By Klaus Honnef
Walter Vitt has presided over the German branch of the International Art Critics Association (AICA) since autumn 1989. Longer than any of his predecessors, in fact. And if he were still willing - and if the new rules were not a bar to this - the annual assembly of the members would certainly have no qualms about re-confirming him in office with an overwhelming majority every three years.
Yet he has nothing at all in common with those embarrassingly chummy media creatures from the worlds of culture and politics who, with every word and look, seek to curry favour with the public. And whether he would in fact win a popularity contest is another matter. For Vitt is mostly a straight shooter, not always diplomatic. The roundabout way is not his way; he prefers clarity and precision. Which may by why he also enjoys the confidence of that human species, male and increasingly female, who call themselves art critics.
It was under his presidency that there also occurred the toughest task that any German AICA presidency had been confronted with so far: the expansion of the West AICA to include art critics from a part of Germany that had had its own section until then, but to do so without having to absorb in cumulo the art interpreters of the German Democratic Republic who had been too cosy with the regime - in spite of gentle pressure from the international presidency. Vitt mastered this sensitive issue very largely sans fuss and noise, and the Germans now count over 170 members. What is more, he enhanced the external impact of the critics' club and ushered it into the Internet age - whose consequences for the profession of art critic have not yet been capable of even approximate assessment.
Whether the art critic has a profession at all is a splendid topic for a debating society. Artists often tell jokes about art critics, although they themselves, like the formidable Vasari, gave birth to this activity. Vitt has always endeavoured to provide a sound foundation for art criticism, writing about art with no scientific ambitions, but with feeling and understanding, by way of pinpointed training - whether by means of seminars offered in parallel to his numerous teaching positions at the University of Münster, where he studied German language and literature, journalism, history and philosophy from 1957 to 1963, or at the Universities of Bochum, Dortmund, Siegen and Mainz, or by dint of his regular initiatives as AICA President in the direction of universities and art colleges. With some success.
The series "Schriften zur Kunstkritik" (Writings on Art Criticism), which he called into being and still attends to as competent editor-publisher, even opened up for this specific discipline a phase of self-reflexion and yielded some surprising insights. It may well be that, one of these days, the science of art, too, will draw inferences from the findings of this series. Hope remains.
At all events, the business of art criticism is one that only a few can afford to pursue in splendid exclusivity; it is more of a mission with no return, engaged in by many, the vast majority, merely as a sideline, though by no means by the way. Anyhow, the parameters of art criticism are subject to constant change.
Vitt, too, did not have art criticism as his day job. Now he does. He was never museum man or university teacher with security of tenure in some art history institute or any other institute; in fact, for the duration of his actual professional career (1961-1998) as editorial journalist at the broadcasting corporation WDR and then, from 1989 to 1998, as deputy head of radio news, art was just one field bordering his professional road.
Nonetheless, he has gained considerable fame as art critic and, in the often cacophonic choir of art criticism, he has a striking and distinctive voice. Even in the days when art could necessarily only enjoy his divided attention, that never meant treating it in a dilatory manner. Quite the contrary. He has written for nearly all leading German art journals on a long-term or sporadic basis, and for a large number of regional and supraregional daily papers, including the legendary "Aufbau" in New York, and he has penned numerous books on the art of the 20th century, mainly to boost underrated and forgotten artists, say the great Walter Dexel, on whose catalogue raisonné of the important printed graphics (1971, second edition 1998) Vitt worked. With his help, too, the Dadaist Johannes Theodor Baargeld was given a posthumous identity again: "Auf der Suche nach der Biographie des Kölner Dadaisten Johannes Theodor Baargeld" (In Search of the Biography of the Cologne Dadaist Johannes Theodor Baargeld, 1977). Here the art critic turns out to be a veritable art historian, albeit one who has first to track down his sources. The study is worthy of a doctorate. Vitt's preference, however, has been, and still is, for the rational, constructive tendencies in contemporary art whose effects produce footprints that cannot, however, be measured using rational instruments. Dashing off "in-genious" pieces is not his game, no more than are the solipsistic artistic practices of the Postmoderns.
I got to know Vitt in the second half in the gradually fading 1960s, first of all as art critic, then personally. One of the two portfolios I headed at the "Aachener Nachrichten" newspaper in those days was the arts section, and his contributions, along with those of John Anthony Thwaites, Rolf Gunter Dienst, Dieter Hülsmanns, (regrettably more rarely) Gert Kalow, Franz Josef Görtz, Rolf Thissen and others, gave it a profile that had an impact well beyond the region. That early acquaintanceship has long grown into a battle-tried friendship. What always struck me about his, as a rule, brief articles was the precise, invariably graphic language that conveyed all the essentials about the occasion - some exhibition, an artist's "round" birthday - with empathy for the subject matter, without ever being tempted to pull the curls of a bald man, as Karl Kraus would have put it. Vitt is an art critic who writes for readers, and of course for the artists that attract his interest, but last of all for himself and the gallery.
Much could be said about Vitt's person and personality: about his curatorial activity, with well over twenty exhibitions, even if we just count the most important, or about his poetry, about writing at all, about his book of dreams...
On 2 October, Vitt, born in Gera and living in Cologne, celebrated his seventieth birthday.
Cologne/Bonn, Oktober 2006