fischer Franz, expo 1975
  • Fläche – Raum – Ecke – Fläche (5 Platten), Stäuble Jürg, expo 1975
    Fläche – Raum – Ecke – Fläche (5 Platten)
  • Eisenplastik II, Wiggli Oskar, expo 1975
    Eisenplastik II
  • Athéna, Berthoud Francis, expo 1975
  • Torse d’adolescente, Schwarz Heinz, expo 1975
    Torse d’adolescente
  • Mémorial pour une Indienne d’Amazonie, Gisiger Hansjörg, expo 1975
    Mémorial pour une Indienne d’Amazonie
  • Monument der zukünftigen Vergangenheit, Meister Peter, expo 1975
    Monument der zukünftigen Vergangenheit
  • Drei Figuren, Storrer Peter, expo 1975
    Drei Figuren
  • 1975, Brand Heinz, expo 1975
  • Bronze-Beton-Scheibe III, Rehmann Erwin, expo 1975
    Bronze-Beton-Scheibe III
  • Torso der Aphrodite, Hubacher Hermann, expo 1975
    Torso der Aphrodite
  • Rhythmus im Raum, Bill Max, expo 1975
    Rhythmus im Raum
  • 2-er Gruppe, Grunder Mariann, expo 1975
    2-er Gruppe
  • Tinguely, Hofkunst Alfred, expo 1975
  • Rythme, Emile Angéloz, expo 1975
  • Signaltor, Engler Jakob, expo 1975
  • Le Dix, Hächler Peter, expo 1975
    Le Dix
  • Objet Soleure, Müller Robert, expo 1975
    Objet Soleure
  • Karyathide, Brütsch Friedrich, expo 1975
  • Janus-Mütter, D'Altri Arnold, expo 1975
  • Widder-Frau, Benazzi Raffael, expo 1975
  • Figur IV, Aeschbacher Hans, expo 1975
    Figur IV
  • Gruppe mit zwei Figuren, Aeppli Eva, expo 1975
    Gruppe mit zwei Figuren
  • „In Tuchfühlung treten…“, Buchwalder Ernst, expo 1975
    „In Tuchfühlung treten…“
  • bild2, Armleder John Michael, expo 1975
  • Colonne BTG, Candolfi Serge, expo 1975
    Colonne BTG
  • Colonne BTS, Candolfi Serge, expo 1975
    Colonne BTS
  • Figur I, Aeschbacher Hans, expo 1975
    Figur I
  • Projet Bienne, Huber Hans Rudolf, expo 1975
    Projet Bienne
  • Findling II, Pösinger Franz, expo 1975
    Findling II
  • Eisenplastik 1, Odermatt Josef Maria, expo 1975
    Eisenplastik 1
  • Modell zu Figur I (Mst 1:6), Aeschbacher Hans, expo 1975
    Modell zu Figur I (Mst 1:6)
  • Zak, Staub Josef, expo 1975
  • Schyterbeige, Eggenschwiler Franz, expo 1975
  • Torse, Schwarz Heinz, expo 1975
  • Säule mit Kreuz, Balmer Lorenz, expo 1975
    Säule mit Kreuz
  • Findling III, Pösinger Franz, expo 1975
    Findling III
  • In sich verhalten, Demut Trudi, expo 1975
    In sich verhalten
  • Forme confiante, Ponçet Antoine, expo 1975
    Forme confiante
  • bild1, Armleder John Michael, expo 1975
  • „Monsieur X“, Berthoud Francis, expo 1975
    „Monsieur X“
  • Figur II, Aeschbacher Hans, expo 1975
    Figur II
  • Knochenkiste, Iseli Rolf, expo 1975
  • Urbanocoleopter, Moser Wilfried, expo 1975
  • Es ist nie zu spät für e Gartezwärg, Kunz Peter, expo 1975
    Es ist nie zu spät für e Gartezwärg
  • Einhorn, Müller Erich, expo 1975
  • Metallplastik, Mattioli Silvio, expo 1975
  • Werk Nr. 1503, Benazzi Raffael, expo 1975
    Werk Nr. 1503
  • Hakencat, Travaglini Peter, expo 1975
  • Der Menschenbaum, Fischer Franz, expo 1975
    Der Menschenbaum
  • E.5.G., Duarte Angel, expo 1975
  • Elément, Emile Angéloz, expo 1975
  • Etagère, Spoerri Daniel, expo 1975
  • Begehbare Raumplastik, Pedretti Gian, expo 1975
    Begehbare Raumplastik
  • Sculpture II, Brunner Gottfried, expo 1975
    Sculpture II
  • En Cuentro Horizontal, Torres Manuel, expo 1975
    En Cuentro Horizontal
  • Grosser Klappwürfel, Vetter Konrad, expo 1975
    Grosser Klappwürfel