Anton Henning and the Mastery of ‘Bad Painting’
[Ill.] A cantilever chair on top of what would appear to be some kind of platform, maybe even a hard mattress, or a canvas stretched over a bulky frame; on the seat of the chair an indefinable structure that twists and writhes – that is what we see in Anton Henning’s Portrait No. 199 of 2007. It is difficult to give a more precise description because the painting is too rough to identify the materialities of the subject depicted. However, the title suggests that the structure is supposed to represent something animate. At its most extreme point, above the chair’s backrest, there are even two eyeballs and several pencil-thick eyelashes. And since a burning cigarette, gripped by a loop, is discernible somewhat lower down as well as, lower still, a paintbrush, one is altogether inclined to see in the picture an anthropomorphic figure.
The conjecture that the painter depicted simply the innards (intestines plus organs such as stomach or lung) instead of the whole body fails to fit the bill, since in that case the painting would need to be considerably more complex. Yet, there is no other way of reading it. The background, for instance, is wholly indeterminate, painted with brushstrokes even thicker and faster than the rest was. Dollops of colour, particularly of the white oil paint, adhere to the canvas. The individual tones were applied directly, without being mixed in advance.
Yet, it is not solely the rash, even casual – if not to say: slapdash? – technique that might justify the term ‘bad painting’. The subject too plays a role, inasmuch as it appears to be absurd, a bit silly, really, and therefore arbitrary. Nothing about it is edifying, beautiful or fine, then, making ‘bad painting’ an appropriate designation. It describes cases in which a work as a whole, for reasons of form and content alike, rouses the impression of being warped, awry, tasteless; cases in which a work is ‘bad’ in the sense of ‘off or even ‘nasty’.
While the glaring effects of the somehow-being-off might be interpreted as evidence of carelessness or indifference, one is often struck by additional attributes and even very precise gestures revealing that the artist deliberately ignored conventions, that the break with rules and standards was intentional rather than the result of incompetence. For instance, the format of the painting in question signals such an aspiration: ‘100.1 x 99.9 cm’, the catalogue states, measurements with which Anton Henning both destroyed the perfection of the square and rejected the round length of one metre. Moreover, these over-precise specifications contrast absurdly with the extravagant manner of painting.
The deliberate violation of established patterns and expectations of taste was the link uniting fourteen artists whose work was exhibited at show entitled ‘Bad’ Painting at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in 1978 [Ill.]. Martha Tucker, who curated the exhibition, discerned in those works above all a demonstrative shift away from the idea of artistic progress. Instead of further surpassing an avant-garde direction and seeking more radical, severe, offensive or subtle answers to questions already posed by their predecessors, the artists (most of them now unknown) displayed complete freedom, an almost brash and breezy insouciance in their handling of subjects and formal languages. They combined figurative and abstract painting, for instance, or elements of high art with set-pieces of popular culture. They did not subjugate themselves to a standard as would have been the case if they were adhering to an ideology, a style or an ideal of taste. At the same time, as Tucker noted in the catalogue, they rendered obsolete the usual forms of assessing works of art. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ became arbitrary categories, hence the addition of quotation marks to the ‘bad’ in the exhibition title.
The term Bad Painting embarked upon its career with this exhibition, and was later applied to the work of artists like Martin Kippenberger or Albert Oehlen, as well as, retrospectively, to phases in the careers of Francis Picabia, Asger Jorn or René Magritte. Not until thirty years later, however, in 2008 at the Museum für Moderne Kunst (MuMoK) in Vienna, was the first exhibition mounted that sought to comprehensively represent the phenomenon of Bad Painting. [Ill.] (Anton Henning was not included in the show, but artists like Georg Baselitz or John Currin appeared alongside the aforementioned artists.) [Ill.]
Instead of comparing the various artists associated with the notion of Bad Painting in shows such as the above, it is obviously expedient first to look further back in time, as well as outside the boundaries of fine art. Building on that, it is my intention to identify more precisely the cultural place and the (social) function of Bad Painting.
In 1964, Susan Sontag’s ‘Notes on “Camp”’ appeared. Much cited ever since, her essay made a hitherto marginal term so famous that it now appears as a heading in dictionaries. For Sontag, camp is a ‘sensibility’ about which, however, it is difficult to talk, and one which permits only a ‘tentative and nimble’ approach. For that reason, she prefers to offer brief notes (fifty-eight in all) rather than a full-fledged essay. Note 54 states:
‘The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly upon refinement. Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste. […] The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.’
Just as Marcia Tucker declared Bad Painting to be liberating, so Susan Sontag ascribes similar power to the ‘good taste of bad taste’, which is how she paraphrases camp. If the one surmounts the upward spiral into which art was driven by the avant-garde obsession with progress, the other breaks with the high standards imposed by emphatically good taste and leading to intolerance, indeed to the necessity of rejecting ever-more art as inadequate. Both – Bad Painting and camp – thus appear to be a reaction to one-sidedness and elitism. In either case, the prevailing ideals are violated deliberately in order to win back openness and curiosity – innocence.
Sontag also more closely defines camp as the ‘love of the exaggerated, the “off”’, as a matter of ‘flamboyant mannerisms’, but does not go so far as to discern in this an inversion of the established taste. Rather, ‘camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgement’ and offers for art a ‘different – a supplementary – set of standards’. In Sontag’s view, camp taste must be distinguished from the taste of champions of high culture – for instance, educated citizens – who admire grand creative achievements and take delight in beauty, seriousness and truth. Equally, however, it must be viewed as distinct from that interest in exceptional states and extremes embodied by the avant-gardist propagation of madness, terrorism, pain or, in general, superlatives. If for Sontag the sensibility of high culture is basically ‘moralistic’ and that of ‘extreme states of feeling’ embroiled in a ‘tension between moral and aesthetic passion’, then camp is ‘wholly aesthetic’. It incarnates the victory of ‘irony over tragedy’. However, that means camp is also ‘disengaged, depoliticized – or at least apolitical’. Camp taste therefore possesses an affinity to kitsch and to the breaching of taboos alike, since both are (among other things, at least) the consequence of an attitude that screens out political and moral dimensions and reduces everything to the aesthetic.
Bad Painting likewise tends to be placed somewhere between the extremes of kitsch and violated taboos. The catalogue of the Vienna exhibition classifies Asger Jorn’s series Modifications (1962) under kitsch, which is described, following the artist, as ‘banality brought to perfection’ and presented, just like ‘bad taste’, as an ‘important source of inspiration’. [Ill.: Der Barbar und die Berberin] Imputed to Martin Kippenberger, by contrast, is a ‘radical aesthetic indifference’ that purportedly makes his work ‘breaches of taboo, whether of an ethical, blasphemous, sexist or political nature’. And here again, there is talk of ‘bad taste’ as the basis of the works. [Ill.: Null Bock auf Ideen] [Ill.: Albert Oehlen: Selbstporträt mit verschissener Unterhose und blauer Mauritius (Self-Portrait with Shitty Underpants and Blue Mauritius]
Is Bad Painting therefore a variant on, or special form of, camp? If one considers Sontag’s examples of camp, the notion initially seems scarcely plausible: Her list includesTiffany lamps, for instance [Ill.], as well as the Paris Metro entrances Hector Guimard designed in the shape of cast-iron orchid stalks [Ill.], or drawings by Aubrey Beardsley [Ill.: The Toilet of Salomé]. In all these examples, however, and precisely unlike the examples of Bad Painting, there is evidence of meticulous, sometimes even highly ambitious, craftmanship. Yet, one should not draw over-hasty conclusions from this difference. It is rather the case that camp taste is no less changeable than good taste, and what seemed ‘campy’ to Susan Sontag in the early nineteen-sixties may seem just boring several decades later, or even wholly established, while conversely in the same period things that previously did not exist or were viewed as artistic failures become objects of camp taste. In other words, they are now so pointedly ‘off’ as to offer pleasurable preoccupation to those at pains to establish a good taste of bad taste.
One need only remind oneself that twenty or thirty years ago the works of several artists meanwhile considered masters of Bad Painting still met with disapproval or even deathly silence. Scholars of art generally preferred to give a wide berth to the ‘periode vache’ with which Magritte shocked the public in 1947–48 [Ill.: The Cripple], viewing this period as at best an embarrassing, if not to say painful, aberration, and art critics were for a long time highly reluctant to discuss the nudes Francis Picabia painted in Cannes during World War II [Ill.: Women with Bulldog]. One example is provided by the catalogue for a Picabia retrospective of 1983, which interprets these paintings as ‘horrified artistic reactions to the violence of those years’, which either induced the ‘failure and paralysis of artistic capabilities or else made the horror visible ‘by way of petrified human figures’. At all events, the figures in the paintings are said to be ‘insensate matter’. No small quantity of pathos was needed, it seems, to detect relevance of some kind in the schematic and stiff paintings – and be it merely as witnesses of a brutal era.
Others endeavouring to make excuses for Picabia argued that because around that time his inherited fortune had dwindled to nothing, he was obliged for the first time in his life to paint pictures that were sellable, and had dabbled in kitsch. Besides, the argument continued, many of the nude paintings had been sold by a gallery in Algeria, inviting the assumption that the pictures were conceived for sultry-tasteless Arabs, as wall decoration for princes with their harems. Others, by contrast, speculated whether Picabia, who throughout his career adopted new styles with chameleon-like ease, might not have been opportunistically pandering to the notion of art subscribed to by the Nazis then occupying Southern France – including Cannes. Prior to the 1983 show, therefore, the organizers even consulted the documentation centre of the Association of Jewish Victims of the Nazi Regime in order to make sure that no grave allegations against Picabia were on record.
Almost twenty years later, in 2002, the exhibition Dear Painter, Paint Me ... in Paris, Vienna and Frankfurt celebrated Picabia as the forerunner of post-modern and playfully insolent art concerned with provocation, wit and criticism. One of his nude paintings even made it onto the cover of the journal ART at the time, and one article in the same issue praised the ‘higher irony’ of Picabia, who had wandered ‘with the grin of a sage through the marshy lowlands of kitsch’, and thus not only paved the way for Pop Art but also anticipated the ‘rough painting à la Martin Kippenberger, Werner Büttner and Albert Oehlen’. Taste appeared to have changed, and what was initially deemed to be simply bad now seemed bad in a highly interesting way, was appreciated as the very ‘reckless and intelligent hedonism’ that Sontag had identified as an attribute of camp.
A further aspect that critics had previously preferred to handle with kid gloves was now used to substantiate Picabia’s status as an artist of irony: namely, his usage of photographs from soft-porn magazines like Mon Paris or Paris Sex Appeal. [Ill.] Instead of simply copying the sources, however, he had not only transposed the black-and-white prints to colour, but often altered their composition, as well. A playmate roguishly appeared at the side of a woman photographed playing with her jewelry on the bed and smiling at an imaginary vis-à-vis; even more interestingly, a fierce-looking bulldog took the place of the jewels. The woman’s smile seems all the more inappropriate, but otherwise the painting seems (at second glance, at least) not so much hackneyed as absurd. It displays precisely the exaggerated and excessive element Sontag discerned in the work of Beardsley or in the Paris Metro entrances. The relationship between the two women remains unclear, and Picabia made equally enigmatic changes to the background: the curtain of the photograph is replaced by a naive-looking wintry landscape behind one side of a window-lattice, but a branch bearing berries on the other side is more suggestive of summer or autumn.
In that picture, it is not just the garish colours and somewhat clumsy manner of painting that celebrate risqué taste; the randomness with which the subjects were brought together qualifies Picabia as a ‘bad painter’. If in this case he took some trouble to transform the original into a truly bizarre picture, on other occasions he took the opposite tack and reduced the complexity of a photograph, swapping the transparent and sensual lace of a curtain for a light fabric more quickly and easily painted, or simply omitting the pattern of a rug. In every case, however, his pictures amount to the wanton deconstruction of plausible, harmonious or aesthetically pleasing iconographies. The service rendered by erotic photography is severely hindered in the course of its translation into painting. However, that iconoclastic impetus meets a further criterion of Bad Painting, which Martha Tucker’s catalogue essay already placed in the corresponding tradition.
It should be clear, however, that the criteria of Bad Painting – careless application of paint, puzzling compositions, the persiflage of existing iconographies – say next to nothing when taken for themselves, but are declaratory only in relation to the existing standards, alongside which they change likewise. The art scholar Stefan Neuner points out that due to the ‘unmixed and bright colours set directly adjacent to each other’ by the Impressionists, viewers of period considered their mode of painting to be impertinent, even inadequate mastery of the technique, while no more than a few decades later a younger generation opposed the same school of painting because already it seemed too well-behaved, too canonical. Thus, a school of art can look very different at various times, even if the name remains the same. With regard to the twentieth century, Neuner discerned a continuous ‘transgression of al the standards of good taste’, leading to his assertion that ‘all great modernist painting was once “bad” painting’ that appeared in a more favourable light only when an even ‘worse’ successor emerged.
Moreover, camp and Bad Painting are subject to a more powerful dynamic of change than many other phenomena of taste because in either case the proponents – who are always in search of the best bad taste, so to speak – must be constantly alert to the danger that the object of their esteem may become (re-)established, and acceptable to good taste. The posthumous apotheosis of Kippenberger is an illuminating example. Works seen as too violent only fifteen years ago, even as an affront, as documents of a life gone off the rails, and representing for others the utmost still palatable as Bad Painting, meanwhile count as statements of high virtuosity. They are losing their provocative dimension and becoming classical, then, and soon enough people may even shrink from classifying Kippenberger as a ‘bad painter’.
Those convinced from the outset of Kippenberger’s merits have imparted their enthusiasm so successfully that the conventions of taste have changed altogether, therefore, and something initially ‘off’ is now established. Accordingly, something new must be founded to satisfy a good taste of bad taste. Sontag, who already reflected upon such changes, even expressed her hesitance to name examples of camp, since she was afraid of ‘betrayal’ – of contributing to the process whereby that which initially appeals only to people with offbeat camp taste turns into something that meets with general approval and thus represents official good taste, but is lost for the camp taste. For that reason, any attempt to compile a canon of camp, but equally to define a binding set of attributes of Bad Painting, is doomed to failure.
On the other hand, it would be rash to consider varieties of Bad Painting to be unrepeatable. As much as repetition can make them conventional and so part of ‘common sense’, the return to a particular variety can also be viewed as especially audacious, a powerful gesture of bad taste. For instance, Anton Henning borrows Picabia’s method and paints from old nude photographs. [Ill.] Henning’s photographs even date from the same period around 1940, but in order to heighten the effrontery his models come not from French magazines but from Third Reich publications that celebrated the cult of the body with titles like Leibeszucht und Leibesschönheit. [Ill.] Any notion that the contemporary artist wants to turn on himself the suspicion that Picabia flirted with the Nazi aesthetic is contradicted by Henning’s considerably more gestural style. Nor does he invest much effort in radically changing the subjects, as Picabia did. The only change (albeit an effective one) to the photograph of a pair of (blonde) girls resting on the sand is the small tattoo painted on a thigh. It looks like a signature, since the form resembles that of one of his trademarks – known as a “Hennling” – namely, a plant-like tripartite form. The placement is such that the eye focuses on the tattoo, especially since the second girl, whose appearance in the photograph suggests self-absorption, now seems to be staring at it. The unusual location of the tattoo makes it look like a liver-spot or a deformation, an aspect that lends the painting a comic, even more ‘off’, note.
The Hennlings, sometimes inserted like flowers, sometimes like abstract forms, often provide an element of absurdity. [Ill.: Interieur No. 187] Much like the intestine-like or girland-like structures frequently looped around Henning’s subjects [Ill.: Portrait No. 233], they disrupt the coherence of the picture area and make the depicted scene less credible. Once again, then, ‘bad painting’ results from wanton acts of destruction; that is what is ‘off’ in terms of traditional standards. The special attribute of Henning’s Bad Painting, however, is its subtlety – even if that appears to be a contradiction in terms. He is not as unfathomably sarcastic as Kippenberger, is less insistent than Picabia, not as insolent as Oehlen. His breaches of good taste are more like little jibes, a mischievous teasing of the audience that might lead one to think that he is satirizing, even mocking, the irony of Bad Painting – and himself at the same time. Even more than others do, Henning satirizes art-historical phenomena and examples. The ‘bad’ painter is also a pictor doctus.
In 1996, for instance, he produced the painting This is not a gun in a mouth [Ill.], of which the title is handwritten on the canvas – twice, in fact: once in preliminary-study-like grey, then, almost directly above it, in black. The subject is a grand piano (complete with Henning signet), likewise black and grey in hue. The relation of picture and text, and even the type of lettering, is reminiscent of Magritte’s famous Ceci n'est pas une pipe (This Is Not a Pipe; 1928f.) [Ill.]. The philosophical cunning displayed by the Surrealist in painting the words that his image of a pipe was not a pipe becomes, in Henning’s case, a platitude: a musical instrument is self-evidently not a gun in a mouth. However, the inscription even places in question the meaning of the painting as a whole. Just writing what a thing is not makes us aware of everything else the painter might just as well have painted, makes us wonder why he painted at all. The picture itself offers no clues. The grand piano stands in front of a white background; the execution is business-like and fast, but there is nothing to indicate what might have particularly interested or attracted the painter. The subject is neither unusual nor especially appealing in itself. The picture is just an arbitrary picture, then, indeed the artist is exposing it in all its arbitrariness.
Yet, there exists another painting of the same year, executed in the same grisaille technique on a canvas two-thirds of the size (152.5 x 122cm instead of 152.5 x 183cm), which shows a young woman (again sporting a Hennling tattoo) in the process of placing a pistol in her mouth. [Ill.] The title is Pianissimo. Little sense though it makes for the painting it belongs to, the more aptly the title fits the other picture, whose inscription for its own part refers ex negativo to the first painting. With this chiasmus, Hennling undermines the connection between work and title so important for the meaning and understanding of modernist art. Thus, while many other painters – ‘good painters’ – try to charge up their works with cryptic or significance-laden titles, he deliberately creates confusion and allows his pictures to seem misplaced (in terms of their titles) and therefore arbitrary.
Because the strategy of violating convention is demonstrated so skilfully, we can get a lot out of the pictures, after all. We are impressed precisely by the fact that an artist does not strive to make his works appear as impressive as possible, even exposes himself to the risk of being written off as idiotic and off-the-mark. It should never be forgotten that Bad Painting is a highly risky enterprise; one must offend good taste in precisely such a way that a convention becomes recognizable as such. The result of the (auto-)destructive – iconoclastic – dimension must not be the absence of anything worth the viewer’s attention. Few things need to be so well-balanced as Bad Painting, or presuppose so much sensibility for taste. To break rules skilfully is even more difficult than to obey them to the letter, for mere knowledge of the rules and practice in their compliance is not sufficient; one must also have a sense of how, and how much, it is possible to deviate from them without falling over the precipice.
Precisely Anton Henning’s subtle violations of the rules convey a notion of what it means to possess a good taste of bad taste or, as Stefan Neuner put it in regard to Bad Painting, a ‘taste for the tasteless’. This equally makes it clear that, contrary to Marcia Tucker’s suggestion, Bad Painting is also something very elitist. After all, an advanced, self-reflexive taste is needed not just to create according products but also to be able to deal with them. However rude and purportedly archaic Bad Painting may appear at first glance, all the more does it presupposes a culture sufficiently elaborated to be able to transcend and disclaim its own self.
Here again, Susan Sontag’s assertion in regard to camp taste holds true: she saw it as representing a ‘new-style dandyism’, even as ‘part of the history of snob taste’. While the hallmark of the classical dandy, who wearily displayed contemptuous disdain for virtually everything as proof of his ‘overbred’ culture of taste (his pointedly good taste), was the shunning of anything vulgar, loud or indecent, the follower of camp, with his pointedly bad taste, feels ‘continually amused, delighted’ precisely by forms of the trivial, imbecile, exaggerated, off. ‘The dandy’, as Sontag continues, ‘held a perfumed handkerchief to his nostrils and was liable to swoon; the connoisseur of Camp sniffs the stink and prides himself on his strong nerves.’
The enjoyment of Bad Painting equally demands strong nerves as well as a certain degree of cool. That is presumably also why it especially attracts people who want to prove something to themselves and to others, even seek to triumph over others with their bad taste – and to out those others as aesthetic cowards. Small surprise, then, that the prominent representatives of the direction are exclusively male, and often possess a pronounced instinct for domination. They define themselves over tests of aesthetic courage, regularly challenge each other to raise the stakes – to expect themselves and others to take even more.
Only somebody confident of the security of their position, then, who is not seeking education, solace or warmth and views as uncool the proffering of such things, can afford to do without that which belongs to good taste, without forms of undisrupted beauty, and instead take delight in ironical, provocative and absurd special forms of the aesthetic. Stefan Neuner speaks of the ‘urban intellectual milieu’ solely able to build up a relationship to the ‘aesthetic refinement’ of Bad Painting, and Susan Sontag considers camp taste conceivable only in ‘affluent societies […] capable of experiencing the psychopathology of affluence’.
Almost inevitably, however, a sense of superiority sets in on the part of people aware of their own coolness and proud of possessing not just good taste but also good taste of bad taste. To them, the classical Bildungsbürger appears tame, a mere follower of the canon, whereas the representative of the avant-garde who equates culture with a state of emergency and strong emotions, can be derided as a naive disciple of authenticity – incapable of adopting distance from the self and cultivating a culture of irony, persiflage and deconstruction. Somebody who approves of camp or Bad Painting and takes pleasure in what others view as a sign of bad taste, at the same time staves off those others, is able to rest secure in the knowledge of possessing something especially exclusive. If many other status symbols are subject to the danger of being desired by others likewise and therefore losing their exclusive quality, then those who identify with something that yields no pleasure for the vast majority is better protected against being roped in for the wrong cause. (Unless, that is, he propagates his preferences so successfully that they become, after all, part of the general predisposition).
In the extreme case, a good taste of bad taste is even intimidating to others, who reject the objects of such taste but also have an inkling that there might be something about them that eludes their grasp. Whoever finds Bad Painting ugly and revolting may be able to despise its proponents, but more frequently the worry will remain that one has merely failed – so far – to recognize in it something especially deep and subtle, even an utopian factor; that one lacks the ability to penetrate the disguise of the silly and offbeat and is therefore inferior to those who take pleasure in something tasteless. The feelings of superiority of the masters of bad taste then even correspond with the self-accusatory gestures of those unable to muster that kind of virtuosity. In this way, differences in milieu are reinforced from two sides at once.
Yet, elitism such as that pursued by the proponents of camp and Bad Painting can take on defeatist or nihilist features, being ultimately expressive of an attitude that derives amusement from making fun, as a basic principle, of something important to other people. Directed against ‘common sense’, the attitude therefore flirts with the frivolity of the asocial. Instead of conceding validity to moral viewpoints, everything is viewed merely as a question of taste – more precisely, of pointedly bad taste – and thus in aesthetic terms. This is further indication of the proximity to a dandyism consisting in the determination to screen out any attitudes but the aesthetic. But while the dandy can function as a role model for all those desiring to further refine their taste – their sensibility for beauty – enthusiasts of camp and Bad Painting are role models, if at all, only for the ability to appreciate also and especially the displaced, and in this way disable existing hierarchies and value systems.
That in visual art, unlike in music, literature or film, entire genealogies of oeuvres have developed that appeal to the taste for the tasteless and aim precisely to devalue other – existing – art, is due to a requirement for originality more pronounced here than elsewhere. Mistrust of the established is inherent to modernism as a whole, and the fear of being described as decorative, academic or blandly pleasing impels many fine artists to distance themselves as far as possible from everything generally perceived to be tasteful. Bad Painting is first of all a reflex, then, often a well-nigh panic-stricken – and for that reason, in many cases not exactly subtle, indeed wholly unreflected – act of self-assertion. The degree to which this motivation has become a habitus and thus, paradoxically, meanwhile represents precisely that from which it so violently shies – namely, academicism – is evidenced by customs at art schools. Many professors, for instance, give first-year students the task of using only colour-tones they do not like, and of experimenting with colour-combinations to which they are averse. In this way, they are virtually trained not to take seriously their own taste – and not to adhere to it in all events.
To go into opposition to oneself becomes, however, the best preparation for resisting society as a whole. In this respect, Bad Painting does not present a fundamental alternative to the spirit of the avant-garde, as Marcia Tucker believed, but signifies merely a different strategy aiming to meet the requirement to break with as many conventions as possible and to be as original as possible oneself. While the innovational striving of the first generation of avant-gardists still expressed a faith in progress as they used art to develop and propagate political, social or even form-specific themes, in the following generations the analysis wholly shifted to the field of taste. That was more radical, and less so at the same time. More radical because until then taste had exercised the function of a binding standard – unquestionable (much like the sensibility of plausibility among scientists), and less radical because it was now exclusively a matter of aesthetic consideration – of acts of aesthetic defiance – and political engagement of any kind fell by the wayside.
In the best case, however, Bad Painting really does amount to a liberation, as Tucker asserted, and is good for the digestion, to recall Susan Sontag’s formulation. Great though the danger may be that the alienating factor takes the foreground and gestures of superiority and intimidation result, there is an equally great chance that dealing with of Bad Painting can prove effective against the symptoms of an elitist notion of high culture. When the pleasure in the absurd, comical and offbeat has been roused, the task of art that places its stakes on the sublime and transcendental – and as such lends itself well to instrumentalization as an accessory of power – is presumably no longer so easy. Suddenly, it seems humourless and eccentric, even excessive in its pretensions. By contrast, the best works of Bad Painting seem like good cabaret: sharp, clever, spontaneous, quick to react. Thanks to them, you find yourself in a good mood, maybe even in a frenzy of finding things funny. Even situations and utterances that might be considered boring in the cold light of day can then be enjoyed as pointed specialities. And in this way a visit to an exhibition, the browsing through a catalogue of Bad Painting, can become a very amusing – and liberating – experience.
An exhibition or a catalogue with works by Anton Henning are especially suitable for the above purpose. The surprising ruptures are so many-sided that one not only becomes very alert but can also ‘look one’s way’ into a frenzy of finding things funny. As much as an individual work may seem arbitrary or merely obscure, so the works in their totality are like a long row of dominoes. Once you do start to laugh, then there’s scarcely any stopping. The smallest detail and the silliest Hennling [Ill.: La Rencontre No. 4] then becomes an occasion to be happy that the artist succeeds in liberating so much wit. And, before you know it, you begin to feel that the good taste of bad taste is the best taste.