Text by: Lars Vilks

The Cabinet of Dr. Viskum

This article was first published in the book MORTEN VISKUM, published by Sørlandets Kunstmuseum. LARS VILKS is a Swedish Artist and Art Historian

The philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto saw Andy Warhol’s exhibition of Brillo Boxes in New York in 1964 (Brillo is a brand name cleaning product). After seeing them he concluded that anything could be art. Danto’s opinion went on to exercise tremendous influence in the artworld. Some years later his theory was rounded out by Professor George Dickie’s institutional theory: What the artworld calls art is art. 

Theoreticians were, however, not the only ones actively working with such ideas. During the 1960s Conceptual Art emerged, an artistic direction that mixes theory with practice. Artists such as Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth and John Baldessari exercised as much influence by creating artworks based on ideas – and these works could be anything at all. Nevertheless, several years would pass before the artistic direction gained a dominant position. In fact, it did not happen until the Postmodern era, beginning in the late 1980s, when conceptual and clearly institutionally-dependent art moved from a peripheral position to the centre. The early 1990s were dramatic years of transition, for it was then that Modernism’s conception of art was dislodged from its prominent position and a conceptual orientation became dominant. This shift was clearly noticeable in art academies. 

Morten Viskum was accepted as a student at the Art Academy of Oslo in 1993. With credits only from veterinary college (a study program he did not complete), the decision to even consider him qualified for enrolment was obviously related to the new concept of art taking hold in the academy. It was no longer a self-evident advantage for applicants to have undergone traditional art classes such as painting or sculpting. Quite the opposite; art students now needed completely different formative experiences in order to comply with the new maxim that ‘everything can be art’. At the time arguments were developed to support what would become the leading international contemporary art form, one focusing especially on social criticism. Over the years these arguments have become internationalized and consistent. 

Someone who lacks a traditional, rudimentary art education will also lack knowledge on how the artworld coheres and functions; that person will not understand how judgments are made or grasp what sorts of things are considered correct and acceptable. Morten Viskum lacked most everything in these respects. Instead, he had his own interpretation of the artist’s role, and, having been interested in existential questions while at veterinary school, he now developed these based on his own reflections. He simultaneously gained insight into the ‘tribal’ society of the artworld and how it functions. It must be said, however, that he has never become a full-fledged member of it. When, in 1995, he produced the performance project Rats/olives, in which he stuffed olive jars with rat babies and discretely placed them in 20 grocery stores, his career got a flying start, albeit in a highly unusual way. The attention he received from the mass media was clearly unusual for an art student. Nevertheless, provocation is problematic, especially when the perpetrator does it openly and deliberately. In Viskum’s case there was no real reason behind it. I taught at the art academy back then and remember the huge discussions people within the institution were having over the stunt. Opinions about it were deeply divided. The reason some gave for why Viskum had done it was more or less the same as has been given for his later projects: He just wanted to attract attention. The only achievement was to be mentioned in the press. It was a provocation without meaning. Such a project is not new, it has been done before, it is just a repetition. But others thought the opposite – it was a smart idea. Either way, the fact remained: Morten Viskum had found a method of working which he has deliberately continued to use. 

The hallmark of his work method is the element of provocation. Now, ‘provocation’ in art is a rather interesting phenomenon. When an artist is asked why he provokes his audience the answer comes like a reflex: provocation is never his intention. Instead, he wants to trigger some form of discussion about a given theme. The effects of the artwork are beyond the artist’s control and have accidentally developed into something that can be described as a provocation. In other words, deliberate provocation is unacceptable. Even Viskum has learned this. In some way or another his works affect a wider public, activated through the mass media, and in addition they affect the artworld’s more limited membership. Large-scale attention is only possible outside the artworld. The artworld is far too marginal for achieving a high level of interest. As the saying goes, an artist who is famous and renowned within the artworld is, in principle, completely unknown outside of it. The attention Viskum so often generates provokes the artworld, first, because the artworld really wants to reach out to the masses, and second, because Viskum does not follow the artworld’s agenda, which only rarely affects the general public. One way Viskum deviates from the agenda is his interest in illimitable themes such as life, death and religion, although his approach here is not very specific. Dealing with such themes falls outside the norm and can come across as overly ambitious. In addition, it causes his critics to view him as bombastic and insensitive. 

Viskum probably has no strategy for revealing the artworld’s limitations, especially with respect to the freedom it claims to be spokesman for. Even so, the reactions to his art tell a great deal about how the artworld functions. Some generally accepted notions about the objectives of contemporary art are that it should exceed existing boundaries, influence a social reality, reach a larger public and take risks. Without doubt, Viskum succeeds in each of these objectives, but according to the artworld, he does it in the wrong way. His boundary crossings are tasteless and spectacular transgressions, and the way he exercises influence and reaches out to the wider public is by creating sensations and provocations that get written up in the newspaper. In this way he becomes an artist who really takes risks. 

If we can imagine how the artworld would ideally want to fulfil its objectives, it might look like this: The artworld (i.e., the part of it that holds symbolic power) has a political and moral agenda. Hence ‘to exceed existing boundaries’ means to detect wrong attitudes and provoke an audience that deserves to be provoked. Phrases like ‘against oppressive power structures’ are commonly used to define the appropriate direction an artwork should take. And while the goals of reaching a wider audience and influencing a social reality have always been problem children for the artworld, its stance has remained a moral one: by persistently following the current agenda (which, in simplified form, can be described as politically left but not extreme), the public and the responsible world should follow art’s deeply benevolent and inclusive lead. Of course it does not work. As for ‘risk’, this is an honourable concept. If an artist takes risks, his work is often awarded additional quality. An artist can, for instance, risk loosing control over the work, or he can try doing something he has never done before. The ‘risks’ critics and others want artists to take seldom lead to any consequences. What the artist risks least of all is the unthinkable: to lose one’s good reputation and hence the possibility of a continued career and position in the artworld. 

Although rare, it is still possible to detect a certain degree of risk-taking in the artworld. Damien Hirst, one of Viskum’s main points of reference, continuously involves himself in situations that render him somewhat controversial. I should put ‘controversial’ in inverted commas because Hirst is one of the world’s most influential artists, an undisputed superstar. When he, in 2007, exhibited a human skull encrusted with diamonds, it verged on kitsch, sensationalism and money-grabbing. In 2008 his direct sales of new works through Sotheby’s were an economic adventure. The art sales take place at a high level since they have more to do with status than money. Hirst’s latest move, to exhibit paintings in London’s Wallace Collection, is probably his most daring. Presenting works he himself has painted alongside the masters of art history – it is as if he is competing with them. His skill as a painter is questionable. Hirst is always controversial, even when he, as in this case, receives pronounced negative criticism. He has, after all, plenty of supporters. With respect to discourse formation (that is what his works are about), Hirst does not mince words; his art address the basic existential themes of life and death. To engage in such large general themes is, as mentioned, rare in today’s artworld. But Hirst navigates his way through this problem with a strategy we suggest is built on irony: while playing along with the artworld, he seeks to expose how it works. Being a controversial artist entails posing a challenge but at the same time being accepted. 

There are structural similarities between Hirst and Viskum in this respect. Viskum is controversial in Norway, both for the general public and the artworld. He provokes the public by causing them to ask questions: What things can be art? What is morally defensible? He provokes the artworld through spectacles that are diluted by his overly ambitious program of asking life’s greatest existential questions. The artworld also reacts because he diverges from the standard agenda for internationally-oriented contemporary art. He gains a high media profile through spreading the ‘wrong’ kind of art, thus reducing the opportunity for the ‘right’ kind of art to gain attention. Note here that the artworld acts as if it has a large public base. This it does not have, for advanced contemporary art is an internal matter. Viskum, however, manages to reach out with his projects, while the artworld almost always fails. A different issue is what it means to ‘reach out’. Here Viskum has the same problem as the artworld in general, for the reaction tends to be that the public asks whether or not something is art. 

Meanwhile, quality is defined and confirmed by an artworld that is not entirely fond of Viskum’s art. The controversy he is embroiled in is mostly internal to the Norwegian artworld. Although frequently exhibiting internationally, his profile and main activities are in Norway, but the artworld wonders what he aims to achieve with his sensation-grabbing acts. Inasmuch as this question is asked, it is because Viskum deviates from the standard discourse, the objectives for which are provided by a uniform consensus on what contemporary art should be about. 

But we are not justified in criticizing artists merely for refusing to follow the dictates of the established artworld. Any ambitious artist who challenges the contemporary discourse can count on being criticized. In this context Viskum’s art is not of singular interest, but due to the position he takes and the attention it gets him, he earns yet another point: the quality of his position is to be controversial.

Like everyone in the artworld, Viskum is anxious to reach out with his art. In addition, he has involved himself in a grandiose project: Vestfossen Kunstlaboratorium (Vestfossen Art Laboratory). How the art lab differs from other art galleries is that its purpose is to engage the local public and create a cultural identity for the small community of Vestfossen. The project entails combining an exhibition space with art education. Now, a classic paradox for the artworld is that although it yearns to reach large audiences, teaching projects have low status. The artworld has nothing against educating people about art; on the contrary, it is both impressed and fascinated by such projects. Yet this is a moot point if teachers are not highly valued, and it indicates that educating people about art is a low priority. It is obviously going to be difficult to strike a balance between presenting advanced contemporary art for the artworld’s cognoscenti and presenting art for the general public. What is unusual about the art lab is that Viskum has managed to involve the local community of Vestfossen. As Viskum says: ‘Vestfossen Art Laboratory should have a popular profile; everyone will be able to experience contemporary art without it being elitist’. While enjoying popular local appeal, the art lab presents some art of the highest calibre. As such, it is probably the most graciously received of all Viskum’s projects. 

Through his activities Morten Viskum achieves what the artworld hopes to achieve. He exceeds the boundaries of convention and manages to challenge and engage both the artworld and the masses. He is a controversial artist who has endured much criticism for doing things the ‘wrong’ way. According to the artworld, art’s mission is fulfilled through following the current agenda. If one does that, one does not need to account for the goal because it is already given. When artists follow the current norms it should go without saying that they will probably not achieve their objectives. 

Today’s international contemporary art primarily engages in analyzing social and political issues with a view towards influencing society, but since this project has yet to meet with success, one might well imagine that it is more meaningful to criticize the art institution. Contemporary art wants to be seen as radical, inclusive, non-hierarchical, and as crossing boundaries. In practice, it deals in perceptions that are circulated and confirmed internally. At the very least, then, the artworld’s way of dealing with Morten Viskum’s art gives us an interesting picture of how the institution functions. 



LARS VILKS is a Swedish Artist and Art Historian