In a Conversation with
Tobias Rehberger

In a world where Zara is being sued for stealing the work of artists and Adorno mugs are sold on Campus Westend for €8.95, Tobias Rehberger, his work, and Critical Theory help us to tackle the commodification of art.

To understand the art of Tobias Rehberger is also to struggle with the question of where art begins and where it ends. Is art defined by the artist, the beholder, or the social discourse? Is an artwork still considered art when it’s created to be mass- marketed? Is art only art when it’s institutionalized: hung, installed, or performed within a museum’s lavish white spaces, or a certain environment approved for art’s consumption? Anyone would be hard-pressed to find a definitive answer to any of these questions. After all, the definition of art belongs to an aesthetic-philosophical dispute as old as, well, art itself.

The oeuvre of Frankfurt-based artist Tobias Rehberger invites recipients to reflect on the ambiguity of the concept of art by deliberately creating provocative statements about art’s nature. Rehberger is one of Germany’s leading contemporary artists. He is a Golden Lion winner, a two-time Venice Biennale artist, and a professor for Sculpture at Städelschule Frankfurt. Rehberger works across media to create installations, sculptures, paintings, and genre-defying art experiences. Rehberger’s eclectic work includes, among others, hijacked advertisement posters and a series of waypoints erected in the countryside between the Swiss city of Riehen and the Vitra Museum in Weil am Rhein.

©2020 Killa Schuetze

© Killa Schuetze

©2020 Philipp Schäfer

Besides regularly breaching the boundaries of traditional art exhibitions, Rehberger also designed high-end bags for luxury brand MCM in a highly controversial collaboration. A simple, descriptive run-down of Rehberger’s body of work, however, misses the opportunity to more deeply understand how his work interfaces with ideas of commodification. Instead, with an explicitly investigative lens, this essay explores how his self-understanding as an artist, his work, and the ideas of Critical theory reveal nuances about the intricacy of art and commodification.


Critical Theory is a philosophical approach that emerged from the Frankfurt School in the 1920s. The theorists and thinkers that gravitated to Critical Theory were dissidents in a world dominated by capitalist, fascist, and communist thinking. Ultimately, they were curious about identifying a different course for social development, one that was self-reflective; even of its possible dogmatic adherence to its own assumptions. Its success remains heavily debated by scholars today.

A central thinker to the conversation of art and Critical Theory is Theodor W. Adorno. In his highly influential work Dialectic of Enlightenment, which he co-wrote with Max Horkheimer in 1944, Adorno introduces the notion of Kulturindustrie, or Culture Industry, which he elaborated on in a series of lectures on aesthetics he gave between 1958 and 1959, Ästhetik (2017). He scrutinizes how capitalism, under mass-producing cultural artifacts to gain a profit, renders culture and art mere commodities. Such a culture, therefore, he asserts, becomes Kulturindustrie, or Culture Industry.

To use one local example of what Adorno may have characterized as Kulturindustrie, we can turn to a recent PR campaign for Schirn Museum’s Magritte exhibition: In a play on words, the exhibition was marketed with pizza boxes reading “Pizza Magritte” in large letters hovering above one of Magritte’s paintings in the background. The boxes ended up in the hands of customers who had ordered from selected pizzerias in Frankfurt. In this example, Magritte’s art was deliberately used to create a spectacle, so that people are incentivized to buy tickets for the exhibition. His art, in short, was used to sell more tickets. In a Culture Industry, art becomes a readily consumable commodity (like a pizza, ironically) that can be slapped on a box.

To Adorno, utilizing art as a commodity is problematic. To understand why this is, it is important to note that according to Adorno, art is located in a special realm of the human experience that is governed by the “reality principle” (Adorno, 80), i.e. of capitalist exploitation logic. He argues, it is the complete rationalization of our reality that art opposes by lacking immediate, practical use (ibid). To Adorno, this is art’s demand: liberate us from the reality principle by dispensing itself from an immediate function. In Adorno’s view, art that is conceived to be monetized can never be real art.

Admittedly, this is a very strict definition of art. Tobias Rehberger’s eclectic oeuvre contains several works that seem to collide with Adorno’s view – as does the artist himself, who offers yet another context for art:

“To me, anything can have a function when it makes sense. The most absurd things can make sense. Maybe it’s stress relief, relaxation, or research. I don’t think that art cannot have a function.”

To Rehberger, artworks can have a function without ceasing to be art. This pragmatic attitude is evident in many of his works. Completed in 2016, Rehberger created an installation named 24 Stops, a series of waypoints between the Swiss town of Riehen and the nearby Vitra Museum in Germany. Crossing the German-Swiss border, visitors can find their way from one point to the other by following a trail of colorful sculptures, wall paintings, and installations. The functionality of 24 Stops can be found in both the pleasure of beholding the colorful waypoints, as well as in the guidance of visitors from Riehen to the Vitra Museum. The extension of art beyond the confines of galleries and museums is a recurring motif in Rehberger’s work, and it sheds light on the artist’s perception of art.

©2020 Philipp Schäfer
©2020 Philipp Schäfer

art, advertising, and aura

Art, according to Rehberger, should be “like a good pal you can hang around with.” He asserts there is a bias that art has to be experienced in a certain, predetermined way, like in a museum. As a result, he sees museums become de facto consumer environments that promote a consumer’s approach to art:

“People go to a museum, look at a picture, and expect to immediately feel something. I think art should be handled less sacredly, and recipients should engage more naturally with art in their everyday lives. Why don’t people go to a museum to hang out like they do at cafés or parks? You don’t have to stare at art all the time for it to affect you.”

Rehberger’s attitude towards the status quo of art becomes palpable in his exhibition flach for which he created re-imaginations of popular advertisements. As a part of this exhibition, which was held at Museum für Angewandte Kunst in 2010, Rehberger used the logos of companies like Apple and Adidas to design posters that diverted from the original marketing message and placarded them around Frankfurt – without asking for permission from the respective brands. It’s not a complete parody, however. “I only made use of things that I like,” says Rehberger. “Technically, it’s copyright infringement. But I wanted to problematize the common expectation that art has to be as authentic as possible. Advertisement, by default, is completely inauthentic, because all it wants to do is sell you something.” As a result, in creating what is commonly supposed to be authentic (namely, art) out of what Rehberger perceives to be non-authenticity, the posters from flach function as art disguised as adverts. In turn, they provoke the recipient to reflect on the relationship between art and commerce. By merging the authentic with the inauthentic, the line between art and advertisement blurs. Besides, the posters correspond to Rehberger’s fundamental assumption that any medium can be transformed into art, including adverts.

While Adorno would probably have his issues with creating art from advertisements, Walter Benjamin, another important thinker related closely to Frankfurt School, provides a more supportive view on Rehberger’s poster art. Benjamin, in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, claims that a “painting or sculpture seen in the immediacy of ‘its here and now’ ” (Macey, 22) possesses a distinct aura that is lost by means of mechanical reproduction (meaning photography, but extendable to copying, digitalization, etc.). While Benjamin has his gripes with the loss of aura, he also sees reproduction as a chance of liberation from “dependence on ritual” (ibid, 23). Indeed, this independence from the ritualistic presentation of art within an institutional context is what characterizes Rehberger’s reproduced posters for flach. The exhibition was confined to museums or galleries and could be experienced outside of those traditional institutions.

good pal you can hang around with

Besides, 24 stops and flach actually possessed a distinct, irreproducible aura: the waypoints are gradually altered by weather conditions, and the flach posters were put on a building that was eventually demolished (and are thus irreproducible in their “here and now”). As a result, both exhibitions move away from art’s alleged sacredness, or dependence on institutional ritual, and closer to what Rehberger expresses as a “good pal you can hang around with.” But somehow, Rehberger’s approach to the creation of art inversely raises the question: when does art end and advertising begin?
©2020 Philipp Schäfer
©2020 Philipp Schäfer

To map the difficult territory in which we are treading, it is helpful to assume the perspective of American writer David Foster Wallace. Renowned for highly influential works like Infinite Jest, Wallace has proven a keen sense for uncovering the absurdity of unreflecting consumerism. In his popular essay Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise, which was first published in Harper’s magazine in 1996, Wallace describes his experience aboard a luxury cruise ship. As Wallace waits on the pier for boarding to begin, brochures are handed out to the passengers by the cruise’s operator, Celebrity Cruises. In the brochure, there is an essay by famous American writer Frank Conroy, praising the cruise experience. Wallace notes that Celebrity Cruise paid Conroy to fabricate a persuasive, graceful essay while nowhere indicating that it was created specifically for advertisement purposes.

it causes despair

Thus, Celebrity Cruises disguised an ad as a work of art, prompting Wallace to assert: In the case of Frank Conroy’s ‘essay,’ Celebrity Cruises is trying to position an ad in such a way that we come to it with the lowered guard and leaning chin we reserve for coming to an essay, for something that is art (or that is at least trying to be art). An ad that pretends to be art is – at absolute best – like somebody who smiles at you because they want something from you. This is dishonest, but what’s insidious is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers perfect a simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill’s real substance, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and angry and scared. It causes despair. (Wallace, 37)

Similarly, albeit less prosaic, Adorno issued a severe concern pertaining to the commodification of art. To paraphrase: if art is a means to combat complete rationalization by rejecting immediate functional utilization, then using it as a means to sell commodities is to destroy it (Adorno, 79). Compounding still, Adorno expressed concern that this process of “pretending” is especially devious since it makes art a collaborator of its own dissolution when giving itself away to commerce. Adorno further argues that the “petty-bourgeois” longs for something authentic, something that fills their hearts with the “warmth” that has been obliterated by rationalization. In turn, capitalism cashes in on this longing and sells the longed-for authenticity in the form of art (ibid). Admittedly, this sounds rather terrifying. Can art even exist in a system that commodifies the desire for something authentic? Rehberger thinks it can.

authenticity for sale

In 2016, Rehberger did what would have been sacrilege to Adorno: he collaborated with luxury brand MCM to create a series of high-end bags. Rehberger explains, after being prompted to explain the artistic merit of such an enterprise, that although he does not regard his designs for MCM as works of art, the general process of creating non- art as an artist belongs to his work as a whole:

“Basically, by designing bags for a luxury goods manufacturer, I pose the question of where does art begin and end. I could make a sculpture that looks like a bag, for example. But I can also make bags that look artful but are, in fact, not art.”

Defying the common expectation that everything artists create has to be art by default, Rehberger “used the bags to elaborate on the relationship of artist and their creation.” Rehberger’s self-aware creation is an example of how to reflect on the capitalist ideology that dominates most of our everyday lives. By rejecting common conceptions of the purposes and appropriate media of art, Rehberger removes himself from the governing notion that considers art as sacrosanct and confined to explicitly designated locations such as museums and galleries. Simultaneously, Rehberger promotes re-thinking the relationship between art and capitalism by subverting the common notions associated with both concepts. The result is a highly complex body of work that is also self-reflective.

At the beginning of this essay, three distinct questions were posed about where art begins and ends were identified. Rehberger addresses them by provocatively conceptualizing his work that fuels discussion on what constitutes an artwork, by deliberately blurring the lines between art and advertisement, by de-territorializing his art from museums, and by subsequently re-territorializing it into public spaces. Rehberger’s oeuvre showcases that questions about the alleged nature of art, more often than not, are a matter of perspective – not only the recipient’s but the artist’s, as well. By challenging one’s predetermined perception of art, Rehberger continuously pushes the boundaries of what art can do.

Adorno, Theodor W. Ästhetik (1958/59). Ed. Eberhard Ortland. Frankfurt am Main: suhrkamp taschenbuch wissenschaft, 2017.

Macey, David. The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory. London: Penguin Group, 2000.

Wallace, David Foster. “Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise.” Harper’s Magazine, January 1996, 33-56.

©2020 Philipp Schäfer