Art theorist Wolfgang Ullrich – Is art losing its connection to society?

The art world has a new record: Andy Warhol’s screen print “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn” is the most expensive work of art of the 20th century. It changed hands for $195 million at an auction in New York. Art is becoming a game for the super-rich, museums can no longer keep up, iconic works of the 20th century are disappearing into private collections.

But even in normal galleries it can happen – as was the case recently at the Berlin Gallery Weekend – that one finds oneself in front of a huge canvas by the painter Günter Förg: three and a half by 13 meters of predominantly gray stripes. For the Leipzig art theorist Wolfgang Ullrich, this type of painting has always had an elitist attitude and is a status symbol for rich private collectors or large companies:

“There’s a work that exclaims, ‘I want the whole wall to myself. I don’t want to be compared. I don’t want to be part of a bigger production. I want to be distinctive, unique, outstanding’.”

Beyond Art Autonomy

For Ullrich, this art has never had a connection to society, but as autonomous art it was only committed to itself. But he thinks it wrong to draw the conclusion that art as a whole has turned its back on the real world, the normal public. On the contrary: the time when art declared itself independent of politics, religion, society or morality, the time of art autonomy, is over.

He observes an opening of art to politics and morality on the one hand, and to public consumption on the other hand, and sees that “artists are now also offering their followers, their fans, art articles: It can still be the printed coffee cups, but we very often see works that claim to be art. These are art toys, i.e. objects that you can place on your own. These are often things that still have a function – at least in advance – as doorstops or skateboards or surfboards.”. Ullrich does not see that there could be two worlds here, here exclusive art for elite collectors and there art knick-knacks for the masses.

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Art that doesn’t just want to be art

But isn’t there something revealing when, for example, an artist like Sterling Ruby, who repeatedly addresses social issues in his art, exhibits huge tapestries in a Berlin gallery that somehow take up the conditions in the textile industry and the material practices in marginalized communities, But these works are so gigantic and so expensive at almost 500,000 euros that the public remains mere onlookers of this artistic enlightenment? For Wolfgang Ullrich, Sterling Ruby is a great example of an artist who has arrived in post-autonomous art production.

“He doesn’t just want to make art here. For him, the materials are also socio-historical documents. Some of it he produced himself, some of it bought somewhere. Some of them are from the 19th century. And he himself tries to hang a lot of discourses on it. It’s about the gender discourse: Who made these fabrics at some point? What have they been used for? It’s about minority discourse. It’s about cult techniques that were primarily cultivated by blacks. It’s about religious minorities like the Amish people, who are represented with certain fabrics. So he called up a lot of discourses – and that should expressly be the case. One should regard these images not only as art, but also as a call to increase one’s own political sensitivity.”

The fact that they are only produced for the rich, who also buy a good conscience and moral integrity with the status symbol, as in a modern indulgence trade, is not a problem for Ullrich in this case. Because Ruby also runs a fashion label. “The same stuff that he makes art from, he then makes pants and jackets and flags and everything else, so he explicitly sees himself as an artist and a fashion designer and also as someone who also wants to be a political activist .”

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The Warhol brand

For Ullrich, the fact that art has not only turned to society is shown not only by the fact that art today not only wants to be art, but also fashion or political activism. Rather, the auction in New York shows that art – and Warhol in particular – has long since become a brand and is therefore part of pop culture. Here, owning the original hardly plays a role.

“It is precisely the high price of such a work that creates more connections between art and a broader public. Because numbers are always important for pop culture, especially large numbers, superlative numbers – how many copies have been sold, in which charts was this or that song? The fact that this is a record for a work from the 20th century also makes this work exciting for a broader public. In this respect, there is more of an overcoming of distance, of alienation between art and audience.”.

Wolfgang Ullrich: “Art after the end of its autonomy”
Verlag Klaus Wagenbach, Berlin 2022
192 pages, 22 euros